/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Sarantine Mosaic

Lord of Emperors

Guy Kay

One of the world's foremost masters of fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay has thrilled readers around the globe with his talent for skillfully interweaving history and Myth, colorful characterization, and a rich sense of time and place. Now, in Lord of Emperors, the internationally acclaimed author of The Lions of Al-Rassan continues his most powerful work. In Sailing to Sarantium, the first volume in the Sarantine Mosaic, renowned mosaicist Crispin — beckoned by an imperial summons of the Emperor Valerius — made his way to the fabled city of Sarantium. A man who lives only for his craft, who cares little for ambition, less for money, and nothing for intrigue, Crispin now wants only to confront the challenges of his art high upon a dome that will become the emperor's magnificent sanctuary and legacy. But Crispin's desire for solitude will not be fulfilled. Beneath him the city swirls with rumors of war and conspiracy, while otherworldly fires mysteriously flicker and disappear in the streets at night. Valerius is looking west to Crispin's homeland of Varena to assert his power — a plan that may have dire consequences for the family and friends Crispin left behind. But loyalty to his homeland comes at a high price, for Crispin's fate has become entwined with that of Valerius and his empress, as well as the youthful Queen Gisel, his own monarch who is an exile in Sarantium herself. And now another voyager arrives in Sarantium, a physician determined to earn his fortune amid the shifting currents of loyalty, intrigue, and violence. Drawing from the twin springs of history and legend, Lord of Emperors is also a deeply moving exploration of art, power, and the ways in which people from all walks of life seek to leave an impression that endures long after they are gone. It confirms Kay's place as one of the world's most esteemed masters of fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay's distinguished literary career began when he helped complete Tolkien's posthumous masterpiece, The Silmarillion. The author of Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, he has been both an Aurora Award winner and a World Fantasy Award nominee. An international bestselling author, his works have been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

LORD OF EMPERORS

BOOK II OF THE SARANTINE MOSAIC

GUY GAVRIELL KAY

ACKNOWLEDCEMENTS

The Sarantine Mosaic is animated by and in part built around a tension in the late classical world between walls and wilderness. For my own introduction to this dialectic (and how it shifts), I am indebted to Simon Schama's magisterial Landscape and Memory. This is also the work that introduced me to the Lithuanian bison and the symbolism surrounding it, giving rise to my own zubir.

The general and particular works cited in Sailing to Sarantium have anchored this second volume as well, and Yeats remains a presiding spirit, in the epigraph and elsewhere.

I should now add Guido Majno's quite wonderful The Helping Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World. On Persia and its culture, books by Richard N. Frye and Prudence Oliver Harper were immensely useful. For table matters and manners I was aided by the Wilkins and Hill text and commentary on Archistratus, along with works by Andrew Dalby and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. Attitudes to the supernatural are explored in books by Gager, Kieckhefer, and Flint, and in a collection of essays edited by Henry Maguire for the Dumbarton Oaks research facility in Washington, D.C. Dumbarton Oaks also provided translations

of Byzantine military treatises, papers presented at various symposia, and some evocative artifacts in their permanent collection.

On a more personal level, I have been greatly the beneficiary of the skills, friendship, and commitment of John Jarrold, John Douglas, and Scott Sellers, and I am indebted to the careful and sympathetic eye of my copy editor for both volumes of this work, Catherine Marjoribanks. Jennifer Barclay at Westwood Creative Artists has brought intelligence and a necessary sense of irony to increasingly complex foreign language negotiations. Rex Kay, as always, offered early and lucid commentary, especially (but not only) on medical issues.

I also want to record here my appreciation for the encouragement and sustained interest offered by Leonard and Alice Cohen for fifteen years now. Andy Patton has been a source of ideas and support for even longer, and in this case I am particularly indebted to him for discussions about Ravenna and light, and the various doorways (and traps) that must be negotiated when a novelist deals with the visual arts.

There are two others who continue to be at the centre of my world, and so of my work. The usual suspects, one might say, but that flippancy would mask the depth of what I hope to convey. Accordingly, I'll simply conclude here by naming Sybil and Laura, my mother and my wife.

Turning and turning in a widening gyre…

PART I

KINGDOMS OF LIGHT AND DARK

CHAPTER I

Amid the first hard winds of winter, the King of Kings of Bassania, Shirvan the Great, Brother to the Sun and Moons, Sword of Perun, Scourge of Black Azal, left his walled city of Kabadh and journeyed south and west with much of his court to examine the state of his fortifications in that part of the lands he ruled, to sacrifice at the ancient Holy Fire of the priestly caste, and to hunt lions in the desert. On the first morning of the first hunt he was shot just below the collarbone.

The arrow lodged deep and no man there among the sands dared try to pull it out. The King of Kings was taken by litter to the nearby fortress of Kerakek. It was feared that he would die.

Hunting accidents were common. The Bassanid court had its share of those enthusiastic and erratic with their bows. This truth made the possibility of undetected assassination high. Shirvan would not be the first king to have been murdered in the tumult of a royal hunt.

As a precaution, Mazendar, who was vizier to Shirvan, ordered the king's three eldest sons, who had journeyed south with him, to be placed under observation. A useful phrase masking the truth: they were detained under guard in Kerakek. At the same time the vizier sent riders back to Kabadh to order the similar detention of their mothers in the palace. Great Shirvan had ruled Bassania for twenty-seven years that winter. His eagle's gaze was clear, his plaited beard still black, no hint of grey age descending upon him. Impatience among grown sons was to be expected, as were lethal intrigues among the royal wives.

Ordinary men might look to find joy among their children, sustenance and comfort in their households. The existence of the King of Kings was not as that of other mortals. His were the burdens of godhood and lordship-and Azal the Enemy was never far away and always at work. In Kerakek, the three royal physicians who had made the journey south with the court were summoned to the room where men had laid the Great King down upon his bed. One by one each of them examined the wound and the arrow. They touched the skin around the wound, tried to wiggle the embedded shaft. They paled at what they found. The arrows used to hunt lions were the heaviest known. If the feathers were now to be broken off and the shaft pushed down through the chest and out, the internal damage would be prodigious, deadly. And the arrow could not be pulled back, so deeply had it penetrated, so broad was the iron flange of the arrowhead. Whoever tried to pull it would rip through the king's flesh, tearing the mortal life from him with his blood.

Had any other patient been shown to them in this state, the physicians would all have spoken the words of formal withdrawal: With this affliction I will not contend. No blame for ensuing death could attach to them when they did so.

It was not, of course, permitted to say this when the afflicted person was the king.

With the Brother to the Sun and Moons the physicians were compelled to accept the duty of treatment, to do battle with whatever they found and set about healing the injury or illness. If an accepted patient died, blame fell to the doctor's name, as was proper. In the case of an ordinary man or woman, fines were administered as compensation to the family.

Burning of the physicians alive on the Great King's funeral pyre could be anticipated in this case.

Those who were offered a medical position at the court, with the wealth and renown that came with it, knew this very well. Had the king died in the desert, his physicians-the three in this room and those who had remained in Kabadh-would have been numbered among the honoured mourners of the priestly caste at his rites before the Holy Fire. Now it was otherwise.

There ensued a whispered colloquy among the doctors by the window. They had all been taught by their own masters-long ago, in each case-the importance of an unruffled mien in the presence of the patient. This calm demeanour was, in the current circumstances, imperfectly observed. When one's own life lies embedded-like a bloodied arrow shaft-in the flux of the moment, gravity and poise become difficult to attain.

One by one, in order of seniority, the three of them approached the man on the bed a second time. One by one they abased themselves, rose, touched the black arrow again, the king's wrist, his forehead, looked into his eyes, which were open and enraged. One by one, tremulously, they said, as they had to say, "With this affliction I will contend."

When the third physician had spoken these words, and then stepped back, uncertainly, there was a silence in the room, though ten men were gathered amid the lamps and the guttering flame of the fire. Outside, the wind had begun to blow.

In that stillness the deep voice of Shirvan himself was heard, low but distinct, godlike. The King of Kings said, "They can do nothing. It is in their faces. Their mouths are dry as sand with fear, their thoughts are as blown sand. They have no idea what to do. Take the three of them away from us and kill them. They are unworthy. Do this. Find our son Damnazes and have him staked out in the desert to be devoured by beasts. His mother is to be given to the palace slaves in Kabadh for their pleasure. Do this. Then go to our son Murash and have him brought here to us." Shirvan paused to draw breath, to push away the humiliating weakness of pain. "Bring also to us a priest with an ember of the Holy Flame. It seems we are to die in Kerakek. All that happens is by the divine will of Perun. Anahita waits for all of us. It has been written and it is being written. Do these things, Mazendar."

"No physician at all, my great lord?" said the small, plump vizier, dry-voiced, dry-eyed.

"In Kerakek?" said the King of Kings, his voice bitter, enraged. "In this desert? Think where we are." There was blood welling as he spoke, from where the arrow lay in him, the shaft smeared black, fletched with black feathers. The king's beard was stained with his own dark blood.

The vizier bowed his head. Men moved to usher the three condemned physicians from the room. They offered no protest, no resistance. The sun was past its highest point by then, beginning to set, on a winter's day in Bassania in a remote fortress near the sands. Time was moving; what was to be had long ago been written.

Men find courage sometimes, unexpectedly, surprising themselves, changing the course of their own lives and times. The man who sank to his knees by the bed, pressing his head to the carpeted floor, was the military commander of the fortress of Kerakek. Wisdom, discretion, self-preservation all demanded he keep silent among the sleek, dangerous men of the court that day. Afterwards he could not have said why he did speak. He would tremble as with a fever, remembering, and drink an excess of wine, even on a day of abstinence.

"My king," he said in the firelit chamber, "we have a much-travelled physician here, in the village below the fortress. We might summon him?"

The Great King's gaze seemed already to be in another place, with Perun and the Lady, beyond the confines and small concerns of mortal life. He said, "Why kill another man?"

It was told of Shirvan, written on parchment and engraved on tablets of stone, that no man more merciful and compassionate, more imbued with the spirit of the goddess Anahita, had ever sat the throne in Kabadh holding the sceptre and the flower. But Anahita the Lady was also called the Gatherer, who summoned men to their ending.

Softly, the vizier murmured, "Why not do so? How can it matter, lord? May I send?"

The King of Kings lay still another moment, then he motioned assent, the gesture brief, indifferent. His rage seemed spent. His gaze, heavy-lidded, went to the fire and lingered there. Someone went out, at a sign from the vizier.

Time passed. In the desert beyond the fortress and the village below it a north wind rose. It swept across the sands, blowing and shifting them, erasing dunes, shaping others, and the lions, unhunted, took refuge in their caves among the rocks, waiting for night.

The blue moon, Anahita's, rose in the late afternoon, balancing the low sun. Within the fortress of Kerakek, men went forth into that dry wind to kill three physicians, to kill a son of the king, to summon a son of the king, to bear messages to Kabadh, to summon a priest with Holy Fire to the King of Kings in his room.

And to find and bring one other man.

Rustem of Kerakek, son of Zorah, sat cross-legged on the woven Ispahani mat he used for teaching. He was reading, occasionally glancing up to observe his four students as they carefully copied from one of his precious texts. Merovius on cataracts was the current matter; each student had a different page to transcribe. They would exchange them day by day until all of them had a copy of the treatise. Rustem was of the view that the ancient Trakesian's western approach was to be preferred in treatment of most-though not all-issues relating to the eye.

Through the window that overlooked the dusty roadway a breeze entered the room. It was mild as yet, not unpleasant, but Rustem could feel a storm in it. The sands would be blowing. In the village of Kerakek, below the fortress, the sand got into everything when the wind came from the desert. They were used to it, the taste in their food, the gritty feel in their clothing and bed sheets, in their own intimate places.

From behind the students, in the arched interior doorway that led to the family quarters, Rustem heard a slight rustling sound; he glimpsed a shadow on the floor. Shaski had arrived at his usual post beyond the beaded curtain, and would be waiting for the more interesting part of the afternoon lessons to begin. His son, at seven years of age, showed both patience and a fierce determination. A little less than a year ago he'd begun dragging a small mat of his own from his bedroom to a position just outside the teaching room. He would sit cross-legged upon it, spending as much of the afternoon as he was allowed listening through the curtain as his father gave instruction. If taken away by his mothers or the household servants he would find his way back to the corridor as soon as he could escape.

Rustem's two wives were both of the view that it was inappropriate for a small child to listen to explicit details of bloody wounds and bodily fluxes, but the physician found the boy's interest amusing and had negotiated with his wives to allow Shaski to linger outside the door if his own lessons and duties had been fulfilled. The students seemed to enjoy the boy's unseen presence in the hallway as well, and once or twice they'd invited him to voice an answer to his father's questions.

There was something endearing, even to a careful, reserved man, in a seven-year-old proclaiming, as was required, "With this affliction I will contend," and then detailing his proposed treatment of an inflamed, painful toe or a cough with blood and loose matter in it. The interesting thing, Rustem thought, idly stroking his neat, pointed beard, was that Shaski's answers were very often to the point. He'd even had the boy answer a question once to embarrass a student caught unprepared after a night's drinking, though later that evening he'd regretted doing so. Young men were entitled to visit taverns now and again. It taught them about the lives and pleasures of common men, kept them from aging too soon. A physician needed to be aware of the nature of people and their weaknesses and not be harsh in his judgement of ordinary folly. Judgement was for Perun and Anahita.

The feel of his own beard reminded him of a thought he'd had the night before: it was time to dye it again. He wondered if it was still necessary to be streaking the light brown with grey. When he'd returned from ispahani and the Ajbar Islands four years ago, settling in his home town and opening a physician's practice and a school, he'd considered it prudent to gain a measure of credibility by making himself look older. In the east, the Ispahani physician-priests would lean on walking sticks they

didn't need, gain weight deliberately, dole out words in measured cadences or with eyes focused on inward visions, all to present the desired image of dignity and success.

There had been some real presumption in a man of twenty-seven putting himself forward as a teacher of medicine at an age when many were just beginning their studies. Indeed, two of his pupils that first year had been older than he was. He wondered if they'd known it.

After a certain point, though, didn't your practice and your teaching speak for themselves? In Kerakek, here on the edge of the southern deserts, Rustem was respected and even revered by the villagers, and he had been summoned often to the fortress to deal with injuries and ailments among the soldiers, to the anger and chagrin of a succession of military doctors. Students who wrote to him and then came this far for his teaching-some of them even Sarantine Jad-worshippers, crossing the border from Amoria-were unlikely to turn around and go away when they discovered that Rustem of Kerakek was no ancient sage but a young husband and father who happened to have a gift for medicine and to have read and travelled more widely than most.

Perhaps. Students, or potential students, could be unpredictable in various ways, and the income Rustem made from teaching was necessary for a man with two wives now and two children-especially with both women wanting another baby in the crowded house. Few of the villagers of Kerakek were able to pay proper physician's fees, and there was another practitioner-for whom Rustem had an only marginally disguised contempt-in the town to divide what meagre income was to be gleaned here. On the whole, it might be best not to disturb what seemed to be succeeding. If streaks of grey in his beard reassured even one or two possible pupils or military officials up in the castle (where they did tend to pay), then using the dye was worth it, he supposed.

Rustem looked out the window again. The sky was darker now beyond his small herb garden. If a real storm came, the distraction and loss of light would undermine his lessons and make afternoon surgery difficult. He cleared his throat. The four students, used to the routine, put down their writing implements and looked up. Rustem nodded and the one nearest the outer door crossed to open it and admit the first patient from the covered portico where they had been waiting.

He tended to treat patients in the morning and teach after the midday rest, but those villagers least able to pay would often consent to be seen by Rustem and his students together in the afternoons as part of the teaching process. Many were flattered by the attention, some made uncomfortable, but it was known in Kerakek that this was a way of gaining access to the young physician who had studied in the mystical east and returned with secrets of the hidden world.

The woman who entered now, standing hesitantly by the wall where Rustem hung his herbs and shelved the small pots and linen bags of medicines, had a cataract growth in her right eye. Rustem knew it; he had seen her before and made the assessment. He prepared in advance, and whenever the ailments of the villagers allowed, offered his students practical experience and observations to go with the treatises they memorized and copied. It was of little use, he was fond of saying, to learn what al-Hizari said about amputation if you didn't know how to use a saw.

He himself had spent six weeks with his eastern teacher on a failed Ispahani campaign against the insurgents on their north-eastern reaches. He had learned how to use a saw.

He had also seen enough of violent death and desperate, squalid pain that summer to decide to return home to his wife and the small child he had scarcely seen before leaving for the east. This house and garden at the edge of the village, and then another wife and a girl-child, had followed upon his return. The small boy he'd left behind was now seven years old and sitting on a mat outside the door of the medical chambers, listening to his father's lectures.

And Rustem the physician still dreamt in the blackness of some nights of a battlefield in the east, remembering himself cutting through the limbs of screaming men beneath the smoky, uncertain light of torches in wind as the sun went down on a massacre. He remembered black fountains of blood, being drenched, saturated in the hot gout and spray of it, clothing, face, hair, arms, chest… becoming a creature of dripping horror himself, hands so slippery he could scarcely grip his implements to saw and cut and cauterize, the wounded coming and coming to them endlessly, without surcease, even when night fell.

There were worse things than a village practice in Bassania, he had decided the next morning, and he had not wavered since, though ambition would sometimes rise up within him and speak otherwise, seductive and dangerous as a Kabadh courtesan. Rustem had spent much of his adult life trying to appear older than he was. He wasn't old, though. Not yet. Had wondered, more than once, in the twilight hours when such thoughts tended to arrive, what he would do if opportunity and risk came knocking.

Looking back, afterwards, he couldn't remember if there was a knock that day. The whirlwind speed of what ensued had been very great, and he might have missed it. It seemed to him, however, that the outside door had simply banged open, without warning, nearly striking the patient waiting by the wall, as booted soldiers came striding in, filling the quiet room to bursting with the chaos of the world.

Rustem knew one of them, the leader: he had been stationed in Kerakek a long time. The man's face was distorted now, eyes dilated, fevered-looking. His voice, when he spoke, rasped like a woodcutter's saw. He said, "You are to come! Immediately! To the fortress!"

"There has been an accident?" Rustem asked from his mat, keeping his own voice modulated, ignoring the peremptory tone of the man, trying to reestablish calm with his own tranquillity. This was part of a physician's training, and he wanted his students to see him doing it. Those coming to them were often agitated; a doctor could not be. He took note that the soldier had been facing east when he spoke his first words. A neutral omen. The man was of the warrior caste, of course, which would be either good or bad, depending on the caste of the afflicted person. The wind was north: not good, but no birds could be seen or heard through the window, which counterbalanced that, somewhat.

"An accident! Yes!" cried the soldier, no calm in him at all. "Come! It is the King of Kings! An arrow!"

Poise deserted Rustem like conscripted soldiers facing Sarantine cavalry. One of his students gasped in shock. The woman with the afflicted eye collapsed to the floor in an untidy, wailing heap. Rustem stood up quickly, trying to order his racing thoughts. Four men had entered. An unlucky number. The woman made five. Could she be counted, to adjust the omens?

Even as he swiftly calculated auspices, he strode to the large table by the door and snatched his small linen bag. He hurriedly placed several of his herbs and pots inside and took his leather case of surgical implements. Normally he would have sent a student or a servant ahead with the bag, to reassure those in the fortress and to avoid being seen rushing out-of-doors himself, but this was not a circumstance that allowed for ordinary conduct. It is the King of Kings!

Rustem became aware that his heart was pounding. He struggled to control his breathing. He felt giddy, light-headed. Afraid, in fact. For many reasons. It was important not to show this. Claiming his walking stick, he slowed deliberately and put a hat on his head. He turned to the soldier. Carefully facing north, he said, "I am ready. We can go."

The four soldiers rushed through the doorway ahead of him. Pausing, Rustem made an effort to preserve some order in the room he was leaving. Bharai, his best student, was looking at him.

"You may practice with the surgical tools on vegetables, and then on pieces of wood, using the probes," Rustem said. "Take turns evaluating each other. Send the patients home. Close the shutters if the wind rises. You have permission to build up the fire and use oil for sufficient light."

"Master," said Bharai, bowing.

Rustem followed the soldiers out the door.

He paused in the garden and, facing north again, feet together, he plucked three shoots of bamboo. He might need them for probes. The soldiers were waiting impatiently in the roadway, agitated and terrified. The air pulsed with anxiety. Rustem straightened, murmured his prayer to Perun and the Lady and turned to follow them. As he did, he observed Katyun and Jarita at the front door of the house. There was fear in their eyes: Jarita's were enormous, even seen at a distance. She stared at him silently, leaning against Katyun for support, holding the baby. One of the soldiers must have told the women what was happening.

He gave them both a reassuring nod and saw Katyun nod calmly back as she put her arm around Jarita's shoulders. They would be all right. If he came back.

He went through the small gate into the road, taking his first step with his right foot, glancing up for any signs among the birds. None to be seen: they had all taken shelter from the rising wind. No omens there. He wished there hadn't been four soldiers sent. Someone ought to have known better. Little to be done about that now, however. He would burn incense at the fortress, in propitiation. Rustem gripped his stick and struggled to present an appearance of equanimity. He didn't think he was succeeding. The King of Kings. An arrow.

He stopped abruptly in the dusty road.

And in the moment he did so, cursing himself for a fool, preparing to go back to the treatment rooms, knowing how very bad an omen that would be, he heard someone speak from behind him.

"Papa," said a small voice.

Rustem turned, and saw what his son was holding in both hands. His heart stopped for a moment then, or it felt as though it did. He swallowed, with sudden difficulty. Forced himself to take another deep breath, standing very still now just outside the gate.

"Yes, Shaski," he said quietly. He looked at the small boy in the garden and a strange calm descended upon him. His students and the patients watched in a knotted cluster from the portico, the soldiers from the roadway, the women from the other doorway. The wind blew.

"The man said… he said an arrow, Papa."

And Shaski extended his two small hands, offering his father the implement he'd carried out into the yard.

"He did say that, didn't he?" said Rustem, gravely. "I should take that with me then, shouldn't I?"

Shaski nodded his head. His small form straight, dark brown eyes serious as a priest's with an offering. He is seven years old, Rustem thought. Anahita guard him.

He went back through the wooden gate, and he bent and took the slender instrument in its leather sheath from the boy. He had brought it back from Ispahani, a parting gift from his teacher there.

The soldier had indeed said there was an arrow. Rustem felt a sudden, quite unexpected desire to lay a hand upon the head of his son, on the dark brown, curling hair, to feel the warmth, and the smallness. It had to do, of course, with the fact that he might not come back from the fortress. This might be a farewell. One could not decline to treat the King of Kings, and depending on where the arrow had lodged…

Shaski's expression was so intense, it was as if he actually had some preternatural apprehension of this. He couldn't, of course, but the boy had just saved him from the terrible auspice of having to re-enter the treatment room after walking out and taking his bamboo reeds, or sending someone back in for him.

Rustem found that he was unable to speak. He looked down at Shaski for another moment, then glanced over at his wives. There was no time to say anything to them, either. The world had entered through his doorway, after all. What was to be had long ago been written.

Rustem turned and went quickly back out through the gate and then with the soldiers up the steep road in the north wind that was blowing. He didn't look back, knowing the omen attached to that, but he was certain that Shaski was still standing there and watching him, alone in the garden now, straight as a spear, small as a reed by a riverbank.

Vinaszh, son of Vinaszh, the military commander of the southern fortress of Kerakek, had been born even farther to the south, in a tiny oasis of palms east of Qandir, a sparse, spring-fed island of greenery with desert all around. It was a market village, of course. Goods and services exchanged with the dark, grim peoples of the sands as they came riding in on their camels and went back out again, receding and then disappearing on the shimmering horizon.

Growing up as a merchant's son, Vinaszh came to know the nomadic tribes quite well, both in times of trade and peace and during those seasons when the Great King sent armies south in yet another fruitless attempt to force access to the western sea beyond the sands. The desert, at least as much as the wild tribesmen who shifted across its face, had made this impossible, again and again. Neither the sands nor those who dwelled there were inclined to be subdued.

But his childhood in the south had made Vinaszh-who had chosen the army over a merchant's life-an excellent, obvious choice to take control of one of the desert fortresses. It represented a rare measure of clear thinking on the part of officials in Kabadh that he was, in fact, appointed to govern Kerakek when he attained sufficient rank, rather than being given command of, say, soldiers guarding a fishing port in the north, dealing with fur-clad traders and raiders from Moskav. Sometimes the military succeeded in doing things properly, almost in spite of itself. Vinaszh knew the desert, was properly respectful of it and those who dwelled there. He could manage some of the dialects of the nomads, spoke a little of the Kindath tongue, and was unruffled by sand in his bed or clothing or folds of skin.

Still, there was nothing at all in the background of the man to suggest that the soldier son of Vinaszh the trader might have had the rashness to speak up among the mightiest figures of Bassania and offer the uninvited suggestion that a small-town physician-one not even of the priestly caste-be summoned to the King of Kings where he was dying.

Among other things, the words put the commander's own life at risk. He was a dead man if someone afterwards were to decide that the country doctor's treatment had hastened or caused the death of the king-even though Great Shirvan had already turned his face to the fire as if looking in the flames for Perun of the Thunder, or the dark figure of the Lady.

The arrow was in him, very deep. Blood continued to seep slowly from it, darkening the sheets of the bed and the linens that had been bunched around the wound. It seemed a wonder, in fact, that the king still breathed, still remained among them, fixedly watching the dance of the flames while a wind from the desert rose outside. The sky had darkened. Shirvan seemed disinclined to offer his courtiers any last words of guidance or to formally name an heir, though he'd made a gesture that implied his choice. Kneeling beside the bed, the king's third son, Murash, who had covered his own head and shoulders with hot ashes from the hearth, was rocking back and forth, praying. None of the other royal sons was present. Murash's voice, rising and falling in rapid incantation, was the only human sound in the room other than the laboured rhythm of the Great King's breathing.

In that stillness, and even with the keening of the wind, the sound of booted feet was clearly heard when it finally came from the corridor. Vinaszh drew a breath and briefly closed his eyes, invoking Perun, ritually cursing Azal the Eternal Enemy. Then he turned and saw the door open to admit the physician who had cured him of an embarrassing rash he'd contracted during an autumn reconnaissance towards the Sarantine border towns and forts.

The doctor, trailed by Vinaszh's obviously terrified captain of the guard, entered a few steps and then paused, leaning on his staff, surveying the room, before looking over at the figure on the bed. He had no servant with him-he would have left in great haste, the captain's instructions from Vinaszh had been unambiguous-and so carried his own bag. Without looking back, he extended the linen bag and his walking stick and some sheathed implement, and Vinaszh's captain moved with alacrity to take them. The doctor-his name was Rustem-had a reserved, humourless manner that Vinaszh didn't really like, but the man had studied in Ispahani and he didn't seem to kill people and he had cured the rash.

The physician smoothed his greying beard with one hand and then knelt and abased himself, showing unexpectedly adroit manners. At a word from the vizier he rose. The king hadn't turned his gaze from the fire; the young prince had not ceased his praying. The doctor bowed to the vizier, then turned carefully-facing due west, Vinaszh noted-and said briskly, "With this affliction I will contend."

He hadn't even approached-let alone examined-the patient, but he had no real choice here. He had to do what he could. Why kill another man? the king had asked. Vinaszh had almost certainly done just that by suggesting the physician be brought here.

The doctor turned to look at Vinaszh. "If the commander of the garrison will remain to assist me I would be grateful. I might have need of a soldier's experience. It is necessary for all the rest of you, my revered and gracious lords, to leave the room now, please."

Without rising from his knees, the prince said fiercely,'I will not leave my father's side."

This man was almost certainly about to become the King of Kings, the Sword of Perun, when the breathing of the man on the bed stopped.

"An understandable desire, my lord prince, "said the doctor calmly. "But if you care for your beloved father, as I can see you do, and wish to aid him now, you will honour me by waiting outside. Surgical treatment cannot take place in a crowd of men."

"There will be no… crowd," said the vizier. Mazendar's lip curled at the word. "Prince Murash will remain, and I myself. You are not of the priestly caste, of course, and neither is the commander. We must stay here, accordingly. All others will depart, as requested."

The physician simply shook his head. "No, my lord. Kill me now, if you wish. But I was taught, and believe, that members of the family and dear friends must not be present when a doctor treats an afflicted man. One must be of the priestly caste to be a royal physician, I know. But I have no such position… I am merely attending upon the Great King, at request. If I am to contend with this affliction, I must do so in the manner of my training. Otherwise I can avail the King of Kings not at all, and my own life becomes a burden to me if that is so."

The fellow was a stuffy prig, greying before his time, Vinaszh thought, but he had courage. He saw Prince Murash look up, black eyes blazing. Before the prince could speak, however, a faint, cold voice from the bed murmured, "You heard the physician. He is brought here for his skills. Why is there wrangling in my presence? Get out. All of you."

There was silence.

"Of course, my gracious lord," said Mazendar the vizier, as the prince, mouth opening and closing, stood up uncertainly. The king had still not taken his eyes from the flames. His voice sounded to Vinaszh as if it already came from somewhere beyond the realms of living men. He would die, the doctor would die, Vinaszh, very probably, would die. He was a fool and a fool, near the end of his days.

Men began moving nervously out into the corridor, where torches had now been lit in the wall brackets. The wind whistled, an otherworldly, lonely sound. Vinaszh saw his captain of the guard set down the doctor's things before quickly walking out. The young prince stopped directly in front of the slim physician, who stood very still, waiting for them to leave. Murash lifted his hands and murmured, fierce and low, "Save him, or these fingers end your life. I swear it by Perun's thunder."

The physician said nothing, merely nodded, calmly eyeing the hands of the overwrought prince as they opened and closed and then twisted before his face in a sudden gesture of strangulation. Murash hesitated another moment, then looked back at his father-it might be for the last time, Vinaszh thought, and had a swift, sharp memory of his own father's deathbed in the south. Then the prince strode from the room as others made way for him. They heard his voice rising in prayer again, from the hallway.

Mazendar was last to leave. He paused near the bed, glanced at Vinaszh and the physician, looking uncertain for the first time, and then murmured, "Have you instructions for me, dear my lord?"

"I gave them," said the man on the bed quietly. "You saw who was here. Serve him loyally if he allows. He might not. The Lord of Thunder and the Lady guard your soul if that is so."

The vizier swallowed." And yours, my great lord, if we meet not again."

The king made no reply. Mazendar went out. Someone closed the door from out in the corridor.

Immediately, moving briskly, the physician opened his linen bag and extracted a small sachet. He strode to the fire and tossed the contents onto it.

The flames turned blue, and a scent of wildflowers suddenly filled the room like an eastern springtime. Vinaszh blinked. The figure on the bed stirred.

"Ispahani?" said the King of Kings.

The physician looked surprised. "Yes, my gracious lord. I would not have imagined you-"

"I had a physician from the Ajbar Islands once. He was very skilled. Unfortunately he courted a woman he would have done better not to have touched. He used this scent, I recall."

Rustem crossed to the bedside. "It is taught that the nature of the treatment room can affect the nature of the treatment. We are influenced by such things, my lord."

"Arrows are not," said the king. But he had shifted a little to look at the physician, Vinaszh saw.

"Perhaps that is so," said the doctor, noncommittally. He came to the bedside and, for the first time, bent to examine the shaft and the wound. Vinaszh saw him suddenly check his motion. A strange expression crossed the bearded features. He lowered his hands.

Then he looked over at Vinaszh. "Commander, it is necessary for you to find gloves for me. The best leather ones in the fortress, as quickly as possible."

Vinaszh asked no questions. He was likely to die if the king died. He went, closing the door behind him, and hurried along the corridor, past those waiting there, and down the stairwell to find his own riding gloves.

Rustem had been terrified when he entered, overwhelmed, summoning all his reserves of composure so as not to show it. He'd almost dropped his implements, feared someone would see his trembling hands, but the captain of the guard had moved quickly to take them. He'd used the formal movements of genuflection to speak a calming invocation in his mind.

After rising, he'd been more blunt than he ought to have been, asking the courtiers-and the vizier and a prince! — to leave the room. But he always used a manner of crisp efficiency to suggest authority beyond his years, and this was no time or place to deviate from his customary methods. If he was to die, it hardly mattered what they thought of him, did it? He asked the commander to stay. A soldier would be unfazed by bloodshed and screaming, and someone might have to hold the afflicted person down.

The afflicted person. The King of Kings. Sword of Perun. Brother to the Sun and Moons.

Rustem forced himself to stop thinking in that way. This was a patient. An injured man. That was what mattered. The courtiers left. The prince- Rustem didn't know which of the king's sons this was-paused in front of him and made vivid with twisting hands the threat of death that had been with Rustem from the moment he'd left his garden.

It could not be allowed to matter. All would be as had been written.

He'd cast the Ajbar powder into the fire to bring the room in tune with more harmonious presences and spirits, then crossed to the bed to examine the arrow and the wound.

And he had smelled kaaba there.

His mind reeling with shock, he'd realized that the smell had jogged a hovering awareness, and then a second one had emerged and left him very much afraid. He'd sent the commander hurrying for gloves. He needed them.

If he touched that arrow shaft he would die.

Alone in the room with the King of Kings, Rustem discovered that his fears were those of a physician and not a lowly subject now. He wondered how to say what was in his mind.

The kings eyes were on his face now, dark and cold. Rustem saw rage in them. "There is a poison on the shaft," Shirvan said.

Rustem bowed his head. "Yes, my lord. Kaaba. From thejijana plant." He took a breath and asked, "Did your own physicians touch the arrow?"

The king nodded his head very slightly. No hint of anger diminishing. He would be in very great pain but wasn't showing it. "All three of them. Amusing. I ordered them to be executed for their incompetence, but they would each have died soon, wouldn't they? None of them noted the poison."

"It is rare here," said Rustem, struggling to order his thoughts.

"Not so rare. I have been taking small amounts for twenty-five years," said the king. 'Kaaba, other evil substances. Anahita will summon us to herself when she wills, but men may still be prudent in their lives, and kings must be."

Rustem swallowed. He now had the explanation for his patient's survival to this point. Twenty-five years? An image came into his mind: a young king touching-fearfully, surely-a trace amount of the deadly powder: the sickness that would have ensued… doing the same thing again later, and then again, and then beginning to taste it, in larger and larger amounts. He shook his head.

"The king has endured much for his people," he said. He was thinking of the court physicians. Kaaba closed the throat before it reached the heart. One died in agony, of self-strangulation. He had seen it in the east. A method of formal execution. Amusing, the king had said.

He was thinking of something else now, as well. He pushed that away for the moment, as best he could.

"It makes no difference," said the king. His voice was much as Rustem had imagined it might be: cold, uninflected, grave. "This is a lion arrow. Protection from poison doesn't help if the arrow cannot come out."

There was a tapping at the door. It opened and Vinaszh the garrison commander returned, breathing as if he'd been running, carrying dark brown leather riding gloves. They were too thick for easy use, Rustem saw, but he had no choice. He put them on. Unlaced the thong of the case that held a long thin metal implement. The one his son had brought out to the garden for him. He said an arrow, Papa.

"There are sometimes ways of removing even these," Rustem said, trying not to think about Shaski. He turned to the west, closed his eyes and began to pray, mentally tabulating the afternoon's omens, good and bad, as he did so, and counting the days since the last lunar eclipse. When he had done the calculations he set out the indicated talismans and wardings. He proposed a sense-dulling herb for the pain of what was to come. The king refused it. Rustem called the garrison commander to the bedside and told him what he had to do to keep the patient steady. He didn't say "the king" now. This was an afflicted man. Rustem was a doctor with an assistant and an arrow to remove, if he could. He was at war now, with Azal the Enemy, who could blot out the moons and sun and end a life.

In the event, the commander was not needed, nor was the herb. Rustem first broke off the blackened shaft as close to the entry wound as he could, then used a sequence of probes and a knife to widen the wound itself, a procedure he knew to be excruciatingly painful. Some men could not endure it, even dulled by medication. They would thrash and scream, or lose consciousness. Shirvan of Bassania never closed his eyes and never moved, though his breathing became shallow and rapid. There were beads of sweat on his brow and the muscles of his jaw were clenched beneath the plaited beard. When he judged the opening wide enough, Rustem oiled the long, slender, metal Spoon of Enyati and slid it in towards the embedded arrowhead.

It was difficult to be precise with the thick gloves, already blood-soaked, but he had a view of the alignment of the flange now and knew which way to angle the cupping part of Enyati's device. The shallow cup slid up to the flange through the flesh of the king-who had caught his breath now, but moved not at all where he lay. Rustem twisted a little and felt the spoon slip around the widest part of the head, pressing against it. He pushed a little further, not breathing himself in this most delicate moment of all, invoking the Lady in her guise as Healer, and then he twisted it again and pulled gently back a very little.

The king gasped then and half lifted one arm as if in protest, but Rustem felt the catch as the arrowhead was gathered and shielded in the cup. He had done it in one pass. He knew a man, a teacher in the far east, who would have been gravely, judiciously pleased. Now only the smooth, oiled sides of the spoon itself would be exposed to the wounded flesh, the barbed flange safely nestled within.

Rustem blinked. He went to brush the sweat from his forehead with the back of one bloody glove and remembered-barely in time-that he would die if he did so. His heart thudded.

"We are almost home, almost done," he murmured. "Are you ready, dear my lord?" The vizier had used that phrase. In this moment, watching the man on the bed deal silently with appalling pain, Rustem meant it too. Vinaszh, the commander, surprised him by coming forward a little at the head of the bed and leaning sideways to place his hand on the king's forehead above the wound and the blood: more a caress than a restraining hold.

"Who is ever ready for this?" grunted Shirvan the Great, and in the words Rustem caught-astonishingly-the ghost of a sardonic amusement. Hearing it, he set his feet to the west, spoke the Ispahani word engraved on the implement and, gripping with both gloved hands, pulled it straight back out from the mortal flesh of the King of Kings.

"I am to live, I take it?"

They were alone in the room. Time had run; it was full dark now outside. The wind was still blowing. On the king's instructions, Vinaszh had stepped out to report only that treatment was continuing and Shirvan yet lived. No more than that. The soldier had asked no questions, neither had Rustem.

The first danger was always excessive bleeding. He had packed the expanded wound opening with lint and a clean sponge. He left the wound unclosed. Closing wounds too soon was the most common error doctors made, and patients died of it. Later, if all went well, he would draw the wound together with his smallest skewers as sutures, taking care to leave space for drainage. But not yet. For now he bandaged the packed wound with clean linen going under the armpit and across the chest, then up and around both sides of the neck in the triangle pattern prescribed. He finished the bandage at the top and arranged the knot to point downwards, as was proper, towards the heart. He wanted fresh bedding and linen now, clean gloves for himself, hot water. He threw the commander's bloodied gloves on the fire. They could not be touched.

The king's voice, asking the question, was faint but clear. A good sign. He'd accepted a sedating herb this time from Rustem's bag. The dark eyes were calm and focused, not unduly dilated. Rustem was guardedly pleased. The second danger now, as always, was the green pus, though arrow wounds tended to heal better than those made by a sword. He would change the packing later, wash the wound, and change the salve and dressing before the end of the night: a variant of his own devising. Most physicians left the first bandage for two or three days.

"My king, I believe you are. The arrow is gone, and the wound will heal if Perun wills and I am careful with it to avoid the noxious exudations." He hesitated. "And you have your own… protection against the poison that was in it."

"I wish to speak with you about that."

Rustem swallowed hard. "My lord?"

"You detected the fijana's poison by the smell of it? Even with your own scented herbs on the fire?"

Rustem had feared this question. He was a good dissembler-most physicians were-but this was his king, mortal kin to the sun and moons.

"I have encountered it before," he said. "I was trained in Ispahani, my lord, where the plant grows."

"I know where it grows," said the King of Kings. "What else do you have to tell me, physician?"

Nowhere to hide, it seemed. Rustem took a deep breath.

"I also smelled it elsewhere in this room, great lord. Before I put the herbal scent to the fire."

There was a silence.

"I thought that might be so." Shirvan the Great looked coldly up at him. "Where?" One word only, hard as a smith's hammer.

Rustem swallowed again. Tasted something bitter: the awareness of his own mortality. But what choice did he now have? He said, "On the hands of the prince, great king. When he bade me save your life, at risk of my own."

Shirvan of Bassania closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, Rustem saw a black rage in their depths again, despite the drug he had been given. "This… distresses me," said the King of Kings very softly. What Rustem heard was not distress, however. It suddenly occurred to him to wonder if the king had also detected kaaba on the arrowhead and shaft. He had been ingesting it for twenty-five years. If he had known the poison, he had allowed three physicians to handle it today without warning them, and had been about to let Rustem do the same. A test of competence? When he was on the brink of dying? What sort of man…? Rustem shivered, could not help himself.

"It seems," said Great Shirvan, "that someone besides myself has been protecting himself against poisons by building up a resistance. Clever. I have to say it was clever." He was silent a long time, then: "Murash. He would have made a good king, in fact."

He turned away and looked out the window; there was nothing to see in the darkness. They could hear the sound of the wind, blowing from the desert. "I appear," the king said. "to have ordered the death of the wrong son and his mother." There was another, briefer silence. "This distresses me," he said for a second time.

"May these orders not be rescinded, great lord?" Rustem asked hesitantly.

"Of course not," said the King of Kings.

The finality in the quiet voice was, Rustem would later decide, as frightening as anything else that day.

"Summon the vizier," said Shirvan of Bassania, looking out upon night. "And my son."

Rustem the physician, son of Zorah, wished ardently in that moment to be home in his small house, shuttered against the wind and dark, with Katyun and Jarita, two small children peacefully asleep, a late cup of herbed wine at his elbow and a fire on the hearth, with the knocking of the world at his door something that had never taken place.

Instead, he bowed to the man lying on the bed and walked to the doorway of the room.

"Physician," said the King of Kings.

Rustem turned back. He felt afraid, terribly out of his depth.

"I am still your patient. You continue to be accountable for my well-being. Act accordingly." The tone was flat, the cold rage still there.

It did not take immense subtlety to understand what this might mean.

Only this afternoon, in the hour when a wind had arisen in the desert, he had been in his own modest treatment room, preparing to instruct four pupils on couching simple cataracts according to the learned devisings of Merovius of Trakesia.

He opened the door. In the torchlight of the corridor he saw a dozen tired-looking courtiers. Servants or soldiers had brought benches; some of the waiting men were sitting, slumped against the stone walls. Some were asleep. Others saw him and stood up. Rustem nodded at Mazendar, the vizier, and then at the young prince, standing a little apart from the others, his face to a dark, narrow window-slit, praying.

Vinaszh the garrison commander-the only man there that Rustem knew-raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry and took a step forward. Rustem shook his head and then changed his mind. You continue to be accountable, the King of Kings had said. Act accordingly.

Rustem stepped aside to allow the vizier and the prince to walk into the room. Then he motioned for the commander to enter as well. He said nothing at all, but locked eyes with Vinaszh for a moment as the other man went in. Rustem followed and closed the door.

'Father!" cried the prince.

"What is to be has long ago been written," murmured Shirvan of Bas-sania calmly. He was propped up on pillows, his bare chest wrapped in the linen bandages. "By the grace of Perun and the Lady, the designs of Black Azal have been blighted for a time. The physician has removed the arrow."

The vizier, noticeably moved, passed a hand before his face and knelt, touching the floor with his forehead. Prince Murash, eyes wide as he looked at his father, turned quickly to Rustem. "Perun be exalted!" he cried, and, striding across the floor, he reached forward and seized both of Rustem's hands in his own. "You shall be requited, physician!" exclaimed the prince.

It was with a supreme act of self-control and a desperate faith in his own learning that Rustem did not violently recoil. His heart was pounding furiously. "Perun be exalted!" Prince Murash repeated, turning back to the bed and kneeling as the vizier had done.

"Always," agreed the king quietly. "My son, the assassin's arrow rests there on the chest beneath the window. There was poison on it. Kaaba. Throw it in the fire for me."

Rustem caught his breath. He looked swiftly at Vinaszh, meeting the soldier's eyes again, then back to the prince.

Murash rose to his feet. "Joyfully will I do so, my father and king. But poison?" he said.'How can this be?" He crossed to the window and reached carefully for a swath of linen that lay beside Rustem's implements.

"Take it in your hands, my son," said Shirvan of Bassania, King of Kings, Sword of Perun. "Take it in your bare hands again."

Very slowly the prince turned to the bed. The vizier had risen now and was watching him closely.

"I do not understand.You believe I handled this arrow?" Prince Murash said.

"The smell remains on your hands, my son," said Shirvan gravely. Rustem cautiously took a step towards the king. The prince turned- outwardly perplexed, no more than that-and looked at his hands and then at Rustem. "But then I will have poisoned the doctor, too," he said.

Shirvan moved his head to look at Rustem. Dark beard above pale linen bandages, the eyes black and cold. Act accordingly, he had said. Rustem cleared his throat. "You will have tried," he said. His heart was pounding. "If you handled the arrow when you shot the king then the kaaba has passed through your skin and is within you by now. There is no menace to your touch, Prince Murash. Not any more."

He believed this was true. He had been taught that this was so. He had never seen it put to the test. He felt oddly light-headed, as though the room were rocking slightly, like a child's cradle.

He saw the prince's eyes go black then-much like his father's, in fact. Murash reached to his belt, whipped out a knife, turned towards the bed.

The vizier cried out. Rustem stumbled forward, unarmed.

Vinaszh, commander of the garrison at Kerakek, killed Prince Murash, third of the nine sons of Shirvan the Great, with his own dagger, flung from near the doorway.

The prince, a blade in his throat, dropped his weapon from lifeless fingers and slowly toppled across the bed, his face to his father's knees, his blood staining the pale sheets red.

Shirvan did not move. Neither did anyone else.

After a long, frozen moment the king turned from gazing down at his dead son to look over at Vinaszh and then at Rustem. He nodded his head slowly, to each of them.

"Physician, your father's name was…?" A tone of detached, mildly curious interrogation.

Rustem blinked. "Zorah, great lord."

"A warrior-caste name."

"Yes, lord. He was a soldier."

"You chose a different life?"

The conversation was so implausible it was eerie. Rustem felt dizzied by it. There was a dead man-a son-sprawled across the body of the man with whom he was speaking thus. "I war against disease and wounds, my lord." What he always said.

The king nodded again, thoughtfully, as if satisfied by something. "You know one must be of the priestly caste to become a royal physician, of course."

Of course. The world knocking at his door, after all.

Rustem lowered his head. Said nothing.

"It will be arranged at the next Accession Ritual before the Sacred Flame in midsummer."

Rustem swallowed hard. He seemed to have been doing so all night. He cleared his throat. "One of my wives is of the commoners" caste, Great King."

"She will be generously dealt with. Is there a child?"

"A girl, yes, my lord."

The king shrugged. "A kindly husband will be found. Mazendar, see it is done."

Jarita. Whose name meant desert pool. Black eyes, black hair, light step entering a room, leaving it, as if loath to trouble the air within. Lightest touch in the world. And Inissa, the baby they called Issa. Rustem closed his eyes.

"Your other wife is of the warrior caste?"

Rustem nodded. "Yes, my lord. And my son."

"They may be elevated with you in the ceremony. And come to Kabadh. If you desire a second wife there it shall be arranged."

Again Rustem closed his eyes.

The world, hammering and hammering at his door, after all, entering like the wind.

"This cannot take place until midsummer, of course. I wish to make use of you before that. You appear a competent man. There are never enough of them. You will treat me here, physician. Then you will undertake a winter journey for me. You are observant, it seems. Can serve your kins even before you rise in caste. You will leave as soon as I am well enough to go back to Kabadh, in your own judgment."

Rustem opened his eyes then. Looked up slowly. "Where am I to go, great lord?"

"Sarantium," said Shirvan of Bassania.

He went home briefly when the King of Kings fell asleep, to change his bloodied clothes, replenish his herbs and medicines. It was cold in the windy darkness. The vizier gave him an escort of soldiers. It seemed he had become an important man. Not surprising, really, except that everything was surprising now.

Both women were awake, though it was very late. They had oil lamps burning in the front room: a waste. He'd have chastised Katyun for it on a normal night. He walked in. They both rose quickly to see him. Jarita's eyes filled with tears.

"Perun be praised," said Katyun. Rustem looked from one to the other.

"Papa," someone said sleepily.

Rustem looked over and saw a little, rumpled figure stand up from the carpet before the fire. Shaski rubbed at his eyes. He'd been asleep but waiting here with his mothers.

"Papa," he said again, hesitantly. Katyun moved over and laid a hand across his thin shoulders, as if afraid Rustem would reprimand the boy for being here and awake so late.

Rustem felt an odd constriction in his throat. Not the kaaba. Something else. He said, carefully, "It is all right, Shaski. I am home now."

"The arrow?" said his son. "The arrow they said?"

It was curiously difficult to speak. Jarita was crying.

"The arrow is safely removed. I used the Spoon of Enyati. The one you brought out for me. You did very well, Shaski."

The boy smiled then, shyly, sleepily, his head against his mother's waist. Katyun's hand brushed his hair, tender as moonlight. Her eyes sought Rustem's, too many questions in them.

The answers too large.

"Go to sleep now, Shaski. I will speak with your mothers and then go back to my patient. I will see you tomorrow. Everything is well."

It was, and it wasn't. Being elevated to the priestly caste was a stunning, miraculous thing. The castes of Bassania were immovable as mountains-except when the King of Kings wished them to move. A physician's position at court meant wealth, security, access to libraries and scholars, no more anxieties about buying a larger house for a family or burning oil lamps at night. Shaski's own future had suddenly expanded beyond all possible hope.

But what could one say to a wife who was to be cast off by order of the King of Kings and given to another man? And the little one? Issa, asleep in her cradle now. The little one would be gone from him.

"Everything is well," Rustem said again, trying to make himself believe it.

The door had opened to reveal the world on his threshold. Good and evil walked hand in hand, not to be separated. Perun was opposed, always, by Azal. The two gods had entered into Time together; one could not exist without the other. So the priests taught before the Holy Flame in every temple in Bassania.

The two women took the child to his room together. Shaski reached up and held each of their hands, walking through the door, claiming them both. They indulged him too much, Rustem thought. But this was not a night to dwell upon that.

He stood alone in the front room of his own small house amid the burning of lamps and the firelight and he thought about fate and the chance moments that shaped a man's life, and about Sarantium.

CHAPTER II

Pardos had never liked his hands. The fingers were too short, stubby, broad. They didn't look like a mosaicist's hands, though they showed the same network of cuts and scratches all the others" did. He'd had a great deal of time to think about this and other things on the long road in wind and rain as autumn steadily turned to winter. Martinian's fingers, or Crispin's, or Pardos's best friend Couvry's-those were the right shape. They were large and long, appearing deft and capable. Pardos thought his own hands were like a farmhand's, a labourer's, someone in a trade where dexterity hardly mattered. It bothered him, sometimes.

But he was a mosaicist, wasn't he? Had finished his apprenticeship with two celebrated masters of the craft and had been formally admitted to the guild in Varena. He had his papers in his purse now, his name was entered on the rolls back home. So appearance wasn't really important, after all. His short, thick fingers were nimble enough to do what needed to be done. The eye and the mind mattered, Crispin used to say before he went away; the hands could learn to do what they were told.

It seemed to be true. They were doing what needed to be done here, though Pardos would never have dreamt that his first labours as a fully-fledged mosaicist would be expended in the remote, bitterly cold wilderness of Sauradia.

He would never have even dreamt, in fact, of being this far away from home, and on his own. He had not been the sort of young man who imagined adventures in distant places. He was pious, careful, prone to worry, not at all impulsive.

But he had left Varena-his home, all he knew of Jad's created world- almost immediately after the murders in the sanctuary, and that was about as impulsive an action as could be imagined.

It hadn't felt as though he was being reckless, it seemed rather as if there was no real choice in the matter, and Pardos had wondered why the others couldn't understand that. When pressed by his friends, and by Martinian and his concerned, kind-hearted "wife, Pardos had only said, over and over, that he could not stay in a place where such things were done. When they told him, in tones of cynicism or sadness, that such things happened everywhere, Pardos replied-very simply-that he hadn't seen them everywhere, only in the sanctuary expanded to house the bones of King Hildric outside Varena.

The consecration of that sanctuary had been the most wonderful day of his life, at first. He and the other former apprentices, newly elevated to the guild, had been sitting with Martinian and his wife and with Crispin's white-haired mother in places of honour for the ceremony. All the mighty of the Antae kingdom were there, and many of the most illustrious Rhodians, including representatives of the High Patriarch himself, had come to Varena along the muddy roads from Rhodias. Queen Gisel, veiled and clad in the pure white of mourning, had been sitting so near that Pardos could almost have spoken to her.

Except that it hadn't been the queen. It had been a woman pretending to be her, a lady-in-waiting. That woman had died in the sanctuary, and so had the queen's giant, silent guard, chopped down by a sword that should never have been in a holy place. Then the swordsman-Agila, Master of Horse-had himself been slain where he stood by the altar, arrows whipping down from overhead. Other men had died the same way while people screamed and trampled each other in a rush for the doors and blood spattered the sun disk beneath the mosaics Crispin and Martinian and Pardos and Radulph and Couvry and the others had laboured to craft in honour of the god.

Violence, ugly and profane, in a chapel of worship, a desecration of the place and of Jad. Pardos had felt unclean and ashamed-bitterly aware that he was Antae and shared the blood, and even the tribe, as it happened, of the foul-tongued man who had stood up with his forbidden sword, smeared the young queen with ugly, vicious words, and then died there with those he'd killed.

Pardos had walked out the double doors into the sanctuary yard even as the services-under the orders of the sleek chancellor, Eudric Golden-hair-had resumed. He had gone past the outdoor ovens where he'd spent a summer and fall attending to the setting lime, out through the gate and then along the road back to the city. Before he'd even reached the walls he had decided he was leaving Varena. And almost immediately after that he'd realized how far he intended to go, though he'd never been away from home in his life and winter was coming.

They'd tried to dissuade him later, but Pardos was a stubborn young man arid not easily swayed when his mind and heart were set. He needed to put a distance between himself and what had happened in that sanctuary-what had been done by his own tribe and blood. None of his colleagues and friends were Antae, they were all Rhodian-born. Perhaps that was why they didn't feel the shame as fiercely as he did.

Winter roads to the east might have their dangers, but as far as Pardos was concerned, they could not be worse than what was about to happen here among his people with the queen gone and swords drawn in holy places.

He wanted to see Crispin again, and to work with him, far away from the tribal wars that were coming. Coming again. They had been down this dark path before, the Antae. Pardos would go a different direction this time.

They'd had no word from Martinian's younger, more intense partner since a single relayed message sent from a military camp in Sauradia. That letter hadn't even been addressed to them, it had been delivered to an alchemist, a friend of Martinian's. The man-Zoticus was his name-had passed on word that Crispin was all right, at least to that point in his journey. Why he'd written the old man and not his own partner or mother was not explained, or at least not to Pardos.

Since then, nothing, though Crispin would probably have reached Sarantium by now-if he'd reached it at all. Pardos, with his own decision to leave now firm in his mind, latched onto an image of his former teacher and announced an intention to follow him to the Imperial City.

When they realized he wasn't to be dissuaded, Martinian and his wife Carissa turned their considerable energies to making sure Pardos was properly prepared for the journey. Martinian lamented the recent-and very sudden-departure of his alchemical friend, a man who apparently knew a great deal about the roads east, but he succeeded in canvassing opinions and suggestions from various well-travelled merchants who were former clients. Pardos, who was proud to say he knew his letters, was provided with carefully written-out lists of places to stay and to avoid. His options were limited, of course, since he couldn't afford to bribe his way into the Imperial Inns en route, but it was still useful to learn of those taverns and cauponae where a traveller stood a higher-than-usual chance of being robbed or killed.

One morning, after the sunrise invocations in the small, ancient chapel near the room he shared with Couvry and Radulph, Pardos went-somewhat embarrassed-to visit a cheiromancer.

The man's chambers were towards the palace quarter. Some of the other apprentices and craftsmen working on the sanctuary had been inclined to consult him, seeking advice in gambling and love, but that didn't make Pardos feel easier about what he was doing.

Cheiromancy was a condemned heresy, of course, but the clergy of Jad walked carefully here in Batiara among the Antae, and the conquerors had never entirely abandoned some aspects of their past beliefs. The door had been openly marked with a signboard showing a pentagram. A bell rang when it opened, but no one appeared. Pardos went into a small, dark front room and, after waiting for a time, rapped on an unsteady counter there. The seer came out from behind a beaded curtain and led him, unspeaking, into a windowless back room warmed only by a small brazier and lit with candles. He waited, still silent, until Pardos had placed three copper folles on the table and spoken his question.

The cheiromancer gestured to a bench. Pardos sat down carefully; the bench was very old.

The man, who was rail-thin, dressed in black and missing the little finger of his left hand, took Pardos's short, broad hand and bent his head over it, studying the palm for a long time by the light of the candles and the smoky brazier. He coughed, at intervals. Pardos experienced an odd mixture of fear and anger and self-contempt as he endured the close scrutiny. Then the man-he still had not spoken-had Pardos toss some dried-out chicken bones from his fist down onto the greasy table. He examined these for another long while and then declared in a high, wheezing voice that Pardos would not die on the journey east and that he was expected on the road.

That last made no sense at all and Pardos asked about it. The cheiromancer shook his head, coughing. He put a stained cloth to his mouth. He said, when the coughing subsided, that it was difficult to discern further details. He was asking for more money, Pardos knew, but he refused to offer more than he'd already paid and he walked out into the morning sunshine. He wondered if the man was as poor as he seemed to be, or if the shabbiness of his attire and chambers was a device to avoid drawing attention to himself. Certainly cheiromancers were not short of trade in Varena. The cough and rheumy voice had sounded real, but the wealthy could fall ill almost as easily as the poor.

Still embarrassed by what he'd done, and aware of how the cleric who presided over services in his chapel would feel about his visiting a seer, Pardos made a point of reporting the visit to Couvry. "If I do get killed," he said, "go get those three folles back, all right?" Couvry had agreed, without any of his usual joking.

The night before Pardos left, Couvry and Radulph took him drinking at their favourite wine shop. Radulph was also going away soon, but only south to Baiana near Rhodias where his family lived, and where he expected to find steady work decorating homes and summer retreats by the sea. That hope might be affected if civil war broke out, or an invasion came from the east, but they decided not to talk about that on their last night together. During the course of a liquid farewell, Radulph and Couvry both expressed wistfully intense regret that they weren't coming with Pardos. Now that they were reconciled to his sudden departure, they had begun to see it as a grand adventure.

Pardos didn't view it that way at all, but he wasn't about to disappoint his friends by saying so. He was deeply touched when Couvry opened a parcel he'd brought and they presented Pardos with a new pair of boots for the road. They'd traced his sandals one night while he slept, Radulph explained, to get the size right.

The tavern closed early, by order of Eudric Goldenhair, once the chancellor, who had proclaimed himself regent in the absence of the queen. There had been some unrest in the wake of that proclamation. A number of people had died in street fighting the last few days. The drinking places were under a curfew. Tensions were high and would be rising.

Among other things, no one seemed to have any idea where the queen had gone, clearly a matter of some agitation among those now occupying the palace.

Pardos simply hoped she was all right, wherever she was, and that she would come back. The Antae didn't favour women rulers, but Pardos thought Hildric's daughter would be better, by far, than any of those likely to take her place.

He left home the next morning, immediately after the sunrise invocation, taking the road east towards Sauradia.

In the event, dogs were his biggest problem. They tended to avoid larger parties, but there were two or three dawns and twilights when Pardos was walking on his own, and on one particularly bad night he found himself caught between inns. On these occasions, wild dogs came after him. He laid about with his staff, surprising himself with the violence of his own blows and his profane language, but he took his share of bites. None of the animals appeared to be sick-which was a good thing or he'd have been dying or dead by now and Couvry would have had to go get the money back from the fortune-teller.

The inns tended to be filthy and cold, with food of indeterminate origin, but Pardos's room at home was no city palace and he was hardly a stranger to small biting things sharing his pallet. He observed his share of unsavoury figures drinking too much bad wine on damp nights, but it must have been obvious that the quiet young man had nothing in the way of wealth or goods to steal and they left him pretty much alone. He did take the precaution of smearing and staining his new boots, to make them look older.

He liked the boots. Didn't mind the cold or the walking at all. Found the great black forest to the north-the Aldwood-to be oddly exciting. He enjoyed trying to detect and define shadings of dark green and grey and muddy brown and black as the shifting light caused changes at the edge of the forest. It occurred to him that his grandfathers and their fathers might have lived in these woods; perhaps that was why he was drawn to them. The Antae long had made their home in Sauradia, among the Inicii and Vrachae and other warring tribes, before setting out on their great migration south and west into Batiara, where an empire had been crumbling and ready to fall. Perhaps the trees stretching alongside the Imperial road were speaking to something ancient in his blood. The cheiromancer had said he was expected on the road. He hadn't said what was expecting him.

He sought out others to travel with, as instructed by Martinian, but after the first few days he didn't greatly worry if he found no one. He was as faithful as he could be about the morning invocations and the sunset rites, trying to find roadside chapels for his prayers, so he often fell behind less pious companions even when he did link up with them.

One smooth-shaven wine merchant from Megarium had offered to pay Pardos to share his bed-at an Imperial Inn, even-and had needed a rap with a staff on the back of his knees to dissaude him from a grab at Pardos's privates as a masking twilight overtook their party on the road. Pardos had worried that the man's friends might react to his cry of pain and make trouble, but in fact they seemed to be familiar with their colleague's nature and gave Pardos no difficulty. One of them had even apologized, which was unexpected. Their group had stopped at the Imperial Inn when it loomed out of darkness — large and torchlit and welcoming — and Pardos had kept going, alone. That was the night he ended up huddled on the southern side of a stone wall in the knifing cold, dealing with wild dogs in the white moonlight. The wall ought to have kept out the dogs, but it was broken down in too many places. Pardos knew what that meant. Plague had been here as well in the years just past. When men died in such numbers there were never enough hands for what needed to be done.

That one night was very hard and he did wonder, shivering and struggling to stay awake, if he would die here in Sauradia, having lived a brief, utterly inconsequential life. He thought about what he was doing so far away from everything he knew, without the means to make a fire, staring into the black for the lean, slavering apparitions that could kill him if he missed their approach. He heard other sounds, as well, from the forest on the far side of the wall and the road: deep, repeated grunting, and a howling, and once the tread of something very large. He didn't stand up to see what it might be, but after that time the dogs went away, thanks be to Jad. Pardos sat huddled in his cloak, leaning against his pack and the rough shelter of the wall, and looked up at the far stars and the one white moon and thought about where he was injad's creation. Where the small, breathing, unimportant thing that was Pardos of the Antae was passing this cold night in the world. The stars were hard and bright as diamonds in the dark.

Later, he was to decide that that long night had given him a new appreciation of the god, if that wasn't a thought too laden with presumption, for how dare a man such as he speak of appreciating the god? But the thought remained with him: didn't Jad do something infinitely more difficult each and every night, battling alone against enemies and evil in the bitter cold and dark? And — a further truth — didn't the god do it for the benefit of others, for his mortal children, and not for himself at all? Pardos had simply been fighting for his own life, not for anything else that lived.

He'd thought, at one point in the darkness after the white moon set, of the Sleepless Ones, those holy clerics who kept a night-long vigil to mark their awareness of what the god did in the night. Then he'd fallen into a fitful, dreamless sleep.

And the very next day, chilled, painfully stiff and very tired, he came to a chapel of those same Sleepless Ones, set back a little from the road, and he entered, gratefully, wanting to pray and give thanks, perhaps find some warmth on a cold, windy morning, and then he saw what was overhead.

One of the clerics was awake and came forward to greet Pardos kindly, and they spoke the sunrise invocation together before the disk and beneath the awesome figure of the dark, bearded god on the dome above. Afterwards, Pardos hesitantly told the cleric that he was from Varena, and a mosaicist, and that the work on the dome was-truly-the most overwhelming he had ever seen.

The white-robed holy man hesitated, in turn, and asked Pardos if he was acquainted with another western mosaicist, a man named Martinian, who had passed this way earlier in the autumn. And Pardos remembered, just in time, that Crispin had travelled east using his partner's name, and he said yes, he did know Martinian, had done his apprenticeship with him and was journeying east to join him now, in Sarantium.

At that, the thin-faced cleric hesitated a second time and then asked Pardos to wait for him a few moments. He went through a small door at one side of the chapel and returned with another man, older, grey-bearded, and this man explained, awkwardly, that the other artisan, Martinian, had suggested to them that the image of Jad overhead might need a certain measure of… attention, if it were to endure as it should.

And Pardos, looking up again, more carefully now, saw what Crispin had seen and nodded his head and said that this was, indeed, so. Then they asked him if he might be willing to assist them in this. Pardos blinked, overawed, and stammered something about the need for a great many tesserae to match those used above for this exacting, almost impossible task. He would require a mosaicist's equipment and tools, and scaffolding…

The two holy men had exchanged a glance and then led Pardos through the chapel to one of the outbuildings behind, and then down some creaking stairs to a cellar. And there, by torchlight, Pardos saw the disassembled parts of scaffolding and the tools of his own trade. There were a dozen chests along the stone walls and the clerics opened these, one by one, and Pardos saw tesserae of such brilliance and quality that he had to struggle not to weep, remembering the muddy, inadequate glass Crispin and Martinian had been forced to use all the time in Varena. These were the tesserae used to make that image of Jad overhead: the clerics had kept them down here, all these hundreds of years.

The two holy men had looked at him, waiting, saying nothing at all, until at length Pardos simply nodded his head. "Yes," he'd said. "Yes." And, "I will need some of you to help me."

"You must teach us what we need to do," the older man had said, holding up a torch, looking down at the shining glass in the ancient chests as it reflected and caught the light.

Pardos ended up staying in that place, working among those holy men, living with them, through almost the whole of the winter. It seemed he had been, in the strangest way, expected there.

There came a time when he reached the limits of what he felt capable of doing without guidance or greater experience, putting his own hands to a work of such holy magnificence, and he told the clerics as much. They respected him by then, acknowledged his piety and care, and he even thought they liked him. No one demurred. Wearing a white robe they offered him, Pardos stayed awake with the Sleepless Ones on the last night and, shivering, heard his own name chanted by holy men in their rituals as someone virtuous and deserving, for whom the god's grace was besought. They gave him gifts-a new cloak, a sun disk-when he set out again with his staff and pack on a bright morning, with birdsong hinting at spring, continuing towards Sarantium.

In all honesty, Rustem had to admit that his vanity had been offended. With the passage of a little more time, he decided, this wounded, unsettled, choleric feeling would probably pass and he might begin to find his wives" reactions and his own response to be amusing and instructive, but an adequate interval had not yet gone by.

It seemed he had indulged himself in some domestic illusions. He wasn't the first man to do so. Slender, fragile Jarita, who was being discarded, cast off by the desire of the King of Kings to raise Rustem of Kerakek to the priestly caste, had appeared entirely content when informed of this development-as soon as she was told of the promise that she was to be given an appropriate, kindly husband. Her only request was that this happen in Kabadh.

It seemed that his second, delicate wife, had a greater dislike for desert sand and heat than she had ever revealed, and an equally strong interest in seeing and dwelling within the bustle and excitement of the royal city. Rustem, nonplussed, had indicated that it was likely she could be accommodated in this wish. Jarita had kissed him happily, even passionately, and gone off to see her baby in the nursery.

Katyun, his first wife-calm, composed Katyun, who was being hon cured, as was her son, by elevation to the highest of the three castes, with the prospect of unimagined wealth and opportunity-had erupted in a storm of grief upon hearing these same tidings. She had refused to be consoled, wailing and distraught.

Katyun did not have any liking for the great cities of the world, never having seen-or having felt any desire to see-any of them. Sand in clothing or hair was a trivial affliction; the heat of the desert sun could be dealt with if one knew the proper ways to live; small, remote Kerakek was an entirely pleasant place in which to dwell if one were the wife of a respected physician and had the status that came therewith.

Kabadh, the court, the famous water gardens, the churka grounds, the flower-laden, crimson-pillared hall of dance… these were places where women would be painted and perfumed and garbed in exquisite silks and in the manners and malice of long practice and familiarity. A woman from the desert provinces among such…?

Katyun had wept in her bed, squeezing her eyes tightly shut, refusing even to look at him, as Rustem strove to comfort her with talk of what opportunities this royal munificence offered for Shaski-and any other children they might now have.

That last had been an impulsive, unplanned comment, but it did produce an ebbing of tears. Katyun wanted another baby and Rustem knew it. With a move to Kabadh, in the lofty role of royal physician, there would be no further arguments about living space or resources that could be applied against the idea of another child.

Inwardly, he had still been wounded, however. Jarita had been much too matter-of-fact about being set aside with her daughter; Katyun gave no evidence of realizing how astonishing this change in their fortunes was, no sign of pride in him, of excitement in their shared new fate.

The suggestion about a second child did calm her. She dried her eyes, sat up in the bed, looked at him thoughtfully and then managed a brief smile. Rustem spent what was left of the night with her. Katyun, less delicately pretty than Jarita, was also less shy than his second wife and rather more skilled in arousing him by diverse means. Before dawn he had been induced, still half-asleep, to make a first assay at engendering the promised offspring. Katyun's touch and her whispering voice at his ear were balm to his pride.

At sunrise he'd returned to the fortress to determine the status of his royal patient. All was well. Shirvan healed swiftly, signs of an iron constitution and the benign alignment of auspices. Rustem took no credit for the former, was at pains to monitor and adjust for the latter.

In between visits with the king, he found himself closeted with the vizier, Mazendar, others joining them at intervals. Rustem received an education, at speed, in certain aspects of the world as they knew it that winter, with particular emphasis on the nature and the possible intentions of Valerius II of Sarantium, whom some named the Night's Emperor.

If he was going there, and was to do so to some purpose, there were things he needed to know.

When he finally did depart-having made hasty arrangements for his students to continue with a physician he knew in Qandir, even farther to the south-the winter was well advanced.

The most difficult parting-and this was entirely unexpected-was with Shaski. The women were reconciled to what was happening, could understand it; the baby was too young to know. His son, too soft by far, Rustem thought, was visibly struggling not to cry as Rustem finished tightening the drawstrings on his pack one morning and turned to bid a last farewell to all of them.

Shaski had come forward a few steps down the walk. He rubbed at his eyes with bunched fists. He was trying, Rustem had to acknowledge. He was attempting not to cry. But what little boy grew so absurdly attached to his father? It was a weakness. Shaski was still of an age when the world he ought to know and need was that of the women. A father was to provide food and shelter and moral guidance and ensure discipline in the home. Perhaps Rustem had made a mistake, after all, in allowing the child to listen to his lessons from the hallway. Shaski had no business reacting this way. There were even soldiers watching; an escort from the fortress would go with him the first part of the way, as a sign of favour.

Rustem opened his mouth to admonish the boy and discovered that-shamefully-he had an awkward lump in his own throat and a constriction of feeling in his chest that made it difficult to speak. He coughed.

"Listen to your mothers," he said, more huskily than he'd expected.

Shaski nodded his head. "I will," he whispered. He still wasn't crying, Rustem saw. His small fists were clenched at his sides. "When will you come home, Papa?"

"When I have done what I have to do."

Shaski took another two steps towards the gate where Rustem stood. They were alone, halfway between the women by the door and the military escort a little down the road. He could have touched the boy if he'd reached out. One bird was singing in the bright, crisp winter morning.

His son took a deep breath, visibly summoning courage. "I don't want you to go, you know," said Shaski.

Rustem strove for outrage. Children were not to speak this way. Not to their fathers. Then he saw that the boy knew this, and had lowered his eyes and hunched his shoulders, as if awaiting a reprimand.

Rustem looked at him and swallowed, then turned away, saying nothing after all. He carried the pack a few steps until one of the soliders jumped down from his mount and took it from him, fastening it efficiently to the back of a mule. Rustem watched him. The leader of the soldiers looked at him and raised an eyebrow in inquiry, gesturing at the horse they'd given him.

Rustem nodded, inexplicably irritated. He took a step towards the horse, then suddenly turned around, to look back at the gate. Shaski was still there. He lifted his hand to wave to the boy, and smiled a little, awkwardly, that the child might know his father wasn't angry about what he'd said, even though he should have been. Shaski's eyes were on Rustem's face. He still wasn't crying. He still looked as though he might. Rustem looked at him another moment, drinking in the sight of that small form, then he nodded his head, turned briskly and accepted a hand up onto his horse and they rode off. The uncomfortable feeling in his chest lingered for a time and then it went away.

The escort rode with him to the border but Rustem continued west into Sarantine lands-for the first time in his life-alone save for a dark-eyed, bearded manservant named Nishik. He left the horse with the soldiers and continued on a mule, now; it was more suited to his role.

The manservant was another deception. Just as Rustem was not, for the moment, simply a teaching physician in search of manuscripts and learned discussions with western colleagues, so was his servant not really a servant. Nishik was a veteran soldier, experienced in combat and survival. In the fortress it had been impressed upon Rustem that such skills might be important on his journey, and perhaps even more so when he reached his destination. He was, after all, a spy.

They stopped in Sarnica, making no secret of their arrival or Rustem's role in saving the life of the King of Kings and his forthcoming status. It had been too dramatic an event: the tidings of the assassination attempt had already run before them across the border, even in winter.

The governor of Amoria requested that Rustem attend upon him and seemed appropriately horrified to learn further details of deadly perfidy within the royal family of Bassania. After the formal audience, the governor dismissed his attendants and confided privately to Rustem that he had been encountering some difficulties in fulfilling his obligations to both his wife and his favourite mistress. He admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that he'd gone so far as to consult a cheiromancer, without success. Prayer had also failed to be of use.

Rustem refrained from comment on either of these solutions and, after examining the man's tongue and taking his pulse, advised the governor to make a meal of the well-cooked liver of a sheep or cow on those evenings when he wished to have relations with either of his women. Noting the governor's extremely florid complexion, he also suggested refraining from the consumption of wine with that important meal. He expressed great confidence that this would prove helpful. Confidence, of course, was half the treatment. The governor was profuse in his thanks and gave instructions that Rustem was to be assisted in ail his affairs while in Sarnica. Two days later he sent a silk robe and an elaborate Jaddite sun disk to Rustem's inn as gifts. The disk, though beautiful, was hardly an appropriate offering to a Bassanid, but Rustem concluded that his suggestions had met with some nocturnal success.

While in Sarnica, Rustem visited with one of his former pupils and met two doctors with whom he'd exchanged correspondence. He purchased a text of Cadestes on skin ulcers and paid to have another manuscript copied and sent to him in Kabadh. He told those physicians he met exactly what had happened in Kerakek, and how, as a consequence of saving the king's life, he was soon to become a royal physician. In the interval, he explained, he had requested and received permission to conduct a journey of acquisition, obtaining further knowledge for himself and written sources from the west.

He gave a morning lecture, pleasingly well attended, on the Ispahani treatment of difficult childbirths, and another on the amputation of limbs when inflammation and noxious exudations followed upon a wound. He left after a stay of almost a month and a gracious farewell dinner hosted by the physicians" guild. He was given the names of several doctors in the Imperial City upon whom he was urged to call, and the address of a respectable inn where members of the healing profession were inclined to stay when in Sarantium.

The food on the road north was wretched and the accommodations worse, but-given that it was the end of winter, not yet spring, when any remotely intelligent people avoided travel entirely-the trip proved largely uneventful. Their arrival in Sarantium was rather less so. Rustem had not expected to encounter both death and a wedding on his first day.

It had been years since Pappio, Director of the Imperial Glassworks, had actually done any actual glassblowing or design work himself. His duties now were administrative and diplomatic, involving the coordination of supplies and production and the distribution of tesserae and flat sheets of glass to craftsmen requesting them, in the City and beyond. Determining priorities and placating outraged artisans comprised the most delicate part of his office. Artisans, in Pappio's experience, tended to incline towards outrage.

He had his system worked out. Imperial projects came first, and amongst those Pappio made assessments of how important a given mosaic might be in the scheme of things. This required delicate inquiries in the Imperial Precinct at times, but he did have a staff for that, and he had acquired a sufficient polish to his own manners to make it feasible for him to attend upon some of the higher civil service functionaries when necessary. His wasn't the most important of the guilds-the silk guild had that distinction, of course-but it wasn't anywhere near the least significant, either, and under this particular Emperor, with his elaborate building projects, it could be said that Pappio was an important man. He was treated respectfully, in any case.

Private commissions came behind the Imperial ones, but there was a complication: the artisans engaged on projects for the Emperor received their supplies free of charge, while those doing mosaic or other glass work for citizens had to buy their tesserae or sheets of glass. The Imperial Glassworks was expected to pay for itself now, in the modern scheme of things devised by thrice-exalted Valerius II and his advisers. Pappio was not, therefore, at liberty to entirely ignore the entreaties of those mosaicists clamouring for tesserae for private ceilings, walls, or floors. Nor, frankly, would it make sense for him to refuse all the quiet offers of sums for his own purse. A man had a duty to his family, didn't he?

Over and above these nuanced issues, Pappio had a powerful inclination to favour those craftsmen-or patrons-who had a demonstrated affinity for the Greens.

The Splendid Greens of Great and Glorious Achievement were his own beloved faction, and one of the extreme pleasures attendant upon his rise to this lofty status in his guild was that he was now in a position to subsidize the faction somewhat, and be honoured and recognized accordingly in their banquet hall and at the Hippodrome. He was no longer just another humble supporter. He was a dignitary, present at the feasts, prominently seated at the theatre, among those in the preferred places for the chariot races themselves. Long past were the days when he'd line up before dawn outside the Hippodrome gates to get a standing place to watch the horses run.

He couldn't be too obvious in his favouritism-the Emperor's people were present and observing, everywhere-but Pappio did make sure that, all other things being remotely balanced, a Green mosaicist did not go away empty-handed if competing for hard-to-find colours or semiprecious stones with a known follower of the accursed Blues or even someone without declared allegiance.

This was only as it should be. Pappio owed his appointment to his Green partisanship. His predecessor as head of the guild and Glassworks Director-an equally fervent Green-had selected him in large part for that reason. Pappio knew that when he chose to retire he was expected to pass on the position to another Green. It happened all the time, in every guild except the silk, which was a special case and closely scrutinized by the Imperial Precinct. One faction or the other controlled most of the guilds, and it was rare for that control to be wrested away.

One had to be blatantly corrupt for the Emperor's people to interfere.

Pappio had no intention of being blatant about anything, or even corrupt, if it came to that. He was a careful man.

And it was that instinctive caution, in part, that had made him a little uneasy about the surprising request he'd received, and the extremely substantial payment that had accompanied it-before he'd even done a preliminary sketch of the glass bowl requested!

He understood that it was his stature that was being bought. That the gift would acquire greatly enhanced value because it had been fashioned by the head of the guild himself, who never did such things any more. He also knew that the man buying this from him-as a wedding gift, he understood-could afford to do so. One didn't need to make inquiries to know that the principal secretary to the Supreme Strategos, an historian who also happened to be chronicling the Emperor's building projects, had sufficient resources to buy an elaborate bowl. This was a man who, more and more, seemed to require a certain deference. Pappio didn't like the sallow, unsmiling, lean-faced secretary, but what did liking have to do with anything?

What was harder to sort out was why Pertennius of Eubulus was buying this gift. Some discreet questions had to be asked elsewhere before Pappio thought he had the answer. It turned out to be simple enough, in the end-one of the oldest stories of all-and it had nothing to do with the bride and groom.

It was someone else that Pertennius was trying to impress. And since that person happened to be dear to Pappio's own heart, he had to overcome a certain indignation-visualizing a woman sleek and splendid as a falcon in the thin arms of the dour secretary-to concentrate on his unaccustomed craft again. He forced himself to do so, however, as best he could.

After all, he wouldn't want the Principal Dancer for his beloved Greens to think him less than an exemplary artisan. Perhaps, he daydreamed, she might even ask for further work on her own behalf after seeing his bowl. Pappio imagined meetings, consultations, two heads bent close over a series of drawings, her notorious perfume-worn by only two women in all of Sarantium-enveloping him, a trusting hand laid on his arm…

Pappio was not a young man, was stout and bald and married with three grown children, but it was a truth of the world that certain women carried a magic about them, on the stage and off, and dreams followed where they went. You didn't stop dreaming just because you weren't young any more. If Pertennius could attempt to win admiration with a showy gift given to people he couldn't possibly care about, might not Pappio try to let the exquisite Shirin see what the Director of the Imperial Glassworks could do when he put his hands and mind-and a part of his heart-to his earliest craft?

She would see the bowl when it was delivered to her house. It seemed the bride was living with her.

After some thought, and a morning's sketching, Pappio decided to make the bowl green, with inset pieces of bright yellow glass like meadow flowers in the spring that was coming at last.

His heart quickened as he began to work, but it wasn't the labour or the craft that was exciting him, or even the image of a woman now. It was something else entirely. If spring was nearly upon them, Pappio was thinking, humming a processional march to himself, then so were the chariots, so were the chariots, so were the chariots again.

Every morning, during the sunrise invocations in the elegant chapel she had elected to frequent, the young queen of the Antae went through an exercise of tabulating, as on a secretary's slate in her mind, the things for which she ought to be grateful. Seen in a certain light, there were many of them.

She had escaped an attempt on her life, survived a late-season sailing to Sarantium, and then the first stages of settling in this city-a process more overwhelming than she wanted to admit. It had taken much from her to preserve an appropriately haughty manner when they had first come within sight of the harbour and walls. Even though she had known Sarantium could overawe, and had been preparing for it, Gisel learned, when the sun rose that morning behind the Imperial City, that sometimes there was no real way to prepare oneself.

She was grateful for her father's training and the self-discipline her life had demanded: she didn't think anyone had seen how daunted she was.

And there was more for which thanks ought to be given, to holy Jad or whatever pagan deities one chose to remember from the Antae forests. She had entirely respectable housing in a small palace near the triple walls, courtesy of the Emperor and Empress. She'd acted quickly enough on arrival to secure adequate funds of her own, by demanding loans to the crown from Batiaran merchants trading here in the east. Despite the irregularity of her sudden arrival, unannounced, on an Imperial ship, with only a small cadre of her guards and women, none of the Batiarans had dared gainsay their queen's regal, matter-of-fact request. If she'd waited, Gisel knew, it might have been different. Once those back in Varena- those doubtless claiming or battling for her throne by now-learned where she was, they would send their own instructions east. Money might be harder to come by. More importantly, she expected they'd try to kill her then.

She was too experienced in these affairs-of royalty and survival- to have been foolish enough to wait. Once she'd acquired her funds, she'd hired a dozen Karchite mercenaries as personal guards and dressed them in crimson and white, the colours of her grandfather's war banner.

Her father had always liked Karchites for guards. If you kept them sober when on duty and allowed them to disappear into cauponae when not, they tended to be fiercely loyal. She'd also accepted the Empress Alixana's offer of three more ladies-in-waiting and a chef and steward from the Imperial Precinct. She was setting up a household; amenities and a reasonable staff were necessary. Gisel knew perfectly well that there would be spies among these, but that, too, was something with which she was familiar. There were ways of avoiding them, or misleading them.

She'd been received at court not long after arriving and welcomed with entirely proper courtesy and respect. She had seen and exchanged formal greetings with the grey-eyed, round-faced Emperor and the small, exquisite, childless dancer who had become his Empress. They had all been precisely and appropriately polite, though no private encounters or exchanges with either Valerius or Alixana had followed. She hadn't been sure whether to expect these or not. It depended on the Emperor's larger plans. Once, affairs had waited on her plans. Not any more.

She had received, in her own small city palace, a regular stream of dignitaries and courtiers from the Imperial Precinct in that first interval of time. Some came out of sheer curiosity, Gisel knew: she was a novelty, a diversion in winter. A barbarian queen in flight from her people. They might have been disappointed to be received with style and grace by a reserved, silk-clad young woman who showed no sign at all of using bear grease in her yellow hair.

A smaller number made the long trip through the crowded city for more thoughtful reasons, assessing her and what role she might play in the shifting alignments of a complex court. The aged, clear-eyed Chancellor Gesius had had himself carried through the streets to her bearing gifts in his litter: silk for a garment and an ivory comb. They spoke of her father, with whom Gesius had evidently corresponded for years, and then of theatre-he urged her to attend-and finally of the regrettable effect of the damp weather on his fingers and knee joints. Gisel almost allowed herself to like him, but was too experienced to permit herself such a response.

The Master of Offices, a younger, stiff-faced man named Faustinus, arrived the next morning, apparently in response to Gesius's visit, as though the two men tracked each other's doings. They probably did. The court of Valerius II would not be different in this regard from Gisel's father's or her own. Faustinus drank an herbal tea and asked a number of self-evidently harmless questions about how her court had been administered. He was a functionary, these things occupied his attention. He was also ambitious, she judged, but only in the way that officious men are who fear losing the patterns of their established lives. Nothing burned in him.

In the woman who came a few days after, there was something burning beneath a chilly, patrician manner, and Gisel felt both the heat and the cold. It was an unsettling encounter. She had heard of the Daleinoi, of course: wealthiest family in the Empire. With a father and brother dead, another brother said to be hideously maimed and hidden away somewhere, and a third keeping cautiously distant from the City, Styliane Daleina, wife now to the Supreme Strategos, was the visible presence of her aristocratic family in Sarantium, and there was nothing harmless about her, Gisel decided very early in their conversation.

They were almost of an age, she judged, and life had taken away both their childhoods very early. Styliane's manner was unrevealing, her bearing and manner perfect, a veneer of exquisite politeness, betraying nothing of what might be her thoughts.

Until she chose to do so. Over dried figs and a small glass of warmed, sweetened wine, a desultory exchange about clothing styles in the west had turned into a sudden, very direct question about Gisel's throne and her flight and what she hoped to achieve by accepting the Emperor's invitation to come east.

"I am alive," Gisel had said mildly, meeting the appraising blue gaze of the other woman. "You will have heard of what happened in the sanctuary on the day of its consecration."

"It was unpleasant, I understand," had said Styliane Daleina casually, speaking of murder and treason. She gestured dismissively.'Is this, then, pleasant? This pretty cage?"

"My visitors are a source of very great consolation," Gisel had murmured, controlling anger ruthlessly. "Tell me, I have been urged to attend the theatre one night. Have you a suggestion?" She smiled, bland and young, manifestly thoughtless. A barbarian princess, barely two generations removed from the forests where the women painted their naked breasts with dyes.

More than one person, Gisel had thought, leaning forward to carefully select a fig, could preserve her privacy behind empty talk.

Styliane Daleina left soon after, with an observation at the door that people at court seemed to think the principal dancer and actress for the Green faction was the preeminent performer of the day. Gisel had thanked her, and promised to repay her courtesy with a visit one day. She actually thought she might: there was a certain kind of bitter pleasure in this sort of sparring. She wondered if it were possible to find bear grease in Sarantium.

There were other visitors. The Eastern Patriarch sent his principal secretary, an officious, sour-smelling cleric who asked prepared questions about western faith and then lectured her on Heladikos until he realized she wasn't listening. Some members of the small Batiaran community here-mostly merchants, mercenary soldiers, a few craftsmen-made a point of attending upon her until, at some point in the winter, they stopped coming, and Gisel concluded that Eudric or Kerdas, back home, had sent word, or even instructions. Agila was dead; they had learned that by now. He'd died in her father's resting place the morning of the consecration. With Pharos and Anissa, the only two people left in the world who might have been said to love her. She'd heard the tidings, dry-eyed, and hired another half a dozen mercenaries.

The visitors from the court continued for a time. A few of the men gave indications of wishing to seduce her: a triumph for them, doubtless.

She remained a virgin, regretting it occasionally. Boredom was one of the central problems of this new life. It wasn't even really a life. It was a waiting to see if life could continue, or begin again.

And this, unfortunately, was where the dutiful attempt to summon proper gratitude each morning in the chapel usually faltered as the invocations to holy Jad ended. She'd had an existence of real-if precarious- power back home. Reigning queen of a conquering people in the homeland of an empire. The High Patriarch in Rhodias deferred to her, as he had to her father. Here in Sarantium she was subjected to lectures from a lesser cleric. She was no more than a glittering object, a jewel of sorts for the Emperor and his court, without function or access to any role. She was, in the simplest reading of things, a possible excuse for an invasion of Batiara, and little more than that.

Those subtle people from the court who rode or were carried in curtained litters across the city to see her seemed to have gradually come to that same conclusion. It was a long way from the Imperial Precinct to her palace near the triple walls. Midway through the winter, the visits from the court had also begun to grow less frequent. It was not a surprise. At times it saddened her how little ever surprised her.

One of the would-be lovers-more determined than the others- continued to visit after the others had ceased to appear. Gisel allowed him, once, to kiss her palm, not her hand. The sensation had been mildly diverting, but after reflection she'd elected to be engaged the next time he came, and then the next. There hadn't been a third visit.

She'd had little choice, really. Her youth, beauty, whatever desire men might have for her, these were among the few remaining tools she had, having left a throne behind.

She wondered when Eudric or Kerdas would attempt to have her murdered. If Valerius would really try to stop it. On balance, she thought, she was of more use to the Emperor alive, but there were arguments the other way, and there was the Empress to consider.

Every such calculation she had to make by herself. She'd no one she trusted to advise her here. Not that she'd really had that back home, either. At times she found herself feeling furious and bereft when she thought of the grey-haired alchemist who had helped her in this flight but had then abandoned her to pursue his own affairs, whatever they might have been. She had last seen him on the wharf in Megarium, standing in the rain as her ship sailed away.

Gisel, having returned from the chapel to her home, was sitting in the pretty solarium over the quiet street. She noted that the rising sun was now over the roofs across the way. She rang a small bell by her chair and one of the very well trained women the Empress had sent to her appeared in the doorway. It was time to begin preparing to go out. It was wrong, in truth, to say that nothing ever surprised her. There had been unexpected developments.

In the wake of one of them, involving a dancer who happened to be the daughter of that same grey-haired man who had left her in Megarium, she'd accepted an invitation for this afternoon.

And that reminded her of the other man she had enlisted to her service back home, the red-haired mosaicist. Caius Crispus would be present today as well.

She had ascertained that he was in Sarantium shortly after her own arrival. She'd needed to know; he raised considerations of his own. She had entrusted him with a dangerously private message, arid had no idea if he'd delivered it, or even tried. She'd remembered him to be bitter, saturnine, unexpectedly clever. She'd needed to speak with him.

She hadn't invited him to visit-as far as the world knew, he had never met her, after all. Six men had died to preserve that illusion. She'd gone, instead, to observe the progress being made on the Emperor's new Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom. The Sanctuary wasn't yet open to the general public, but a visit was an entirely appropriate-even a pious-outing for a visiting monarch. No one could have possibly queried it. Once she'd entered, she'd decided, entirely on impulse, on an unusual approach to this matter.

Thinking back to the events of that morning in early winter, as her women now began preparing her bath, Gisel found herself smiling privately. Jad knew, she wasn't inclined to give way to impulse, and few enough things ever gave her occasion to be amused, but she hadn't conducted herself in that stupefying place with what might be considered decorous piety, and she had to admit she'd enjoyed herself.

The tale had run around Sarantium by now. She'd intended it to.

A man on a scaffold under a dome with glass in his hands, trying to make a god. More than one, in truth, though that particular truth was not one he proposed to reveal. Crispin was, that day-early winter in Jad's holy city of Sarantium-happy to be alive and not anxious to be burned for heresy. The irony was that he hadn't yet realized or acknowledged his own happiness. It had been a long time since he'd known the feeling; he was a stranger now to such a mood, would have glowered in vexation and snapped off a brittle insult to someone who'd dared make the observation that he seemed content with his lot.

Brow unconsciously furrowed, mouth a line of concentration, he was attempting to finally confirm the colours of his own image of Jad above the emerging skyline of Sarantium on the dome. Other artisans were creating the City for him under his supervision; he himself was rendering the figures, and he was beginning with Jad, that an image of the god might look down upon all who entered here while the dome and semidomes and walls were being achieved. He wanted the god he made to echo, in a tacit homage, the one he'd seen in a small chapel in Sauradia, but not slavishly or too obviously. He was working on a different scale, his Jad a ruling element of a larger scene, not the entirety of the dome, and there were matters of balance and proportion to be worked through.

At the moment, he was thinking about eyes and the lines in the skin above and below them, remembering the wounded, haggard vision of Jad in that chapel he'd seen on the Day of the Dead. He'd fallen down. Had literally collapsed beneath that gaunt, overpowering figure.

His memory for colours was very good. It was flawless, in fact, and he knew this without false humility. He'd worked closely with the head of the Imperial Glassworks to find those hues that most precisely matched the ones he remembered from Sauradia. It helped that he was now in charge of the mosaic decoration for the most important, by far, of all Valerius II's building projects. The previous mosaicist-one Siroes-had been dismissed in disgrace, and had somehow broken the fingers of both hands that same night in an unexplained accident. Crispin, as it happened, did know something about that. He wished he didn't. He remembered a tall, fair-haired woman in his bedroom at dawn, murmuring, I can attest that Siroes was not in a position to hire assassins tonight. And she'd added, very calmly, Trust me in this.

He did. In that, if in nothing else. It was the Emperor, however, not the yellow-haired woman, who had shown Crispin this dome and offered it to him. What Crispin asked for now he tended to receive, at least insofar as tesserae were concerned.

In the other spheres of his life, down among the men and women of the City, he hadn't yet decided what it was he even wanted. He only knew that he had a life below this scaffolding, as well, with friends, enemies-attempts on his life within days of his arrival-and complexities that could, if allowed, distract him dangerously from what he needed to do up here on this dome that an Emperor and an architect of genius had given to him.

He ran a hand through his thick red hair, rendering it even more haphazard than usual, and decided that the eyes of his god would be dark brown and obsidian like those of the figure in Sauradia, but that he would not evoke the pallor of the other Jad with grey hues in the skin of the face. He would pick up the two shades again when he did the long, thin hands, but would not make them ruined, as the other's had been. An echoing of elements, not a copying. It was pretty much what he'd thought before coming back up here-first instincts tended to hold for him.

Having decided as much, Crispin took a deep breath and felt himself relax. He could begin tomorrow, then. With the thought he detected a slight stirring of the scaffold, a swaying movement, which meant someone was climbing.

This was forbidden. It was utterly and absolutely forbidden to the apprentices and artisans. To everyone, in fact, including Artibasos, who had built this Sanctuary. A rule: when Crispin was up here, no one climbed his scaffolding. He had threatened mutilation, dismemberment, death. Vargos, who was proving to be as competent an assistant here as on the road, had been scrupulous in preserving Crispin's sanctity aloft.

Crispin looked down, more stunned by the breach than anything else, and saw that it was a woman-she had discarded a cloak for easier movement-who was ascending the scaffold rungs towards him. He saw Vargos among those far below on the marble tiles. His Inici friend spread his hands, helplessly. Crispin looked at the climber again. Then he blinked and caught his breath, gripping the low railing tightly with both hands.

Once before he had looked down from this great height, just after arriving, when he'd been using his fingers like a blind man to map this dome where he intended to make the world, and had seen a woman far below, feeling her very presence as an irresistible pull: the force and draw of the world where men and women went about their lives.

That time it had been an Empress.

He had gone down to her. Not a woman to be resisted, even if she simply stood below, waiting. Had gone down to speak of dolphins and of other things, to rejoin and be reclaimed by the living world from the place where love lost to death had taken him.

This time, staring in mute stupefaction at the climber's steady, quite competent progress, Crispin tried to deal with who this was. Too astonished to call out or even know how to react, he simply waited, heart pounding, as his own queen came to him, high above the world, but in plain sight of all below.

She reached the last rung, then the scaffold itself and-ignoring his hastily extended hand-stepped onto it, a little flushed, breathless, but visibly pleased with herself, bright-eyed and unafraid, to stand in this place of absolutely private speech on a precarious platform just under Artibasos's dome. However many listening ears there might be in dangerous Sarantium, there were none here.

Crispin knelt and lowered his head. He had last seen this young, beleaguered woman in her own palace, in his own city far to the west. Had kissed her foot in farewell and felt her hand brush his hair. Then he had left, having somehow promised to try to deliver a message to an Emperor. And he'd learned the morning after that she'd had six of her own guards killed-simply to preserve the secret of their encounter.

On the scaffolding below the dome, Gisel of the Antae brushed his hair again with a light, slow hand. Kneeling, he trembled.

"No flour this time," his queen murmured. "An improvement, artisan. Bur I prefer the beard, I think. Has the east claimed you so soon? Are you lost to us? You may stand, Caius Crispus, and tell what you have to tell."

"Your Majesty," Crispin stammered, rising, feeling himself flushing, terribly unsettled. The world, coming up to him, even here. "This is… this is not a safe place for you, at all!"

Gisel smiled. "Are you so dangerous, artisan?"

He wasn't. She was. He wanted to say that. Her hair was golden, her gaze a deep, remembered blue-she had the same colouring, in fact, as another of the very dangerous women he knew here. But where Styliane Daleina was ice with an edge of malice, Gisel, the daughter of Hildric the Great, showed something wilder and sadder, both.

He'd known she was here, of course. Everyone had heard of the arrival of the Antae queen. He'd wondered if she'd send for him. She hadn't. She'd climbed up to find him, instead, graceful and assured as an experienced mosaicist. This was Hildric's daughter. An Antae. Could hunt, shoot, ride, probably kill with a dagger secreted somewhere on her person. No delicate, sheltered court lady, this.

She said, "We are waiting, artisan. We have come a long way to see

you, after all."

He bowed his head. And told her, unvarnished and with nothing that mattered held back, of his conversation with Valerius and Alixana, when the small, brilliant figure that was the Empress of Sarantium had turned in a doorway to her inner chamber and asked-with seeming casualness-about the marriage proposal he undoubtedly carried from Varena.

Gisel was disturbed, he realized. Was trying to hide that and might have done so from a less observant man. When he finished, she was silent awhile.

"Did she sort it through or did he?" she asked.

Crispin thought about it. "Both of them, I believe. Together, or each on their own." He hesitated. "She is… an exceptional woman, Majesty." Gisel's blue gaze met his briefly, then flicked away. She was so young, he thought.

"I wonder what would have happened," she murmured, "had I not had the guardsmen killed."

They'd be alive, Crispin wanted to say, but did not. He might have, a season ago, but was not quite the same angry, bitter man he'd been at the beginning of autumn. He'd had a journey, since.

Another silence. She said, "You know why I am here? In Sarantium?" He nodded. It was all over the city. "You avoided an attempt on your life. In the sanctuary. I am horrified, Majesty."

Of course you are," said his queen, and smiled, almost absently. For all the terrible nuances of what they were discussing and what had happened to her, an odd mood seemed to be playing about her, in the dance and drift of sunlight through the high windows all around the dome. He tried to fathom how she must feel, having fled from her throne and people, living here on sufferance, devoid of her own power. He couldn't even imagine it.

"I like it up here," the queen said suddenly. She went to the low railing and looked down, seemingly unfazed by how high they were. Crispin had known people to faint or collapse, clutching at the planks of the scaffold up here.

There were other platforms, around the eastern perimeter of the dome, where men had begun setting tesserae on Crispin's sketched pattern, to make a cityscape and the deep blue and green of the sea, but no one else was aloft just now. Gisel of the Antae looked at her own hands on the rail, then turned and held them up to him. "Could I be a mosaicist, do you think?" She laughed. He listened for desperation, fear, but heard only genuine amusement.

He said, "It is a craft only, unworthy of you, Majesty."

She looked around for a time without answering him. "No. This isn't," she said finally. She gestured at Artibasos's dome, at the beginnings of Crispin's own vast mosaic upon it. "This isn't unworthy of anyone. Are you pleased you came now, Caius Crispus? You didn't want to, I recall."

And in response to the direct question, Crispin nodded his head, admitting it for the first time. "I didn't want to, but this dome is a life's gift for such as I."

She nodded. Her mood had changed, swiftly. "Good. We also are pleased you are here. We have few we may trust in this city. Are you one such?"

She had been direct the first time, too. Crispin cleared his throat. She was so alone in Sarantium. The court would use her as a tool, and hard men back home would want her dead. He said, "In whatever ways I may help you, my lady, I shall."

"Good," she repeated. He saw her colour had heightened. Her eyes were bright. "I wonder. How shall we do this? Shall I order you to come now and kiss me, so that those below can see?"

Crispin blinked, swallowed, ran a hand reflexively through his hair.

"You do not improve your appearance when you do that, you know," the queen said. "Think, artisan. There has to be a reason for my coming up here to you. Will it help you with the women of this city to be known as a queen's lover, or will it mark you as… untouchable?'And she smiled.

"I… I don't have… My lady, I…"

"You don't want to kiss me?" she asked. A mood so bright it was a danger in itself. She stood very still, waiting for him.

He was entirely unnerved. He took a deep breath, then a step forward.

And she laughed. "On further thought, it isn't necessary, is it? My hand will do, artisan. You may kiss my hand."

She lifted it to him. He took it in his own and raised it to his lips, and just as he did so she turned her hand in his and it was her palm, soft and warm, that he kissed.

"1 wonder," said the queen of the Antae, "if anyone could see me do that." And she smiled again.

Crispin was breathing hard. He straightened. She remained very near and, bringing up both her hands, she smoothed his disordered hair.

"We will leave you," she said, astonishingly composed, the too-bright manner gone as swiftly as it had come, though her colour remained high. "You may call upon us now, of course. Everyone will assume they know why. As it happens, we wish to go to the theatre."

"Majesty," Crispin said, struggling to regain a measure of calm. "You are the queen of the Antae, of Batiara, an honoured guest of the Emperor… an artisan cannot possibly escort you to the theatre. You will have to sit in the Imperial Box. Must be seen there. There are protocols.

She frowned, as if struck only now by the thought. "Do you know, I believe you are correct. I shall have to send a note to the Chancellor then. But in that case, I may have come up here to no purpose, Caius Crispus." She looked up at him. "You must take care to provide us with a reason." And she turned away.

He was so deeply shaken that she was five rungs down the ladder before he even moved, offering her no assistance at all.

It didn't matter. She went down to the marble floor as easily as she'd come up. It occurred to him, watching her descend towards a score of unabashedly curious people staring up, that if he was marked now as her lover, or even her confidant, then his mother and his friends might be endangered back home when word of this went west. Gisel had escaped a determined assassination attempt. There were men who wanted her throne, which meant ensuring she did not take it back. Those linked to her in any way would be suspect. Of what, it hardly mattered.

The Antae were not fastidious about such things.

And that truth, Crispin decided, staring down, applied as much to the woman nearing the ground now. She might be young, and terribly vulnerable here, but she'd survived a year on her throne among men who wished her dead or subjected to their will, and had managed to elude them when they did try to kill her. And she was her father's daughter. Gisel of the Antae would do whatever she had to do, he thought, to achieve her purposes, until and unless someone did end her life. Consequences for others wouldn't even cross her mind.

He thought of the Emperor Valerius, moving mortal lives this way and that like pieces on a gameboard. Did power shape this way of thinking, or was it only those who already thought this way who could achieve earthly power?

It came to Crispin, watching the queen reach the marble floor to accept bows and her cloak, that he'd been offered intimacy by three women in this city, and each occasion had been an act of contrivance and dissembling. Not one of them had touched him with any tenderness or care, or even a true desire.

Or, perhaps, that last wasn't entirely so. When he returned home later in the day to the house the Chancellor's people had by now arranged for him, Crispin found a note waiting. Tidings took little time to travel in this city-or certain kinds of tidings did. The note, when unfolded, was not signed, and he'd never seen the round, smooth handwriting before, but the paper was astonishingly fine, luxurious. Reading the words, he realized no signature was needed, or possible.

You told me, Styliane Daleina had written, that you were a stranger to the private rooms of royalty.

Nothing more. No added reproach, no direct suggestion that he'd deceived her, no irony or provocation. The stated fact. And the fact that she'd stated it.

Crispin, who'd intended to have a midday meal at home and then return to the Sanctuary, had taken himself off instead to his preferred tavern and then to the baths. In each of these places he'd had more wine than was really good for him.

His friend Carullus, tribune of the Fourth Sauradian, had found him later in the evening, back at The Spina. The burly soldier had seated himself opposite Crispin, signalled for a cup of wine for himself and grinned. Crispin had refused to smile back.

"Two pieces of news, my inexplicably drunken friend," Carullus had said breezily. He held up a finger. "One, I have met with the Supreme Strategos. I have met with him, and Leontes has promised half the arrears for the western army will be sent before midwinter and the rest by spring. A personal promise. Crispin, I've done it!"

Crispin looked at him, trying to share in his friend's delight and failing utterly. This was hugely important news, though-everyone knew about the army unrest and the arrears of pay. It was the reason Carullus had come to the City, if one excepted a desire to see chariots in the Hippodrome.

"No, you haven't done it," he said morosely. "It just means there's a war coming. Valerius is sending Leontes to Batiara, after all. You don't invade with unpaid troops."

Carullus only smiled. "I know that, you sodden dolt. But who gets the credit, man? Who writes his governor in the morning that he has succeeded in getting the payment released when everyone else has failed?"

Crispin nodded and reached for his wine again. "Pleased for you," he said. "Truly. Forgive, if I'm not as pleased to hear that my friends and my mother are now to be invaded."

Carullus shrugged. "Warn them. Tell them to leave Varena."

"Get rucked," Crispin had said, uncharitably. Whatever was happening was not Carullus's fault, and his advice might be good-even more so in the light of what had happened that morning on the scaffolding.

"That activity on your mind? I heard about your visitor this morning. Do you keep pillows up on that scaffold of yours? I'll let you sober up but I'll expect a very detailed explanation in the morning, my friend." Carullus licked his lips.

Crispin swore again. "It was play-acting. Theatre. She wanted to talk to me and needed to give people something to think."

"I'm sure," said Carullus, his eyebrows arched high. 'Talk to you? You rogue. They say she's magnificent, you know. Talk? Hah. Maybe you'll make me believe that in the morning. In, ah, the meantime," he added after an unexpected pause, "that, er, reminds me of my second bit of news. I suppose I'm, ah, out of that sort of game now, myself. Actually."

Crispin had looked muzzily up from his wine cup.

"What?"

"I'm, well, as it happens, I'm getting married," Carullus of the Fourth said.

" What?" Crispin repeated, cogently.

"I know, I know," the tribune went on, "Unexpected, surprising, amusing, all that. A good laugh for all. Happens, though, doesn't it?" His colour heightened. "Ah, well, it does, you know."

Crispin nodded his head in bemusement, refraining only with some effort from saying, "What?" for a third time.

"And, um, well, do you, er, mind if Kasia leaves your house now? It won't look right, of course, not after we have it proclaimed in chapel."

"What?" Crispin said, helplessly.

"Wedding'l1 be in the spring," Carullus went on, eyes bright. "I promised my mother back when I first left home that if I ever married I'd do it properly. There'll be a season's worth of proclaiming by the clerics, so someone can object if they want to, and then a real wedding celebration."

"Kasia?" Crispin said, finally getting a word in.'Kasia?

And as his brain belatedly began to function, to put itself tentatively around this astonishing information, Crispin shook his head again, as if to clear it, and said, "Let me be certain I understand this, you bloated bag of wind. Kasia has agreed to marry you? I don't believe it! Byjad's bones and balls! You bastard! You didn't ask my permission and you don't fucking deserve her, you military lout."

He was grinning widely by then, and he reached a hand across the table and gripped the other man's shoulder hard.

"Of course I deserve her," Carullus said. "I'm a man with a brilliant future." But he, too, had been smiling, with unconcealed pleasure.

The woman in question was of the northern Inicii, sold by her mother into slavery a little more than a year before, rescued from that-and a pagan death-by Crispin on the road. She was too thin and too intelligent, and too strong-willed, though uneasy in the City. On the occasion of their first encounter she had spat in the face of the soldier who was now grinning with delight as he announced that she'd agreed to marry him.

Both men, in fact, knew what she was worth.

And so, on a bright, windy day at the beginning of spring, a number of people were preparing themselves to proceed to the home of the principal female dancer of the Green faction where a wedding was to commence with the usual procession to the chosen chapel and then be celebrated with festivity afterwards.

Neither bride nor groom was in any way from a good family- though the soldier showed signs of possibly becoming an important person-but Shirin of the Greens had a glittering circle of acquaintances and admirers and had chosen to make this wedding the excuse for an elaborate affair. She'd had a very good winter season in the theatre.

In addition, the groom's close friend (and evidently the bride's, it was whispered by some, with a meaningful arch of eyebrows) was the new Imperial Mosaicist, the Rhodian who was executing the elaborate decorations in the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom-a fellow perhaps worthy of cultivation. There were rumours that other significant personages might attend-if not the actual ceremony, then the celebration in Shirin's home afterwards.

It had also been widely reported that the food was being prepared in the dancer's kitchen by the Master Chef of the Blue faction. There were those in the City who would follow Strumosus into the desert if he took his pots and pans and sauces.

It was a curious, in many ways a unique event, this celebration orchestrated by Greens and Blues together. And all for a middle-ranking soldier and a yellow-haired barbarian girl from Sauradia just arrived in the city with a completely unknown background. She was pretty enough, it was reported by those who'd seen her with Shirin, but not in the usual way of those girls who made a surprising marriage for themselves. On the other hand, it wasn't as if she was wedding a really significant fellow, was it?

Then another rumour started that Pappio, the increasingly well-known Director of the Imperial Glassworks, had personally made a bowl commissioned as a gift for the happy couple. It seemed he hadn't done any actual craftsmanship himself for years and years. No one could understand that, either. Sarantium was talking. With the chariot races not beginning again for some few days, the event was well timed: the City liked having things to talk about.

'I'm not happy," said a small, nondescript artificial bird in an inward, patrician voice heard only by the hostess of the day's affair. The woman was staring critically at her own image in a round, silver-edged mirror held up by a servant.

'Oh, Danis, neither am I!" Shirin murmured in silent reply. 'Every woman from the Precinct and the theatre will be dressed and adorned to dazzle and I look like I haven't slept in days.

'That isn't what I meant.

'Of course it isn't. You never think of the important things. Tell me, do you think he'll notice me?

The bird's tone became waspish. 'Which one? The chariot-racer or the mosaicist?

Shirin laughed aloud, startling her attendant. 'Either of them," she said inwardly. Then her smile became wicked. 'Or perhaps both, tonight? Wouldn't that be something to remember?

'Shirin!" The bird sounded genuinely shocked.

'I'm teasing, silly.You know me better than that. Now tell me, why aren't you happy? This is a wedding day, and it's a love match. No one made this union, they chose each other." Her tone was surprisingly kind now, tolerant.

'I just think something's going to happen.

The dark-haired woman in front of the small mirror, who did not, in tact, look at all as if she needed sleep or anything else beyond extremes of admiration, nodded her head, and the servant, smiling, set down the mirror and reached for a bottle that contained a perfume of very particular distinctiveness. The bird lay on the tabletop nearby.

'Danis, really, what sort of party would this be if something didn't happen?

The bird said nothing.

There was a sound at the doorway. Shirin turned to look over her shoulder.

A small, rotund, fierce-looking man stood there, clad in a blue tunic and a very large bib-like covering tied at his neck and around his considerable girth. There were a variety of foodstains on the bib and a streak of what was probably saffron on his forehead. He possessed a wooden spoon, a heavy knife stuck into the tied belt of the bib, and an aggrieved expression.

"Strumosus!" said the dancer happily.

"There is no sea salt, "said the chef in a voice that suggested the absence amounted to a heresy equivalent to banned Heladikian beliefs or arrant paganism.

"No salt? Really?" said the dancer, rising gracefully from her seat.

"No sea salt!" the chef repeated. "How can a civilized household lack sea salt?"

"A dreadful omission," Shirin agreed with a placating gesture. "I feel simply terrible."

"I request permission to make use of your servants and send one back to the Blues compound immediately. I need my undercooks to remain here. Are you aware of how little time we have?"

You may use my servants in any way you see fit today," Shirin said, "short of broiling them."

The chef's expression conveyed the suggestion that matters might come to that pass.

'This is a completely odious man," the bird said silently. 'At least I might assume you don't desire this one.

Shirin gave a silent laugh. 'He is a genius, Danis. Everyone says so. Genius needs to be indulged. Now, be happy and tell me I look beautiful.

There was another sound in the hallway beyond Strumosus. The chef turned, and then lowered his wooden spoon. His expression changed, grew very nearly benign. One might even have exaggerated slightly and said that he smiled. He stepped farther into the room and out of the way as a pale, fair-haired woman appeared hesitantly in the doorway.

Shirin did smile, and laid a hand to her cheek. "Oh, Kasia," she said. "You look beautiful."

CHAPTER III

Earlier that same morning, very early in fact, the Emperor Valerius II of Sarantium, nephew to an Emperor, son of a grain farmer from Trakesia, could have been seen intoning the last of the antiphonal responses to the sunrise invocation in the Imperial Chapel of the Traversite Palace where he and the Empress had their private rooms.

The Emperor's service is one of the first in the City, beginning in darkness, ending with the rising of the reborn sun at dawn when the chapel and sanctuary bells elsewhere in Sarantium are just beginning to toll. The Empress is not with him at this hour. The Empress is asleep. The Empress has her own cleric attached to her own suite of rooms, a man known for a relaxed attitude to the hour of morning prayer and equally lenient, if less well-publicized, views regarding the heresies of Heladikos, the mortal (or half-mortal, or divine) son of Jad. These things are not spoken of in the Imperial Precinct, of course. Or, they are not spoken of freely.

The Emperor is, as it happens, meticulous in his observations of the rituals of faith. His long engagement with both the High and the Eastern Patriarchs in an attempt to resolve the myriad sources of schism in the doctrines of the sun god is as much begotten by piety as it is by intellectual engagement. Valerius is a man of contradictions and enigmas, and he does little to resolve or clarify any of these for his court or his people, finding mystery an asset.

It amuses him that he is called by some the Night's Emperor and said to hold converse with forbidden spirits of the half-world in the lamplit chambers and moonlit corridors of the palaces. It amuses him because this is entirely untrue and because he is here-as at every dawn-awake before most of his people, performing the rituals of sanctioned faith. He is, in truth, the Morning's Emperor as much as he is anything else.

Sleep bores him, frightens him a little of late, fills him with a sense- in dream or near to dream-of a headlong rushing of time. He is not an old man by any means, but he is sufficiently advanced in years to hear horses and chariots in the night: the distant harbingers of an end to mortal tenure. There is much he wishes to do before he hears-as all true and holy Emperors are said to hear-the voice of the god, or the god's emissary, saying, Uncrown, the Lord of Emperors awaits you now.

His Empress, he knows, would speak of dolphins tearing the sea's surface, not onrushing horses in the dark, but only to him, since dolphins- the ancient bearers of souls-are a banned Heladikian symbol.

His Empress is asleep. Will rise some time after the sun, take a first meal abed, receive her holy adviser and then her bath attendants and her secretary, prepare herself at leisure for the day. She was an actress in her youth, a dancer named Aliana, tuned to the rhythms of late nights and late risings.

He shares the late nights with her, but knows better, after their years together, than to intrude upon her at this hour. He has much to do, in any case.

The service ends. He speaks the last of the responses. Some light is leaking through the high windows. A chilly morning outside, at this grey hour. He dislikes the cold, of late. Valerius leaves the chapel; bowing to the disk and altar, lifting a brief hand to his cleric. In the hallway he takes a stairway down, walking quickly, as he tends to. His secretaries hurry another way, going outdoors, taking the paths across the gardens-cold and damp, he knows-to the Attenine Palace, where the day's business will begin. Only the Emperor and his appointed guards among the Excubitors are allowed to use the tunnel constructed between the two palaces, a security measure introduced a long time ago.

There are torches at intervals in the tunnel, lit and supervised by the guards. It is well ventilated, comfortably warm even in winter or, as now, on the cusp of spring. Quickening season, season of war. Valerius nods to the two guards and passes through the doorway alone. He enjoys this short walk, in fact. He is a man in a life that allows of no privacy at all. Even in his sleeping chamber there is always a secretary on a cot and a drowsy messenger by the door, waiting for the possibility of dictation or a summons or instructions to be run through the mysteries and spirits of a dark city.

And many nights, still, he spends with Alixana in her own intricate tangle of chambers. Comfort and intimacy there, and something else deeper and rarer than either-but he is not alone. He is never alone. Privacy, silence, solitude are limited to this tunnel walk underground, ushered into the corridor by one set of guards, received at the other end by another pair of the Excubitors.

When he raps and the doorway is opened at the Attenine Palace end, a number of men are waiting, as they always are. They include the aged Chancellor Gesius; Leontes, the golden Strategos; Faustinus, Master of Offices; and the Quaestor of Imperial Revenue, a man named Vertigus, with whom the Emperor cannot say he is well pleased. Valerius nods to them all and ascends the stairs quickly as they rise from obeisance and fall into place behind him. Gesius needs assistance now, at times, especially when the weather is damp, but there has been no sign of any similar impairment of the Chancellor's thinking, and Valerius will trust no one in his retinue half so much.

It is Vertigus he briskly quizzes and unsettles this morning when they come to the Audience Chamber. The man is hardly a fool-he'd have been dismissed long ago if he were-but he cannot be called ingenious, and almost everything the Emperor wishes to achieve, in the City, the Empire, and beyond, turns upon finances. Competence is not, unfortunately, sufficient these days. Valerius is paying a great deal for buildings, a very great deal to the Bassanids, and he has just yielded (as planned) to entreaties from several sources and released the final arrears of last year's payment for the western army.

There is never enough money, and the last time measures were enacted to try to generate a sufficiency Sarantium burned in a riot that almost cost him his throne and his life and every plan he'd ever shaped. It had required some thirty thousand deaths to avoid those consequences. Valerius is of the hope that his unprecedented, almost-completed Great Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom will serve as his expiation before the god for those deaths-and certain other things-when the day for such a reckoning comes, as it always does. Given this, the Sanctuary serves more than one purpose in his designs.

Most things do.

It was difficult. She was aware that Carullus loved her and that an astonishing number of people were treating their wedding as an occasion for celebration, as if the marriage of an Inici girl and a Trakesian soldier were an event of significance. She was being wed at an exquisite, patrician chapel near Shirin's house-the Master of the Senate and his family were among the regular attendees there. The banquet would take place back here in the home of the Greens" Principal Dancer. And the round, fierce man acclaimed by everyone as the finest chef in all the Empire was preparing Kasia's wedding feast.

It was hard to believe. Mostly, she didn't believe it, moving through events as in a dream, as though expecting to wake up in Morax's inn in a chill fog with the Day of the Dead still to come.

Kasia, who had been seen as the clever one by her mother, and unmarriageable, the daughter sold to the slavers, was aware that all of this extravagance had to do with the people they knew: Crispin and his friends Scortius the chariot-racer and Shirin, into whose house Kasia had moved when the betrothal was announced early in the winter. Carullus had actually met-twice now-with the Supreme Strategos himself and had achieved a success regarding the arrears of soldiers" pay. There was a rumour that Leontes might even make an appearance at the tribune's wedding party. At her wedding party.

The other part of this exaggerated attention had to do, she'd come to understand, with the fact that for all their vaunted cynicism (or perhaps because of it) the Sarantines were almost unfailingly intense and emotional by nature, as if living here at the centre of the world heightened and added significance to every event. The notion that she and Carullus were marrying for love, having chosen each other freely, held extravagant appeal for those surrounding them. Shirin, witty and ironic as she was, could go misty-eyed at the very thought.

Such marriages tended not to happen.

And it wasn't happening here, whatever people were thinking, though Kasia was the only one who knew that. She hoped.

The man she desired-and loved, though something in her fought the word-was the one who would stand with them today in the chapel holding a symbolic crown over his friend's head. It wasn't a truth she liked, but it didn't seem to be something she could do anything about.

Shirin would stand behind Kasia with another crown, and an elegant gathering of white-clad people from theatre and court and a number of rather more bluff military men would smile and murmur in approval and then they would all come back here to eat and drink: fish and oysters and winter game and wine from Candaria and Megarium.

What woman, really, married purely by choice? What sort of world would it be if that could happen? Not even aristocrats or royalty had such a luxury, so how could it descend to a barbarian girl who had been a slave in Sauradia for a bitter year that would linger in the soul for who knew how long?

She was marrying because a decent man wanted her and had asked. Because he offered the promise of shelter and support and some real kindness was in his nature, and because, failing this union, what life was there for her? Dependent on others all her days? Servant to a dancer until the dancer made her own prudent choice of husband? Joining one of the sects-the Daughters of Jad-who took eternal vows to a god in which Kasia didn't really believe?

How could she believe, having been offered as a sacrifice to Ludan, having seen a zubir, creature of her tribe's long faith, in the depths of the Aldwood?

"You look beautiful," Shirin said, turning from a conversation with the chef to look at Kasia in the doorway.

Kasia smiled warily. She didn't really believe it, but it might even be true. Shirin's house was efficiently run by her servants; Kasia had been living with her through the winter more as a guest and friend than anything else and she'd eaten better food and slept in a softer bed than ever in her life. Shirin was quick, amusing, observant, always planning something, very much aware of her position in Sarantium: both the implications of renown and the transitory nature of it.

She was also more than any of these things, because none of them spoke to what she was on the stage.

Kasia had seen her dance. After that first visit to the theatre, early in the winter season, she had understood the other woman's fame. Seeing the masses of flowers thrown down onto the stage after a dance, hearing the wild, shouted acclamations-both the ritual ones of Shirin's Green faction and the spontaneous cries of those who were simply enraptured with what they'd seen-she had felt awed by Shirin, a little frightened by the change that took place when the dancer entered this world, and even more by what happened when she stepped between the torches and the music began for her.

She could never have exposed herself willingly the way Shirin did each time she performed, clad in streaming silks that hid next to nothing of her lithe form, doing comical, almost obscene things for the raucous delight of those in the less expensive, distant seats. But nor could she ever in her life have moved the way the Greens" dancer did, as Shirin leaped and spun, or paused with arms extended like a sea-bird, and then gravely stepped forward, bare feet arched like a hunter's bow, in the older, more formal dances that made men weep. Those same silks could lift like wings behind her or be gathered into a shawl when she knelt to mourn a loss, or into a shroud when she died and the theatre grew silent as a graveyard in a winter dark.

Shirin changed when she danced, and changed those who saw her. Then she changed back, at home. There she liked to talk about Crispin. She had accepted Kasia as a houseguest as a favour to the Rhodian. He knew her father, she'd told Kasia. But there was more to it than that. It was obvious that he was often on the dancer's mind, even with all the men-young and less young, many of them married, from court and aristocratic houses and military officers" quarters-who regularly attended upon her. After those visits Shirin would talk to Kasia, revealing detailed knowledge of their positions and ranks and prospects: her finely nuanced social favours were part of the delicate dance she had to perform in this life of a dancer in Sarantium. Kasia had the sense that however their relationship had begun, Shirin was genuinely pleased to have her in the house, that friendship and trust had not before been elements in the dancer's life. Not that they ever had been in her own, if it came to that. During the winter Carullus had come by almost every day when he was in the City. He'd been absent a month amid the rains, leaving to escort-triumphantly-the first shipment of the western army's arrears to his camp in Sauradia. He was thoughtful when he came back, told Kasia there seemed to be very strong indicators that a war was coming in the west. It was not precisely surprising, but there was a difference between rumours and onrushing reality. It had occurred to her, listening, that if he were to go there with Leontes he could die. She'd taken his hand as he talked. He liked it when she held his hand.

They'd seen little enough of Crispin during the winter. He had apparently chosen his team of mosaicists as quickly as possible and was up on his scaffolding all the time, working as soon as the morning prayers were done and into the night, by torchlight aloft. He slept on a cot in the Sanctuary some nights, Vargos reported, not even returning to the home the Chancellor's eunuchs had found and furnished for him.

Vargos was working in the Sanctuary as well, and was their source for the best stories, including the one about an apprentice chased by Crispin-the Rhodian roaring imprecations and waving a knife-all around the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom, for having let something called the quicklime be spoiled one morning. Vargos had started to explain about the quicklime, but Shirin had pretended to scream with boredom and had thrown olives at him until he'd stopped.

Vargos came by regularly to take Kasia to chapel in the morning if she'd go with him. Often she did. She was working to accustom herself to the noise and crowds, and these morning walks with Vargos were a part of that. He was another kind man, Vargos. She'd met three of them in Sauradia, it seemed, and one of them had offered marriage to her. She didn't deserve such fortune.

Sometimes Shirin came with them. It was useful to make an appearance, she explained to Kasia. The clerics of Jad disapproved of the theatre even more than they disliked the chariots and the violent passions and pagan magic they inspired. It was prudent for Shirin to be seen kneeling in sober garb, without evident adornment, her hair pinned back and covered, as she chanted the morning responses before the sun disk and the altar.

Sometimes Shirin would take them to a rather more elegant chapel than Vargos's, nearer to the house. After services there one morning, she had submissively accepted the blessing of the cleric and introduced Kasia to two of the other people attending-who happened to be the Master of the Senate and his much younger wife. The Senator, Plautus Bonosus by name, was a wry-looking, slightly dissipated man; the wife seemed reserved and watchful. Shirin had invited them to the wedding ceremony and the celebration after. She'd mentioned some of the other guests attending and then added, casually, that Strumosus of Amoria was preparing the feast.

The Master of the Senate had blinked at this, and then quickly accepted the invitation. He looked like a man who enjoyed his luxuries. Later that morning, over spiced wine at home, Shirin had told Kasia some of the scandals associated with Bonosus. They did offer some explanation, Kasia had thought, for the young, second wife's very cool, self-contained manner. She had realized that it was something of a coup for Shirin to have so many distinguished people coming to a dancer's home, a defining and asserting of her preeminence. It was good for Carullus too of course-and so for Kasia. She'd understood all of this. There had still been an aura of unreality to what was happening.

She had just been saluted by the Master of the Sarantine Senate in a chapel filled with aristocrats. He was coming to her wedding ceremony. She had been a slave when autumn began, thrown down on a mattress by farmers and soldiers and couriers with a few coins to spend.

The wedding morning was well advanced. They would be going to the chapel soon. The musicians would be their signal, Carullus arriving with them to escort his bride. Kasia, standing for inspection before a dancer and a chef on her marriage day, wore white-as all the wedding party and guests would-but with a bride's red silk about her waist. Shirin had given that to her last night, showed her how to knot it. Had made a sly joke, doing so. There would be more jests and bawdy songs later, Kasia knew. That much was exactly the same here in the City of Cities as it was at home in her village. Some things didn't change no matter where you went in the world, it seemed. The red was for her maidenhead, to be lost tonight.

It had been lost, in fact, to a Karchite slaver in a northern field some time ago. Nor was the man she was to wed today a stranger to her body, though that had happened only once, the morning after Carullus had almost died defending Crispin and Scortius the charioteer from assassins in the dark.

Life did strange things to you, didn't it?

She had been going to Crispin's room that morning, unsure of what she wanted to say-or do-but had heard a woman's voice within, and paused and turned away without knocking. And had learned on the stairway from two of the soldiers about the attack in the night just ended, their comrades dead, Carullus wounded. Impulse, concern, extreme confusion, destiny-her mother would have said the last, and shaped a warding sign-had made Kasia turn after the soldiers had gone and walk back down the long upstairs hallway to knock on the tribune's door.

Carullus had opened, visibly weary, half-undressed already. She had seen the bloodstained bandage wrapped around one shoulder and across his chest, and then she'd seen and suddenly understood-she was the clever one, wasn't she? — the look in his eyes as he saw that it was she.

He wasn't the man who had saved her from Morax's inn and then from death in the forest, who had offered her a glimpse one dark night of what men might be like when they hadn't bought you, but he could be-she had thought, lying beside Carullus, after, in his bed-the one who saved her from the life that followed being saved. The old stories never talked about that part, did they?

She'd thought, as she watched the sun rise higher that morning, and heard his breathing settle as he fell into needed sleep beside her like a child, that she might become his mistress. There were worse things in the world.

But only a little while after, even before winter began, with the midnight Ceremony of Unconquered Jad, he'd asked her to marry him.

When she'd accepted, smiling through tears he could not have properly understood, Carullus had vowed with an uplifted hand, swearing by the sexual organs of the god, that he wouldn't touch her again until their wedding night.

A promise he'd made long ago, he explained. He'd told her (more than once) about his mother and father, his childhood in Trakesia in a place not so different from her own village; he'd told of Karchite raids, his older brother's death, his own journey south to join the army of the Emperor. He talked, Carullus, quite a lot, but amusingly, and she knew now that the unexpected kindness she'd sensed in this burly, profane soldier was real. Kasia thought of her own mother, how she'd have wept to learn that her child was alive and entering into a protected life so unimaginably far away, in every respect, from their village and farm.

There was no way to send a message. The Imperial Post of Valerius II did not include farms near Karch on its customary routes. For all her mother knew, Kasia was dead by now.

For all Kasia knew, her mother and sister were.

Her new life was here, or wherever Carullus, as a tribune of the Fourth Sauradian, was posted, and Kasia-in white, with a bride's crimson girdling her waist on her wedding day-knew that she owed lifelong thanks to all the gods she could ever name for this.

"Thank you," she said to Shirin, who had just told her she looked beautiful, and was still gazing at her and smiling. The chef, an intense little man, seemed to be trying not to smile. His mouth kept twitching up-wards. He had sauce on his forehead. On impulse, Kasia used her fingers to wipe it away. He did smile then and extended his apron. She dried her fingers on it. She wondered if Crispin would be with Carullus when her husband-to-be came to bring her to the chapel, and what he might say, and what she would say, and how strange people were, that even the fairest day should not be without its sorrow.

Rustem hadn't been paying attention to where they were going, or who was around them, and he would blame himself for that later, even though it hadn't been his responsibility to look to their safety. That was why Nishik, querulous and dour, had been assigned to a travelling physician, I after all.

But as they'd crossed the choppy strait from straggling Deapolis on the southeastern coast towards the huge, roiling port of Sarantium on the other side, negotiating past a small, densely wooded island and then bobbing ships and the trailing nets of fishing boats, with the City's domes and towers piled up and up behind and hearth-smoke rising from innu-merable houses and inns and shops all the way to the walls beyond, Rustem had found himself more overwhelmed than he'd expected to be, and then distracted by thoughts of his family.

He was a traveller, had been farther east, for example, than anyone he knew, but Sarantium, even after two devastating plagues, was the largest, wealthiest city in the world: a truth known but never fully apprehended before this day. Jarita would have been thrilled and perhaps even aroused, he mused, standing on the ferry, watching the golden domes come nearer. If his newfound understanding of her was correct, Katyun would have been terrified.

He had shown his papers and Nishik's false ones and dealt with the Imperial Customs Office on the wharf in Deapolis before boarding. Getting to the wharf had been a process in itself: there were an extraordinary number of soldiers quartered there and the sounds of ship construction were everywhere. They couldn't have hidden anything if they'd wanted to.

The customs transaction had been costly but not unpleasant: it was a time of peace, and Sarantium's wealth was largely derived from trade and travel. The customs agents of the Emperor knew that perfectly well. A discreet, reasonable sum to assuage the rigours of their painstaking labour was all that proved necessary to expedite the entry of a Bassanid physician and his manservant and mule-which had proved on examination not to be carrying silk or spice or any other tariffed or illicit goods.

As they disembarked in Valerius's city, Rustem took care to ensure that no birds were aloft on his left side and to set his right foot down first on the dock, just as he had boarded the ferry with his left boot first. It was noisy here, too. More soldiers, more ships and hammering and shouts. They asked directions of the ferryman and made their way along a wooden quay, Nishik leading the mule, both men wrapped in cloaks against a sharp spring breeze. They crossed a broad street, waiting for carts to rumble past, and came into a narrower lane, passing an unsavoury assortment of the usual waterfront sailors and whores and beggars and soldiers on leave.

Rustem had been vaguely aware of all this as they went, and of how ports seemed to be the same from here to Ispahani, but he had mostly been thinking about his son as they'd moved away from the docks, leaving the noises behind them. Shaski would have been wide-eyed and open-mouthed, taking all this in the way parched ground absorbs rain. The boy had that sort of quality, he decided-he'd been thinking of him more than a man ought to dwell on his small child at home-an ability to take things in and then try to make them his own, to know when and how to use them.

How else explain the uncanny moment when a seven-year-old boy had come after his father into a garden carrying the implement that ended up saving the life of the King of Kings? And making the fortune of their family? Rustem shook his head, remembering it on a morning in Sarantium, walking with his soldier-servant towards the forum they'd been directed to and the inn beside it where they would stay if there were rooms to be had.

He was under instructions not to establish any direct link with the Bassanid envoy here, only the expected, routine note sent to report his arrival. Rustem was a physician searching for medical treatises and knowledge. That was all. He would seek out other physicians-he'd been given names in Sarnica and had set out with some of his own. He would make his contacts, attend lectures, give some perhaps. Buy manuscripts or pay scribes to copy them. Stay until summer. Observe what he could.

Observe all he could, in fact, and not just about the healing profession and its treatises. There were things they wished to know, in Kabadh.

Rustem of Kerakek was a man who ought not to attract any attention at all in a time of harmony between the Emperor and the King of Kings (a peace bought expensively by Valerius) with only the occasional border or trade incident to mar a smooth surface.

That ought to have been so, at any rate.

The outrageously clothed and barbered young man who wove his way unsteadily towards Rustem from a tavern doorway as he and Nishik ascended a steep, unfortunately quiet laneway, heading for the Mezaros Forum, seemed oblivious to such carefully thought out considerations.

This seemed equally true of the three friends similarly dressed and adorned who followed behind him. All four were dressed in Bassanid-style robes for some reason, but with crudely designed golden jewellery in their ears and about their necks and with their hair worn untidily long down their backs.

Rustem stopped, having little option. The four youths barred their way and the laneway was narrow. The leader swayed a little to one side then straightened himself with an effort. "Green or Blue?" he rasped, wine fumes on his breath." Answer or be beaten like a dry whore!"

This question had something to do with horses. Rustem knew that much, but had no idea what answer would be best. "I beg your indulgence," he murmured in what he knew by now to be perfectly adequate Sarantine. "We are strangers here and don't understand such things. You are blocking our way."

"We are, aren't we? Fucking observant, you are. Bassanid butt-fucker," said the young man, switching away from the Blue-or-Green business readily enough. Rustem's origin and Nishik's was obvious from their clothing; they hadn't made any effort to hide it. The vulgarity was disconcerting and the sour smell of wine on the young man's breath so early of a morning sickened Rustem a little. The fellow was doing damage to his health. Not even the rawest recruits off duty in the fortress drank this early.

"Mind your foul tongue!" Nishik exclaimed loudly, playing the loyal servant, but with a little too much edge in his voice. "This is Rustem of Kerakek, a respected physician. Make way!"

"A doctor? Bassanid? Saves the fucking lives of slime who kill our soldiers? The fuck I'll make way, you goat-faced castrate slave!" Saying which, the young man proceeded to alter the nature of an already unfortunate encounter by drawing a short, quite elegant sword.

Rustem, taking a quick breath, noticed that the other youths looked alarmed at this. Not as drunk, he thought. There's a hope here.

There was, until Nishik snarled an oath of his own and, unwisely, turned to the mule that had stolidly accompanied them all this way, grappling for his own blade strapped to the animal's side. Rustem was sure he knew what was in Nishik's mind: the soldier, outraged by insults and impediment from a civilian, and a Jaddite at that, would be determined to disarm him in a swift lesson. A well-deserved tutoring, undoubtedly. But it was not the way to enter Sarantium quietly.

Nor, in fact, was it wise for other reasons entirely. The man with the already-drawn sword happened to know how to use it, having had instruction in the blade from a very early age at his father's city home and country estate. He was also, as Rustem had already noted, well past the point of prudently evaluating his own conduct or that of others.

The young man with the stylish blade took a single step forward and stabbed Nishik between the third and fourth ribs as the Bassanid soldier was pulling his own weapon free of the ropes about the mule.

A chance encounter, purest accident, a wrong laneway taken at a wrong moment in a city full of lanes and streets and paths. Had they missed the ferry, been detained by customs, stopped to eat, taken another route, things would have been entirely otherwise at this moment. But the world-guarded by Perun and Anahita and menaced always by Black Azal-had somehow reached this point: Nishik was down, his blood was red on the street, and a drawn sword was pointed unsteadily at Rustem. He tried to think back to which omen he'd missed that all should have gone this terribly awry.

But even as he pondered this, struggling to deal with the sudden randomness of death, Rustem felt a rare, cold fury rising, and he lifted his walking staff. As the young swordsman looked down in either drunken confusion or satisfaction at the fallen man, Rustem dealt him a quick, sharp, punishing blow across the forearm with the staff. He listened for the sound of a bone cracking and was actually distressed not to hear it, though the vicious youngster let out a scream and his sword fell clattering.

All three of the others, unfortunately, promptly drew their own blades. There was a disconcerting absence of people in the morning lane.

'Help!" Rustem shouted, not optimistically, 'Assassins!" He looked quickly down. Nishik had not moved. Things had gone appallingly wrong here, a catastrophe swirling up out of nothing at all. Rustem's heart was pounding.

He looked back up, holding his staff before him. The man he'd injured and disarmed was clutching at his elbow, screaming at his friends, his face distorted by pain and a childish outrage. The friends moved forward. Two daggers had been drawn, one short sword. Rustem understood that he had to flee. Men could die in the city streets like this, without purpose or meaning. He turned to run-and caught a flashing blur of movement from the corner of his eye.

He spun back swiftly, raising his staff again. But he wasn't the target of the figure he'd glimpsed. A man had burst out from a tiny, flat-roofed chapel up the lane and, without breaking stride, now barrelled from behind into three armed men, wielding only a traveller's staff almost identical to Rustem's own. He used it briskly, clubbing the sword-wielder hard across the back of the knees. As the man cried out and pitched forward, the new figure stopped, wheeled, and whipped his staff back the other way, clipping a second assailant across the head. The young man let out an aggrieved sound-more a boy's cry than anything else-and fell, dropping his knife, clutching at his scalp with both hands. Rustem saw blood welling between his fingers.

The third one-the only one left armed now-looked at this compact, bristling new arrival, then over at Rustem, and finally down to where Nishik lay motionless on the street. "Holy fucking Jad!" he said, and bolted past Rustem, tearing wildly around the corner and out of sight.

"You'd be advised to do the same," Rustem said to the pair felled by the man who'd intervened. "But not you!" He pointed a shaking finger at the one who had stabbed Nishik. "You stay where you are. If my man is dead I want you brought before the law for murder."

"Fuck that, pig," said the youth, still clutching at his elbow. "Get my sword, Tykos. Let's go."

The one called Tykos made as if to claim the blade but the man who'd saved Rustem stepped forward quickly and stamped a booted foot down upon it. Tykos looked sidelong at him, frozen in the act of bending, then straightened and sidled away. The leader snarled another foul-mouthed oath and the three youths followed their vanished friend swiftly down the lane.

Rustem let them go. He was too stunned to do anything else. Heard his own heart pounding and fought for control, breathing deeply. But before turning the corner, their assailant stopped and looked back up, pushing his long hair from his eyes, then gesturing obscenely with his good arm. "Don't think this is over, Bassanid. I'm coming for you!"

Rustem blinked, then snapped, entirely uncharacteristically, "Fuck yourself," as the young man disappeared.

Rustem stared after him a moment, then knelt quickly, set down his staff, and laid two fingers against Nishik's throat. After a moment he closed his eyes and withdrew his hand.

"Anahita guide him, Perun guard him, Azal never learn his name," he said softly, in his own tongue. Words he had spoken so often. He had been at war, seen so many people die. This was different. This was a city street in morning light. They had simply been walking. A life was done.

He looked up and around, and realized that there had, in fact, been watchers from the recessed doorways and small windows of the shops and taverns and the apartments stacked above them along the lane.

An amusement, he thought bitterly. It would make a tale.

He heard a sound. The short, stocky young man who'd intervened had reclaimed a pack he must have dropped. Now he was slipping the first assailant's sword into the ropes on the mule, beside Nishik's.

"Distinctive," he said tersely. "Look at the hilt. It may identify him." His accent, speaking Sarantine, was heavy. He was dressed for travel, in a nondescript brown tunic and cloak, belted high, with muddy boots and the heavy pack now on his back.

"He's dead," Rustem said, unnecessarily. "They killed him."

"I see that," said the other man. "Come on. They may be back. They're drunken and out of control."

"I can't leave him in the street," Rustem protested.

The young man glanced back over his shoulder. "Over there," he said, and knelt to slip his hands under Nishik's shoulders. He smeared blood on his tunic, didn't seem to notice. Rustem bent to pick up Nishik by the legs. Together they carried him-no one helping, no one even coming into the lane-up to the small chapel.

When they reached the doorway, a cleric in a stained yellow robe stepped out hastily, his hand outthrust. "We don't want him!" he exclaimed.

The young man simply ignored him, moving straight past the holy man, who scurried after them, still protesting. They took Nishik into the dim, chill space and set him down near the door. Rustem saw a small sun disk and an altar in the gloom. A waterfront chapel. Whores and sailors meeting each other here, he thought. More a place of venal commerce and shared disease than prayer, most likely.

"What are we supposed to do with this?" the cleric protested in an irate whisper, following them in. There were a handful of people inside.

"Pray for his soul," the young man said. "Light candles. Someone will come for him." He glanced meaningfully at Rustem, who reached for his purse and took out a few copper folles.

"For the candles," he said, extending them to the cleric. "I'll have someone get him."

The cleric made the coins disappear-more smoothly than a holy man ought, Rustem thought sourly-and nodded briefly. "This morning," he said. "By midday he's tossed into the street. This is a Bassanid, after all."

He had been listening, earlier. Had done nothing at all. Rustem gave him his coldest look. "He was a living soul. He is dead. Show respect, for your own office and your god if for nothing else."

The cleric's mouth fell open. The young man laid a hand on Rustem's arm and drew him outside.

They went back and Rustem took the mule's halter. He saw the blood on the stones where Nishik had lain, and he cleared his throat. "I owe you a great debt," he said.

Before the other man could reply, there came a clattering sound. They both spun to look.

Fully a dozen long-haired youths careened around the corner and skidded to a halt.

"There!" cried their first assailant savagely, pointing in triumph.

'Run!" snapped the young man at Rustem's side.

Rustem grabbed his own pack from the mule, the one with his papers from home and the manuscripts he'd bought in Sarnica, and he sprinted uphill, leaving behind the mule, his clothing, his staff, two swords, and all shreds of the dignity he'd imagined himself bearing as he entered the city of cities that was Sarantium.

At this same hour, in the Traversite Palace of the Imperial Precinct, the Empress of Sarantium is lying in a scented bath in a warm, tiled room through which wisps of steam are drifting, while her secretary-sitting on a bench, his back carefully turned to the exposed, reclining form of the Empress-reads aloud to her a letter in which the leader of the largest of the dissident tribes in Moskav proposes that she induce the Emperor to fund his long-planned revolt.

The letter also, with little subtlety, intimates that the writer is prepared to personally attend to the Empress's physical delight and rapture at some time in the future, should this persuasion of Valerius take place. The document concludes with an expression of well-phrased sympathy that a woman of the Empress's manifest magnificence should still be enduring the attentions of an Emperor so helplessly unable to conduct his own affairs of state.

Alixana stretches her arms out of the water and above her head and allows herself a smile. She looks down at the curves of her own breasts. The fashion in dancers has changed since her day. Many of the girls now are much as the male dancers are: small breasts, straight hips, a boyish look. This would not be a way to describe the woman in her bath. She has seen and lived through more than thirty quite remarkably varied years now and can still stop a conversation or double a heartbeat with her entrance into a room.

She knows this, of course. It is useful, always has been. At the moment, however, she is remembering a girl, about eight years of age, taking her first proper bath. She had been fetched from a laneway south of the Hippodrome where she'd been wrestling and tumbling with three other children in the dust and offal. It had been a Daughter of Jad, she remembers, a square-jawed, stern-faced woman, grey and unsmiling, who had separated the brawling offspring of the Hippodrome workers and then taken Aliana off with her, leaving the others watching, open-mouthed.

In the forbidding, windowless, stone-walled house where that sect of holy women resided, she had taken the now silent, overawed girl to a small, private room, ordered hot water brought, and towels, and had stripped and then bathed her there in a bronze tub, alone. She had not touched Aliana, or not intimately. She'd washed her filthy hair and scrubbed her grimy fingers and nails, but the woman's expression had not changed as she did so, or when she leaned back after, sitting on a three-legged wooden stool, and simply looked at the girl in the bath for a long time.

Thinking back, the Empress is very much aware of what must have been the underlying complexities of a holy woman's actions that afternoon, the hidden and denied impulses stirring as she cleansed and then gazed at the undeveloped, naked form of the girl in the bath. But at the time she had only been aware of apprehension slowly giving way to a remarkable sensation of luxury: the hot water and the warm room, the hands of someone else tending to her.

Five years later she was an official dancer for the Blues, growing in recognition, the child-mistress of one of the more notorious of the faction's aristocratic patrons. And she was already known for her love of bathing. Twice a day at the bathhouse when she could, amid languorous perfumes and warmth and the drifting of steam, which meant shelter and comfort to her in a life that had known neither.

Nor has this changed, though she now knows the most extreme comforts in the world. And to her the most remarkable thing, really, about all of this is how vividly, how intensely, she can still remember being the girl in that small bath.

The next letter, read while the Empress is being powdered, dried, painted, and dressed by her ladies, is from a nomadic religious leader in the desert south of Soriyya. A certain number of these desert wanderers are now Jaddite in their beliefs, having abandoned their incomprehensible heritage built around wind spirits and sets of holy lines, invisible to sight, mapping and crisscrossing the sands, marking sacred places and correspondences.

All the desert tribes embracing Jad have also adopted a belief in the god's son. This often happens among those converting to the faith of the sun god: Heladikos is the way to his father. Officially, the Emperor and Patriarchs have forbidden such beliefs. The Empress, usefully thought to be sympathetic to such out-of-favour doctrines, tends to conduct the exchange of letters and gifts with the tribesmen. They can be significant, often are. Even with the expensively bought peace with the Bassanids in place in the unstable regions of the south allies are impermanent and important, valuable for hired warriors, and for gold and silphium-that extravagantly expensive spice-and for offering caravan routes for eastern goods coming around Bassania.

This letter ends without any promise of physical delight. The Empress retrains from expressing disappointment. Her current secretary has no sense of humour and her attendants become distracted when amused. The desert leader does offer a prayer for light to attend upon her soul.

Alixana, dressed now, sipping at a cup of honeyed wine, dictates replies to both communications. She has just finished the second when the door opens, without a knock. She looks up.

"Too late," she murmurs. "My lovers have fled and I am, as you see, entirely respectable."

"I shall destroy forests and cities searching for them," the thrice-exalted Emperor, Jad's holy regent upon earth, says as he takes a cushioned bench and accepts a cup of the wine (without honey) from one of the women. "I shall grind their bones into powder. May I please proclaim that I found Vertigus importuning you and have him torn apart between horses?"

The Empress laughs and then gestures, briefly. The room empties of secretary and attendants. "Money, again? I could sell my jewels," she says, when they are alone.

He smiles. His first smile of the day, which for him has gone on for some time by now. She rises, brings a plate of cheese, fresh bread, cold meats to him. It is a custom, they do this every morning when demands allow. She kisses his forehead as she sets down the plate. He touches her wrist, breathing in her scent. In a way, he thinks, a new part of his day begins when he first does so. Each morning.

"I'd make more selling you," he says.

"How exciting. Gunarch of Moskav would pay."

"He can't afford you." Valerius looks around the bathing room, red and white marble and ivory and gold, jewelled chalices and drinking cups and alabaster caskets on the tables. Two fires are lit; oil lamps hang from the ceiling in silver-wire baskets. "You are a very expensive woman."

"Of course I am. Which reminds me. I still want my dolphins." She gestures towards the upper part of the wall on the far side of the room. "When are you done with the Rhodian? I want him to start here."

Valerius looks at her repressively, says nothing.

She smiles, all innocence, wide-eyed. "Gunarch of Moskav writes that he could offer me delights such as I have only dreamt of in the dark."

Valerius nods absently. "I'm sure."

"Speaking of dreams… " his Empress says. The Emperor catches the shift in tone-she is skilled at such changes, of course-and looks at her as she returns to her own seat.

"I suppose we were," he says. There is a silence. "Better than talking of illicit dolphins. What is it now, love?"

She shrugs, delicately. "Clever you. The dream was about dolphins."

The Emperor's expression is wry. "Clever me. I have just been steered like a boat where you wanted to go."

She smiles, but not with her eyes. "Not really. It was a sad dream."

Valerius looks at her. "You really do want them for these walls?"

He is deliberately misunderstanding, and she knows it. They have been here before. He doesn't like talking about her dreams. She believes in them, he does not, or says he does not.

"I want them only on the walls," she says. "Or in the sea far from us for a long time yet."

He sips his wine. Takes a bite of cheese with the bread. Country food, his preference at this hour. His name was Petrus, in Trakesia.

"None of us knows where our souls travel," he says, at length, "in life, or after." He waits until she looks up and meets his eyes. His face is round, smooth, innocuous. No one is deceived by this, not any more. "But I believe I am unshakeable on this war in the west, love, proof against dreams and argument."

After a time, she nods. Not a new conversation, or a new conclusion. The dream in the night was real, though. She has always had dreams that stay with her.

They talk of affairs of state: taxation, the two Patriarchs, the opening ceremonies for the Hippodrome, a few days off. She tells him of an wedding taking place today, with a surprisingly fashionable guest list.

"There are rumours," she murmurs, pouring more wine for him, "that Lysippus been seen in the city." Her expression is suddenly mischievous.

His looks rueful, as if caught out.

She laughs aloud. "I knew it! You've been planting them?"

He nods. "I should sell you somewhere, far away. I have no secrets. Yes, I'm… testing things."

"You would really bring him back?"

Lysippus the Calysian, gross of body and of appetite, was nonetheless the most efficient and incorruptible Quaestor of Imperial Revenue Valerius has ever had. His association with the Emperor is said to go back a very long way and involve some details that are unlikely to ever be made known. The Empress has never even asked, in fact; not really wanting to know. She has her own memories-and dreams, sometimes-of men screaming in the street one morning below rooms he'd rented for her in an expensive district, in the days when they were young and Apius was Emperor. She is not overly delicate about such things, cannot be after that childhood in the Hippodrome and the theatre, but this memory-with the smell of charred flesh-has lingered and will not leave.

The Calysian has been exiled nearly three years now, in the wake of the Victory Riot.

"I'd bring him back," the Emperor says. "If they let me. I'd need the Patriarch to absolve him and the accursed factions to be calm about it. Best during the racing season, when they have other things to scream about."

She smiles a little. He doesn't like the racing, it is an ill-guarded secret. "Where is he now, really?"

Valerius shrugs. "North still, I assume. He writes from an estate near tubulus. Has resources enough to do whatever he likes. Is probably bored. Terrifying the countryside. Stealing children by dark of moon."

She makes a face at that.'Not a pleasant man."

He nods. "Not in the least. Ugly habits. But I need money, love, and Vertigus is next to useless."

"Oh, I agree," she murmurs. "You can't imagine how useless." She runs a tongue across her lips.'I think Gunarch of Moskav will please me much more." She is hiding something, though. A feeling, distant intuition. Dolphins and dreams and souls.

He laughs, has to laugh, eventually takes leave after finishing his quick meal. There are reports from the military and provincial governors to be read and responded to back in the Attenine Palace. She is receiving a delegation of clerics and holy women from Amoria in her own reception rooms, will sail in the harbour after, if the winds are light. She enjoys going out to the islands in the strait or the inner sea, and with winter ending she can do so again on a mild day. There is no formal banquet tonight. They are to dine together with a small number of courtiers, listening to a musician from Candaria.

In the event, they will do this, enjoying the elusive, plangent instrumentation, but they will be joined for wine afterwards-some might think unexpectedly-by the Supreme Strategos Leontes and his tall, fair wife, and a third person, also a woman, and royal.

Pardos sprinted for all he was worth, cursing himself all the while. He had spent his entire life in the rougher quarters of Varena, a city known for drunken Antae soldiers and for brawling apprentices. He knew he was an idiot for having intervened here, but a drawn sword and a man slain in broad daylight had taken the laneway encounter past the point of the usual bruises and hangings. He'd charged in, not stopping to think, administered some blows of his own-and now found himself pelting headlong beside a greying Bassanid through a city he didn't know at all, with a shouting band of young aristocrats in flat-out pursuit. He didn't even have his staff.

He'd been known for a cautious young man at home, but being careful didn't always keep you out of trouble. He knew what they had to do, prayed only that the doctor's older legs were equal to the pace.

Pardos whipped out of the laneway, skidding left into a wider street, and knocked over the first cart-a fishmonger's-that he saw. Couvry had done that once under similar circumstances. A shriek of outrage followed him; he didn't look back. Crowds and chaos were what they needed, to screen their flight and to provide some deterrent to fatal violence if they were caught-though he was uncertain how easily deterred their pursuers might be.

Best not to test that.

Beside him the doctor seemed to be keeping up-he even reached over as they careened around another corner and pulled down the awning over the portico of an icon shop. Not the wisest choice for a Bassanid, perhaps, but he did succeed in spilling a table full of Blessed Victims into the muddy street, scattering the beggars gathered around it, creating further disruption behind them. Pardos glanced over; the doctor was grim-faced, his legs pumping hard.

As they ran, Pardos kept looking for one of the Urban Prefect guards-surely they would be about, in this rough neighbourhood? Weren't swords supposed to be illegal in the City? The young patricians pursuing them appeared not to believe so, or to care. He abruptly decided to make for a chapel, a larger one than the nondescript little hole in which he'd been chanting the morning invocation after arriving in the city at sunrise and weaving his way down from the triple walls. He'd been planning to take an inexpensive room near the harbour-always the cheapest part of a city-and then head for an encounter he'd been thinking about since leaving home.

The room would have to wait.

There were heavy morning crowds now, and they had to twist and dodge as best they could, earning curses and a tardy blow aimed at Pardos from one off-duty soldier. But this meant that those chasing them would surely be stringing out by now, and might even lose sight of them if Pardos and the doctor-he really was moving quite well for a greybeard- managed to take a sufficiently erratic path.

Glancing up constantly to get his bearings, Pardos glimpsed-through a break in the multi-storied buildings-a golden dome larger than any he'd ever seen before, and he abruptly changed his thinking, even as they ran.

"That way!" he gasped, pointing.

"Why are we running?" the Bassanid burst out. "There are people here! They won't dare-"

"They will! They'll kill us and pay a fine! Come on!"

The doctor said no more, saving his breath. He followed as Pardos cut sharply off the street they were on and angled across a wide square. They hurtled past a bedraggled Holy Fool and his small crowd, hit by a whiff of the man's foul, unwashed odour. Pardos heard a sharp cry from behind-some of the pursuers still had them in sight. A stone whizzed past his head. He looked back.

One pursuer. Only one. That changed things.

Pardos stopped, and turned.

The doctor did the same. A fierce-looking but extremely young man in green robes, eastern-styled, with earrings and a golden necklace and long, unkempt hair-not one of the original group-slowed uncertainly, then fumbled at his belt and pulled out a short sword. Pardos looked around, swore, and then darted up to the Holy Fool. Braving the maggoty, fetid stench of the man, he seized his oak staff, snapping an apology over his shoulder. He ran directly at their young pursuer.

"You idiot!" he screamed, waving the staff wildly. "You're alone! There's two of us!"

The young man-belatedly apprehending this significant truth- looked quickly over his shoulder, saw no immediately arriving reinforcements, appeared suddenly less fierce.

'Run!" screamed the doctor at Pardos's side, brandishing a knife.

The young man looked at the two of them and elected to follow the advice. He ran.

Pardos hurled the borrowed staff back towards the Holy Fool on his small platform. "Come on!" he rasped at the doctor. "Head for the Sanctuary!" He pointed. They turned together, crossed the square, and raced up another laneway on the far side

It wasn't far now, as the lane-blessedly level now-gave suddenly onto an enormous forum with arched porticoes and shops all around it. Pardos swept past two boys playing with a hoop and a man selling roasted nuts at a brazier. He saw the looming bulk of the Hippodrome on his left and a pair of huge bronze gates in a wall that had to be the one guarding the Imperial Precinct. There was an enormous equestrian statue in front of the gates. He ignored these splendours for now, running for all he was worth diagonally across the forum towards a long, wide, covered porch with two more huge doors behind it and a dome rising above and behind that would have taken away his breath if he'd had any breath left to lose.

He and the Bassanid leaped and dodged among masons and masonry carts and brick piles and-familiar sight! — an outdoor oven for quicklime near the portico. As they reached the steps, Pardos heard the pursuing cry behind him again. He and the doctor took the steps side by side and stumbled to a stop, breathing hard, before the doors.

"No one allowed!" snapped a guard-there were two of them. "They are at work inside!"

"Mosaicist," gasped Pardos. "Here from Batiara! Those youths are after us!" He pointed back across the forum. "They killed someone already! With swords!"

The guards glanced over. Half a dozen of the young pursuers had now made it this far, running in a tight cluster. They had weapons drawn-in daylight, in the forum. Impossible to credit, or so wealthy they didn't even care. Pardos seized one of the heavy door handles, pulled it open, pushed the doctor quickly inside. Heard the piercing, satisfying sound of a guard whistling for support. They would be safe in here for now, he was sure of it. The doctor was bent over, hands on his hips, breathing heavily. He gave Pardos a sidelong glance and a nod, obviously registering the same thing.

Later, much later, Pardos would give some thought to what the morning s sequence of interventions and activities suggested about changes in himself, but for the moment he was only moving and reacting. He looked up. He reacted, but he didn't move.

In fact, he felt suddenly as though his boots were set into the marble floor like… tesserae in a setting bed, fixed for centuries to come.

He stood so, rooted, trying to deal first with the sheer size of the space encompassed here, the dim, vast aisles and bays receding into an illusion of endlessness down corridors of pale, filtered light. He saw the massive columns piled upon each other like playthings for the giants of legend from Finabar, the lost, first world of the Antae's pagan faith, where gods walked among men.

Overwhelmed, Pardos looked down at the flawless, polished marble of the floor, and then-taking a deep breath-up again, all the way up, to see, floating, floating, the great dome itself, inconceivably immense. And upon it, taking shape even now, was what Caius Crispus of Varena, his teacher, was devising amid this holiness.

White and gold tesserae on a blue ground-blue such as Pardos had never seen in Batiara and had never expected to see in his life-defined the vault of the heavens. Pardos recognized the hand and style immediately. Whoever had been in charge of these decorations when Crispin arrived from the west was no longer the designer here.

Pardos had been taught by the man doing this, master to apprentice. What he couldn't yet begin to grasp-and he knew he would need to spend a long time looking to even make a start-was the colossal scale of what Crispin was doing on this dome. A design equal to the vastness of the setting.

The doctor, beside him, was leaning against a marble column now, still catching his breath. The marble was the green-blue colour, in the muted light, of the sea on a cloudy morning. The Bassanid was silent, slowly looking about. Above the grey-streaked beard his eyes were wide. Valerius's Sanctuary was the talk and rumour of the known world, and they were standing within it now.

There were labourers at work everywhere, many of them at corners, so distant they were invisible, could only be heard. But even the noise of construction was changed by the huge space, echoing, a hollow resonance of sound. He tried to imagine the liturgy being chanted here, and a lump rose in his throat at the thought.

Dust danced in the slanting beams of sunlight that fell down through the windows set high on the walls and all around the dome. Looking up past suspended oil lamps of bronze and silver, Pardos saw scaffolding everywhere against the marbled walls, where mosaics of interwoven flowers and patterned shapes were being laid. One scaffolding only went all the way up to the dome, towards the northern side of that great curve, opposite the entrance doors. And in the soft, sweet morning light in the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom, Pardos saw upon that high scaffolding the small figure of the man he'd followed all the way east, unasked, and unwanted-for Crispin had flatly refused the company of any apprentices when he'd set out on his own journey.

Pardos took another steadying breath and made the sign of the sun disk. This place was not formally consecrated yet-there was no altar, no suspended golden disk behind it-but for him, it was holy ground already, and his journey, or this part of it, was over. He gave thanks to Jad in his heart, remembering blood on an altar in Varena, wild dogs on a bitterly cold night in Sauradia when he had thought he would die. He was alive, and here.

Pardos could hear the guards outside-more of them now. A young man's voice was raised in anger, and was then sharply cut off by a soldier's reply. He looked at the doctor, arid allowed himself a crooked smile. Then he remembered that the Bassanid's servant was dead. They had escaped, but it was not a moment for pleasure, not for the other man.

Not far away, two artisans stood together, and Pardos decided that if he could make his feet obey commands, he'd go over and speak to them. Before he could do so, he heard their voices raised in anxious colloquy.

"Wheres Vargos? He could do it."

"Gone to get dressed. You know that. He was invited too."

"Holy Jad. Maybe… um, one of the mason's apprentices can do it? Or the bricklayer's? They may not… know him?"

"Not a chance. They all know the stories. We have to do it, Sosio, right now. It's late! I'll dice you."

No! I am not going up there. Crispin kills people."

"He talks about killing people. I don't think he's ever done it."

"You don't think he has. Good. Then you go up."

"I said I'd dice, Sosio."

"And I said I won't go. I don't want you to go, either. I don't have any other brothers."

"He'll be late. He'll kill us for letting him be late."

Pardos found that he could move, and that-notwithstanding the events of the morning-he was struggling not to grin. Too many memories were with him, sudden and vivid.

He went forward over marble in the serene light. His booted footsteps echoed softly. The two brothers-they were twins, utterly identical-turned and looked at him. In the distance, someone dropped a hammer or a chisel and the sound rang softly, almost music.

"I gather," said Pardos gravely, "this is a question of interrupting Crispin on the scaffold?"

"Caius Crispus, yes," said the one called Sosio quickly. "You, er, know him?"

"He has to be at a wedding!" said the other brother.

"Right away! He's in the wedding party."

"But he doesn't allow anyone to interrupt him!"

"Ever! He killed someone for it once!"

"Back in Varena. With a trowel, they say! Inside a holy chapel!" Silano's expression was horrified.

Pardos nodded in sympathy. "I know, I know. He did do that. In a chapel! In fact, I was the person he killed. It was terrible, dying like that! A trowel!" He paused, and winked as their mouths fell open, identically. "It's all right, I'll get him for you."

He went forward, before his smile-which he really couldn't suppress any longer-completely betrayed him. He passed right under the staggering sweep of the dome. Looking up, he saw Crispin's rendering of Jad in the east above the emerging details of Sarantium seen as if on the horizon, and because he'd just spent an entire winter in a certain chapel in Sauradia, Pardos perceived immediately what his teacher was doing with his own image of the god. Crispin had been there too. The Sleepless Ones had told him that.

He came to the scaffold. Two young apprentices were standing there, bracing it, as they always had to do. Usually those on that task were bored and idle. This pair looked terrified. Pardos found that he really couldn't stop smiling.

"Hold steady for me, will you?" he said.

"You can't" one of the boys gasped in horror. "He's up there!"

"So I understand," said Pardos. He could remember, so easily, feeling- and probably looking-exactly as this white-faced apprentice did. "He needs to be given a message, though."

And he grasped the rungs of the scaffold ladder and started up. He knew that high above, Crispin would soon feel, if he hadn't immediately, the tug and sway. Pardos kept his eyes on his hands, as they were all trained to do, and climbed.

He was halfway up when he heard a well-known voice he'd travelled the world to hear again call down in cold, remembered fury, "Another step up and I end your wretched existence and powder your bones into the setting bed!"

That's very good, actually, Pardos thought. A new one. He looked up. "You shut up," he cried. "Or I'll carve your buttocks with tesserae and feed them to you in segments!"

There was a silence. "Then, I say that, rot your eyes! Who the-?"

Pardos continued upward without answering.

Above him, he felt the platform shift as Crispin came to the edge and looked down.

"Who are you?" Another silence, followed by: "Pardos? Pardos?

Pardos didn't speak, kept climbing. His heart was full. He reached the top and stepped over the low rail and onto the platform under the mosaic stars of a dark blue mosaic sky.

To be enveloped in a hard embrace that almost toppled them both.

"Curse you, Pardos! What took you so long? I've needed you here! They wrote that you left in the fucking autumn! Half a year ago! Do you know how late you are?"

Ignoring for the moment the fact that Crispin, on departing, had explicitly refused accompaniment, Pardos disengaged.

"Do you know how late you are?" he asked.

"Me? What?"

"Wedding," said Pardos happily, and watched.

It gave him even greater pleasure, later, to recollect the appalled dawning of awareness on Crispin's unexpectedly smooth-shaven features.

"Ah! Ah! Holy Jad! They'll kill me! I'm a dead man! If Carullus doesn't, bloody Shirin will! Why didn't one of those imbeciles down there tell me?"

Without delaying for the extremely obvious answer, Crispin rushed past Pardos, vaulted recklessly over the railing and began hurtling down the ladder, sliding more than stepping, the way the apprentices did when they raced each other. Before following, Pardos glanced over at where Crispin had been working. He saw a bison in an autumn forest, huge, done in black, edged and outlined in white. It would be very strong, that way, against the brilliant colours of the leaves around it, a dominant image. That had to be deliberate. Crispin had taken the apprentices once to see a floor mosaic at an estate south of Varena, where black and white had been used against colour in this way. Pardos went back down, feeling suddenly thoughtful.

Crispin was waiting at the bottom, grimacing, dancing from foot to foot in his impatience. 'Hurry, you idiot! We're so late it kills me. It will kill me! Come on! Why did you take so poxed long to get here?"

Pardos stepped deliberately down off the ladder. "I stopped in Sauradia," he said. "A chapel by the road there. They said you'd been there too, earlier."

Crispin's expression changed, very quickly. He looked intently at Pardos. "I was," he said after a pause. "I was there. I told them that they had to… Were you… Pardos, were you restoring it?"

Pardos nodded slowly. "As much as I felt I could, on my own."

Crispin's expression changed again, warming him, sunlight on a raw morning. "I'm pleased," his teacher said. "I'm very pleased. We'll speak of this. Meanwhile, come, we'll have to run."

"I've been running. Through the whole of Sarantium, it feels like. There are a group of young men outside, rich enough not to care about the law, who are trying to kill me and this Bassanid doctor." He gestured at the physician, who had approached with the artisan brothers. The twins" faces were a paired study in confusion. "They killed his manservant," Pardos said. "We can't just walk outside."

"And my man's body will be thrown into the street by certain of your most pious clerics if he is not claimed by midday." The doctor spoke excellent Sarantine, better than Pardos's. He was still angry.

"Where is he?" Crispin said. "Sosio and Silano can get him."

"I have no idea of the name of-"

"Chapel of Blessed Ingacia," Pardos said quickly. "Near the port."

"What?" said the twin named Sosio.

"What were you doing there? said his brother in the same breath. "It's a terrible place! Thieves and whores."

"How do you know so much about it?" Crispin asked wryly, then appeared to recollect his urgency.

"Get two of the Imperial Guard to go with you. Carullus's men will all be at the accursed wedding by now. Tell them it is for me, and why. And you two," he turned to Pardos and the doctor. "Come on! You'll stay with me for the morning, I have guards." Crispin snapping orders was something Pardos remembered. His moods had always changed like this. "We'll go out a side door and we have to move! You'll need something white to wear, this is a wedding! Idiots!" He hurried off; they followed quickly, having little choice.

Which is how the mosaicist Pardos of Varena and the physician Kustem of Kerakek came to attend-wearing white over-tunics borrowed from Crispin's wardrobe-the formal ceremony and then the celebration banquet of a marriage on the day they each arrived in Jad's holy and august city of Sarantium.

The three of them were late, but not hopelessly so, in the event.

The musicians were lingering outside. A soldier, waiting anxiously by the doorway, saw their approach and hurried inside to report it. Crispin, murmuring a rapid stream of apologies in all directions, was able to hastily take his place before the altar in time to hold a slender golden crown over the head of the bridegroom for the ceremony. His own hair was considerably disordered, but it almost always was. Pardos noticed that the very attractive woman who was to hold the crown above the bride did fist his teacher hard in the ribs just before the service began. There was a ripple of laughter through the chapel. The presiding cleric looked startled; the groom smiled and nodded approval.

The bride's face Pardos didn't see until afterwards. She was veiled in the chapel as the words of union were spoken by the cleric and then in unison by the couple being wed. Pardos had no idea who they were; Crispin hadn't had time to explain. Pardos didn't even know the name of the Bassanid standing beside him; events had unfolded at an unbelievable speed this morning, and a man was dead.

The chapel was elegant, gorgeous in fact, an extravagance of gold and silver, veined marble pillars, a magnificent altar of jet-black stone. Overhead, on the small dome, Pardos saw-with surprise-the golden figure of Heladikos, carrying his torch of fire, falling in his father's chariot. Belief in the god's son was banned now, images of him deemed a heresy by both Patriarchs. It seemed the users of this patrician chapel had sufficient importance to prevent their mosaic being destroyed thus far. Pardos, who had adopted the god's bright son with the god himself, as had all the Antae in the west, felt a flicker of warmth and welcome. A good omen, he thought. It was unexpected and comforting to find the Charioteer waiting for him here.

Then, partway through the service, the Bassanid touched Pardos on the arm and pointed. Pardos looked over. He blinked. The man who'd killed the doctor's servant had just entered the chapel.

He was quiet and composed, clad in exquisitely draped white silk, with a belt of links of gold and a dark green cloak. His hair was neatly tucked away now under a soft, green, fur-trimmed hat. The gaudy jewellery was gone. He moved discreetly to take his place between an older, handsome man and a much younger woman. He didn't look drunken now. He looked like a young prince, a model for Heladikos in splendour overhead.

There were those of the Imperial Precinct and the higher civil offices who actively courted the racing factions, either or both of them. Plautus Bonosus, Master of the Senate, was not one of these. He took the view that a benign detachment from both Blues and Greens best suited his position. In addition, he was not, by nature, one of those inclined to lay siege to the girl dancers and, accordingly, the charms of the notorious Shirin of the Greens were purely a matter of aesthetics for him and not a source of desire or enticement.

As such, he'd never have attended this wedding, had it not been for two factors. One was his son: Cleander had desperately urged him to attend, and to bring him, and since it was increasingly unusual for his son to show the least interest in civilized gatherings, Bonosus had been reluctant to pass up an opportunity to have the boy appear presentable and functional in society.

The other reason, a little more self-indulgent, had been the information, conveyed smoothly by the dancer with her invitation, that the banquet in her home was to be prepared by Strumosus of Amoria.

Bonosus did have his weaknesses. Charming boys and memorable food would probably lead the list.

They left the two unmarried girls at home, of course. Bonosus and his second wife attended-scrupulously punctual-at the ceremony in their own neighbourhood chapel. Cleander arrived late, but he was clean and appropriately garbed. Looking with some bemusement at his son beside him, Bonosus was almost able to remember the dutiful, clever boy he'd been as recently as two years ago. Cleander's right forearm seemed puffy and discoloured but his father elected not to ask about that. He didn't want to know. They joined the white-clad procession and the musicians (very good ones, in fact, from the theatre) for the short, rather chilly walk to the dancer's home.

He did feel briefly uneasy as the musical parade through the streets ended before a portico with a well done copy of a classical Trakesian bust of a woman. He knew how his wife would feel about entering here. She'd said nothing, of course, but he knew. They made their way into a common dancer's abode, thereby conferring all the symbolic dignity of his office upon the woman and her house.

Jad alone knew what went on in here at night after the theatre. Thenai's was impeccable, as ever, revealing not the least trace of disapproval. His second wife, significantly younger than he was, was flawlessly well bred and famously reticent. He'd chosen her for both qualities after Aelina had died in a summer of plague three years ago, leaving him with three children and no one to manage the house.

Thenai's offered a gracious smile and polite murmur as Shirin of the Greens, slender and vivacious, welcomed them at her door. Cleander, between his father and stepmother, blushed crimson as Bonosus presented him, and locked his eyes on the floor as the dancer lightly touched his hand in greeting.

One mystery solved, the Senator thought, eyeing the boy with amusement. Now he knew why Cleander had been so eager to attend. At least he has good taste, Bonosus thought wryly. The Senator's mood was further assuaged as a servant handed him wine (which proved to be a splendid Candarian) and another woman deftly presented a small plate holding delicate morsels of seafood.

Bonosus's view of the world and the day grew positively sunny as he tasted his first sampling of Strumosus's artistry. He let out an audible sigh of pleasure and gazed about with a benign eye: a Green hostess, the Blues" chef in the kitchen, a number of guests from the Imperial Precinct (making him feel less conspicuous, in fact, as he noted their presence and nodded at one), sundry performers from the theatre, including one curly-haired former lover whom he promptly resolved to avoid.

He saw the rotund head of the silk guild (a man who seemed to attend every party in the City), the Supreme Strategos's secretary, Pertennius of Eubulus, surprisingly well turned out, and the Greens" burly, beak-nosed factionarius, whose name he could never remember. Elsewhere, the Emperor's much-favoured Rhodian mosaicist was standing with a stocky, rough-bearded young man and an older, also bearded fellow, distinctly Bassanid. And then the Senator noticed another unexpected, noteworthy guest.

"Scortius is here," he murmured to his wife, sampling a tiny, pickled sea urchin, in silphium and something unidentifiable, an astonishing flavour that tasted of ginger and the east. "He's with the Green racer from Sarnica, Crescens."

"An eccentric gathering, yes," Thenai's replied, not even bothering to follow his gaze towards where the two chariot-drivers were surrounded by a cluster of admirers. Bonosus smiled a little. He liked his wife. He even slept with her on occasion.

"Taste the wine," he said.

"I have. Candarian. You'll be happy."

"I am," said Bonosus happily.

And he was, until the Bassanid fellow he'd noticed with the mosaicist came striding over to accuse Cleander of murder, in an eastern voice that was explicit enough-if blessedly low in volume-to eliminate all possibility of avoiding an unpleasantness.

CHAPTER IV

He hadn't known Nishik long at all-only for the duration of their journey here-and he couldn't have said he liked the man. The stocky soldier made a poor manservant and an insufficiently respectful companion. He hadn't troubled himself to disguise the fact that he regarded Rustem as no more than a burdensome civilian: the traditional soldier's attitude. Rustem had made a point in the first days of mentioning his travels a few times, but when that elicited no useful response he stopped, finding the exercise of attempting to impress a common soldier to be undignified.

Having acknowledged this, it remained to note that the casual killing of a companion-whether one was partial to him or not-was hardly something one ought to countenance, and Rustem had no intention of doing so. He was still outraged about the morning's deadly encounter and his own humiliating flight through the Jaddite city.

This information he conveyed to the big, red-haired artisan at the wedding celebration to which he'd been brought. He was holding a cup of excellent wine, but could take no pleasure in the fact or the reality of his arrival-finally-in the Sarantine capital after a hard winter trek. The presence of the murderer at the same gathering undermined any such feelings and gave an edge to his anger. The young man, dressed now like some Sarantine lordling, bore no resemblance at all to the profane, drunken bully who'd accosted them with his cronies in the laneway. He didn't even seem to have recognized Rustem.

Rustem pointed out the fellow at the request of the mosaicist, who seemed a brisk, no-nonsense person, belying a first impression of unhealthy choler and passion. The artisan swore under his breath and promptly fetched the bridegroom to their little group.

"Cleander's fucked up again," the mosaicist-his name was Crispin- said grimly. He seemed prone to vulgar language.

"Tried to grab Shirin in the hallway?" The soldier bridegroom continued to present an inordinately cheerful visage.

"I wish it were that. No, he killed this man's servant this morning, in the street, with witnesses around. Including my friend Pardos, who just arrived in the City. Then he and a swarm of Greens chased both of them all the way to the Sanctuary, with swords drawn."

"Oh, fuck," said the soldier, with feeling. His expression had changed. "Those stupid little boys."

"They aren't boys," said Rustem coldly. "Boys are ten years old or such. That fellow was drunk at sunrise and killed with a blade."

The big soldier looked at Rustem carefully for the first time. "I understand that. He's still very young. Lost his mother at a bad time and left some intelligent friends for a wild group of younger ones in the faction. He's also hopelessly smitten with our hostess here and will have been drinking this morning because he was terrified of coming to her house."

"Ah," said Rustem, using a gesture his students knew well. "That explains why Nishik had to die! Of course. Forgive me for mentioning the matter."

"Don't be a shit, Bassanid," said the soldier, his eyes briefly hard. "No one's condoning a killing. We'll try to do something. I'm explaining, not excusing. I should also mention that the boy is the son of Plautus Bonosus. There's a need for some discretion."

"Who is-?"

"Master of the Senate," said the mosaicist. "He's over there, with his wife. Leave this with us, physician. Cleander can use a good scare put into him and I can promise you we'll make it happen."

"A scare?" said Rustem. He felt his temper rising again.

The red-haired fellow had a direct gaze. "Tell me, doctor, would a member of the court of the King of Kings be more severely punished for killing a servant in a street fight? A Sarantine servant?"

"I have no idea," said Rustem, although he did, of course.

Pivoting on a heel, he strode past the yellow-haired bride in her white garment and red belt and went right across the room towards the murderer and the older man the artisan had indicated. He was aware that his swift progress through a relaxed gathering would attract attention. A female servant, perhaps sensing a problem, appeared right in front of him, smiling, carrying a tray of small plates. Rustem was forced to stop; there was no room to pass. He drew a breath and, for want of evident alternatives, accepted one of the little plates she offered. The woman-young, full-figured, and dark-haired-lingered in his path. She balanced her round tray and took his wine cup, freeing his two hands. Her fingers touched his. "Taste it," she murmured, still smiling. Her tunic was cut distractingly low-not a fashion that had reached Kerakek.

Rustem did as she suggested. It was rolled fish of some sort, in pastry, a sauce on the plate. As he bit down, a mildly stunning explosion of flavours took place in his mouth and Rustem could not suppress a grunt of astonished pleasure. He looked at the plate in his hand, and then at the girl in front of him. He dipped a finger in the sauce and tasted it again, wonderingly.

The dancer hosting this affair clearly had a cook, he thought. And comely servants. The dark-haired girl was gazing at him with dimpled pleasure. She handed him a small cloth to wipe at his mouth and took the tiny plate from him, still smiling. She gave him back his wine.

Rustem discovered that his surge of anger appeared to have dissipated, But as the servant murmured something and turned to another guest, Rustem looked at the Senator and his son again and was struck by a thought. He stood still a moment longer, stroking his beard, and then moved forward, more slowly now.

He stopped before the slightly florid figure of the Master of the Sarantine Senate, noting the austere, quite handsome woman beside him and-more to the point-the son at his other side. He felt very calm now. He bowed to the man and the woman and introduced himself formally.

As he straightened, Rustem saw the boy finally recognize him and go white. The Senator's son glanced quickly towards the front of the room where their hostess, the dancer, was still greeting late arrivals. No escape for you, thought Rustem coldly, and he spoke his accusation to the father in a deliberately low-voiced, cool tone.

The mosaicist had been right, of course: discretion and dignity were critical when people of stature were involved. Rustem had no desire to become embroiled with the law here; he intended to deal with this Senator himself. It had just occurred to him that although a physician might learn much of Sarantine medicine and perhaps hear a little chatter about affairs of state, a man owed a debt by the Master of the Senate might find himself in a different situation-to the greater benefit of the King of Kings in Kabadh, who had things he wished to know about Sarantium just now.

Rustem saw no reason to have poor Nishik, his long-serving, much-loved servant, die in vain.

The Senator cast his son a satisfyingly poisonous glance and murmured, "Killed? Holy Jad. I am appalled, of course. You must allow-"

"He was drawing his own sword!" the boy exclaimed in a low, fierce tone. "He was-"

"Be silent!" said Plautus Bonosus, a little more loudly than he'd perhaps intended. Two men not far away glanced over. The wife, all reserve and composure, appeared to be gazing idly about the room, ignoring her family. She was listening, however; Rustem could see it.

"As I was saying," Bonosus continued more softly, turning back to Rustem, his colour even more heightened, "you must allow me to offer you a cup of wine at our home after this charming celebration. I am grateful that you chose to speak with me directly, of course."

"Of course," said Rustem gravely.

"Where would we find your unfortunate servant?" the Senator asked. A practical man.

"The body is being attended to," Rustem murmured.

"Ah. So there are… others who have already learned of this?"

"We were pursued through the streets by sword-wielding youths led by your son," Rustem said, allowing himself a shade of emphasis. "I imagine a number of people did observe our passage, yes. We received assistance in the Emperor's new Sanctuary from his mosaicist."

"Ah," said Plautus Bonosus again, glancing across the room. "The Rhodian. He does get about. Well, if that matter is attended to…"

"My mule and all my goods," said Rustem, "were left behind when we were forced to flee. I have just arrived in Sarantium this morning, you see."

The wife turned to him then, eyeing him thoughtfully. Rustem met her gaze briefly and turned away. The women here appeared to be rather more… present… than those in other places he'd been. He wondered if it had to do with the Empress, the power she was said to wield. A common dancer once. It was a remarkable story, really.

The Senator turned to his son. "Cleander, you will excuse yourself to our hostess and leave now, before the dinner is served. You will ascertain the whereabouts of this man's animal and goods and have them brought to our home. You will then wait there for me to arrive."

'Leave? Leave already?" said the boy, his voice actually breaking. "But I haven't even…"

"Cleander, there is a possibility you might be branded or exiled for this. Get the accursed mule," said his father.

His wife laid a hand on his arm. "Shh," she murmured. "Look."

A hush had descended over the large room full of animated, pleasure- seeking Sarantines. Plautus Bonosus looked past Rustem's shoulder and blinked in surprise.

"Now how do they come to be here?" he asked of no one in particular.

Rustem turned. The silence became a murmurous rustling as those assembled-fifty or more-bowed or sank low in acknowledgement of the man and the woman who stood now in the entrance to the room with the hostess behind them.

The man was very tall, smooth-shaven, compellingly handsome. He was bareheaded, which was unusual and showed his thick golden hair to good effect. He wore a knee-length, deep-blue tunic slashed to show gold at the sides, with gold hose and black boots like a soldier and a dark green panelled dress cloak, pinned at one shoulder with a blue gem, large as a man's thumbnail. He held a white flower in one hand, for the wedding.

The woman beside him had her own yellow hair gathered up loosely under a white mesh cap, with artful ringlets spilling down. Her floor-length garment was crimson and there were jewels at the hem. She wore gold at her ears and a necklace of gold with pearls and a golden cloak. She was nearly as tall as the man. A sallow, lean fellow materialized at the man's elbow and whispered briefly in his ear as those attending the celebration rose from homage.

"Leontes," said the Senator softly to Rustem. The Strategos."

It was a courtesy. Rustem could not have known this man, though for years he had heard of him-and feared him, as did everyone in Bassania. There was a glow cast by renown, Rustem thought, something almost tangible. It was Leontes the Golden (and the origin of the name became clearer now) who had comprehensively beaten the last fully mustered northern army east of Asen, almost capturing the Bassanid general, forcing a humiliating peace. The general had been invited to kill himself when he returned to Kabadh, and had done so.

It was Leontes who had also won lands (and productive, taxable citizens) for Valerius in the great spaces stretching all the way west and south to the fabled Majriti deserts, who had brutally quelled incursions from Moskav and Karch, who had been honoured-they'd heard of it even in Kerakek-with the most elaborate Triumph an Emperor had ever granted a returning Strategos since Saranios had founded this city.

And who had been given the tall, ice-elegant woman beside him as a further prize. They knew of the Daleinoi in Bassania, as well-even in Kerakek, which was on the southern trade routes, after all. The family's wealth had begun with a spice monopoly, and the eastern spices usually came through Bassania, north or south. Ten or fifteen years ago, Flavius Daleinus had been killed in some appalling fashion at a time of Imperial succession. A fire of some kind, Rustem recalled. His elder sons had been killed or crippled in the same attack, and the daughter was… here in this room, brilliant and golden as a prize of war.

The Strategos gestured briefly and the dark-haired serving girl hurried over with wine for him, her cheeks flushed with excitement. His wife also accepted a cup, but stayed behind as her husband stepped forward so that he appeared alone now, as if an actor on a stage. Rustem saw Styliane Daleina glancing around slowly, registering, he was certain, presences and alignments utterly invisible to him. Her expression was as unrevealing as that of the Senator's wife, but the impression given by the two women was in no other way the same. Where the wife of Plautus Bonosus was reserved and detached, the aristocratic spouse of the most powerful soldier in the Empire was cold and brilliant and even a little frightening. Awesome wealth and great power and violent death were in her lineage. Rustem managed to look away from her just as the Strategos began to speak.

"Lysurgos Matanios once said that it is a finer thing to see a friend well wed than to sip from even the rarest wine," Leontes said, lifting his cup. "It is a pleasure to enjoy both today," he added, pausing to drink. There was laughter: well-bred from the courtiers, more obviously excited from the theatre and army people.

"He always uses that line," murmured Bonosus to Rustem, drily. "I wish I knew why he was here, though."

As if answering, the Strategos went on. "It seemed proper to stop and lift a cup in honour of the marriage of the only man in the army who could talk so much and so well and so much and… so much, that he extracted the arrears of payment for the soldiers from the Precinct coffers. I do not urge anyone ever to put themselves in the position of being persuaded by the tribune of the Fourth Sauradian to do anything… unless they have a great deal of time to spare."

Laughter again. The man was smooth as a courtier but his manner was direct and unassuming, the teasing rough and easy as a soldier's. Rustem watched the military men in the room as they gazed at the speaker. There was adoration written in their features. The wife, motionless as a statue now, seemed vaguely bored.

"And I fear," Leontes was saying, "that we do not have a great deal of time today, so the Lady Styliane and I are not able to join you in sampling the delights prepared by Strumosus of the Blues in a Green household. I do commend the factions for this rare conjunction and hope it bodes well for a peaceful racing season." He paused, an eyebrow raised for emphasis: this was an authority figure, after all. "We came that we might salute the groom and his bride in Jad's most holy name, and to convey a piece of information that may add in some small way to the felicity of the day."

He paused again, sipped his wine. "I addressed the bridegroom as tribune of the Fourth Sauradian just now. I was behind the tidings, as it happens. It seems that some Supreme Strategos or other, anxious to put a certain mellifluous voice far away from his overburdened ears, rashly signed papers this morning affirming the promotion of the tribune Carullus of Trakesia to his new rank and appointment… as chiliarch of the Second Calysian, such position to be assumed in thirty days… which will allow the new chiliarch time here with his bride, and a chance to lose some of his increased pay at the Hippodrome."

There was a shout of pleasure and laughter, nearly drowning out the last words. The bridegroom came quickly forward, his face flushed, and knelt before the Strategos.

"My lord!" he said, looking up, "I am… I am speechless!"

Which elicited its own burst of laughter from those who knew the man. "However," added Carullus, lifting a hand, "I do have a question I must ask."

"Speechlessly?" said Styliane Daleina, from behind her husband. Her first comment, softly spoken, but everyone heard it. Some people did not need to raise their voices to be heard.

"I lack that skill, my lady. I must use my tongue, though with far less skill than my betters. I only wish to ask if I may decline the promotion."

Silence fell. Leontes blinked.

"This is a surprise," he said. "I would have thought…" He let the sentence trail off.

"My great lord, my commander… if you wish to reward an unworthy soldier, it will be by allowing him, at any rank at all, to fight at your side in the next campaign. I do not believe I am saying anything untoward if I suggest that Calysium, with the Everlasting Peace signed in the east, will be no such place. Is there nowhere in… in the west where I might serve with you, my Strategos?"

At the reference to Bassania, Rustem heard the Senator beside him shift a little, uneasily, and clear his throat softly. But nothing of note had been sped. Yet.

The Strategos smiled a little now, his composure regained. He reached down, and in a gesture almost fatherly, ruffled the hair of the soldier kneeling before him. His men loved him, it was said, the way they loved their god.

Leontes said, "There is no campaign declared anywhere, chiliarch. Nor is it my practice to send newly married officers to a war front when there are alternatives, as there always are."

"Then I can be attached to you, since there is no war front," said Carullus, and he smiled innocently. Rustem snorted; the man had audacity.

'Shut up, you idiot!" The entire room heard the red-haired mosaicist. The laughter that followed affirmed as much. It had been intended, of course. Rustem was quickly coming to realize how much of what was being said and done was carefully planned or cleverly improvised theatre. Sarantium, he decided, was a stage for performances. No wonder an actress could command so much power here, induce such prominent people to grace her home-or become Empress, if it came to that. Unthinkable in Bassania, of course. Utterly unthinkable.

The Strategos was smiling again, a man at ease, sure of his god-and of himself, Rustem thought. A righteous man. Leontes glanced across at the mosaicist and lifted his cup to him.

It is good advice, soldier," he said to Carullus, still kneeling before him. "You will know the pay difference between legate and chiliarch. You nave a bride now, and should have strong children to raise soon enough, in Jad's holy service and to honour his name."

He hesitated. "If there is a campaign this year-and let me make it clear that the Emperor has offered no indications yet-it might be in the name of the poor, wronged queen of the Antae, which means Batiara, and I will not have a newly married man beside me there. The east is where I want you for now, soldier, so speak of this no more." The words were blunt, the manner almost paternal-though he wouldn't be older than the soldier before him, Rustem thought. "Rise up, rise up, bring us your bride that we may salute her before we go."

"I can just see Styliane doing that," the Senator beside Rustem murmured under his breath.

"Hush," said his wife, suddenly. "And look again."

Rustem saw it too.

Someone had now come forward, past Styliane Daleina, though pausing gracefully beside her for an instant, so that Rustem was to carry a memory for a long time of the two of them next to each other, golden and golden.

"Might the poor, wronged queen of the Antae have any voice at all in this? In whether war is brought to her own country in her name," said this new arrival. Her voice-speaking Sarantine but with a western accent-was clear as a bell, bright anger in it, and it cut into the room like a knife through silk.

The Strategos turned, clearly startled, swiftly concealing it. An instant later he bowed formally and his wife-smiling a little to herself, Rustem saw-sank down with perfect grace, and then the entire room did so.

The woman paused, waiting for this acknowledgement to pass. She hadn't been at the wedding ceremony, must have just this moment arrived. She, too, was clad in white under a jewelled collar and stole. Her hair was gathered under a soft hat of a dark green shade and as she shed an identically hued cloak now for a servant to take, it could be seen that her long, floor-length garment had a single vertical stripe down one side, and it was porphyry, the colour of royalty everywhere in the world.

As the guests rose in a rustle of sound, Rustem saw that the mosaicist and the younger fellow from Batiara who'd saved Rustem's life this morning remained where they were, kneeling on the dancer's floor. The stocky young man looked up, and Rustem was startled to see tears on his face.

"The Antae queen," said the Senator in his ear. "Hildric's daughter."

Confirmatory, but hardly needed: physicians draw conclusions from information gathered. They had spoken of this woman in Sarnica, too, her late-autumn flight from assassination, sailing into exile in Sarantium. A hostage for the Emperor, a cause of war if he needed one.

He heard the Senator speak to his son again. Cleander muttered something fierce and aggrieved behind him but made his way out of the room, obeying his father's orders. The boy hardly seemed to matter just now. Rustem was staring at the Antae queen, alone and far from her home. She was poised, unexpectedly young, regal in her bearing as she surveyed a glittering crowd of Sarantines. But what the doctor in Rustem-the physician at the core of what he was-saw in the clear blue northern eyes across the room was the masked presence of something else.

"Oh dear," he murmured, involuntarily, and then became aware that the wife of Plaufus Bonosus was looking at him again.

A feast for fifty people was not, Kyros knew, particularly demanding for Strumosus, given that they often served four times that number in the Blues" banquet hall. There was some awkwardness in using a different kitchen, but they'd been over here a few days earlier and Kyros-given larger responsibilities all the time-had done the inventory, allocated locations, and supervised the necessary rearrangements.

He'd somehow overlooked the absence of sea salt and knew Strumosus wouldn't soon forget it. The master chef was not-to put it mildly-tolerant of mistakes. Kyros would have run back to their own compound to fetch it himself, but running was one thing he wasn't at all good for, given the bad foot he dragged about with him. He'd been busy by then with the vegetables for his soup in any case, and the other kitchen boys and undercooks had their own duties. One of the houseservants had gone, instead-the pretty, dark-haired one the others were all talking about when she wasn't nearby.

Kyros seldom engaged in that sort of banter. He kept his passions to himself. As it happened, for the last few days-since their first visit to this house-his own daydreams had been about the dancer who lived here. This might have been disloyal to his own faction, but there was no one among the Blue dancers who moved or sounded or looked like Shirin of the Greens. It made his heartbeat quicken to hear the ripple of her laughter from another room and sent his thoughts at night down corridors of desire.

But she did that for most of the men in the City, and Kyros knew it. Strumosus would have declared this a boring taste, too easy, no subtlety in it. The reigning dancer in Sarantium? What an original object of passion! Kyros could almost hear the chef's astringent voice and mocking applause, the back of one hand slapping into the palm of the other.

The banquet was nearly done. The boar, stuffed with thrushes and wood pigeons and quail eggs, served whole on an enormous wooden platter, had occasioned an acclamation they'd heard even in the kitchen. Shirin had earlier sent the black-haired girl to report that her guests were in paroxysms of delight over the sturgeon-king of fish! — served on a bed of flowers, and the rabbit with Soriyyan figs and olives. Their hostess had conveyed her own impression of the soup earlier. The exact words, relayed by the same girl with dimpled mirth, were that the Greens" dancer intended to wed the man who'd made it before the day was done. Strumosus had pointed with his spoon to Kyros and the dark-haired girl had grinned at him, and winked.

Kyros had immediately ducked his head down over the herbs he was chopping as raucous, teasing voices were raised all around, led by his friend Rasic. He had felt the tips of his ears turning red but had refused to look up. Strumosus, walking past, had rapped him lightly on the back of the head with his long-handled spoon: the chef's version of a benign, approving gesture. Strumosus broke a great many wooden spoons in his kitchen. If he hit you gently enough for the spoon to survive you could deduce that he was pleased.

It seemed the sea salt had been forgotten after all, or forgiven.

The dinner had begun on a high-pitched note of distraction and excitement, the guests chattering furiously about the arrival and immediate departure of the Supreme Strategos and his wife with the young western queen. Gisel of the Antae had arrived to join the banquet here. An unanticipated presence, a gift of sorts offered by Shirin to her other guests: the chance to dine with royalty. But the queen had then accepted a suggestion made by the Strategos that she return with him to the Imperial Precinct to discuss the matter of Batiara-her own country, after all- with certain people there.

The implication, not lost on those present, and relayed to a keenly interested Strumosus in the kitchen by the clever dark-haired girl, was that the certain person might be the Emperor himself.

Leontes had expressed distress and surprise, the girl said, that the queen had not been consulted or even apprised to this point and vowed to rectify the omission. He was impossibly wonderful, the girl had added.

So, in the event, there was no royalty at the U-shaped table arrangement in the dining room after all, only the memory of royalty among them and royalty's acid, castigating tone directed at the most important soldier in the Empire. Strumosus, learning of the queen's departure, had been predictably disappointed but then unexpectedly thoughtful. Kyros was just sorry not to have seen her. You missed a lot in the kitchen sometimes, attending to the pleasure of others.

The dancer's servants and the ones she'd hired for the day and the boys they'd brought with them from the compound seemed to have finished clearing the tables. Strumosus eyed them carefully as they assembled now, straightening tunics, wiping at spots on cheek or clothing.

One tall, very dark-eyed, well-made fellow-no one Kyros knew- met the chef's glance as Strumosus paused in front of him and murmured, with an odd half-smile, "Did you know that Lysippus is back?"

It was said softly, but Kyros was standing beside the cook, and though he turned quickly and busied himself with dessert trays he had good ears.

He heard Strumosus, after a pause, say only, "I won't ask how you came by that knowledge. There's sauce on your forehead. Wipe it off before you go back out."

Strumosus moved on down the line. Kyros found himself breathing with difficulty. Lysippus the Calysian, Valerius's grossly fat taxation master, had been exiled after the Victory Riot. The Calysian's personal habits had been a cause of fear and revulsion among the lower classes of the City; his had been a name used to threaten wayward children.

He had also been Strumosus's employer before he was exiled.

Kyros glanced furtively over at the chef, who was sorting out the last of the serving boys now. This was just a rumour, Kyros reminded himself, and the tidings might be new to him but not necessarily to Strumosus. In any case, he had no way to sort out what it might mean, and it was none of his affair in any possible way. He was unsettled, though.

Strumosus finished arranging the boys to his satisfaction and sent them parading back out to the diners with ewers of sweetened wine and the great procession of desserts: sesame cakes, candied fruit, rice pudding in honey, musk melon, pears in water, dates and raisins, almonds and chestnuts, grapes in wine, huge platters of cheeses-mountain and lowland, white and golden, soft and hard-with more honey for dipping, and his own nut bread. A specially baked round loaf was carried up to the bride and groom with two silver rings inside that were the chef's gift to them.

When the last platter and tray and flask and beaker and serving dish had gone out and no sounds of catastrophe emerged from the dining hall, Strumosus finally allowed himself to sit on a stool, a cup of wine at his elbow. He didn't smile, but he did set down his wooden spoon. Watching from the corner of his eye, Kyros sighed. They all knew what the lowered spoon meant. He allowed himself to relax.

"I imagine," said the chef to the room at large, "that we have done enough to let the last of the wedding day be mild and merry and the night be what it will." He was quoting some poet or other. He often did. Meeting Kyros's glance, Strumosus added, softly, "Rumours of Lysippus bubble up like boiled milk every so often. Until the Emperor revokes his exile, he isn't here."

Which meant he knew Kyros had overheard. He didn't miss much, Strumosus. The chef looked away and around the crowded kitchen. He lifted his voice, "A serviceable afternoon's work, all of you. The dancer should be happy out there."

'She says to tell you that if you do not come rescue her immediately she will scream at her own banquet and blame you. You understand," added the bird, silently, 'that I don't like being made to talk to you this way. It feels unnatural.

As if there was anything remotely natural about any of these exchanges, Crispin thought, trying to pay attention to the conversation around him.

He could hear Shirin's bird as clearly as he'd heard Linon-provided he and the dancer were sufficiently close to each other. At a distance, Danis's inward voice faded and then disappeared. No thoughts he sent could be heard by the bird-or by Shirin. In fact, Danis was right. It was unnatural.

Most of the guests were back in Shirin's reception room. The Rhodian tradition of lingering at table-or couch in the old-style banquets- was not followed in the east. When the meal was done and people were drinking their last cups of mixed or honey-sweetened wine, Sarantines tended to be on their feet again, sometimes unsteadily.

Crispin glanced across the room and was unable to suppress a grin. He brought a hand up to cover his mouth. Shirin, wearing the bird about her neck, had been cornered against the wall-between a handsome wood-and-bronze trunk and a large decorative urn-by the Principal Secretary of the Supreme Strategos. Pertennius, gesturing in full conversational flight, showed little inclination to register her attempts at shifting to rejoin her guests.

This was an accomplished, sophisticated woman, Crispin decided cheerfully. She could deal with her own suitors, welcome or unwelcome. He turned back to the conversation he'd been following. Scortius and the muscular Green charioteer, Crescens, were discussing alternative dispositions of the horses in a quadriga. Carullus had left his new bride and was hanging on their every syllable. So were a number of others. The racing season was about to start; this exchange was visibly whetting appetites. Holy men and charioteers were the figures most revered by Sarantines. Crispin remembered hearing that even before he'd begun his journey. It was true, he had come to realize-at least as far as the charioteers went.

Kasia, not far away, was in the company of two or three of the younger Green dancers, with Vargos hovering protectively nearby. The dancers were likely to be tormenting her about the night to come; it was part of the wedding tradition. It was also a teasing that would be appallingly inappropriate for this particular bride. It occurred to Crispin that he ought to go over and salute her properly himself.

'She now says to say she will offer you pleasures you have only imagined if you'll only come over here," said the dancer's bird abruptly in his head. Then added, I hate when she does this.

Crispin laughed aloud, occasioning curious glances from those following the debate beside him. Turning the sound into a cough, he looked across the room again. Shirin's mouth was fixed in a rigid smile. Her eyes met his over the shoulder of the lean, sallow secretary and there was black murder in them: nothing that promised delight at all, of the flesh or the spirit. Crispin realized, belatedly, that Pertennius must be very drunk. That, too, diverted him. Leontes's secretary was normally the most controlled of men.

Even so, Shirin could cope, he decided. This was all very amusing, in fact. He lifted a hand in a wave and smiled affably at the dancer before turning back again to the chariot-racers" conversation.

He and Zoticus's daughter had achieved an understanding, built around his ability to hear the bird and the story he'd told her about Linon. She had asked him, that chilly afternoon in autumn-it seemed a long time ago-if what he'd done with his bird meant that she should release Danis in the same way. He had been unable to answer that. There had ensued a silence, one that Crispin understood, then he had heard the bird murmur, inwardly, 'If I weary of this I will tell you. It is a promise. If that happens, take me back.

Crispin had shivered, thinking of the glade where Linon's surrendered soul had saved their lives in the mist of the half-world. Taking one of the alchemist's birds back to the Aldwood was not a simple matter, but he hadn't spoken of that then, or since.

Not even when a letter came from Martinian to Shirin and she sent word to Crispin in the Sanctuary and he came and read it. It seemed that Zoticus had left instructions with his old friend: if he were not home from an unexpected autumn journey by midwinter, or had not sent tidings, Martinian was to act as if he were dead and divide the alchemist's estate according to directions given. The servants were attended to; there were various personal bequests; some named objects and documents were burned.

The house near Varena and all that lay within it undestroyed were left to his daughter Shirin, to use or deal with as she saw best.

"Why did he do that? What in Jad's impossible name," the girl had exclaimed to Crispin in her own sitting room, the bird lying on the chest by the fire, "am I to do with a house in Batiara?"

She'd been bewildered and upset. She had never met her father in her life, Crispin knew. Nor was she his only child.

"Sell it," he'd said. "Martinian will do it for you. He's the most honest man in the world."

"Why did he leave it to me?" she'd asked.

Crispin had shrugged. "I didn't know him at all, girl."

"Why do they think he's dead? Where did he go?"

And that answer he thought he did have. It wasn't a difficult puzzle, which didn't make the solution easier to live with. Martinian had written that Zoticus had taken a very sudden, late-season trip to Sauradia. Crispin had earlier written to the alchemist about Linon, a cryptic retelling of what had happened in the glade.

Zoticus would have understood the implications: far more of them than Crispin had. He was quite certain, in fact, where Shirin's father had gone.

And reasonably sure what would have happened when he got there.

He hadn't told this to the girl. Instead, he'd carried some difficult thoughts out into the wintry cold and a slanting rain, and had had a great deal to drink later that night in The Spina and then a quieter tavern, his assigned guards following him about, protecting the Emperor's so-valued mosaic artisan from all possible harm. Worldly harm. There were other kinds. The wine didn't do what he needed it to do. The memory of the zubir, the dark, huge presence of it in his life, seemed destined not to leave him.

Shirin herself was a balancing spirit. He'd come to think of her that way as the winter deepened. An image of laughter, movements quick as hummingbirds, with a cleverness equally quick and a generosity one might not have expected in a woman so celebrated. She couldn't even walk out-of-doors in the City without hired guards of her own to fend off admirers.

It appeared-and he hadn't known this until today-that the dancer had formed a relationship of sorts with Gisel, the young Antae queen. He had no idea when that had begun. They certainly hadn't told him. The women he knew here were… complicated.

There had been a moment earlier this afternoon when Crispin had been excruciatingly aware that there were four women in the room who had entangled him in intimacies recently: a queen, a dancer, a married aristocrat… and the one he'd saved from slavery, who was a bride today.

Only Kasia had touched him, he had thought, with what he knew to be tenderness, on a windy, black, dream-haunted night in Sauradia. The memory made him uncomfortable. He could still hear the shutter banging in the wind outside, still see Ilandra in his dream, the zubir between them, and then gone. He had been awake and crying out and Kasia had been beside his bed in the cold room, speaking to him.

He looked over at her, newly married to his closest friend here, and then glanced quickly away when he saw that her eyes had been resting on him.

And that, too, was an echo of a different exchange of glances earlier this afternoon, with someone else.

In the moment when Leontes the Golden had been speaking to Carullus, and an assembly of wedding guests had hung upon his words as upon holy text, Crispin had been unable not to look at another recent bride.

His reward, Styliane had called herself last autumn, in the half-light of Crispin's room at an inn. Crispin, listening to Leontes now, had understood something, remembering the Strategos's direct words and manner in the Attenine Palace the night of his own first appearance there. Leontes spoke to the court like a blunt soldier, and to soldiers and citizens with the grace of a courtier, and it worked, it worked very well.

As the unflawed mingling of charm and pious honesty captured and held this mixed gathering like some fortress under siege, Crispin had found Styliane Daleina staring back at him, as if she'd been waiting to gather in his gaze.

She had lifted her shoulders a little, gracefully, as if to say without the need for words, Do you see now? I live with this perfection, as an ornament. And Crispin had been able to hold those blue eyes for only a moment and had then turned away.

Gisel, his queen, had not lingered long enough to even notice his presence here, let alone resume the charade of intimacy between them. He had visited her twice during the winter-as bidden-at the small palace they'd given her near the walls, and each time the queen's manner had been regally detached, matter-of-fact. No thoughts or surmises about their country and invasion had been exchanged. She had not yet seen the Emperor in private. Or the Empress. It chafed her, he could see, living here with few tidings from home and no way of doing or achieving anything.

Crispin had tried, and failed, to imagine the shape and tenor of an encounter between the Empress Alixana and the young queen who had sent him here with a secret message in autumn half a year ago.

In Shirin's reception hall, with the world poised on the brink of springtime now, his thoughts turned back to the bride. He could remember his first sight of her in the front hallway of Morax's inn. They are going to kill me tomorrow. Will you take me away?

He still felt a sense of responsibility for her: the burden that came with saving someone, extending and utterly changing their life. She used to look at him, in the days when she shared a city home with him and Vargos and the servants the Chancellor's eunuchs had assigned to him, and there had been questions in her eyes that made him deeply uneasy. And then one night Carullus had found him drinking in The Spina and announced he was going to marry her.

A declaration that had brought them all here now, a gathering winding towards its twilit end and the bawdy, age-old songs that would precede the curtained wedding bed, sprinkled with saffron for desire.

He looked over towards Shirin again, by the far wall. Someone else had joined Pertennius now, he saw, grinning. Another smitten suitor, one had to assume. They were legion in the City. You could make up a regiment of those who longed for the Greens" dancer with an aching need that led to bad verse, musicians on her porch in the middle of the night, street fights, tablets of love bought from cheiromancers and tossed over the wall into her courtyard garden. She had shown some of these to Crispin: Spirits of the newly dead, journeyers, come now to my aid! Send sleep-destroying, soul-ravaging longing into the bed of Shirin, dancer of the Greens, that all her thoughts in the dark be of yearning for me. Let her come forth from her doors in the grey hour before sunrise and make her way boldly, unashamed, with desire, to my house…

One could be afraid and disturbed, reading such things.

Crispin had never touched her, nor had she made overtures to him that went beyond teasing intimations. He couldn't have said why, in fact: they were bound to no one and shared a secret of the half-world with no other people alive. But there was still something that kept him from seeing Zoticus's daughter in a certain light.

It might have been the bird, the memory of her father, the dark complexity of what they shared. Or the thought of how weary she must be of men pursuing her: the crowds of would-be lovers in the street, those stone tablets in the garden invoking named and nameless pagan powers, merely to bed her.

Not, Crispin had to admit, that he was above being amused just now, seeing her cornered by suitors in her own house. A third man had joined the other two. He wondered if a fight would start.

'She says she will kill you immediately after she kills these two merchants and the wretched scribe," said the bird. 'She says for me to scream in your head when I say this.

"My dear, dear Rhodian!" said a polished, rich voice at that same moment, approaching from the other side. "I understand you intervened earlier to save this visitor to our city from harm. It was very good of you."

Crispin turned, saw the Master of the Senate with with his wife, the Bassanid beside them. Plautus Bonosus was well known, both for his private weaknesses and his public dignity. The Senate was a purely symbolic body but Bonosus was said to conduct its affairs with style and order, and he was known for a man of discretion. His handsome second wife was impeccably proper, still young, but modest and dignified before her time. It crossed Crispin's mind briefly to wonder what-if anything- she did co salve herself while her husband was out at night with boys. He couldn't readily imagine her yielding to passions. She smiled politely now at the two chariot-racers nearby, in the midst of their admirers. Both of them bowed to her and to the Senator. A little distracted, Scortius took a moment to resume the thread of his argument.

Crispin saw Pardos detach himself from those around the charioteers and come nearer. There had been changes here in half a year, but these he would sort through when he had time alone with his former apprentice. He did know that his feelings when he'd seen that it was Pardos on the ladder this morning had been those of unalloyed pleasure.

It was rare to find or feel anything unalloyed here amid the mazelike intricacies of Valerius's city. A reason he still preferred to try to live on his scaffolds overhead, with gold and coloured glass and an image of the world to make. A wish, but he knew the City and himself well enough by now to realize it wouldn't happen. Sarantium was not a place in which one found refuge, even in pursuit of a vision. The world claimed you here, caught you up in the swirling. As now.

He nodded respectfully to Bonosus and his wife and murmured, "I understand you might have a personal reason for wishing to make matters right with this physician. I am happy to leave the affair in your hands, it our eastern friend'-he looked politely at the doctor-'is willing to have it so."

The Bassanid, a prematurely greying, rather formal man, nodded his head. "I am content," he said, his Sarantine really quite good. "The Senator has been generous enough to offer me a residence while I conduct my researches here. I shall leave it to him and to those more versed than I in the justice of Sarantium to determine what should be done with those who killed my servant."

Crispin kept his expression innocent as he nodded his head. The Bassanid was being bribed, of course-the house was a first instalment. The boy would be given some penance to perform by his father, the dead servant buried quickly in a grave outside the walls.

Curse-tablets would be thrown there by night. The racing season was starting soon: the cheiromancers and other self-declared traffickers in half-world power were already busy with maledictions against horses and men-and defences against the same. A charlatan could be paid to invoke a broken leg for a celebrated horse, and then be paid to provide protection for that same animal a day later. The burial place of a murdered pagan Bassanid, Crispin thought, would probably be said to contain even greater power than the usual run of graves.

"Justice will be done," said Bonosus soberly.

"I rely upon it," said the Bassanid. He looked to Pardos. "We will meet again? I am in your debt and would like to repay your courage." A stiff man, Crispin thought, but courteous enough, knew the things to say.

"No need for that, but my name is Pardos," said the young man. It’d be easy enough to find in the Sanctuary, if Crispin doesn't kill me for setting tesserae at the wrong angle."

"Don't set them at the wrong angle," Crispin said. The Senator's mouth quirked.

"I am Rustem of Kerakek," said the Bassanid, "here to meet my western colleagues, share what I know, and obtain what further learning I can, for the better treatment of my own patients." He hesitated, then allowed himself a smile, for the first time. "I have travelled in the east. It seemed time to journey west."

"He will be living in one of my houses," Plautus Bonosus said. "The one with the two round windows, in Khardelos Street. We are honoured, of course."

Crispin felt himself go suddenly very cold. A wind seemed to pass into him: chill, damp air from the half-world, touching the mortal heart.

"Rustem. Khardelos Street," he repeated, stupidly.

"You know it?" the Senator smiled.

"I… have heard the name." He swallowed.

'Shirin, I will not say that!" he heard inwardly, still struggling with a sudden fear. There was a silence, then Danis again: 'You cannot possibly expect me to…

"It is a pleasant house," the Senator was saying. "A little small for a family, but near the walls, which was convenient in the days when I was travelling more."

Crispin nodded distractedly. Then heard: 'She says to tell you that you arc to imagine her hands right now, as you stand before this jaded boychaser and his too-prim wife. Think of her fingers slipping your tunic up from behind and then sliding back down along your skin, inside your undergarments. Think of them now, lightly touching your naked flesh, arousing you. She says to say that… Shirin! No!

Crispin coughed. He felt himself flushing. The Senator's allegedly too-prim wife eyed him with a mild interest. Crispin cleared his throat.

The Senator, endlessly experienced in meaningless chat, was saying, "It is quite close, actually, to the Eustabius Palace-the one Saranios built by the walls. You know he loved to hunt, begrudged the long ride across the city from the Imperial Precinct on a good morning."

'She wants you to think of her touching you right now, just where you are standing with them, her fingers stroking your most private places, down and further down, even as the woman in front of you watches this, unable to turn away, her own lips parting, her eyes growing wide.

"Indeed!" Crispin managed, in a strangled voice. "Loved to hunt! Yes!" Pardos glanced at him.

'She… she says that you can feel her nipples against your back now. Firm, proof of her own excitement. And that down below… that she is becoming… Shirin, I will absolutely not say that!

"And so Saranios would spend the night there," Plautus Bonosus was saying. "Bring favourite companions, a few girls when he was younger, and be outside the walls with bows and spears by sunrise."

'She says her fingers are now touching your… your, ah, sex from… beneath… ah, stroking you, and… er, sliding? She says the Senator's young wife is staring af you, her mouth open, as your firm, hard … no!"

The bird's voice became a silent shriek, then blessedly stopped.

Crispin, struggling for the scattered shreds of composure, hoped desperately that no one would look down towards his groin. Shirin! Jad-cursed Shirin!

"Are you well?" the Bassanid asked. His manner had changed; he was all solicitous, attentive concern. A physician. He would probably look down soon, Crispin thought despairingly. The Senator's wife was still gazing at him. Her lips, fortunately, had not parted.

"I'm a little… warm, yes, er, not serious… am sure, greatly hope, we'll meet again," Crispin said with urgency. He bowed quickly. "If you'll all excuse me now, ah, there's a… wedding matter. Must… speak about."

"What matter?" accursed Carullus said, glancing across from beside Scortius.

Crispin didn't even bother to answer. He was already crossing the room towards where a slender woman was still standing against the far wall, almost hidden behind three men.

'She says to say she is now forever in your debt," the bird said as he approached. 'That you are a hero like those of yesteryear and that your lower tunic shows signs of disarray.

This time he heard amusement even in the tone of Danis: in the singular voice Zoticus the alchemist had given to all his captured souls, including this shy young girl killed-as they all had been-on an autumn morning long ago in a glade in Sauradia.

She was laughing at him.

He might have been amused, himself, even coping with embarrassment, but something else had just happened, and he didn't know how to deal with it. More brusquely than he'd intended, he shouldered his way in between the figure of Pertennius and the paunchy merchant-almost certainly a Green patron-on his left. They glared at him.

"Forgive me, friends. Forgive me. Shirin, we have a small problem, will you come?" He took the dancer by the elbow, not gently, and guided her away from the wall, out of the half-circle of men that had surrounded her.

"A problem?" Shirin said prettily. "Oh dear. What sort of…?"

As they crossed the room together, Crispin saw people watching and hoped, sincerely, that his tunic was decent by now. Shirin smiled artlessly at her guests.

Poor want of any better idea, aware that he wasn't thinking clearly, Crispin steered her through the open doors back into the dining room where half a dozen or so people were lingering, and then into the kitchen beyond.

They stopped just inside the doorway: two white-clad figures amid the after-meal disarray and chaos of the kitchen and the stained and weary chefs and servers there. The talk subsided as people became aware of them. "Greetings!" said Shirin brightly, as Crispin found himself wordless. "And to you both," said the small, plump, round-faced man Crispin had first met in a pre-dawn kitchen somewhat larger than this. Men had died that night. An attempt on Crispin's own life. He remembered Strumosus holding a thick-handled chopping knife, preparing to use it on any intruders into his domain.

The chef was smiling now as he stood up from a stool and approached them. "Have we given satisfaction, my lady?"

"You know you have," Shirin said. "What could I offer you to come live with me?" She, too, smiled.

Strumosus looked wry. "Indeed, I was about to make you a similar offer."

Shirin raised her eyebrows.

"It is very crowded here," the cook said, gesturing at the piled implements and platters and the assortment of people standing around the kitchen. Hostess and guest followed him through to a smaller room where dishes and food were stored. There was another doorway here, giving onto the inner courtyard. It was too cold to go outside. The sun was west, it was growing dark.

Strumosus swung the door to the kitchen shut. It became quiet suddenly. Crispin leaned back against the wall. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them; wished he'd thought to collect a cup of wine. Two names were reverberating in his head.

Shirin smiled demurely at the little chef. "Whatever will people say of us. Are you proposing to me even as I try to win you, dear man?"

"For a cause," the cook said, his expression serious. "What would the Blues have to offer you to become their Principal Dancer?"

"Ah," said Shirin. Her smile faded. She looked at Crispin then back to the cook. Then she shook her head.

"It cannot be done," she murmured.

"At no price? Astorgus is generous."

"So I understand. I hope he is paying you what you deserve."

The chef hesitated, then bluntly named a sum. "I trust the Greens are not offering you less."

Shirin looked down at the floor, and Crispin saw that she was embarrassed. Not meeting the chef's eyes, she said only, "They aren't."

The implication was clear, if unspoken. Strumosus coloured. There was a silence. "Well," he said, rallying, "it only makes sense. A Principal Dancer is more… prominent than any cook. More visible. A different level of fame."

"But not more talented," Shirin said, looking up. She touched the little man on the arm. "It isn't a matter of payment for me. It is… something else." She paused, bit her lip, then said, "The Empress, when she sent me her perfume, made clear I was only to wear it for so long as I was a Green. This was just after Scortius left us."

There was a silence.

"I see," said Strumosus softly. "Balancing the factions? She is… they are very clever, aren't they?"

Crispin thought of saying something then, but did not. Very clever was not the phrase, though. It didn't go nearly far enough. He was certain this touch would have been Alixana's own. The Emperor had no patience for faction issues; everyone knew it. It had almost cost him his throne during the riots, Scortius had told him. But the Empress, who had been a dancer for the Blues in her youth, would be attuned to such matters like no one else in the Imperial Precinct. And if the Blues were allowed to raid the preeminent charioteer of the day, then the Greens would keep the most celebrated dancer. The perfume-no one else in the Empire was allowed to wear it-and the condition attached would have been her way of making sure that Shirin knew this.

"A pity, "the little chef said thoughtfully, "but I suppose it makes sense. If one looks at all of us from above."

And that was about right, Crispin thought.

Strumosus changed the subject. "Was there a reason you came into the

kitchen?"

"To felicitate you, of course," Shirin said quickly.

The chef looked from one to the other. Crispin was still finding it difficult to focus his thoughts. Strumosus smiled a little. I’d leave you alone for a moment. Incidentally, if you are looking for a cook, the fellow who made the soup today will be ready to work on his own later this year. His name's Kyros. The one with the bad foot. Young, but a very promising lad, and intelligent."

"I'll remember that," Shirin said, and returned the smile.

Strumosus went back to the kitchen. He closed the door behind him.

Shirin looked at Crispin. "Thank you," she said. "You bastard."

"You had your revenge," he sighed. "Half the guests here will have an image of me as some pagan fertility figure, rampant as a pole."

She laughed. "It's good for you. Too many people are afraid of you."

"Not you," he said absently.

Her expression changed, eyeing him. "What happened? You don't look well. Did I really-?"

He shook his head. "Not you. Your father, actually." He took a breath.

"My father is dead," Shirin said.

"I know. But half a year ago he gave me two names he said might help me in Sarantium. One was yours."

She was staring at him now. "And?"

"And the other was that of a physician, with a house and street where I might find him."

"Doctors are useful."

Crispin took another deep breath. "Shirin, the man he named to me last autumn just arrived in Sarantium this morning, and was offered a residence on the named street only this afternoon, just now, here in your home."

"Oh," said the alchemist's daughter.

There was a silence. And in it they both heard a voice: 'But why," said Danis, 'is this so unsettling? You must have known he could do such things.

It was true, of course. They did know. Danis was her own proof of it. They were hearing the inward voice of a crafted bird that was the soul of a slain woman. What more evidence of power was required? But knowing and knowing were different things, at these borders of the half-world, and Crispin was pretty certain he remembered Zoticus denying being able to foretell the future, when asked. Had he lied? Possibly. Why should he have told all the truth to an angry mosaicist he hardly knew?

But why, then, should he have given that same stranger the first bird he'd ever fashioned, dearest to his own heart?

The dead, Crispin thought, stay with you.

He looked at Shirin and her bird and found himself remembering his wife and realizing it had been some days since he'd thought about Ilandra, which never used to happen. He felt sorrow and confusion and the effects of too much wine.

"We had better go back out," Shirin said. "It is probably time for the wedding-bed procession."

Crispin nodded. "Probably."

She touched his arm, opened the door to the kitchen. They went through and back out to rejoin the party.

A little later, Crispin found himself in the darkening street among carried torches and music-makers and bawdy songs, with soldiers and theatre people and the usual cluster of hangers-on joining the loud parade as they led Carullus and Kasia to their new home. People banged things, sang, shouted. There was laughter. Noise was good, of course: it frightened away any evil spirits that might blight the marriage bed. Crispin tried to join in the general merriment, but failed. No one seemed to notice; night was falling and the others were more than loud enough. He wondered how Kasia felt about all of this.

He kissed bride and groom, both, at their doorway. Carullus had leased a set of rooms in a good neighbourhood. His friend, now a genuinely high-ranking officer, held him close and Crispin returned the embrace. He realized that neither he nor Carullus was entirely sober. When he bent to salute Kasia he became aware of something new and subtle about her, and then realized with a shock what it was-a scent: one that only an Empress and a dancer were supposed to wear.

Kasia read his expression in the darkness. They were standing very close. "She said it was a last gift," she whispered shyly.

He could see it. Shirin was like that. Kasia would be as royalty for this night. A rush of affection for this girl swept over him now. "Jad love you and your own gods defend you," he whispered fiercely. "You were not saved from the grove for sorrow."

He had no way of knowing if that was true, but he wanted it to be. She bit her lip, looking up at him, but said nothing, only nodded her head. Crispin stepped back. Pardos and Vargos were standing by. It had turned cold now.

He stopped by Shirin, eyebrows raised. "A risky gift?" he asked.

She knew what he meant. "Not for one night," she said softly. "In a bridal chamber. Let her be an Empress. Let him hold one."

As those who hold you do? he thought suddenly, but did not say. It might have been in his face, though, for Shirin abruptly looked away, nonplussed. He walked over to Pardos. They watched bride and groom pause on their threshold, amid jests and cheering.

"Let's go," said Crispin.

'Wait!" said the bird.

He looked back. Shirin, hooded and cloaked now in the darkness, stepped forward again and laid a gloved hand on his arm. She said, beseechingly, and to be heard,'I have a last favour to ask. Will you escort a dear friend home? He's not quite… himself, and it isn't fair to take the soldiers from their celebrating now, is it?"

Crispin glanced beyond her. Swaying unsteadily, with a wide, entirely uncharacteristic smile spread across his face and eyes glazed like an enamel icon of some holy figure, was Pertennius of Eubulus.

"But of course," Crispin said evenly. Shirin smiled. Her composure had returned, very quickly. She was a dancer, an actress, trained.

'She says you are not to take any sexual advantage of the poor man in his disordered state." Even the accursed bird seemed amused again. Crispin gritted his teeth, said nothing. Carullus and Kasia disappeared within, to a last lewd chorus from the musicians and the soldiers.

"No, no, no, no!" said the secretary, stepping forward too quickly from behind Shirin. "Dear woman! I'm well, I'm entirely well! In fact I shall… escort you home myself! Honoured! Honoured to-"

Vargos, who was nearest, managed to catch the man before he toppled in the process of demonstrating the excellence of his state.

Crispin sighed. The fellow did need an escort, and Shirin was right about the soldiers, who were collectively as far gone in drink as the secretary and loudly proclaiming intentions of further celebration in honour of the newest chiliarch in the Sarantine army.

He sent Vargos with Pardos back to his own home and began walking-slowly, of necessity-with the secretary towards Pertennius's chambers, next to the Strategos's city residence. He didn't need directions: in addition to having the use of an entire wing of one of the palaces in the Imperial Precinct, Leontes owned the largest house in Sarantium. It happened to be nowhere close to Crispin's own home and mostly uphill from where they were; Shirin had known that, of course. It occurred to him that she really had bested him in their encounters today. He should probably be more irked by that than he was. He was still touched by her gesture with the perfume, though.

Looking back over his shoulder, carrying his own torch, he saw that the Greens" dancer would not lack for escorts on her own short journey home.

It was cold. He hadn't thought to take a cloak, of course, in that mad rush to change and make the ceremony in time.

"Fucking Jad," he said under his breath.

Pertennius giggled, almost fell. "Fucking!" he agreed and then giggled again, as if he'd startled himself. Crispin snorted; controlled men could be amusing when in drink.

He steadied the secretary with a hand on his elbow. They trudged on, close as cousins, as brothers, clad in white under the white moon. At intervals, out of the corner of his eye, Crispin saw tongues of flame flicker and vanish along the streets. You always saw those at night in Sarantium; one even commented on it after they'd spent any time in the City. A little later, as they passed behind the Sanctuary and turned up the wide street that would bring them to the secretary's rooms, they saw a sumptuous litter appear in front of them, its curtains closed. They both knew where they were, however, and who, almost certainly, would be inside.

Neither man commented, though Pertennius took a sudden deep breath of the cold night air and straightened his shoulders, walking a few steps alone with an exaggerated gravity, before stumbling again and accepting Crispin's guiding hand. They passed a watchman of the Urban Prefecture and nodded gravely to him: two inebriated men, out later than was safe, but well dressed, suited to this neighbourhood. Ahead, they saw the litter turn into a torchlit courtyard as servants swung open the gates and then closed them quickly.

The blue moon was up now above the houses, a crescent. A faint white line of flame appeared to run right across a laneway where it met the wide street and then it disappeared.

"Must come in!" Pertennius of Eubulus said as they went past the massive stone house and the barred gates where the litter had been admitted and came to his door. "A chance to converse. Away from the street crowd, the soldiers. Actors. Uneducated rabble."

"Oh, no," Crispin demurred. He achieved a smile. There was something sourly amusing about the man taking that tone in his current state. "We both need sleep, friend." He was feeling his own wine now, and other things. A restlessness of spring. Night. A wedding. The presence of the past. This wasn't the person he wanted to be with now. He didn't know who was.

'Must!" the secretary insisted. "Talk to you. My own task. Write about the Emperor's buildings, the Sanctuary. Your work. Questions! Why a bison? Those women? On the dome? Why so much of… of you, Rhodian?" The gaze, in moonlight, was direct for a disconcerting instant, could almost have been called lucid.

Crispin blinked. More here than he'd expected, from the man, from the moment. After a long hesitation, and with a mental shrug, he went to the door with Leontes's secretary and entered when a servant admitted them. Pertennius stumbled on his own threshold, but then led him heavily up a flight of stairs. Crispin heard the door being closed below Behind them in the night streets of the City, flames appeared and disappeared as they always did, seen or unseen, unlit by any taper or spark unfathomable as the moonlit sea or the desires of men and women between their birth and dying.

CHAPTER V

The first thing Gisel came to understand, as she and the Strategos and his exquisitely haughty wife entered the presence of the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium, was that they were expected. She was not supposed to realize that, she knew. They wanted her to believe that Leontes's impulsive action in inviting her had taken Valerius and Alixana by surprise here. She was to labour under this misapprehension, feel emboldened, make mistakes. But she had lived in a court all her life and whatever these arrogant easterners might believe about the Antae in Batiara, there were as many similarities as there were differences between her own palace complex in Varena and the Imperial Precinct here.

Weighing alternatives quickly as the musician lowered his instrument and the Emperor and a very small gathering of companions turned to her, Gisel elected to offer a full, formal salutation, brushing the floor with her forehead. Valerius-smooth-cheeked, bland, genial of expression- looked at Leontes and then back to Gisel as she rose. His mouth curved in a hesitant welcome. Alixana, in a low-backed ivory chair, dressed in deep red and adorned with jewellery, offered an entirely gracious smile.

And it was the ease of this on both their parts, the effortless deception done together, that made Gisel suddenly afraid, as if the walls of this warm room had given way to reveal the vast, cold sea beyond.

She had sent an artisan here half a year ago with an offer of marriage for this man. The woman, the Empress, knew of it. The artisan had told her about that. They had both anticipated-or deduced it- Caius Crispus said, before he had even spoken with them. She believed him. Seeing them now, the Emperor feigning surprise, Alixana offering the illusion of full welcome, she believed him implicitly.

"Forgive us, thrice-exalted, this unplanned intrusion," said Leontes briskly. "It is royalty I bring you, the queen of the Antae. It is past time, in my view, she was here among us. I will accept any fault attached to this."

His manner was blunt and direct. No trace of the suave, courtly pacing and tone he'd revealed in the dancer's home. But he had to know this was no surprise, didn't he? Or was she wrong about that? Gisel stole a quick glance at Styliane Daleina: nothing to be read in those features.

The Emperor gestured in a distracted way, and servants hastened to offer seats to the two women. Styliane smiled a little to herself, holding a private amusement close, as she crossed the room and accepted a cup of wine and a chair.

Gisel also sat down. She was looking at the Empress. Doing so, she felt a faint but very real horror at her own folly of the year before. She had proposed that this woman-old, childless, surely worn out and tiresome by now-might be expendable.

Folly was not, really, an adequate word. Alixana of Sarantium, polished and smooth as a pearl, glittered with light where it reflected from her jewels and found her dark eyes. There was amusement there too, but of a very different sort from what could be seen in the Strategos's wife.

"No intrusion, Leontes," she murmured now, speaking first. Her voice was low, honeyed, calm. "You honour us, of course, all three of you. You have come from a wedding, I see. Will you take wine and share some further music here and then tell us about it?"

"Please," said Valerius II earnestly, Emperor of half the world. "Regard yourselves as invited and honoured guests!"

They were perfect, the two of them. Gisel made her decision.

Ignoring an offered cup, she rose smoothly from her seat, clasped her hinds before her and murmured, "The Emperor and Empress are far too good. They even allow me the flattering illusion that this visit was unanticipated. As if anything that transpires in great Sarantium could possibly pass unnoticed by their all-seeing eyes. I am deeply grateful for this courtesy."

She saw the thin, aged Chancellor Gesius look suddenly thoughtful where he sat warming himself near the fire. There were only five other quests here, all superbly dressed and barbered men, and the balding, plump musician. Leontes looked irate suddenly, even though he'd surely have had to be the one who'd warned Valerius they were coming. Styliane was smiling again, behind her wine cup and her rings.

Valerius and Alixana laughed aloud. Both of them.

"And so we learn our lesson," the Emperor said, a hand rubbing at his soft chin. "Like impish children caught out by their tutor. Rhodias is older than Sarantium, the west came long before the east, and the queen of the Antae, who was daughter to a king before she ruled in her own name, was always likely to be aware of courtly practices."

"You are clever and beautiful, child," said Alixana. "A daughter such as I might wish to have had."

Gisel drew a breath. There could not possibly be anything sincere in this, but the woman had just casually drawn attention to their ages, her own childlessness, Gisel's appearance.

"Daughters are seldom in demand at a court," she murmured, thinking as quickly as she could. "We are only tools for marriage most of the time. A complication in other ways, unless there are also sons to smooth a succession." If Alixana could be direct, so could she. There was an undeniable ripple of excitement within her: she had been here almost half a year, doing nothing, suspended like an insect in Trakesian amber. What she did now might end in death, but she realized she was prepared to court that.

This time it was Gesius who smiled briefly, she saw. She was conscious of his measuring gaze upon her.

"We are aware, of course, of your difficulties at home," said Valerius. "Indeed, we have spent a winter pondering ways of addressing them."

There was little point, really, in not responding to this, either.

"We have spent a winter," Gisel murmured, "doing the same thing. It might have been appropriate to do so together? We did accept an invitation to come here in order to do that."

"Indeed? Is that so? It is my understanding," said a man dressed in figured silk of a deep green, "that our invitation and an Imperial ship were what saved your life, queen of the Antae." His tone, eastern, patrician, was just barely acceptable in this company. The Master of Offices paused, then added, "You do have a savage history in your tribe, after all."

This she would not countenance. East and the fallen west again? The glorious Sarantine heirs of Rhodias, the primitive barbarians from the northern forests? Not still, not here. Gisel turned her gaze to him.

"Somewhat," she said coldly. "We are a warlike, conquering people. Of course succession here in Sarantium always proceeds in a more orderly fashion. No deaths ever attend upon a change of Emperors, do they?"

She knew what she was saying. There was a little silence. Gisel became aware that glances were being cast-quickly, and then away-towards Styliane Daleina, who had seated herself behind the Empress. She made a point of not looking that way.

The Chancellor gave a dry cough behind his hand. Another of the seated men glanced quickly at him and then gestured briefly. The musician, with alacrity and evident relief, made a hasty obeisance and left the room with his instrument. No one paid him the least attention. Gisel was still glaring at the Master of Offices.

The Emperor said, in a thoughtful voice, "The queen is correct, of course, Faustinus. Indeed, even my uncle's ascension was accompanied by some violence. Styliane's own dear father was killed."

So much cleverness here. This was not a man, Gisel thought, to allow a nuance to slip by, if he could make it his own. She understood this, as it happened: her father had been much the same. It gave her some confidence, though her heart was racing. These were dangerous, subtle people, but she was the daughter of one herself. Perhaps she was one herself? They could kill her, and they might, but they could not strip her of pride and all legacies. She was aware of a bitter irony, however: she was defending her people against an allegation that they were murderous, barbaric, when she herself had been the intended victim of an assassination- in a holy, consecrated place.

"Times of change are seldom without their casualties," said the Chancellor softly, his first words. His voice was thin as paper, very clear.

"The same must be said of war," said Gisel, her tone blunt. She would not let this become an evening discussion of philosophers. She had sailed here for a reason, and it was not merely to save her life, whatever anyone might think or say. Leontes was looking at her, his expression betraying surprise.

"Truly so," said Alixana, nodding her head slowly. "One man burns and dies or thousands upon thousands do. We make our choices, don't we?"

One man bums and dies. Gisel looked quickly at Styliane this time. Nothing to be seen. She knew the story, everyone did. Sarantine Fire in a morning street.

Valerius was shaking his head. "Choices, yes, my love, but they are not arbitrary ones if we are honourable. We serve the god, as we understand him."

"Indeed, my lord," said Leontes crisply, as if trying to draw a sword through the seductive softness of the Empress's voice. "A war in the name of holy Jad is not as other wars." He glanced at Gisel again. "Nor can it be said that the Antae are unfamiliar with invasions."

Of course they weren't. She'd implied as much herself. Her people had conquered the Batiaran peninsula, sacking Rhodias, burning it. Which made it difficult to argue against the idea of an invading army, or ask for mercy. She wasn't doing that. She was trying to steer this towards a truth she knew: if they invaded-and even if this tall, golden general succeeded in the beginning-they would not hold. They would never hold against the Antae, with the Inicii on the borders and Bassania creating another war front as it grasped the implications of a reunited Empire. No, the reclaiming of Rhodias could happen in only one way. And she, in her youth, in her person, a life that could end with a cup of poisoned wine or a silent, secret blade, was that way.

She had such a narrow, twisting path to try to walk here. Leontes, the handsome, pious soldier gazing at her now, was the one who would bring ruin to her country if the Emperor gave him word. In the name of holy Jad, he'd said. Did that make the dead less dead? She could ask them that, but it wasn't the question that mattered now.

"Why have you not spoken with me before?" she said, fighting a sudden, rising panic, looking at Valerius again, the calm, soft-faced man she had invited to marry her. She still had difficulty meeting the gaze of the Empress, though Alixana-of all of them-had been the most welcoming. Nothing here could be taken for what it seemed to be, she kept telling herself. If there was any truth to cling to, it was that.

"We were in negotiation with the usurpers, "Valerius said with brutal frankness. He uses directness as a tool, she thought.

"Ah," she said, hiding discomfiture as best she could. "Were you? How very… prudent."

Valerius shrugged. "An obvious course. It was winter. No armies travel, but couriers do. Foolish not to learn as much as we could about them. And they would have known if we had received you formally here, of course. So we didn't. We did have you watched, guarded against assassination all winter. You must be aware of that. They have spies here-just as you did."

She ignored that last. "They wouldn't have known if we had met like this," she said. Her heart was still pounding.

"We assumed," said the Empress gently, "that you would refuse to be received in any way but as a visiting queen. Which was-and is-your right."

Gisel shook her head. "Should I insist on ceremony when people die?"

"We all do that," said Valerius. "It is all we have at such times, isn't it? Ceremony?"

Gisel looked at him. Their eyes met. She thought suddenly of the cheiromancers and the weary clerics and an old alchemist in a graveyard outside the city walls. Rituals and prayers, when they raised the mound of the dead.

"You should know," the Emperor went on, his voice still mild, "that Eudric in Varena, who calls himself regent now, by the way, has offered an oath of fealty to us and-something new-to begin paying a formal tribute, twice annually. In addition, he has invited us to place advisers in his court, both religious and military."

Details, a great many of them. Gisel closed her eyes. You should know. She hadn't, of course. She was half a world away from her throne and had spent a winter waiting to be seen here in the palace, to have a role to play, to justify her flight. Eudric had won, then. She had always thought he would.

"His conditions," the Emperor continued, "were the predictable ones: that we recognize him as king, and accomplish a single death."

She opened her eyes and looked at him again, unflinching. This was familiar territory, easier for her than they might guess. There had been wagers back home that she would die before winter. They had tried to kill her in the sanctuary. Two people she loved had been slain there, for her.

She was her father's daughter. Gisel lifted her chin and said hardily, "Indeed, my lord Emperor? Sarantine Fire? Or just a knife in the night for me? A small price to pay for such resounding glory, isn't it? A fealty oath! Tribute, advisers? Religious and military? Great Jad be praised! The poets will sing and the years resound with the splendour of it. How could you refuse such glory?"

A rigid silence followed. Valerius's expression changed, only a little, but watching the grey eyes Gisel understood how people might fear this man. She could hear the crackle of the fire in the stillness.

It was Alixana, predictably, who dared speak. "You are bested, love," she said lightly. "She is too clever for you. Now I understand why you won't cast me aside to marry her, or even properly receive her at court."

Someone made a choking sound. Gisel swallowed, hard.

Valerius turned to his wife.

He said nothing, but his expression changed yet again, became odd now, strangely intimate. And a moment later it was Alixana who coloured a little and then looked down.

"I see," she said quietly. "I hadn't actually thought…" She cleared her throat, fingered the necklace she wore. "That wasn't… necessary," she murmured, still looking down. "I am not so fragile as that. My lord."

Gisel had no idea what this meant, suspected no one else did. An intensely private exchange in a public space. She looked from one to the other again and then-quite suddenly-she did understand. Was sure of it.

Things were not what she had taken them to be.

She hadn't been invited to the Imperial Precinct before tonight, not because of negotiations with the usurpers in Varena or any rigidities of protocol, but because the Emperor Valerius was shielding his wife from Gisel's youthful presence and what-in purely formal terms-it meant, or could mean.

They all knew there was a way to simplify this reconquest of the Empire s homeland. She wasn't the only one who had seen it, sending an artisan on the long journey here with a private message. The logic, the sense, of a marriage was overwhelming. And the husband had been overriding the Emperor. Amazingly.

Which meant, if she was right in this sudden line of thought, that she had been admitted here now, tonight, only because… because a different decision had now been made.

Spring was coming. Was here, in fact. She took a breath.

"You are invading us, aren't you?" she said flatly.

Valerius of Sarantium turned from his wife to look at Gisel. His expression grave as a cleric's again, thoughtful as an academician, he said simply, "Yes, in fact, we are. In your name and the god's. I trust you will approve?"

He wasn't really asking, of course. He was telling her. And not just her. Gisel heard, almost felt a ripple pass through the small, luxurious room as men shifted where they stood or sat. The Strategos's nostrils actually flared, like a racehorse's hearing the trumpet. He had surmised, anticipated, but had not known. Until now. She understood. This was the moment of telling that Valerius had just chosen, moving with the moment, the mood, her own arrival here. Or perhaps this entire evening of music among intimates on the trembling brink of springtime had been arranged to achieve this instant, with none of the others knowing, not even his wife. A man who pulled hidden strings, made others dance for his needs, or die.

She looked at Alixana and found the other woman's steady gaze waiting for hers. Gisel, gazing into those depths, imagining what those dark eves could do to a man or a certain kind of woman, understood something else, entirely unexpected: improbable as it was, she had an ally here, someone else who also wanted to find a way to guide them all around this invasion and what it portended. Not that it seemed to matter.

"The Emperor is to be congratulated," a third woman's voice interjected, Styliane's tone cool as the night wind outside. "It seems his taxation officers have been more diligent than rumour suggests. It is a miracle of the god and his regent upon earth that adequate funds for an invasion are in the treasury after all."

The ensuing pause was brittle. Styliane, Gisel thought, had to have extraordinary confidence in her situation to speak in this way, in this company. But she would, wouldn't she? By birth and marriage-and disposition.

Valerius turned to look at her and his expression, remarkably, was amused again. "An Emperor receives the aid he deserves, Saranios once said. I don't know what that suggests about me and my servants, but there are ways of funding a war. We've decided to rescind pay for the eastern army this year. No point bribing Bassania for a peace and paying soldiers to keep it."

Leontes looked startled. He cleared his throat. "This has been decided, my lord?" He had obviously not been consulted.

"A fiscal matter, Strategos. I do wish to meet with you tomorrow to discuss the possibility of offering the soldiers land in the east to settle. We have discussed this in the past, and the Chancellor has now proposed we do it."

Leontes was too experienced to further betray his surprise. "Of course, my lord. I will be here at sunrise. Though I regret that I have been made a liar over something I said this afternoon at the wedding. I promoted the bridegroom and posted him east. Now he loses not only his promised increase in salary but all his income."

Valerius shrugged. "Re-post him. Take the fellow west with you. A small matter, surely."

Leontes shook his head. "I suppose it is. But I never take newly married men to a campaign."

"Commendable, Leontes," said the Empress. "But I'm sure you can make exceptions."

"Bad for an army, exalted lady."

"So is obduracy, surely," said his own wife, from her seat near the Empress. She set down her wine cup. "My dear, really. You obviously think the fellow is competent. Appoint him to your private staff, pay him yourself as you pay the others, post him east to Eubulus as your observer for a year-or until you think it is all right for him to be called west and killed in war."

The crisp precision of this in a woman, Gisel thought, looking from face to face to face, must surely be galling to the men assembled. Then she reconsidered, looking at the Empress. They might be accustomed to such things here-unlike her own court, where a woman speaking with authority could be marked for murder.

On the other hand, Gisel had reigned in Varena, in her own name. Neither of these women did. It mattered. It did represent a difference. And as if to underscore that, Styliane Daleina spoke again. "Forgive me, my lords, this presumption. I was ever too inclined to speak my mind." There was no real contrition in her tone, however.

"A trait of your father's," the Emperor said quietly. "It… need not be a failing."

Need not be, Gisel thought. The room seemed laden and layered with intricacies of past and present and what was to come. Nuances coiling and spreading like incense, subtle and insistent.

Styliane rose and made a graceful obeisance. "Thank you, my lord. I will ask your permission and the Empress's to withdraw. If matters of war and policy are to be discussed, it is proper that I take my leave."

It was, of course. No one spoke to gainsay her. Gisel wondered if she'd expected someone to do so. Her husband? If so, she would be disappointed. Leontes did escort his wife towards the door but turned back to the room as she went out. He looked at the Emperor, and smiled. The two men had known each other, Gisel remembered hearing, from before the day when the first Valerius had been placed upon the throne. Leontes would have been very young then.

"My dear lord," the Strategos said, unable to keep his voice entirely steady, "may I ask that all those here be cautioned that this information is to go no further yet? I can make use of the advantage of time."

"Oh, my dear," said the wife at the Emperor's side, "they will have been preparing for you since long before this child fled her throne. Ask her, if you really need to."

Gisel ignored that, both the child and the fled, and saw that Valerius was looking at her, and she realized belatedly that he was actually waiting for an answer to the question he'd asked of her. I trust you will approve? Formality, a coyrtesy, she thought. Such things mattered to him, it seemed. Worth knowing. He would always be courteous, this man on the Golden Throne. Even as he did exactly what he chose to do and accepted-or courted-any consequences that might fall to others.

"Do I approve?" she repeated. "My lord, of course I do," she lied. "Why else did I sail to Sarantium?"

She sank low in obeisance again, mainly to hide her face now and what was in her eyes. She was seeing the burial mound again, not this elegant, lamplit palace room, was remembering civil war and famine, the festering aftermath of plague, was savagely lamenting the absence of a single living soul she could trust. Wishing, almost, that she had died in Varena, after all, and not lived to hear this question asked of her as she stood utterly alone in a foreign land where her answer-truth or lie- carried no weight or meaning in the world.

"I really do not feel well," said Pertennius of Eubulus, spacing his words with care.

They were in a modest room on the upper floor of the secretary's home. Pertennius lay prostrate on a dark green couch, one hand over his eyes, the other on his stomach. Crispin, at a small window, stood looking down on the empty street. The stars were out, a wind was blowing. There was a fire lit on the hearth. On a desk against the wall between couch and window was an assortment of documents, books, writing implements, papers of different colours and textures.

Scattered among these-Crispin had seen them as soon as he'd entered the room-were his own early sketches for the dome and wall of the Great Sanctuary.

He had wondered how they came to be here, and then remembered that Leontes's secretary was also the official historian of Valerius's building projects. In an unsettling way, Crispin's work was part of his mandate.

Why a bison? Pertennius had said, standing unsteadily in the street outside his door. Why so much of you on the dome?

Both, as it happened, shrewd questions. Crispin, no admirer of the dry-as-dust secretary, had come inside and up the stairs. Challenged, intrigued, both? Probably a waste of time, he realized, glancing over at the recumbent secretary. Pertennius looked genuinely ill. If he'd liked the man more, he might have been sympathetic.

"Too much wine of an afternoon can do that to you," he said mildly. "Especially if one doesn't normally drink."

"I don't," said Pertennius. There was a silence. "She likes you," the secretary added. "More than me."

Crispin turned away from the window. Pertennius had opened his eyes and was looking at Crispin. His gaze and tone were both quite neutral: a historian noting a fact, not a rival making complaint.

Crispin wasn't deceived. Not about this. He shook his head, leaning back against the wall by the window. "Shirin? She likes me, yes, as a link to her father. Not as anything more." He wasn't actually certain that was true, but he thought it was, most of the time. Think of her fingers slipping your tunic up from behind and then sliding back down along your skin. Abruptly, Crispin shook his head again, for a different reason this time. He hesitated, then said, "Shall I tell you what I think?"

Pertennius waited. A listening sort of man, privy to much: in his profession, by his nature. He really didn't look well. Crispin suddenly wished he hadn't come up here. This — wasn't a conversation he wanted to be having. With an inward shrug and a flicker of irritation that he was being placed in this situation-or had placed himself in it-he said, "I think Shirin is tired of being beset by men every time she steps out-of-doors. It makes for a difficult life, though some women might think they want it."

Pertennius nodded slowly, his head heavy on his shoulders. He closed his eyes, struggled to open them again.

"Mortals seek fame," he said sententiously, "unaware of all it means. She needs a… protector. Someone to keep them away."

There was truth to all of this, of course. Crispin decided not to say that a secretary and historian was unlikely to prove sufficient deterrent as an acknowledged lover to achieve that protection. Instead, he murmured, temporizing, "You know there are those who have commissioned love spells from the cheiromancers."

Pertennius made a sour face. "Fob.!" he said. "Magic. It is unholy."

"And it doesn't work," Crispin added.

"You know this?" the other man asked. His eyes were briefly clear.

Aware, suddenly, of a need for caution, Crispin said, "We are taught by the clerics that it doesn't, friend. "Irritated again, he added, "In any case, have you ever seen Shirin wandering the streets before dawn against her will and desire, her hair unbound, compelled to where some man waits in his open doorway?"

"Oh, Jad!" said Pertennius, with feeling. He groaned. Illness and desire, an unholy mix.

Crispin suppressed a smile. Looked out the partly open window again. The air was cool. The street below was empty and silent. He decided to leave, considered asking for an escort. It was not particularly safe to cross the City at night alone and his own house was a distance away.

He said, "You'd do well to get some sleep. We can talk another-"

"Do you know that they worship bison in Sauradia?" said Pertennius abruptly. "It is in Metractes's History of the Rhodian Wars.

Again, Crispin felt a flicker of alarm. His regret at being here grew more intense. "I remember Metractes," he said casually. "I was made to memorize him as a child. Dismally dull."

Pertennius looked offended. "Hardly so, Rhodian! A fine historian. A model for my own histories."

"I beg your pardon," Crispin said quickly. "He is, ah, voluminous, certainly."

"Comprehensive," said Pertennius. He closed his eyes again. The hand came back up to rest over them. "Will this feeling pass?" he asked plaintively.

"In the morning," Crispin said. "With sleep. There is little else to be done for it."

"Am I going to be sick?"

"It is certainly possible," Crispin said. "Do you want to stand by the window?"

"Too far. Tell me about the bison."

Crispin drew a breath. Pertennius's eyes had opened again, were on him. "There is nothing to tell. And everything. How does one explain these things? If words would do, I wouldn't be a mosaicist. It is as the roebuck and the rabbits and the birds and the fish and the foxes and the grain in the fields. I wanted them all on my dome. You have the sketches here, secretary, you can see the design. Jad created the world of animals as well as mortal man. That world lies between walls and walls, west and east, under the hand and eye of the god."

All true, not the truth.

Pertennius made a vague sign of the sun disk. He was visibly struggling to stay awake. "You made it very big."

"They are big," Crispin said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice.

"Ah? You've seen one? And Rhodias is up there too? My dome, you said. Is that pious? Is it… proper in a sanctuary?"

Crispin had his back to the window now, leaning against the ledge. He was about to answer, or try, when he realized there was no need any more. The secretary was asleep on the green couch, still in his sandals and the white garb of a wedding guest.

He took a deep breath, felt an undeniable sense of relief, escape. It was time to go, escort or not, before the other man awoke and asked further questions of this disconcertingly sharp nature. He's harmless, Shirin had said to Crispin on that first day they met. Crispin had disagreed. He still did. He crossed from the window, making for the door. He would send the servant up, to attend to his master.

If he hadn't seen scribbled handwriting across his own sketch on the table, he would have walked out. The temptation was irresistible, however. He paused, glanced quickly again at the sleeping man. Pertennius's mouth had fallen open. Crispin bent over the sketches.

Pertennius-it had to be him-had written a series of cryptic notes all over Crispin's drawings of the dome and wall decorations. The writing was crabbed, almost illegible. These were his notes for himself-not worth bothering with. There was nothing privileged about sketched proposals.

Crispin straightened to go. And as he did his eye fell across another page half-hidden under one of the sketches, written in the same hand, but more carefully, even elegantly, and this time he could read the words.

It was revealed to me by one of the officials of the Master of Offices (a man who cannot here be named for reasons of his life and security) that the Empress, remaining as corrupt as she was in her youth, is known to have certain of the younger Excubitors brought to her in her baths of a morning by her ladies who are, of course, chosen for their own depraved morals. She greets these men wantonly, naked and shameless as when she coupled with animals on the stage, and has the soldiers" clothing stripped from them.

Crispin found that he was having trouble breathing. Very carefully, with another glance at the couch, he shifted the paper a little and read on, in disbelief.

She will have congress with these men, insatiably, sometimes two of them at one time using her like a whore in her own bath while the other women fondle themselves and each other and offer lewd, lascivious encouragement. A virtuous girl from Eubulus, the official told me in great secrecy, was poisoned by the Empress for daring to say that this conduct was impious. Her body has never been found. The unspeakable whore who is now our Empress always has her holy men detained outside the baths in the morning until after the soldiers have been dismissed through a hidden inner door. She then greets the clerics, half-naked, the reek of carnality about her, making a mockery of the morning prayers to holy Jad.

Crispin swallowed hard. He felt a pulse throbbing in his temple. He looked over at the sleeping man. Pertennius was snoring now. He looked ill and grey and helpless. Crispin became aware that his hands were shaking. He released the sheet of paper when it began to rattle in his grasp. He felt rage and fear and-beneath them both like a sounding drum- a growing horror. He thought he might be sick.

He ought to go, he knew. He needed to go from here. But there was a power to this exquisitely phrased vituperation, this venom, that caused him-almost without volition, as if he'd been rendered subject to a dark spell-to leaf to another page.

When the Trakesian farmer who foully murdered to claim the throne for his illiterate relative was finally seated there in his own right, though not his own peasant name (for he abandoned that as a vain effort to abandon the dung smell of the fields), he began to more openly practise his nighttime rites of daemons and black spirits. Ignoring the desperate words of his holy clerics, and ruthlessly destroying those who would not be silent, Petrus of Trakesia, the Night's Emperor, turned the seven palaces of the Imperial Precinct into unholy places, full of savage rituals and blood at darkfall. Then, in a vicious mockery of piety, he declared an intention to build a vast new Sanctuary to the god. He commissioned evil, godless men-foreigners, many of them-to design and decorate it, knowing they would never gainsay his own black purposes. It was truly believed by many in the City in this time that the Trakesian himself conducted rituals of human sacrifice in the unfinished Sanctuary by night when none were allowed but his own licensed confederates. The Empress, besmeared with the blood of innocent victims, would dance for him, it was said, between candles lit in mockery of the holiness of Jad. Then, naked, with the Emperor and others watching, the whore would take an unlit candle from the altar, as she had done in her youth on the stage, and she would lie down in sight of all and…

Crispin crammed the papers back together. It was enough. It was more than enough. He did feel ill now. This unctuous, watchful, so-discreet secretary of the Strategos, this official chronicler of the wars of Valerius's reign and his building projects, with his honoured place in the Imperial Precinct, had been spewing forth in this room the accumulated filth and bile of hatred.

Crispin wondered if these words were ever meant to be read. And when? Would people believe them? Could they shape, in years to come, an impression of truth for those who had never actually known the people of whom these ugly words were written? Was it possible?

It occurred to him that if he but walked from here with a randomly chosen sheaf of these papers in his hand Pertennius of Eubulus would be disgraced, exiled.

Or, very possibly, executed. A death to Crispin's name. Even so, it stayed in his mind to do it, standing there over the cluttered table, breathing hard, imagining these pages as crimson-hued with their hatred, listening to the sleeping man's snores and the snap of the fire and the faint, distant sounds of the night city.

He remembered Valerius, that first night, standing under the stupendous dome Artibasos had achieved. The intelligence and the courtesy of the Emperor as he patiently watched Crispin come to terms with the surface he was being given for his own craft.

He remembered Alixana in her rooms. A rose in gold on a table. The terrible impermanence of beauty. Everything transitory. Make me some-thing that will last, she had said.

Mosaic: a striving after the eternal. He'd realized that she understood that. And had understood even then, that first night, that this woman would be with him always, in some way. That had been before the man now sleeping gape-mouthed on his couch had knocked and entered, bearing a gift from Styliane Daleina.

Crispin remembered-and now understood in a very different way- the devouring glance Pertennius had cast about Alixana's small, rich, fire-lit chamber, and the expression in his eyes when he'd seen the Empress with her hair unbound and seemingly alone with Crispin late at night. The unspeakable whore who is now our Empress.

Abruptly, Crispin left the room.

He went quickly down the stairs. The servant was dozing on a stool in the hallway under an iron wall sconce. He snapped suddenly awake at the sound of footsteps. Sprang up.

"Your master is asleep in his clothing," Crispin said brusquely. "See to him."

He unlocked the front door and went out to where there was cold air and a darkness that appalled him so much less than what he had just read by firelight. He stopped in the middle of the street, looked up, saw stars: so remote, so detached from mortal life, no one could invoke them. He welcomed the cold, rubbing hard at his face with both hands as if to cleanse it.

He suddenly wanted, very much, to be home. Not in the house he'd been given here, but half a world away. Truly home. Beyond Trakesia, Sauradia, the black forests and empty spaces, in Varena again. He wanted Martinian, his mother, other friends too much neglected these past two years, the comfort of the lifelong-known.

False shelter, that. He knew it, even as he shaped the thought. Varena was a cesspool now, as much or more than Sarantium was, a place of murder and civil violence and black suspicions in the palace: without even the possibility of redemption that lay overhead here on the Sanctuary dome.

There was, really, nowhere to hide from what the world seemed to be, unless one played Holy Fool and fled into a desert somewhere, or climbed a crag. And, really, in the great scale and scheme of things-he took another deep breath of the cold night air-how did a fearful, bitter scribe's malevolence and lecherous dishonesty measure against… the death of children? It didn't. It didn't at all.

It occurred to him that sometimes you didn't really arrive at a conclusion about your life, you just discovered that you already had. He wasn't about to flee from all this, let his hair grow wild and his garments stink of unwashed sweat and excrement in the desert while his skin blistered and burned. One lived in the world. Sought what slender grace was to be found, however one defined such things, and accepted that Jad's creation-or Ludan's, the zubir's, or that of any other worshipped power- was not a place where mortal men and women were meant to find tranquil ease. There might be other worlds-some taught as much- better than this, where such harmonies were possible, but he didn't live in one and was not ever going to live in one.

And thinking so, Crispin turned and looked down the street a little way and he saw the torchlit wall of the enormous house adjacent to Pertennius's and the gated courtyard into which an elegant litter had been carried a little time ago, and in the starlit dark he saw that the front door of that house now stood open to the night and a servant woman was there, robed against the chill, a candle in her hand, looking at him.

The woman saw that he had noticed her. Wordlessly, she lifted the candle and gestured with her other hand towards the open doorway.

Crispin had actually wheeled around to face the other way before he'd even realized he was doing so, the movement entirely involuntary. His back to the dark invitation of that light, he stood very still again in the street, but all was changed now, changed utterly, by that open door. To his left, above the handsome stone and brick facades of the houses here, the arc of the starlit dome rose, a serene curve above all these jagged, wounding mortal lines and edges, disdainful of them in its purity.

But made by a mortal man. A man named Artibasos, one of those who lived down here among all the cutting, human interactions of wife, children, friends, patrons, enemies, the angry, indifferent, bitter, blind, dying. Crispin felt the wind rise, imagined the slim serving girl shielding her candle in the open doorway behind him. Visualized his own tread approaching her, passing through that door. Became aware that his heart was pounding. I am not ready for this, he thought, and knew that in one way it was simply untrue, and in another he would never be ready for what lay beyond that door, so the thought was meaningless. But he also understood, alone on a starlit night in Sarantium, that he needed to enter that house.

Need had many guises, and desire was one of them. The jagged edges of mortality. A door his life had brought him to, after all. He turned around.

The girl was still there, waiting. Her task was to wait. He went towards her. No supernatural fires flitted or sparked in the night street now. No human voices came to him, of watchman's cry or night walker's song or faction partisans careening from a distant tavern, heard over the rooftops. There were four torches spaced evenly in iron brackets along the beautifully fashioned stone wall of the great house. The stars were bright above him, the sea behind now, almost as far away. The woman in the doorway was very young, Crispin saw, no more than a girl, fear in her dark eyes as he came up to her.

She held out her candle to him and, without speaking, gestured again inside, towards the stairs which were unlit by any lamps at all. He took a breath, felt the hammering presence of something deep within himself and acknowledged a part, in the heavy current of the moment, of what the intensity of this stirring meant. The fury of mortality. Darkness, some light carried, but not very much.

He took the flame from the girl's cold fingers and went up the winding stair.

There was no illumination but his own, throwing his moving shadow against the wall, until he reached the upper landing and turned and saw a glow-orange, crimson, yellow, rippled gold-through the partly opened door of a room along the corridor. Crispin remained still for a long moment, then he blew out his candle and set it down: a blue-veined marble-topped table, iron feet like lion's paws. He went down the hallway, thinking of stars and the cold wind outside and his wife when she died and before, and then of the night last autumn here when a woman had been waiting for him in his room before dawn, a blade in her hand.

He came to her door now through this dark house, pushed it open, entered, saw lamps, the fire, low and red, a wide bed. He leaned back against the door, closing it with his body, his heart drumming in his chest, his mouth dry. She turned; had been standing by a window over an inner courtyard.

Her long pale golden hair was unpinned and down, all her jewellery removed. She wore a robe of whitest silk, a bride's night raiment. In bitter irony, in need?

His vision actually blurred with apprehension and desire, seeing her, his breath coming ragged and quick. He feared this woman and almost hated her and he felt that he might die if he did not have her.

She met him in the middle of the room. He was unaware of having stepped forward, time moving in spasms, as in a fever dream. Neither of them spoke. He saw the fierce, hard blue of her eyes, but then she suddenly twisted and lowered her head, exposing her neck like a wolf or a dog in submission. And then before he could even react, respond, try to understand, she had lifted her head again, the eyes uncanny, and took his mouth with her own as she had done once, half a year ago.

She bit him this time, hard. Crispin swore, tasted his own blood. She laughed, made to draw back. He cursed again, aroused beyond words, intoxicated, and held her by the curtain of her hair, pulling her back to him. And this time as they kissed he saw her eyes fall shut, her lips part, a pulsing in her throat, and Styliane's face in the flickering firelight of her room was white as her robe, as a flag of surrender.

There was none, however. No surrendering. He had never known lovemaking as a battle before, each kiss, touch, coming together, twisting apart for desperate breath an engagement of forces, the need for the other hopelessly entangled with anger and a fear of never coming back out, never controlling oneself again. She provoked him effortlessly, would approach, touch, withdraw, return, lowered her neck again once in that brief, submissive averting-her throat long and sleek, the skin smooth and scented and young in the night-and he felt a sudden, genuinely shocking tenderness entwine with anger and desire. But then she lifted her head again, the eyes brilliant, mouth wide, and her hands raked his back as they kissed. Then, very swiftly, she lifted his hand and, twisting away, bit him there.

He was a worker in mosaic, in glass and tile and light. His hands were his life. He snarled something incoherent, lifted her off the ground, carried her before him to the high, canopied bed. He stood a moment there, holding her in his arms, and then he laid her down. She looked up at him, light caught in her eyes, changing them. Her robe was torn at one shoulder. He had done that. He saw the shadowed curve of her breast with the firelight upon it.

She said: "Are you certain?"

He blinked. 'What?

He would remember her smile then, all that it meant and said about Styliane. She murmured, ironic, assured, but bitter as the ashes of a long-ago fire, "Certain it isn't an empress or a queen you want, Rhodian?"

He was speechless a moment, looking down upon her, his breath caught as on a fishhook embedded in his chest. He became aware that his hands were shaking.

"Very certain," he whispered hoarsely, and pulled his own white tunic over his head. She lay motionless a moment then lifted one hand and traced a long finger lightly, slowly down his body, a single straight movement, illusion of simplicity, of order in the world. He could see that she was struggling hard for her own control, though, and that added to his desire.

Very certain. It was entirely true, and yet hopelessly not so, for where could certainty lie in the world in which they lived? The clean, straight movement of her finger was not the movement of their lives. It didn't matter, he told himself. Not tonight.

He let the questions and the losses slip from him. He lowered himself upon her and she guided him hard into her, and then those long slender arms and her long legs were wrapped around his body, hands gripping in his hair and then moving up and down his back, mouth at his ear whispering things, over and again, rapid and needful, until her own breathing grew more ragged and terribly urgent, exactly as his own. He knew he must be hurting her but heard her cry out harshly only as her body curved upwards in its own arc and lifted him with her for that moment, away from all the jagged edges and the broken lines.

He saw tears startle like diamonds on her cheekbones and he knew- knew-that even consumed like a burning taper by desire she was raging within against the revealed weakness of that, the dimensions of longing betrayed. She could kill him now, he thought, as easily as kiss him again. Not a haven, this woman, this room, not a shelter of any kind at all, but a destination he'd needed overwhelmingly to reach and could not, by any means, deny: these bitter, furious complexities of human need, down here beneath the perfect dome and the stars.

"You have no dread of high places, I may assume?"

Lying beside each other. Some of her golden hair across his face, tickling a little. One of her hands on his thigh. Her face was averted, he could see only a profile as she stared at the ceiling. There was a mosaic there, he now saw, and abruptly remembered Siroes who had made it, whose hands had been broken by this woman for his failings.

"A fear of heights? It would be an impediment in my work. Why?"

"You'll leave through the window. He may be home soon, with his own servants. Go down the wall and across the courtyard to the far end by the street. There is a tree to climb. It will take you to the top of the outer wall."

"Am I leaving now?"

She turned her head then. He saw her mouth quirk a little. "I hope not," she murmured. Though you may have to depart in haste if we delay too long."

"Would he… come in?"

She shook her head. "Unlikely."

"People die because of unlikely things."

She laughed at that. "True enough. And he would feel compelled to kill you, I suppose."

This surprised him a little. He'd somehow concluded that these two- the Strategos and his aristocratic prize-had their shared understandings in matters of fidelity. That servant with her candle, visible to the street in the open doorway…

He was silent.

"Do I frighten you?" She was looking at him now.

Crispin shifted to face her. There seemed no reason to dissemble. He nodded his head. "But in yourself, not because of your husband." She held his glance a moment and then, unexpectedly, looked away. He said, after a pause, "I wish I liked you more."

"Liking? A trivial feeling," she said, too quickly. "It has little to do with this."

He shook his head. "Friendship begins with it, if desire doesn't."

Styliane turned back to him. "I have been a better friend than you know," she said. "From the outset. I did tell you not to become attached to any work on that dome."

She had said that, without explaining it. He opened his mouth but she held up a finger and laid it against his lips. "No questions. But remember."

"An impossibility," he said. "Not to be attached."

She shrugged. "Ah. Well. I am helpless against impossibilities, of course."

She shivered suddenly, exposed to the cold air, her skin still damp from lovemaking. He glanced across the room. Rose from the bed and tended to the guttering fire, adding logs, shifting them. It took him a few moments, building it up again. When he stood, naked and warmed, he saw that she was propped on one elbow, watching him with a frank, appraising gaze. He felt abruptly self-conscious, saw her smile, seeing that.

He crossed back towards the bed and stood beside it, looking down at her. Without shame or evasion she lay, unclothed and uncovered, and let him track with his gaze the curves and lines of her body, arc of hip, of breast, the fine bones of her face. He felt the stirrings of desire again, irresistible as tides.

Her smile deepened as her glance flicked downwards. Her voice, when she spoke, was husky again. "I did hope you weren't in haste to find the courtyard and the tree." And she reached out with one hand and stroked his sex, drawing him to the bed and back to her that way.

And this time, in a slower, more intricate dance, she did eventually show him-as she'd offered half a year ago-how Leontes liked to use a pillow, and he discovered something new about himself, then, and illusions of civility. At one point, later, he found himself doing something to her he'd only ever done for Ilandra, and it came to him, feeling her hands tightening in his hair, hearing her whispering a stream of incoherent words as if unwilling, compelled, that one might feel the sadness of loss, of absence, love and shelter gone, but not be endlessly consumed and destroyed as by an ongoing lightning bolt of tragedy. Living was not, in and of itself, a betrayal.

Some had tried to tell him this before, he knew.

She made a higher sound then, on a taken breath, as if in pain, or fighting something. She drew him up and into her again, her eyes tightly closed, hands pulling him, and then swiftly turned them both together so she rode upon him now, harder and harder, imperative, her body glistening in the firelight. He reached up and touched her breasts, spoke her name, once: resisting that but impelled, exactly as she had been. Then he gripped her hips and let her begin to drive them both, and at length he heard her cry aloud and opened his eyes to see that arcing of her body again, the skin taut across her ribs as she bent back above him like a bow. There were tears on her cheeks, as before, but this time he reached up and drew her slowly down and kissed them, and she allowed him to do so.

And it was then, lying upon him in an aftermath, her body shaking, and his, her hair covering them both, that Styliane whispered without warning, eerily gentle in his memory of the moment after, "They will invade your country later in the spring. No one knows yet. It was announced to some of us tonight in the palace. Certain events must happen now. I will not say I am sorry. A thing was done once, and all else follows. Remember this room, though, Rhodian. Whatever else. Whatever else I do."

In his confusion, his mind not yet working properly, the sudden knife's blade of fear, all he could say was, "Rhodian? Only that? Still?"

She lay upon him, not moving now. He could feel the beating of her heart. "Rhodian," she repeated, after a considering silence. "I am what I've been made to be. Don't be deceived."

Then why were you weeping? he wanted to ask, but didn't. He would remember these words, too, all of them, and the straining backwards arcing of her body and those bitter tears at her own exposed need. But in the silence that came after she spoke what they both heard was the front door down below closing heavily, reverberating.

Styliane shifted a little. Somehow he knew she would be smiling, that wry, ironic smile. "A good husband. He always lets me know when he comes home."

Crispin stared at her. She looked back, eyes wide, still amused. "Oh dear. Really. You think Leontes wants to spend his nights killing people? There's a knife in here somewhere. You want to fight him for my honour?"

So there was an agreement between them. Of some kind. He really wasn't understanding these two at all, was he? Crispin felt heavy-headed and tired now, and afraid: A thing was done once. But a door had slammed, down below, leaving no space for sorting matters through. He stumbled from the bed, began to dress. She watched him calmly, smoothing the sheets about her, her hair spread out on the pillows. He saw her drop her torn garment on the floor, not bothering to hide it further.

He adjusted his tunic and belt, knelt and quickly tied his sandals. When he stood again, he looked at her for a moment. The firelight was low again, the candles burnt out. Her naked body was chastely covered by the bed linens. She sat propped on pillows, motionless, receiving and returning his gaze. And Crispin abruptly realized then that there was a kind of defiance in this, as much as anything else, and understood that she was very young, and how easy it was to forget that.

"Don't deceive yourself," he said. "While trying so hard to control the rest of us. You are more than the sum of your plans." He wasn't even sure what that meant.

She shook her head impatiently. "None of that matters. I am an instrument."

His expression wry, he said, "A prize, you told me last time. An instrument tonight. What else should I know?" But there was an odd, entirely unexpected ache in him now, looking at her.

She opened her mouth and closed it. He saw that she'd been taken off guard, heard footsteps in the hallway outside.

"Crispin," she said, pointing to the window. "Go. Please."

It was only when he was crossing the courtyard, past the fountain, making for the indicated olive tree at the corner near the street, that he realized she'd spoken his name.

He climbed the tree, crossed to the top of the wall. The white moon was up now, halfway to full. He sat on a stone wall above the dark, empty street, and he was remembering Zoticus, and the boy he'd once been himself, crossing from wall to tree. The boy, and then the man. He thought of Linon, could almost hear her commenting on what had just passed. Or perhaps he was wrong: perhaps she would have understood that there were elements here more complex than simple desire.

Then he laughed a little, under his breath, ruefully. For that was wrong, too: there was nothing the least simple about desire. He looked up and saw a figure silhouetted in the window he'd just left. Leontes. The window was pulled shut, the curtains drawn in Styliane's bedroom. Crispin sat motionless, hidden upon a wall.

He looked across the street and saw the dome rising above the houses. Artibasos's dome, the Emperor's, Jad's. Crispin's own? Below-a flicker at the corner of his eye-one of those utterly inexplicable eruptions of flame that defined Sarantium at night appeared in the street and vanished, like dreams or human lives and their memory. What, Crispin wondered, was ever left behind?

They will invade your country later in the spring.

He didn't go home. Home was very far away. He jumped down from the wall, went across the street, cutting up a long dark lane. A prostitute called to him from shadow, her voice a kind of song in the night. He kept going, following an angling of the laneway, and eventually came to where it opened onto the square across from the Imperial Precinct gates, with the front of the Sanctuary on his right. There were guards on the portico, all night long. They knew him as he approached, nodded, opened one of the massive doors. There was light inside. Enough to let him work.

CHAPTER VI

Same hour of night, same wind, four men walking elsewhere in the City, under that risen moon.

It was never entirely safe in Sarantium after nightfall, but a party of four could feel reasonably secure. Two of them carried heavy sticks. They walked briskly enough in the cold, slowed somewhat, as the road sloped downwards and then back up, by wine consumed and the bad foot one of them dragged. The oldest, small and portly, was wrapped in a heavy cloak to his chin but swore whenever the wind gusted and sent debris tumbling down the dark street.

The were women abroad, too, in doorways for shelter, for they wore too little clothing in the nature of their profession. A number of them could be seen lingering with the unhoused beggars by the heat of the bakers" ovens.

One of the younger men showed an inclination to slow down here, but the one in the cloak rasped an oath and they kept moving. A woman-a girl, really-followed them a little way and then stopped, standing alone in the street before retreating to the warmth. As she did, she saw an enormous litter carried by eight bearers-not the usual four or six-come around a corner and then move down the street, following the four men. She knew better than to call out after this aristocrat. If such as these wanted a woman, they made their own choices. If they did call one over to the curtained litter, it wasn't necessarily safe for the girl. The wealthy had their own rules here, as elsewhere.

None of the men walking were sober. They had been given wine at the end of a wedding feast by the hostess, and had only just emerged from a noisy tavern where the oldest one had bought several more flasks for all of them to share.

It was a long walk now, but Kyros didn't mind. Strumosus had been astonishingly genial in the tavern, discoursing volubly upon eel and venison, and the proper marriage of sauce and principal dish as recorded by Aspalius four hundred years ago. Kyros and the others had been aware that their master was pleased with how the day had unfolded.

Or he had been until they'd stepped back outside and realized just how cold it was now, and how late, with a long way yet through the windy streets to the Blues" compound.

Kyros, reasonably immune to the chill, as it happened, was too exhilarated to care: the combination of a successful banquet, too much wine, intense images of their hostess-her scent, smile, words about his own work in the kitchen-and then Strumosus's affable, expansive mood in the tavern. This was one of the very good days, Kyros decided. He wished he were a poet, that he could put some of these tumbling-about feelings into words.

There was a clatter of noise ahead. Half a dozen young men spilled from the low door of a tavern. It was too dark to see them clearly: if they were Greens this could be dangerous, with the season soon to start and anticipation rising. If they had to run, Kyros knew he would be the problem. The four men bunched themselves more closely together.

Unnecessarily, as it turned out. The tavern party meandered untidily down the hill towards the waterfront, attempting a marching song of the day. Not Greens. Soldiers on leave in the City. Kyros drew a relieved breath. He glanced back over his shoulder-and so he was the one who saw the litter following behind them in the darkness.

He said nothing, walked on with the others. Laughed dutifully at Rasic's too-loud joke about the inebriated soldiers-one of them had stopped to be sick in a shop doorway. Kyros looked back again as they turned a corner, passing a sandal shop and a yogurt stand, both long since closed for the night: the litter came around the corner, keeping pace with them. It was very large. Eight men carried it. The curtains were drawn on both sides.

Kyros felt a queasy apprehension. Litters at night weren't at all unusual-the well-to-do tended to use them, especially when it was cold. But this one was moving too precisely at their own speed and going exactly where they went. When it followed them diagonally across a square, around the central fountain, and then up the steep street on the opposite side, Kyros cleared his throat and touched Strumosus on the arm.

"I think…" he began, as the chef looked at him. He swallowed. "It is possible we're being followed."

The other three stopped and looked back. The litter immediately halted, the dark-clad bearers motionless and silent. The street was empty around them. Closed doors, closed shop fronts, four men standing together, a patrician's curtained litter, silence, nothing else.

The white moon hung overhead above a small chapel's copper dome. From a distance there came the flaring sound of sudden, raucous laughter. Another inn, patrons leaving. Then that sound faded away.

In the stillness the three young men heard Strumosus of Amoria let out a long breath, then swear, quietly but with intense feeling.

"Stay where you are," he told them. And he walked back towards the litter.

"Fuck," whispered Rasic, for want of anything better to say. Kyros felt it too: a sense of menace, oppression.

They were silent, watching the little chef. Strumosus approached the litter. None of the bearers moved or spoke. The chef stopped by the drawn curtains on one side. He appeared to be speaking, but they couldn't hear him, or any reply from within. Then Kyros saw the curtain lifted and pulled back slightly. He had no idea who was inside, man or woman, or more than one person-the litter was easily large enough for that. He did know that he was afraid now.

"Fuck," said Rasic again, watching.

"Fuck," Mergius echoed.

"Shut up," Kyros said, uncharacteristically. "Both of you."

Strumosus appeared to be speaking again, then listening. Then he folded his arms across his chest and said something else. After a moment the curtain fell closed, and a moment later the litter was turned around and began to move the other way, back down towards the square. Strumosus stayed where he was, watching, until it disappeared beyond the fountain. He walked back to the three young men. Kyros could see that he was disturbed, but he didn't dare ask any questions.

"Who in the god's name was that?" Rasic said, not feeling the same compunction.

Strumosus ignored him, as if the young man hadn't even spoken. He started walking; they fell in stride with him. No one said anything more, not even Rasic. They came to the compound without further incident, were known by torchlight and admitted.

"Good night," Strumosus said to the three of them, at the entrance to the dormitory. Then he walked away without waiting for a response.

Rasic and Mergius went up the steps and in, but Kyros lingered on the porch. He saw that the chef did not go towards his private rooms. Instead, he walked across the courtyard to the kitchens. A moment later Kyros saw lamps being lit there. He wanted to go over but did not. Too much presumption. After another moment, he took a last breath of the cold air and stepped inside after the others. He went to bed. Didn't sleep for a long time. A very good day and night had been, obscurely, changed into something else.

In the kitchen, Strumosus of Amoria moved with precision to build up the fire, light the lamps, pour himself a cup of wine. He watered it judiciously, then took a knife, sharpened it, and rhythmically chopped vegetables. He cracked two eggs, added the vegetables, sea salt, a generous pinch of expensive eastern pepper. He beat the mixture in a small, chipped bowl he'd had for years and used only for himself. Heated a saucepan on a grate placed over the cooking fire, drizzled olive oil into it, and made himself a flat-bottomed egg dish, nipping it intuitively. He set the saucepan down on a stone surface and selected a white-and-blue patterned plate from a shelf. He transferred his swift creation to the plate, decorated the surface with flower petals and mint leaves and then paused briefly to evaluate the effect. A chef who is careless about how he feeds himself, he was fond of telling his assistants, will become careless about feeding others.

He wasn't hungry at all, but he was disturbed and had needed to cook, and once a dish had been well made it was very much a crime in his interpretation of Jad's created world not to enjoy it. He sat on a high stool at the work island in the centre of the room and ate alone, drinking the wine, refilling his cup, watching the white moon's light falling on the courtyard outside. He'd thought Kyros might come over here and wouldn't entirely have minded company, but the boy lacked-as yet- confidence to go with his perceptiveness.

Strumosus realized that his wine cup was empty again. He hesitated, then refilled it, mixing less water than before. It was rare for him to drink this much, but he didn't often have an encounter like the one in the street just now.

He'd been offered a job and had refused. Two such proposals today, in fact. First from the young dancer, and then in the dark just now. Not a problem, those, in themselves. It happened often. People knew of him, desired his services, some had the money to pay him. He was happy here with the Blues, however. It wasn't an aristocratic kitchen but it was an important one, and he had a chance to play a role in changing perceptions about his own art and passion. It was said that the Greens were now searching for a master chef. Strumosus had been amused and pleased.

But the person who'd made him the offer from inside that sumptuous litter was different. Someone he knew very well, in fact, and memories-including those of his own deferential, complicitous silences on certain matters in times past-were with him now. The past does not leave us until we die, Protonias had written long ago, and then we become someone rise's memories, until they die. For most men it is all that endures after them. The gods have made it so.

The old gods themselves were almost gone now, Strumosus thought, looking at his wine cup. And how many living souls remembered Protonias of Trakesia? How did a man leave a name?

He sighed, looking around his familiar kitchen, every corner of it thought out, allocated, an imposing of order in the world. Something is about to happen, the little chef thought suddenly, alone in a circle of lamps. He'd thought he knew what it was-hadn't been shy about offering his views. A war in the west: what thinking man could miss the signs?

But sometimes thought and observation were not the keys. Sometimes the locked doors were opened by something within the blood, in the soul, in dream.

He wasn't so sure any more of what it was that was approaching. But he did know that if Lysippus the Calysian was in Sarantium again, and moving about in his litter in the darkness, that blood and dream would be part of it.

Someone else's memories, until they die.

He wasn't afraid for himself, but it did cross his mind to wonder if he should be.

It was time to go to bed. He didn't want to go to bed. He ended up dozing where he sat on his stool, bent forward, the plate and cup pushed away, his head pillowed on his folded arms as the lamps burned slowly down and the dark drew back in.

In the heart of that same night, the wind so keen outside it seemed the god was withholding spring from his world, a man and a woman were drinking spiced wine by a fire on their wedding night.

The woman sat on a backless, cushioned seat, the man on the floor by her feet, his head resting against her thigh. They watched the flames in a silence characteristic of her but unusual for him. It had been a very long day. One of her hands rested lightly on his shoulder. Both of them were remembering other flames, other rooms; a slight awkwardness inhabited the place, an awareness of the other chamber-and the bed- just beyond the beaded arch of a door.

He said, at length, "You haven't worn that scent before, have you? You don't wear any perfume usually. Do you?"

She shook her head, then realizing he couldn't see her, murmured, "No." And, after a hesitation, "It's Shirin's. She insisted I wear it tonight."

He turned his head then and looked up at her, his eyes wide. "Hers? Then… it's the Empress's perfume?"

Kasia nodded. "Shirin said I should feel like royalty tonight." She managed a smile. "I think it is safe. Unless you've invited guests."

Their guests had left them some time ago at the front door, departing with bawdy jests and a ragged soldiers" chorus of one particularly obscene song.

Carullus, newly appointed chiliarch of the Second Calysian Cavalry, chuckled briefly, then fell silent.

"I can't imagine wanting anyone else to be with me," he said quietly. And then, "And you don't need Alixana's scent to be royal here."

Kasia made a wry face, an expression from her past, at home. She seemed to be recovering those aspects of herself, slowly. "You are a flatterer, soldier. Did that work on the girls in taverns?"

She had been a girl in a tavern.

He shook his head, still serious, intent. "Never said it. Never had a wife."

Her expression changed, but he was looking into the fire again and couldn't see it. She looked down at him. At this soldier, this husband. A big man, black hair, broad shoulders, thick hands, a burly chest. And she abruptly realized, wondering at it, that he was afraid of her, of hurting or distressing her.

Something twisted, oddly, within Kasia then as the firelight danced. There had been a pool of water once, far in the north. She would go there to be alone. Erimitsu: the clever one. Too sharp, disdainful. Before the plague and then an autumn road with her mother standing among falling leaves watching them lead her away, roped to the other girls.

The gods of the north, those windswept open spaces, or Jad, or the zubir of the southern Aldwood-someone or something had led her to this room. There seemed to be shelter here. A fire, walls. A man sitting-quietly on the floor at her feet. A place out of the wind, for once.

It was a gift, it was a gift. The twist in her heart tightened as she looked down. A gift. Her hand, in turn, tightened on his shoulder, moved to brush his hair.

"You do now," she said. "You have a wife now. Will you not take her to bed?"

"Oh, Jad!" he said, releasing his breath in a rush, as if he'd been holding it for a long time.

She actually laughed. Another gift.

Mardoch of the First Amorian Infantry, summoned north from the borderlands to Deapolis with his company-none of the officers would say for certain why, though everyone had guesses-was half convinced he'd been poisoned by something he'd eaten in one of the cauponae they'd sampled tonight. Wretched luck. His very first leave in the City, after six months in the Emperor's army, and he was sick as a Bassanid dog, with the older men laughing at him.

A few of the others had waited the first two times he'd been forced to stop and heave his guts in a shop doorway, but when his belly churned again and he slowly recovered to stand precariously upright, wiping his wet chin, shivering against a wall in the butt-freezing wind, he discovered that the bastards had gone on without him this time. He listened, heard singing voices somewhere ahead, and pushed off from the wall to follow.

He was far from sober, in addition to the extreme disarray of his internal organs. He soon lost track of the singing and he had no real idea where he was. He decided he'd head back towards the water-they'd been going that way in any case-and find either another caupona or their inn or a girl. The white moon had to be east, which gave him a direction. He didn't feel as sick any more, either, which was a blessing of bright Heladikos, ever the soldier's friend.

It was cold, though, and the downward-sloping way seemed longer and the lanes more twisty than earlier in the evening. It was strangely difficult to keep going in the proper direction. He kept seeing those eerie flames as he went, appearing, disappearing. You weren't supposed to talk about them, but they were unsettling, in the extreme. Made him jump, they did. Mardoch kept walking, cursing under his breath.

When a litter he hadn't seen or heard pulled up beside him and a clipped, aristocratic voice from inside asked if a citizen could assist a brave soldier of the Empire, he was entirely happy to accede.

He achieved a salute, then climbed inside as one of the big bearers pulled the curtain back for him. Mardoch settled himself on plump cushions, aware of his own unsavoury smell, suddenly. The man inside was even bigger than the litter-bearer-stupefyingly so, in fact. He was huge. It was very dark when the curtain fell back, and there was a sweetish scent, some perfume that threatened to churn Mardoch's stomach again.

"You are heading for the waterfront, I assume?" the patrician asked.

" "Course I am," Mardoch snorted. "Where else'll a soldier find a whore he can afford? Begging your lordship's pardon."

"Best to be careful of the women there," the man said. His voice was distinctive, curiously high-pitched, very precise.

"Everyone says that." Mardoch shrugged. It was warm here, the pillows were astonishingly soft. He could almost sleep. In the dark it was hard to make out the details of the man's face. The bulk of him was what registered.

"Everyone is wise. Will you take wine?"

Two days later, when muster was taken in Deapolis among the First Amorians, Mardoch of Sarnica would be among three men reported missing and routinely declared a deserter. It did happen when the young country soldiers went into the City and were exposed to what it offered in the way of temptation. They were all warned, of course, before being allowed to go on leave. Recaptured men could be blinded or maimed for desertion, depending on their officers. For a first offence and a voluntary return, you would probably just be whipped. But with rumours of war growing and the frenzy of building in the shipyards in Deapolis and on the other side of the strait, past the small forested islands, the soldiers knew that those who didn't return on their own might expect much worse when they were tracked down. Men were killed for deserting in wartime.

Within another day or two some of the rumours would become more specific. The eastern army was losing half its pay, it was said. Then someone heard they'd lose all of it. Some business about farmland granted to compensate. Farmland at the edge of the desert? No one found it amusing. Those plans were said to be for those who stayed behind in the east. The rest of them were going to war — in those boats being slapped together much too quickly for an infantryman's comfort. That was why they'd been ordered to Deapolis. To sail that long way west, far from home, to Batiara, to fight the Antae or the Inicii — those savage, godless tribes that ate their enemies" cooked flesh and drank their hot blood, or gouged knife slits in bellies and raped soldiers in there before gelding and skinning them and hanging them from oak trees by their hair.

Two of the three missing soldiers would come back to the company on that second day, white-faced and apprehensive, badly the worse for drinking binges. They would take their lashes, be routinely salved by the company physician with wine in the wounds and down their throats. Mardoch of Sarnica didn't return, was never found, in fact. A lucky bastard, some of his companions would decide, looking anxiously at the boats being built.

"Will you take wine?" Mardoch heard the light, clipped voice ask him in the shadowed warmth of the enclosed litter. The movement of the bearers was steady, soothing.

Silly question to ask a soldier. Of course he'd take wine. The cup was heavy, had jewels set into it. The wine was dark and good. The other man watched him as Mardoch drained the cup.

When he held it out for more, the enormous patrician shook his head slowly in the close, scented darkness. "That will be sufficient, I think," the man said. Mardoch blinked. He had a blurred, confused sense that a hand was lying on his thigh, and it wasn't his own. "Fuck off," he thought he said.

Rustem was a physician, and had spent too much time in Ispahani to be shocked or startled by iron rings set into bedposts or the other, more delicate devices he found in the room they showed him to in the Senator's small, elegant guest-house near the triple walls.

This was, he concluded, a bedroom wherein Plautus Bonosus was evidently inclined to amuse himself away from the comfort-and the constraints-of his family.

It was hardly unusual: aristocrats all over the world did variants of the same thing if they lived in circumstances that allowed for some privacy. Kerakek had no such houses, of course. Everyone in a village knew what everyone else was doing, from the fortress on down.

Rustem placed the series of thin golden rings-designed, he had belatedly realized, to fit over the shafts of variously sized male sexual organs-back into their leather bag. He pulled the drawstrings closed and replaced the bag beside the silken scarves and lengths of thin cord and a number of more obscure objects in the brass-lined trunk from which he'd taken it. The trunk hadn't been locked, and the room was now his own, as a guest of the Senator. He'd felt no guilt about looking around while arranging his own belongings. He was a spy for the King of Kings. He needed to become skilful at this. Scruples would have to be expunged. Would Great Shirvan and his advisers be interested to learn of the night-time inclinations of the Master of the Sarantine Senate?

Rustem closed the trunk and glanced over at the subsiding fire. He could stoke it himself, of course, but he made a different decision. The objects he had just observed and held had induced unusual feelings, and an awareness of just how far away he was from his own wives. Despite the fatigue attendant upon a long and turbulent day-with a death at the outset-Rustem noted, with professional expertise, the signs of arousal within himself.

He went to the door, opened it, and called down for someone to build up the fire. It was a small house. He heard an immediate reply from below stairs. With some satisfaction he saw the young serving girl-Elita, she'd named herself earlier-enter the room, eyes deferentially lowered, a few moments afterwards. He'd thought it might be the rather officious steward, but that fellow was clearly above such duties and probably asleep already. The hour was late.

Rustem sat in the window seat and watched the woman attend to the flames and sweep the ashes. When she'd done and had risen to her feet, he said mildly,'I tend to be cold at night, girl. I should prefer you to stay."

She flushed, but made no demur. He'd known she wouldn't, not in a house of this sort. And he was an honoured guest.

She proved to be soft, agreeably warm, compliant if not truly adept. He preferred that, in a way. If he'd wanted extreme carnal experience he'd have inquired after an expensive prostitute. This was Sarantium. One could get anything here, word was. Anything in the world. He treated the girl kindly, letting her stay in the bed with him after. Her own was certainly going to be no more than a pallet in a cold room below, and they could hear the wind outside.

It did occur to him, as he felt his mind beginning to drift, that the servants might have been instructed to keep a watchful eye on this visiting Bassanid-which would explain the girl's acquiescence as easily as anything else. There was something amusing in that, and something disturbing, too. He was too tired to sort it through. He fell asleep. He dreamed of his daughter, the one he was losing as the King of Kings raised him to glory and the priestly caste.

The girl, Elita, was still with him some time later when the entire house was roused by an urgent pounding and a shouting at the door in the depths of the night.

Moving in a litter through darkness from the Imperial Precinct to her own city home, an unexpected escort riding beside her, Gisel decided, long before they arrived, what she intended to do.

She thought that she might in time be able to reclaim some pride in that fact: it would be her choice, her decision made. That didn't mean that anything she did would necessarily succeed. With so many other plans and schemes now in place-here and back home-the odds were overwhelmingly against her. They always had been, from the time her father died and the Antae had reluctantly crowned his only living child. But at least she could think, act, not bob like a small boat on the great wave of events.

She had known, for example, exactly what she was doing when she sent an angry, bitter artisan halfway across the world with a proposal of marriage to the Emperor of Sarantium. She remembered standing before that man, Caius Crispus, alone at night in her palace, letting him look- demanding that he gaze his fill of her.

You may tell the Emperor you have seen the queen of the Antae very near…

She flushed, remembering that. After what she'd encountered in the palace tonight, the measure of her innocence was clear. It was past time to lose some of that innocence. But she couldn't even really say what plan tonight's decision-with the unworthy thread of fear still in it-might further. She only knew she was going to do it.

She lifted the curtain a little, could see the horse still keeping pace beside her litter. She recognized a chapel door. They were nearing her house. Gisel took a deep breath, tried to be amused at her fear, this primitive anxiety.

It was simply a question, she told herself, of putting something new into play, something that came from her, to see what ripples it might create. In this tumble and rush of huge events, one used whatever came to hand or mind-as always-and she had decided to treat her own body as a piece in the game. In play.

Queens lacked, really, the luxury to think of themselves otherwise. In an elegant room in a palace tonight, the Emperor of Sarantium had taken away from her any lingering illusions about consultation, negotiation diplomacy, anything that might forestall for Batiara the iron-edged truth of war.

Seeing him in that exquisite small chamber with his Empress, seeing her, had also removed certain other illusions. In that astonishing room, with its fabrics and wall hangings and silver candlesticks, amid mahogany and sandalwood, and leather from Soriyya, and incense, with a golden sun disk on the wall above each door and a golden tree wherein sat a score of jewelled birds, Gisel had felt as if the souls in the room were at the very centre of the spinning world. Here was the heart of things. Sudden, violent images of the future had seemed to dance and whirl in the fire-lit air, hurtling past at a dizzying speed along the walls while the room itself remained, somehow, motionless as those birds on the golden branches of the Emperor's tree.

Valerius was going to war in Batiara.

It had been resolved in his mind long ago, Gisel finally understood. He was a man who made his own decisions, and his gaze was on generations yet to be born as much as on those he ruled today. She had met him now, she could see it.

She herself, her presence here, might be of assistance or might not. A tactical tool. It didn't matter, not in the larger scheme. Neither did anyone else's views. Not the Strategos's, the Chancellor's, not even Alixana's.

The Emperor of Sarantium, contemplative and courteous and very sure of himself, had a vision: of Rhodias reclaimed, the sundered Empire remade. Visions on this scale could be dangerous; such ambition carried all before it sometimes. He wants to leave a name, Gisel had thought, kneeling before him to hide her face, and then rising again, her composure intact. He wants to be remembered for this.

Men were like that. Even the wise ones. Her father no exception. A dread of dying and being forgotten. Lost to the memory of the world as it went mercilessly on without them. Gisel searched within herself and found no such burning need. She didn't want to be hated or scorned when Jad called her to him behind the sun, but she felt no fierce passion to have her name sung down the echoing years or have her face and form reserved in mosaic or marble forever-or for however long stone and glass could endure.

What she liked, she realized wistfully, was the idea of rest at the end, when it came. Her body beside her father's in that modest sanctuary outside Varena's walls, her soul in grace with the god the Antae had adopted. Was such grace allowed? The possibility of it?

Earlier, in the palace, meeting the watchful eyes of the eunuch Chancellor Gesius for a moment, Gisel had thought she'd seen pity and understanding, both. A man who'd survived to serve three Emperors in his day would have some knowledge of the turnings of the world.

But Gisel was still inside these turnings, still young and alive, far from detached serenity or grace. Anger caught in her throat. She hated the very idea that someone might pity her. An Antae, a queen of the Antae? Hildric's daughter? Pity? It was enough to make one kill.

Killing was not, in the circumstances, a possibility tonight. Other things were, including the spill of her own blood. An irony? Of course it was.

The world was full of those.

The litter stopped. She lifted the curtain again, saw the door of her own home, night torches burning in their brackets on the wall to either side. She heard her escort swing down from his horse, saw his face appear beside her. His breath made a puff of smoke in the very cold night air.

"We have arrived, gracious lady. I am sorry for the chill. May I help you alight?"

She smiled at him. Found that she could smile quite easily. "Come in to warm yourself. I'll have a mulled wine made before you ride back through the cold." She looked straight into his eyes.

The pause was brief. "I am greatly honoured," said golden Leontes, Supreme Strategos of the Sarantine armies. A tone that made one believe him. And why not believe him? She was a queen.

He handed her out of the litter. Her steward had already opened the front door. The wind was gusting and swirling. They went in. She had servants build the fires on the ground floor and upstairs and prepare spiced, heated wine. They sat near the larger fire in the reception room and spoke of necessarily trivial things. Chariots and dancers, the day's minor wedding at a dancer's home.

War was coming.

Valerius had told them tonight, changing the world.

They talked of games in the Hippodrome, of how unseasonably windy it was outside with winter due to have ended by now. Leontes, easy and relaxed, told of a Holy Fool who had apparently just installed himself on a rock beside one of the landward gates-and had vowed he would not descend until all pagans and heretics and Kindath had been expelled from the Holy City. A devout man, he said, shaking his head, but one who did not understand the realities of the world.

It was important, she agreed, to understand the realities of the world.

The wine came, a silver tray, silver cups. He saluted her formally, speaking Rhodian. His courtesy was flawless. It would be, she knew, even as he led an army ravaging through her home, even if he burned Varena to the ground, unhousing her father's bones. He would prefer not to torch it, of course. Would do so if he had to. In the god's name.

Her heart was pounding but her hands, she saw, were steady, revealing nothing. She dismissed her women and then the steward. A few moments after they left she stood and set down her cup-her decision, her act-and crossed the room. She stopped before his chair, looking down at him. Bit her lower lip, and then smiled. She saw him smile in turn, and pause to drain his wine before he stood up, entirely at ease, accustomed to this. A golden man. She took him by the hand and up the stairs and to her bed.

He hurt her, being unprepared for innocence, but women from the beginning of time had known this particular pain and Gisel made herself welcome it. He was startled and then visibly pleased when he saw her blood on the sheets. Vanity. A royal fortress conquered, she thought.

He spoke generously of the honour, of his astonishment. A courtier, at least as much as a soldier. Silk over the corded muscle, devout faith behind the wielded sword and the fires. She smiled, said nothing at all. Made herself reach for him, that hard, scarred soldier's body, that it might happen again.

Knew what she was doing. Had no idea what it might achieve. Something in play, on the board, her body. Face to a pillow that second time, she cried out in the dark, in the night, for so many reasons.

He'd thought of going to the stables, but it seemed there were some conditions, some states of mind, that not even standing with Servator in the mahogany stall the Blues had made for his horse would address.

There had been a time-long ago, not so long ago-when all he'd wanted was to be among horses, in their world. And now, still a young man by most measures, the finest stallion the world knew was his own and he was the most honoured charioteer on the god's created earth, and yet somehow tonight such dreams made real were not enough to assuage.

An appalling truth.

He had been to a wedding ceremony today, watched a soldier he knew and liked marry a woman clearly worthy of him. He'd had a little too much to drink among convivial people. And he had seen-first at the ceremony and then during the reception afterwards-the woman who troubled his own nights. She had been with her husband, of course.

He hadn't known Plautus Bonosus and his second wife would be among the guests. Almost a full day in her presence. It was… difficult.

And so it seemed the undeniable good fortune of his life was not sufficient to address what was afflicting him now. Was he hopelessly greedy? Covetous? Was that it? Spoiled like a sulky child, demanding far too much of the god and his son?

He had broken a rule of his own tonight, a rule of very long standing. He had gone to her home in the dark after the wedding party broke up. Had been absolutely certain Bonosus would be elsewhere, that after the raillery of the celebration and the bawdy mood it induced, the Senator's well-known, if discreetly managed, habits would assert themselves and he'd spend the night at the smaller home he maintained for his private use.

Not so. Inexplicably not so. Scortius had seen lights blazing in the iron-barred upper windows over the street at the mansion of Senator Bonosus. A shivering servant relighting wind-snuffed torches in the walls had descended from his ladder and volunteered, for a small sum, the information that the master was indeed home, closeted with his wife and son

Scortius had kept a shrouding cloak over his face until his footsteps had led him away into the narrow lanes of the City. A woman called from a recessed doorway as he passed: "Let me warm you, soldier! Come with me! It isn't a night to lie alone."

It wasn't, Jad knew. He felt old. Partly the wind and cold: his left arm, broken years ago, one of so many injuries, ached when the wind was bitter. The humiliating infirmity of an aged man, he thought, hating it. Like one of those hobbling, crutch-wielding old soldiers allowed a stool by the fire in a military tavern, sitting there all night, boring the unwary with a ten-times-told story of some minor campaign of thirty years before, back when great and glorious Apius was Jad's dearly beloved Emperor and things hadn't descended to the sad state of today and could an old soldier not be given something to wet his throat?

He could become like that, Scortius thought sourly. Toothless and unshaven at a booth in The Spina telling about the magnificent race day once, long ago, during the reign of Valerius II, when he had…

He caught himself massaging the arm and stopped, swearing aloud. It ached, though, it really did. They didn't run the chariots in winter, or he'd have had a problem handling a quadriga in the turns. Crescens of the Greens hadn't looked this afternoon as if anything ached in him at all, though he must have had his injuries over the years. Every rider did. The Greens" principal driver was obviously ready for his second season in the Hippodrome. Confident, even arrogant-which was as it should be.

The Greens also had some new horses up from the south, courtesy of a high-ranking military partisan; Astorgus's sources said two or three were exceptional. Scortius knew they did have one outstanding new right-sider, a trace horse the Blues had dealt them in a transaction Scortius had encouraged Astorgus to make. You gave up some things to gain something else, in this case a driver. But if he was right about the horse and bout Crescens, the Greens" standard-bearer would have quickly claimed he stallion for his own team and be that much more formidable.

Scortius wasn't worried. He even enjoyed the idea of someone think he could challenge him. It stirred fires within him, the ones that needed stoking after so many years in ascendancy. A formidable Crescens was good for him, good for the Hippodrome. It was easy enough to see that But he wasn't easy tonight. Nothing to do with horses, or his arm, really.

It isn't a night to lie alone.

Of course it wasn't, but sometimes lovemaking-bought in a doorway or otherwise-wasn't the real need either. There were notes lying on a table in his home from women who would be exquisitely happy to relieve him of the burden of being by himself tonight, even now, even so late. That wasn't what he wanted, though for a long time it had been.

The woman he'd gone trudging uphill in the cutting wind to see was… closeted with her husband, the servant had said. Whatever that meant.

He swore again, fiercely. Why wasn't the accursed Master of the Senate off playing his night games with this season's boy? What was wrong with Bonosus, in Jad's name?

It was at this point, walking alone (a little reckless, but one didn't normally bring companions when attending upon one's mistress at night, intending to climb her wall), that he'd thought of going to the stables. He wasn't far from the compound. They'd be warm; the smells and night sounds of horses would be those he'd known and loved all his life. He might even find someone awake in the kitchens to offer a last cup of wine and a quiet bite of food.

He didn't want wine or food. Or even the presence of his beloved horses now. What he wanted was denied to him, and the degree of frustration he felt was what-perhaps more than anything-was disturbing him. It felt childish. His mouth twitched at the irony. Did he feel old or young or both? Past time to make up one's mind, wasn't it? He considered, decided: he wanted to be a boy again, simple as a boy, or failing that, he wanted to be in a room alone with Thenai's.

He saw the white moon when it rose. Was passing a chapel of the Sleepless Ones just then, walking east, could hear the chanting inside Could have gone in, a few moments out of the cold, praying among holy men, but the god and his son at this immediate moment didn't offer any answers either.

Perhaps they would have, had he been a better, more pious man, but he wasn't and they didn't and that was that. He saw a quick blue flicker of flame further down the street-a reminder of the half-world's presence among men, never far away in the City-and he came, in that moment, to a sudden, unexpected decision.

There was another wall he could climb.

If he was awake and abroad and this restless perhaps he could put the mood to use. On the thought, not allowing himself time to hesitate, he turned and set off along a lane angled to the street.

He walked briskly, kept to shadows, became motionless in a doorway when he saw a party of drunken, singing soldiers stumble out of a tavern. He remained where he was a moment and watched a massive litter appear from blackness at the other end of the street and then turn down the steep road they took, heading towards the harbour. He considered this for a moment, and then shrugged. There were always stories unfolding in the night. People died, were born, found love or grief.

He went the other way, uphill again, rubbing his arm at intervals, until he came again to the street and then the house where he'd spent much of the afternoon and evening in celebration of a wedding.

The house the Greens provided for their best dancer was handsome and well maintained, in an extremely good neighbourhood. It had a wide portico, and a well-proportioned solarium and balcony overlooking the street. He had been in this home before today, as it happened, and even upstairs-visiting earlier inhabitants. Sometimes those living here placed their own bedroom at the front, using the solarium as an extension, a place from which to watch the life below. Sometimes the front chamber was a sitting room, with the bedroom at the back, over the courtyard.

Without much to rely upon but instinct, he decided that Shirin of the Greens would not be the sort who placed herself over the street. She spent enough of her days and nights looking out on people from a stage. She'd be sleeping above the courtyard, he decided. Unfortunately the houses were set so closely together here that there was no way to get to the courtyards from the front.

He looked up and down the empty street. Torches burned fitfully on walls; some had been extinguished by the wind. He looked up, and sighed. In silence, having done this sort of thing many times before, he moved to the end of the portico, mounted the stone railing and, reaching above his head with both hands, gripped and then pulled himself straight upwards in one smooth motion onto the porch roof.

One became very strong in the upper body and legs after years of mastering four horses in a chariot.

One also developed injuries. He paused long enough to give vent under his breath to the pain in his arm. He really was becoming too old for this sort of thing.

From portico roof to solarium balcony involved a short vertical jump, another hard gripping, and then a steady pull upwards until one knee could get purchase. Life would have been easier if Shirin had chosen to make this her bedchamber, after all. She hadn't, as he'd surmised. A glance inside-darkness, some benches, a fabric hanging on the wall above a sideboard. It was a reception room.

He swore again, and then stepped up on the balcony railing, balancing. The roof above was flat, as they all were in this neighbourhood, no edging at all, to let the rain run off. Made it hard to find a grip. This, too, he remembered from elsewhere. Other houses. He could fall here if his hands slipped. It was a long way down. He imagined some servant or slave finding him in the morning street, neck broken. A sudden hilarity entered into him. He was being indescribably reckless here and he knew it.

Thenai's ought to have been alone. She hadn't been. He was here, climbing to another woman's roof in the wind.

Footsteps sounded in the street below. He remained motionless, both feet on the railing, a hand on a corner column for balance, until they went away. Then he let go of the column and jumped again. He got both hands flat on the roof-the only way to do this successfully-and, grunting, levered himself up and onto it. A hard movement, not without cost.

He remained lying where he was for a time, on his back, determinedly not rubbing at his arm, looking up at the stars and the white moon. The wind blew. Jad had made men to be foolish creatures, he decided. Women were wiser, on the whole. They slept at night. Or closeted themselves with their husbands. Whatever that meant.

He laughed this time, softly to himself, at himself, and stood up. He walked, treading lightly, towards the place where the roof ended at a view of the interior courtyard below. He saw a small fountain, dry still at winter's end, stone benches around it, bare trees. The white moon shone, and the stars. Windy night, brilliantly clear. He realized that he felt happy, suddenly. Very much alive.

He knew exactly where her bedroom would be, could see the narrow balcony below. He took another look at the pale moon. A sister of the god, the Kindath called it. A heresy, but one could-privately-understand it sometimes. He looked over the roof edge. Going down would be easier. He dropped to his stomach, swung his legs over the side, lowered himself as far as he could, hands stretched above him. Then he dropped neatly to the balcony, landing silently, like a lover or a thief. He straightened from a crouch, moved softly forward to peer through the two glass-panelled doors into the woman's room. One door, oddly, was ajar in the cold night. He looked at the bed. No one there.

"There is a bow trained on your heart. Stop where you are. My servant will kill you happily if you do not declare yourself," said Shirin of the Greens.

It seemed wise to stop where he was.

He had no idea how she'd known he was there, how she'd had time to summon a guard. It also occurred to him-very belatedly-to wonder why he'd assumed she would be sleeping alone.

Declare yourself, she'd ordered. He did have his self-respect.

"I am Heladikos, son of Jad," he said gravely. "My father's chariot is here. Will you come ride with me?"

There was a silence.

"Oh, my!" Shirin said, her voice changing. 'You?

Speaking quickly, in a low tone, she dismissed the guard. After he'd left she swung open the door to the balcony herself and Scortius, pausing to bow, entered her chamber. There came a light tapping at the inner door. Shirin crossed, opened it only a crack, accepted a lit taper from the servant briefly revealed in the hallway and then closed the door again. She moved about the room lighting candles and lamps herself.

Scortius saw the bedcovers in disarray. She had been asleep; was dressed now, however, a dark green robe buttoned high over whatever she wore to bed, if anything. Her dark hair, cut short, just reached her shoulders. A fashion emerging; Shirin of the Greens set fashions for the women of Sarantium. She was barefoot, high-arched, moving dancer-light over her floor. He felt, looking at her, a quick pulse of desire. This was a very attractive woman. He loosened his cloak, let it fall to the floor behind him. He began to feel a measure of control returning with the warmth. He knew all about this sort of encounter. She finished with the candles, turned back to him.

"I take it Thenai's was with her husband?"

Asked it with such a wide-eyed, innocent smile.

He swallowed hard. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Watched her sit, still smiling, on a cushioned seat near the banked fire.

"Do sit down, charioteer," she murmured, her back straight, exquisitely poised. "One of my women will bring us wine."

With great confusion and very real relief, he sank into the indicated seat.

The problem was that he was an absurdly attractive man. Shedding his cloak, clad still in white from the wedding, Scortius appeared permanently young, immune to all the aches and doubts and infirmities of lesser mortals.

She'd been lying alone, by choice of course. Jad knew there were enough who would have offered their versions of solace in the dark had she asked or allowed. But Shirin had discovered that the greatest luxury of status, the real privilege it conveyed, was the power to not allow, and to ask only when and where she truly desired.

There would come a time when it would make sense to take a protector, perhaps even an important husband from the army or one of the wealthy merchants or even someone from the Imperial Precinct. There was a living Empress who was proof of such possibilities. But not now. She was young still, at the apex of her fame in the theatre, and had no need-yet-for a guardian.

She was guarded, by celebrity, and other things. Among those other things was the fact that she had someone here to warn her when there were those who sought her room after darkfall.

'I understand that he couldn't be killed, but why is the man sitting at his ease with wine to come? Enlighten me, please.

'Danis, Danis. Isn't he gorgeous?" she asked silently, knowing what the bird would say to that.

'Oh. Wonderful. Wait for him to smile once more, then take him to bed, is that the idea?

Scortius of Soriyya smiled, uneasily.

"Why, ah, would you think that, I, er…"

"Thenai's?" she finished for him. "Oh, women know these things, dear man. I saw you looking at her this afternoon. I must say she's exquisite."

"Urn, no! I mean, I'd, ah, say rather that… women may see strands of stories, where none are really to be found." His smile grew more assured. "Though I must say you are exquisite."

'You see? I knew it!" said Danis. 'You know what this man is like! Stay where you are. Don't smile back!

Shirin smiled. Lowered her eyes demurely, hands in her lap. "You are too kind, charioteer."

A scratching at the door again. To preserve her guest's identity-and avoid the windstorm of gossip this visit would cause-Shirin rose and took the tray herself from Pharisa, not letting her in. She set it down on the side table and poured for both of them, though Jad knew she didn't need more wine at this hour. There was a tingle of excitement in her that she couldn't deny. The whole of the City-from palace to chapel to wharfside caupona-would be stupefied were it to learn of this encounter between the First of the Blues and the Greens" Principal Dancer. And the man was-

'More water in yours!" Danis snapped.

'Quiet, you. There's plenty of water in it.

The bird sniffed. 'I don't know why I bothered to warn you of sounds on the roof. Might as well have let him find you naked in bed. Save him so much bother.

'We didn't know who it was,'she said reasonably.

"How did you, ah, realize I was there?" Scortius asked, as she handed him his cup. She watched him take a long drink.

"You sounded like four horses landing on the roof, Heladikos," she laughed. Untrue, but the truth was not for him, or anyone. The truth was a bird her father had sent her, with a soul, never sleeping, supernaturally alert, a gift of the half-world where spirits dwelled.

'Don't make jokes," Danis complained. 'You'll encourage him! You know what they say about this man!

'Of course I do," Shirin murmured inwardly. 'Shall we test it, my dear? He's famously discreet.

She wondered how and when he was going to make his overture of seduction. She took her seat again, across the room from him, and smiled, amused and at ease, but feeling an excitement within her, hidden like the soul of the bird. It didn't happen often, this feeling, it really didn't.

"You do know," said Scortius of the Blues, not moving from his seat, that this visit is entirely honourable, if… unusual. You are completely safe from my uncontrolled desires." His smile flashed, he set down his cup with an easy hand. "I'm only here to make you an offer, Shirin, an agent with a business proposal."

She swallowed hard, tilted her head thoughtfully. "You, ah, have control of the uncontrollable?" she murmured. Wit could be a screen.

He laughed, again easily. "Handle four horses from a bouncing chariot," he said. "You learn."

'Wliat is the man talking about?" Danis expostulated.

'Quiet. I may decide to be insulted.

"Yes," she said coolly, sitting up straight, holding her wine carefully "I'm sure you do. Go on." She lowered her voice, changed its timbre. Wondered if he'd notice.

The change in her tone was unmistakable. This was an actress: she could convey a great deal merely with a shift of voice and posture. And she just had. He wondered again why he'd assumed she'd be alone. What that said about her, or his sense of her. An awareness of the woman's pride, at the very least… self-contained, making her own choices.

Well, this would be her own choice, whatever she did. That was, after all, the point of what he'd come to say, and so he said it, speaking carefully: "Astorgus, our factionarius, has been wondering aloud and at some length what it would take to induce you to change factions."

What she did was change position again, rising swiftly, a taut uncoiling. She set down her cup, staring coldly at him.

"And for this, you enter my bedchamber in the middle of the night?"

It began, more and more, to seem a bad idea.

He said, defensively, "Well, this isn't really the sort of proposal one would want to make in a public-"

"A letter? An afternoon visit? A private word exchanged during today's reception?"

He looked up at her, read the cold anger, and was silent, though within him, looking at the fury of her, something else registered and he felt again the stirrings of desire. Being the man he was, he thought he knew the source of her outrage.

She said, glaring down at him, "As it happens, that last is exactly what Strumosus did today."

"I didn't know that," he said.

"Well, obviously," she said tartly.

"Did you accept?" he asked, a little too brightly.

She wasn't about to let him off so easily. "Why are you here?"

Scortius became aware, looking at her, that she was wearing nothing at all beneath the silk of her dark green robe. He cleared his throat.

"Why do any of us do what we do?" he asked, in turn. Question for question for question. "Do we ever really understand?"

He hadn't expected to say that, actually. He saw her expression change. He added, "I was restless, couldn't sleep. Wasn't ready to go home to bed. It was cold in the streets. I saw drunken soldiers, a prostitute, a dark litter that unsettled me for some reason. When the moon came up I decided to come here… thought I might as well try to… accomplish something, so long as I was awake." He looked at her. "I'm sorry."

"Accomplish something," she echoed dryly, but he could see her anger slipping away. "Why did you assume I'd be alone?"

He'd been afraid she'd ask that.

"I don't know," he admitted. "I was just asking myself the same question. There is… no man's name linked to yours, I suppose, and I have never heard you to be…" He trailed off.

And saw the ghost of a smile at the edge of her mouth. "Attracted to men?"

He shook his head quickly. "Not that. Um… reckless with your nights?"

She nodded. There was a silence. He needed more wine now but was reluctant to let her see that.

She said, quietly, "I told Strumosus I couldn't change factions."

"Couldn't?"

She nodded. "The Empress has made that clear to me."

And with that said, it seemed painfully obvious, actually. Something he ought to have known, or Astorgus certainly. Of course the court would want the factions kept in equilibrium. And this dancer wore Alixana's own perfume.

She didn't move, or speak. He looked around, thinking it through, saw the wall hangings, the good furnishings, flowers in an alabaster vase, a small crafted bird on a table, the disturbing disarray of the bed coverings. He looked back up at her, where she stood in front of him.

He stood up as well. "I feel foolish now, among other things. I ought to have understood this before troubling your night." He made a small gesture with his hands. "The Imperial Precinct won't let us be together, you and I. You have my deepest apologies for the intrusion. I will leave you now."

Her expression changed again, something amused in it, then something wry, then something else. "No you won't," said Shirin of the Greens. "You owe me for an interrupted sleep."

Scortius opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again when she came forward and put her hands behind his head and kissed him.

"There are limits to what the court can decree. And if there are images of others that lie down with us," she murmured, drawing him to the bed, "it will not be the first time in the history of men and women."

His mouth was dry with excitement, unexpectedly. She took his hands and drew them around her body by the bed. She was sleek, and firm, and extremely desirable. He didn't feel old any more. He felt like a young chariot-racer up from the south, new to the glories of the great City, finding a soft welcome in candlelit places where he had not thought to find such a thing at all. His heart was beating very fast.

"Speak for yourself," he managed to murmur.

"Oh, but I am," she said softly, cryptically, before letting herself fall back onto the bed and pulling him down with her amid the scent, unmistakable, of a perfume only two women in the world could wear.

'Well, I'm grateful you had the decency to silence me before you-" 'Oh, Danis, please. Please. Be gentle." "Hah. Was he?

Shirin's inward voice was lazy, slow. 'Some of the time." The bird made an indignant sound. 'Indeed." "I wasn't," said the dancer, after a moment. 'I don't want to know! When you behave-" "Danis, be gentle. I'm not a maid, and it has been a long time." "Look at him, sleeping there. In your bed. No care in the world." "He has cares, trust me. Everyone does. But I'm looking. Oh, Danis, isn't he a beautiful man?

There was a long silence. Then, 'Yes," said the bird, silently; the bird that had been a girl slain at dawn one autumn in a grove in Sauradia. 'Yes, he is.

Another stillness. They could hear the wind outside in the dark, turning night. The man was, indeed, asleep, on his back, hair tousled.

Was my father?" asked Shirin abruptly.

'Was he what?

'Beautiful?

'Oh." Another silence, inward, outward, darkness in the room with the candles burnt out. Then, 'Yes," said the bird, again. 'Yes, he was, my dear. Shirin, go to sleep. You are dancing tomorrow.

'Thank you, Danis." The woman in the bed sighed softly. The man slept on. 'I know. I will now.

The dancer was asleep when he woke, still in the dark of night. He had trained himself to do this: lingering until dawn in a strange bed was dangerous. And although there was no immediate threat here, no lover or husband to fear, it would be awkward in the extreme, painfully public, to be seen leaving the house of Shirin of the Greens in the morning.

He looked over at the woman a moment, smiling a little. Then he rose. Dressed quickly, glancing once more around the silent room. When he looked back at the bed she was awake, and gazing at him. A light sleeper? He wondered what had awakened her. Then wondered, again, how she'd known he was on the roof.

"A thief in the night?" she murmured sleepily. "Take what you want and go?"

He shook his head. "A grateful man."

She smiled. "Tell Astorgus you did all you possibly could to persuade me."

He laughed aloud, but softly. "You assume this is all I can do?" Her turn to laugh, a low ripple of pleasure. "Go," she said, "before I call you back to test it."

"Good night," he said. "Jad shelter you, dancer."

"And you. On the sands and off."

He went out the doors to the balcony, closed them behind him, mounted the balustrade. He leaped up to the roof, swung himself onto it. His shoulder didn't hurt at all now. The cold wind blew but he didn't feel it. The white moon was over towards the west, though much of the night was yet to run before the god finished his battles under the world and dawn could come. The stars were bright overhead, no clouds at all. Standing on Shirin's roof in this elevated quarter of the vast city he could see Sarantium spread below him, domes and mansions and towers, random torches in stone walls, clustered, jumbled wooden houses, shop fronts closed up, squares, statues in them, an orange glow of flame where the glassworks were, or perhaps a bakery, lanes running crazily downward, and beyond them, beyond them all, the harbour and then the sea, vast and dark and deep, roiled by the wind and hinting at forever.

In a mood he could only call exhilarated, one he could remember from long ago but hadn't experienced in some time, Scortius retraced his steps to the front edge of the roof, swung himself down to the upper balcony there, and then, moving lightly, lowered himself to the portico. He stepped down into the street, smiling behind the cloak he drew across his face.

'Fuck him!" he heard. "That bastard! Look! He came from her balcony!"

Exhilaration could be dangerous. It made you careless. He turned swiftly, saw half a dozen shadowy figures, and wheeled to run. He didn't like running away, but this wasn't a situation that presented options. He was feeling strong, knew he was fleet of foot, was certain he could out-sprint whoever these assailants were.

He very likely would have, in fact, had there not been as many others coming at him from the other side. Twisting away, Scortius saw the glint of daggers, a wooden staff, and then an entirely illegal drawn sword.

They had been planning to sing to her. The idea was to gather in the street below what they assumed to be her bedroom above the front portico and offer music in her glorious name. They even had instruments. The plan, however, had been Cleander's-he was their leader-and when it emerged that his father had confined him to his quarters for the accidental death of that Bassanid servant, the young Green partisans had found themselves drinking irritably and without purpose in their usual tavern. The talk had been of horses and prostitutes.

But no self-respecting young man of lineage could be expected to submit tamely to confinement on a spring night in the very week the racing was to begin again. When Cleander showed up he seemed a shade uneasy to those who knew him best, but he grinned in the doorway as they shouted their welcome. He'd actually killed a man today. It was undeniably impressive. Cleander drank two quick glasses of unmixed wine and offered a definitive opinion about one woman whose rooms were not far from his father's house. She was too expensive for most of them, so no one was in a position to refute his observations.

Then he pointed out that they'd planned to chorus Shirin's undying fame and he saw no reason to allow the late hour to forestall them. She'd be honoured, he told the others. It wasn't as if they were intruding upon her, only offering a tribute from the street. He told them what she'd been wearing at her reception that afternoon when she greeted him-personally.

Someone mentioned the dancer's neighbours and the Urban Prefect's watchmen, but most of them knew enough to laugh and shout the craven fellow down.

They made their way out the door. Ten or twelve young men (they lost a few en route) in a stumbling cluster, variously garbed, one with a stringed instrument, two with flutes, moving uphill through a sharp, cold wind. If an officer of the watch was anywhere about he elected-prudently-not to make his presence visible. The partisans of both factions were notoriously unstable in the week the racing began. End of winter, beginning of the Hippodrome season. Springtime did things to the young, everywhere.

It might not feel like spring tonight but it was.

They reached her street and divided themselves, half to each side of her wide portico where they could all see the solarium balcony, should Shirin elect to appear above them like a vision when they sang. The one with the strings was swearing about the numbing cold on his fingers. The others were busily spitting and clearing throats and nervously muttering the verses of Cleander's chosen song when one of them saw a man climbing down from that same balcony to the porch.

It was an obscene, monstrous outrage. A violation of Shirin's purity, her honour. What right did someone else have to be descending from her bedroom in the middle of the night?

The contemptible coward turned to run as soon as they cried out.

He had no weapon, didn't get far. Marcellus's staff caught him a heavy blow to the shoulder as he tried to dodge around the group of them to the south. Then quick, wiry Darius knifed him in the side, ripping the blade upwards, and one of the twins got him with a kick in the ribs on the same side while the bastard was flattening Darius with a blow of his fist. Darius moaned. Cleander came running up then, with his sword drawn-the only one of them reckless enough to carry one. He'd already killed today, and he was the one who knew Shirin.

The others backed away from the man, who was lying on the ground now, holding his torn side. Darius got to his knees, then moved away. They fell silent, a sense of awe, the power of the moment overtaking them. They were all looking at the sword. There were no torches burning on the walls; the wind had blown them out. No sight or sound of the night watch. Stars, wind, and a white moon westering.

"I am reluctant to kill a man without knowing who he is," said Cleander with really impressive gravity.

"I am Heladikos, the son of Jad," said the bastard lying on the road. He appeared-amazingly-to be struggling with hilarity as much as anything else. He was bleeding. They could see dark blood on the road. "All men must die. Stab away, child. Two in a day? A Bassanid servant and a god's son? Makes you a warrior, almost." He'd kept the cloak about his face, somehow, even as he fell.

Someone gasped. Cleander made a startled movement.

"How the fuck do you know about-?"

Cleander moved closer, knelt. Sword to the wounded man's breast, he twitched the cloak aside. The man on the ground made no movement at all. Cleander looked at him for one instant-then let the cloak fall from his fingers as if it were burning to the touch. There was no light. The others couldn't see what he saw.

They heard Cleander, though, as the cloak fell once more over the downed man's face.

"Oh, fuck!" said the only son of Plautus Bonosus, Master of the Sarantine Senate. He stood up. "Oh, no. Oh, fuck. Oh, holy Jad!"

"My great father!" said the wounded man brightly.

This was followed, unsurprisingly, by silence. Someone coughed nervously.

"Does this mean we aren't singing?" Declanus asked plaintively.

"Get out of here. All of you!" Cleander rasped hoarsely over his shoulder. "Go! Disappear! My father will fucking kill me."

"Who is it?" snapped Marcellus.

"You don't know. You don't want to know. This never happened. Get home, go anywhere, or we're all dead men! Holy Jad!"

"What the-?"

'Go!

A light appeared in a window overhead. Someone began shouting for the watch-a woman's voice. They went.

Thanks be to Jad, the boy had a brain and wasn't hopelessly drunk. He had quickly covered Scortius's face again after their eyes locked in the darkness. None of the others-he was sure of it-knew who it was they'd attacked.

There was a chance to get out of this.

If he lived. The knife had gone in on his left side, and ripped, and then the kick in the same side had broken ribs. He'd had breaks before. Knew what they felt like.

They felt very bad. It was, putting it mildly, not easy to breathe. He clutched his side and felt blood pouring from the wound through his fingers. The boy with the knife had jerked it upwards after stabbing him.

But they left. Thanks be to Jad, they left. Leaving only one behind. Someone at a window was calling for the watch.

"Holy Jad," whispered Bonosus's son. "Scortius. I swear… we had no idea"

"Know you didn't. Thought… were killing just anyone." It was irresponsible to be feeling such hilarity, but the absurdity of this was so extreme. To die, like this? "No. We didn't! I mean Not really the time to be ironic, actually. "Get me upright, before someone comes." "Can you… can you walk?" "Of course I can walk." Probably a lie.

"I'll take you to my father's house," the boy said. Bravely enough. The charioteer could guess what consequences would await Cleander after he appeared at the door with a wounded man. Closeted with his wife and son.

Something became clear, suddenly. That was why they'd been together tonight. And then something else did, driving amusement entirely away. "Not your house. Holy Jad, no!"

He was not going to appear at Thenais's door at this hour of night, having been wounded by partisans after descending from the bed chamber of Shirin of the Greens. He winced at the image of her face, hearing this. Not at the outraged expression that would ensue: the lack of one. The detached, ironic coldness coming back.

"But you need a physician. There's blood. And my father can keep this-"

"Not your house."

"Then where? Oh! The Blues" compound! We can-" A good thought, but…

"Won't help. Our doctor was at the wedding today and will be drunk and unconscious. Too many people, too. We must keep this quiet. For… for the lady. Now be silent and let me-" "Wait! I know. The Bassanid!" exclaimed Cleander. It was, in fact, a good thought.

And resulted in the two of them arriving, after a genuinely harrowing progress through the city, at the small house Bonosus kept for his own use near the triple walls. On the way they passed the enormous dark litter again. Scortius saw it stop, was aware of someone watching them from within, making no movement at all to help. Something made him shiver; he couldn't have said what.

He had lost a fair bit of blood by the time they reached their destination. Every step with his left foot seemed to drive the kicked ribs inward, shockingly. He'd refused to allow the boy to get help at any tavern. No one was to know of this. Cleander almost carried him the last part of the way. The lad was terrified, exhausted, but he got them there.

"Thank you, boy," he managed to say, as the house's steward, in a nightshirt, grey hair disconcertingly upright in the glow of the candle he held, opened the door to their pounding. "You did well. Tell your father. No one else'

He hoped that was clear enough. Saw the Bassanid coming to stand behind the steward, lifted one hand briefly in apologetic greeting. It occurred to him that if Plautus Bonosus had been in this house tonight instead of the eastern doctor, none of this would have happened. Then he did, in fact, lose consciousness.

She is awake, in her room with the golden rose that was made for her long ago. Knows he will come to her tonight. Is looking at the rose, in fact, and thinking about frailty when she hears the door open, the familiar tread, the voice that is always with her.

"You are angry with me, I know."

She shakes her head. "Afraid of what will come, a little. Not angry, my lord."

She pours his wine, waters it. Crosses to the seat he has taken by the fire. He takes the wine, and her hand, kisses the palm. His manner is quiet, easy, but she knows him better than she knows anyone alive and can read the signs of his excitement.

"It was finally useful, "she says, "to have the queen watched all this time."

He nods. "She's clever, isn't she? Knew we weren't surprised."

"I saw that. Will she be difficult, do you think?"

He looks up, smiles. "Probably."

The implication being, of course, that it doesn't really matter. He knows what he wants to do, and to have others do. None of them will learn all the details, not even his Empress. Certainly not Leontes, who will lead the army of conquest. She wonders, suddenly, how many men her husband will send, and a thought crosses her mind. She dismisses it, then it slips back in: Valerius is, in fact, more than subtle enough to be careful, even with his trusted friends.

She does not tell him that she, too, had a warning that the Strategos was bringing Gisel to the palace today. Alixana believes, privately, that her husband does know she's watching Leontes and his wife and has done so for some time, but it is one of the things they do not discuss. One of the ways in which theirs is a partnership.

Most of the time.

The signs have long been present-no one will be able to claim to have been taken entirely by surprise-but without warning or consultation, the Emperor has just declared an intention to go to war this spring. They have been at war for much of his reign, to the east, north, south-east, far off in the Majriti deserts. This is different. This is Batiara. Rhodias. Heartland of the Empire. Sundered, then lost beyond a wide sea.

"You are sure of this?" she asks him.

He shakes his head. "Sure of the consequences? Of course not. No mortal can claim to know the unknown that might come," her husband says softly, still holding her hand. "We live with that uncertainty." He looks at her. "You are angry with me. For not telling you."

She shakes her head again. "How could I be?" she asks, meaning what she says. "You have always wanted this, I have always said I did not think it could be done. You see it differently, and are wiser than any of us."

He looks up, the grey eyes mild. "I make mistakes, love. This might be one. But I need to try, and this is the time to do it, with Bassania bribed to be quiet, and chaos in the west, and the young queen here with us. It makes too much… sense."

His mind works that way. In part.

In part. She draws a breath, and murmurs, "Would you still need to do this if we had a son?"

Her heart is pounding. That almost never happens any more. She watches him. Sees the startled reaction, then what replaces it: his mind engaging, addressing, not flinching away.

After a long time, he says, "That is an unexpected question."

"I know," she says. "It came to me while I was waiting here for you." Not entirely true. It came to her first a long time ago.

He says, "You think, if we did, that because of the risk…?"

She nods. "If you had an heir. Someone you were leaving this to." She does not gesture. There is more than any gesture could compass. This. An empire. A legacy of centuries.

He sighs. Has still not released her hand. Says, softly, looking into the fire now, "Maybe so, love. I don't know."

An admission. For him to say that much. No sons, no one to come after, to take the throne, light the candles on the anniversary of their deaths. There is an old pain in her.

He says, still quietly, "There are some things I have always wanted. I'd like to leave behind Rhodias reclaimed, the new Sanctuary and its dome, and… and perhaps some memory of what we were, you and I."

"Three things," she says, not able to think, just then, of anything more clever. It occurs to her that she will weep if she does not take care. An Empress ought not to weep.

"Three things," he echoes. "Before it ends, as it always ends."

Uncrown, a voice was said to say when it ended for one of Jad's holy, anointed ones. The Lord of Emperors awaits you now.

No one could say if it was true, if those words were truly spoken and heard. The god's world was made in such a way that men and women lived in mist and fog, in a wavering light, never knowing with certainty what would come.

"More wine?" she says.

He looks at her, nods his head, lets go of her hand. She takes his cup, fills it, brings it back. It is silver, worked in gold, rubies set around it.

"I am sorry," he says. "I'm sorry, love."

He isn't even certain why he says this, but a feeling is with him now, something in her face, something hovering in the air of this exquisite room like a bird: not singing, enchanted into invisibility, but present nonetheless in the world.

Not far away from that palace room where no bird is singing, a man is as high in the air as birds might fly, working from a scaffold under a dome. The exterior of the dome is copper, gleaming under moon and stars. The interior is his.

There is light here in the Sanctuary; there always is, by order of the Emperor. The mosaicist has served tonight as his own apprentice, mixing lime for the setting bed, carrying it up the ladder himself. Not a great amount, he isn't covering a wide area tonight. He isn't doing very much at all. Only the face of his wife, dead now two years, very nearly.

There is no one watching him. There are guards at the entrance, as always, even in the cold, and a small, rumpled architect is asleep somewhere in this vastness of lamplight and shadow, but Crispin works in silence, as alone as a man can be in Sarantium.

If anyone were watching him, and knew what it was he was doing, they would need a true understanding of his craft (of all such crafts, really) not to conclude that this was a hard, cold man, indifferent in life to the woman he is so serenely rendering. His eyes are clear, his hands steady, meticulously choosing tesserae from the trays beside him. His expression is detached, austere: addressing technical dilemmas of glass and stone, no more.

No more? The heart cannot say, sometimes, but the hand and eye- if steady enough and clear enough-may shape a window for those who come after. Someone might look up one day, when all those awake or asleep in Sarantium tonight are long dead, and know that this woman was fair, and very greatly loved by the unknown man who placed her overhead, the way the ancient Trakesian gods were said to have set their mortal loves in the sky, as stars.

Eventually, morning came. Morning always comes. There are always losses in the night, a price paid for light.

PART II

THE NINTH DRIVER

CHAPTER VII

Men and women were always dreaming in the dark. Most of the night's images fell away with sunrise, or before if they harried the sleeper awake. Dreams were longings, or warnings, or prophecies. They were gifts or curses, from powers benevolent or malign, for all knew-whatever the faith into which they had been born-that mortal men and women shared the world with forces they didn’t understand.

There were many who plied a trade in city or countryside telling those troubled by visions what they might signify. A small number saw certain kinds of dream as actual memories of a world other than the one into which the dreamer and the listener had been born to live and die, but this was treated in most faiths as a black heresy.

As winter turned towards spring that year, a great many people had dreams they were to remember.

A moonless night, late in winter. At a watering place in the far south, where camel routes met in Ammuz, near to where men had decreed a border with Soriyya-as if the shifting, blowing sands knew of such things-a man, a leader of his tribe, a merchant, awoke in his tent and dressed himself and went out into the dark.

He walked past tents where his wives and children and his brothers and their wives and children slept, and he came, still half asleep but strangely disturbed, to the edge of the oasis, a place where the last of the green gave way to the endless sands.

He stood there under the arc of the heavens. Under so many stars it seemed impossible to him, suddenly, to comprehend their number in the sky above men and the world. His heart, for no reason he could understand, was beating rapidly. He had been in a deep sleep moments ago. Was still uncertain how and why he had come to be out here now. A dream. He had had a dream.

He looked up again. It was a mild night, generous, spring coming. Summer to follow: the burning, killing sun, water a longing and a prayer. A trace of a breeze flicked and eddied in the soft darkness, cool and reviving on his face. He heard the camels and the goats behind him, and the horses. His herds were large; he was a fortune-favoured man.

He turned and saw a young boy, one of the camel herders, standing not far away: on watch, for the moonless nights were dangerous. The boy's name was Tarif. It was a name that would be remembered, become known to chroniclers of generations yet unborn because of the exchange of words that followed.

The merchant drew a breath, adjusting the drape of his white robes. Then he gestured for the boy to approach and he instructed him, speaking carefully, to find the merchant's full-brother Musafa in his tent. To wake him, with apologies, and advise him that as of the sun's rising Musafa was to take command of and responsibility for their people. That he was particularly charged, in the name and memory of their father, to be mindful of the well-being of his absent brother's wives and children.

"Where are you going, lord?" Tarif asked, becoming immortal with a handful of words. A hundred thousand children would bear his name in years to come.

"Into the sands, "said the man, whose name was Ashar ibn Ashar. "I may be some time."

He touched the boy on the forehead, and then turned his back on him, on the palm trees and night flowers and water, the tents and animals and movable goods of his people, and he walked out alone under the stars.

So many of them, he thought again. How could there be so many? What could it mean that there were so many stars? His heart was full as a water gourd with their presence overhead. He felt, in fact, like speaking a prayer, but something stopped him. He made a decision that he would be silent, instead: open to what lay all about him and above, not imposing himself upon it. He took a fold of the garment he wore and drew it deliberately across his mouth as he went.

He was gone a very long time, had been given up for dead by the time he returned to his people. He was greatly changed by then.

So, too, not long after, was the world.

The third time Shaski ran away from home that winter he was found on the road west out of Kerakek, moving slowly but with resolution, carrying a pack much too large for him.

The patrolling soldier from the fortress who brought him back volunteered, amused, to beat the child properly for his mothers, in the obvious absence of a paternal hand.

The two women, anxious and flustered, hastily declined, but did agree that some measure of real chastisement was required. Doing this once was a boy's adventure, three times was something else. They'd attend to it themselves, they promised the soldier, and apologized again for the trouble he'd been caused.

No trouble, the man said, and meant it. It was winter, a bought peace silencing the long border all the way from Ammuz and Soriyya to Moskav in the freezing north. The garrison in Kerakek was bored. Drinking and gambling could only amuse one so much in a place as hopelessly remote as this was. You weren't even allowed to ride out and chase nomads or find a woman or two in one of their camps. The desert people were important to Bassania, it had been made explicitly, endlessly clear More important, it seemed, than the soldiers themselves. Pay was late, again.

The younger of the two women was dark-eyed, quite pretty, if distraught at the moment. The husband, as noted, was away. It seemed reasonable to contemplate a return visit, just to make sure everything was all right. He could bring a toy for the lad. One learned these tricks with the young mothers.

Shaski, standing between his two mothers just inside the fence around their small front yard, looked up stonily at the man on the horse. Earlier that morning, laughing, the soldier had held him by his ankles upside-down in the road until-blood rushing dizzily to his head-Shaski had named the house where he lived. Told to say thank you now, he did so, his voice flat. The soldier left, though not before smiling at his mother Jarita in a way Shaski didn't like.

When questioned by his mothers in the house after-a catechism that included a vigorous shaking and many tears (from them, not him)-he simply repeated what he'd said the other times: he wanted his father. He was having dreams. His father needed them. They needed to go to where his father was.

"Do you know how far that is?" his mother Katyun shrieked, rounding upon him. This was the worst part, actually: she was normally so calm. He didn't like it at all when she was upset. It was also a difficult question. He didn't really know how far away his father was.

"I took clothes," he said, pointing at his pack on the floor. "And my second warm vest you made me. And some apples. And my knife in case I met someone bad."

"Perun defend us!" his mother Jarita exclaimed. She was dabbing at her eyes. "What are we to do? The boy isn't eight years old!"

Shaski wasn't sure what that had to do with anything.

His mother Katyun knelt down on the carpet before him. She took his hands between her own. "Shaski, my love, little love, listen to me. It is too far away. We do not have flying creatures to carry us, we have no spells or magic or anything to take us there."

"We can walk."

"We can't, Shaski, not in this world." She was still holding his hands. "He doesn't need us now. He is helping the Kings of Kings in a place in the west. He will meet us in Kabadh in the summer. You will see him then."

They still didn't understand. It was strange how grown people could fail to understand things, even though adults were supposed to know more than children and kept telling you that.

He said, "Summer is too long from now, and we mustn't go to Kabadh. That is the thing we have to tell father. And if he is too far to walk, let's get horses. Or mules. My father got a mule. I can ride one. We all can. You can take turns holding the baby when we ride."

"Holding the baby?" his mother Jarita exclaimed. "In the Lady's holy name, you want us all to do this mad thing?"

Shaski looked at her. "I said that. Before."

Really. Mothers. Did they ever listen? Did they think he wanted to do this alone? He didn't even have any idea where he was going. Only that his father had gone one way on the road out of town, so he had gone that way himself, and the place he was at was called Sarantum, or nearly that, and it was far. Everyone kept saying that. He had understood that he might not be there by nightfall, walking alone, and he didn't like the dark now, when his dreams came.

There was a silence. His mother Jarita slowly dried her eyes. His mother Katyun was looking at him strangely. She had let go of his hands. "Shaski," she said finally, "tell me why we mustn't go to Kabadh."

She had never asked him that before.

What he learned, as he explained to his mothers about the dreams and how he felt certain things, was that other people didn't. It confused him, that the pull to go away, and the other feeling-the shape of a black cloud hovering whenever they said the name Kabadh-was not something either of his mothers shared, or even understood.

It frightened them, Shaski saw, and that scared him. Looking at their rigid expressions when he finished speaking, he finally began to cry, his face crumpling, knuckles rubbing at his eyes. "I'm- I'm sorry, "he said. "For run- running away. I'm sorry."

It was seeing her son in tears-her son who never cried-that made Katyun realize, finally, that there was something very large at work here even if it was beyond her grasp. It was possible that the Lady Anahita had come to Kerakek, to this insignificant fortress town at the desert's edge and had laid her finger on Shaghir, their darling child, Shaski. And the Lady's touch could mark a human being. It was known.

"Perun guard us all, "Jarita murmured. Her face was white. "May Azal never know this house."

But he did, if what Shaski had told them was in any way the truth. The Enemy knew Kerakek already. And even Kabadh. A cloud, a shadow, Shaski had said. How should a child know of shadows like that? And Rustem, her husband, needed them in the west. More north than west, actually. Among the infidels in Sarantium, who worshipped a burning god in the sun. Something no one who knew the desert could ever do.

Katyun drew a breath. She knew there was a trap here for her, something seductive and dangerous. She didn't want to go to Kabadh. She had never wanted to go there. How could she survive in a court? Among the sort of women who were there? Even the idea kept her up at night, trembling, sick to her stomach, or brought dreams, shadows of her own.

She looked at Jarita, who had been so very brave, hiding the blackness of her grief at the tidings of Rustem's elevation in caste, his summons to the court. The summons that meant they were to find her another husband, another home, another father for Inissa, little Issa.

Jarita had done something Katyun didn't think she herself could have done. She had let Rustem, the husband she loved, go on his journey thinking she accepted this, that it even pleased her, so that his heart might not be troubled in the wake of such great tidings as he had received.

In Perun's name, the things that women did.

It didn't please her. It was tearing her apart. Katyun knew it. She could hear Jarita in the dark at night, both women awake in the small house. Rustem ought to have seen through the deception, but men-even clever men-tended to miss these things, and he'd been so greatly caught up in healing the king, and then the caste elevation and his mission to the west. He had wanted to believe Jarita's deception, and so he had. And in any case, it was not as if a man could refuse the King of Kings.

Katyun looked from Shaski to Jarita. Rustem had told her the night before he left that she would have to do the thinking for the family, that he was relying on her. Even the students were gone, to other masters. She was on her own with this, as with all things now.

The baby cried from the other room, waking from her afternoon sleep, swaddled in her wooden cradle near the fire.

Kerakek. Kabadh. The Shadow of Black Azal. The finger of the Lady touching them. Shaski's…feelings about these things. An understanding coming, late, of how he had always been… different from the other children they knew. She had seen it, actually, had resisted. Perhaps in the same way that Rustem had resisted knowing how Jarita really felt: wanting to believe she was happy, though it might wound his pride. Poor Jarita, so delicate and so beautiful. Sometimes there could be flowers in the desert, but not in many places and not for very long.

Sarantium. Even larger than Kabadh, they said. Katyun bit her lip.

She hugged Shaski and sent him to the kitchen to ask the cook for something to eat. He hadn't had his breakfast yet, had left the house in the dark while they slept. Jarita, still white-faced as a priestess on a night of the Sacred Flame, went to the baby.

Katyun sat alone, thinking hard. Then she summoned a servant and sent him to the fortress with a request that the garrison commander be so good as to honour them with a visit when time allowed.

Boredom. A sense of injustice. A peace bought with gold. They all came together for Vinaszh, son of Vinaszh, in that winter of bitterness.

He never used to find it tedious here in Kerakek. He liked the desert, the south: it was what he knew, the world of his childhood. He enjoyed the visits from the camel-riding nomads, going out to drink palm wine with them in their tents, the slow gestures, silences, words doled out as carefully as water. The people of the sand were important here, buffers against the Sarantines, trading partners bringing spices and gold from the distant, fabled south on the ancient camel routes. And they were advance troops in any war.

Of course some of the desert wanderers were allied with Sarantium and traded there… which was why it mattered so much to keep those tribes that favoured Bassania happy. The soldiers didn't always understand that, but Vinaszh had grown up in Qandir, even farther south: the nuances of Ammuz and Soriyya and the nomads were no mystery to him. Or less of a mystery than they were to most men: no one could truthfully say they understood the peoples of the sand.

He had never nourished visions of himself in a more prominent place or role. He was a garrison commander in a world he comprehended well enough. It had been, until recently, a life that pleased him.

But this winter the court had come to Kerakek, and a good part of it-with the king himself-had lingered as an arrow wound healed, and the ripples that followed upon the deaths (some deserved, some not) of princes and royal wives subsided.

Vinaszh, who had played no small part in the events of a terrible day, had found himself altered after Shirvan and the court left. The fortress seemed empty to him. Bleak and echoing. The town was what it always had been… a dusty, eventless cluster of little homes. And the wind kept blowing from the desert. He had dreams in restless nights.

A disquiet had entered into the soul of Vinaszh the commander. The winter stretched like an uncrossable abyss, day passing, day passing, painfully slow, and then darkfall. The sand, which had never bothered him in his life, he now noticed all the time, everywhere, slipping through cracks in windows and under doors, into clothing, food, folds of skin, one's hair and beard, one's… thoughts.

He had begun drinking too much, starting too early in the day. He was intelligent enough to know that this was dangerous.

And it was as a consequence of all of these things that, when the doctor's servant climbed the winding path and steps up from the town and delivered that household's request for a visit when time allowed, time did allow, almost immediately.

Vinaszh hadn't the least idea what they wanted. It was a change, however something new in the blank, stolid routine of the days. That was enough. The doctor had left a while ago. He'd been planning to spend some days in Sarnica, Vinaszh seemed to remember. Depending on how lone; he'd lingered there, he might even be in Sarantium by now. The doctor's women were pretty, he recalled, both of them.

He sent the servant back with a coin and word that he'd be down the hill later in the day. As it happened, it was easy to be agreeable when the request came from the household of a man about to be elevated in caste and summoned to the royal court by the King of Kings himself. Honour beyond belief, really.

Not that Vinaszh, son of Vinaszh, had been summoned anywhere, or promoted, or honoured, or… anything at all, actually. Not that anyone in the court had paid the least attention while they were here to whose idea it had been to intervene in that mighty company and-at considerable personal risk-urge the summoning of a local physician to the king's bedside that dreadful day earlier this winter. And who had then assisted the doctor and killed a murderous prince with his own blade.

It had crossed his mind to wonder if he was being-however unfairly-punished for the flung blade that stopped a treacherous son.

It could be. No one had said this, no one had even spoken to him, but someone like the round, shrewd vizier might say that his continued existence after such a deed was-or ought to be-seen as gift enough. He had slain royalty. Blood of the Great King's blood. With a dagger drawn and thrown in the presence of the king, the sacred Brother to the Sun and Moons. And yes, yes, he had done that, but he had been ordered to be on the alert for danger when Murash came back to the room. It had been an act of absolute duty.

Was he to be abandoned, forgotten here in the desert, for having saved the life of his king?

It happened. The world of Perun and Lady could not be said to be a place where just rewards held sway. The presence of Azal the Enemy meant that this would always be so, until Time itself came to an end.

Vinaszh was a soldier. He knew this to be true. The army was rife with injustice and corruption. And civilians-perfumed, sensuous court advisers, sly and unctuous-could choose to block the paths of honest, rough soldiers for their own reasons. It was the way of things. Not that understanding this made it easier to be enduring the process, if that was what was happening.

His father had never wanted him to go into the army. Had he remained a merchant down in Qandir, none of this would ever have come into his life.

He would have sand in his wine cups and bed and wouldn't care.

Men changed, Vinaszh decided, it was as simple-and as complicated-as that. It seemed that he himself had now changed. Things happened, small events or large ones, or perhaps time passed, nothing more than that-and you woke up one morning and were different. There had probably been a time, he thought, when Murash was content to be a prince of Bassania, son of his great father.

Difficult thoughts for a soldier. It would have been better to be in the field with an enemy to face. But there was no one to fight, nothing to do, and the wind kept blowing. There was sand in his cup right now, grit in the wine.

He ought to have been recognized for what he'd done. Truly, he ought to have been.

Some time after midday he went down the hill, riding towards the doctor's house. He was received by the two women in a front room with a fireplace. The younger one was really quite lovely, very dark eyes. The older was more poised, did all of the talking, her voice modestly low. What she said, however, took Vinaszh's thoughts abruptly from his own affairs.

Fate, chance, accident? An intercession of Perun? Who would presume to say? But the simple truth was that the soldier son of a merchant from Qandir, who happened at that time to be commander of the garrison at Kerakek, was a man more than a little disposed towards accepting such things as the woman told him that winter afternoon. The nature of the world was far beyond the grasp of men, everyone knew that. And here in the south, near the desert peoples with their inscrutable tribal rites, reports like this were not unknown.

At one point they sent for the boy at his request and Vinaszh asked him some questions, then they sent him back out again. He had answered readily enough, a serious child. He was happiest in his father's empty treatment rooms now, one of the women said, almost apologetically. They allowed him to play there. He was almost eight years old they said, when Vinaszh asked.

He declined their offered wine, accepted a cup of herbal tea instead while he considered what he'd learned. The nomads had tales and names in their own languages for people such as this child might be. Vinaszh had heard such stories, even when young. His nurse had enjoyed telling them. He had seen a Dreamer himself, once, on a desert journey with his father: a glimpse, as a tent flap fell shut too slowly. A large-bodied, soft man among a lean people. No hair on his head at all. Deep, parallel scars on both cheeks, he remembered.

The woman's story, therefore, was not one he was inclined to dismiss out of hand, but aside from finding it interesting, he remained unsure of what, exactly, they expected of him, why he was being told this, and so he asked. And so they told him.

He laughed aloud, in startled dismay, then fell silent, looking from one mother's still, grave face to the other's. They meant it, he realized. They really meant it. He heard a sound: the boy was at the doorway. He hadn't gone to the treatment rooms, after all. A listening sort of child. Vinaszh had been one himself. Shaski came out when they called to him and he stood by the beaded curtain of the door, waiting. Vinaszh stared at him.

Then he looked back at the older of the two mothers, the one who'd done the talking, and said, as gently as he could, that what she asked was simply out of the question.

Why?" said the younger, pretty one, unexpectedly. "You take merchant parties west sometimes."

This was true, as it happened. Vinaszh, an honest man, and confronting attractive women with earnest, steady gazes, was compelled to agree.

He looked back at the boy. The boy was still waiting, in the doorway.

The silence was unsettling, actually. In it, Vinaszh addressed an unexpected question to himself: why, indeed? Why was it out of the question to provide them with an escort? There was no law being broken if wives wished to follow their husband on a journey. If the man was angry when they arrived that was, surely, their problem, or his. Not the escort's. Vinaszh had to assume that the doctor had left his women with sufficient finances to pay for a journey. And once they all ended up at court in Kabadh, issues of money would become trivial for this family. They might be useful people to have in his debt. No one else seemed to feel indebted to Vinaszh, after all. The commander resisted an impulse to scowl. He sipped his tea, made the mistake of looking back at the boy again. The grave, watchful face. Waiting for him. Children. The boy ought to be playing, outside or somewhere, surely.

Under any normal circumstances, Vinaszh considered, there would have been nothing he'd have wanted to do about any of this. But this winter wasn't… normal.

And the the too-obvious trust in the boy's eyes arrested his thinking. He contrasted it with his own state of mind of late. He was in danger of drinking away the reputation he'd built up for himself over the years. Bitterness could destroy a man. Or a child? He sipped his tea. The women watched him. The boy watched him.

As commander of the garrison it was within his power to assign soldiers as escorts to private parties. Merchants, usually, crossing the border with their goods in a time of peace. Peacetime didn't mean the roads were safe, of course. Normally the mercantile parties would pay for their military escort, but not invariably. Sometimes a commander had his own reasons for sending soldiers across the border. It gave restless men something to do, tested new soldiers, allowed a separation of those showing the tensions of being too much together for too long. He'd sent Nishik with the doctor, hadn't he?

The garrison commander of Kerakek didn't know-there was no reason for him to know-the arrangements proposed for the younger wife and daughter. If he had, he might not have done what he did.

Instead, he made a decision. Reversed a decision, actually. Swiftly, precise now, befitting his rank. Made a choice that might have been considered by any detached observer to be folly on a grand scale. As he spoke, both women began to cry. The boy did not. The boy went away. They heard him a little later in his father's treatment rooms.

"Perun guard us. He's packing things," the younger mother said, still weeping.

The folly of Vinaszh, son of Vinaszh, resulted, at the end of that same week, in two women, two children, a garrison commander (that was the point, after all, and his second-in-command could use the experience of a period in control), and three chosen soldiers setting off on the dusty, wind-swept road towards the border of Amoria, bound for Sarantium.

As it happened, Rustem the physician, oblivious as all travellers must be to events behind them, was still in Sarnica on the day his family set out after him. He was buying manuscripts, giving lectures, would not leave that city for another week. They weren't, in fact, very far behind him.

The plan was for the four soldiers to escort the women and children and do some inconspicuous observing of their own as they went west and north through Amoria. The physician would have to deal with his family when they reached him. It would be his task to get them all to Kabadh when the time came. And it would be the women's problem to explain their sudden presence to him. It might be amusing to see that first encounter, Vinaszh thought, riding west along the road. It was curious how much better he'd felt the moment he made the decision to leave Kerakek. The doctor's women, the child, this request-they had been a gift of sorts, he decided.

He and his three men would simply go north with this small party and turn around, but the journey, even a winter journey, would be so much better than lingering in the sand and wind and emptiness. A man needed to do something when the days darkened early and his thoughts did the same.

He would send a written report to Kabadh when they returned, containing whatever observations they had made. The journey could be couched, described, represented as something routine. Almost. He would decide later whether to mention the boy. There was no hurry with that. For one thing, the fact that such people existed didn't mean this child, Shaghir, son of Rustem, was one of them. Vinaszh had yet to be persuaded of that. Of course, if the child wasn't what his mother thought he was, then they were all making an absurd winter journey simply because a small boy missed his father and was having bad dreams because of it. Best not, for the moment, to think about that, Vinaszh decided.

That proved easy enough. The energy of travel, of the road woke dormant feelings in the commander. Some feared the open spaces, the rigours of travelling. He wasn't one of them. Setting out on a day so mild it seemed a blessing of Perun and the Lady upon the journey, Vinaszh was happy.

Shaski was very happy.

Only as they approached Sarantium, some time later, would his mood change. Never a talkative child, he'd been in the habit of singing sometimes to himself as they went along or to calm his infant sister at night. The singing stopped about a week north of Sarnica. And shortly after that the boy grew entirely silent, looking pale and unwell, though voicing no complaint. A few days later they would finally reach Deapolis on the southern bank of the famous strait and see black smoke across the water, and flames.

In Kabadh, in his glorious palace above the gardens that hung as if by miracle down along the slope to the lowest riverbed, with contrived waterfalls running through and behind the flowers, and trees growing upside-down, Shirvan the Great, King of Kings, Brother to the Sun and Moons, lay with one wife or another that winter or with favoured concubines, and his sleep was disturbed and restless, despite drinks and powders administered to him by his physicians and priestly incantations at head and foot of his bed before he retired for the night.

This had been going on for some time.

Every night, in fact, since his return from the south, where he had almost died. It was said quietly-though never in the presence of the Great King himself-that dark dreams before dawn were not infrequently an aftermath of great peril survived, a lingering awareness of a near visitation from Azal the Enemy, the touch of black wings.

One morning, however, Shirvan awoke and sat straight up in his bed, bare-chested, the mark of a fresh wound still red at his collarbone. His eyes fixed on something invisible in the air, he spoke two sentences aloud. The voting bride beside him sprang from the bed and knelt, trembling, on the richly textured carpet, naked as when she had entered the world of Perun and Azal's undying conflict.

The two men honoured with places in the king's bedchamber at night, even when he bedded a woman, also knelt, averting their eyes from the shapely nakedness of the girl on the carpet. They'd learned to ignore such sights, and to keep silent about what else they saw and heard. Or, most of what they saw and heard.

The eyes of the King of Kings had been like cold iron that morning, one of them was later to say admiringly: hard and deadly as a sword of judgement. His voice was that of the judge who weighs the lives of men when they die. It was considered acceptable to report this.

The words Shirvan spoke, and was to say again when his hastily summoned advisers met him in the adjacent room, were: "It is not to be allowed. We will go to war."

It is often the case that a decision avoided, wrestled with, provoking intense anxiety and disturbed nights, seems obvious once made. One looks back in bemusement and consternation at the long hesitation, wondering what could possibly have deferred a resolution so transparent, so evident.

It was so with the King of Kings that morning, though his advisers, not sharing his winter dreams, required matters to be put in language they understood. It was possible, of course, to simply tell them what to do without explaining, but Shirvan had reigned a long time now and knew that most men did better when they grasped certain ideas for themselves.

There were two facts, really, that compelled a war, and a third element that meant they had to do it themselves.

One: the Sarantines were building ships. Many ships. Traders to the west and spies (often the same men) had been reporting this since the beginning of autumn. The shipyards of Sarantium and Deapolis were resounding with the sounds of hammers and saws. Shirvan had heard this hammering in the darkness of his nights.

Two: the queen of the Antae was in Sarantium. A living tool in the hand of Valerius. A different kind of hammer. How the Emperor had achieved this (and Perun knew Shirvan respected the other ruler as much as he hated him) no one had been able to say, but she was there.

These things, taken together, spelled out an invasion of the west for any man who knew how to read such signs. Who could now fail to see that the vast sums of gold Valerius had paid-two instalments now-into Bassania's coffers were designed to keep the eastern border quiescent while he sent his army west?

Shirvan had taken the money, of course. Had signed and sealed the Eternal Peace, as they named it. He had his own border problems, north and east, and his own difficulties paying a restive army. What ruler did not?

But the King of Kings needed no dream-reader now to unveil for him the meaning of his nights. The charlatans might have tried to tell him the sounds of hammering, the images of fire and the restlessness flowed from the arrow wound and the poison in his neck. He knew better.

The poison that mattered had not been on his son's arrow, but was lying in wait: the venom lay in how much power Sarantium would have if Batiara fell into its grasp. And it might. It could. For the longest time he had almost wanted the Sarantines to go west, believing they would never succeed. He didn't think that any more.

The lost homeland of the Empire was fertile and wealthy-why else had the Antae tribes moved down there in the first place? If the golden Strategos, hated Leontes, could add that richness to Valerius's treasury, give him wealth and security in the west, no troops tied down in Sauradia, then…

Then how much more beleaguered would anyone sitting the throne in Kabadh feel?

It could not be allowed to unfold in that way. There was poison in all of this, deadly and absolute.

Some in that room might have hoped, wistfully, that a portion of the Sarantine money, if diverted to Moskav, could pay for a summer of unrest in the north, forcing Valerius to keep a part of his army back, undermining his invasion.

An idle thought, no more than that. The fur-clad barbarians of Moskav could as easily take the offered money and sweep down upon Mihrbor's wooden walls, within Bassania itself. They attacked when they were bored, where they chose, as they smelled weakness. There was no sense of honour, of proper conduct among those savage northerners, so sure of their safety in their wild, vast land. A bribe, an agreement would mean nothing to them.

No, if Valerius was to be impeded, they would have to do it themselves. Shirvan felt no compunction at all. No ruler who truly loved and guarded his country could be expected to be stopped in this resolve by something so trivial as a treaty of Eternal Peace.

Once a decision was made, Shirvan of Bassania was not the sort to waste time pondering such nuances.

An excuse would be created, some concocted incursion along the northern border. A Sarantine border raid from Asen. They could kill a few of their own priestly caste, burn a small temple, say the westerners had done so, breaching the sworn peace. It was the usual thing.

Asen, which had been burned and looted and bartered back and forth half a dozen times, would be the obvious target again. But there was more in Shirvan's thought, there was something new this time.

"Go farther west," the King of Kings said to his generals, in his deep, cold voice, looking at Robazes first and then the others. "Asen is nothing. A coin for exchanging. You must force Valerius to send an army. And so you will go to Eubulus itself this time, starve and batter it. And bring me back the wealth that lies within those walls."

There was a silence. There was always silence when the King of Kings was speaking, but this was different. In all their wars with Valerius and his uncle before him and Apius before him, Eubulus had never been taken or even besieged. Neither had their own great northern city of Mihrbor. The battles between Sarantium and Bassania had been entirely about gold. Border raids to north and south for plunder, ransom, money for the treasuries on each side, payment for the armies. Conquest, the sack of major cities, had never been an issue.

Shirvan looked from one of his generals to another. He knew he was forcing them to change the way they thought-always a risk with soldiers. He saw Robazes, as expected, grasp the implications first.

He said, "Remember, if they are going to Batiara, Leontes will be in the west. He will not be at Eubulus to face you. And if we draw enough soldiers from his army of invasion because they must go north to meet you instead, he will fail in the west. He may… die." He said that last very slowly, giving it time to register. They needed to understand this.

Leontes would be west. Their scourge. The too-bright image of terror in their dreams, golden as the sun the Sarantines worshipped. The military commanders of Bassania looked at each other. Fear and excitement were in the room now, a slow dawning of comprehension, first awareness of possibility.

Awareness also came, after, of certain other things. How this breaking of the peace would put those Bassanids in western lands-merchants, most of them, a handful of others-desperately at risk. But that always happened when a war began, and there weren't so many in any case. Such considerations could not be permitted to alter anything. Merchants always knew there were risks in going west (or east, for that matter, into Ispa-hani). That was why they charged so much for what they brought back, how they made their fortunes.

As Shirvan gestured his dismissal and the gathering made obeisance and began to break up, one other man did venture to speak: Mazendar the vizier, who was always licensed to do so in the presence of his king. A small, round man, his voice light and dry as the king's was grave and deep, he offered two small suggestions.

The first was about timing. "Great King, did you propose we attack before they sail west?"

Shirvan narrowed his eyes. "That is one possibility," he said carefully. And waited.

"Indeed, my dread lord, "Mazendar murmured. "I see a glimmer of your mighty thoughts. We can do that, or wait until they have set off for the west and then cross the border for Eubulus. Leontes will be pursued by fast ships with panic-stricken tidings. He may be ordered to send some of his fleet home. The remainder will feel exposed and disheartened. Or he may press on, always fearing what we do behind him. And Sarantium will feel utterly exposed. Does the King of Kings prefer that, or the other approach? His advisers await the light of his wisdom."

Mazendar was the only one of them worth listening to. Robazes could fight, and lead an army, but Mazendar had a mind. Shirvan said, gravely, "It will take us some time to assemble our army north. We will attend upon events in the west and make our decision accordingly."

"How large an army, my lord?" Robazes asked the soldier's question. He blinked in astonishment when Shirvan gave him a number. They had never sent so many men before.

Shirvan kept his expression grim and hard. People should see the countenance of the King of Kings and remember it and report it. Valerius of Sarantium was not the only ruler who could send large armies into the world. The king looked back at Mazendar. He had spoken of two suggestions.

The second concerned the queen of the Antae, in Sarantium.

Listening, the king nodded his head slowly. Was graciously pleased to agree that this proposal had virtue. Gave his consent.

Men went forth from that room. Events began to move at speed. The first signal fires were lit at darkfall that same day, sending messages of flame from hilltop to fortress tower to hilltop beyond, in all necessary directions.

The King of Kings spent much of the day with Mazendar and Robazes and the lesser generals and his treasury officials, and the afternoon in prayer before the palace's ember of the Holy Fire. At the dinner hour, he felt unwell, feverish. He spoke of this to no one, of course, but reclining upon a couch to dine he suddenly remembered-belatedly- the unexpectedly competent physician who was to be coming to Kabadh in the summer. He'd ordered the man to Sarantium in the interval, until after his necessary elevation in caste. He'd been an observing sort of man; the king had sought a way to utilize him. Kings needed to do that. Useful men had to be put to use.

Shirvan sipped at a bowl of green tea and then shook his head. The movement made him feel dizzy and so he stopped. That doctor would have left for the west already. For Sarantium itself. An unfortunate place to have him now.

It couldn't be helped. A ruler's own health and comfort surely had to give way to the needs of his people. There were burdens that came with royalty, and the King of Kings knew them all. One's personal concerns had to yield at certain times. Besides which, there simply had to be more than one effective doctor in Bassania. He resolved to have Mazendar initiate a proper search… it was not something he'd ever done, in fact.

But one grew older, good health became less sure. Azal hovered with black wings. Perun and the Lady waited for all men in judgement. One didn't have to… rush to them before-times, however.

A thought came to him as the dinner ended and he retired to his private quarters. His head was still hurting. Nevertheless, he sent for Mazendar. The vizier appeared almost immediately. It seemed to Shirvan at times that the man lived his life poised on the other side of a door, so swift was he always to appear.

The king recollected to his vizier the thought Mazendar had voiced in the morning, about the Antae queen. Then he reminded him of that physician from the south who was in Sarantium, or would be soon enough. He'd forgotten the man's name. It didn't matter; Mazendar would know it. The vizier, by a very great deal the quickest of those around him, smiled slowly and stroked his small beard "The king is truly brother to the lords of creation," he said. "The king's eyes are as the eagle's eyes and his thoughts are deep as the sea. I shall act upon this, at speed."

Shirvan nodded, then rubbed at his forehead and finally had his physicians summoned. He didn't trust any of them very much, having had the three deemed best killed in Kerakek for their own failings, but surely those here at court were adequate to preparing a concoction of some kind that could ease this pain in his head and help him sleep.

They were, in fact. The King of Kings did not dream that night, for the first time in a long while.

CHAPTER VIII

In winter in Sarantium, when the enormous bulk of the Hippodrome stood quiet, the faction rivalry shifted to the theatres. The dancers, actors, jugglers, clowns vied in performance and the faction members in their assigned sections would produce acclamations (or loud denunciations) of an increasingly sophisticated nature. The rehearsals involved in achieving these spontaneous demonstrations could be quite demanding. If you knew how to follow directions, were willing to spend much of your free time practising, and had an acceptable voice, you could earn yourself a good spot for performances and privileged admission to the faction banquets and other events. There was no shortage of applicants.

The Blues and Greens were separated in the theatres as they were in the Hippodrome, standing off to the sides of the curved audience space, nowhere near each other. The Urban Prefecture was not deficient in rudimentary good sense, and the Imperial Precinct had made it abundantly clear that an excess of violence could darken the theatres for the whole of a winter. A grim prospect; sufficiently so to ensure a certain level of decorum-most of the time.

The court and visiting dignitaries, along with high-ranking civil servants and military officers, had the only seats, in the centre down front Behind them was standing space for the non-aligned theatre-goers, prioritized by guild seniority or military rank, and here, too, could be found the couriers of the Imperial Post. Farther up in the middle came ordinary soldiers and sailors and citizens and, in this enlightened reign (rather too much so for the more fiery of the clerics), even the Kindath in their blue robes and silver caps. The occasional Bassanid or pagan traders from Karch or Moskav with a curiosity about what happened here might find a few spots assigned them towards the very back.

The clergy themselves were never at the theatre, of course. Women were very nearly naked there sometimes. They had to be careful with the northerners, actually: the girls could excite them a little too much, a different sort of disruption ensuing.

While the Principal Dancers-Shirin and Tychus for the Greens, Clarus and Elaina for the Blues-led their colours in performance once or twice a week and the Accredited Musicians coordinated the acclamations and the younger partisans goaded and brawled with each other in various smoky cauponae and taverns, the leaders of the two factions spent the winter aggressively preparing for spring and what really mattered in Sarantium.

The chariots were the heart of the City's life and everyone knew it.

There was, in truth, a great deal to be done in a winter. Riders would be recruited from the provinces, dropped or sent away for various reasons, or subjected to additional training. The younger ones, for example, were endlessly drilled in how to fall from a chariot and how to arrange a spill if one was needed. Horses were evaluated, retired, groomed, and exercised; new ones were bought by agents. The faction cheiromancers still cast their attacking and warding spells (with an eye to useful deaths and fresh graves beyond the walls).

Every so often the two faction managers would meet at some neutral tavern or bathhouse and carefully negotiate, over heavily watered wine, a transaction of some kind or other. Usually this involved the lesser colours-the Reds and Whites-for neither leader would want to run the risk of losing such a exchange in an obvious way.

This, in fact, was how it came to pass that young Taras of the Reds, some time after the end of his first season in the City, found himself brusquely informed by the Green factionarius one morning after chapel services that he'd been dealt to the Blues and Whites for a right-side trace horse and two barrels of Sarnican wine, and was expected to clear out his gear and head for the Blues" compound that same morning.

It wasn't said in an unkind way. It was brief, utterly matter-of-fact, and the factionarius had already turned to discuss a new shipment of Arimondan leather with someone else by the time Taras had fully grasped what he'd been told. Taras stumbled out of the factionarius's very crowded office. No one met his eye.

It was true that he hadn't been with them for long, and had only been riding for the Reds, and he was shy by nature, so Taras was certainly not a well-known figure in the compound. But it still seemed to him-young and not yet accustomed to the hard ways of the City-that his former comrades might have shown a little less enthusiasm when word of the transaction reached the banquet hall and the main barracks. It wasn't pleasant to hear people cheering when they heard the tidings.

The horse was said to be a very good one, agreed, but Taras was a man, a charioteer, someone who'd had a bed in the room with them, had dined at the table, done his very best all year in a difficult, dangerous place far from his home. The celebration wounded him, he had to admit it.

The only ones who even bothered to come by to wish him luck as he was packing his things were a couple of the grooms, an undercook he'd gone drinking with on occasion, and one of the other Red riders. In fairness, he had to acknowledge that Crescens, their burly First, did pause in his drinking long enough to note Taras crossing the banquet hall with his things and call a jocular farewell across the crowded room.

He got Taras's name wrong, but he always did that.

It was raining outside. Taras tugged down the brim of his hat and turned up his collar as he went through the yard. He belatedly remembered that he'd forgotten to take his mother's remedy against all possible ailments. He'd probably get sick now, on top of everything else.

A horse. He'd been dealt for a horse. There was a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could still remember his family's pride when the Greens" recruiter in Megarium had invited him to the City a year ago "Work hard, and who knows what might happen," the man had said.

At the compound entrance one of the guards stepped out of the hut and unlocked the gates. He waved casually and ducked back in out of the rain. They might not yet know what had happened. Taras didn't tell them. Outside, two young boys in blue tunics were standing in the laneway, getting wet.

"You Taras?" one of them asked, chewing at a stick of skewered lamb.

Taras nodded.

"Let's go, then. Take you there." The boy flipped the remains of his skewer into the gutter, which was running with rainwater.

An escort. Two street urchins. How flattering, Taras thought.

"I know where the Blues" compound is," he muttered under his breath. He felt flushed, lightheaded. Wanted to be alone. Didn't want to look at anyone. How was he going to tell his mother about this? The very thought of dictating such a letter to a scribe made his heart beat painfully.

One of the boys kept pace with him through the puddles; the other disappeared after a while into the misty rain, obviously bored, or just cold. One urchin, then. A triumphant procession for the great charioteer just acquired for a horse and some wine.

At the gates to the Blues" compound-his new home now, hard as it was to think that way-Taras had to give his name twice and then explain, excruciatingly, that he was a charioteer and had been… recruited to join them. The guards looked dubious.

The boy beside Taras spat into the street. "Tucking unlock the gate. It's raining and he's who he says he is."

In that order, Taras thought glumly, water dripping from his hat and down the back of his neck. The metal gates were reluctantly swung open. No word of welcome, of course. The guards didn't even believe he was a chariot-racer. The compound's courtyard-almost identical to that of the Greens-was muddy and deserted in the wet, cold morning.

"You'll be in that barracks," the boy said, pointing off to the right. "Don't know which bed. Astorgus said drop your stuff and see him. He'll be eating. Banquet hall's that way." He went off through the mud, not looking back.

Taras carried his gear to the indicated building. A long, low sleeping quarters, again much like the one he'd lived in this past year. Some servants were moving about, tidying up, arranging bed linens and discarded clothing. One of them looked over indifferently as Taras appeared in the doorway. Taras was about to ask which bed was his, but suddenly the prospect seemed too humiliating. That could wait. He dropped his wet bags near the door.

"Keep an eye on these for me," he called out with what he hoped sounded like authority. "I'll be sleeping in here."

He shook the rain off his hat, put it back on his head, and went out again. Dodging the worst puddles, he angled across the courtyard a second time, towards the building the boy had indicated. Astorgus, the factionarius, was supposed to be in there.

Taras entered a small but handsomely decorated front room. The double doors leading to the hall itself were closed; it was quiet beyond, at this hour of a grey, wet morning. He looked around. There were mosaics on all four walls here, showing great charioteers-all Blues, of course-from the past. Glorious figures. Taras knew them all. All the young riders did; these were the shining inhabitants of their dreams.

Work hard, and who knows what might happen.

Taras felt unwell. He saw a man, warmed by two fires, sitting on a high stool at a desk near the interior doors that led to the dining hall itself. There was a lamp at his elbow. He looked up from some writing he was doing and arched an eyebrow.

"Wet, aren't you?" he observed.

"Rain tends to be wet, "Taras said shortly. "I'm Taras of the…I'm Taras ot Megarium. New rider. For the Whites."

"Are you?" the man said. "Heard of you." At least someone had, Taras thought. The man looked Taras up and down, but he didn't snicker or look amused. "Astorgus is inside. Get rid of that hat and go on in."

Taras looked for somewhere to put his hat.

"Give it to me. "The secretary-or whatever he was-took it between two fingers as if it were a rancid fish and dropped it on a bench behind his desk. He wiped his fingers on his robe and bent to his work again. Taras sighed, pushed his hair out of his eyes, and opened the heavy oak doors to the banquet hall. Then he froze.

He saw a huge, brightly lit room, packed with people at every table. The morning stillness was shattered by a sudden, vast, thundering roar erupting like a volcano, loud enough to shake the rafters. He realized, as he stopped dead on the threshold, heart in his throat, that they were all leaping to their feet-men and women-cups and flasks uplifted in his direction, and they were shouting his name so loudly he could almost imagine his mother hearing it, half a world away in Megarium.

Stupefied, frozen to the spot, Taras tried desperately to grasp what was happening.

He saw a compact, much-scarred man throw his cup down, bouncing it off the floor, spilling and spattering the lees of his wine, and stride across the room towards him. "By the beard of the beardless Jad!" cried the celebrated Astorgus, leader of all the Blues,'I cannot fucking believe those idiots let you go! Hah! Hah! Welcome, Taras of Megarium, we're proud to have you with us!" He wrapped Taras in a rib-cracking, muscular embrace and stepped back, beaming.

The noise in the room continued unabated. Taras saw Scortius himself-the great Scortius-grinning at him, cup held high. The two urchins who had fetched him were both here now, laughing together in a corner, sticking fingers in their mouths to whistle piercingly. And now the secretary and one of the guards from the gate came in behind Taras, clapping him hard on the back.

Taras realized his mouth was gaping open. He closed it. A young girl, a dancer, came forward and gave him a cup of wine and a kiss on each cheek. Taras swallowed hard. He looked down at his cup, lifted it hesitantly to the room, and then drank it off at a gulp, eliciting an even louder shout of approval and whistling everywhere now. They were still crying his name.

He was afraid, suddenly, that he was going to cry.

He concentrated on Astorgus. Tried to appear calm. He cleared his throat. "This is… this is a generous welcome for a new rider for the Whites," he said.

"The Whites? The fucking Whites'? I love my White team as a father loves his youngest child, but you aren't with them, lad. You're a Blue rider now. Second of the Blues, behind Scortius. That's why we're celebrating!"

Taras, blinking rapidly, abruptly decided he was going to have to get to a chapel very soon. Thanks had to be given somewhere, and Jad was surely the place to start.

Approaching the barrier in his quadriga, controlling the restive horses on the second day of the race season, springtime sunlight pouring down on a screaming Hippodrome crowd, Taras hadn't the least inclination to rescind the thanks and candles he'd offered months ago, but he was still terrified this morning, aware that he was doing something significantly beyond him, and feeling the strain of that every moment.

He understood now exactly what Astorgus and Scortius had been thinking when they had manoeuvred to bring him to the Blues. The second driver for the last two years had been a man named Rulanius, from Sarnica (as so many of the drivers were), but he had become a problem. He thought he was better than he was, and he drank too much as a consequence.

The role of the Second driver for a faction that had Scortius wearing the silver helmet was essentially defined by tactical challenges. You didn't win races (except lesser ones, when the two leaders weren't running), you attempted to make sure your First driver wasn't stopped from winning them.

That involved blocks (subtle ones), holding lanes against the Greens, forcing them wide on turns, slowing down to slow others, or dropping back hard at a precisely judged moment to open space for your leader to come through. Sometimes you even crashed at opportune times-with the very considerable risks attendant upon that. You needed to be observant, alert, willing to be banged and bruised, attentive to whatever coded instructions Scortius might shout to you on the track, and fundamentally reconciled to being an adjunct to the leader. The cheering would never be for you.

Rulanius, increasingly, had not been reconciled.

It had begun to show more and more as the last season had gone on. He was too experienced to simply be dismissed, and a factionarius had more than just Sarantium to think about. The decision had been made to send him north to Eubulus, second city of the Empire, where he could ride First in a smaller hippodrome. A demotion; a promotion. However defined, it put him out of the way. The warning about drinking, however, had been very specific. The track was no place for men who were not at their sharpest, all morning, all afternoon. The Ninth Rider was too near them, always.

But that problem solved had left another behind. The current Third rider for the Blues was an older man, more than content with his lot in life, running in the minor races, backing up Rulanius on occasion. He'd been judged by Astorgus, bluntly, as not equal to the tactical demands and the frequent spills of facing Crescens of the Greens and his own aggressive number two on a regular basis.

They could promote or recruit someone else from the smaller cities, or approach this a different way. They chose the latter course.

It appeared that Taras had made an impression, a significant one, especially during one memorable race at the very end of last year. What he himself had seen as a wretched failure, when his explosive start had been undermined by Scortius's brilliant slashing run down behind him, had been regarded by the Blues as a splendid effort, subverted only by an act of genius. And then Taras had come second in that same race, a major achievement with horses he didn't know well, and after burning his team so much as they broke from the line.

Some discreet enquiries into his background, some internal discussion, and a decision had been made that he'd be suited to the role of riding Second. He would be thrilled by the task, not chafing at it. He'd appeal to the crowd because of his youth. This had the potential to become a glorious coup for the Blues, Astorgus had concluded.

He'd negotiated a transaction. The horse, Taras had learned, was a significant one. Crescens had speedily claimed it as his own right-sider. He'd be even more formidable now, and they knew it.

That awareness had placed an additional burden of anxiety on Taras's shoulders, despite the generosity of his welcome and the meticulous tactical training he'd been undergoing with Astorgus-who had been, after all, the most triumphant rider in the world in his own day.

But that anxiety, the steadily growing sense of responsibility he'd felt from the beginning, was as nothing to what he was dealing with now as the chariots paraded back out onto the Hippodrome sands for the afternoon session of the second meeting of the new season.

The winter training had been rendered almost meaningless, all the tactical discussions purely abstract. He wasn't riding Second. He had the magnificent, fabled Servator in the left traces in front of him, and the three other horses of the lead team. He was wearing the silver helmet. He was First Chariot of the Blues.

Scortius had disappeared. Hadn't been seen since the week before the season began.

The opening day had been brutal, overwhelming. Taras had gone from riding Fourth for the lowly Reds to wearing the silver helmet for the mighty Blues, leading the grand procession out, then battling Crescens in front of eighty thousand people who had never even heard of him. He had thrown up violently twice between races. Had washed his face after, listened to Astorgus's fierce words of encouragement, and gone back out again onto the sands that could break your heart.

He'd managed to come second four of six times that first day, and three times again in the four races he'd ridden this morning. Crescens of the Greens, confident, ferociously aggressive, showing off his brilliant new right-sider, had won seven on that opening day and four more this morning. Eleven victories in a session and a half! The Greens were delirious with joy. The notion of unfair advantage didn't even enter the picture when you started a season this brilliantly.

No one knew, even now, where Scortius was. Or, if anyone did know, they weren't telling.

Taras was in over his head, trying not to drown.

There were a certain number of people who knew, in fact, but fewer than one might have supposed. Secrecy had been the first item of discussion with the Master of the Senate, when he'd answered an urgent request that he attend at his own small house. There were, in truth, a variety of ways to play this situation, Bonosus had thought, but the absolute insistence of the injured man had ended the conversation. Accordingly, Astorgus and Bonosus himself were the only significant figures aware of where Scortius was right now. The recently arrived (and blessedly competent) Bassanid physician also knew, of course, and so did the household servants. The latter were famously discreet, and the doctor was unlikely to betray the confidence of a patient.

The Senator did not know that his own son was privy to-and instrumental in-these highly unusual circumstances. Nor did he know that one other person was to receive a brief note:

Very obviously you are a dangerous person and your street more perilous than one might have supposed. I appear unlikely to go to the god yet, to complain, and I believe our failed negotiations will remain unreported. It may be necessary to resume them at some point.

Another note, in the same hand, went by way of Astorgus and one of the Blues" messenger boys to the house of Plautus Bonosus, but not to the Senator. It read,

I hope one day to tell you how greatly inconvenienced I have been by your family conference the other night.

The woman who read this did not smile, doing so. She burned the note in her fireplace.

The Urban Prefecture was quietly advised that the charioteer was alive, had been injured in the course of a tryst he preferred to keep private. It happened often enough. They saw no reason to intervene further. They became very busy keeping order in the streets not long after: the Blue partisans, reeling from the disappearance of their hero and the sectacular opening day of the Greens, were in an ugly mood. More injuries and deaths than customary had ensued after the first race day, but on the whole-with so many soldiers in the City now-the mood of Sarantium was more tense and watchful than actively violent.

The seeds were there, mind you. The most celebrated charioteer in the Empire couldn't simply vanish without serious unrest emerging. The Excubitors were put on notice that their services might yet be required.

All of this had been part of the aftermath. On the night a very badly wounded man had shown up at the door, barely upright, but apologizing politely for his intrusion, the issues in the city house of Plautus Bonosus had been otherwise. Certainly for Rustem of Kerakek they had been.

He had thought he might lose this man, had been secretly grateful he was in Sarantium and not back home: there, having taken on the treatment, he'd have been expensively and perhaps even fatally liable if the chariot-racer had died. This was a very significant figure. There was no parallel in Bassania that came to mind, but it was impossible to ignore the stunned faces of the steward or the Senator's murderous offspring as they helped lay the man named Scortius onto a table that night.

The stab wound was bad, he saw-a deep thrust and then an upward, raking movement. And closing the wound, slowing the heavy bleeding, was severely compromised by the ribs fractured-three or four of them-on the same side. A shortness of breath-that was expected. The lung might well have fallen against the ribs. It might or might not kill. Rustem was astonished to learn that the charioteer had walked here through the streets with these injuries. Carefully he observed the man's breathing on the table, desperately shallow, as if he were belatedly acknowledging the pain.

Rustem set to work. A sedative from his travelling bag, towels, hot water, clean linens, vinegar on a sponge to clean out the wound (painfully), kitchen ingredients he instructed the servants to mix and boil for a temporary dressing: once Rustem was engaged, by the light of the lanterns they'd lit for him, he stopped thinking of implications. The charioteer cried out twice, once with the vinegar (Rustem would have used wine which was easier, if less efficacious, but had judged this man could cope with the pain), and then again, beads of sweat pouring down his face, when Rustem attempted to determine the extent and inward penetration of the broken ribs around the wound. After that he was silent, though breathing very rapidly. The sedative might have helped, but he never lost consciousness.

They controlled the bleeding eventually with lint in the wound. Afterwards, Rustem carefully removed all the packing (following Galinus in this much, at least) and inserted a tube for drainage. That, too, would have hurt. A steady flow of blood-coloured liquid ensued. More than he liked. The man didn't even move. Eventually it slowed. Rustem looked at the household skewers and pins they'd brought him-all he had for fibulae to close the wound. He decided to leave it open for now. With that much liquid he might need to drain again. He wanted to watch the lungs, the breathing.

He applied the household's quickly made poultice (adequately done, with good texture, he noted) and wrapped linens loosely as a first bandage. He wanted a better wound dressing, was inclined to use cinnabar- in modest proportions-for a wound of this sort, knowing it to be poisonous if overemployed. He would try to find proper ingredients somewhere in the morning.

He needed more drainage tubes as well. The ribs required a firmer support but the wound needed to be reachable and observed during the first few days. Merovius's famous quartet of danger signs: redness and swelling with heat and pain. Among the first things a physician learned, east or west.

They moved the charioteer upstairs on the plank of the table. Some bleeding started again when they did so, but that too was to be expected. Rustem mixed a heavier dose of his usual sedative and sat by the man's bed until he saw him sleep.

Just before he did so, his eyes already closed, the charioteer murmured softly in a flat, distant voice that nonetheless suggested he was trying to explain something, "She was closeted with her family, you see."

It was not uncommon for the sedative to cause men to say nonsensical things. Rustem set one of the servants to watch with instructions to summon him immediately if anything at all untoward took place, then he went to bed. Elita was already there-he had told her she should retire to his room. The bed was comfortable, warm with her presence. He fell asleep almost immediately. Physicians needed to know how to do that, among other things.

The girl was no longer with him when he woke in the morning, but the fire was freshly built up and a basin of water lay on the hearth to warm, with linen beside it and his clothing on a rack, also near the flames. Rustem lay still a moment, orienting himself, then made his first gesture with his right arm towards the east, murmuring the name of the Lady.

There came a knocking. Three times. First significant sound. The sound and the number benign omens for the day. The steward entered to his call. The man seemed anxious and disconcerted. Not surprisingly, given the events of the night before.

But there was more to it than that, evidently.

It seemed that Rustem had people attending upon him already. A number of them, and some were distinguished. It had not taken any time at all after the wedding yesterday for word to spread of the arrival in the City of a Bassanid physician and teacher, temporarily residing in a city home of the Master of the Senate. And whereas drunken young Hippodrome partisans might be viciously abusive of all foreigners, those afflicted in body and soul had a differing view of the arcane wisdoms of the east.

Rustem had not given this possibility any thought at all, but it was hardly an unwelcome development. And might prove useful. Sitting up in bed he stroked his beard, thinking quickly, and instructed the steward-whose manner had visibly gained in deference since last night-to have the patients return after midday. He also told him to advise them frankly that Rustem's fees were very high and to be prepared for that. Let them all decide he was no more than a greedy Bassanid, simple in his purposes here.

What he wanted was high-born or wealthy patients. The ones who could pay those fees. The ones who might possibly know things that mattered, and might confide them to a doctor. People did that, everywhere, and he was here for a reason, after all. He asked after his patient, and the steward reported that the wounded man was still asleep. He gave instructions to have someone look in on the fellow at intervals and report- discreetly-when he woke. No one was supposed to know that the man was here. It was still a source of some amusement to Rustem, how utterly overwhelmed the very dour, proper steward had been last night by the arrival of a mere athlete, a person from the games.

"Jad of the blessed Sun!" he had cried out when the charioteer had been helped across the threshold. His hand had shaped a religious sign, his tone had suggested he was seeing the named deity, not merely invoking him.

Holy men and charioteers, that is who they honour in Sarantium. An old saying. It appeared to be true. Divertingly.

After washing and dressing himself and taking a light morning meal downstairs, Rustem had the servants set about rearranging two of the main-floor rooms into examination chambers and fetching certain necessary things. The steward proved to be efficient and composed. They might be spying on him, but Bonosus's people were well trained, and by the time the sun was high on what had become a mild and beneficent day in early spring, Rustem had rooms and implements sufficient to his needs. He formally entered the two chambers, left foot first on each threshold, invoking Perun and the Lady. He bowed to the four corners, beginning with the east, looked around, and pronounced himself satisfied.

A little before midday the boy, the Senator's son who had brought the athlete to them last night, had appeared again, his face tinged a greyish-white with strain. It seemed unlikely he'd had any sleep. Rustem had briskly sent him off to buy linens and certain items for the wound dressing. Tasks were what the boy needed. It was actually necessary to remind himself now that this was the person who'd killed Nishik yesterday morning. Things changed swiftly here, it seemed.

The lad looked grateful and frightened at the same time. "Um, if you please…? My father won't know I was the one who… brought him here? Please?"

That had been said last night, as well. It appeared the boy had been abroad without permission. Well, of course: he had killed someone in the morning. Rustem had nodded then and did so again now. The growing web of secrecy might also be useful, he had decided. People in his debt. The day was beginning well.

He would want a student or two eventually, for the proper tone and gravity, but they could come later. For now, he had Elita dress herself in a long, dark green tunic and showed her how to present patients to him in the inner chamber while others waited in the second room. He explained that she was to remain with him if the patient was female. Physicians were vulnerable to wild, inflammatory allegations and a second woman was a necessary precaution if there were no students available.

Just past midday he was informed by the steward that more than twenty people had now gathered-or sent their servants to wait-in the street outside the door. There had already been complaints from the neighbours, the man reported. It was a dignified district.

Rustem told the steward to make immediate apologies along the street and then take names of those waiting and set a limit of six patients for each day. It was necessary, if he was to achieve any of the other tasks he'd set himself while here. Once he had students they could begin a process of selecting among those who had most need of him. It was a waste of his time, really, to treat routine cataracts. After all, it was Merovius ot Trakesia whose methods he used, and they had to know those techniques here in the west.

Elita, rather appealing in the green tunic and looking somewhat less shy, came hurrying into the room. The fellow upstairs was awake. Rustem went up quickly and entered the room, left foot first.

The man was sitting up, propped by pillows. He was very pale, but his eyes were clear and his breathing seemed less shallow.

"Doctor. I owe you my thanks. I need to be able to race a chariot in five days," he said, without preamble. "Or twelve at the outside. Can you do this?"

"Race a chariot? I certainly can't," Rustem said pleasantly. He walked over and examined the patient more carefully. For a man who might have died the night before, he seemed alert. The breathing, on closer attention, wasn't as good as he'd like. Not surprising.

The man smiled wryly after a moment. There was a brief silence. "You are indirectly telling me to slow down, I suspect."

He had had a deep, ripping stab wound that had barely missed reaching a maramata point and ending his life. He had then been kicked in the same ribs the knife had slid between, causing what must have been appalling pain. It was very possible his lung was collapsed, fallen from where it should lodge, against the ribs.

It was something of a wonder to Rustem that this fellow had actually walked to this house. It was unclear how he'd managed to breathe adequately or stay conscious. Athletes would have high tolerance for discomfort, but even so…

Rustem picked up the fellow's left wrist and began counting through the various indicia. "Have you urinated this morning?"

"I haven't left the bed."

"Nor will you. There is a flask on the table."

The man made a face. "Surely I can-"

"Surely you can't, or I withdraw treatment. I understand there are physicians attached to your racing group. I am happy to have someone alert them and have you transferred by litter." Some people needed this manner. The signals from the pulse were adequate, though there was more agitation than was good.

The man named Scortius blinked. "You are accustomed to getting your way, aren't you?" He tried to shift a little more upright and gasped, surrendering the attempt.

Rustem shook his head. In his most measured, calming voice now he said, "Galinus here in the west taught that there are three elements to any sickness. The disease, the patient, the physician. You are stronger than most men, I believe that. But you are only one of three parts here and this is a grave injury. Your entire left side is… unstable. I can't bind the ribs properly until I am certain of the stab wound and your breathing. Am I used to having my way? Not in most things. What man is? In treatment a doctor must, however." He permitted his tone to soften further. "You do know they can have us fined or even executed in Bassania if an accepted patient dies." A personal revelation was sometimes effective.

After a moment the charioteer nodded. He was a smallish, exceptionally handsome man. Rustem had seen the network of scars on his body last night. From his colouring, he was from the south. The same desert spaces Rustem knew. A hard place, making hard men.

"I'd forgotten. You are a long way from your home, aren't you?"

Rustem shrugged. "Injuries and sickness change little enough."

"Circumstances do. I do not wish to be difficult, but I can't afford to go back to the faction compound and face questions just now, and I must race. The Hippodrome is opening in five days, these are… complex times here."

"They may well be so, but I can swear to you by my deities or yours that there is no doctor alive who would agree to that, or could achieve it." He paused. "Unless you wish to simply get into a chariot and die on the track from loss of blood, or when your crushed ribs cave inward and stop your breathing? A heroic ending? Is that it?"

The man shook his head, a little too vigorously. He winced at the movement, and put a hand to his side. He then swore, with great feeling, blaspheming both his deity and the controversial son of the Jaddite god.

"The next week then? Second race day?"

"You will remain in a bed for twenty or thirty days, charioteer, then you will begin very careful walking and other movements. This bed or another, I hardly care. It isn't only the ribs. You were stabbed, you know."

"Well, yes, I do know. It hurt."

"And must heal cleanly, or you may die of the inflammation's exudation. The dressing must be examined and changed every second day for two weeks, fresh poultices applied and left undisturbed by further bleeding. I have to drain the wound again, in any case-I haven't even stitched it yet and I will not for several days. You are going to be in extreme discomfort for some time."

The fellow was staring at him intently. With certain men it was best to be honest about this. Rustem paused. "I am not unaware that the games in your Hippodrome are important, but you will not be part of them until summer and it were best if you made yourself easy with that. Wouldn't it be the same if you'd had a fall of some kind? Broken your leg?"

The charioteer closed his eyes. "Not quite the same, but yes, I take your point." He looked at Rustem again. His eyes really were encouragingly clear. "I am being insufficiently grateful. It was the middle of the night and you had no preparation at all. I seem to be alive." He grinned wryly. "Able to be difficult. You have my thanks. Would you be good enough to have someone bring me writing paper and let the steward send a discreet runner to Senator Bonosus letting him know I am here?"

A well-spoken man. Not at all like the wrestlers or acrobats or horseback performers Rustem had known as entertainers back home.

His patient dutifully provided a sample of urine and Rustem determined that the colour was predictably red but not alarmingly so. He mixed another dose of his soporific and the charioteer was quite docile about accepting it. Then he drained the wound again, checking the flow and colour carefully. Nothing unduly alarming yet.

Men such as this one, who had experienced pain on a regular basis, knew the needs of their own bodies, Rustem thought. He changed the dressing, looking closely at the crusted blood around the wound. It was still bleeding, but not heavily. He allowed himself a small flicker of satisfaction. There was a long way to go, however.

He went downstairs. There were patients waiting. The six he had allowed. Today it was simply the first six in line; they'd devise a more precise system as soon as they could. The morning's first omens had proven true, even here among the unbelieving Jaddites. Events were developing in a very benign way.

That first afternoon he examined a merchant dying of a tumour that was eating at his stomach. Rustem was unable to offer anything at all, not even his usual mixture for this extreme level of pain, since he hadn't brought that with him and had no connections here with those who mixed physicians" private remedies. Another task for the next few days. He would make the Senator's boy be useful. Employ him like the servant he'd killed. It appealed to his sense of irony.

Looking at the gaunt, wasted figure of the merchant, Rustem spoke the necessary words with regret: "With this I will not contend." He explained the Bassanid practice in this. The man was calm, unsurprised. Death was seated in his eyes. One grew accustomed to it, and yet one never did. Black Azal was always at work among the living in the world Perun had made. A physician was a minor soldier in their endless war.

Next, however, came a scented, subtly painted court woman who appeared only to want to see what he looked like. Her servant had held a place in line for her from before sunrise.

This sort of thing happened often enough, especially when a doctor came to a new place. Bored aristocrats, looking for diversion. She giggled and talked through his examination of her, even with Elita present. Bit her lower lip and looked at him through half-lowered eyelashes when he took her perfumed wrist to obtain the counts there. She chattered about a wedding yesterday-the very one Rustem had attended, as it happened. She hadn't been there, appeared piqued about that. Seemed even more displeased when he reported that she seemed to have no ailments that required his intervention, or another visit.

There followed two other woman-one evidently wealthy, the other rather a common sort-complaining of barren wombs. This, too, was normal when physicians arrived in a new place. The endless search for someone who could help. He confirmed that the second woman had been able to pay the steward, and with Elita present each time performed his examinations as the Ispahani doctors did (though never those in Bassania, where to see a woman unclothed was forbidden to physicians). Both women were unruffled by this, though Elita flushed red, watching. Settling into routine, Rustem asked his usual questions and came-quickly in each instance-to his conclusions. Neither woman seemed surprised, which was often the case in these matters, though only one of them was in a position to find solace in what he said.

Next he saw and diagnosed two cataracts-as expected-and lanced them with his own implements, charging for the examination, the procedure, and a considerable, deliberately inflated sum for the visits he would make to their homes.

By the middle of the afternoon he had heard a significant amount of gossip and knew much more than he really wanted to know about the Hippodrome season that was starting soon. Blues and Greens, Blues and Greens. Scortius and Crescens. Even the dying man had mentioned the two charioteers. The Sarantines were collectively obsessed, Rustem decided.

At one point Elita slipped out and returned, reporting quietly that the much-discussed fellow upstairs was asleep again. Rustem diverted himself briefly by imagining the reaction if people knew he was here.

Everyone had talked, but they offered only trivial information. That would change, Rustem thought. People confided in their doctors. This exercise held great promise. He went so far as to smile at Elita and offer praise for her demeanour. She flushed again, looking down at the floor. When the last patient left, Rustem went out of the treatment rooms, feeling quite pleased.

Awaiting him was a two-person delegation from the physicians" guild.

His mood changed, very quickly.

Both men were visibly and vocally outraged to find a foreigner having set himself up to practise medicine in Sarantium in a private home without so much as a visit to the guild or a by-your-leave. Given that he was here-ostensibly-to lecture, to learn, to buy manuscripts, share information with western colleagues, this anger was likely to bring consequences.

Rustem, furious with himself for an obvious oversight, took refuge in ignorance and earnest apologies… he was from a small town only, had no idea of the complexities of things in a great city, had had no intention at all to offend or transgress. Patients had gathered outside without his having put forth any word at all. The steward would confirm that. His oath-just like their own in the tradition of the west's great Galinus- required him to try to be of aid. He would be honoured to attend upon the guild. Immediately, if permitted. Would cease seeing patients, of course, if they requested it. Was entirely in their hands. And, in passing, might his distinguished visitors wish to join him in dining with the Master of the Senate tonight?

They registered that last remark, more than anything else. Declined the offer, of course, but noted it, along with where he was staying. Whose house it was. Access to corridors of power. The possibility he might be someone not to be offended.

One could be amused, really. Men were the same all over the world.

Rustem escorted the two Sarantine doctors to the door, promised to be at the guild rooms by mid-morning tomorrow. Begged their expert assistance in all matters there. Bowed. Expressed, again, his contrition and the degree to which he was gratified by their visit and looked forward to sharing their knowledge. Bowed again.

The steward, expressionless, closed the door. Rustem, an eccentric mood coming upon him, actually winked at the man.

Then he went up to attend to the streaking of his beard again (it needed regular care) and change for dinner at the Senator's house. Bonosus had been asked by the patient to come here. He probably would. By now Rustem had a pretty good idea of the importance of the wounded man asleep in the next room. Charioteers and holy men. He wondered if he'd be able to turn tonight's dinner talk to the possibility of war. Too soon, he decided. He had just arrived, spring was only beginning. Nothing could or would happen at speed, surely. Except the racing, he thought.

Everyone in Sarantium-even the dying-seemed to be thinking about chariots. A frivolous people? He shook his head: too hasty an assessment, likely wrong. But in his new role as an observer of the Sarantines for the King of Kings he would have to attend the Hippodrome, he decided, like a physician visiting a patient.

It came into his mind abruptly to wonder if Shaski liked horses. He realized that he didn't know, and that since he was so far from home he couldn't ask.

It changed the feel of the afternoon, for a time.

When the Senator came, late in the day, his manner was grave and brisk. He noted the changed downstairs rooms without comment, heard Rustem's account of the night before (with, as promised, no mention of the boy), and then entered the room of Scortius and firmly closed the door behind himself.

Rustem had urged him to keep the visit brief and Bonosus did so, coming out a short while later. He said nothing, of course, about the conversation that had taken place within. They were carried by litter to his principal residence. He remained singularly distracted during the dinner that followed.

It was an immensely civilized evening, nonetheless. The guests were served wine as they entered by the Senator's charming daughters: clearly the children of an earlier wife, the one here was much too young to be their mother. The two girls withdrew before the party was led to the dining couches.

Rustem's experience of such things owed more to his time in Ispahani lands than to any encounters at home, of course. Kerakek was not a place where invisible music played softly through the evening and impeccable servants hovered behind each couch, attentive to the least hint of a need. Under the polished guidance of the Senator's wife Rustem was made welcome with the other guests, a Bassanid silk merchant (a courteous touch, that) and two Sarantine patricians and their wives. The Senator's wife and the other two women, all elegant, poised and at ease, were much more conversational than those in Ispahani ever tended to be at such gatherings. They asked him a great many questions about his training, his family, drew him out on the subject of adventures in Ispahani lands. The mysteries of the far east, rumours of magics and fabled creatures, held an obvious fascination here. There was a discreet avoidance of Rustem's dramatic arrival in Sarantium the morning before; the drama, after all, had been occasioned by the Senator's son-who was nowhere to be seen. It became clear that no one knew about the equally dramatic late-night events involving the charioteer. Bonosus said nothing. Rustem wasn't about to bring it up.

A physician owed a duty to his patient.

In his best robe and carrying his walking staff, he attended at the guild the next morning, conducted by one of the household servants, bearing a note of introduction offered him by the Senator over the last wine of the evening.

Rustem made all the necessary gestures and remarks, and found himself welcomed with courtesy. It was peacetime, and these were members of his own profession. He wasn't about to stay long enough to represent a threat, and he might be useful to them. It was arranged that he would deliver a lecture in two weeks" time here at the guild-hall. They sanctioned his treatment of a handful of patients a day in the rooms he'd set up, and he was given the names of two apothecary and herbalist shops where accurately mixed medicines could be obtained. The matter of students was deferred (a bit too much permanence implied?) but Rustem had already decided that would have to wait in any event, as long as the charioteer was in the house.

And so he set in motion-more easily than he could have expected- a life, a pattern to his days, as springtime flowered in Sarantium. He paid a visit to a public bathhouse with the Bassanid merchant of the night before and established that the man had access to messengers going to Kabadh. Nothing was said explicitly, much exchanged by inference.

A few days after that a message arrived from Kabadh, and a great deal was altered.

It came by way of yet another Bassanid. At first, when the steward informed Rustem of the presence of one of his countrymen in the morning line of patients, Rustem had simply assumed that an eastern merchant had chosen to be treated for some ailment by a physician familiar with eastern regimens. The fellow was his third patient of the day.

When the man entered, soberly garbed, neatly barbered, Rustem turned to him with an inquiring glance and asked after his health in their own tongue. The patient said nothing, merely withdrew a parchment from within his clothing and extended it.

There was no formal seal that might have given warning. Rustem opened the parchment and read. He sat down as he did so, felt himself going pale, was aware that this ostensible patient was watching him closely. When he finished, he looked up at the other man.

It was difficult to speak. He cleared his throat. "You… know what this says?"

The man nodded. "Burn it now," he said. His voice was cultured.

There was a brazier in the room; the mornings were still cold. Rustem went over to it and put the parchment in the flame, watching until it was consumed.

He looked back at the man from Kabadh. "I was… I thought I was here as an observer."

The man shrugged. "Needs change," he said. He rose. "Thank you for your assistance, doctor. I am sure your help will address my… difficulty." He walked out.

Rustem remained where he was for a long time, then remembered that the servants of Plautus Bonosus were almost certainly reporting on him and he forced himself to move, to reassume the movements of normality, though all had changed.

A physician, by his oath, was to strive to heal the sick, to do battle with Azal when the Enemy laid siege to the bodies of mortal men and women.

Instead, his king, the Brother to the Sun and Moons, had just asked him to kill someone.

It was important to conceal the signs of his disquiet. He concentrated on his work. As the morning passed, he persuaded himself that his having any opportunity to do what had been asked of him was so remote that surely he could not be faulted for a failure. He could say as much when he went home.

Or, more correctly, he almost persuaded himself of that.

He had seen the King of Kings, in Kerakek. It could not be said that Great Shirvan had conveyed any sense of indulgence towards those who might claim… difficulty in executing orders he conveyed to them.

In the small house of Plautus Bonosus he finished with his morning patients and went upstairs. He decided it was time to stitch the charioteer's wound. By now he had proper fibulae with clips for the ends. He performed that procedure. Routine, effortless. Requiring no thought at all, which was good.

He continued to watch for and was relieved not to see the green oozing of pus. After a number of days had passed with the wound healing, he had just about decided it was time to bind the ribs more firmly. The patient had been entirely cooperative, if legitimately restless. Active, physical men took confinement badly, in Rustem's experience, and this man wasn't even able to have regular visitors, given the secrecy surrounding his presence here.

Bonosus had come twice, on the pretence of seeing his houseguest from Bassania, and once, at night, a cloaked figure appeared who turned out to be a man named Astorgus, evidently of significance in the Blues" group. It appeared that some unhappy results had transpired on the first day of the racing. Rustem didn't ask for details, though he did mix a slightly stronger sedative for his patient that night, noting signs of agitation. He was prepared for such things.

He wasn't prepared, at all, to go along the hall one morning, in the second week after the charioteer had arrived in the dead of night, and find the bedroom empty and the window open.

There was a folded note, set beneath the urine flask. 'Do come to the Hippodrome," it read. "I owe you some amusement.

Above the paper, the flask had been dutifully filled. His brow furrowed, Rustem noted with a quick glance that the colour was satisfactory. He walked over to the window, saw a tree quite close to hand, thick branches, not yet hidden by budding leaves. It wouldn't have been hard for a fit man to get out and down. For someone with inadequately wrapped, badly broken ribs and a deep, still-healing stab wound…

Glancing at the window ledge Rustem saw blood.

Looking more closely down on the small courtyard he observed a thin trail of it crossing the stones to the wall by the street. Suddenly angered, he looked up at the sky. Perun and the Lady knew, surely, that a physician could only do so much. He shook his head. It was a beautiful morning, he realized.

He decided that after seeing his patients he would attend at the Hippodrome that afternoon for the second day's racing. I owe you some amusement. He sent a runner to the Master of the Senate, asking if Bonosus might assist him in obtaining admission.

He was being very naive, of course, though excusably, as a stranger in Sarantium.

Plautus Bonosus was already at the Hippodrome by then, in the kathisma, the Imperial Box, the servant reported when he returned. The Emperor himself was attending the morning's races, would retire at midday to deal with larger affairs in the palace. The Master of the Senate would remain all day, a representative of the state.

Larger affairs. From the harbour the sound of shouts and hammering could be heard, even this far inland towards the walls.

Ships were being made ready to sail. It was said that there were ten thousand foot-soldiers and cavalry assembled here and in Deapolis across the straits. As many were reported to be gathering in Megarium to the west, Rustem had been told by a patient a few days ago. The Empire was clearly on the brink of war, an invasion, something indescribably dramatic and exciting, though nothing, as yet, had been announced.

Somewhere in the City a woman Rustem had been ordered to kill was going about the rhythm of her days.

Eighty thousand Sarantines were in the Hippodrome, watching chariots run. Rustem wondered if she would be there.

CHAPTER IX

Crispin, in a mood he'd have been unwilling to define, was beginning work on the images of his daughters on the dome that same morning when the Empress of Sarantium came and took him away to see dolphins among the islands in the straits.

Looking a long way down from the scaffold when Pardos, working beside him, touched his arm and pointed, he registered the explicit demand of Alixana's presence. He looked back for a moment at Ilandra where he had placed her on the dome-a part of this holy place and its images-and then over at the surface nearby where his girls were awaiting their own incarnation out of memory and love. He would give his daughters form in a different guise, in light and glass, as Zoticus had given souls bodily form in the crafted birds of his alchemy.

What was this but a different kind of alchemy, or the attempt to make it so?

At the rail Pardos was anxiously glancing down and then back at Crispin and then down again. Less than two weeks in the City and his apprentice-his associate now-was obviously aware of what it meant to have an Empress waiting for you on the marble floor below.

Crispin, along with Artibasos the architect, had received invitations to two large banquets in the Attenine Palace over the winter, but had not spoken privately with Alixana since autumn. She had come here once before, had stood very nearly where she was standing now, to see what was being done overhead. He remembered coming down to her, to all of them.

He was unable to deny the quickening beat of his heart now. He cleaned his hands of plaster and lime as best he could, wiped at a cut finger-bleeding slightly-with the cloth tucked in his belt. He discarded the cloth and even allowed Pardos to adjust and brush his tunic, though he swatted the younger man away when he gestured towards Crispin's hair.

On the way down, though, he paused long enough on the ladder to push a hand through the hair himself. Had no idea if that improved anything.

Evidently it didn't. The Empress of Sarantium, richly if soberly garbed in a long blue gold-belted tunic and a porphyry cloak that came to her knees, with only rings and earrings for jewellery, smiled with amusement at him. She reached down as he knelt before her and ordered his much-abused red hair more to her satisfaction.

"Of course the wind in the straits will undo my efforts," she murmured in the instantly memorable voice.

"What straits?" Crispin asked, rising to her gesture.

And so he learned that the dolphins of which she'd spoken on his first night in the palace half a year ago remained on her mind. She turned and walked serenely past a score of still-kneeling artisans and labourers. Crispin followed, feeling excitement and the presence of danger-as he had from the very beginning with this woman.

Men were waiting outside in the livery of the Imperial Guard. There was even a cloak for him in the litter he entered with the Empress of Sarantium. This was all happening very quickly. Her manner, as they were lifted and began to move, was matter-of-fact, entirely pragmatic: if he was to render dolphins leaping from the sea for her, he ought to see them first. She smiled sweetly from across the curtained litter. Crispin tried and failed to return the smile. Her scent was inescapable in the cushioned warmth.

A short time later Crispin found himself in a long, sleek Imperial craft cutting through the crowded harbour, past a cacophony of construction and the loading and unloading of barrels and crates of goods, out to where the noise receded and a clean wind was there to be caught by the white and purple sails.

On the deck, at the railing, Alixana was looking back at the harbour. Sarantium rose beyond it, brilliant in sunlight, domes and towers and the piled houses of wood and stone. They could hear another sound now: the chariots were in the Hippodrome today. Crispin looked up at the sun. They were probably up to the sixth or seventh race by now, the midday break to come, then the afternoon's running. Scortius of the Blues had still been missing as of last night. The City spoke of that as much as it talked of war.

He stood uncertainly a little behind the Empress. He didn't like boats, but this one was moving easily through the sea, expertly handled, and the wind was not yet strong. They were the only passengers, he realized. He made a concerted effort to bring his mind, his thinking, back from the scaffolding and his daughters, what he had expected would be the nature of today's demands upon him.

Without turning her head, Alixana said, "Have you sent to Varena to advise them what is coming? Your friends, family?"

Today's demands were evidently going to be otherwise.

He remembered this from before: she used directness as a weapon when she chose. He swallowed. What use dissembling? "I wrote two letters, to my mother and my dearest friend… but there isn't much point. They all know there is a threat."

"Of course they do. That's why the lovely young queen sent you here with a message, and then followed herself. What does she have to say about all… this?" The Empress gestured at the ships massed behind them in the harbour. Gulls wheeled in the sky, cutting across the line of their own wake in the sea.

"I have no idea," Crispin said truthfully. "I would assume you'd know that far better than I, thrice-exalted."

She looked over her shoulder at him then. Smiled a little. "You'll see better at the rail, unless it makes you unwell to look down at the waves. I ought to have asked before."

He shook his head and came resolutely forward to stand beside her. White water streamed away from the sides of the ship. The sun was high, glinting on the spray, making rainbows as he watched. He heard a snapping sound and looked up to see a sail fill. They picked up speed. Crispin put both hands on the railing.

Alixana murmured, "You warned them, I assume? In the two letters?"

He said, not fighting the bitterness, "Why should it matter? Whether I've sent warnings? Empress, what could ordinary people do if an invasion came? These are not people with any power, any ability to influence the world. They are my mother and my dearest friend."

She looked at him again for a moment, without speaking. She was hooded now, her dark hair bound up in a golden net. The severity of the look accented her features, the high cheekbones, perfect skin, enormous dark eyes. He thought suddenly of the slender, crafted rose he had seen in her room. She had asked him for something more permanent, the golden rose speaking to the fragility of beautiful things, a mosaic hinting at that which might last. A craft that aspired to endure.

He thought of Jad, slowly crumbling on a dome in a Sauradian chapel bordering the Aldwood, tesserae falling in the filtered light.

She said, "The world can be… influenced in unexpected ways, Caius Crispus. The Emperor has been hoping that letters were being sent, actually. That's why I asked. He is of the belief that the native Rhodians might welcome our arrival, given the chaos in Varena. And since we are sailing in the name of your queen, there is some hope that many of the Antae themselves might not fight. He wants them to have time to consider possible… interventions."

It suddenly occurred to him that she was speaking as if he knew an invasion had been announced. It hadn't been. Crispin looked at her, his emotions roiling again. "I see. So even letters home to loved ones are a part of the design?"

Her gaze met his. "Why should they not be? He thinks in that way. If we are unable to do so, does that make him wrong? The Emperor is trying to change the world as we know it. Is it a transgression to bring all the elements one can to something as large as this?"

Crispin shook his head and looked away, at the sea again. "I told you half a year ago, Majesty, I am an artisan. I can't even guess at these things."

"I wasn't asking you to," she said, mildly enough. Crispin felt himself flush. She hesitated. Looked out at the waves as well. Said, a little stiffly, "It is to be formally proclaimed this afternoon. In the Hippodrome by the Mandator after the last race of the day. An invasion of Batiara in the name of Queen Gisel, to reclaim Rhodias and remake a sundered Empire. Does it not sound glorious?"

Crispin shivered in the mild sunlight of that day, then felt a burning sensation, as if something had touched him, like a brand. He closed his eyes on a sudden, vivid image: flames ravaging Varena, taking the wooden houses like so much kindling for a summer bonfire.

They had all known, but…

But there was a tone in the voice of the woman beside him, something to be read in her profile now, even within the dark hood. He swallowed again, and said, "Glorious? Why do I imagine you don't find it so?"

No visible response, though he was watching for it. She said, "Because I am allowing you to see that, Caius Crispus. Though, to be entirely truthful, I'm not certain why. I confess that you… Look!"

She never finished that thought for him.

Broke off, instead, pointing. He had time to recollect that she was an actress, above all things, and then he looked. Saw dolphins breach the sea, tearing it sharply, their bodies arcing like the perfect curve of a dome, racing the ship through the ruffled water. Half a dozen of them, surfacing in sequences, as if choreographed in a theatre, one, then two, then a pause, then again, the sleek, exultant leap and splash of it.

Playful as… children? Exquisite as dancers, as the dancer beside him. Carriers of the souls of the dead, bearers of drowned Heladikos when he fell burning into the sea with the chariot of the sun. The paradox and the mystery of them. Laughter and darkness. Grace and death. She wanted dolphins for her rooms.

They watched for a long time, then there came a point when the dolphins did not leap with them any more and the sea rolled beneath and beside the ship, untorn, hiding things, as it always did.

"They do not like to come too near the island," said the Empress Alixana, turning her head to look towards the bow.

Crispin turned as well. "Island?" he said.

He saw land, unexpectedly near, densely forested with evergreen trees. A stony beach, a wooden dock for mooring the boat, two men waiting in Imperial livery. No other signs of human life. Gulls crying all about them in the morning.

"I had another reason for coming out this morning," said the woman beside him, not smiling now. She had lowered her hood. "The Emperor doesn't like my doing this. He believes it is… wrong. But there is someone I want to see before the army sails. A… reassurance. You and the dolphins were my excuse today. I believed you could be trusted, Caius Crispus. Do you mind?"

She didn't wait for an answer, of course, was simply giving him as much as she thought he needed to know. Grains doled out from the guarded storehouse of their knowledge. Valerius and Alixana. He wanted to be angry, but there was something in her manner, and in the mood from which she'd claimed him. She'd thought he could be trusted but hadn't said why she wanted to trust him.

He wasn't about to ask. She had turned away in any case, walked across to the other side of the ship, where men were readying them for docking.

He followed, his heart beating too fast again, the inward image of a great burning in Varena cutting against the memories he had awakened this morning intending to try to shape. Two girls in their youth, a part of the world the god had made. Their youth and their dying. He had been going there. And now before him, instead, was this deceptive, mild placidity of blue sea and sky and dark green trees in morning light. You and the dolphins were my excuse today.

For what?

The mooring of the craft was flawless, nearly silent. The slap of waves and the calling birds in the sky. A ramp was lowered, a crimson carpet unrolled for the Empress's feet. Formalities: she was what she was. It was never to be forgotten. You were not to think of her as anything else.

They went down the landing ramp. Four soldiers followed at a little distance. They were armed, Crispin saw, looking over his shoulder.

The Empress, not looking back at all, led him from the sea along a path that went from the white, round stones into pine trees that soon hid the sun. Crispin drew his cloak around himself as the day's light failed.

There was no god here, no emblem, symbol, incarnation thereof. There was a single mortal woman, straight-backed, not tall, to be followed over pine needles and amid the scent of pine, and after a little time-it wasn't a large island-there was an ending to the path and the woods and Crispin saw a cluster of buildings. One house, three or four smaller huts, a tiny chapel with a sun disk carved above the door. The Empress stopped a little distance into that open space between the trees and the houses men had made and she turned to him as he came up beside her.

"I dislike speaking in this manner," she said, "but I must say that if you tell of what you see here now you will be killed."

Crispin's hands clenched. Anger again, despite everything. He, too, was what he was, what the god and loss had made of him.

"You contradict yourself, thrice-exalted."

"How so?" The voice brittle. He could see that there was some strain within her now that they had reached this place. He didn't understand it, or any of this, and he didn't care. Had thought to spend today on a scaffolding alone with his craft and memories of his girls.

"You just said you were of the belief I could be trusted. Obviously this is not so. Why not leave me on the ship? Empress, why am I here, to face such a threat? To be such a threat? What am I in this?"

She was silent, looking at him. Her face was very white. The Excubitors had halted, discreetly, some distance behind them at the edge of the trees. There were other soldiers, Crispin now saw, appearing at the doorways of the smaller houses. Four of them, wearing the livery of the Urban Prefecture. No one moved by the largest house. Smoke rose from chimneys, drifted.

"I don't know," said the Empress Alixana finally. She was staring up at him. "A fair question, but I do not know the answer. I know that I… do not like to come here any more. He frightens me, makes me dream. That's one reason Petrus… why the Emperor doesn't want me coming."

The stillness of the clearing, of that single larger house, had something uncanny about it. Crispin realized all the shutters were closed. There would be no sunlight there.

"In Jad's name, who is here?" he asked, too loudly. His voice seemed an abrasion in the waiting air.

Alixana's dark eyes were enormous. "Jad has little enough to do with him," she said. "Daleinus is here. Styliane's brother. The oldest child."

Rustem would have preferred to deny it, but both of his wives and all of his teachers had characterized him (sometimes with amusement) as a stubborn, willful man. An idea in his head was unlikely to be readily dislodged.

Accordingly, when the servant of Plautus Bonosus returned to the house near the walls and reported that the Senator was already among the crowd gathered at the Hippodrome and could not be of any assistance, Rustem shrugged his shoulders, turned to attend to a revision of the lecture he was soon to give, and-a short while after-put it aside and impatiently put on boots and a cloak to venture forth with two guards to attend at the house of Bonosus himself.

The streets were deserted, eerily so. Many shops were boarded up, the markets almost silent, taverns and cookshops empty. From a distance as they went Rustem heard a dull, punishing sound, a steady roar, rising at intervals into something more than that. It would be frightening if you didn't know what it was, he thought. In fact, it could be frightening even if you did know.

He wanted to see these races now. To know what his patient was doing. He even saw himself as having some responsibility to be present. And if this Jaddite charioteer was going to kill himself-and past a certain point no physician could do anything about that-Rustem felt a measure of curiosity as to the ways and means. He was in the west, after all, to try to understand these people. Or, that was why he had come here, what he had thought his role would be. His more recent task was one he tried to avoid considering. He had some vague hope that circumstances might make the whole thing… go away.

It was obviously impossible for a visiting Bassanid to simply walk up to the Hippodrome and gain admission. The physicians" guild might have helped, given notice, but Rustem had had no warning at all that his patient would leave his room via a window, a tree, and the courtyard wall, trailing blood behind him as he went.

In a case of this sort, one needed to invoke more powerful connections of a personal nature. Rustem was looking for Cleander.

He knew from the boy himself that Bonosus had forbidden his son to attend the first five meetings of the race season, as punishment for the incident that had killed Nishik. One might quarrel with equating the death of a man (even a foreigner, even a servant) with five lost days of amusement, but that wasn't Rustem's concern today.

Today he wanted to persuade Cleander's mother to override her husband's dictate. He was well aware, from glosses in the texts of the western physicians, that in ancient Rhodias a man's will was utterly binding, even to death, upon wives and children. A father had once been able to have his son executed by the state for simple disobedience.

There had been a brief time in the old days in the west when this had been seen as demonstrating virtue, the exemplary discipline and rectitude that could forge an empire. Rustem was of the view that in the modern Sarantium of Valerius and the Empress Alixana, women might have a greater degree of authority in the home. He had cause to know that the boy was an intensely partisan follower of the chariots. If someone knew how to get into the Hippodrome-for the afternoon at least, as the morning was well advanced by now-it would be Cleander. But he would need his stepmother's consent.

The Senators steward was swift to alert his mistress when Rustern presented himself at the door. Thenai's Sistina, quite unruffled, coolly elegant, greeted him in her morning room with a gracious smile, setting aside pen and paper. Rustem noted that she appeared to be literate.

He apologized, discussed the mild weather, explained that he wished to attend the races.

She did show surprise, the merest flicker and blink of her eyes. "Really?" she murmured. "I hadn't expected the games to appeal to you. They don't hold much allure for me, I confess. Noise and dirt, and there is often violence in the stands."

"None of which would draw me," Rustem agreed.

"But I suppose there is an element of spectacle. Well, I shall be certain to inform my husband that you'd like to accompany him to the next games day… it ought to be within a week or two if I understand the process rightly."

Rustem shook his head. Td really like to attend this afternoon."

Thenai's Sistina assumed a distressed expression. "I don't see any way to get a message to my husband in time. He's with the Imperial party, in the kathisma."

"I understand as much. I was wondering if Cleander might…? As a courtesy and great favour to me?"

The Senator's wife looked at him for a long moment. "Why today, so urgently, if I might ask?"

Which compelled an indiscretion. In light of the morning's open window and the fact that this was Bonosus's wife and Bonosus already knew, Rustem felt justified. The man's physician ought to be in attendance, in fact. No one else could possibly know the precise nature of his patient's injuries. It could be said he had duties and would be remiss in them did he not make his best effort to be present.

So he told the wife of Plautus Bonosus, in formal confidence, that his patient, Scortius of Soriyya, had violated medical advice and left his bed in the Senator's city home, where he had been recovering from wounds. Given the fact that there was racing today, it was not difficult to deduce why he had done so and where he would be.

The woman showed no reaction to learning this. The whole of Sarantium might be talking of this missing man, but either she'd already known where he was from her husband, or she was truly indifferent to the fate of these athletic sorts. She did, however, summon her stepson.

Cleander appeared sullenly in the doorway a short time later. It had occurred to Rustem that the boy might have breached this parental order already and been gone from the house, but it appeared that Bonosus's son had been sufficiently chastened by two violent incidents in one day and night to obey his father, for now.

His stepmother, with a few impressively precise questions, succeeded in unearthing from the flushed young man the fact that it was Cleander who had conveyed the charioteer to Rustem in the middle of the night, and from where and under what circumstances. Rustem hadn't expected this. She had made an impressive leap of reasoning.

He could not help but note the boy's discomfiture, but he also knew that he himself had betrayed no secret in this regard. He hadn't even known that the incident had taken place in front of the dancer's home. He hadn't asked, or cared.

The woman was disconcertingly clever, that was all. It came with her detachment and composure, he decided. Those able to modulate and control their inner passions, to view the world with a cold eye, were best equipped to think things through in this way. Of course that same coldness might also be a reason why the husband had a chest with certain implements and toys in another house in a distant part of town. On the whole, though, Rustem decided he approved of the Senator's wife. He had, in fact, attempted to structure his own professional demeanour in this same fashion.

It was unexpected to see it in a woman, mind you.

Also unexpected was the fact that she seemed to be coming with them to the Hippodrome.

Cleander's extreme discomfort changed-in the overheated manner of youth-to a stunned elation as he understood that his stepmother was undertaking to waive a part of his punishment in favour of the duties owed a guest and Rustem's own professed obligations as a physician.

She would accompany them, she said, to ensure Oleander's good behaviour and swift return home, and to assist the doctor if he needed any intervention. The Hippodrome could be a dangerous place for a foreigner, she said.

Cleander would go ahead of them, immediately, taking the steward and using his mother's name for any outlays required, employing whatever unsavoury contacts he undoubtedly had in and around the Hippodrome Forum to secure proper seating after the midday interval-not standing places, and most certainly not in any area containing faction partisans or anyone whose conduct might be disagreeable. And he would not, under any circumstances, wear green. Did Cleander understand?

Cleander did.

Would Rustem of Kerakek be pleased to take a modest midday meal with her while Cleander attended to these matters of seating and admission?

Rustem would.

They had ample time to dine, and then she would need more suitable clothing for a public appearance, she said, putting aside her writing and rising from her backless chair. Her manner was impeccably calm, precise, superbly efficient, her posture flawless. She put him in mind of those fabled matrons of Rhodias, in the days before it declined into Imperial decadence and then fell.

He wondered abruptly-startling himself, in fact-if either Katyun or Jarita could have grown into this poise and authority had they been raised in a different world. There were no women like this in Ispahani and certainly none in Bassania. Palace intrigues among the cloistered wives of the King of Kings were something else entirely. He thought, then, of his baby, his girl-and made himself stop doing that. Inissa was being taken from him, was gone, in the wake of his great good fortune.

Perun and Anahita guided the world, Azal needed to be kept constantly at bay. No man could say where his footsteps might lead him. Generosity needed to be embraced, even if there was a price to be paid.

Certain gifts were not offered twice. He could not let himself dwell upon Issa, or her mother.

He could think about Shaski and Katyun, for he would see them in Kabadh, soon enough. If the Lady wills it, he added hastily in his mind and turned quickly to face east, on the thought. He had been instructed to try to kill someone here. Generosity might now have conditions attached to it.

The wife of Plautus Bonosus was looking at him, eyebrows slightly arched. She was too well bred to say anything, however.

Hesitantly, Rustem murmured, "In my faith… the east… I was averting bad fortune. I had a reckless thought."

"Ah," said Thenais Sistina, nodding her head as if this were entirely clear to her. "We all have those, from time to time." She walked out of the room and he followed her.

In the kathisma, a very well-turned-out cluster of court figures was busily performing its assigned task. Gesius had been explicit and had ensured that many of the more decorative members of the Imperial Precinct were on hand this morning, dressed flamboyantly, glittering with jewellery and colour.

They managed-with polished ease-to both enjoy themselves and blur, with their highly visible and audible reactions to events below, the absence of the Empress, the Supreme Strategos, the Chancellor, and the Master of Offices. They also masked the steady, low-voiced dictation of the Emperor to the secretaries crouched against the front railing of the box, invisible to the stands.

Valerius had dropped the white handkerchief to start the program, had acknowledged his people's cheers with the ancient gesture of Emperors, and had taken his cushioned seat and immediately set to work, ignoring the chariots below and the noise all around. Whenever the Mandator, schooled to this, murmured discreetly at his elbow Valerius would stand up and salute whoever was currently doing a victory lap. For much of the morning it had been Crescens of the Greens. The Emperor didn't seem to notice, or care.

The mosaic image on the roof of the kathisma above them was of Saranios, who had founded this city and named it for himself, driving a quadriga and crowned not with gold but with a charioteer's victory laurel. The links in the symbolic chain were immensely powerful: Jad in his chariot, the Emperor as mortal servant and holy symbol of the god, the charioteers on the Hippodrome sands as the most dearly beloved of the people. But, thought Bonosus, this particular successor in the long chain of Emperors was… detached from the power of that association.

Or he tried to be. The people brought him back to it. He was here, after all, watching the chariots run, even today. Bonosus had a theory about the attraction of the racing, actually. He was prepared to bore people with it if asked, or even if not. In essence, he'd argue, the Hippodrome stood in perfectly balanced counterpoint to the rituals of the Imperial Precinct. Courtly life was entirely structured around ritual, predictable as anything on earth could be. An ordained practice for everything from the Emperor's first greeting when awakened (and by whom and in what order), to the sequence of lighting the lamps in the Audience Chamber, to the procession for presenting gifts to him on the first of the New Year. Words and gestures, set and recorded, known and rehearsed, never varying.

The Hippodrome, by contrast, Bonosus would say, and shrug… as though the rest of the thought ought to be transparently clear to anyone. The Hippodrome was all uncertainty. The unknown was… the very essence of it, he would say.

Bonosus, chattering and cheering this morning with the others in the Imperial Box, prided himself on detached perspectives of this sort. But jaded as he might be, he was unable to entirely control the excitement he was feeling today, and it had nothing to do with the uncertainty of horses, or even the younger riders down below.

He had never seen Valerius like this.

The Emperor was always intense when engaged by matters of state, and always irritably distracted when forced to attend at the Hippodrome, but this morning the ferocity of his concentration and the endless stream of notes and instructions aimed in a low voice at the secretaries-there were two, alternating, to keep up with him-had a rhythm, a compelling pace, that seemed, in the mind of the Master of the Senate, to be as poundingly urgent as the horses and quadrigas below.

On the sands the Greens were proving wildly triumphant, as they had been a week before. Scortius of the Blues was still absent, and Bonosus was one of the handful of people in the City who knew where he was and that it would be weeks before he reappeared in the Hippodrome. The man had insisted on secrecy and he had more than enough stature in Sarantium to have his wishes obeyed in this.

There was probably a woman involved, the Senator decided-with Scortius, never a difficult surmise. Bonosus didn't at all begrudge the charioteer the use of his own smaller city home while he recovered. He rather enjoyed being privy to cloaked affairs. It wasn't as if being Master of the Senate conferred any real significance, after all. His second home wasn't available for his own diversions in any case, with the bone-dry Bassanid physician staying there. That part of the current situation he owed to Cleander, who was a problem that would need attention soon. Barbarian hair-styling and outlandish garb in the cause of faction identity was one thing, murdering people in the street was… another.

The factions could become dangerous today, he realized. He wondered if Valerius was aware of it. The Greens in full rapture, the Blues seething with humiliation and anxiety. He decided he was going to have to speak with Scortius after all, this evening perhaps. Secrecy in one's own causes was something that might have to give way to order in the City, especially given what else was awesomely afoot. If both factions knew that the man was all right, would be returning at some named date, some of this tension could be dissipated.

As it was, Bonosus felt sorry for the youngster riding First for the Blues. The boy was clearly a charioteer, had instincts and courage, but he also had three problems that Bonosus could see-and the god knew he ought to be able to see things down there on the sands, given the number of years he'd been coming here.

First problem was Crescens of the Greens. The muscular fellow from Sarnica was superbly confident, had had a year to settle in to Sarantium now, and had his new team under perfect control. Nor was he the sort to show any mercy to the disorganized Blues.

That disorganization was the other part of the difficulty. Not only was the youngster-Taras was his name, a Sauradian apparently-unfamiliar with riding First chariot, he didn't even know the horses of the lead team. Magnificent as a stallion such as Servator was, any horse needed a hand on the reins that knew what it could do. And besides, young Taras, wearing the silver helmet for the Blues, wasn't getting any adequate back-up at all, because he was the one who'd been training to ride Second and knew those horses.

Given all this, the Blues" temporary leader had been doing well to come in second place, three times beating back aggressively coordinated attacks from both Green riders. Jad alone knew what the mood would be if the Greens succeeded in sweeping the board once or twice. Such sweeps of the first and second placings gave rise to the most exultant of faction celebrations-and sullen despair on the other side. It could yet happen before the day was out. The Blues" rider might have the stamina of youth, but they could wear him down. Bonosus thought they would, in the afternoon. On another day he might have considered some wagers.

There was, one might say in a literary mode, a grand slaughter building down below. Being the man he was, Bonosus was inclined to perceive it this way, to see it as an ironic foretaste of the Imperial announcement of war, still to come at the end of the day.

The mornings last race came to an end-as usual, a minor, chaotic endeavour among the Reds and Whites, driving two-horse bigas. The Whites" lead driver emerged triumphant in a typically sloppy affair, but the victory was treated by the Blues and Whites with an enthusiasm (more than slightly forced, to Bonosus's ear) that was almost certainly unique in the experience of the White charioteer. Surprised or not, he appeared to greatly enjoy his victory lap.

The Emperor stopped dictating and rose at the Mandator's murmured hint. He briskly saluted the fellow passing beneath him just then and turned to go. An Excubitor had already unbarred the door at the rear of the kathisma. Valerius would go back down the corridor to the Imperial Precinct for final consultations before the afternoon's proclamation: the Attenine Palace for the Chancellor, the Master of Offices, and the Quaestor of Revenue, then across through the old tunnel under the gardens to the Traversite to meet Leontes and the generals. Everyone knew his routines. Some people-Bonosus among them-believed they had by now discerned the thinking behind this separation of advisers. It was dangerous, however, to assume you understood what this Emperor was thinking. As everyone else rose and stood gracefully aside, Valerius paused by Bonosus.

"Do our honours for the afternoon, Senator. Barring the unforeseen, we shall return with the others before the last race." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "And have the Urban Prefect find out where Scortius is. A bad time for this sort of thing, don't you think? We may have been remiss, ignoring it."

He didn't miss anything, Bonosus thought.

"I know where he is," he said quietly, breaking a promise without compunction. This was the Emperor.

Valerius didn't even raise an eyebrow. "Good. Inform the Urban Prefect, and tell us about it after."

And while eighty thousand of his people were still reacting in a variety of ways to the White rider's last lap, and just beginning to rise and stretch and think about a midday meal and wine, the Emperor left his kathisma and that thronged place where the announcements and events that defined the Empire had so often been witnessed.

Even before he passed through the opened door, Valerius had begun removing the ornate ceremonial garb he had to wear in public.

The servants began spreading a meal on large side tables and smaller round ones beside the seats. Some of those in the kathisma preferred to go back to the palaces to dine, while the younger ones might venture into the City itself, tasting the excitement of the taverns, but it was pleasant to linger here if the weather was fine, and today it was.

Bonosus discovered, to his surprise, that he had both an appetite and a thirst. He stretched his legs-there was room now-and held out his cup for wine.

It occurred to him that the next time he ate a meal he would be a Senator of an empire at war. And not just the usual skirmishing of springtime. This was a recon quest. Rhodias. Valerius's long dream.

No question, it was an exciting thought, stirring up all sorts of… feelings. Bonosus wished, suddenly, that he didn't have a Bassanid physician and a recuperating charioteer both staying at his little house near the walls tonight, after all. Guests could be, undeniably, a complication.

"He was allowed to retire to the Daleinus estate at first. He was only brought to this isle-it has been used as a prison for a long time-after trying to have the first Valerius assassinated in his bath."

Crispin looked at the Empress beside him. They stood alone in the clearing. Her Excubitors were behind them and four guards stood waiting before the doorways of the smaller huts. The larger house was dark, the door barred on the outside, all the windows shuttered against the mild light of the sun. Crispin had an odd difficulty even looking at it. There was an oppressiveness, a weight, something clinging here. There was little wind now, in the midst of the encircling pines.

He said, "I thought people were killed for doing that."

"He should have been," Alixana said.

He looked back at her. She never took her eyes off the house in front of them.

"Tetrus, who was his uncle's adviser then, wouldn't allow it. Said the Daleinoi and their followers needed to be handled carefully. The Emperor listened. He usually did. They brought Lecanus here. Punished but not executed. The youngest one, Tertius, was still a child. He was allowed to stay on the estate and eventually to manage the family affairs. Styliane was permitted to remain in the City, to come to court when she grew older, was even allowed to visit here, though the visits were observed. Lecanus continued plotting, even from this island, kept trying to persuade her. Eventually her visits were stopped." She paused, looked at him, then back at the cabin. "I did that, actually. I was the one having them secretly observed. Then I had the Emperor stop her from coming at all, a little before she was married."

"So no one comes here now?" Crispin saw hearth-smoke rising from the huts and the larger house, straight as the trees, going up then blowing away when it reached the height of the wind.

"I do," said Alixana. "After a fashion. You'll see."

"And I'll be killed if I tell anyone. I know."

She looked up at him then. He could still see the strain in her. "I have heard you on that. Leave it be, Crispin. You are trusted. You are with me here."

The first time she had ever used his name like that.

She went forward without giving him any chance to reply. He couldn't think of any response in any case.

One of the four guards bowed low, then approached the closed door of the house, unlocked it ahead of them. The door swung outward silently. It was almost completely dark inside. The guard went in, and a moment later there was light within as he lit a lamp, and then another. Another man followed the first. He coughed loudly on the threshold.

"Are you dressed, Daleinus? She's here to see you."

A snuffling sound, almost unintelligible, more an animal noise than speech, came from inside. The guard said nothing, entered the house behind the first one. He push opened the wooden shutters on two iron-barred windows, letting in air and more light. Both guards went out.

The Empress nodded at them. They bowed again and withdrew, back towards the huts. There was no one in hearing distance now, or no one that Crispin could see. Alixana met Crispin's eye briefly, then she straightened her shoulders like a performer going on stage and walked into that house.

Crispin followed, silently, out of the bright sun. There was a constriction in his chest. His heart was hammering. He couldn't have said why. This had so little do with him. But he was thinking of Styliane, the last night he'd seen her, what he'd seen in her. And trying to recall what he knew about the death of Flavius Daleinus on the day the first Valerius was acclaimed Emperor in Sarantium.

He stopped just inside the doorway. A fair-sized front room. Two doors opening off it, one at the back to a bedchamber, one on the right side, he couldn't see to where. A fireplace against the left-hand wall, two chairs, a couch at the back, a bench, a table, a closed and locked chest, nothing on the walls at all, not even a sun disk. The snuffling sound, he realized, was a man, breathing oddly.

Then Crispin's eyes slowly adjusted to the subdued light and he saw a shape move on the couch, sitting up from a reclining position, turning towards them. And so he saw the person who lived-who was imprisoned-within this house, on this island, in his own body, and he did remember something, as a sickening, convulsive horror overmastered him. He leaned back against the wall beside the door, a hand going up to shield his face, involuntarily.

Sarantine Fire did bad things to men, even when they survived it.

The father had been killed. A cousin too, Crispin seemed to recall. Lecanus Daleinus had lived. After a fashion. Looking at the blind man before him, at the burned-away ruin of what had been his face, the charred, maimed hands, imagining the burned body beneath the nondescript brown tunic, Crispin wondered, truly, how this man was still alive, and why, what purpose, desire, need could possibly have kept him from ending his own life long ago. He didn't think it was piety. There was no least hint of the god here. Of any god at all.

Then he remembered what Alixana had said, and he thought he knew. Hatred could be a purpose, vengeance a need. A deity, almost.

He was working hard not to be physically ill. He closed his eyes.

And in that moment he heard Styliane Daleina, icy-cool, patrician, utterly unmoved by her brother's appearance, murmur from beside him, "You smell, brother. The room smells. I know they give you water and a basin. Show some respect for yourself and use it."

Crispin, his jaw dropping, opened his eyes and wheeled to look at her.

He saw the Empress of Sarantium, standing as straight as she could, to be nearer the height of the other woman. And he heard her speak again, the voice and tone and manner terrifyingly precise, unnervingly identical. "I have told you this before. You are a Daleinus. Even if no one sees or knows, you must know it or you shame our blood."

The hideous, appalling face on the couch moved. It was impossible to decipher what expression that melted ruin was attempting. The eyes were hollow, blackened, gone. The nose was a smear, and made that whistling sound when the man breathed. Crispin kept silent, swallowing hard.

"So… sorry… sister," the blind man said. The words were slow, badly garbled, but intelligible. "I disappoint… you dear… sister. I will weep."

"You can't weep. But you can have this place cleaned and aired and I expect you to do so." If Crispin had closed his eyes he'd have sworn to holy jad and all the Blessed Victims that Styliane was here, arrogant, contemptuous, fierce in her intelligence and pride. The actress she had named Alixana, among other things.

And now he knew why the Empress came here and why there was so much strain in her face.

There is someone I want to see before the army sails.

She was afraid of this man. Was coming only for Valerius, despite her fear, to see what he might be plotting here with the life they'd granted him. But this sightless, noseless figure was alone, isolated, not even his sister coming any more-only this flawless, chilling imitation of Styliane, seeking to draw a revelation from him. Was this a man to be feared in the present day, or just a guilt, a haunting in the soul from long ago?

There came a sound from the couch, from the almost unbearable figure. And a moment later Crispin realized he was hearing laughter. The sound made him think of something slithering over broken glass.

"Come. Sister," said Lecanus Daleinus, once heir to an extravagantly patrician lineage and an inconceivable fortune. "No… time! Undress! Let me… touch! Hurry!"

Crispin closed his eyes again.

'Good, good!" came a third voice, shockingly. In his head. 'She hates that. Doesn't know what to believe. There's someone here with her. Red hair. No idea who. You're making him feel ill. You are so hideous! The whore's looking at him now.

Crispin felt the world rock and sway like a ship hit hard by a wave. He pressed his hands hard against the wall behind him. Looked around wildly.

Saw the bird, almost immediately, on the window ledge.

I don't know why she's here today! How can I answer that? Keep calm. She may only be anxious. She may-

Alixana laughed aloud. Again the illusion was frightening. It was another woman's laughter, not her own. Crispin remembered Styliane in her own bedchamber, the low, sardonic sound of her amusement, identical to this. "You are disgusting, by choice," the Empress said. "A comic version of yourself, like some cheap pantomime figure. Have you nothing better to offer or ask than a grope in your darkness?"

"What else could I… possibly… offer you, dear sister? Wife of the Supreme Strategos. Did he please… you last night? In your dark? Did someone else? Oh, tell me! Tell!" The voice, through the whistling sound, was laboured, broken, as if the sounds were crawling up from some labyrinthine half-blocked tunnel leading down to things below the earth.

'Good!" Crispin heard again, in the silence of the half-world. "I think I'm right. She's just checking on you. The war coming. This is an accident. She's only worried. You'd be pleased-she looks wretched, used by slaves. Old!

Fighting nausea, Crispin stayed where he was, his breathing carefully shallow, though there was no actual secret to his presence now. His mind was in a desperate whirl. Out of the chaos, a question spun free and he reached for it: how did this man and his creature know, here, about the war?

There was something ugly at work here. This bird was like none he had yet known or heard. The inner voice wasn't that of Zoticus's creations. This bird soul spoke in a woman's voice, bitter and hard, from beyond Bassania: Ispahani or Ajbar or lands whose names he did not know. It was dark in hue, small as Linon, but not like Linon at all.

He remembered that the Daleinoi had made their fortune with a monopoly on the spice trade to the east. He looked at the man on the couch, burned so terribly, turned into this horror, and again the thought came to him: how is he alive?

And again the same answer came and he was afraid.

'I know," said the bird abruptly, replying to something. 'I know! I know! I know!" And what Crispin heard now in the low, harsh voice was exultation, fierce as a blaze.

"I take no delight," the Empress said, all ice and edge like Styliane, "in any of this, and see no reason to attend to your pleasures. I prefer my own, brother. I'm here to ask if there's anything you need… immediately." She left an emphasis on the last word. "You might recall, dear brother, that they leave us alone for only a little while."

"Of course I… recall. That is why you are cruel… to be dressed… still. Little sister, come closer… and tell me. Tell me… how did he… take you, last night?"

Stomach churning, Crispin saw the ruined man's hand, gnarled like a claw, reach under his own tunic to his groin. And he heard the inward laughter of the eastern bird.

Think of your father," said Alixana. "And of your ancestors. If this is all you are now, brother, I shall not return. Consider it, Lecanus. I warned you last time. I'm going to take a walk now and a meal in sunlight on the island. I will come back before I sail. When I do, if this is what you are, still, I will have no more time for this journey and will not return."

"Oh! Oh!" wheezed the man on the couch. "I am desolate! I have… shamed my dear sister. Our innocent… fair child."

Crispin saw Alixana bite her lip, staring at the figure before her as if her gaze could probe his depths. She couldn't know, Crispin thought. She couldn't know why her immaculate, brilliant deception was being so effortlessly defeated. But she sensed it was being foiled, somehow, that Lecanus was playing with her, and perhaps that was why she feared this room so much. And why she still came.

She said nothing more, walked from the room and the house, head high, shoulders straight, as before. An actress, an Empress, proud as some goddess of the ancient pantheon, betraying nothing, unless you looked very, very closely.

Crispin followed, the laughter of the bird drilling in his head. Just as he came into the sunshine, closing his eyes, temporarily blind, he heard, 'I want to be there! Lecanus, I want us to be there!

He didn't hear the reply, of course.

"Styliane never pleasured him, in the event you were wondering. She's corrupt in her own ways, but she never did that."

Crispin was wondering how much was known about a certain recent night, and then decided not to think about it. They were on the southern side of the island, facing Deapolis across the water. Her Excubitors had accompanied them through the trees, past a second clearing with another set of huts and houses. These were empty. There had been other prisoners here once, evidently. Not now. Lecanus Daleinus had the isle to himself, with his handful of guards.

It was past midday now, by the sun. They would be racing again in the Hippodrome soon, if they hadn't started already, the day turning steadily towards an announcement of war. Crispin understood that the Empress was simply allowing an interval to pass before she went back to that house in the clearing to see if anything had changed.

It wouldn't have, he knew. What he didn't know was whether to say anything about it. There were so many betrayals embedded here: of Zoticus, of Shirin and her bird, and of his own privacy, his gift, his secret. Linon. At the same time, those last silent words of the eastern creature were still with him, with the undeniable signal of danger in them.

He had little appetite when they sat down to their meal, picked in a desultory fashion at the fish-cakes and the olives. Drank his wine. Had asked for it to be well watered. The Empress was largely silent, had been from the time they'd left the clearing. She had walked off by herself, in fact, when they'd first reached this strand, becoming a small, purple-cloaked dot in the distance along the stony beachfront here, two of her soldiers following at a distance. Crispin had sat down on a grassy place between trees and stones, watching the changing light on the sea. Green, blue, blue-green, grey.

Eventually she had come back, gestured for him not to rise, and had taken her place, gracefully, on a square of silk unfolded for her. The food had been spread on another cloth in this quiet place that ought to have been soothing in its beauty, a benign embodiment of the quickening spring.

Crispin said, after a time, "You watched them together, I gather. Styliane and… her brother."

The Empress wasn't eating either. She nodded. "Of course. I had to. How else would I have learned how and what to say, playing her?" She looked at him.

So obvious, seen in that way. An actress, learning her part. Crispin looked back out to sea. Deapolis showed clearly across the water. He could see more ships in the harbour there. A fleet for an army, sailing west, to his home. He had warned his mother, and Martinian and Carissa. It meant nothing. What could they do? There was a dull fear within him; the memory of the bird in that dark cabin a part of that now.

He said, "And you do this… you come here, because…"

"Because Valerius won't let him be killed. I thought of doing it, despite that. Killing him. But it matters a great deal to the Emperor. The visible hand of mercy, since the family… suffered so much when those… unknown people burned Flavius. So I come here, and do this… performance, and learn nothing. If I am to believe him, Lecanus is broken and vile and purposeless." She paused. "I can't stop coming."

"Why won't he kill him? There has to be so much hatred. I know they think the Emperor… ordered it. The burning." Not a question he'd ever imagined himself asking anyone, let alone the Empress of Sarantium. And not with this terrible inward sense that perhaps the killing of this man ought to have been done by now. Perhaps even in mercy. He thought, wistfully, of a scaffold in the air, shining pieces of glass and stone, memory, his girls.

Sorrow was easier than this. The thought came to him suddenly. A hard truth.

Alixana was silent for a long time. He waited. Caught the drift of her scent. That gave him pause for a moment, then he decided that Lecanus couldn't have known about the personal nature of that perfume. He'd been here too long. And then he realized that that wasn't it either: the man's nose was gone. The Empress would have realized that. Crispin shuddered. She saw it. Looked away.

She said, "You can have no idea what it was like here in the time when Apius was dying."

"I'm certain of that," Crispin said.

"He had his own nephews blinded and imprisoned here." Her voice was flat, lifeless. He had never heard her like this. "There was no heir. Flavius Daleinus was behaving, for months before Apius died, as an Emperor-in-waiting. Receiving courtiers at his estate and even his city home, on a chair in a receiving room on a crimson carpet. Some of them knelt before him."

Crispin said nothing.

"Petrus… believed Daleinus would be entirely, dangerously wrong as Emperor. For many reasons." She looked at him, the dark eyes searching his. And he understood what was unsettling him so: he had no idea how to react when she spoke, or looked, as a woman, a person, and not as an Imperial power beyond comprehension.

He said, "So he helped put his uncle on the throne instead. I know this. Everyone does."

She refused to look away. "Everyone does. And Flavius Daleinus died in Sarantine Fire on the street outside his house. He was… wearing porphyry. He was on his way to the Senate, Crispin."

The clothing had all burned away, Carullus had told him, but there had been rumours of the purple trim. Crispin, sitting on an island strand these long years after, had no doubt of the truth of what the Empress was saying.

He took a breath and said, "I am lost here, my lady. I don't understand what I am doing here, why I am hearing this. I am supposed to call you thrice-exalted, kneel in obeisance."

She smiled a little then, for the first time. "Indeed, artisan. I had almost forgotten. You haven't done either in a while, have you?"

"I have no idea how to… act here."

She shrugged, her expression still amused, something else in her voice, however. "Why should you know? I am being capricious and unfair, telling hidden things, enforcing the illusion of intimacy. But I can have you killed and buried here if I say but a word to the soldiers. Why should you assume you might know how to conduct yourself?"

She reached over and chose a pitted olive. "You can't know this, either, of course, but that ruined figure we just saw was the best of them all. Clever and brave, a splendid, handsome man. He went east himself, many times, with the spice caravans, past Bassania, to learn whatever he could. I regret what the fire did to him more than what happened to his father. He should have died, not lived to become-this thing."

Crispin swallowed again. "Why the fire? Why that way?"

Alixana’s gaze was steady. His awareness was of her courage… and simultaneously of the fact that she might be showing him courage, leading him to see it in her, for her own purposes. He was adrift and afraid, continuously aware of how many layers and contours of meaning there were with this woman. He shivered. Even before she answered, he was sorry he'd asked.

She said, "Empires need symbols. New Emperors need powerful ones. A moment when all changes, when the god speaks with a clear voice. On the day Valerius I was acclaimed in the Hippodrome, Flavius Daleinus wore purple in the street, walked out to claim the Golden Throne as if by right. He died appallingly, as if by a bolt from Jad, a striking down from above for such presumption, never to be forgotten." Her eyes never left his own. "It would not have been the same had he been stabbed by some soldier in an alleyway."

Crispin found that he could not look away from her. The exact, worldly intelligence within her beauty. He opened his mouth, found he could not speak. And seeing that, she smiled. "You are about to say again," said the Empress Alixana, "that you are only an artisan, that you want nothing to do with any of this. Am I right, Caius Crispus?"

He closed his mouth. Took a deep, unsteady breath. She could be wrong, and she was, this time. His heart pounding, an odd, roaring sound in his ears, Crispin heard himself say, "You cannot deceive the man in that house, my lady, even though he is blind. He has an unnatural creature with him that can see, and speaks to him silently. Something from the half-world. He knows it is you and not his sister, Empress."

She went white. He would always remember it. White as a shroud. As the winding sheet in which the dead were wrapped for burial. She stood up, too quickly, almost fell, the only graceless movement he had ever seen her make.

He scrambled to his feet as well, the roaring in his head like a surf or a storm. He said, "He was asking the bird-it is a bird-why you were here, today… of all days. They decided it was accident. That you were only worried. Then the bird said that… that it wanted to be present when… something happened."

"Oh, dearest Jad," said the Empress of Sarantium, and her flawless voice cracked like a plate on stone. And then, "Oh, my love."

She turned and began to move, almost running, back through the trees on the path. Crispin followed. The Excubitors, alert and attentive as soon as she had stood up, followed them both. One of them sprinted ahead, to guard the path.

No one spoke. They came back to the clearing. It was silent, as before. The smoke was still rising, as before. No movement could be seen.

But the door to the prison house of Lecanus Daleinus was unbarred and open and there were two dead guards lying on the ground.

Alixana stood frozen, rooted to the spot, like one of the pines in the windless air. Her face was riven with anguish, like a tree by a lightning bolt. There were legends, from long ago, of women, wood spirits, changed into trees. Crispin thought of them, seeing her now. There was an appalling, choking sensation in his own chest and the roaring sound had not stopped.

One of the Excubitors swore furiously, shattering the stillness. All four of them dashed across the open space, drawing their blades, to kneel in pairs by the two slain men. It was Crispin who walked over-he saw that each man had been cut down by a sword, from behind-and re-entered the silent, open house.

The lamps were gone. The front room was empty. He strode quickly to the back and to the kitchen room at the side. No one there. He came back to the main room, looked at the ledge of the window by the door. The bird, too, was gone.

Crispin walked out again, into the gentle, deceiving sunshine. The Empress stood, alone, still rooted to the earth, near the encircling trees. Dangerous, he had time to think, before one of the two Excubitors beside the nearest of the dead men stood up and moved behind his fellow soldier. His sword was still drawn. The other man was kneeling, examining the body of the guard. The drawn sword went up, a glinting of metal in the light.

'No!" Crispin screamed.

They were the Excubitors, the Imperial Guards, best soldiers in the Empire. The kneeling soldier didn't look up or back. He'd have died, had he done so. Instead, he hurtled straight to one side from his kneeling position, rolling hard as he did, over the flat of his own sword. The blade that had been sweeping down to take him from behind bit, instead, into the body of the already-slain guard. The attacker swore savagely, ripped his blade free, turned to face the other soldier-the leader of this quartet- who was up now, his own sword levelled.

There was still no one near the Empress, Crispin saw.

The two Excubitors faced each other in the sunlight, feet wide for balance, circling slowly. The other two soldiers were on their feet now, halfway across the clearing, but frozen as if in shock.

There was death here now. There was more than that.

Caius Crispus of Varena, in the world, of the world, said a quick silent prayer to the god of his fathers and took three hard running steps, hammering his shoulder with all the force he could command into the small of the back of the traitorous soldier in front of him. Crispin wasn't a fighter, but he was a big man. The man's breath was expelled with a rush, his head snapped back, his arms splayed helplessly out and wide with the impact, the sword spinning from nerveless fingers.

Crispin fell to the ground with him, on top of him, rolled quickly away. He pushed himself up. In time to see the man whose life he'd saved plunge his blade, without ceremony, straight into the back of the other soldier where he lay on the ground, killing him.

The Excubitor threw Crispin one swift, searching look, then wheeled and sprinted towards the Empress, bloodied sword in hand. Struggling up from his knees, heart in his throat, Crispin watched him go. Alixana stood motionless, a sacrifice in a glade, accepting her fate.

The soldier stopped in front of her and spun around to defend his Empress.

Crispin heard a strange sound in his own throat. There were two dead men next to him in this clearing. He ran, stumbling, over to Alixana himself. Her face, he saw, was still chalk white.

The other two Excubitors came quickly over now, their own blades out, horror written in both faces. The leader, standing in front the Empress, waited for them, his head and eyes darting about, scanning the clearing and the shadows of the pines.

"Sheathe!" he snapped. "Formation. Now."

They did, drew themselves up side by side. He stood before them, his gaze ferocious. Looked at one, and then the other.

Then he plunged his bloodied sword into the belly of the second man.

Crispin gasped, his fists clenched at his side.

The leader of the Excubitors watched his victim fall, then he turned again and looked at the Empress.

Alixana had not moved. She said, her voice entirely without inflection, almost inhuman, "He was bought as well, Mariscus?"

The man said, "My lady, I could not be sure. Of Nerius I am sure." He gestured with his head at the remaining soldier. He looked at Crispin searchingly. "You trust the Rhodian?" he asked.

"I trust the Rhodian," said Alixana of Sarantium. There was no life in her tone, in her face. "I believe he saved you."

The soldier showed no response to that. He said, "I do not understand what has happened here. But it is not safe for you, my lady."

Alixana laughed. Crispin would remember that sound, too.

"Oh, I know," she said. "I know. It is not safe for me. But it is too late now." She closed her eyes. Crispin saw that her hands were at her sides. His own were twisting and clenching, windows to the roiling he felt within. "It is so obvious now, much too late. Today will have been a day when they changed the Urban Prefect's guards here, I'll wager. I imagine they were already here, watching, when we sailed in at the end of the morning, waiting until we left this clearing."

Crispin and the two soldiers looked at her.

"Two dead here," said Alixana. "So two of the Prefect's men were bought. And the four new ones arriving on their little boat will have been, of course, or there'd have been no point. And you think two of the Excubitors, too." A spasm crossed her features, was gone. The mask reasserted itself. "He will have left as soon as we went away. They'll have reached the City by now. Some time ago, I imagine."

None of the three men with her said a word. Crispin's heart ached. These were not his people, Sarantium was not his place on Jad's earth, but he understood what she was saying. The world was changing. Might have already changed.

Alixana opened her eyes then. Looked straight at him. "He has something that allows him to… see things?" No reproach in her tone. Nothing in her tone. Had he told her right away…

He nodded. The two soldiers looked uncomprehending. They didn't matter. She did. She mattered very much, he realized, gazing at her. She turned past him, towards the two dead men near the prison house.

And then turned completely away, from the men standing with her, from the dead in the clearing. Faced north, her shoulders straight as always, head lifted a little, as if to see beyond the tall pines, beyond the strait with its dolphins and ships and white-capped waves, beyond harbour, city walls, bronze gates, the present and the past, the world and the half-world.

"I believe," said Alixana of Sarantium, "it may even be over by now."

She turned back to look at them. Her eyes were dry.

"I have placed you in mortal danger, Rhodian. I am sorry for it. You will have to go back on the Imperial ship alone. You may expect to be asked hard questions, perhaps as soon as you land. More likely later, tonight. It will be known you were with me today, before I disappeared."

"My lady?" he said. "You don't know what has happened." He paused, swallowed hard. "He is cleverer than any man alive." And then her last word penetrated, and he said, "Disappeared?"

She looked at him. "I do not know for certain, you are correct. But if things have fallen out in a certain way, the Empire as we have known it is ended and they will be coming for me. I would not care, but…" She closed her eyes again. "But I do have… one or perhaps two things to do. I cannot let myself be found before that. Mariscus will take me back- there will be small craft on this island-and I will disappear."

She stopped, drew a breath. "I knew he should have been killed," she said. And then, "Crispin, Caius Crispus, if I am right, Gesius will be no help to you now." Her mouth twitched. A fool might have called it a smile. "You will need Styliane. She is the one who might guard you. She feels something for you, I believe."

He didn't know how she might know that. He was far past caring about such things. He said, "And you, my lady?"

A distant trace of amusement. "What do I feel for you, Rhodian?"

He bit his lip hard. "No, no. My lady, what are you to do? May I… may we not help?"

She shook her head. "Not your role. Not anyone's. If I am correct about what has happened, I have a task to do before I die, and then it can end." She looked at Crispin, standing very near him and yet in another place, another world, almost. "Tell me, when your wife died… how did you go on living?"

He opened his mouth, and closed it without answering. She turned away. They went back through the forest to the sea. On the stony strand of the isle, he was still unable to speak. He watched as she undipped and let fall her purple cloak, and then dropped the brooch that had pinned it and turned and went away along the white stones. The man named Mariscus followed her out of sight.

How did you go on living?

No answers came to him on the ship when he and the remaining Excubitor came to it and the mariners weighed anchor at the soldier's harsh order and they sailed back to Sarantium.

The Imperial cloak and the golden brooch were left behind on the isle, were still lying there when the stars came out that night, and the moons.

CHAPTER X

Cleander had done well by them, it appeared.

They were not among the enormous block of Green partisans-his mother had expressly forbidden that-but it seemed the boy had sufficient contacts by now among the Hippodrome crowd to have obtained excellent seats low down and near the starting line. Some of the morning attendees among the wealthier classes were inclined to miss the afternoon, it seemed. Cleander had found three seats that way. They had a clear, close view of the cumbersome looking start apparatus and the jumble of monuments along the spina, and could even see into the roofed interior space where the performers and charioteers were even now awaiting the signal to come out for the afternoon procession. Beyond that, Cleander had pointed out another entrance to and from the vast spaces under the stands. He called it the Death Gate, with evident relish.

The boy, dressed with perfect sobriety in brown and gold with a wide leather belt and his long, barbarian-style hair brushed back, was urgently pointing out all that took place to his stepmother and the physician whose servant he'd killed two weeks before. He seemed wildly happy and very young, Rustem thought, aware of ironies.

Thenai's had already been saluted by at least half a dozen men and women sitting nearby and had introduced Rustem with flawless formality to them. No one asked why she wasn't in the kathisma with her husband. This was a well-bred, well-dressed section of the Hippodrome. There might be shouting and jostling above them in the standing places but not down here.

Or perhaps, Rustem thought, not until the horses began running again. He acknowledged, with professional interest, an excitement within himself, undermining detachment. The mood of the crowd-he had never in his life been among so many people-was communicating itself, undeniably.

A trumpet sounded. "Here they come," said Oleander, on the far side of his mother. "The Greens have the most wonderful juggler, you'll see him right after the Hippodrome Prefect's horse."

"No faction talk," said Thenai's quietly, eyes on the gateway to the sands, where a horseman had indeed appeared.

"I'm not," said the boy. "Mother, I'm just… telling you things."

It became difficult to tell-or hear-things just about then, as the crowd erupted into full-throated salutation, like a beast with one voice.

Behind the single horseman came a dazzling, multicoloured array of performers. The juggler Cleander had mentioned was tossing sticks set on fire. Beside and behind him capered dancers dressed in blue and green, and then red and white, doing back flips and wheel-like movements. One walked on her hands, shoulders twisted into a position that made Rustem wince. She'd be unable to lift a cup without pain by the time she was forty, the doctor thought. Another entertainer, ducking his head to clear the tunnel roof, came striding out on high sticks that elevated him to giant size, and he managed, somehow, to dance on the sticks from that great height. Clearly a favourite, his appearance led to an even louder roar of approval. There came musicians with drums and flutes and cymbals. Then more dancers sprinted past, criss-crossing each other, long streamers of coloured fabric in their hands, drifting in the breeze and with the speed of their running. Their clothing was lifting, too, and there wasn't over-much of it. The women would have been stoned in Bassania for appearing in public so nearly naked, Rustem thought.

Then there came, just after them, the chariots.

"That's Crescens! Glory of the Greens!" shouted Oleander, ignoring his mother's injunction, pointing at a man in a silver helmet. He paused. "And beside him, that's the young one. Taras. For the Blues. He's riding first chariot again." He quickly looked across at Rustem. "Scortius isn't here."

"What?" said a florid, ginger-haired man behind Thenai's, leaning forward, brushing her. Cleander's mother shifted to one side, avoiding the contact, her face impassive as she watched the chariots emerge from the wide tunnel to the left of them. "You expected him? No one has any idea where he is, boy."

Oleander said nothing to that, which was a blessing. The boy didn't entirely lack sense. Behind the two lead chariots, the others came rolling quickly out as the performers ahead of them danced and tumbled down the long straight towards the kathisma at the far end. It was impossible to make out who was sitting there, but Rustem knew that Plautus Bonosus was among the elite in that roofed box. The boy had told him earlier, with an unexpected note of pride, that his father sometimes dropped the white cloth to start the games if the Emperor was absent.

The last chariots, riders clad in white and red over their leather, rolled out of the tunnel. The single horseman and lead dancers were on the far side now, beyond the monuments, would exit through a second gate over there after leading the parade past those seats and stands.

"I believe," said Thenai's Sistina, "that I require a moment out of the sun. Are there refreshments of any kind through that gate?" She gestured at the space through which the horses had come.

"Well, yes," said Oleander. "There are all sorts of food stands inside. But you go back up and then down the stairs to get under. You can't go through the Procession Gate, there's a guard there."

"Indeed there is," said his mother. "I see him. I imagine he'll let me through, spare a woman the long walk around."

"You can't. And you certainly can't just go alone, mother. This is the Hippodrome."

"Thank you, Cleander, I appreciate your concern that there might be… unruly people here." Her expression was unreadable, but the boy flushed crimson. "I have no intention of stepping where all those horses have gone, and I wouldn't dream of going alone. Doctor, will you be so good…?"

More reluctantly than he'd have wanted to admit, Rustem stood up, holding his walking stick. He might miss the start of this now. "But of course, my lady," he murmured. "Do you feel unwell?"

"A moment in the shade and something cool to drink will be enough," the woman said. "Cleander, remain here and conduct yourself with dignity. We will be back, of course." She rose and moved past Rustem in the aisle to walk down two more steps and then along the narrow space between the first row of seats and the barrier to the sands. As she went, she put up her hood, hiding her face within it.

Rustem followed, stick in hand. No one paid them any attention. He saw people moving about all over the Hippodrome, taking their places or heading for refreshments or the latrines. All eyes were on the noisy procession below. Stopping a discreet distance behind the Senator's wife, he saw her address the guard at the low, gated barrier where the walkway ended, just beside the grand Procession Gates a few steps below.

The guard's initial expression of brusque indifference melted quite swiftly as Thenai's said whatever it was she said. He looked quickly around to be sure there was no one nearby, and then unbarred the low portal at the end of the walkway and let her through into the covered space beneath the stands. Rustem followed, pausing to give the man a coin.

It was only when he walked into the vaulted tunnel, watching carefully to avoid the evidence that horses had just passed, that Rustem saw a man standing alone in the muted light of this atrium, clad in the leather of a charioteer, and a blue tunic.

The woman had stopped just inside, was waiting for Rustem. She said quietly, from within her sheltering hood, "You were correct, doctor. It seems your patient, our unexpected houseguest, is here after all. Do give me a moment with him, will you?"

And without waiting for a reply, she walked towards the man standing alone in the tunnel. There were two yellow-clad track attendants by the wide, high gates, not far from the small one where Rustem stood. They had clearly been about to swing them shut. Equally clearly, from the way they were looking at Scortius, they were not about to do so now.

He hadn't yet been noticed by anyone else. Must have remained hidden in the shadows here until the chariots rolled out. There were three main tunnels and half a dozen smaller ones branching from this large atrium. The Hippodrome's interior space was vast, cavernous, could hold more people than dwelled in Kerakek, Rustem realized. People lived their lives here, he knew, in apartments down those corridors. There would be stables, shops, food stalls and drinking places, doctors, whores, cheiromancers, chapels. A city within the City. And this open, high-roofed atrium would normally be a bustling, thronged gathering place, echoing with sounds. It would be again in a few moments, Rustem guessed, when the parade performers returned down tunnels from the far side.

At the moment, it was nearly empty, dim and dusty after the bright light outside. He saw the Senator's wife walk towards the charioteer. She pushed back her hood. He saw Scortius turn his head-rather late-and notice her, and so Rustem registered the sudden change in his posture and manner, and some things came clear with that.

He was, after all, an observant man. A good doctor had to be. Indeed, the King of Kings had sent him to Sarantium because of it.

He had anticipated a number of things, including the distinct possibility that he might collapse before getting to the Hippodrome, but having Thenais appear in the empty, echoing space of the Processional Atrium had not been one of them.

The two attendants at the gates had seen him as soon as he came out from one of the residential tunnels, after the last of the chariots had gone. A finger to his lips had ensured their immediate, slack-jawed complicity. They would be drinking until all hours on this tale tonight, he knew. And for many nights to come.

He was waiting for the right moment to go forward. Knew that he had-at best-only one race in him today, and a message had to be given with maximum impact, to sustain the Blues, quiet the roiling of unrest, serve notice to Crescens and the others.

And assuage his own pride. He needed to race again, remind them all that whatever the Greens might do during this opening of the season, Scortius was among them yet and was still what he had always been.

If it was true.

He might have made a mistake. It had become necessary to acknowledge that. The slow, long walk from Bonosus's house by the walls had been amazingly difficult, and the wound had opened up at some point. He hadn't even noticed, until he'd seen blood on his tunic. He was very short of breath, felt pain whenever he tried to draw in more air. He ought to have hired a litter, or arranged to have Astorgus send one, but he hadn't even told the factionarius he was doing this. Stubbornness had always had a price-why should it be different now? This arrival for the afternoon's first race, this entrance on foot across the sands to the starting line, was entirely his own statement. No one in Sarantium knew he was coming.

Or so he had thought. Then he saw Thenai's approaching in the diffused light, and his heart thumped hard within his broken ribs. She never came to the Hippodrome. If she was here, it was because she'd come looking for him, and he had no idea how-

He saw the Bassanid then, behind her, grey-bearded, slender, holding that stick he affected for the dignity of it. And silently in that moment, Scortius of Soriyya swore, with intense feeling.

He could see it now. The accursed physician would have felt some wretched sort of professional duty. Would have found him gone, deduced it was a race day, sought a way to attend, and-

This time when he swore it was aloud, like a soldier in a caupona, though under his breath.

The man would have gone to Bonosus's house, of course.

To Cleander. Who was banned by his father from attending the races this spring-he had told them so. Which meant they'd have had to talk to Thenai's. Which meant-

She stopped directly in front of him. Her remembered scent was with him again. He looked at her, met that clear gaze, felt a constriction in his throat. She seemed cool, poised-and he could feel the force of her rage like a blast from an oven.

"All of Sarantium," she murmured, "will rejoice to see you well again, charioteer."

They were alone in a vast space. For a little time. The parade would be ending, the others coming noisily back through the tunnels.

"I am honoured that you are the first to say as much," he said. "My lady, I hope you received my note."

"It was so thoughtful of you to write," she said. The brittle formality was its own message. "I do apologize, of course, that I was with my family for a short while that night when you felt such an… urgent need for my company." She paused. "Or for that of any woman who might offer her body to a celebrated charioteer."

"Thenai's," he said.

And stopped. She had, he belatedly saw, a knife in her right hand. And so he finally understood what this encounter really was. He closed his eyes. There had always been this possibility, in the life he'd lived.

"Yes?" she said, the tone as detached, as composed as ever. "I thought I heard someone say my name."

He looked at her. He could not have named or even numbered the women who had shared his nights over the years. All the years. Not one had found a way to unsettle him as this one had, and still did. He felt old suddenly, and tired. His wound hurt. He remembered the same feeling, the night he'd gone looking for her. His shoulder aching in the night wind.

"It was me," he said quietly. "I said your name. I say it most nights, Thenai's."

"Really? How diverting that must be for the woman lying with you at the time," she said.

The two gatekeepers were watching them. One still had his mouth agape. It could have been amusing. The wretched physician remained a precise, polite distance away. It was probable that none of them had seen the dagger in the soft light.

Scortius said, "I went to the house of Shirin of the Greens to present her with an offer from Astorgus."

"Ah. He wanted to bed her?"

"You are being unkind."

He winced at what flashed in her eyes then, realized anew just how enraged she was.

The lifelong mask of control, of absolute, flawless poise: what happened to such a person when something broke right through. He drew a too-deep breath, felt the shock of pain in his ribs, said, "He wanted to invite her, discreetly, to join the Blues. I had promised to add my voice to the proposal."

"Your voice," she said. There was a glitter in her eyes. He had never seen it before. "Just your voice? In the middle of the night. Climbing up to her bedroom. How… persuasive."

"It is the truth," he said.

"Indeed. And did you bed her?"

She had no right to ask. To answer was a betrayal of another woman who had offered him wit and kindness and shared pleasure.

It never occurred to him not to answer, or to lie. "Yes," he said. "Unexpectedly."

"Ah. Unexpectedly." The knife was very still in her hand.

"Where did they hurt you?" she asked.

There were noises now from one of the tunnels. The first dancers had left the sands. Beyond her, through the Processional Gates, he could see the eight chariots of the first race wheeling back around and up towards the slant of the start line.

And suddenly it seemed to him that it might actually be enough, what he had done with his life thus far. That the look in this woman's eyes spoke to a level of pain he'd caused-an unfair burden, perhaps, but how did fairness enter into life? — and he could die here, after all, accepting it from her, in this place. He had never expected to grow old.

He said, "Left side. A stab wound, broken ribs around it."

All he had wanted to do once, long ago, was race horses.

She nodded, biting at her lower lip thoughtfully, a single line across her brow. "How unfortunate. I have a knife."

"I did see that."

"If I wished to hurt you very, very much before you died…?"

"You would stab me here," he said, and showed her. There was blood, in any case. It could be seen welling through the blue tunic.

She looked at him. "You wish to die?"

He considered it then. "Not really, no. But I would not want to live if it caused you so much grief"

She drew a breath then. Courage and pain and a kind of… madness. That fierce, never-before-seen glinting in her eye. "You can't imagine I'd be long behind you."

He closed his eyes again, opened them. "Thenai's, there is… so much wrong in that. But I am prepared for whatever you desire."

The knife still did not move. "You should have lied to me, just now. When I asked."

So small he had been, that first time his father let him sit astride a stallion. They'd had to lift him up, his legs sticking out almost straight when he was seated on the big horse. Laughter at that. Then a sudden silence from the men around them, when the animal grew still under the touch of the child on its back. In Soriyya. Far away. Long ago.

A lifetime. He shook his head. "You shouldn't have asked," he said. It was truth, he would not lie.

She drew back the blade then. He was looking straight into her eyes, at what was-so terribly-revealed there when another lifetime's composure fell entirely away.

And because he was doing so, almost falling into her gaze, entangled in her and in memory, oblivious even to the hard upward movement of the small hand that held the knife, he didn't see the swift-striding man come from behind her then and seize her by the wrist, screening the gesture with his own body.

He twisted. The knife fell.

She made no sound, after the first sharp whimper of shock.

"My lady," said Crescens of the Greens, "forgive me."

She looked at him. Scortius looked at him. The three of them stood alone in a huge, dim space. Crescens said, "No man who ever lived is worth what this would mean to you. Put up your hood, please, my lady. There will be people here very soon. If he has offended, there are so many of us who will deal with that."

It was uncanny-and the memory was to stay with Scortius-how swiftly her face changed, how the conduit to a kind of fever in her soul slammed shut to the world as Thenai's looked at the Greens" charioteer. She didn't even give any sign that her wrist was paining her, though it had to be. He had moved very fast, twisted hard.

"You misunderstand," she murmured. And even smiled. A perfect court smile, detached and meaningless. The iron bars of control crashing down again. Scortius actually shivered, seeing it, hearing her voice change. He was aware of the rapid thread of his pulse. A moment ago he had actually expected…

She put up her hood. Said: "It seems my wayward stepson played a role in our mutual friend's injury. He has told my husband a version of the tale. It is not believed. Before we punish the boy-the Senator is furious, of course-I wanted to ascertain from Scortius himself just what took place. It involved a knife, you see, and an allegation of a stabbing."

It was nonsense. Words spoken to have words spoken. A tale that could not possibly hold, unless one wished to allow it to hold. Crescens of the Greens might be a brawling, hard man on the track and in the taverns and the in Green compound, and he'd only been a single year in Sarantium, but he was First of the Greens, had been invited to court by now, spent a winter in the aristocratic circles the leading racers came to know. He'd have seen his share of bedrooms, too, Scortius thought.

The man knew what this was, how to conduct himself.

His apology was passionate, immediate-and brief, for there were loud sounds now in the southern tunnels. "You must allow me," said Crescens, "to call upon you, I beg, to more fully express my contrition. I appear to have blundered like an untutored provincial. My lady, I am ashamed." He looked over. "And I must return to the sands, while you should-if I may urge you-allow your escort to take you from this space, which will be no place at all for a lady in a moment."

They could hear rolling wheels and boisterous laughter around the dark curve of the largest tunnel. Scortius had said nothing, had not even moved. The knife lay on the ground. He bent now, carefully, and picked it up with his right hand. Gave it back to Thenai's. Their fingers touched.

She smiled, a smile thin as river ice in the north when the winter's freezing has not yet made it safe. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you both." She looked over her shoulder. The Bassanid doctor had stayed where he was through all of this. Now he came forward, impeccably grave.

He looked at Scortius first. His own charge. "You understand your coming here… alters things?"

"I do," Scortius said. "I am very sorry."

His physician nodded. "With this," said the Bassanid, "I will not contend." There was a blunt finality to his tone.

"I understand," said Scortius. "I am grateful for all you have done until now."

The doctor turned away. "May I escort you, my lady? You mentioned a cooling drink?"

"I did," she said. Thank you, yes." She looked at the Bassanid thoughtfully for a moment as if considering new information, and then turned back to Scortius. "I expect you to win this race," she murmured. "From what my son tells me, our dear Crescens has won sufficiently in your absence."

And with that, she turned and went away with the physician, towards the stairs and the concession booths and stalls on the level above them.

The two charioteers stood alone, looked at each other.

"What was he talking about?" Crescens jerked his chin towards the receding figure of the physician.

"Disclaiming responsibility if I kill myself."

"Ah."

"They do that in Bassania. You needed a piss?"

The Green rider nodded. "Always do, after lunch."

"I know."

"Saw you. Came to say hello. Saw the knife. You're bleeding."

"I know."

"Are you… back for good?"

Scortius hesitated. "Probably not yet. I recover quickly, mind you. Or I used to."

Crescens smiled sourly. "We all used to." His turn to hesitate. People would be emerging any moment now. They both knew it. "She couldn't possibly have hurt you unless you let her."

"Yes, well, that's… Tell me, how's your new trace horse?"

Crescens looked at him a moment, then nodded his head in acceptance. "I like him. Your young driver…"

"Taras."

"Taras. Bastard has the makings of a racer. I didn't see it last year." He grinned, wolfishly. "I'm planning to break his heart this spring."

"Of course you are."

The Green rider's smile deepened. "You wanted a lovely appearance all by yourself, didn't you? Returning hero, walking across the sand alone? By Heladikos, what an entrance!"

Scortius's expression was wry. "I'd thought of it."

But he was really thinking about the woman, images interwoven with memories of his childhood, amazingly, and the feeling he'd had looking into her eyes just before the knife moved. You should have lied to me. He had been about to let her stab him. Crescens was right. An other-worldly mood, a state of being she had shaped, with those glittering eyes, in the dusty half-light. It seemed a dream already, only moments after. He didn't think the dream was going to go away.

Crescens said, "I don't believe I can allow you that entrance. I'm sorry. Saving your fucking life's one thing. Trivial. But giving you that kind of a return's another. Very bad for Green morale."

One had to smile. One was back in the Hippodrome. The world it made within the world. "I can see that. Let's go together, then."

They went together, just as the first dancers began emerging from the darkness of the tunnel to their left.

"Thank you, by the way," Scortius added, as they approached the two yellow-clad guards at the doors.

I expect you to win this race, she had said. After the doctor had formally disclaimed responsibility if he killed himself. She had come under the stands with a knife. She had come to the Hippodrome with one. She knew what she was saying. You can't imagine I'd be long behind you. He had long thought, before ever really knowing her, that there was something extraordinary beneath her celebrated reserve. Then he'd thought, arrogantly, that he'd found it, defined it. He'd been wrong. There was so much more. Should he have known?

"Thank you? Not at all," said Crescens. "Too boring here without you, winning against children. Mind you, I do want to keep winning."

And as they passed the two guards, just before they walked out on the bright sands together, into the sight of eighty thousand people, he hammered an elbow entirely without warning into the injured man's left side.

Scortius gasped, staggered. The world reeled, went red in his sight.

"Oh! Sorry!" the other man exclaimed. "Are you all right?"

Scortius had doubled over, clutching his side. They were in the entrance now. Would be seen in a stride or two. With a shuddering, racking effort he forced himself to straighten, started moving again, an act of will more than anything else. Was still desperately fighting for breath. Heard, as in a fever, the first roars of the crowd nearest to them.

It began. The volume of noise growing, and growing, rolling along the first straightway like a wave, the sound of his name. Crescens was beside him but it was a mistake on his part, really, for only one name was heard, over and again. A screaming. He struggled to breathe without passing out, to keep moving, not to double over again, not put a hand to his wound.

"I am a terrible man," said Crescens cheerfully beside him, waving to the crowd as if he'd personally fetched the other rider back from the dead like some hero of the ancient tales. "By Heladikos, I really am."

He wanted to kill, and to laugh at the same time. Laughing would probably kill him. He was back in the Hippodrome. The world of it. Out on the sands. Saw the horses up ahead. Wondered how one walked so far.

Knew he was going to do it, somehow.

And in that same moment, seeing the drivers ahead of them swivelling to look back and stare, looking at the teams and their positions, and at one in particular, he had his idea, swift as horses, a gift. He actually smiled, baring his teeth, through breathing was very difficult. There was more than one wolf here, he thought. By Heladikos, there was.

"Watch me," he said then, to the other charioteer, to himself, to the boy he'd been once on that stallion in Soriyya, to all of them, the god and his son and the world. He saw Crescens look quickly over at him. Was aware, triumphantly, through the red, stabbing pain, of sudden anxiety in the other man's features.

He was Scortius. He was still Scortius. The Hippodrome belonged to him. They built monuments to him in this place. Whatever might happen elsewhere, in darkness, with the sun below the world.

"Watch me," he said again.

West of them, not all that far, as the two charioteers are leaving their tunnel, the Emperor of Sarantium is heading towards his own, to pass under the Imperial Precinct gardens from one palace to another where he is about to make the final dispositions for a war he has thought about from the time he placed his uncle on the Golden Throne.

The Empire had been whole once, and then sundered, and then half of it had been lost, like a child might be lost. Or, better put, a father. He has no children. His father died when he was very young. Did these things matter? Had they ever? Did they now? Now that he was an adult, growing old, shaping nations under holy Jad?

Aliana thinks so, or wonders about it. She'd put it to him directly one night not long ago. Was he risking so much, seeking to leave so bright and fierce a mark on the world, because he had no heir for whom to guard what they already had?

He didn't know. He didn't think this was so. He'd been dreaming of Rhodias for so long-a dream of something made whole again. And made so by him. He knew too much about the past, perhaps. There had been three Emperors once for a short, savage time, and then two, here and in Rhodias, for a long, divisive span of years, then only one, here in the City Saranios made, with the west lost and fallen.

It felt wrong to him. Surely it would to any man who knew the glory of what had been.

Though that, he thinks, walking through the lower level of the Attenine Palace with a courtly retinue hurrying to keep pace with him, is a trick of rhetoric. Of course there are those who know the past as well as he and see things differently. And there are those-such as his wife-who see a greater glory here in the east, in the present world, under Jad.

None of them, even Aliana, rules Sarantium. He does. He has guided them all to this point, has strings in his hand and a very clear vision of the elements in play. He expects to succeed. He usually does.

He comes to the tunnel. The two helmed Excubitors stand rigidly at attention. At a nod, one swiftly unlocks and opens the door. Behind Valerius, the Chancellor and the Master of Offices and the wretchedly inadequate Quaestor of Imperial Revenue all bow. He has dealt with them here in the Attenine over a rapid midday meal. Given orders, heard reports.

Has been awaiting one particular dispatch, from the north-east, but it hasn't yet come. He is, in fact, disappointed in the King of Kings.