/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Chosen of the Changeling

The Blackgod

Gregory Keyes


For My Mother Nancy Ridout Landrum

PROLOGUE Death

GHE plunged his steel into the pale man's belly, watched the alien gray eyes widen in shock, then narrow with terrible satisfaction. He yanked to withdraw his blade and, in that flicker of an instant, realized his mistake. The enemy edge, unimpressed by its wielder's impalement, swept down toward his exposed neck.

Li, think kindly of my ghost, he had time to think, before his head fell into the dirty water. Even then, for just a moment, he thought he saw something strange; a column of flame, leaping out of the muck, towering over Hezhi. Then something inexorable swallowed him up.

Death swallowed him and took him into her belly. Dark there, and wet, he swirled about, felt that last, bright blow like a line of ice laid through his neck flutter again and again and again, hummingbird-wings of pain. It was most of what remained of him, though not all. The little spaces between the memory of that blade stroke were like a doorway into nothing, opening and closing with greater and greater speed, and through that portal danced images, dreams, remembered pleasures—danced through and were gone. Soon all would gambol away like fickle ladies at a ball, and he would be complete again, just the memory of his death, and then not even that.

But then it seemed as if the sword shattered, raced up and down his spine like rivers of crystal shards; and the belly of death was no longer dark, but alive with light, charged with heat and lightning, burning, pouring in through that doorway. The light he recognized; he had seen its colors blossoming from the water as his head parted from his body. The doorway gaped and wrapped around him, bringing not darkness, not oblivion, but remembrance.

Remembrance carried hatred, bitterness, but most of all hunger. Hunger.

Ghe remembered also a word, as strands met and were torturously yanked into crude knots within him, tied hurriedly, without care.

No, he remembered. Ah, no!

No, and he fought to hands and knees he could suddenly feel again, though they felt like wood, though they jerked and quivered with unfamiliar weakness. He could see nothing but color, but he remembered where he wanted to go and had no need of vision. Down, he knew, and so he crawled, blind, whimpering, hungrier by the moment.

Down for he knew not how long, but after a time he fell, slid, fell again, and then plunged into water that scalded so terribly that it must have been boiling.

For a while, he could think of nothing but boiling water, for pain had returned to him, as well.

No. The pain went into him like a seed, grew, spread roots, sent limbs out through his eyes and mouth, shoots from his fingers, and then, very suddenly, ceased to be pain. He sighed, sank down into the water, which now enfolded him like a womb, utterly comforting and utterly without compassion; just a womb, a thing for him to grow in, but no mother or love wrapped around that. There he waited, content for a while, and after he was sure the pain was gone, he looked about for what had not blown through that dark doorway into nothingness—what remained of him.

He was Ghe, the Jik, one of the elite assassin-priests who served the River and the River's Children. Born in Southtown, the lowest of the low, he had risen—the memory stirred!—he had kissed aprincessl Ghe clenched and unclenched his unseen hands as he felt the ghost of his lips brushing hers. He realized, dully, that he had kissed many women, but that the only actual, particular kiss he could remember was hers.

Why was that? Why Hezhi?

They had sent him to kill her, of course, because she was one of the Blessed. His task had been to kill her, and he had failed. Yet he had kissed her…

Abruptly his memory offered mirror-sharp images, a scene from his past—how long ago? But though his mind's sight was keen, the voices floated to him as if from far away, and though he saw through his own eyes, it was as if he watched strangers dance a dance to which he knew only a few steps.

He was in the Great Water Temple, in the interior chamber. Plastered white, the immense corbeled vault above him seemed to drink up the pale lamplight in the center of the room. More real, somehow, was the illumination washing down from the four corridors that met in the chamber, though it was dimmer still than the flame. He knew it for daylight, rippling through sheets of falling water that cascaded down the four sides of the ancient ziggurat in whose heart they stood, curtains of thunder concealing the doorways of the temple. In that coruscating aquamarine and the flickering of the lamp, the priest before him seemed less real than his many shadows, for they constantly moved as he stood still.

On his knees, Ghe yet remembered thinking of the priest standing over him, You shall bow to me one day.

“There are things you must know now,” the priest told him, in his soft, little-boy voice; like all full priests, he had been castrated young.

“I listen for the fall of water,” Ghe acknowledged.

“You know that our emperor and his family are descended from the River.”

Ghe suppressed an urge to rise up and strike the fool down. They think because I am from Southtown I know nothing, not even that. They think I am no more than a throat-slitter from the gutter, with the brains of a knife! But he held that inside. To betray his feeling was to betray himself, and betraying himself would betray Li—Ghe-in-the-water wondered who Li was.

“Know,” the priest went on, “that because they carry his water in their veins, the River is a part of them. He can live through them, if he chooses. The power of the Waterborn has but one source, and that is the River.”

Then why do you hate them so? Ghe wondered. Because they are part of the River, as you will never be? Because they need not have their balls cut off to serve him?

The priest wandered over to a bench and sat down, taking his quivering shadows with him. He did not sign for Ghe to arise, and so he remained there, prostrate, listening.

“Some of the Waterborn are blessed with more,” the man went on. 'They are born with rather more of the River in them than others. Unfortunately, the Human body can contain only a certain amount of power. After that…”

The priest's voice dropped to a whisper, and Ghe suddenly realized that this was no mere rote litany any longer. This was something real to the priest, something that frightened him.

“After that,” he went on, sounding like nothing so much as an eight-year-old boy confiding some terrible childhood discovery, “after that, they change.”

“Change?” Ghe asked, from the floor. Here was something he did not know, at last.

“They are distorted by their blood, lose Human form. They become creatures wholly of the River.”

“I don't understand,” Ghe replied.

“You will. You will see” he answered, his voice rising to a firmer, more dissertative pitch. “When they change—the signs are discovered in childhood, usually by the age of thirteen—when they change, we take them to dwell below, in the ancient palace of our ancestors.”

For a moment, Ghe wondered if this was some silly euphemism for murder, but then he remembered the maps of the palace, the dark underways beneath it, the chambers at the base of the Darkness Stair behind the throne. Ghe suddenly felt a chill. What things dwelt there, below his feet? What horror would disturb a priest merely to discuss it?

“Why?” Ghe asked cautiously. “If they are of the Blood Royal…”

“It is not only their shape that changes,” the priest explained. He looked squarely at Ghe, his pale eyes lapis shards of the light shimmering down the facing hall. “Their minds change, become inhuman. And their power becomes great, without control. In times past, some River Blessed have passed unprotected; we have missed them. One was even crowned emperor before we knew he was Blessed. He destroyed most of Nhol in fire and flood.”

The priest stood up and walked over to a brazier in which coals glowed dully. He nervously sprinkled a few shavings of incense on them, and a sharp scent quickly filled the room.

“Below,” he whispered, “they are safe. And we are safe from them.”

“And if they know their fate?” Ghe asked. “If they try to escape it?”

“We know what happens when the Blessed are not contained,” the priest murmured. “If they cannot be bound beneath the city, then they must be given back to the River.”

“Do you mean…?” Ghe began.

The priest nearly hissed with the intensity of his reply. “The Jik were not created to carry on assassinations of enemies of the state, though you now serve that purpose well. Have you never wondered why the Jik answer to the priesthood and not the emperor directly?”

Ghe thought for only an instant before replying. “I see,” he murmured. “We were created to stop the Blessed from running free.”

“Indeed,” the priest replied, his voice relaxing a bit. “Indeed. And more than a few have been killed by the Jik.”

“I live only to serve the River,” Ghe replied. And he meant that, with all of his heart, both of him; Ghe then and Ghe in the water.

BUT now he could see the lie, of course. The great lie that was the priesthood. They existed not to serve the River but to keep him bound. Those whom the River blessed were given their power for a purpose, so that he might walk the land rather than live torpidly within his banks—so that the god of the River might roam free. And the priests bound the River's children, though they pretended to worship him. If one worshipped a god, would not one help it realize its dreams? What matter to the River if a few buildings were crushed in the pangs of birth, a few Human Beings died? The River took in the souls of all when they died anyway; he drank them up. All belonged to him.

Far from worshippers, Ghe could see now, the priests were the enemies of the River. They had fought for centuries to keep the Royal Blood checked, diluted. That was why they had set him to kill Hezhi, the emperor's daughter—kill that beautiful, intelligent girl. And he would have done it, had not her strange barbarian guardian been unkillable! Ghe had stabbed him in the heart with a poisoned blade, and still he stood back up, chopped off Ghe's head—

He flinched away from that thought. Not yet.

However it had happened, it was fortunate that he had not slain Hezhi. Much depended upon her, he realized. The River had many enemies plotting against him, and now Ghe, the River's only true and loyal servant—now he had those enemies.

And he knew his task with a wonderful, radiant certainty. His task was to save Hezhi from her foes, for she was the River's daughter, and more. She was his hope, his weapon.

His flesh.

Soon enough, Ghe knew, he would open his eyes, would creep back up to the light, take up his weapons, and make his way where Rivers do not flow. A wrong would be righted, a god would be served, and perhaps, just perhaps, he would once again kiss a princess.

PART ONE

MANSIONS OF BONE

I The Mang Wastes

HEZHI Yehd Cha'dune, once-princess of the empire of Nhol, yelped as what weight her small body possessed was suddenly stolen from her in an explosion of force and wind as the thief—her horse Dark—shook all four hooves free of the earth. For a moment they hung almost still above the uneven slope of shattered stone and snow, but Hezhi knew—knew in her belly—that when they struck back down the mare would just keep falling, tumbling head-over-tail down what seemed almost a sheer grade. She doubled her hands in Dark's mane and leaned against her neck, straining to hang on to the barrel-shaped torso with her legs, but when the horse's hooves were reunited with the ground—first front and then thunderously rear—she slapped back into the saddle with such force that one leg kicked unwillingly free of its stirrup. The surrounding landscape blurred into jolting white, gray, and blue nonsense as she ignored the free-flapping stirrup and just held on. Then, suddenly, the earth was flat again and Dark really ran, digging her head into the wind, hammering across the half-frozen ground like a four-limbed thunder god. The mare's flat-out run was so smooth, Hezhi's fear began to evaporate; she found the stirrup, caught the rhythm of the race, and her tightly held breath suddenly released itself in a rush that quickly became triumphant laughter. Never before had she completely given the Mang-bred horse her head, but now that she had, the chocolate-and-coffee-striped mare was gaining on the four riders ahead of her. When one of them—perhaps hearing her laughter—turned his head to look back, she was near enough to see the surprise register in his unusual gray eyes.

Thought you could leave me back farther than that, didn't you, Perkar? she thought, with more pride than anger. Her self-esteem doubled when the young man's expression of amazement became one of respect. She felt her own lips bow in glee and then promptly felt stupid for beaming so, like one of those useless creatures back in the palace or some brainless child. Still, it felt wonderful. Though she was only thirteen years of age, it had been many years since she felt anything at all like a child, good or bad. It couldn't hurt to smile and laugh if she felt like it, could it?

She clapped Dark's flanks harder and was rewarded by a burst of even greater speed from her steed—and was consequently nearly thrown over the mare's head when the animal quickly stamped to a halt to avoid crashing into Perkar and the others, who had stopped suddenly.

“What?” Hezhi sputtered. “Are you trying—”

“Hsst, Princess,” Perkar stage-whispered, holding up a finger. “Yuu'han thinks our quarry is over the next rise.”

“And?” she shot back, though lowering her voice, too.

“We should walk from here, or we may panic them,” another man answered. Hezhi switched her regard to the second speaker, who was dismounting. He swung his right leg over his mount's head and let his thick, compact body slide to the ground; his boots crunched in the thin layer of snow. He was clothed in heavy breeks and an elkskin parka tanned white. In the hood, his face was paler than the coat, like bone, and his thick hair fell from one side in a milky braid. His eyes, on the other hand, were black, set deeply in his head beneath cavernous brows and a forehead that sloped back rather sharply from them, the legacy of his unhuman father.

“Thank you, Ngangata, for explaining that? she replied, “though I haven't the faintest idea what you are talking about.”

“It's what we brought you to see,” Perkar explained, also dismounting. His hood was down, his short chestnut hair in wind-combed disarray. He was slighter than Ngangata, narrower in every dimension though nearly as bleached looking to Hezhi's eyes, many shades fairer than her own sienna complexion. Lighter by far than their other two companions, Yuu'han and Raincaster, who were both Mang tribesmen, flesh burned copper brown by the fierce sun of their native deserts and plains.

“You brought me to see nothing!” Hezhi answered. “Indeed, you tried to leave me behind.” She gestured back toward the hills they had just spilled down, where the highlands crumbled into the more gradually rolling plains the Mang called huugau. But even as she said this, she blushed; Perkar was grinning broadly and Ngangata not at all, but the two Mang were both studiously looking down and away from her. After half a year among the Mang, she knew what that meant. They were trying to keep her from seeing their smiles, which meant Perkar was telling the truth. They had intentionally goaded her into following and let her catch them.

She pursed her lips and made to wheel Dark about.

“No, wait!” Perkar shouted, forgetting his own admonition to silence. “We just wanted to see how well you can ride.”

“You could have merely asked,” she replied icily. But she was curious. “What did you decide?”

“That you have learned to ride as well in six months as even many Mang do not in six years,” Raincaster answered, turning his youthful, aquiline features frankly on her. That startled her. The Mang never dissembled when they spoke of riding skill.

“I—” She frowned in frustration. Was she supposed to be angry or not?

She decided not, and dismounted. On the ground, her legs felt wobbly, and the snow immediately began leaking cold into her feet to match the numbness of her nose. “What am I supposed to be seeing, anyway?”

Perkar gestured in the direction they had been riding. Here the huugau was gently rolling, as if a sky god had pressed down on the hills with a great palm. The ridges and valleys were still there, but they were so gradual that one could be fooled into thinking their high places merely represented the distant horizon; this was especially true, Hezhi found, when they were blanketed with snow. “Over the ridge,” Perkar explained, and the Mang nodded their slight but clear assurances.

“Very well,” Hezhi said. “Let us go, then.” And with that she marched past the men, striding quickly toward the ridge.

PERKAR stood rooted for an instant as Hezhi brushed past him, the hem of her long vermilion riding coat trailing imperiously behind her, short bob of obsidian hair bouncing with her stride.

He looked to the other men, but Ngangata was fighting a grin while the Mang studied the earth.

“I'll watch the horses,” Yuu'han assured them, and Perkar nodded, started at a jog to catch up with Hezhi. She heard him coming, though, and broke into a run.

“No, Princess!” He tried to whisper loud enough for her to hear him, but it sounded only like steam escaping a kettle—and she heeded it no more than that. But then she reached the crest of the hill, and her booted feet slowed. Perkar came alongside of her just as she halted completely.

“By the River, “ she gasped, and Perkar had but to agree. In fact, the vista before them reminded him of the River, the Changeling, upon whose banks Hezhi had been born, a watercourse so wide one could scarcely see its far bank. But this river—the one before them—was of meat and bone, not water. It flowed brown and black, tinted reddish on the woolen crests of its waves, the humps where the great muscles of the beasts piled high behind their massive heads.

“Akwoshat, ” Perkar breathed in his own tongue, despite himself. “Wild cattle. More cattle than all of the stars in heaven.”

“I have never seen anything …” Hezhi trailed off, shaking her head. Her black eyes shimmered with wonder, and her mouth was pursed as if to say “oh!” She was very pretty, Perkar thought. One day she would be a beautiful woman.

“There's your Piraku, Perkar,” Ngangata said softly, padding up behind them. “Drive a herd of those back to your pastures …”

Perkar nodded. “Would that it were possible. Look at them. They are the most magnificent beasts I have ever seen.”

Raincaster had arrived, as well. “You would never tame them, Cattle-Man,” he whispered. “They are like the Mang, untameable.”

“I believe it,” Perkar acknowledged. At this distance it was hard to comprehend the proportions of the individual animals, but they seemed to be at least half again the size of the cattle he knew, and the proud, sharp horns of the largest could probably fit his body between them. These were the cattle of giants, of gods, not of Human Beings. But they were beautiful to behold.

“You really brought me to see this?” Hezhi asked, and Perkar suddenly understood that she was speaking to him, not to all of them.

“Yes, Princess, I really did.”

“I wish you wouldn't call me that,” she said.

“Hezhi, then.”

To his surprise, she reached over and squeezed his hand. “Thank you. I forgive you for trying to make me break my neck riding down from the hill. Although we could have seen this just as easily coming down here at a leisurely pace.”

“That's true. But admit it—you love riding. I've watched you learn.”

“I admit it,” she said, releasing his hand.

They stood there silently for a time, watching the slow progress of the herd. Now and then one of the beasts would bellow, a proud, fierce trumpet that sent chills straight to Perkar's bones. The wind shifted in their direction, and the smell of the wild cattle swirled about them, powerful and musky. He literally trembled with homesickness then, with such a fierce desire to see his father's damakuta and pastures—and the man himself—that he nearly wept. Hexing and unflexing his hands to warm them, he was only absently aware of the arrival of other riders behind them, of the soft crunch of boots approaching.

“Ah, well,” a reedy voice piped. “Look at this, Heen. My nephew Raincaster has no more sense than to let our guests stray onto the open plain.”

Raincaster turned to the new arrival and shrugged. “As soon hold the wind as this one,” he replied, gesturing to Perkar. “Yuu'han and I thought it best to go with them—keep them in our sight.”

“Heen,” Perkar said, shaking himself from reverie to confront Raincaster's accuser, “tell Brother Horse that I have no time to travel at the pace of an old man.”

Heen—a tired-looking spotted mutt—looked up when Perkar said his name, wagged his tail slightly, and then sniffed at the scent of cattle. If he conveyed Perkar's message to the old man who stood beside him, Perkar did not notice. Nonetheless, the old man—Brother Horse—glared at him. He was shorter than Perkar, most of the difference in height coming in his bandy, bowed legs. It was remarkable, Perkar thought, how the man's wide mouth could be downturned and still somehow convey a sly grin. It was, perhaps, the guileful twinkle in his dark eyes or, more likely still, the memory of a thousand smiles etched into the brown leather of his heavy square face.

“This pace has kept me alive much longer than yours is likely to serve you,” Brother Horse admonished. “And you, Granddaughter,” he said, shaking a finger at Hezhi. “You should be wise enough not to follow young men when they set out alone. I have never known an instance in which they failed to find whatever accidents wait along the trail. Let them go first, flush out the dangers. That is what young men are for”

“Oh,” Hezhi replied, “I had no idea they had any use. Thank you, Shutsebe, for the advice.”

“Yes, Shutsebe,” Perkar said, bowing, calling Brother Horse “grandfather,” as well. Of course neither he nor Hezhi was actually related to the old man, but referring to someone—sixty years old? eighty?—thus was only common courtesy. “And see, we have found all your dangers for you.”

“Have you? Have you indeed?”

Perkar shrugged. “You see them.” He gestured at the cattle.

“I see them, but do you?”

Perkar frowned at the old man, puzzled.

“Raincaster?” Brother Horse asked.

The young Mang pointed with his lips, downslope and to their right. “Spotted Lion over there, crouched down, watching that straggling calf. She scents us, but she will stay away.”

Brother Horse grinned at Perkar's gape of astonishment.

“A lion!” Hezhi asked. “A lion is near?”

Raincaster nodded. “That's why you shouldn't run off alone,” he explained. “If the lioness had been watching the herd here rather than down there when you came running over…” He shrugged. Perkar felt himself blushing at his own stupidity. Of course where there were wild herds there would be wild hunters.

“Why didn't you say something?” Hezhi demanded.

“I would have—later” Raincaster assured her. “When it would not be an embarrassment to speak it.” The young man shot Brother Horse an admonishing glance.

Brother Horse only chuckled. “Raincaster, do not forget that they are like children in this land. We have to treat them that way.” He stepped forward and clapped Perkar on the shoulder. ”I don't mean that in a bad way, Perkar.”

“I know that,” Perkar replied. “And you are right, as usual.”

“Everyone knows their own land the best,” Ngangata put in. He had been silent throughout the whole exchange. “So I'm sure that Raincaster meant to mention the second lioness, downslope and on our left hand. Twenty paces.” His voice, though a very faint whisper, got the attention of everyone. Even Brother Horse started a bit.

“Stand tall,” the old man murmured. “Stand tall and walk back.”

Perkar laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Harka?” he whispered.

“Yes? ” his sword replied in a voice that was born just within the cup of his ear—a voice no one else could hear.

“This lioness …”

I was just noticing her. She may be a slight threat, but I sense no real intent to attack. ” Perkar suddenly felt his eyes move of their own accord, and a nearby jumble of rocks and scrubby bushes suddenly revealed, in their midst, a yellow eye and the darkened tip of a cat's muzzle.

“And the other? Why didn't you mention the other?”

“She is no danger at all. My task is to keep you alive, not to prevent you from appearing foolish. It would take more enchantment than ¡possess to fulfill that obligation.”

“What of Hezhi? She might have been in danger, when first she ran up there.”

I can sense danger only to you, not to your friends, ” the sword replied.

And so the four of them walked backward until they reached their horses, where Perkar thought he heard Yuu'han—who, true to his word, had waited patiently for them—chuckle dryly.

THEY waited, mounted, while Raincaster went cautiously back to the ridge and made his offering to the god of the herd. Perkar could see the little wisp of smoke and hear the young man singing in a fine, clear voice. He feared that the lioness would choose to attack the lone warrior, but Raincaster went unmolested.

Perkar understood the man's determination to make the offering; back home he and his family sacrificed daily to keep the good graces of the gods of their pasture—how much more important that must be here, where the land was untamed, where many of the gods must be like the lioness, seeing them only as potential prey. He shivered. It put what he and Ngangata were soon to do into a different perspective. And it had been foolish of him to so endanger Hezhi; though she had learned more than seemed possible in a few months, it was important to remember that she had been a captive in her father's palace for nearly her entire life. She did not even have the natural cautions he did, and his served him poorly in this treeless land. Inwardly he nodded. Any thoughts he had entertained of asking the young woman to join Ngangata and him on their journey vanished. She would be safe with Brother Horse; he knew the ways of this country, had survived them for many years.

The decision brought many kinds of relief with it. It was undeniable that he was developing some small sort of affection for Hezhi, though it would be impossible to articulate exactly what he felt. In her, pain and distrust were so tightly bound; he wished sometimes that he could draw her into his arms and somehow understand, soothe away some of that hurt. But she would detest such closeness; it would harden her. And at other times, he had no wish to touch Hezhi at all, much less hold her. There was still so much for him to forget, when it came to her…

As Raincaster sang, the remainder of the Mang hunting expedition came down out of the hills, slowed by the travois their horses carried, packed with meat, pine nuts, and skins for winter clothing. All told, they numbered some thirty men and women and fifty horses. The thin cry of an infant rose clearly from the approaching riders. For the past two months they had all camped in the hills, hunting, singing, and drinking. It had been a good time, and it had given him some chance to heal, to forget his crimes, to be merely a man of eighteen, hunting and riding with Ngangata, Yuu'han, and Raincaster. Now, however, it was time to shoulder his burdens once again.

Raincaster finished his song, and they mounted up and rode east, away from the herd. There had been some suggestion of trying to kill a straggling cow, but they were already burdened with too much food, and the older people—Brother Horse included—disdained hunting for sport. A few of the younger men wanted to ride off and engage in a sport known as Slapping, in which they would ride close to a bull and strike it with a wooden paddle, but Brother Horse forbade it, grumbling that he was too old to explain such foolish deaths to grieving parents. And so they left the incredible herd behind, in peace.

Hezhi rode beside Brother Horse, and Perkar trotted T'esh over to join them. Hezhi was enthusiastically remarking on the previous night's snowfall.

“It never snows in Nhol?” Perkar asked Hezhi, coming up beside her. T'esh whickered softly, and Dark responded with a like sound.

“Not that I know of,” she replied. “It gets cold sometimes—I may have heard about it snowing there before, but I've never seen it.” She gestured out at the landscape. 'This is like riding upon the clouds,” she offered.

“Eh?” Brother Horse grunted.

“Clouds. It's as if we ride above the clouds—on top of them.”

Perkar nodded agreement. They could easily be on the back of an overcast sky; the land was gently rolling paleness, the highlands receding into a gray line to their right and behind. Above them, higher heaven was profound azure with no hint of white. It seemed almost reasonable that at any moment they might pass over a small rift or hole and, peering through it, regard the green, blue, and brown of landscape far, far below.

“Will this weather hinder the—” Perkar paused to try to get the word right. “—Bun-shin?”

“Ben'cheen,” Brother Horse corrected. “Ben', 'tent,' see? 'Swollen Tents.'”

Perkar nodded through his exasperation. “Will the snow hinder the Ben'cheen festival?”

“Not at all,” Brother Horse said. “Our kinfolk from the high plains will be arriving already, and they'll have come through worse weather than this.”

“How many people will attend this gathering?” Hezhi asked. “Duk and the other women talk as if it will be the whole world.”

“To you they will seem few,” Brother Horse admitted. “But there will be many hundreds, perhaps a thousand, for at least a score of days.”

“Why in wintertime?” Perkar asked.

“Why not?” Brother Horse grunted. “What else is there to do? And believe me, the winters here in the south are mild—it's really almost spring, and this the first, probably only, snow. It is our obligation to host the Ben'cheen for our less fortunate kinfolk, give them a warmer place to stay.” He smiled ruefully. “Like birds, flying south,” he offered. “Winter is the best time to tell stories, best time to find a woman—” He winked at Perkar. “—best for all of that. Summer is just work!” He reached over and clapped Perkar on the back. “The two of you will enjoy it. Meet new people. Perkar, you might even encounter some warriors from the northwestern bands and start talking to them about that truce you want to strike between them and your folk.”

“Really more than a truce,” Perkar said. “I hope to convince them to let us expand our pastures into some of their higher rangelands.”

“It's not impossible,” Brother Horse said. “Not with the right mediator.”

Perkar shook his head. “Our people have been enemies for so long…”

Brother Horse spread five fingers in the wind. “ 'Thus the tree grows,' ” he quoted,” 'and each new branch, as a new tree. Nothing is unchanging, least of all the ways of people.' ” He frowned a bit sternly. “But you have to be there, to have hope of accomplishing anything.”

Perkar set his mouth. “I will be there,” he promised. ”According to your nephew, Yuu'han, my trip will only delay me for a few days.”

Hezhi turned on him, eyes suddenly wide and angry. She seemed to fight down a sharp remark—so sharp that, by her face, it must have cut her throat to swallow.

“You still plan to go?”

“I must, Hezhi,” Perkar explained. “If I am to set matters right, there are many things I must do, and this is one. Two days' ride north of here, no more; I must go.”

“Then I should go with you,” she snapped, all her earlier happiness and enthusiasm evaporated. “Unless you still don't trust me.”

“I trust you,” Perkar insisted. “I told you that. I hold no animosity toward you.”

“So you say,” Hezhi whispered, her voice carrying an odd mixture of anger and… something else. “But I see you looking at me sometimes. I see that look. And when you talk of ‘setting things right,’ I know—“ She broke off angrily, seemed unsure whether to glare or look hurt. She was, he reminded himself, only thirteen.

Perkar puffed an exasperated breath, white steam in the frigid air. “Maybe. A little. But I know you did nothing purposely—not like I did.”

“I thought you could—” she began, but again didn't finish. Her face clamped down in a determined frown, and she kneed her horse, laying the reins so that he turned.

“Go then,” she said. “You owe nothing to me.”

“Hezhi …” Perkar started, but found himself staring at her back. A moment ago they seemed friends, watching the wild cattle hand in hand. He wondered what it was about him that always led him to do the wrong things, say the wrong things.

“What was all that about?” the old man grunted.

Perkar cocked his head in puzzlement, then realized that his conversation with Hezhi had been in Nholish. He started to translate, but a second thought struck him; Brother Horse knew Nholish. When the Mang had spirited Hezhi and him out of Nhol, it had been Brother Horse who first comforted the girl. He was pretending—in typical Mang fashion—not to understand the argument out of politeness.

“Nothing,” Perkar said. “She just doesn't want me to go.”

“Well, it isn't wise,” Brother Horse said.

“Ngangata will be with me.”

“Yes, well, even he may not be able to keep you out of trouble. Nagemaa, the Horse Mother, gave birth to the Mang. She watches us, teaches us out here on the plain. Did you know that six races of Human Beings died out here in the Mang country before we came along? Among them were the Alwat.”

“He saw the lion when you did not,” Perkar reminded him.

“So he did. As a hunter and tracker, few can match him, I will grant that. But without the blood of horses in his veins, with no kin among the hooved gods, he must rely only on himself. That is a dangerous position to be in.”

“He can rely on me, as I rely on him.”

“Two blind men do not make a sighted one, my friend,” the old man answered.

HEZHI tried to keep her face low, to hide it from the Mang women. If they saw her face, they would read the anger on it as easily as she might read a book. She didn't want anyone trying to guess what she was angry about, especially since her own ire puzzled and confused her—vexing her even further. Not for the first time, she wished she were back in the palace in Nhol, tucked away in some secret place, alone with her thoughts. Instead, she was surrounded by strangers, people watching her face, noting and questioning each quirk and quiver of her lip. People who wanted to know what she was thinking and were good at figuring it out. These Mang were too concerned about each other, she reflected. It was everybody's business how everybody else felt. Not because they were kindhearted, either; Duk had explained that. It was just that when you lived with the same few people most of your life, you had to know how they were feeling; there were stories of people going berserk or becoming cannibals because they hadn't been watched carefully enough, hadn't been caught before they lost their minds. All of the women told their children such stories—taught them a certain suspicion of everyone, even close relatives.

Well, she could understand knowing only a few people. Everyone here seemed to think that because she was from Nhol, the great city, she must have known thousands of people. But she had really known only a handful, a tiny few, and all of the others had just been shadows cast by the palace, less substantial than the ghosts that wandered its halls. Here, with the Mang, she had to deal on a daily basis with easily three times as many people as she ever had before—people who watched her.

It was wearing thin, and she wanted to go with Perkar and Ngangata. They were only two, and not as nosy.

Why wouldn't he take her? Did he think she didn't know where he was going—that she cared? She knew he was going to see the goddess he was in love with; she had heard Yuu'han tell him that her stream was only a short ride north. Did he think that she would be jealous, that she loved him in some silly, romantic way? If so, then he remained a stupid barbarian and had learned nothing of her since they met. She didn't care about the goddess; she just didn't want to be left alone with the Mang and their eyes. She didn't want Perkar to go off and be eaten by some snow-colored carnivore. Mostly, she wanted him to stop blaming her.

Or maybe he didn't really blame her for the twists his life had taken. Maybe she was just blaming herself. Maybe every time he made it clear how guilty he felt about everything, it only reminded her that it had been her silly, childish wish at the fountain that had brought him down the River to be her “savior” in the first place—that all of the horrible things that tasked him so were really her fault.

It had taken an instant of weakness at the fountain, that was all—one single moment in her life when she had thought it might be nice to have someone other than herself to trust and count on. Wasn't she even allowed that? She guessed not, not when the Blood Royal in her veins could make such wishes come true.

Maybe she was just mad at him because there was no one else suitable to be mad at. Not Tsem, faithful Tsem, waiting back at the Mang village recovering from near-fatal wounds he received saving her. But it was someone's fault that she was in the wilderness, with only the single book her old teacher Ghan had managed to send her; she had read it twice now. And it was surely someone's fault that she was doing boring things like scraping hides while Perkar and his friend Ngangata went hunting beasts and roaming across the plains like wild brothers.

Still fuming when they made camp, she rebuffed Perkar's single attempt to make amends, and, not knowing what else to do, took out some of her precious paper, her pen and ink, and began writing a letter to Ghan, the librarian.

She began:

Dear Ghan,

I think that I will never be Mang. I know this is a peculiar way to begin a letter, but I have never written a letter before, and the best thing I can think of is what I am thinking. I shall never be Mang, though I thought for a time I might. I have learned to cook and tan hides, to praise the men when they return from the hunt, to watch children when the married womenmany my own ageare busy. None of these things are difficult or bad, once one learns to do them; it is just that they are not interesting. The Mang seem to lack curiosity, for the most part, seem to believe they understand the world as much as it can be understood. In this, they are no different from most people I knew in the palace. WezKfor instance, my onetime paramourhow angry you were with me for humoring him, and for good reasonwhat does he care for knowledge? I think that people everywhere must generally be content without knowing very much.

Not that knowledge has ever made me content; it has always complicated my life. It is only in the action of discovery that it brings me any sense of satisfaction.

So I will never be Mang, any more than I could have been Nholish. I can only be Hezhi, and perhaps, someday, Ghan, for you are the only person I know who shares my disease, whose life I ever aspired to lead.

I am safe here, I believe, at least from the power of the River. As you suspected, the change in my body ceased when I left the River behindunnatural change, that is, though some of the “normcd” changes I continue to face seem at least unholy. But whatever happens to me, whatever fate befalls me now, it will not be that dark hall beneath the Darkness Stair where the Blessed dwell, where my cousin Dyen and my Uncle Lhekezh swim about like eels. It will not be that.

I should tell you a bit about the Mang, to correct some of the more fanciful accounts in The Mang Wastes, the book you sent along to me. For one thing, they do not beat their children to make them strong; on the contrary, they are perhaps too lenient with them. They also do not live entirely on horseback, sleeping and making love in the saddlethough both occur now and then, I hear. They live for most of the year in houses of timber and clay known as yekt During certain seasons they move about in smaller groups, but even then they carry skin tents called ben' which they can erect in a few moments. The accounts of them living only upon the flesh of giant beasts with snakes for noses and long sabers of bone instead of teeth are partially true, however. I have yet to see such a beastthe Mang call them nunetuk—but I am told that they exist. Men hunt them on horseback with long lances, and it is very dangerous. More often, however, they hunt deer, bison, elk, rabbit, and so forth. (Today I saw dubechag, beasts like water oxen but much larger. They were unbelievable; they reminded me that there is wonder here.) Most of what they eat isn't hunted at all, as I should well know, for women spend days at a time picking bernes and nuts, digging up roots, making bread (they trade for the flour) and so on. They also keep goats, some of them, for milk and meat. The food is filling but blandthey don't have much salt and seem careless of spices. I miss Qeys black bread, pomegranate syrup, coffee, and River rice! Please find some way of telling Qey so, but do not endanger yourself.

My light is fading; now I write by firelight, and the women are beginning to talk about me; I suppose I should do some chores. First I must tell you something important.

Our escape plans went wrong, as you know, and only Perkar and his sword enabled us to leave Nhol. We were betrayed, Ghan, by the one called Yen. I did not tell him anythingI would not have jeopardized your life sobut Yen was not, as he claimed, a young engineer. He was, I think, an assassin, a Jik. His real name is Ghe, or so he boasted. Perkar killed him, cut his head off, so he is no danger to you. But be careful, Ghan. He may have told others about the help you gave me; he observed us so closely, I think we had no secrets from him. I am constantly surprised by the masks people wear. I trusted Yen, thought he liked me, and yet he was my worst enemy. I thought you hated me, and yet you were my most loyal friend. I miss you.

Whoever takes this letter to you will be instructed not to give it to anyone else. I've written it in the Middle Hand so that even if someone else does intercept it, they will probably have to bring it to you for trans fation!

I'll write more later.

Hezhi sighed, sprinkled powder over the wet ink, then blew it off. She waited a bit, there by the fire, for the ink to dry, meanwhile taking over the chore of stirring the stew from Grumbling Woman, the oldest of the women on the trip.

Duk, Brother Horse's granddaughter, only a year or so younger than Hezhi, sidled over and squatted next to her, shot long, obvious glances at the paper.

“What were you doing?” she asked, when Hezhi did not readily offer any explanation in response to her nonvocal query.

“Writing,” she answered, using the Nholish word. There was no such word in Mang.

“What's that?”

“Putting speech down so that someone else can see it.”

“See speech?”

“Those marks stand for words,” Hezhi explained. “Anyone who knows them can understand what I wrote.”

“Oh. Magic then,” Duk said.

For a moment, Hezhi considered explaining. But this was Duk, who was content to think that Nhol was at the very edge of the universe, that anyone sailing beyond on the River would plunge into an endless abyss.

“Yes,” Hezhi agreed. “Magic.” And she reflected that if she were ever a teacher, she would be a teacher like Ghan, accepting only the brightest. She had no patience for anyone else.

“Then you should be careful,” Duk whispered. “There are already those who say you are a witch.”

Hezhi snorted but then became more thoughtful. Being thought a witch was dangerous. It was the kind of thing that could get you killed in your sleep. She would have to think on this, certainly.

“I'm not a witch, Duk,” she said, her best response for the moment.

“I know, Hezhi. You are just very strange. From Nhol”

“Well, sugar candy and brass bells come from Nhol, too, and everyone likes them,” Hezhi replied.

“That's true,” Duk agreed. ”Oh,” she then went on. ”Mother wants us to lace together those boots.”

“Ah,” Hezhi said. That was why Duk had wanted to know what she was doing; not because she really cared, but as an overture to conscripting her. She shrugged. “Very well.”

MORNING beat the snow-covered plain into brass, and they rode straight into the glare of it. The novelty of snow was beginning to wear off for Hezhi; it was becoming the same nuisance to her that it was to everyone else.

Not long into the day, Perkar and Ngangata rode over to say their farewells. Perkar had that worried, put-upon look that she was coming to recognize instantly. Perhaps she was becoming Mang, at least in that way. In Nhol she had rarely paid much attention to what others might be thinking.

“I'll rejoin you in a few days,” Perkar told her. “Give my regards to Tsem.”

“I will,” she replied, trying to keep her voice neutral, trying to be nice.

Perkar nodded, then leaned a bit closer. “When I return, we shall race, you and I. Practice your riding!”

His attempt to sound jovial failed, but she relented and smiled—just a little smile—to let him know she didn't hate him. It was the kind of smile she used to give Qey when the old woman was on the verge of tears. Just enough, and no more.

But Perkar, the dolt, replied with a big grin, certain that he had won some victory.

“Watch him, Ngangata,” Hezhi told the half Alwa, “though by now you must be weary of that task.”

Ngangata quirked his mouth evilly. “True enough. Perhaps I will do us all a favor and 'take him hunting.' ”

Brother Horse, not far away, clipped out a little chuckle at the reference—the plot of half a dozen Mang stories in which an unwanted child was “taken hunting” in some faraway place and abandoned there.

Perkar, a bit slower than Hezhi when it came to learning Mang, looked merely puzzled by the remark and the reaction it evoked. Hezhi had to suppress an actual smile then: Perkar was at his most appealing when he looked perplexed.

Hezhi watched the two until they were black specks on the horizon, gone.

She kept to herself, after that, though Duk and Brother Horse both tried to start conversations. Hezhi, however, was thinking about her next letter to Ghan. She sorted through the things she had learned since leaving the city and lagged Dark back so that she could watch the motion of the hunting party. The Mang liked to laugh and play, but when it came time to do something, they did it. Not for the approval of some court, not to win the respect of others, but because their lives depended upon it. In the movement of the horses and their riders, little motion was wasted; packs were distributed evenly so that no one animal was burdened more than the others. Not that there were no lazy, selfish, or stupid Mang; but such persons learned to do what they must anyway, because even a mother would indulge her child only so far. What she had written to Ghan was true; children were not beaten. Their punishment consisted of being ignored, even to the point of not being fed when they were too willful. A Mang learned early that cooperation and hard work were the only secure route toward a full belly, something she herself was having a hard time adjusting to—in the palace there had never been any question about whether she would be fed or not. Still, despite the drudgery of the work, in peaceful moments it brought a subdued joy, like reading a well-written phrase, not flowery, not audacious, just saying what it should say clearly and perfectly.

She wondered what the Ben'cheen would be like, how interested Ghan might be in the goings-on there, and her heart lifted a bit more.

It will be good to see Tsem, too, she reflected, and decided that perhaps her anger at Perkar was, after all, inappropriate. She had never needed anyone before, never been annoyed at someone simply for not choosing to remain near her. What was the point in becoming too dependent on a barbarian she hardly knew?

Satisfied for the moment, she glanced out at the landscape once more. Up ahead—half of the horses had already passed it—she could see a little cairn of stones. As she watched, Brother Horse reined in his horse, dismounted, and added a stone from his pack to the pile. Hezhi thought to herself that she should remember to ask him why … and then she saw it.

Though “saw” could never describe the way her eyes were invaded, as if they were doors forced by soldiers storming a house. Images and sensations far removed from mere vision raced through those shattered portals and assaulted her mind. It was a shivering of the air, like the outline of a ghost, üke her father conjuring, like the string of a lute vibrating, but it was something much more violent than that, a rape, and she shrieked at the unexpectedness of it, at the alien thoughts that suddenly filled her head like crawling worms and spider hairs. She gagged and turned away, only vaguely aware of a voice, shrieking—her own voice. She was as she had been by the River, growing, her power becoming greater as her self shrank away beneath a flood of motives that were no more hers than the distant stars. Then she lost that association, shuttered her eyes against the terror, but it was still there, in her head.

And then it was gone, leaving only a confused memory, a beast who crossed the trail and left only its stench.

Brother Horse was beside Dark, murmuring something soothing. He was dismounted, she saw, holding out his arms to her. She felt, for a moment, that she would not need his comfort, for she seemed not to feel anything at all besides confusion. Her body, however, knew better than her shocked mind, and as the first of many sobs heaved from her tiny chest, she slid from Dark into Brother Horse's arms, the scent of leather and smoke and old man. He stroked her hair and said nothing of consequence. Nothing, that is, save for one brief statement.

“I was afraid of this,” he murmured. “I feared this would happen.”

II Rebirth

GHE awoke. Something was trying to eat him.

It was something massive, an impression of fish, snake, and scorpion all at once. It nuzzled against him, fine tentacles groping at the strands of power that held his life together. This he noticed only peripherally, without any real fear. All of his fear and emotion was consumed in a flame that racked his body with trembling need, a need so great he did not even begin to understand it, one that allowed no space for other concerns. Every fiber of him yearned, pleaded, begged. He gasped and pushed away from the monstrous nuisance, searching for whatever it was he needed so badly. He sucked in a breath and his lungs stung as if he had inhaled shards of glass, and he suddenly understood that he had not breathed in a great while …

The thing took hold of him with cables of living flesh, and Ghe snarled, turned on it, and lashed out with the edge of his palm and with all his objectless frustration. The blow glanced harmlessly from the armored skin of the thing, but at the same moment, the beast seemed to open up, become a fine webwork of lines, clustered about a knot of color so tantalizing, so very beautiful, that Ghe cried aloud. He recognized, in that instant, his need. It was hunger he felt, magnified and distorted beyond all comprehension, but still hunger. Hunger for what he saw, for the light and life of this thing. Howling like a dog, he reached, tore at the rich heartstrands of the monster, snapped them like spider-web. He understood that it was not his hands that did this—he could see them, motionless against the rubbery flesh—yet as the strings of light writhed apart they seemed to burrow into his palms, course like fiery new veins up his arms, into his chest, burning into the cavern where his hunger dwelt and filling it with substance. It was such a profound pleasure and agony that it threatened mindless delirium. The fish-thing struggled, tore at him with claw and stinger, but its life gave Ghe strength, and pain meant little in the face of his hunger. Soon enough, the beast lay still, the last feeble strands of its life drifting into the waist-deep water like shed hairs.

Only then did Ghe look about him. It was dark, pitch-dark, and yet he could see. He was beneath the vault of a great hall, majesty cloaked in darkness, drowned in water, smeared with filth. Water, cold and flat as lead, filled the place. Four hallways ran out from the great chamber, each blocked by a massive iron grille.

“Where am I?” he asked aloud of the darkness. “What place is this?” But it seemed to him that it was his place, his throne room. He could see the throne itself, carven alabaster waves lapping down from it to join the real water. Thoughtfully, he approached the magnificent chair, walking up the steps to it and out of the water. After a moment's reflection, he settled into it and surveyed his newfound kingdom once again.

Far off, down one of the halls, something moved, rippling the water. He could sense the flicker of its heartstrands. That stirred a faint hunger, but he was sated enough to be curious. Concentrating, he saw another, and another.

“You there,” he grated, his voice harsh and clotted from long disuse. “You there,” he repeated. “Who are you?”

For a long moment no reply came, but then slowly, with seeming reluctance, one of the swimmers approached. A semi-Human head arose from the water and peered at him through the grille.

“You killed Nu,” the head accused.

“Did I? This Nu tried to eat me.”

Gar-teeth flashed in the fishlike face; bulging eyes goggled at him. “Hezhi? Is that you? Hezhi, my niece?” the head asked.

Ghe narrowed his eyes. “What do you know of her?” he demanded.

“Ah, so it is not you, not Hezhi.” The head sniffed. ”Not of the Royal Blood at all, but like the Royal Blood. How did you kill Nu?”

“I ate him, I think.”

“Her,” the creature corrected pettishly.

“Her,” Ghe amended. “Tell me, where am I?”

“Well,” the thing answered, now swimming—or possibly pacing—back and forth at the grate. “Well. So many visitors lately.”

“Answer me,” Ghe commanded.

“So many visitors coming in the back door, not down the stair at all.”

“The stair?” Ghe frowned. He remembered a stair, remembered himself and others carrying someone down it, long ago, down it into a black place. “The Darkness Stair? We are below the Darkness Stair?”

“The chambers of the Blessed.” The thing in the water sneered. “Don't you feel blessed?”

“But I didn't come down the stair?”

You fell in, through the duct, the one Hezhi crawled through. We thought you were dead, all except Nu. I think she thought you were her child, something stupid like that.” The creature laughed. ”Now I guess she doesn't think anything. Lucky Nu, eh?”

Ghe felt his annoyance growing. Still, he tried to keep hold of his anger, control it, as he always had. “How long? How long ago?”

The head suddenly burst into a gurgling parody of laughter. That went on for some time, as Ghe gripped the armrest of the throne more and more tightly. When at last the creature lapsed into quiet sobs of mirth—or sorrow—it was difficult to tell—he repeated his question.

“I'm sorry,” the creature said. “I'm afraid I lost track of the suns passing overhead, the phases of the moon. Careless of me, eh?”

“Long time? Short time?”

“All time is long,” the thing returned, and retreated beneath the water.

GHE remained on the alabaster throne, ordering his thoughts, watching the distant swirl of the creatures. They were the Blessed, of course, the sort of things Hezhi would have become; creatures so filled with the River's power that they became distorted and inhuman. Here the priesthood trapped them, where their power was nullified by the essence of the River itself. The water in the hall was barely wet at all; it was She'ned, smoke-water, a powerful, numbing substance.

Why am I alive? The thought bloomed like a black rose, always there, never fully opened before. He had thought and dreamed and remembered for what seemed like an eternity; but at the root of that dreaming was the blow to his neck, over and over again, his head falling into the muck, a weird glimpse of his own legs buckling, the fountain of iridescence rising. Now he was here, with the Blessed. Was he trapped, as they were?

Ghe blew out a long breath, steeled himself, and reached fingers up to his throat, stroking lightly from the base of his ear down. There: a raised ridge of flesh. He followed it around, found that it ringed him, a necklace of scar tissue.

“What does it mean?” he demanded, of no one in particular. But after a moment he nodded, answered himself. “I know what it means. The River remade me, put me back together, so that I might find his child and return her to him.” He reached his hand out before him, marveling at the touch of his fingertips against one another. ”Not dead,” he whispered. ”But not exactly alive either, I'll wager. Not exactly alive.” And he remembered his hunger, like the hunger of fire for more wood, and felt a little thrill of fright.

“I wish I knew more.” But he wanted more than that. He wanted to see someone, talk to someone, prove to himself that he was alive and not in some lonely afterworld. He wanted to understand why he could open the doors to certain memories so easily, while other rooms in his mind were swept clean or drowned in chill, deep water.

It seemed that there was someone—an image came to him: an old woman, dark, hunched over a cloth, casting bone dice. But there was no name, no place, nothing. His mother? But no, that felt wrong.

Whom did he know? He remembered several priests, but even in this state he did not want to see them. No, he remembered only Hezhi very clearly, he remembered everything about her, he remembered her friends—the giant, Tsem; the old man, Ghan; and that little idiot, Wezh, who courted her.

Well, Hezhi was not in Nhol; that was why he was still alive. Tsem was probably dead, for Ghe remembered stabbing him—though, of course, he had stabbed the white demon swordsman and he had not died. But if Tsem wasn't dead, he was gone with Hezhi. Ghan …

He considered Ghan, the librarian. The old man had helped Hezhi escape; Ghe had followed him and divined his plans. But Ghan himself had not planned to leave Nhol. Furthermore, Ghe had never told the priesthood of Ghan's identity; he had been saving that for later, to tell the high priest himself so no lower-order theurg could claim to have discovered the traitors. That meant the priesthood might not know about him, might not have tortured him to death.

That pleased Ghe for more than one reason. He remembered, vaguely, that he admired the old man for his willingness to help the girl. He had considered never reporting him at all…

Ghe shook his thoughts back into line. Ghan might still be alive and well in the library. And Ghan knew him only in his disguise as Yen, a young engineer who engaged in harmless flirtation with Hezhi. If he were Yen, Ghan might speak to him. He must speak to me, he thought, again feeling the scar and wondering why there was no revulsion.

Yes, he could be Yen again, couldn't he?

Of course, first he had to leave the underpalace, and the only way out he knew was by the Darkness Stair. He was not yet ready to risk the stair and its guardians—who knew what effect the priestly wards might have on him? Yet the thing in the water seemed to intimate that there were other ways out, one way, in fact, that Hezhi herself had braved. Ghe smiled and shook his head at the thought. His estimation of Hezhi continued to rise. Certainly he had been a fool to try to kill her; she was worth the whole priesthood and the aristocracy, too. He imagined the sweetness of her lips once more, that warm forbidden thing.

Yes, she was a marvelous creature. If she should reduce Nhol to rubble when he brought her back, why should he care? He was now, in his own way, a child of the River, too.

But out, he reminded himself. He must have come down from the sewers, somehow. His memory of it was of no use: he had been blind, a worm crawling down, waterward. Now he was a man again, and so he would have to use his mind, his hands, his eyes—though his eyes were no longer human, nor, he suspected, were his mind and hands.

He used those eyes to find the water duct that emptied into the chamber, though no light at all existed to aid him. Well, he thought, a place to begin.

He rose up from the throne.

HE made many false turns in the strange, twisted ways beneath the city, but eventually, he found a clean breath of air and followed it. Its source was a sewer grate, peering down at him from above, the air sweet, smelling of smoke and roasted meat. He shuddered in relief, for he had begun to suspect that his resurrection was merely some terrible joke played out by the River God, a punishment for failing—a curse to wander the beneath forever. But the air and its scents were real, because he could not have remembered them sharply enough to imagine them.

No light fell through the grate, and so he judged it to be night. This was fortuitous; he had no desire to emerge onto a crowded, daylit street. He realized that he had no idea what he looked like, though he knew his form was much as it had been. He was not, like the Blessed, a distorted monster. Still, it would be safer to see himself before another saw him—there might be surprises more evident than his scarred neck. He knew his clothes would attract attention, for they were rotted; they stank, though he only now took note of that. He would have to do something about them. As he thought this, he shook his head in wonder. His clothes were rotted. How long had he been beneath the city? Perhaps Ghan and everyone he knew was dead, Hezhi an old woman. There were old stories about such things, men thought drowned in the River who emerged after generations …

Best not to think about that anymore. Best to learn the truth, since it lay just above him. He found the foothold spikes in the stone wall and climbed up them. The grate, cast iron, shifted easily—too easily, and he began to wonder how different he was now. He could see in the dark, he was stronger, much stronger…

He was something like a ghost, but not a ghost. A memory tickled at him. There were stories of things like that, as well. He could hear the voice of an old woman talking, almost chanting. He could not see her face, nor could he remember the words, or again, her name.

He pulled himself out onto the street. A wind swept over him, channeled by the walls of the buildings on either side. Above, dense layers of smoke and perhaps clouds as well obscured the stars, but he could see a faint, pale luminescence seeping through them that might be the moon.

He was in a long, narrow courtyard. A fountain gurgled not far away. He could hear a baby crying.

This was, he realized, no street in Nhol. He had emerged, been reborn to the world, in the Chakunge's palace, the very heart of the empire.

As it should be, he thought. As it should always have been.

III Snow Thunder

PERKAR eyed the sky dubiously. “I wonder if we should make camp now” he muttered.

Ngangata surveyed the ominous black billows edging in from the western horizon. “All bluff,” he opined. “It doesn't smell like a storm to me. Though …”

“Though what?” Perkar grunted.

“It has a strangeness about it.”

“Oh.” Perkar regarded the skyline once more, straining to sense whatever it was that Ngangata could feel. Nothing unusual came to him: the stormheads remained, to him, mere clouds.

“Sometimes I wonder if you say things like that just to be mysterious,” he grumbled.

“No. Unfortunately, life is already mysterious without any help from me,” Ngangata answered.

Sighing, Perkar leaned forward and patted his mount. “What do you think, T'esh?“ The charcoal-and-gray-striped stallion spared him a laconic sidewise glance before returning his full attention to tearing at the clump of grass protruding through the slowly melting snow. As far as he could tell, T'esh had no opinion on the matter.

“I'll assume you agree with Ngangata,” Perkar decided. “We'll push on.”

He urged T'esh to a walk, and Ngangata, abreast, clucked to his own mount in the weird, unhuman language of his father's folk. An eerie banging punctuated whatever he said, like a god hammering a moon-size sheet of tin—but in a distant sky, the black one on the horizon. Snow thunder, Perkar's father called it—rare and unnatural. A sign that gods were playing games with the heavens. Perkar nearly remarked on the sound—to show that he knew at least something of such signs and portents—but they had both heard it, and it seemed silly to point out so obvious a thing to a hunter and tracker of Ngangata's skill. Instead, he listened alertly for further noises. The distance, however, was quiet thereafter, as if the heavens had only a single word to speak before returning to stubborn, sullen silence.

The quiet itched at Perkar. His lungs seemed crowded with the necessity of speaking. He cast about for something to say and finally settled upon the obvious. “It's good to have you along,” he told Ngangata.

The halfling nodded. “I'm eager to meet this goddess, this maker of heroes,” he answered.

Perkar wondered if he should take offense at that—he knew Ngangata's opinion of heroes—but when he glanced over at his companion, there was no hint of malice on the broad, pale face.

“I don't know that she will show herself to you. Or to me, for that matter,” he said.

“Then we will have wasted a trip,” Ngangata answered simply.

“No. No, whether she manifests or not, she will hear me. That is all I want, to tell her a few things. To apologize.”

“In my experience,” Ngangata remarked, “gods have little use for Human apologies.”

“Perhaps,” Perkar said. “But she will hear one from me.”

Ngangata nodded as the wind gusted from the north, straight into their faces, numbing their lips into wooden clappers only vaguely capable of shaping speech. Perkar reached to lace his elkskin hood tighter and draw a thick woolen kerchief over his nose, so that only his squinting eyes were visible.

“Something odd in those clouds, ” said a voice in his ear, just as his face was warming.

“So Ngangata tells me,” Perkar mumbled.

“Eh?” Ngangata queried, catching his muffled speech.

“It's Harka,” Perkar explained, and Ngangata pursed his lips and urged his mount on up ahead. He knew that Perkar disliked talking to his sword when others were near.

“Odd, ” Harka repeated. “Too far away to see more. ”

“Let me know when you can say something useful.”

“Still bitter? At least you answered me this time. It is difficult for me to understand your attitude. One would think you would be grateful. I've saved your life many times. ”

“So you've told me before. And I should be, I admit. But my body remembers what has been done to it, knows that it has died several times now. There is a peculiar ache to that, Harka.”

“An ache I can feel well enough, ” the sword answered. “Find some way to free me, and both our problems will be solved. ”

“If I can find a way to do so, I will,” Perkar promised the blade. “If nothing else, I will return you to the Forest Lord.”

“How far will you go to make amends, Perkar? The Forest Lord will snap you down like a toad swallowing a bug. As Ngan-gata said, gods have precious little use for Human sentiment. I should know. ”

“It doesn't matter to me what the gods do or do not value,” Perkar remarked, very softly indeed. “I know what my father taught me: Piraku, the code of honor and glory. I have walked away from the path of my father for too long now.”

“You always command such endearing platitudes,” Harka replied. “Don't you ever tire of them? ”

“Perhaps they are all I have,” Perkar rejoined. “Now let me ride in peace, until such time as you sense danger.”

“Very well, ” the voice in his ear conceded, and was thereafter silent.

The dark clouds boiled and spread eastward; Perkar could sense the sleet in their bellies, feel the cold sucking at him from that quarter of the world. Yet, as Ngangata predicted, they did not advance, and by the time evening came, the sky had nearly frozen clear, indigo veined with copper and crimson where a few high, attenuated clouds still clung. When the first star winked brightly at them, Perkar and Ngangata stopped to make camp. They worked silently at erecting the small horsehide tent Brother Horse had lent them. Perkar searched out a few scraps of withered wood in the dying light as his companion tightened the straps of their shelter.

When he returned, Ngangata was chanting over his bow, thanking the god of the tree from which it was made. Perkar considered following his example, but his sword, Harka, was a god, and as they had argued that day, it would be disingenuous to chant a song of thanks to him. Still, he had bragged that he was returning to the path of Piraku, and so after a few moments, he sang the one song that seemed appropriate, though it was alien. He chanted “Thanking the Horse Mother,” what little he knew of it, to show proper respect to their tent, made as it was from the mortal remains of a stallion named Snakeskin. All Mang tents were made of horsehide, and so each had a name. The song he had learned by listening carefully to the Mang as they made and broke camp.

He and Ngangata finished their chanting at roughly the same time. They met back in front of the tent. In the ruddy remains of sunset, his companion's face seemed more alien than usual, stripped of its Human heritage. His dark sunken eyes and low, sloping forehead recalled the deep, awesome forest of Balat, where the Alwat dwelt. Perkar remembered the broken bodies of Digger and her family, the Alwat who perished because he offended the Forest Lord, and wondered what he could do for their kin, what solace he could offer, what apology?

“Ngangata,” he asked, staring out at the darkening rim of the world, “did you know the names of those Alwat who died in Balat?”

“I know their names,” Ngangata answered, and Perkar noticed, as he often did not, the faint burr in his voice that no Human Being had.

“I would like you to teach them to me someday.”

“Someday,” the other replied, “but only in Balat. Their names should be spoken only there.”

“Ah.” Perkar felt the cold eating into his legs, but he did not yet desire to enter the tent and start a fire. “The sky seems to drink me up here,” he confided instead. He turned to take it all in, noticed the bone bow of the Pale Queen climbing in the east.

“I prefer more crowded land myself,” Ngangata admitted. “Like you, my Human mother was kin to pasture, to hills, to mountains. Her blood was fast-running streams, red bulls, and snowmelt. The Alwat, my father's people, are kin to the trees; they despise to leave them. You and I will both lose our minds if we live long beneath this sort of sky.” He gestured at the heavens with the blade of his hand and half grinned to show that he half joked.

“The Mang live here,” Perkar pointed out. ”Surely other men can do it.”

“But the Mang have the blood of horses coursing in their veins. They are horses, in some ways. Without this sky, they would die of suffocation.”

“So they say,” Perkar acknowledged, recalling Brother Horse's similar claim.

“You seem very thoughtful tonight,” Ngangata observed. “I believe you should take the first watch. Give yourself more time to think.”

Perkar accepted that with a faint chuckle. “Fair enough,” he replied.

MORNING was still clear, and Perkar conceded, once again, that Ngangata understood the sky better than he. They rode out without much talking, though at one point Perkar attempted a song. It fell with the rising wind however, and Perkar glumly reflected that he missed Eruka, who would have sung right on into a gale. Eruka, whose voice and laughter were now bleached bones without even a proper burial.

So much to do.

Just past midday, Harka spoke to him again, and even as he did, Perkar caught himself scrutinizing a certain point on the horizon. He was unaware, at first, that his attention was a product of the strange power his sword had to compel him to “see” danger. But then Harka said, “Comes something strong. ”

“From the direction of the storm?”

“Where else?”

Perkar could make out a speck now. He pointed it out to Ngangata.

“Yes, I see,” the half man said. “Your sword uses your eyes well.”

It seemed a rather backhanded compliment to Perkar, but he knew it was the only sort he deserved. Ngangata would have seen the approaching stranger well before Perkar, all other things being equal.

Harka, however, made things decidedly unequal, protecting Perkar from much harm and healing even the most terrible wounds in a few days at most. It was difficult, therefore, for Perkar to conjure up any fear of a lone figure in the distance, despite Harka's concern. Harka, after all, would be concerned if a jay were diving at him, protecting its nest. Even such slight threats were considered worthy of the sword's attention. Still, a menace to him was also probably a threat to Ngangata, who could be killed rather easily. Perkar did not want that; enough of his friends were already ghosts.

It soon became apparent, however, that the rider—Ngangata said he could make that much out—was moving along the same course as they, rather than coming to meet them. This delayed any worries Perkar might have been tempted to invent, especially because he knew that they should be drawing near the stream where his goddess dwelt, and he was rehearsing what he would say to her. In fact, after some time, the rider ahead of them vanished, not over the horizon but presumably behind some nearer crease in the landscape, obscured by the white sameness of the plain. Perkar's heart quickened, for such a crease might also hide a stream valley.

Midway from noon to sundown, they breasted the Up of the valley. It was a gentle, gradual dale, nothing like the crevasse the Changeling had dug for himself. Indeed, the crest of the hill was scarcely noticeable as such. The stream was not directly visible, hidden by a stand of leafless cottonwoods and furry green juniper. But she was there; Perkar knew her instantly. He clapped T'esh's flanks, bringing the horse to a canter, but Ngangata hailed him down. Almost irritated, Perkar turned to his comrade, who was gesturing at the clean snow of the valley—gesturing at a line of hoofprints not their own.

“You make your peace with the goddess,” Ngangata suggested. “I think I will find out who our stranger is.”

“No,” Perkar snapped. “No. Harka believes it to be dangerous. Leave it alone, whatever it is. Just keep your bow out and your eyes busy. I will not speak to her for long.”

“Best not,” Ngangata muttered. “I don't like not knowing where an enemy is.”

“We don't know that it is an enemy,” Perkar pointed out reasonably. Then, to Harka: “Do we?”

“No. But strong and strange, certainly. And dangerous, like a sleeping snake. ”

Perkar nodded, so that Ngangata would know he had been answered.

“But go cautiously,” Ngangata said. “We should dismount and walk down. Do no good for you to break your neck now—it could take days for you to heal.”

“Fine,” Perkar said, though he would have rather galloped down, heedless.

How old I look, Perkar thought, staring at his reflection in a still edge of the stream. His hood down, he could see the new lines on his face, the unkempt brown hair, gray eyes that seemed rather dull to him, though he had once been proud of their flash and sparkle. He was struck, suddenly, by how much more he looked like his father, and that thought brought an almost dizzying recurrence of his earlier homesickness. Up this stream, far up it, his father's pasture lay. A leaf fallen there might pass now by his feet. The stream blurred, as tears rimmed his eyes.

“Always so sad,” she said, rising from the water before him, “even from the first.”

She looked older, too. Her skin still dazzled whiter than the snow on the hills around them, her eyes shone purest amber, and yet in the jet of her long hair lay wisps of silver, lines etched on a face that before had been smoothest ivory. She remained the loveliest woman Perkar had ever seen; the sight of her caught at his breath.

“Goddess,” he said.

“The same, but not the same,” she answered. “Farther downstream, more children. But I know you, Perkar, I remember your arms and kisses, your sweet silly promises.”

She stepped up and out of the water, stretched a tapered finger out to stroke his chin. Her touch was warm, despite the chill wind. Her unclothed flesh was raised in goosebumps, but other than that she showed no discomfort.

“What have they done to you, my sweet thing?” she asked, moving her hand down, to the thick scar on his throat where a lance had passed through his neck; across his coat, beneath which hidden scars bunched like a nest of white caterpillars.

“I did it to myself,” he muttered.

“You did it for me,” she corrected.

“Yes, at least I thought I did.”

She moved to embrace him, though his thick coat must have been rough against her. She pressed her cheek against his, and it was so warm it was nearly hot. “I tried to stop you,” she reminded him. She stepped back, and he stood there, not knowing at all what to do.

“I tried to stop you,” she repeated.

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I loved you. I did foolish things.”

She nodded. “I have heard rumors, flying down from the mountain. He sang of you, where he eats me. Do you feel more a man now, Perkar? Do you feel more a match for a goddess?”

“No,” he said, his voice small but firm. “No, you were always right.”

“What do you want of me now?” she demanded, and her voice was a bit sharp. She had always been like that, hard and soft, comforting and angry, all at once.

“I only want for you to forgive me.”

“Forgive you?” she asked, as if she were repeating words in a foreign language.

“Forgive me for killing in your name. Forgive me for…” He searched his brain, but despite his rehearsal, he could not find the words.

“Forgive you,” she repeated. She shook her head slowly. “So many things men have done for me, over the years—so many stupid things. At first, you know, I did not try to stop them. They amused me. But the blood of this girl, this form you see, oh, it sleeps for long, but sometimes I am almost Human. I feel sorrow, feel ashamed, just as you might—though I hate it. And I feel love, Perkar. You can hurt me, I think. I was always afraid you would hurt yourself and add to my sorrow. And so you have.”

“But I am alive,” he told her. “Here I am.”

“But so terribly hurt,” she said, “so scarred. Can I forgive you for that, for scarring my sweet Perkar?” She shook her head, pursed her lips. “Take whatever you want,” she said at last. “If you want my forgiveness, take that.”

“You have to give it to me, I think,” he replied.

She spread her arms wide, gesturing up and down the river,

“True. And the Mang are not all one people. What troubles the Mang of the western plains need not have any effect on the Mang of the South.”

“Except,” Perkar noted, “in times of war. Their confederacy exists for mutual protection and mutual raiding.”

Ngangata shook his head unhappily. “This means trouble for us. Brother Horse may find it difficult to treat us with hospitality when the news arrives.”

“Ngangata!” Perkar cried. “Hospitality! My people are dying, and it is my fault. You know that, you were there. The Forest Lord had agreed to give our king more land. Because of me, that offer was withdrawn and will never be made again. Now it seems, unable to expand west, my people have chosen to move into the Mang borderlands. My fault, all of it.”

Ngangata regarded him for a moment. “Apad and Eruka—” he began.

“Are dead? Perkar finished. “I am the only one left to shoulder the blame. In any event, Apad and Eruka would have lacked the courage to do anything without me.”

Ngangata's face was grim. “I know that,” he replied. “I agree; much of the blame for this lies with you. But if I understand Piraku, you should be thinking of something to do about it, rather than blaming yourself over and over again—rather than telling me about your guilt yet again.”

Perkar clenched his fist and shook it in Ngangata's face. “And just what is it I can do?“ he shouted. ”How is it that I can set this right, resurrect those already dead, my father perhaps among them?”

Ngangata watched the fist impassively. “If you don't intend to hit me,” he growled, “unclench that.”

For one awful, helpless moment, Perkar did want to hit the half man. But at last he let the fist drop, uncurling it. He was opening his mouth to apologize when his head yanked around of its own volition—or rather, Harka's.

“In the trees,” he suddenly whispered, just as an arrow struck him in the shoulder. He gasped at the impact, surprised that there was no more pain. He had a confused glimpse of Ngangata in motion, heard the dull flat whine of his bow.

“Watch out!” Harka warned, as Perkar fumbled him out. The blade trailed out into the light, a sliver of aquamarine ice.

As he stumbled back to his feet, his gaze was again drawn to the trees; another shaft whirred from them, though not in his direction. Ngangata—the likely target—was nowhere to be seen. Of more immediate concern were the two horsemen churning through the snow toward him, both mounted on striped Mang horses. The men were Mang, too, multiple braids indicating that they were warriors of some rank, the red-dyed horsehair plumes on their leather helmets a sign that they were at war. Perkar had never seen Mang at war until now. They looked like wolves.

They bore down on him, one with a lance, the second with a short, curved sword. Perkar whooped at them, his father's battle cry, and waited, Harka held steady with both hands. The arrow, he now guessed, had not penetrated more deeply than his outer flesh, halted by the thick coat of elk hide and the light lacquered armor beneath.

He waited until they were nearly on him, and then suddenly darted to his right; both horsemen swerved, still hoping to catch him between them, but Perkar sank to one knee and cut through both front legs of the nearest horse. The animal shrieked piteously and pitched past him, into the snow, the rider sprawling over his mount's neck.

An absolute master of his steed, the second Mang pulled in tight, but had to strike awkwardly to reach Perkar. Perkar avoided the blow entirely, stepped up, and slashed deeply into the warrior's leg. The man uttered no sound, but his face registered a vast surprise as the blade sliced through the heavy lacquered layers of wood, bone, and leather that protected his thigh.

Perkar turned back to his first opponent, who was rising to his feet, murder on his face. Unfortunately for him, his lance was too long to bring around effectively, and though he managed to graze Perkar's shoulder, he soon held only a wooden pole, the steel blade severed from it by a quick blow from Harka. The Mang shot one glance at his mutilated steed, snarled, and hurled himself weaponless at Perkar, though a knife flapped against his hip. Harka took him in the heart, yet the man remained on his feet for a few instants, the purest look of hatred Perkar had ever seen only reluctantly replaced by death's cold gaze.

The second man was lying on his horse's neck, teeth clenched; as Perkar watched, the blade dropped from his hand into the blood-spattered snow. The horse itself pranced nervously, as if unused to having no direction.

Another shaft sped past Perkar, but almost at the same moment, he heard a sharp cry from the direction of the trees. He crouched behind the quivering body of the downed horse, waiting for more attacks, but hone came, and Harka remained still and quiet.

After a moment, Ngangata emerged, cautiously, from a clump of trees. “Are there more?” he asked, eyes nervously picking through the valley.

“I don't think so. Harka?”

“No more. But there is someone else. ”

“What?” Perkar turned to Ngangata. “Harka says no more Mang, but there is someone else.”

Ngangata nodded. “Someone killed the archer.”

“Ah. I thought you did that.”

“No,” Ngangata denied.

Perkar drew a deep breath. “Come out, if you are a friend. If not, ride on.”

There was a pause, and then a stirring in the trees. The figure of a man emerged and began walking leisurely toward them.

“That, ” Harka informed him, “is not Human. ”

IV The Godsight

SHE stood beneath a leaden sky, the vastness of the River stretched before her. Those waters seemed a perfect reflection of the obscure heavens—his substance seemed dense, as if it were really polished slate or beveled steeland it radiated a cold strength that numbed and quickened her simultaneously.

She bent closer, touched her finger to the dark water, then gasped when she saw impressions upon the surface, as if invisible objects lay pressed upon the skin of the River God. Nearest was a hollow shaped like a water scorpion, so clear that she could even make out the delicate patterning of its plated underbelly. There, a trumpet-cuttlefish, long tapering horn of its shell smooth, the tentacles and a single large eye pressed in relief And thereshe gasped and looked away from the detailed mold of her cousin D'en 's face, as she had last seen it, with his eyes on stalks, like those of a crab.

Trembling, she turned from the River, but looking away, she felt less comfort than ever. Four masked priests strode toward her, grim-faced, swinging their water cans and spirit-brooms. In front of them came Yen, the young engineer who had playfully courted her, only to reveal himself as a coldhearted assassin named Ghe. Behind those five figures were a hundred others, obscured by a veil of mist, but all threatening her, all intent on locking her away. As panic whetted keen in her breast, however, she felt something cross her toes; she looked down to see what it might be.

It was a tiny snake, no bigger than a worm. It shimmered in iridescent colors, and something about it made her happy, promised to protect her from her enemies. She stooped and picked up the small reptile, and, on impulse, she swallowed it.

I have just swallowed a snake. She wondered, Now, why did I do that?

At that moment, the snake stirred in her belly. Then lightning seemed to course out into her arms. The gray waters rushed into her toes, and as she watched, the River began to drop in level, even as the worm in her grew and grew, as the greedy serpent heads that her toes had become drank and drank. The River was drying up, but it was entering her, and with a cold horror she felt the weight of his vast sentience crushing her own, squeezing her like a giants fist. But part of her was delighted ta at last have the power to destroy any who threatened her, who wished her harm…

The revulsion was stronger than the joy. Shrieking, she spit the snake out, and with it went her power, as the water flowed back into the River and returned it to its former level. But then she saw something else, a thing by a small stony cairn, and the horror began again.

Until she awoke, fingers balled into fists, wondering where she was. She sat thus for long, terrible moments as it all came back to her. A dream, a dream, a dream, she repeated to herself, but she knew it for more than that. It was really a distorted memory of what had actually happened scant months ago, when the River tried to manifest in her frail body and had very nearly succeeded. But she had escaped that, hadn't she? Escaped her curse?

She gradually understood that she was in a ben', one of the horsehide tents the Mang used for camping. She was cold, except on her left side, where the dog, Heen, lay curled against her, snoring raspily. Nearby, Brother Horse snuffled out a harmony to the canine's tuneless song. Earlier, Hezhi had found these noises distracting; now they comforted her, for they were Human, mundane.

But she was in danger again, as certainly as Heen was a dog. And Brother Horse knew it. He had forced camp before they had gone half a league beyond the cairn where she saw

Tomorrow he would explain. Tomorrow.

She lay back, her breathing growing calmer, but sleep did not return to her that night.

HEZHI drew her knees up beneath her chin as she watched the colorful riders enter the village, listened to their raucous shouts. The half Giant sitting next to her stirred restlessly, shifting a frame easily twice as massive as that of any Human as he braided and unbraided fingers like fat sausages into a double fist resting against his thick-featured face. The knotted hand hid a scowl, and she could imagine she heard his teeth grinding.

“Princess …” the Giant began, but Hezhi shook her head.

“Hush, Tsem,” she said. “Watch the riders. I want to write Ghan about this.”

“I've seen plenty of these barbarians enter the camp in the past few days,” Tsem grumbled. “I've had little else to do.”

“That isn't what Tiin tells me,” Hezhi answered, glancing sidewise at the half Giant.

Tsem blushed almost purple. “One has to do something to pass the time,” he mumbled. ”I can't hunt, horses groan beneath my weight—”

“But at least you can entertain the unmarried women,” Hezhi finished. “Just as in Nhoi.” She sharpened her glance. “Unmarried, Tsem. These people are not as forgiving in their policies toward adultery as those you are accustomed to.”

Tsem scrunched his face in mock concern, bushy eyebrows steepling like mountain ridges. “What might the penalty be?” he asked.

“You know Barks-Like-a-Dog?”

“The old man with no nose?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh. Oh! ” Tsem's face fell into lines of real dismay.

“So take care,” she cautioned.

“I can do that,” Tsem replied. “I'm glad you told me.”

“This isn't Nhol, Tsem. Don't ever think it is. Nothing we know will serve us out here.”

Tsem snorted. “People are people, Princess. Much of what I know serves me wherever I go.”

Hezhi started at the bitterness in that. It was rare for Tsem to display such acrimony.

“What is troubling you, Tsem?”

As they spoke, thirty warriors thundered around the village, shrieking like demons. Each bore a long, colorful streamer knotted to a lance, and the result was breathtaking, barbaric, a cyclone of color. Unmarried girls dodged in and out among the surging mounts, snatching at the streamers, while younger children jostled alongside, jangling strings of bells and clapping wooden noisemakers together. The din was impressive.

Tsem was silent, pretending to watch the spectacle; Hezhi prodded him with her toe, then kicked him when he did not respond. He turned on her, flashing knuckle-size teeth in a dangerous-looking scowl, and she was again taken aback by the anger in his reply.

“You cannot ask me that,” he snapped. “If you cannot tell me what troubles you, then I…” He trailed off into a growl and a glare.

“Tsem,” Hezhi began, laying her small hand on the corded bulk of his arm. The muscles in his neck worked silently for a moment as he ground his teeth. Then he sighed and turned a milder gaze on her.

“What good am I out here, Princess?” he asked after a moment. “What good have I been to anyone since leaving Nhol? Since before that, even?”

“Tsem, you were injured.”

“Yes, and stupidly so. And you have had to pay for my healing, pay by working like a common maid.”

“That has nothing to do with you, Tsem. These people expect everyone to work. There are no princesses among the Mang.”

“And what sort of work am I suited to? Now that I have healed, what will I do to show my worth?”

“Tiin said—”

Tsem dismissed that with a roll of his eyes. “Curiosity, Princess. Woman are always curious about me. Once. Novelty is a fleeting thing. The truth is, these people think I am worthless, and they are not far from the truth. I was raised to be the servant of a princess, and, as you say, there are no nobles here.”

“No slaves, either,” Hezhi reminded him. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are things you can learn to do.”

Tsem began to reply, but then his eyes bulged.

“You did it,” he swore.

“What?”

“Made me tell you. Made me complain. The only thing I know how to do is serve you, and you won't even talk to me.”

“We are talking,” Hezhi noticed.

Tsem turned his eyes back to the riders. Some of the girls had managed to snatch pennants, and now the original bearers of those streamers were chasing them, trying to grab them up onto their horses.

“Something happened to you,” he said. “Something bad. Are you going to tell me?” The bitterness had left his voice, but there was challenge there, as if she were withholding something she owed him.

“I don't know,” she said at last. “I don't know what happened. Brother Horse tried to explain.”

“But it has to do with your… nature.”

She shrugged. “Brother Horse said that I saw a god. He saw it, too; just a little god, he said, the child of some spider goddess.”

“Did you?”

“I saw something. No, it was more than seeing …”

She felt suddenly very close to tears. Her voice trembled as she said, “I thought I had escaped it, Tsem, but my blood is doing something. I thought I was safe”

Tsem gently drew her to him, and she relaxed, rested against his mammoth frame and took comfort in the familiar smell of him. She closed her eyes and imagined that they were in her mother's rooftop garden, hot sun bleaching the city white around them—before everything, before the whole nightmare began, when she was still just a little girl.

“I don't know about these things,” Tsem soothed, “but Brother Horse says you will not change, will not become one of the Blessed. We are far and far from the River, Princess.”

“Yes, so Brother Horse said. But Tsem—in Nhol there was only the River, the River and ghosts. Nothing else. Out here, there are gods everywhere. Every other rock, every creek. Everywhere. And if I am going to start seeing them, the way Brother Horse does, the way I did yesterday … if that happens, I will lose my mind.”

Tsem patted her shoulder thoughtfully. “Does Brother Horse believe that this will happen, that you will keep seeing these gods?”

“Yes,” Hezhi confirmed. “Yes, he thinks that I will.”

“Oh,” Tsem said. He turned his gaze thoughtfully back to the village perimeter, where the great chase was winding down; horsemen were beginning to dismount and clasp their relatives to them. The air was thick with the smell of roasted meat; soon the feasting would begin.

“While odd,” Tsem began again, in an optimistic tone, “Brother Horse has not lost his mind, and you say he sees these gods. Perkar speaks of seeing gods, as well. It cannot be so terrible as you fear.”

Hezhi nodded into the crook of his arm. “Brother Horse and Perkar are different. Perkar has seen gods, it is true, but they were clothed in flesh—they were manifest. I am told that anyone can see a god thus, and while their form might be disturbing, it is not the same as what Brother Horse and I see. We see the essence of the god, the unmanifested form. That is altogether different.”

“How so?”

“They get in here,” Hezhi said, tapping her head. “They worm through our eyes into our minds, the way the River did, when I almost lost myself.” She paused. “I never told you, Tsem. It was after you fell down, when Perkar was fighting the Riverghost. I… I was filled up. The River filled me up, and I could have done almost anything: torn Nhol apart, killed Perkar, killed you. I wanted to do all of those things, because I was not me. That's what it will be like, every time I see. Thoughts and feelings and desires that have no place in me—yet they feel right, too, as if they have always been there.” Her voice felt dull in her throat.

“Brother Horse must know how to live with it. He must,” Tsem insisted. “I don't understand these things, but he must. He can help you.”

“Yes,” Hezhi murmured as, across the plaza, an oaken keg of beer was tapped to a general chorus of approving howls. “Yes, that is what he says. But…” She gazed up into Tsem's sympathetic eyes, at his thick harsh face and the kindness it yet contained. “I thought I had escaped” she whispered. “Won't I ever be free?”

“Hard to be free of what you are” Tsem said, and Hezhi knew that, at least to that extent, he understood.

HEZHI wrote later:

This is what they call the Ben 'cheen. It is a winter gathering, in which many of the Mang tribes come together. They feast, play games, and make sacrifices to the gods. I expect it to be very interesting. So far it is noisy, this festival, barbaric. The newcomers look very strangely at Tsem and me but are generally not unfriendly. However, Brother Horse had to dissuade some of the young warriors from challenging Tsem to fightthey have legends of the Giants, who live to the northeast, and in their legends they are great fighters. A warrior who proves himself against them is considered very brave. Brother Horse tells them that Tsem is still recovering from injurieswhich, of course, he isand that it would thus be inhospitable to challenge him openly. Fighting is something Mang men love, on horseback or off. One of their sports is called bech'iinesh, which I think just means “Slapping”. What they slap each other with, however, are long-handled wooden paddles with just enough padding to keep them from always being lethal. They charge at each other on horseback and try to knock each other from the saddle. On foot, they like to wrestle and box. I believe that they would be sorry if they wrestled Tsem. He doesn't know the use of weapons, but I have seen him fight with bare hands, and it is difficult for me to believe that even one of these wild warriors would have a chance against him.

In a few days they will hold their main festival, as I understand it. It is named the “Horse God Homesending, ” but other than that, I know nothing of it. I will write more afterward, when I do.

It seems my studies did not leave off when I left you. Brother Horse believes that I must learn something of being a gaan, if I am to live with my godsight. These gaan are something like priests, using drums and singing to talk to their gods. Brother Horse became one, long ago, though now he rarely “sings. ” It sounds barbaric, superstitious, worse than the silly witchery of fishwives. It is difficult to adjust to how different the world is, away from the River, how different the truth of things is. That the world can be as full of gods as it is of rocks and trees seems ludicrous. Yet I know that what Brother Horse says is truehe knows these places, where the River does not hold sway, where he has not devoured all of the little gods these people know. I wish these Mang had books; I would rather go somewhere alone and read about these gods, about the ways of the gaan. Instead I must learn by listening to Brother Horse talk. Hearing people talk all of the time is tiring. I am not used to listening so much, as you may remember.

One observation which may interest you: This word gaanit reminds me of what I call you; Ghan, “teacher, ” and also of Ghun, “priest. ” Many of their words bear this sort of similarity to Nholish. I suspect that they learned to speak from our ancestors, but that being barbarians they learned everything wrong, pronounced the words incorrectly. For instance, when we say nuwege, they say nubege—and both mean “eye”. I hope you will find this peculiar and interesting, for I intend to make a list of their words to send you. Perhaps you can find some evidence in the library that the Mang learned to speak in Nhol—perhaps they were slaves who escaped, long ago. Their legends say nothing of this, but they have no books and so their histories cannot be very accurate.

Hezhi looked thoughtfully at the paper, considered beginning the list right away. There were other things she should be doing, however, and she didn't want people to think she was shirking. She blew on the ink. When it was dry, she would go find Duk and help with the afternoon meal. She wondered, idly and with some annoyance, where Perkar was. According to Yuu'han, he and Ngangata should have returned by now. There had been no more snow—in fact, the snow on the ground was melting—so bad weather had not slowed them. Still, she was determined not to worry. Perkar would return soon enough, and she could ask him what he knew of this witchery she was supposed to learn about. He would know something, after all his dealings with gods and demons.

“There you are.” Brother Horse's voice pulled her out of her thoughts. She looked up, a bit startled to see the old man, who had been busy constantly since their return to the village—greeting strangers, settling minor disputes, arranging marriages. He smiled down at her, gaudy in a long vermilion coat nearly covered with copper coins, gold-embroidered felt breeks, and a tiger-pelt underjacket. In one hand he held an otterskin bag that bulged around something round and flat. Behind him lolled Heen, dustier than usual, ears twitching as if offended by the rau-cousness around him. Hezhi tentatively returned the smile.

“I think you may have questions for me,” he said. “I'm sorry that I haven't been around to talk to you.”

“I needed to think anyway,” Hezhi replied.

“You think a lot. That is good, considering. And what have you decided?”

“That I don't know enough to decide anything.”

“Wise,” he said, shaking his head. “I never waited until I knew enough. Which makes it a miracle that I am an old man and not a young ghost.” He extended his hand. ”Walk with me a bit, child.”

Hezhi hesitated. “Now?”

Brother Horse nodded. “It's important.”

Hezhi sighed. “I don't think I'm ready.” She rubbed absently at the dully tingling scale on her arm, the one physical sign of her magic.

The old man grimaced. “I would give you more time if you had it. But soon—tomorrow—we will slay the Horse God and send him home. Without some preparation, if you see him—”

“I will go mad,” Hezhi finished.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“I see,” she muttered. She checked to see that her ink was dry, and, assured that it was, carefully rolled up the paper and replaced it in its bone case.

They walked out from the village, pausing as riders thundered by on the racetrack that encircled the houses. Felt and horsehide tents crowded the landscape; the village scarcely resembled the one she had come to know—though it was nothing like a city, of course. The air was thick with smoke from burning wood and dung, half-charred meat, other scents she could not place. A pack of children—screaming and batting a ball along the ground with bent sticks—nearly ran over them, but when they saw Brother Horse, they parted and streamed around, like a school of fish effortlessly negotiating a snag in the River. Heen paused at the village edge—apparently disapproving of their direction of travel—but after it became apparent that they were ignoring his tacit advice, he followed regardless.

It seemed a long time before they were in the open desert, with the cries, laughter, and music of the Swollen Tents behind them. Patches of rusty sand glared through thawing white drifts. Here and there, muddy trails marked the paths in from elsewhere, from wherever the Mang tribes came.

“I'm sorry for your sake that I have to help you with this,” Brother Horse stated. “It has been a long time since I was a singer. Years. I wish there was a younger one around who could help you, but Cedar went off into the mountains a month ago, and I trust none of the others with you.” He paused for a few heartbeats and went on. “When it happened to me—the sight—

I was a bit older than you. A warrior. It nearly ruined me; I was sick for days after my first sight of a god.”

“I was sick.”

“For a short time. You are very strong, Hezhi.”

“Tell me more about yours,” she appealed, “your first sight.”

He seemed to consider that, and for a few tens of steps the only sound was that of their boots crunching through the melted and refrozen surface of the snow.

“I first saw Ch'egl, the god of a small spring. A very minor god indeed, much less imposing than he whom you saw.”

“And?”

“It was after a raid. My companions and I scattered to divide the pursuit. We were to all meet at the water hole. I reached the place first, and I saw Ch'egl They found me wandering in the desert, nearly dead of thirst, as mad as a shedding snake.”

“But you recovered.”

“Only after my friends took me to a gaan. He sang a curing song for me. But then he told me that if I wanted to live, I would have to apprentice to him.”

“And so you did.”

“No! I wanted to be a warrior. I felt certain I would never have such a vision again. But I did, of course. Fortunately, that time I had companions with me.”

Hezhi glanced up at him. “What? What happened that time?”

“That time I saw Tu Chunuleen. The great god you call 'the River.' Perkar calls him the 'Changeling.' Your ancestor, Hezhi.”

“Oh.”

“He was asleep. He is almost always asleep. But he dreams, always. When I saw him—” He stopped, fumbled with the ties of his shirt. At first, Hezhi thought he was stopping his story to relieve himself—the Mang showed no hesitation or shame in doing such things. But he did not. Instead, he raised the shirt up so that she could see an ugly, jagged scar.

“I did that myself,” he explained. “With my skinning knife. I nearly spilled my guts all over the ground, before my friends stopped me. I have never come closer to death. I did not want to live, not after seeing him. A gaan had to follow my soul halfway to the Ghost Mountain before he could save me.”

As he spoke they reached a low line of red rock, a shelf where the land dropped down the height of a tall man. Part of the upper level hung over like a roof, and Hezhi could see a little hearth of stones on the floor of the natural shelter. Cold prickles ran up her back, and she had a sudden, vivid memory of the priests, back in Nhol, waiting for her that day. Though many months in the past, the pain and humiliation of that experience stained her like red wine.

“What are we doing?” she demanded. “What is this?”

Brother Horse laid a hand on her shoulder. “We are only talking, as of now. Only talking, little one, away from the madness of the town.”

Despite the comforting words, Hezhi felt panic rise in her chest. They had tied her down, naked, drugged her—awakened that thing in her belly, in her blood. This seemed somehow like that, another trick, something thrust upon her. The similarity between ghun and gaan flashed once more through her mind. Priest, shaman, what was the difference to her?

“Wh-what will you do?” she stuttered.

“Nothing. Nothing without your leave. Indeed, Hezhi, there is nothing I can do. You must do it, though I can guide you, help you along the way.”

“There must be something else,” she insisted. “Some way to be rid of him forever.”

They stepped beneath the slight natural roof, the enormous sky halved by the red stone. It was oddly comforting to Hezhi, making the world seem smaller, more manageable. Brother Horse motioned her toward a flat stone and lowered himself by degrees onto another, as if his joints were rusted metal. He placed his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands with thumbs together, and pointed skyward. He looked first at the cold stone and charcoal between them, but then raised his gaze frankly to meet hers.

“No way that I know of, child. My hope for you was that the ember in you would die away without the River nearby to strengthen it. But it has caught, you see? Even without him, it will burn inside of you. Not as the Changeling planned for it to; it will not transform you as you have told me it did your kin. Still, unless you bank it, bring it under your control, that little flame will yet consume you.”

Hezhi considered that she did know one way; she could fling herself from a cliff, break her body, and release her curse with her spirit. But even that might not work; more likely she would become a monstrous ghost, the sort that had once attacked her in Nhol. The Mang spoke often of ghosts, as well. However different the lands beyond the River were, they were not so different that death was a certain escape.

“What then?” she asked. “What must I do?”

Brother Horse reached over to stroke her hair. “It may not be so bad as you think,” he said. “But I won't promise you that it will be easy.”

“Nothing is, for me, it seems,” she replied dully.

“It may even make you happier,” he went on. “I've watched you, these past months. You took to camp work pretty well. In time, I think you could even be good at it. But you would never love it, would you? The only things that I know you love—that I can see you love—are your paper and your ink, your book. The thought of books.”

“What does this have to do with that?” she muttered.

“Mystery,” he answered simply. And in that small word, Hezhi caught a glimmer of something. Hope, possibilities—something to fill the growing emptiness in her heart.

“Mystery,” she repeated, a question really. Brother Horse nodded affirmation.

“That is what you find in your books, am I right? Questions that you had not thought of yourself? Visions you could not imagine unaided? I can offer you the same.”

“It frightens me,” she admitted. “What lives in me frightens me.

“It always will, unless you master it,” he said. “And probably even then, if you have sense, which I believe you do. But did your books bring you only comfort?”

She quirked an insincere smile at that. “No, not comfort,” she answered.

“Well, then,” the old man said. “Why do you hesitate?”

“Because I'm tired” she snapped. “Weary of new things, of being frightened, of being sick, of losing what I know! Tired of these things happening to me …”

He waited until she was done, until she chewed down on her lip, panting, fury replacing fear.

“What then?” she asked again, this time sharply, insistently. “How do we start this?”

The old man hesitated, then reached into a pouch at his waist. He withdrew a small dagger, its blade keen and silver in the shadowed shelter.

“As always,” Brother Horse replied. “With blood.”

HEZHI turned the knife over and over in her hand, as if inspecting it would allay her fears. Instead, she only grew more nervous as Brother Horse kindled a small fire in the stone hearth.

She was distracted by the process of fire-making itself, which relied not upon matches—the only way she had ever seen fire “made”—but upon a dubiously simple device. He placed a flat piece of wood on the shelter floor; the wood had grooves cut along one side, and these shallow cuts terminated in blackened depressions. In one of these depressions he placed a stick, about the length of her forearm, and began to twirl it briskly with his palms, starting at the top of the stick and working quickly to its base, returning his palms to the top again, and so on. In moments a coil of smoke sought up from the juncture of the two pieces of wood. The smoke grew thicker and thicker until Brother Horse removed the stick and blew upon the hole he had been twirling it in. Astonished, Hezhi saw a small red coal there.

“Hello, Fire Goddess,” Brother Horse said. “Welcome to my hearth. I will treat you well.” He shook the coal onto a small wad of shredded dry material of some sort, held it delicately in his fingers, and breathed upon it. In an instant, he held flame between his fingers. With that small blossom, he ignited a pile of twigs leaning together like a little tent and, as they caught, added larger pieces of wood on top. Heen, sleeping with his head between his paws, opened a single eye halfway at the scent of smoke, then closed it once more, singularly unimpressed by the birth of a goddess.

“Can you teach me that?” she breathed.

“To waken the Fire Goddess? Of course. It is simply done. I'm surprised you haven't seen it happen.”

“The women would never let me near, at the hunting camp; not when they made fire.”

“Women have some odd taboos about the goddess,” Brother Horse informed her, then added, “and about foreigners, as well.”

“That I know.” The wood crackled gleefully. Hezhi cocked her head and even smiled, despite the threatening edge of the knife in her hand, the nervous twitching in her belly. “I never thought of fire as a miracle before,” she breathed.

“See her in there?” Brother Horse asked. “Look closely.” He gestured with his lips, his gnarled brown fingers feeding bits of juniper twigs to the flame.

“No,” Hezhi said, suddenly understanding what she was being asked to do. She averted her eyes from the little tongues of light.

“The Fire Goddess is different,” Brother Horse reassured her gently. “She has lived with Human Beings for a long time—at least this aspect of her. Look, child. I will help you.”

He reached over and took hold of her hand; trembling a bit, she turned her gaze back to the fire. The evergreen tang of juniper smoke wrapped her as the wind shifted, and her eyes squinted over the sting and tears. Brother Horse tightened his grip on her, and in that instant the fire seemed to rush up, open like the shutters of a window. As through a window, she could suddenly see through it, to another place.

Once again, alien thoughts crowded her mind, and the scale upon her arm pulsed madly. She gasped and jerked to release herself from Brother Horse, but he kept his grip, and when she turned her head it was to no avail; the goddess was still there.

But after the first instant, her beating heart began to slow. Seeing the god at the cairn had been terrible, like suddenly understanding that she had pushed her hands into a nest of stinging worms, the shock before the pain. There was nothing of her in that experience, only the promise of dread and power.

The Fire Goddess was different. Hezhi saw warmth and comfort, an offer of aid rather than of power, an acceptance of her will and self that she did not fear. The Cairn God had threatened to sweep her away, like the River. The Fire Goddess only filled her with light and hope. It was still uncomfortable, but it was not terrible, not unbearable.

“Oh,” Hezhi murmured as comprehension waxed. She glanced at Brother Horse, to show him she understood, and her jaw dropped.

Brother Horse still sat watching her, but his body had gone gray, insubstantial, and within it, dark shapes swam about. She got the fleeting impression of fangs, of flickering yellow eyes, of hunger. There was also something there that reminded her of raw fish, of fish in the kitchen, just after Qey gutted them for steaming.

“What?” she gasped, and violently yanked her hand from his. She staggered to her feet, and, though Brother Horse called after her, she scrambled as quickly as she could out of the shelter and into the wide, bright eye of the sky. She did not stop running until she could no longer hear Brother Horse at all.

V The Blackgod

PERKAR watched the stranger advance, keeping his grip on Harka firm, despite his sword's assurance that the approaching god—or whatever it was—posed no immediate threat. Whoever it was seemed, at least, to be in no hurry to threaten them, ambling across the eighty or so paces separating them, pausing to examine the sky now and then.

As he watched this, Perkar caught a movement from the corner of his eye. He turned reluctantly and saw the Mang warrior whose leg he had injured crawling across the snow, a fierce determination shining through the glaze of pain over his eyes. Perkar started, wondered why Harka had not warned him. Stepping quickly back, he was able to put both the Mang and the approaching being in his field of vision, and then he understood Harka's lack of alarm. The injured man was not crawling toward him, or even Ngangata. He was clawing across the frozen ground toward his companion's downed horse, which, despite the fact that Perkar had severed both front legs at the knee, was still panting heavily.

As Perkar watched, the man collapsed, ending the crooked red trail he was painting in the snow an arm's reach from the stallion.

“Gods curse you, Perkar,” Ngangata hissed. “How could you—kill him. Now!”

For a moment, it was the old Perkar, the old Ngangata. What was the half man jabbering about? Why kill an injured man? And who was Ngangata to curse hunt

“The horse! For pity's sake, kill it!” Ngangata had his bow trained on the approaching figure. Perkar was nearest the suffering animal.

Of course. The Mang had been trying to reach the horse, put it out of its pain.

“Watch him, then,” Perkar answered, waving at the stranger. He turned on the beast.

It was gazing up at him, flanks heaving but its eye steady, a pool of black incomprehension.

“Oh, no,” Perkar whispered. “Harka, what did I do?”

“Bested two mounted men, I would say, ” his sword replied.

Perkar said nothing to that, but he swung the blade savagely down, cut through the handsome neck. The body heaved once as blood spurted, steaming, onto the snow, and then, mercifully, ceased to move.

Sickened almost to vomiting, Perkar turned as much of his attention as he could focus on the newcomer, who was by now only a score of paces away.

He had the appearance of a Mang man, though taller and rangier than most, features regular and handsome. His clothing was rich and spectacular; a long split coat of midnight-blue sable, ermine boots, a fringed elkhide shirt adorned with silver coins. Thick black hair, unbound, flowed from beneath a cylindrical felt hat, also banded with coins, both silver and gold.

“Huuzho, ” he said, uttering the typical Mang greeting in a sibilant, musical voice.

“Name yourself,” Perkar snarled back, still fighting nausea.

“Name yourself or come no closer. I have slain gods and will gladly do so again.”

“Have you?” the man said, bowing politely. “How interesting. In that case—I have no wish to die—I name myself Yaizh-been, and I present myself to you most humbly.”

“Yaizhbeen?” Perkar looked blankly at Ngangata, who was more fluent in Mang. “ Yai” meant a god of the sky, he remembered.

“Blackgod,” Ngangata translated. Perkar caught his friend's peculiar tone.

“At your service,” the man answered. “And so good to see you both again.”

“Again?” Perkar asked, but already puzzlement was grading toward dismay.

“Blackgod,” Ngangata said, without ever taking his eye from the man, “is one name that the Mang give Karak, the Raven.”

PERKAR snapped Harka up, flicking thick drops of horse blood through the air. A bit of it splattered on the Crow God's cheek, but he did not bunk, maintaining his somewhat condescending smirk.

“Karak,” Perkar gritted, “if you have a weapon, I suggest you draw it.”

“Perkar, this is useless, ” Harka's voice came in his ear.

Karak looked mildly surprised. “I fail to understand your mood,” he remarked, his voice smooth, confident. “And let me remind you that I named myself Blackgod. You asked me for a name, and that is the one you were given. Please call me by it.”

“I will call you as I please,” Perkar retorted. “Find a weapon.”

The Blackgod stepped forward until Harka was a fingerspan from his heart. His yellow eyes were steady on Perkar's. “What quarrel do you have with me, Perkar?” he demanded, though softly.

“Must I name them all? You tricked my friends and me into slaying an innocent woman. You yourself killed Apad. That is sufficient, I think.”

“I see,” the Blackgod replied. Perkar could feel the tension in Ngangata, but the halfling said nothing, though he surely wanted to. From the corner of his eye, Perkar could see that his friend's bow was still raised.

“Ngangata,” Perkar said, “please leave us.”

“Perkar—”

“Please. If you have come to care for me at all, if you have forgiven me at all, Ngangata, mount and ride from here. I could not stand it if you died now.”

“This is sweet, but there is no need for anyone to die,” Karak assured them reasonably.

“I believe otherwise.”

“Then let me answer your charges, mortal man,” the god said, a trace of anger showing at last. “For though I love carrion, I would prefer that you live for a time. Now, first, the woman. Who summoned my aid to enter the cavern and find the weapons she guarded?”

“We did not summon you.”

“Does it matter whom you intended to summon? You wished a guide to take you precisely where I took you, true?”

“Don't play games with me.”

Karak leaned into Harka until blood started on his skin. The blood was gold in color, dispelling any doubts Perkar had as to his identity. “True?” he repeated.

Perkar flattened his mouth into a grim Une. “True.”

“You wanted the weapons. They were bound to her blood, and she to the cave. The only way to take them was to kill her.”

“I would not have chosen to do that.”

“You did not. Your friend Apad did. Because you led him there, because he thought himself a coward and was proving himself to you. Apad got you what you wanted, Manchild.”

“And you killed him.”

“That was war. I obeyed my liege, the Forest Lord. I might remind you that disobeying your liege was what got you into that mess, by the way. Apad attacked me, and he died a warrior, rather than a coward or a murderer. He did considerable damage to the host of the Huntress before losing his ghost. What better death can a seeker of Piraku desire? How better to redeem himself?”

Perkar fought for words, but his tongue seemed thick and stupid beneath the weight of the Raven's verbal onslaught. “You are twisting this…” he began, but the Blackgod shook his head.

“Wait,” he went on. “There are crimes you did not name. Let me name them for you. I allowed you to survive, after the Huntress wounded you. I left you among the dead so that Harka, there, could heal you. I gave you a boat to negotiate the waters of the Changeling, at risk to my own life and position both from the River God and from my own liege lord. I cajoled and bribed Brother Horse into aiding Ngangata, here, to find you, and I told them when and where to locate you. Just now I killed an archer who might have slain your friend. Now. For these crimes will you kill me, as well, or will you kill me and then thank me, in the order that I brought things to you?”

Karak narrowed his eyes, and in that moment, though he retained his Human form, he seemed very birdlike indeed. “And,” he snapped, “if you have no interest in thanking me, do you not have even the slightest curiosity about my motives for following one lone, silly Human across half of the world to give him my aid? Do you not even wonder at that, Perkar? If not, you are a dolt. Push that sword into me, and we shall see who is the stronger, Harka or myself.”

I know the answer to that already, ” Harka said. “Sheathe me, you idiot. ”

Perkar ignored the blade. “Tell me then. Tell me why everything.”

“Perhaps,” the Crow God said, his voice again mild, “when you have lowered your weapon. Perhaps I will tell you how to set things right. Set everything right.”

“The war with the Mang? My people?”

“Everything.”

Grinding his teeth, Perkar slowly, reluctantly lowered Harka. He heard the creak of Ngangata's bow unflexing, as well.

“Make camp,” Karak commanded. “I will retrieve my mount.”

“You play dangerous games,” Ngangata told him as the Black-god walked back off the way he came.

“Not a game, Ngangata. You know that.”

“I know.”

“Don't forget your own advice, my friend,” Perkar said.

“Which advice?”

“About heroes. My fights are not your fights. When I provoke my doom, you should walk away.”

“That's true,” Ngangata acknowledged. “I should. But until you provoke it again, why don't you gather some wood while I see if our friend, here, is still alive.” He gestured at the crumpled figure of the Mang warrior.

“What will we do with him?” Perkar muttered.

“Depends. But we should learn why they attacked us.”

“Perhaps they know my people and theirs are at war. Perhaps they merely wanted our skins as trophies for their yekts.”

“Perhaps,” Ngangata conceded. “But did you hear what they were yelling as they attacked?”

“I don't remember them yelling anything.”

“They called us shez. Shez are demons who bring disease. This is not an ordinary sort of insult.”

“Oh.” Perkar watched Ngangata kneel by the side of the injured man. The warrior was still alive, though breathing shal-lowly. Perkar walked back toward the stream, searching for deadwood, trying to keep his feelings from crowding out reason. What could Karak—or Blackgod, or whatever his true name might be—what could he offer to “set everything right”? The Raven was glib and clever, had a way of making the absurd seem reasonable. Yet one thing he said rang powerfully true to Perkar. Why would Karak care about Aim? Karak had changed his whole destiny—or at least given him the means to change his own destiny and follow a certain path. Why would a god take such an intimate interest in him?

He glanced back, to see that the Raven was leading his mount to where Ngangata still knelt over the injured man. Perkar pushed a little farther into the thin trees, trying to remember what he could about Karak while also searching for firewood.

Ngangata had reminded him that Karak was an aspect of the Forest Lord. The Forest Lord had other aspects—the Huntress, for instance, and the great one-eyed beast who had carried on the actual negotiations with the Kapaka—but Karak seemed to be the most deviant, the most free-willed of those avatars. And Karak himself was said to be of ambiguous nature, the Crow and the Raven. The Crow was greedy, spiteful, a trickster who took pleasure in causing pain. Raven—the songs spoke of Raven as a loftier god, one who went about in the beginning times shaping the world into its present form. Some said that he had actually drawn the original mud from beneath the waters to create the world. Others claimed that he stole the sun from a mighty demon and brought it to light the heavens. Perkar had paid little attention to such stories; the faraway doings of gods distant in both time and space had never been as important to his people as the gods they knew, the ones who lived in pasture, field, forest—and, of course, stream.

Now he was camping with a god said to have created the world, and he could not remember which stories about him were supposed to be true and which were told merely to entertain children on dark winter evenings.

“Tell me about Karak, Harka,” he said.

“About Karak or about the Blackgod? ”

“They are the same, are they not?”

“Mostly. But different names always make a difference. ”

“Did he really create the world?”

“I wasn't there.”

“Don't evade.”

“No one created the world. But I think the Raven may well have created dry land. ”

“I can't believe that.”

“Why is it important? What does this have to do with the present? ”

Perkar sighed. “I don't know. I just … what does he want with me?”

I think that he will tell you, soon enough, ” Harka replied. “Just keep your wits about you. Listen to everything he says, so that you can go over and over it later. The Raven gets things done. He is the Forest Lords wit, his cunning, his hand. He goes about making things and unmaking them. The Crow always tries to twist around what the Forest Lord commands, make it into something different, and even when the Crow and Raven are in accord, the Crow works through treachery, deceit, and chicanery. Still, they say, if you pay close attention—very close attention—you can hear the Raven telling you how to defeat the Crow. ”

“It makes perfect sense. You've done it yourself—made excuses for doing things you knew you shouldn't do. Planning to check on the cattle because your father wanted you to, but finding just enough other things to keep you busy so that you didn't have time to. ”

“That doesn't seem like the same thing,” Perkar answered doubtfully. “But I will think on it.”

By now he had an armload of deadwood and so, with many misgivings, turned back toward Ngangata and Karak.

He got the fire started in silence, as Ngangata erected the tent. The Mang warrior had regained consciousness and regarded them with a mixture of bleary resignation and hostility. Karak merely sat, silent, watching them. Perkar decided that if the god was going to speak, it would be in his own time; he would not beg him to talk, certainly.

“What are you called?” he asked the warrior instead.

The man narrowed his eyes. “You are not my friend, and you are not kin to me.”

“I didn't ask for your name” Perkar persisted. “Just something to call you.”

The man regarded him sullenly for a moment more. “Give me a drink of water,” he finally said, “and I will give you something to call me.”

Wordlessly Perkar handed him a water skin. The warrior drank deeply.

“Does your leg hurt?” Perkar asked.

“It hurts.” He took another drink of water, then threw the skin back at Perkar, who caught it deftly. “You may call me Good Thief.”

“Good Thief,” Perkar repeated. “Fine. Good Thief, why did you attack us?”

“To kill you.” The warrior sneered. Across the fire, the Black-god chuckled in appreciation.

“Well, you failed in that,” Perkar apprised him lightly.

“Yes. Because we did not believe,” the man retorted bitterly. “We thought the gaan was exaggerating.”

“A shaman?”

“He saw you in a vision. He said you were a disease upon the land. He said you brought the war with the Cattle People.”

Perkar stared. “What?”

“Yes, but he said you were also demons, that only by singing and drumming could you be killed. Only by fighting you with gods.” He turned to gaze at his companion's corpse, at the messy ruin of the horse. “We should have listened, but we wanted your skins. We were fools.”

“You came after us, specifically after usT Perkar pressed, frowning, poking at the fire with a branch, unwilling to meet the Mang's accusing eyes.

“The Brush-Man and the Cattle-Man, traveling together at the stream. The gaan saw you in a vision.”

“Saw us in a vision,” Perkar echoed dully.

The Blackgod sidled up to the fire, sat closer. Ngangata, finished with the tent, joined them, as well.

“You see,” Blackgod said. “You have many enemies, Perkar. Enemies you don't even know about. You need my advice.”

“What do you know about this?” Perkar demanded.

“In the west, there is a Mang shaman. He has been given a vision and seeks your death.”

“Given a vision by whom? By what god? You?” Perkar snapped.

“Oh, no,” Raven answered. “Sent by another friend of yours, the Changeling.”

“The Changeling,” Ngangata interjected placidly, “is not so sentient.”

“Oh, well, certainly you know more about gods than I do. Certainly you know the Changeling better than I, his brother.” Raven grinned evilly, “Listen to me. All you know is altered, for the years have moved. Once the Changeling was the most cunning of us all. Once he was stupider than a beast. Now—well, now he has awakened sufficiently to send dreams to a shaman. To do other things, as well.”

“Why? And why does he provoke them to kill Ngangata and me?”

“That is simple enough,” the Blackgod said, his voice laden with dark glee. “He knows that you have the means to destroy him.”

VI Old Friends

GHE stopped outside of the library door and fingered his neck again, felt the ridge of flesh beneath the high collar, hoping no one would find it suspicious. High collars came in and out of fashion in the palace. They were currently out, but then, he was supposed to be Yen, a merchant's boy who joined the engineer corps of the priesthood. Merchants' sons were known for ambitious but uninformed fashion sense.

He fingered through his memory, as well, retracing his fictional Ufe as Yen, trying to remember all that he had done and said. It would be both embarrassing and dangerous if Ghan were to catch him in a he. Fortunately, he had rarely spoken directly to Ghan, but instead to Hezhi. What he didnt know was how much Hezhi had told Ghan about Yen.

And so he continued to hesitate near the arching entrance to the library, peering around the dark places in his mind, recreating Yen. Soft updock accent, each syllable of each word carefully pronounced. Different from his own Southtown accent with its clipped words and clattery consonants, but familiar enough to him, easy to imitate. His father was supposed to be an up-River trader, himself a lover of the exotic. The trace of a smile lightened his brooding features as he remembered the little Mang statuette he had given Hezhi, the story he fabricated about how his “father” obtained it. Hezhi had loved it—how well he recalled that. Surrounded by a palace full of riches and servants, her eyes had genuinely flown wide in delight at a stone's-weight of brass cast in the form of a horse with a woman's upper body. How would she have felt had she known he took it from the shelf of a petty noble from the Swamp Kingdoms, just after ending the man's overly ambitious career?

The hallway was beginning to become crowded as midmorning absolutions approached. Gaudily clad nobles, prim maidservants, bodyguards, and austere counselors all mingled through the arteries of the palace. Elsewhere they were pooling in fountain rooms, praying to the River where he erupted into the palace itself.

He should leave the hall, he knew. It would not do for someone—from the priesthood, for instance—to recognize him. Especially not now, when the Ahw'en arm of the priesthood—those who investigated mysterious goings-on—must surely be active, searching for some trace of a certain vanished nobleman—the man whose clothes Ghe was currently wearing. The Ahw'en were often Jik, like himself. No, best he avoid crowds.

Thus, although not certain he was prepared, he stepped into the library, where few in the palace ventured.

It was, as he remembered, daunting. Mahogany shelves suffused the illumination from thick-paned skylights, swirled it about the room like cream stirred into coffee. Ghe was struck by the illusion that walls were hung with tapestries woven from the bodies of enormous millipedes, each segment of their bony armor the spine of a book. Most of the books were black and brown, enhancing this impression. The few that stood out—here a deep yellow, burgundy, indigo—these only suggested, somehow, that the great worms were poisonous. The books curled thus around a carpeted area in which several low tables stood, surrounded by cushions for sitting. Beyond, the shelves wandered back into the deep, narrow labyrinth Hezhi had named the Tangle. He remembered how effortlessly Hezhi had glided through the endless shelves of books, selecting first this, then that one for “Yen.” At first he had only pretended to pay attention to her talk of the “index” and the manner in which books were filed. Eventually, however, her enthusiasm proved infectious; knowledge was a weapon, and Hezhi had an arsenal at her command, one she seemed willing to share. He wondered now, belatedly, if she hadn't used that arsenal to defeat him; certainly she had used it to escape the city. But had she somehow found the pale stranger with his supernatural weapon in the pages of these books? Had she conjured him, like a demon, from some tome?

Ghan's desk was set apart, and behind it sat the old man himself, copying or annotating a bulky volume. He wore an umber robe, and his skin gleamed a peculiar parchment yellow, so that he seemed as much a part of the room as the ancient documents that filled it. His features were sharp—jagged, almost—harsh frown lines etched permanently in his flesh. Not a pleasant man, Ghe remembered. He had dreamed, on first meeting him, of slipping a knife into his heart. Later he had come to think of the scholar as brave—but he had never learned to like him.

Though Ghe was the only other visible person in the room, Ghan never raised his eyes to acknowledge him.

He approached Ghan timidly, as “Yen” might. The old man continued writing, obscure and beautiful characters licking from his pen onto the paper with astonishing speed. Ghe cleared his throat.

Ghan did look up then, his eyes hard pinpricks of annoyance beneath the wrapped black cloth that obscured his bald head.

“Yes?” he inquired testily.

“Ah,” said Ghe, suddenly not certain that his reluctance was entirely feigned. “Master Ghan, you might remember me. I am—”

“I know who you are,” Ghan snapped.

For a frozen instant, Ghe felt a stab of something like fear. Ghan's gaze seemed to tear away the brocaded collar and reveal his throat, his true nature. He was acutely aware of all of the things he had forgotten. Had Ghan ever known him to be a Jik?

“I'm sure you remember how to find your books on arches and sewers,” Ghan went on. “There is no need to bother me.”

Relief rushed from his feet, through his gut, up to the top of his head. Ghan was merely being himself, impatient and unhelpful. He still believed him to be Yen, the architect.

“Master Ghan,” he rushed out as the old man threatened to return to his work. “It has been some time since I have been in the library.”

“A few months,” Ghan replied. “A fraction of a year. Is your head not capable of holding information longer than that?”

Ghe shifted uncomfortably. “Yes, Master Ghan, it is. I…”

“Don't waste my time,” Ghan cautioned.

Ghe lowered his voice, willed his face into lines of distress. Inwardly he felt relief; he was now in complete control of the mask he wore, his worry evaporated into the stale air of the library. “Master Ghan,” he whispered almost inaudibly. “Master Ghan, I have come to ask you about Hezhi.”

Ghan stared at him for a moment, and something flashed behind his flat countenance, was mastered, and vanished. Ghe appreciated that; Ghan had a very well crafted mask, as well.

“Hezhinata,” Ghan corrected, adding the suffix to denote someone a ghost.

“Hezhi,” Ghe insisted softly.

Ghan trembled for an instant, and then the trembling reached his face and transfigured it, tightened it into fury.

“Darken your mouth!” he barked. “Don't speak of such things.”

Ghe persisted, though adding even more reluctance to his manner. “I believe you cared for her,” he said cautiously. “She was your student, and your pride in her was obvious. Master Ghan, I cared for her, too. We… she cared for me. Now she has gone, and everyone says she is a ghost. But I know better, do you understand? I have heard the rumors the priests whisper. I know she escaped the city, fled with her bodyguard.”

Ghan ticked his pen against the white page; Ghe noticed that the heretofore flawless document now had several irregular splotches of ink upon it. He knows! Ghe thought exuberantly. He knows where she has gone!

Ghan glanced away and then stared back up at Ghe.

“Young man, I can only caution you against repeating such things,” he said softly. “I know you cared for her. It was evident. But she is dead, do you understand? I'm sorry for you, but it is true. I myself am still in grief—I will be until the day I die. But Hezhinata is dead. She was laid in state with her ancestors in the vaults beneath the Water Temple.”

He glanced down at the ruined page and crinkled his eyes in exasperation. “If you need to use the library,” he said, “I will help you, as she would have. I will do that for her. If you do not want to use the library, then you must leave. I will call the guard if need be, and you will be embarrassed before your order. Do you understand?”

Ghan's eyes were mild now, but they were also inflexible. Ghe could think of no reply that might draw out more information.

“As you say,” he finally relented. And then, defiantly: “But I know.”

“Get out,” Ghan said, his voice as brittle and dangerous as broken glass.

Ghe nodded, bowed in respect, and left the library.

HE retraced his steps through the narrow corridors, eyes alert, brow furrowed. Ghan was more obstinate than he had imagined; winning his help would be no easy task—and he needed Ghan's help.

It had, at least, been good to speak to someone, to further prove to himself that he was indeed alive. He had been living in the palace for two days now, but furtively, observing and trying not to be seen. His only real encounter with a person up until now had been—well, less than cordial.

His first day had been spent trying to find a place to stay; that had been, actually, his easiest task. The old wing of the palace had many uninhabited sections, and beneath that were the even less frequented spaces of the earlier palace that the present one was built upon. Hezhi had spent much time in those abandoned places, and Ghe had followed her, now and then, exploring them himself at other times. Finding a place where the guards never went was far from impossible, and he had done so rather easily.

Finding clothes to replace his own ruined ones had been more difficult and more dangerous. Worse, he had discovered something unpleasant about himself. The apartment he entered for the purpose of stealing garments was that of a young man attached to minor nobility. Ghe had chosen him from a number of drunken revelers in the Red Blossom Courtyard, favored by the young for its remoteness. The fellow had the right build, no bodyguard, and was so inebriated he would likely never notice Ghe's entry into his apartment. Nor did he; and yet when Ghe saw him, unconscious on his bed, hunger suddenly replaced his desire for clothing. Feeding on a monster beneath the city was one thing; killing a man in the palace who would be missed was another. Nevertheless, almost without his own knowledge, he had torn apart the strands of life in the sleeping man and devoured them, leaving a body as cold and bereft of life as a stone. It had seemed incautious to leave the body where it lay—the Ah-w'en might have some method of determining how he died—and so now it rested beneath the palace, returning its substance to the River.

He wondered how often he would have to feed like that.

Indirect afternoon sunlight dazzled from stuccoed white walls as he stepped from the dark hall into a courtyard. He brushed past the fronds of a tree fern, savored the smell of bread baking and garlicky lamb singeing on skewers. The old woman cooking gave him a glance and then returned to her work, uninterested. Above, a second woman clucked something from her third-story window down to the cook, who merely waved indifferently up at her. He swept on through the small plaza, relieved when he gained the near darkness of the next hall, lit only obscurely by the blue patterns seeping through bricks of colored glass set in the roof.

He returned his thoughts to Ghan. He had learned at least three useful things from the old man. First, that he could still speak to other Human Beings in a normal fashion, something he had begun to doubt; not only normally, but as a Jik, concealing his true self—whatever that was now. Second, that Ghan did not, in fact, know his true identity. As far as Ghan was concerned, he was Yen, a young man infatuated with Hezhi. Finally, though denying it verbally, it was clear from various subtle signs—which he could still read—that the librarian knew that Hezhi was alive and probably knew where she could be found. That meant that he was on a productive trail, likely the only trail, since, as it turned out, he had lain in the depths of the palace for nearly five months. Hezhi must be far from Nhol, far from the River and his vision.

Ghe passed the entrance to the Hall of Moments, where light coruscated so brightly through colored glass that he had once believed the Waterborn had snared a rainbow to live there with them. He went by it quickly, head lowered as if in thought or deference, and hurried into the empty portions of the palace. It was there, some fifty paces down the Hall of Jade Efreets, that he noticed the man following him. Though startled, he gave no sign, instead continuing on as if nothing were odd. He took a few strange turns, leaving the traveled thoroughfares far behind, and eventually stopped to rest and wait in another of the palace's innumerable courtyards. This one—he did not know its name—was in a sad state of disrepair, yet, consequently, had a melancholy beauty. Small, open to the sky, it was sunken through three tiers of palace, overlooked by eight empty, cobwebbed balconies. The pallid winter sun draped a scraggly, ancient olive tree in saffron light, and a few grassy weeds clawed at the pitted limestone pavement. Ghe sat on a bench of antique design, a stone slab supported by leaping granite fish—though the latter were mostly obscured by moss and lichen. A thick, black thornbush of some sort twisted tortuously up the wall he faced to cling to a wrought-iron second-floor balcony. Ghe idly wondered if it were some sort of rose vine and if its blossoms would also be black.

A moment later, the man entered the court, and Ghe had his first good look at the person's face. He nodded in gentle surprise; the face seemed familiar, and he should know the name that went with it. But he did not; it was fled into the darkness where so much of him had gone. For a moment, as he watched the recognition dawn on the other face, Ghe felt a profound bitterness, resentment even. Why should this man be whole, when he himself was not?

“Ghe?” the fellow asked.

Ghe managed a smile, though his anger continued to grow.

“I am Yen presently,” he said. “Watching, you know.”

“Where have you been?” He had boyish features, mouth a bit crooked. Ghe seemed to remember liking the man, or at least liking something about him.

“Just now? The library.”

“I mean for the past several months. You disappeared, after that mess at the Ember Gate. We thought you were dead.”

Ghe feigned puzzlement. “Dead? No, I was just reassigned. They sent me down to Yengat, in the Swamp Kingdoms, to alleviate a little problem. I've just returned, and they've assigned me to another… child.”

“Oh,” the man said. “I guess I just didn't hear. Things were in such chaos, afterward. All of those priests and soldiers, dead—I just assumed she got you, too.”

“What happened to her?” Ghe asked. “I never heard.”

“They caught her, finally, in the desert.”

“Ah.”

There was an awkward pause, and the man flashed Ghe an uncomfortable little smile. “Well,” he said at last. “I thought I recognized you. I just wanted to make sure. Come around the compound, when you get a chance.”

“They have me staying over here right now,” Ghe replied. “But I will.”

“Good.” He turned to go. Ghe watched him walk ten paces, quickening slightly with each step. He sighed. “Wait,” he called. The man took another step or two, then slowly turned around. “Come back. What did I say wrong?”

The soft face hardened, eyes narrowing; he snorted at Ghe. “Everything. Who are you, really?”

“Oh, I am Ghe. That part is true.”

“Is it? One of the priests who survived saw your head cut off. And I've been promoted; I would know if you had been sent to the Swamp Kingdoms. So I ask again, who are you?”

“No one, if I am not Ghe,” he answered, standing up and striding toward the young man, who nodded as Ghe approached—as if he had asked himself a question and then answered it.

Ten steps away, and the man's right hand struck out, an easy, casual, fantastically quick motion. Ghe was prepared, and when the mean, thin blade reached where he had been, he was a full step to the left, pivoting against the wall. The steel pinged against something behind him as Ghe pounced, landed lightly just beyond arm's reach. His opponent lashed out with a second blade, this one not made for throwing but for penetrating bone, for cutting heart and lung. The knife was wielded skillfully enough, but to Ghe it seemed pitifully slow, its arcing thrust utterly predictable. He stepped in, caught the wrist and elbow, just as the other Jik's left hand slammed into the cluster of nerves on the side of his head. A jangling pain rang though his skull, but Ghe's grip remained firm on the knife-arm until the other twisted strangely, dropping his knife in the process, and quickly stepped away, free of his grasp.

“Very good,” Ghe softly commanded. “A trick I didn't know.”

“You are Ghe,” the man said. ”Quicker, maybe, stronger. But his moves, his techniques. What happened to you?”

In answer, Ghe skipped forward, feinted with a lunging punch far short of its target, followed it with a rear foot sweep. Almost, but not quite, his enemy avoided the low, vicious kick to his ankle; but Ghe clipped a heel, and the other man grunted as he stumbled back, off balance. Ghe leapt forward, committing to a dangerous lunging kick, hoping that the man actually was off balance and not feigning. He was rewarded with a harsh gasp as the ball of his foot splintered the man's sternum. He fell heavily against the courtyard wall, glaring at Ghe and spitting flecks of blood.

Ghe paused, not quite knowing why. Had this man been his friend? Probably not; he felt that he had few friends. But he was certainly a Jik, and perhaps a fond acquaintance.

Though clearly injured, the other lashed out with the back of his hand, but Ghe knew it for a feint and so sidestepped the stronger punch from the opposing fist, cracked his own knuckles along the man's spine. The Jik dropped and did not move until Ghe retrieved the fallen knife; then he made one feeble attempt to sweep Ghe's feet. Ghe was never convinced his opponent was really unconscious, however, and easily avoided the attack. He finished him with a quick thrust under the jaw, up into the brain case, watched the eyes roll and then set themselves, senseless, to watching the sky.

“I wonder what your name was,” Ghe whispered to the dead man, and panting, sat against the wall, hand still on the knife hilt.

He watched, fascinated, as the colored strands inside of the man began to unravel. He was not hungry, not at the moment, and so he just watched, curious to see how men died.

The strands fell away. The ones extending into limbs and organs withered, vanished, were sucked up by the dimming knot in the heart. The knot, untied into slender filaments, now braided into a thick strand, and as Ghe watched, it retied itself in a new pattern, dimming further still, until almost he could not see it. It lay there for a time and then stirred, like a feather touched by the merest breeze. Curious, Ghe reached to touch it, not with his hand but with the something he used when he fed. The little bundle shivered, fluttered, moved to him. Ghe took hold of it gently, felt its rhythmic pulse, like a bird's heartbeat.

What is this? it said. Just like a voice, but a voice that spoke in the hollows of his bones, in the beat of his own heart. What has happened?

It was the dead man. Qan Yazhwu, son of Wenli, the netmaker—images flickered in Ghe's mind: childhood, a woman, the first terrified moment when learning to swim…

Shuddering, he thrust it away, and the voice was gone. The ghost-seed tumbled away from him and then once again chose a direction, floating purposefully down the hall. When it met with a wall it passed on through it effortlessly. Ghe understood where it was going. Downstream, to the River.

“Farewell, Qan Yazhwunata,” he whispered, and then turned back to the body, considering its disposal.

VII Surrounded by Monsters

HEZHI leaned against the wind-smoothed stone, steadied herself, and caught her breath. Already the terror of what she had seen was fading, but the strangeness of it remained, the shock. Brother Horse had seemed to her, in the short time she had known him, the most Human of creatures: earthy, affectionate, and easygoing. He had comforted her from the first, from the moment they met, lifting her onto his horse, wrapping her tight in his arms as they thundered away from Nhol, from her birthplace and her doom.

But he was most certainly not Human, or at least not completely so. Human Beings did not have creatures living inside of them.

At least, she did not think they did.

“I can't trust anyone,” she said aloud. “Only Tsem.”

And perhaps Perkar. It was odd, that thought. She had known Perkar for no more than a day longer than she had known Brother Horse, and she had seen the ugliness he was capable of, the slaughtered bodies of her father's ehte guard, the decapitation of Yen. But Perkar and she were twisted together in some way, braided by their own desires—not for each other, perhaps, but bonded in some inextricable fashion. It was not love—she loved Tsem, she loved Ghan, loved Qey. What bound her and Perkar was not that, nor was it the awkward, restless desire that Yen had inspired. It was something less compelling but more powerful.

But that was her belly talking. Her brain was learning to trust itself, and it told her that even Perkar was not to be counted on.

The cliffs behind her soared as high as three-story buildings and were often as sheer as city walls. She had regarded them from afar, from the village, and they had seemed mysterious, intriguing. Like a city, yet not a city. Spires, walls, caverns like halls—she had imagined them all. Crinkling her brow, rebellious, she strode back into them, following a crooked canyon floor, trying not to think about the things in Brother Horse, the god of the cairn, about gods and demons everywhere.

She was suddenly struck by an odd memory. The stone rising about her seemed to form a vast hall, and save for the lack of buttresses and a real ceiling, she was suddenly, powerfully reminded of the Leng Court, where her father often held ceremonies and audiences. When last she had been in the court she had seen a drama, a representation of the legend of her family. It told of the People, surrounded on all sides by monsters, unable to save themselves, and of how Chakunge, the son of Gau—a chieftain's daughter—and the River destroyed them all.

Surrounded by monsters: that was what the Mang were, surrounded by monsters, in every stone—maybe more than surrounded, maybe even penetrated, if all were like Brother Horse. In Nhol, the River had changed that, at least, killed these things that infested the land the way termites infested wood or maggots old meat. Maybe that was what these cliffs were, a place where these “gods” had burrowed, like insects, through the land, tried in some crude fashion to form a city comparable to Nhol.

It dawned on her that her people might not have been all that different from the Mang at one time. The girl in the story, Gau: she had been the daughter of a “chieftain”—a very old word, one not used anymore except to refer to the leaders of barbarian tribes. But Hezhi's own people had once had chieftains, very long ago. Before becoming a part of the River, before escaping from these visions…

The wind hummed and shuddered through the stone corridors, and Hezhi felt fright creeping back upon her. What if her “godsight” came now, and she saw whatever thing made that noise? What if the cliffs suddenly came alive around her?

They could most easily enter her through her eyes, Brother Horse claimed. Despairing, she sank down to her knees, then sat, shut her eyes, and imagined a cool breeze across rooftops, Qey in the kitchen, fussing over an evening meal of braised chicken with garlic, black rice, and fish dumplings.

In Nhol she had learned to fear darkness; now she found solace in it.

I wish Perkar were here, she thought, clenching and unclenching fistfuls of the grainy sand. There was no snow here, though she had noticed drifts piled against the south canyon wall. Still, it was cold. It would get colder at night. Where would she go? Back to the camp, where Brother Horse and those creatures in him waited? Where everyone was a relative of the old man and no one trusted her at all?

Yes, she needed Perkar.

As she thought this a second time she suddenly realized what she was doing and snarled in sudden self-fury. Perkar was right not to trust her! Once she had called him from across the world, from his home and family, and for what? So that he could slaughter men in the streets of Nhol that she might escape her destiny. And now, here she was, in the midst of that new destiny he had sacrificed so much to help her create, and she was wishing for him to come save her again, to bring his bloody blade and make carrion of her problems.

No, not again. This time she would make her own way.

But what did that mean? Could she survive here, in the Mang Wastes, without the Mang or Perkar?

No, she could not.

Could she face Brother Horse again? She didn't know if she could do that, either.

Abruptly she realized that she might no longer have a choice. New sounds intruded upon the slow, terrible melodies of wind through stone. The muffled rhythm of hoofbeats, tinkle of brass bells, and human voices moving nearer with each moment. Reluctantly she opened her eyes and glanced quickly around. What would she do if it was Brother Horse? He must know that she had seen him. Had he intended that?

Well, she would face him. If she died, she died. She would not die weeping or cowering. She was Hezhi, daughter of the emperor of Nhol, once possessed of enough power to make the world quake beneath her feet. It would take more than an old man possessed by demons to make her cringe.

Still, she trembled a bit as she stood to face the hoofbeats.

Two horsemen had entered the canyon. Neither was Brother Horse. They were Mang, clothed in bachgay—long black coats split for riding—and flaring elkskin breeks. Rigid bands of lacquered armor showed beneath their coats. Both bore bows. It was plain, even to her, that they were following her tracks—and that they now saw her.

As they drew closer, she realized that she did not recognize them; they were not of Brother Horse's band. This was no surprise—since the Ben'cheen had begun, there were more strange faces than familiar ones. What was more disturbing was that these men also wore steel caps with plumes of red-dyed horsehair, and she remembered hearing that this signified being at war. She glanced around, wondering where she might hide, but there was nowhere; the cliffs were too sheer to scale—at least for her to scale—and there were no obvious caves or crevasses to crawl into. She could only watch them come, alert for any sign of their intentions on their faces.

When they drew nearer, they unstrung their bows, returned them to ornately embroidered sheaths. They paused in doing this, and though one might take his eyes from her, the other was always watching, as if she were a snake or some other dangerous thing.

Done disarming, they urged their mounts closer to where she stood, and she, not certain how to respond, merely watched them come.

“Du'unuzho, shigiindeye?” one asked softly. “Are you all right, cousin?” His accent was strange, not like that of Brother Horse, though she could still understand him. Up close, his face was not as fierce as it appeared from a distance; lean and narrow, it tapered pleasantly. His eyes were not black, as were her own or those of the other Mang she knew, but a light brown, flecked faintly with green. He was quite young, perhaps no more than fifteen. His companion looked the same age, though more thickly built, his face and eyes more typically Mang.

“Gaashuzho, ” she answered. “I will be.”

He nodded, but his face registered the strangeness of her accent. He cast his eyes down for a moment, as if considering how to say what he wanted to say.

“You are not Mang,” he settled upon at last.

“No,” she answered. “No, I am not. But I am in the care of the South People.” Brother Horse had told her to explain that to any strangers she met.

“It is she” the second rider hissed, but the first held up his hand to silence him.

“My cousins call me Moss, for my eyes,” he explained. “My war name is Strums the Bow. You may call me Moss, if you please. My cousin's name is Chuuzek.”

“Hey!” Chuuzek grumbled, and Hezhi wondered if he was upset because his name had been given to a stranger or if it was because the name Moss gave meant “He-Continually-Goes-About-Belching.”

“My name is Hezhi,” she replied, knowing it was polite to give a name when one was offered. “Have you come here for the Ben'cheen?”

“Partly,” Moss told her. “We are of the Four Spruces People.” He said that as if it should be significant, and Hezhi was sure that it probably was, to other Mang. It meant nothing to her, but she nodded as if it did. Moss regarded her impassively, then cleared his throat. “Well,” he said. “I would like to offer you a ride back to the village. It is a long walk from here.”

“No, thank you,” Hezhi replied. “I have a companion I shall rejoin shortly.”

“Ah,” Moss replied. Chuuzek looked around the canyon at that, expressing either disbelief or wariness. He grunted something under his breath.

Something isn't right, Hezhi realized. These two were acting oddly, even by Mang standards. It could be because she was not Mang, but there was Chuuzek's blurted “It is she.” That worried her immensely, and she wished now that they would go away. Moss seemed pleasant enough, concerned even, but then so had Yen, and he had been prepared to kill her.

“I think,” Moss said apologetically, “that I should insist. It is not meet that we leave you here, wandering about in the cliffs. Your companion is Mang?”

“He is.”

“Then he will find his way home easily enough.”

“He will wonder what became of me.”

Chuuzek snorted. “If he is Mang, he will read the signs well enough.”

Hezhi frowned up at them. She could see the hilts of their swords clearly, protruding from sheaths laced to their saddles. Chuuzek had his hand upon his, but Moss' were folded loosely, casually, at the base of his horse's neck.

“You wear war tassels,” she said. “I can't know what your intentions are.”

“It is true,” Moss said. “We are at war. Not with you. But I might take you captive, if that is the only way you will allow me to return you to the village.”

“I still prefer to decline.”

Chuuzek snarled; Hezhi could see that he was genuinely angry. Moss merely looked uncomfortable.

“I would rather have your permission,” he began, but at that moment he was interrupted by the sound of another horse approaching.

Hezhi looked beyond them to the new arrival, saw that it was Brother Horse, mounted, Heen trotting a hundred paces or so behind. For just a moment it all seemed far too much. The stranger she knew or the stranger she did not know?

Surrounded by monsters.

She would watch them. She would pretend that she did not care what happened to her. That was simple enough.

“Well, hello,” Brother Horse bellowed as he drew nearer. “How are my nephews from the Four Spruces Clan?”

Moss turned in his saddle and then dismounted, a sign of great respect. Chuuzek dismounted, also, with some hesitation, muttering under his breath.

“We are well enough, Grandfather,” Moss replied. “Only trying to convince this little thrush that the snow and open sky are no place for her with sundown approaching.”

Brother Horse smiled broadly. “My little niece is a hard-headed thrush,” he explained, his eyes focused on Hezhi rather than on the two warriors. “I appreciate the concern, however.”

Hezhi shivered. Brother Horse seemed so normal. Suddenly she doubted what she had seen; perhaps the monsters within him were merely some illusion created by the Fire Goddess, by the unevenness of her own vision. Once again, she did not know enough. But if, inside, Brother Horse was really a demon, what hope did she have?

Her only hope lay with herself. Not with Perkar, not with Tsem, not with the River. She did not need a butcher or a giant. She strained, for the first time trying to will the godsight to happen, to force a vision of the old man.

His form did not waver; he remained as he seemed.

Brother Horse leaned in his saddle and the leather creaked loudly within the red walls of stone around them. “Hezhi,” he said. “Will you return with us now? It's too cold for an old man to be out searching for his niece.”

“Leave her to us, then,” Chuuzek grumbled, but he kept his eyes firmly on the ground, not willing to challenge the old man directly.

“No,” Brother Horse said. “My niece is shy around strangers. She is not very trusting.”

Was there more than common emphasis on the last word? Was he accusing her?

But why should she trust him?

I am cold,” she said rather shortly. ”I would like to get back to Tsem now.”

“Climb up behind me, then.” Brother Horse grunted.

“She may share my horse,” Moss offered. “I would consider it an honor.”

Of course you would, Hezhi fumed. What do you want of me? To kill me, as Yen did? My skin, to hang in your yekt? Or merely sex, like Werft? She was unable to avert her eyes quickly enough to avoid shooting him a poisonous glance; she saw the venom mirror against his eyes, saw what appeared to be dismay.

Be hurt, Hezhi retorted in her mind. But you want something. You may be smart enough to hide it, but your cousin is not

“No, best she ride with me,” Brother Horse said good-naturedly. But there was a certainty in the way he said it, a gentle termination of the debate.

“Very well,” Moss replied, his voice betraying no ill feelings. “I only offered.”

“And I only refused you,” Hezhi replied, using the polite “you” to soften her words. To imply that at another time, under other circumstances, she might not refuse. Though she would, of course.

Climbing up behind Brother Horse, she felt more comfortable almost instantly. Safe from whatever unknown threat the young warriors represented. The feeling was so much against her will—she wanted to stay wary, alert, and angry—that she wondered if it might not be some form of enchantment. Brother Horse was, after all, a gaan, and she knew nothing of the powers he might wield. Still, nothing seemed amiss or odd about the old man. To the contrary, he was just as he had always been.

THEY rode back to the Ben'cheen all in a clump. The sun was westering, but not, as Moss had implied, particularly near setting. Hezhi kept her head pressed against Brother Horse's coat, thinking that perhaps she would hear a growl or some other strange sound from within his body. She did not, and so instead she focused on the conversation, idly noting the slight differences in their speech.

“Is it odd that you go about with your helmets so?” Brother Horse asked after a moment.

“It would be odd if we were not at war,” Moss replied softly, after a considered pause. “As things stand, it is not odd at all.”

“I see. And who are my western relatives at war with?”

“The Mang' Moss corrected, “are at war with the Cattle People.”

Hezhi felt the muscles of Brother Horse's back tighten.

“War? Not just raiding?” His voice sounded casual, but the tension Hezhi sensed remained. “Why have I not heard of this?”

“News travels slowly on the plains in winter. That is why Chuuzek and I have come; we bring the news that our people will not be at the Ben'cheen this year.”

“Tell me more of this,” Brother Horse demanded. He kept his horse carefully at a walk, and the younger men were obliged to maintain the same pace, though the colorful cluster of tents was visible in the distance, the sounds of celebration already audible.

Chuuzek spit over his left shoulder. “They have invaded our upland grazing lands, built fortresses to defend them. They sent men to ask for them first—very polite.”

“You told them no.”

“We sent their heads back. It is our pasture.”

Brother Horse sighed. “That is true,” he allowed. “It belongs to the western bands.”

It was only then that Hezhi understood, that she remembered who the “Cattle People” were: Perkar's people.

“Oh, no,” she muttered.

It was a small exclamation, not intended to be overheard, but Moss caught it, favored her with brief but intense scrutiny.

“Where is your niece from?” Moss asked quietly.

Hezhi understood, of course, that Moss did not for a moment believe that she was Brother Horse's niece. Though her appearance more resembled the Mang than it did Perkar's strange folk, there were still quite noticeable differences. And Moss had heard her speak, could not help but know her Mang was recently learned. “Niece” was merely the polite way for an older man to speak of a younger woman—particularly one under his protection.

“She is from Nhol,” Brother Horse told him in a tone that made it clear that the question, though it had been answered, was not a welcome one. “And she is my niece in all but blood.”

“Huh,” Chuuzek grunted, but Moss merely nodded acceptance.

“There are two more at my fire right now,” Brother Horse went on, “two more who also do not share the blood of the Horse Mother, who have no kin amongst the herds. But they are under my protection, as well. My clan and I would take it hard if anything should happen to them.”

Hes telling them about Perkar and Ngangata, she thought.

“Also from Nhol?” Moss asked.

“No, not at all,” Brother Horse replied.

There was a brief, restless silence, during which Chuuzek became more and more agitated, chewing his lip and bunching the reins in his hands.

“If they are Cattle People, I will kill them,” he suddenly blurted defiantly.

Brother Horse reined his mount to a full stop and turned in his saddle to face the young man squarely.

“If you kill a man—or a woman—under my protection, in my village, I will consider it murder,” he said. His tone remained placid, but the words somehow conveyed the most resolute finality imaginable. Chuuzek made to speak again, but Moss intervened.

“Of course we understand that,” he said. “We are Mang. Our mothers taught us well.”

“I would hope so,” Brother Horse returned. “I would hope it would take more than war to see our ancient ways set easily aside.”

“This is more than war,” Chuuzek growled, but then, at another glance from Moss, he lapsed into sullen silence.

Brother Horse moved his mount forward again, and the silence pooled around the horsemen, threatening to stay with them all until they reached the village. Still, Brother Horse made no move to quicken his pace.

What could Chuuzek have meant, this was more than war? Hezhi barely understood war at all—as the insulated daughter of the emperor, she had rarely had occasion to think about it—but how could a war be more than that?

“I see the pennant of the Seven Hoof People,” Moss remarked.

“They arrived yesterday,” Brother Horse told him.

“Is old Siinch'u with them this year?”

Hezhi felt the cords of her companion's back loosen a bit. He even uttered a little chuckle, and Hezhi was certain, though she could not see his face, that he was grinning. “Oh, yes. I caught him trying to sneak into my granddaughter's tent the other day.”

“Still the same then.”

“Of course. Gods help lecherous old men.”

“Yes,” Moss replied. “Didn't I hear that you spent several years on an island hiding from the Woodpecker Goddess because you and her daughter—”

“No need to repeat rumors like that,” Brother Horse snapped. But it was his mock anger now, a joking kind of disapproval, very different from the low, dangerous tension of a few moments before.

Had she seen that danger, that thing with claws and molten eyes?

“Tell me about your granduncle Snatch-the-Pony. I heard he—”

“Yes, it's true,” Moss nearly crowed, his face opening into a radiant smile. “He went over to the Fang Hills …”

So when they reached the Swollen Tents Brother Horse and Moss were laughing together. But Chuuzek, trailing a bit, kept his face flat and expressionless. Hezhi thought it to be a thin, translucent mask over murder—and perhaps more.

VIII Tales of the Changeling

PERKAR sat staring at the Blackgod for a long while. He noticed and understood Ngangata's occasional glances warning him to be cautious. Perkar felt he hardly needed such a warning, but then again, the record of his Ufe seemed to register one mistake after another. The Blackgod simply gazed at the fire, his lips moving every now and then, as if he were speaking to the Fire Goddess, but otherwise he remained cryptic—as unknown and unfathomable to Perkar as the marks that Hezhi made on her long white leaves.

Good Thief added nothing to the silence. He ate the dried meat they gave him without speaking; he seemed to have expended his energy not only for threats and self-recrimination but for everything else. More than once Perkar thought he had fallen asleep, but his eyes always fluttered back open.

Destroy the Changeling. Perkar had spent months denying to himself that such a thing was within his power. Good people had died when he believed it was. His king had died, and a war with the Mang had begun because a single, stupid boy had believed he could slay the unslayable.

Now a god who claimed to have created the world told him it was possible, that it had been a part of things all along.

And he was afraid to ask the vital question—afraid to ask how.

Because if Karak told him, he might believe. And if he believed…

Across the fire, the Blackgod raised his weird yellow eyes. He smiled, and Perkar saw, in the spooled lights and images of his memory, a great black bird, gripping Apad's shoulders, plunging his beak down into brain and blood, only to come up wearing the grin of a Crow.

“How?” he asked, knowing the question would damn him.

“How?” the Blackgod repeated, blinking at Perkar.

“No,” Ngangata stated flatly. “Perkar, let it go. Whatever he plans—whether he tells the truth now or not—it will not go well for «s.”

“You can ride away,” Perkar said. “In fact, I beg you to ride away. You have shared enough of my burdens, my friend.”

Ngangata worried at the fire with a stick, banked it a bit. “We should both ride away.”

Karak softly clucked with his tongue. “There is so much Alwat in you,” he said to Ngangata. “Always ready to let things be. Always satisfied with the way things are.”

“Things could certainly be worse,” Ngangata retorted.

The Blackgod nodded. “Alwat through and through. But your friend, here, is Human—through and through. Better, he is a hero.”

“Perkar knows my opinion of heroes,” Ngangata replied.

“Enough,” Perkar snapped. “Tell me. Explain to me how I can destroy a god who lies across the entire breadth of the world.”

“Oh, you cannot,” Karak said.

Perkar blushed with fury. “Then why did you say that I could?”

“Well, you can certainly help to slay him. It is within your power to bring about his destruction.”

“Karak—”

“Blackgod. ”

“Blackgod, then,” Perkar snapped. “Perhaps the gods enjoy such quibbling. Perhaps immortality twists you so. But I want no part of it. Speak to me plainly or do not speak to me at all.”

Karak's eyes flashed red and then white hot. A snarl curled his handsome lip, and he bolted to his feet. Perkar, suddenly filled with Harka's sense of danger, reached for the blade, but his hand never reached it.

The Blackgod clapped his hands together and lightning was born. Thunder came in the same instant, to shatter the very air around them. Perkar was flung back roughly, dazed by the blinding light and deafening noise. Both throbbed in his head. He was only dimly aware of being lifted bodily off the ground as someone took a double fistful of his shirt. A great river of flame still ran across his vision, and he was not even certain whether his eyes were open or closed. He fumbled again for Harka, but an iron claw closed around his sword wrist and held it with absolute strength.

He dangled there, held in the air by chest and arm, until the brightness across his eyes faded and he could make out the Blackgod's face, set and grim, inhuman. The brassy roar in his ears lingered.

The Blackgod was now white. His skin was ivory, his hair a cascade of thistledown, his eyes pearly slits with a single blue pinpoint to mark their pupils. His face was still essentially Human, but his nose had become a sharp alabaster beak, a dagger aimed between Perkar's eyes. Ngangata and Good Thief sprawled behind Karak, and Perkar could not tell if they were alive or not.

“Know this,” the god hissed, his voice cutting somehow through the crashing in Perkar's injured ears. “There are limits to the insolence I will tolerate from such as you. You will treat me with respect. You will do this, or I will turn your companion inside out. I will flay his skin, and then I will have yours.”

With that the god released Perkar. He tumbled roughly to the ground, dizzy, on the verge of violent illness.

“Now,” Karak said, in a more reasonable tone. “Now you can let me answer your question or you may politely ask me to leave. All other options include pain for you and yours. Do you understand this? Are you now aware of our respective positions?”

Perkar realized dully that blood was drizzling from his ears and down his neck. He wiped ineffectually at it.

“Y-yes,” he managed to stammer, though he could not hear even his own voice as well as he could that of the god.

“Fine. Now listen carefully. Long ago, the Brother of the Forest Lord did not walk long across the land as he does now. Long ago, he kept to a certain place, kept all of his water about him, contained. He was only tricked into releasing it, you see. But once he was running free, he became hungry. He became insatiable. He began to grow then, to eat everything.

“Until now, at least he has been lying in one bed, and so he eats only what he can reach from it. But he tries to throw pieces of himself out, toss them away but keep hold of them, too. This is so that he can wander where he does not flow and eat what is there, as well. He wants it all, you see?”

Perkar nodded, even as he coughed. The pain in his ears was sharpening, and he could not tell if that was Harka healing him or just the fading of shock and the return of sensation.

“Well, this girl Hezhi is such a piece of him. But you and I, Perkar—we took her away from him before she could be whole. Before she could be him. It was a near thing; you don't even know how near.”

“But now she is safe?”

“Safe? Oh, no, pretty thing. No, now he wants her back. She is his best hope and his most terrible danger. He is awake now—you awakened him—and he bends his huge will to reclaiming her. And he knows you, too, of course.”

“This Mang gaan, then. He serves the River?”

“Yes, in a sense. The River sends him dreams, shows him visions of greatness. He is one tool the River wields now.”

“There are others?”

“I can't see them well. They are still in his shadow, where my vision has trouble walking, with him awake. But something waits there in Nhol, ready to spring out across the plains. When it comes, it will be a whirlwind.”

“What then?” Perkar groaned. “What am I to do?”

“She can slay him,” the Blackgod answered, eyes narrowed to milky slits. “She must be brought to his source, to the spot he was born. There she can slay him.”

“Hezhi?”

“Good. You understand. Take her to his source.”

“And then?”

“Then she will slay him.”

“How?”

“That is not your concern. Suffice to say she will do so.”

Perkar opened his mouth to speak again and then thought better of it. He was afraid, and he realized that it was a sensation that bearing Harka had muted for some time. He searched for his earlier disdain, his passionate anger, and found it buried beneath terror.

“Take her to his source,” he said, repeating the Blackgod's words. “How shall we find it?”

“You know where it lies—in the mountain at the heart of Balat. And I will leave you roadmarks in any event. But have a care—do not travel upon him to reach it. You must go overland.”

“Even I know that,” Perkar muttered.

Karak squatted before him, so that his beak nearly touched Perkar's nose. The Blackgod smiled fondly, reached over and tousled Perkar's hair, the way one's grandfather might.

“Of course you do, pretty thing, little oak tree. I just remind you.”

Before Perkar could reply—or even flinch from the god's touch—Karak suddenly curled in upon himself, knotted into a tight white ball, and bloomed into flame, like a dried rose consumed by fire. He uncurled his body as the heat licked up from him, black again, completely a bird. A Raven larger than any man. The Raven hopped back from Perkar, regarded him with its head cocked.

“Just reminding you,” the Raven said, and strutted over to where Ngangata and Good Thief lay. Both had begun to stir, to watch the exchange between Perkar and Karak with dull eyes.

The Raven stooped over Ngangata, and ice formed in Perkar's chest. He desperately willed his hand to reach for Harka, commanded his legs to bring him erect. He could not govern his limbs; they refused him.

Karak regarded Ngangata for what seemed an eternity, and Ngangata stared back at the god, his expression set and unreadable. Then the god hopped on, to where Good Thief lay.

“Hello, pretty thing,” the Blackgod cooed.

Good Thief looked not at Karak but at Perkar. His eyes held a desperate mixture of fear and anger.

“My horse,” he shouted. “His name is Sharp Tiger. Look after my horse, Cattle-Man.”

It was not a command, it was a plea. It was the last thing Good Thief said; Karak's talons dug into his belly, black wings opened and boomed, and the god was rising up, the Mang dangling helplessly, his eyes still fixed on Perkar.

He watched the god and his prey until they dwindled to a speck, were gone.

* * *

PERKAR barely had enough energy to help Ngangata into the tent—the fire was scattered, the night chill sinking into their bones. The tent was warmer but still uncomfortably cool, and the two huddled together, not speaking. Perkar thought of talking to Harka, but that seemed useless, somehow, and instead he lay there, remembering Good Thief's face growing smaller. He certainly did not believe he would sleep, but suddenly it was morning, light glowing in through the tent skin.

Ngangata was still asleep, and Perkar did not disturb him. Instead he got up and pushed as quietly as he could through the tent flap. The sun was already well up, feathering the rolling clouds above with shades of gold, pink, and gray. Blue sky peered through cheerfully.

Perkar—not cheerful at all—gathered wood and started a fire. He found the corpse of the dead archer, his back open in long stripes, his eyes wide and uncomprehending. He dragged the stiff body to where its companion lay, and there he sang a song for the dead, offering what little wine he had to them. He did not know their names, of course, except for Good Thief, but there was an appropriate song for dead enemies, and he sang all of it. After that, he began to search for stones to cover the bodies.

After a long search, he found only a few fist-size stones. He looked down at the horse and the man, wondering how best to deal with them. Not far away, Sharp Tiger whickered, further reminding Perkar of his obligations.

“Let the sky have them,” a voice croaked from behind him. Perkar turned to see Ngangata, bleary-eyed, standing near the tent.

“They were valiant enemies,” Perkar told him. “They deserve some consideration.”

“Let the sky have them,” Ngangata repeated. “They are Mang; that is their custom.”

Perkar puffed out a long, steaming breath. “You mean leave them here for the wolves?”

“Yes.”

“There should be something more we can do than that.”

“For dead bodies? No. Offer to their ghosts later, if you still feel guilty. Now we should leave this place before their kinsmen arrive.”

“How did they know to come here, in the first place?”

“Their gaan saw us, no doubt.”

“Then he will see us wherever we go.”

Ngangata shrugged. “If we are moving, there will be no place to see.”

Perkar nodded reluctantly. “I have to take Good Thief's horse.”

Ngangata gave Perkar a somewhat painful flash of a grin.

“That is a Mang war horse. No one but his rider may approach him.”

“Good Thief asked me to. It was his last request.”

Ngangata raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I will pack the tent,” he said.

Perkar stared at his fallen enemy for a few more heartbeats, then turned his attention to Sharp Tiger.

The stallion eyed him dubiously as he approached. Sharp Tiger seemed a fitting name; though most Mang horses bore stripes upon their flanks and hindquarters, his were pronounced and black, laid upon a tawny field. His mane was jet. Of course, his name would have nothing to do with his appearance. Mang horses were named after dead Mang warriors, just as Mang warriors were named after dead horses. Perkar wondered, as he approached the beast, whether a man or a mount had first borne the name in the long ago.

Sharp Tiger watched him draw closer, eyes flaring; he dipped his head up and down restlessly.

“Shununechen, ” Perkar said gently, as he had heard Mang say to mounts not belonging to them. “Smell me, cousin.”

Sharp Tiger allowed him closer, until he could place his cupped hand near the animal's nostrils. The beast sniffed him uncertainly.

He was still saddled, the bit still in his mouth. Perkar sadly realized that he hadn't even unsaddled T'esh for the night; he could see him grazing some distance away, nearer the stream. This was no way to treat such beautiful mounts.

But then, neither was cutting the legs out from under one, he reflected, gritting his teeth.

“Are you going to let me on, cousin?” he asked Sharp Tiger. His plan had been merely to lead the horse behind T'esh, but now he had an inexplicable urge to ride him. Ngangata, of course, was right. This horse would never let anyone but Good Thief upon his back. Still…

He put his foot in the stirrup, and Sharp Tiger stood there, passively. It wasn't until he tried to swing his other leg over that the beast reacted.

Perkar was suddenly in the air, propelled upward by Sharp Tiger's explosion of movement. He thudded to the ground and rolled. Sharp Tiger came after, lashing down with his fore-hooves. Only Harka's preternatural sense of danger saved Perkar from the stallion's hard, sharp weapons; he was only lightly grazed on one arm before he fought clear and returned to his feet. Sharp Tiger ceased his attack as abruptly as he began it and watched Perkar with clear, dark eyes.

Perkar smiled wryly at his own stupidity.

“Very well,” he said. “Then will you let me lead you?”

Sharp Tiger stood, quiet now. When Perkar cautiously took his reins, he followed without complaint.

Not much later, with the tent packed and Ngangata mounted, they set out toward Brother Horse's village. Perkar rode with his thoughts, and one eye on the cloudswept sky, the fear and memory of black wings clear in his mind.

IX The Reader of Bones

GHE took himself down to the docks to think.

Almost, he feared the sunlight. Tatters of stories remained in his mind, fantasies spun in the dark alleys of his youth by the poor and the fearful in Southtown. Creatures like himself stalked those tales, ghouls who fed on the lifeblood of the living, who shunned the bright eye of the sky lest it wither them away, reduce them to droplets of polluted and stained River water. In the daylight, such things remained in their deep crypts below the city, in the bottomless depths of the River…

But the sunlight did him no harm. In fact, it cheered him, as did the brightly clothed merchants bustling about the quays, the pungent stink of fish, the sweet incense of fortune-tellers, the savory scent of meat grilling on the charcoal braziers of food vendors. He stopped at one of the last, paid a dark young girl with a pox-scarred face a copper soldier for two skewers of garlic lamb and a thick, spongy roll of tsag ' bread. He sat on a dock with his legs dangling out over the River, eating his meal and watching the gulls worry about the barges, the thick-armed men unloading cargo from the Swamp Kingdoms, from up-River and from far-off Lhe.

Beneath him, he could feel the River, like a father, proud of his presence.

“You are mighty,” he said, addressing the limitless waters wonderingly.

Only reluctantly did he bend his mind to his worries.

His time in Nhol was limited; that much was clear. He could not kill every man and woman who recognized him. Already the priesthood must be investigating the disappearances, especially of the slain Jik. And it was surely urgent, in any case, that he leave soon to find Hezhi.

But the world was vast, and he knew not where to look. Only Ghan could tell him that, and Ghan had made it plain that he would say nothing. Given time, Ghe felt certain that he could win the old man's confidence—he cared deeply for Hezhi, and that was a lever which could be worked until the man's stone heart was prized up, lifted so that Ghe could make out what was underneath. But he needed time for that.

Time, also, to learn a few things. Even with the powers of his rebirth, he would face enemies he only vaguely understood—the white-skinned barbarian who would not die, for instance. Was he like Ghe, some sort of ghoul? Was he more powerful? And in Ghe's mind were vague shadows of other powers, out beyond where the River could reach. He must know something of them, as well.

He let his gaze settle over the city, wondering where he might find the answers he sought. In the library, perhaps, where Hezhi had found her secrets. But Nhol had many dark places, where old knowledge slept.

The foremost of these towered behind the dockside taverns and markets, as pristine and monumental as they were squalid and ordinary; the Great Water Temple. It was a stepped pyramid formed of white stone, water geysering from its sun-crowned summit, a fist of the River shaking aloft toward the heavens. He had been inside the building, seen the perfect column of water drawn up through the very core of the structure, and wondered, awestruck at the rush and power of it. From where he sat now, he could see two of the broken slopes where the water cascaded down, four streams for four directions rushing to rejoin their source in the canals that surrounded the priesthood's most holy building. To him, also, it had once been holy, a symbol of the great power he served and of the order that had raised him from sleeping with dogs to a position of respect and honor.

Now, with the River's perspective, he saw it much differently. Within its white shell, he now sensed a heart of mystery, a labyrinth of falsehood and deceit. From its caverns the priesthood spun their spidery webs, shaped the bonds that held the River God in place. It held libraries, too, vast dusty rooms of forbidden knowledge, chants and formulae of terrific power. He had but glimpsed such things when he was initiated as a Jik, but now he had some sense of what was hidden there, beneath the falling water, the great hill of rock.

He turned his gaze back to his feet, to the god flowing below them. “You want me to go there” he whispered.

That would be dangerous, even for him. The priesthood had the power to shackle a god—and what animated Ghe was less than a finger of the River's power. But the priests had taught him, made him from a common thief and cutthroat into a finely wrought weapon. A weapon could be turned upon its smith as easily as upon anyone else.

The food was not as good as he had anticipated. The smell had been wonderful, tantalizing—but in his mouth it had no flavor. As if, along with so many things, he had forgotten how to taste. Discouraged, he tossed what remained of his meal into the water. “Eat well, my lord,” he said, before rising and resuming his walk.

He went next to Southtown, though he was in no way certain why. He knew that he had been born there, but the nets in that part of his mind were the most torn and tangled; they held the fewest clear images. Walking down Red Gar Street, the place he remembered best, was like hearing only snatches of a song. Here a shop sign was as well remembered as his name; but blocks would go by that seemed as alien as the depths of the palace. Still, it brought something of a return of his earlier good cheer; his nose and his skin seemed to recognize the street as his eyes did not. A sort of melancholy happiness walked with him, the ghost of recollection.

And then, when he stopped on a corner to watch a boy pick a minor noble's pocket, someone spoke his name.

“Ghe!” An old woman's voice, one he utterly failed to recognize.

He turned in surprise, fingers knitting into deadly shapes. It was an old woman—an ancient woman—dressed as a fortuneteller. Her clothes were faded, shabby, but she wore a steepled hat with golden moons and stars embossed upon it that looked both new and expensive. Before her was spread a velvet mat for her fortune-bones. Her face was split in a half-toothless grin, and her eyes sparkled with an odd mixture of lights—happiness, wariness, and concern.

He knew her face. Images of it lay about his mind like shards of a shattered pot. But no name was attached to it, no past conversations, nothing. Nothing save for a faint, pleasant sensation.

“Ghe? Haven't you come to sit with an old woman?” The old eyes had sharpened with suspicion. He hesitated, searching his mind, thinking desperately. He smiled and knelt by her mat.

“Hello,” he said, managing to sound cheerful. “It has been a long while.”

“And whose fault is that? Ah, little Duh, what has the priesthood made of you? I scarcely recognize you in that collar. You look tired, too.”

She knew about the priesthood. Who was this woman?

“It is a busy life,” he muttered, wishing he at least had a name to call her by. Was she some relative of his? Not his mother, surely. She was far too old for that.

The puzzled, suspicious look was still clear on her face. He had to—do what? He should run, leave, that was what he should do.

“Read the bones for me,” he said instead, gesturing at the inscribed, polished slats that lay on the mat.

“You put store in that now? The priesthood teach you to respect old women properly?”

“Yes.”

She shrugged, picked the bones up, and rattled them around in her hands.

“Whatever happened to that girl?” she asked casually. “The one you liked, that they set you after?”

His dismay must have been as clear to her as the call of gulls above. Her own eyes widened. “What have you done, little one? What is this about?”

Ghe felt a little tremor walk up his spine. He had to do something. He reached out for the httle, fluttering knot of strands that made up her life. She knew it all, this old woman. That he was a Jik, about Hezhi, everything. Best to kill her now, quickly.

But he could not. He knew not why. The moment passed, and he shrank back from the strands, though now he felt a bit of hunger—completely unabated by the bread and meat he consumed earlier.

“Listen,” he hissed. “Listen to me.” He took a deep breath. “I don't know who you are.”

Her eyes widened and then flattened. “What do you mean by that? Life in the palace made you too good to talk to old Li?”

LI He had heard that name in his vision, when he was reborn. Then it meant nothing, just a sound. Now …

Now it still meant nothing, save that it was this old woman's name.

“No. No, that isn't what I mean at all. You clearly know me, know my name, know much about me. But I do not know you.”

Her face cleared then, blanked like a perfect, featureless mask: the inscrutable fortune-teller.

“What do you remember?”

“Bits of things. I know I grew up around here somewhere. I remember this street. I remember your face—but I didn't know your name until just now.”

Her face remained expressionless. “Perhaps some sort of Forbidding,” she muttered slowly. “But why would they cripple you so? This makes no sense, Ghe.”

“Perhaps,” he began, “perhaps if you were to tell me, remind me. Perhaps the memories are only sleeping.”

Li nodded slowly. “That could be. But again, why? You are still a Jik?”

“Still,” he said. “Always.”

“Last I heard from you, you had been set to watch one of the River Blessed. A young girl. Did something happen?”

“I don't remember,” he lied. “I don't remember that, either.”

The old woman pursed her lips.

“I should read the bones, then,” she said. “Maybe the bones will show something. Sit with me here a bit.”

She rummaged in a small cloth bag and began taking things out.

“You gave me this, you know,” she said, as she laid a little cone of incense out on her velvet mat.

“I did?”

“Yes. When you were initiated. This cloth and this hat. Be a dear, little Duh, and go light this on the flame of old Shehwad over there.” She waved her hand at a man cooking skewered meats a few tens of paces away. He nodded, rose, and walked over to the stand.

“Li asked me to light this here,” he told the person—who, despite the fact that Li referred to him as “old,” was certainly younger than she.

The man's sharp features began a scowl, but then suddenly transfigured. “Why, it's little Ghe, isn't it? We haven't seen you about here in an age.”

“No?”

“No, not since … well, I can't remember when. Since before the priests came asking about you.”

“The priests came asking about me?” Ghe asked, straining to control his voice, to sound casual.

“Months ago. There's some flame for you.” He presented Ghe with a burning splinter of black willow from his cook fire.

“Thank you.” He couldn't ask more; it would seem too suspicious. Why would they have sent anyone here?

Because, of course, his body had never been found. The Jik he had killed in the palace had indicated that someone had seen him dead—and then he had disappeared. They had looked for him.

Did the priesthood suspect? Could they suspect? That was worrisome. He had been trained to kill, but his knowledge of priestly magic was not great. Was there some way of seeing what had happened to him? Some magical trail or signature?

He turned back to the old woman. She must know that the priests had been here, but she hadn't mentioned it.

“Light the incense, silly boy,” Li said, when she glanced up from arranging the bones. He complied, touching the brand to the cone until it sputtered. A thick, pungent scent drifted up from the cone.

“Now, just sit here. Ill cast the bones, and we'll read them, just like we used to.”

Like we used to. Ghe grimaced. Who had she been to him? She was so familiar, in some ways. And he had confided in her, told her of the vast empty places in his mind. That had been stupid, but what other choice had there been?

Watching the people moving up and down Red Gar Street, he knew the answer to that. He watched them; the wealthy and the poor, the noble and the mean—none of them saw an old woman and a man clad to his neck in rough silks. They were unnoticeable, invisible. Every person that passed had some pressing business, some private thought, some destination, known or unknown. If he were to reach into Li, take her life …

He still didn't want to do that. She had meant something to him once, that much was clear. The only person who meant anything to him now was Hezhi…

That brought a frown. The priests might have been looking for him, but it must have been her they wanted to know about. To what lengths would the priesthood go to retrieve her? Had they already sent an expedition after her? Ghe knew that thought should have troubled him, stung him to action, but for the first time since his rebirth, he felt a heaviness, a pleasant weight across his forehead and eyes. The sun was warm, relaxing, and Li's voice floated soothingly as from far away.

“Now I cast the dice. Oh, see, they've fallen in the 'telling' pattern, the eye of the clouds …”

There was more, but he lost it, his eyes fluttering shut just for an instant.

When he opened them again blearily a moment later, the old woman was glaring at him, livid. He shook his head, uncomprehending. Why was he so tired? Why was the old woman so angry?

“You are not Ghe,” she hissed flatly. “I knew that you were not. You are nothing more than some ghoul who has swallowed him.”

No! Ghe wanted to say. No, see my neck? It is my body, my head, not some ghostly simulacrum. It is me … But he couldn't say it. He couldn't speak at all; his mouth and throat were numb, as were his extremities and his senses.

The incense! He should have recognized it, should have known. He sharpened his sight, and everything changed. Li faded to her little bundle of life, as did those on the street, vibrant strands in a transparent world. The incense was a spot of nothingness, of black beyond darkness, a hole sucking his strength into it. Snarling, he swept at it clumsily.

“No!” the old woman managed to choke out. She had clearly believed him weaker. She began muttering under her breath.

This time Ghe did not hesitate. He reached out, around the vacuum of the smoke, took hold of her life, and ate it.

It took only an instant; she writhed a moment, then was part of him. Gasping, he stumbled up, away from the burning cone, and the instant its fumes were no longer brushing him, feeling rushed back with a fierce, insistent tingling, as if his limbs had been momentarily deprived of blood.

Around him, the street continued to bustle, people hurrying hither and back. He struggled into the pedestrian stream and let it sweep him along. He glanced back once, saw Li lying as if asleep, her hat with its moon and stars fallen and lying across her bones.

“It's beautiful, ” he suddenly, sharply, remembered her saying once, long ago, of that hat. “The moons and stars seem to shimmer. Is the thread gold? ”

“I don't know, ” he had replied. I only knew that you would like it. ”

And though he remembered nothing more than that, he began to weep.

THAT night, he slept for the first time in seven days—since his rebirth. He slept and he dreamed.

Dreams were not as he remembered them. They were not vague, strange reiterations of his little fears or of days gone by, not shadow plays with little sense or substance. They were strong, clear, and simple. The colors were not right; they were too sharp, too bright, and without shading. Everything that was green was the same hue of viridian; all red was sanguine. These dreams had meaning, however, meaning that blared like the din of a cracked horn, rattled the frames of his dream images. The messages were loud, but they were not clear. Ghe imagined they were the sorts of things insects might hear if a man stooped and spoke to them.

He dreamed of being whole, knotted perfectly together, a vast and content serpent gnawing his own tail. It was an ancient feeling, barely remembered.

He remembered the Bright God coming, taunting him, cajoling him. In his dream, the Bright God was like a little sun, golden-feathered, light incarnate. He dreamed shame then, and anger, as the Bright God tricked him into uncoiling, into stretching himself out. Shame at being tricked, at being opened up. In revenge, he ate the Bright God's light, nearly killed him, but his foe escaped, though without his brilliance and beauty.

Now he rushed across the world, and his fear and shame began to fade; he coursed out for leagues, taking it all beneath him, cutting himself a bed, a comfortable place. And for a short time, he knew another kind of contentment, a wonderful hurtling joy. Time passed, and the earth changed, his bed shifting now and again, and he started to feel a hunger. At first it was merely discontent at no longer being whole. He was not a circle anymore, not a thing unto himself. The sky drank from him, plants took him up into their long, narrow bodies, and in the end he poured into a great emptiness, a gulf too vast for him to fill. He had become all motion, and nothing about him was still, nothing all his own. So the hunger began, a desire to take in the world about him, devour it, make it of himself until there was nothing without. Until, once again, he was within himself, a tightly coiled snake eating his tail. After a time, this hunger was all that mattered to him.

As ages passed, he found the limits of his reach. The other gods could see what he was about. His brother, the Forest Lord, sent the Bright God and the Huntress about, and boundaries were made. He paid them no mind, but his reach faltered nevertheless. He had dug himself into the world, and it would not let him out again.

Ages, again, and Ghe felt himself ache with need greater than he had ever known. He grew angrier with each decade.

At the height of his anger, Human Beings came to his banks. They were like the gods, in certain respects, though without the same sort of fire within them. Still, they were inventive, and in some ways they had great strength. He realized that these people were like vessels he might fill, feet that he might walk within, to leave his channel and devour the enemy gods.

So he set about filling them up. They were small, they could contain only a bit of him—but over time, he knew, the vessels of their bodies would be slowly perfected. That was another good thing about Humans; they were malleable rather than fixed, as gods were. All gods but himself, that is, for he could change. That was his chief strength, the thing that set him apart. It was also his agony.

He sent the little bits of himself out, patiently, and to his surprise the people built a city. They went out from his banks, and they slew the gods of the borderland, pushed his boundaries farther than ever he could have himself. This was good, and he continued to wait as generations passed and his people grew stronger and stronger, became more and more capable of carrying him in their bones and veins.

But then torpor overcame him, and he slept. He awoke only briefly after that, and thus it was a long time before he realized that something had been done to him, was making him sleep, robbing him of his sentience. It was a dull, muted frustration. He still did not know what had happened to him, though he could sense a dark well in the heart of his city, bleeding him, binding him somehow. He still had his children, born stronger with each generation, but they were distant from him. One was finally born who could contain him. Now she was gone.

GHE woke then. He woke and sat up on the pallet he had arranged. His little room was dark, but he could nevertheless see the spare walls, the small bundle of clothes and weapons that were his only possessions.

Hezhi, he thought. She was the one the River had waited for. He shuddered briefly. The thoughts and feelings in his dream were not human; he understood that they only seemed so because they had bent through his mind.

What the River felt for Hezhi, however, would not bend, would not settle upon any emotion Ghe had ever experienced, though it resembled lust in some ways. The old Ghe would not have understood it at all, but he was beginning to. That was why he shuddered.

Ghe understood something else now that he had not before.

The River did not know about the priesthood, did not even know they existed. To him, they were blank spaces, nothing. And the center of his pain—the dark vortex that bled his power, drew him relentlessly into slumber—Ghe knew what that was. He had been there, many times.

It was the Great Water Temple itself.

X A Game of Slap

TSEM met them near the edge of the camp. He was perched on an old house foundation, fending off a swarm of curious children. When Hezhi saw him, she slid down from behind Brother Horse and flew across the intervening distance to him.

“Princess,” Tsem growled, “where have you been?”

“I'll tell you later,” Hezhi said. “Right now, stay close to me. Please.”

“Of course, Princess.” The Giant turned wary eyes on the newcomers and said—loudly enough for the horsemen to hear, in his broken Mang: “They not hurt Princess, do they?”

“No,” she answered. “They only escorted me back here.”

“Princess, this is not the palace,” Tsem said more quietly in their own language. “You can't go running off alone whenever you want.”

“I know,” she said. “I know that.”

Brother Horse spoke to Tsem, also in Nholish. “Giant, take your mistress back to my yekt. Keep close watch on her. Things are happening I must attend to, and I need for you to keep her safe. I will send Yuu'han around, as well.”

“What?” Tsem asked. “What is happening?”

“I am not sure,” the old man replied. “I will come tell you when I know.” Hezhi noticed that Moss—and Chuuzek, of course—seemed restless.

Chuuzek confirmed that by growling to his cousin, “What is this babbling? What are they saying?” Moss shrugged, conveying his own puzzlement.

Ignoring them, Brother Horse turned to Hezhi and continued in her language. “Please do not fear me, child. I know what you saw, and it is nothing for you to fear. I should have explained more before asking you to see, that is all. Accept my apology, and I will come speak with you as soon as I can. In the yekt, with your Giant present.” He smiled, and she could not help believing him; his sincerity, for the moment, was more real than the strangeness she remembered.

Brother Horse switched back to Mang to speak to the other horsemen. “I am sorry to have been impolite,” he said. “The Giant knows but little of our speech.”

“I could teach him a word or two,” Chuuzek snapped. Moss only nodded.

“It was my honor to meet you, cousin,” Moss said to Hezhi, emphasizing “cousin.” “I hope to speak to you of your homeland soon. I have many questions about the great city, and I have never seen it for myself.”

Hezhi nodded politely but did not answer aloud. With Tsem's massive hand on her shoulder, the two of them made their way through the crowd. Behind them, whoops went up as horsemen rode up to meet the newcomers.

“What is this all about, Princess?” Tsem asked again, as they moved toward the yekt they were staying in.

“I wish I knew,” Hezhi told him glumly.

HEZHI noticed that Yuu'han appeared not long afterward, subtly. He sat near the fire outside of the yekt, talking with animation about something with a warrior near his own age. Hezhi noticed, however, that his eyes wandered the camp, fastening more than occasionally on the yekt.

“Is he trying to keep us in or keep someone else out?” she wondered, and Tsem's brow ridges bunched deeper. He did not repeat his earlier question, but Hezhi explained her meeting with Moss and Chuuzek. She skirted around the issue of why she had run off into the desert in the first place; she did not want to talk about that until she understood more. Tsem seemed content enough with that; after all, he had spent countless hours in Nhol following her at a discreet distance when she sought privacy by wandering the labyrinthine ways of the abandoned and ancient sections of the palace.

“I wonder what this means, this war?” Tsem asked.

“I don't know. I think that at the least, it means Perkar and Ngangata will receive a poor welcome when they return.”

“But what does that mean to us? To you?”

“I hope Brother Horse will tell us when he returns.” She paused. “I think Brother Horse believes me to be in some sort of danger.”

“That seems obvious,” Tsem replied. “But what sort of danger? What would these Mang want with you?”

Hezhi spread her hands to acknowledge her ignorance.

Tsem sighed. “I understood things in the palace. There I could protect you. Here … here I know nothing. We should leave this place, Princess.”

“And go where? There is nowhere we will understand better. And of course we cannot go back to Nhol.”

“Another city perhaps. Lhe, Hui…”

“Those are very far away, Tsem. How would we get there, just you and I? And when we got there, what would we do? They would not accept me as royalty there. We would have to live in their Southtowns.”

“Where do you say, then?”

Hezhi thought about that for a moment. “Here may be as good a place as any. Or…”

“Yes?”

“Perhaps with Perkar's people.”

Tsem grimaced at that. “His people are no better than these. Barbarians.”

“Well, then,” Hezhi grunted, dismissing the whole question with the back of her hand.

“You once said we might seek out my mother's people,” Tsem put in, unwilling to let the matter drop.

“Yes, I did, didn't I?” Hezhi said. “But where do they live? How would we find them? The two of us cannot travel alone. Can you build a fire, or kill game, or set a snare? I can't.” She looked up at Tsem squarely. “Back then, Tsem, it seemed as if the whole world was open to us. Now I see things in a different light.” She hesitated for just an instant before going on. “Yet there is something I can do, something to give us some choice, I think.”

“That being?” Tsem grunted, rolling his massive head back on his shoulders.

“Brother Horse says I have a gift for sorcery. It is the only thing I have, it seems.”

“You have me, Princess.”

Hezhi softened her voice and patted the Giant's arm. “And never doubt how much I value that, Tsem. You are my only true friend. But here, in this place, value is counted in terms of kin, and we have none. It is counted in horses, and we have none. It is counted in yekts and war honors and hunting trophies, and we have none. Nor are we likely to acquire any of those things.”

The Giant nodded ruefully. “Yes, I can see that.”

“But they also reckon worth in power, and that, perhaps, I have.”

“Witchery is dangerous, Princess.”

“Yes. Yes, but it is the only thing I have to make a place for us. And if we are ever to go where we will, we must have people willing to help us. We must have some way to pay them.”

“Or coerce them.”

“Yes,” Hezhi admitted softly. “I thought of that, too.”

THE village was not as Perkar and Ngangata had left it: it had bled out over the plain, filled it with color and life, horses pounding around makeshift racetracks, riotous noise. It was wild, barbaric, exciting—and not altogether unfamiliar. It had the quality of a homecoming or a hay gathering, though it was bigger, brighter, and more boisterous.

Where he and Ngangata rode, however, faces pinched tight in suspicion, even faces they knew, and by that Perkar understood that the news of the war had already come to Brother Horse's village. How could it not, with clans from the entire Mang world attending?

“It might have been best not to come here at all,” Ngangata gritted from the corner of his mouth.

“We have no choice,” Perkar muttered back, wondering how many warriors he and Harka could take before all of his heart-strands were severed. His sword made him much more powerful than mortal, but it did not make him invincible; the Blackgod had made that more than clear to him.

“If they attack me, I won't have you fighting with me. The war between their people and mine is not your concern.”

Ngangata shot him a scathing, raw look. “You may have forgotten this, Cattle-Man, but though I have no kin or clan amongst your people, it was still there that I was raised, and it was to your king that I swore my allegiance. Your people never gave me much, but what I got you will not take from me.”

Perkar stared for a moment, then nodded, blushing. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Feel free to die with me, then.”

“Thank you.”

It was almost as if that agreement were a signal for a handful of riders to rush up to them, shrieking. Perkar snarled and snatched for Harka.

“They are not attacking Harka said. “Not yet. Keep me ready. ”

Perkar eased his breath out then, and the riders parted around him, shouting, brandishing axes and thick curved swords. Perkar knew none of these, but like the riders at the stream, they had their war plumes on. Each wore a Human skin as a cloak, the empty arms and hands flapping like the wings of spirits.

He and Ngangata sat their horses as the riders circled them, enduring the Mang curses. At last, one of them parted out and brought his stallion stamping and gasping to relative stillness. He was a young man, thickly muscular.

“You!” he shouted at Perkar. “Cattle-Man. We will fight.”

Perkar avoided the man's eyes: meeting them squarely was considered an affront by the Mang. Instead he gazed up at the sky, as if wondering where the clouds were. “I have no wish to fight you, man,” he replied.

“We are here on the invitation of Brother Horse,” Ngangata added. “We are not here to fight.”

“I am not speaking to you, Brush-Man,” the warrior said. “And I do not care whose protection you are under.”

“It's true,” Perkar heard someone say. “They were hunting with us in the high country.” A few others echoed the sentiment.

“Hunting in the high country. Is that where he got my cousin, there?” He jabbed his thick fingers toward Sharp Tiger, and Perkar realized that if things could get worse, they had. They were Mang. Of course they would recognize the horse and wonder where its rider was.

Perkar was spared having to answer when a second man rode up beside the first. He was quite young, and his eyes were a peculiar color for a Mang—almost green. “Be still, Chuuzek. Brother Horse told us of these two.”

“Someone get Brother Horse,” someone else called from the side. “Bring him here quickly!” Perkar did not turn to see who it was, but thought he recognized Huu'leg, with whom he had hunted and shared beer.

“As I said,” Perkar repeated, “I have no desire to fight.”

The man who had been called Chuuzek glared at him. The crowd seemed split on the matter of their fighting; Perkar could hear many urging Chuuzek on, but others were as loudly proclaiming that such a breach of hospitality could not be tolerated. “What is your quarrel with me?”

“You are the pale man and the Brush-Man. You began this war,” Chuuzek proclaimed loudly, matter-of-factly.

Perkar could only stare, openmouthed. It was Ngangata who answered the charge. “Who told you this?”

“The gaan. The prophetG

And at that, there was silence for a moment, before Brother Horse's voice rose up.

“Well, my nephews are back!” he said dryly, not loudly at all. But in the quiet after Chuuzek's assertion he was more than audible.

“A Mang's nephews are Mang” Chuuzek spat.

“Well, so they are,” Brother Horse agreed. “And so they are—in this camp, at this moment.” The old man pushed through the crowd, two younger clansmen trailing closely. He glared up at Chuuzek. “Mang know how to behave properly in a relative's camp.”

“Yes,” the green-eyed boy assented. “Yes, they do.”

Chuuzek, whose face had been set in a fierce scowl, suddenly grinned broadly. He turned to Brother Horse. “You misunderstand, Shutsebe. This is the time of the Ben'cheen, of feasting and games. I was only asking your nephew if he wanted to go at the bech'iinesh.”

“He does not” Brother Horse snapped.

Perkar pursed his lips, trying desperately to place the word. He had heard it before, and it meant something like “flat” … No. It meant “they slap.” It was a game, and a rough one.

Chuuzek shrugged off Brother Horse's pronouncement.

“He can tell me himself,” Chuuzek said, “if he is too small and soft for a Mang pastime.”

“Well,” Perkar said softly, “I have no wish to fight you. But if it is only a game you wish to play …”

Brother Horse was frowning and shaking his head no, and the lift in Ngangata's brow also told him that he was agreeing to a bad thing. But if he did not do something, he would not know peace long enough even to get Hezhi. And if he did, there was nothing to stop a party of these men from following him from the village and attacking him in the open desert, away from Brother Horse and his hospitality. No, it was time for him to do something. And Chuuzek was looking at him expectantly.

He had five hundred leagues of Mang territory to ride through to reach his home. Best get this over with—or at least begin it—now.

“Of course. I accept your invitation,” he said, and the crowd burst into a hoarse cheer. Chuuzek bared his teeth in satisfaction.

“Fine,” Brother Horse said. “But let my nephew get a bite to eat, something to drink. There is plenty enough time for Slapping today.”

“No,” Perkar said. “No, I feel well enough to play now.” As he said this, he stared fully into Chuuzek's eyes and saw the malicious light there.

Brother Horse sighed. “Perkar has no paddle. I will loan him mine.” He turned and strode off.

For an instant, no one spoke, but then the crowd surged around them, and it almost seemed as if they lifted up Perkar and his mount and carried them to the track around the camp. Still shouting, they parted about the hoof-beaten path and lined the sides of it. Perkar wasn't certain, but many of them seemed to be taking bets.

Presently Brother Horse returned, bearing a wooden paddle as long as a man's arm and a hand's breadth wide. It looked to be hardwood wrapped with leather over some sort of padding. Brother Horse handed it up to him, and he took the felt-wrapped grip. It weighed almost as much as a sword.

Chuuzek was nowhere in sight.

“What do I do?” Perkar asked.

Brother Horse shook his head. “Tell me what you want buried with you. Chuuzek is going to kill you.”

Perkar smiled and nodded. “Yes, yes. What do I doT

The old man pointed around the track. “He's around on the other side of the village. In a moment, someone will blow a horn. You ride toward each other. You hit each other with the paddles.”

“How is the winner known?”

Brother Horse spit. “Oh, you'll know,” he said. “You just keep going until someone can't or won't. My advice to you is to fall off right away. Very dishonorable, but then again, it will give Chuuzek only one chance to break your neck.”

“Can I parry his paddle?”

“You can do whatever you want. It won't matter.”

“You've never seen me fight.”

Brother Horse laid a hand on his leg and looked up frankly. “You bear a godsword; I know that. No doubt with it in your hands you are a great warrior. But today you are just a man on a horse with a wooden paddle, facing a Mang who was in the saddle nine months before he was born.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. Normally, people are careful enough when they play this game. Accidents happen, though, and if it looks like an accident, people won't call it murder. With you, it won't even have to look good.”

Perkar nodded grimly. “Well,” he muttered. “Let's go, then.”

Brother Horse nodded. “When someone blows a horn, ride that way.” He pointed north.

Perkar tightened his grip on the paddle, swung it experimentally a few times.

And someone blew a horn, two sharp notes. The crowd cheered raggedly, and Perkar dug his heels into T'esh. His mount leapt forward almost without that, as if it knew the significance of the horn. Perkar flexed his hand on the grip, then tightened.

“You can still help me, Harka?” he snarled into the wind.

“Some. Not much. Draw me and I can help you much more. ”

Perkar gritted his teeth but did not answer. T'esh had fallen into a fluid gallop, what Ngangata called an “archer's gait.” Where was Chuuzek?

The howling of the crowd, already deafening, rose in pitch. Chuuzek and his mount appeared in the curving track. For an instant, Perkar felt a dismay so powerful and shocking he nearly bolted his steed from the course. Chuuzek resembled a bear, his obsidian eyes glinting with a feral ferocity that smote Perkar with nearly physical force. Mang avoided eye contact normally, but for Chuuzek, only Perkar existed. There was no wavering there, no second thoughts, only murder.

Perkar bit his lip furiously and dismissed his fear. He was Perkar of the Clan Barku. He had faced the goddess of the Hunt on her lion, felt the steel of her lance in his throat. No Human horseman could match the terror of that.

So he narrowed his eyes, counted hoofbeats, and when the time came, he swung. The moment seemed to slow, as the hurtling mounts converged, eyes rolling but no hesitation in their strides. Chuuzek struck simply, hammering his weapon in a flat, sidewise arc designed to catch Perkar in the face. He was passing on Perkar's right, and there was little he could do save block the furious swing, so Perkar cut around at his enemy's paddle.

The boards clapped together, and a staggering shock raced up Perkar's arm and jarred his teeth. The blow lifted him up and out of his saddle, and it was only luck that one of his feet stayed in its stirrup. Brother Horse's paddle went spinning from his grip, and his head banged against his horse's rump. For a moment, Perkar couldn't grasp what was happening; then he slammed into the dusty ground. His foot still in the stirrup, the earth cut and burned him as T'esh thundered on another ten paces before slowing, realizing that his rider was no longer mounted.

Perkar twisted out of the stirrup and spat the sudden taste of iron from his mouth. His lungs were burning and the air seemed like a rain of golden fire, drowning his senses. The hooting of the crowd was distant, like a faraway flock of blackbirds chattering. Chuuzek, paddle held high, vanished around the edge of the track.

Grimly Perkar fought to his feet. A boy of perhaps ten hurried toward him, bearing the paddle, and he lurched forward to take it, stumbled back to T'esh, and remounted. For a dizzy moment, he wasn't sure which direction to ride in, but T'esh seemed to know, and he crouched in the saddle as the great beast beneath him returned to a full charge.

Chuuzek reappeared, a happy snarl on his face. Perkar felt anger, white hot, surge through him, and suddenly all he cared to do was to shatter those smiling teeth into the big man's throat. He heard a hoarse cry and realized that it was himself. Bouncing in the stirrups, leaning forward, he struck straight overhand. Chuuzek's blow arced out as before, but Perkar ignored it; Chuuzek's face, his stupid leering face, was his target, and he cared for nothing else. At the last instant, he stood as tall as he could and felt his blow land, even as Chuuzek's paddle cracked into his sternum. Something in his chest shattered, and he saw sky, earth, sky reel around him for what seemed a long time before the dust claimed him once more.

XI The Codex Obsidian

GHAN looked up wearily at the boy Yen.

“If you want help finding a book,” he muttered, “then I will help you. If you've come merely to bother me, leave before you waste any of my time.”

“No, in fact,” Yen said, “I have come for help in finding a book. My order has set me to work on a repair of the ducts in the Great Water Temple.”

“And they sent you here to find a book concerning such repairs?”

The young man looked suddenly uncomfortable, fingering his unfashionably high collar nervously.

“Well, to tell the truth, Master Ghan, they did not specifically tell me to look here, and I was afraid to ask them. They were impressed enough by my earlier work, and I think that they believe me more capable than I am.”

“You had excellent help before,” Ghan reminded the young man.

“Indeed, Master Ghan, I did. When I was in here last, you kindly offered—”

“I know what I offered,” Ghan snapped. He did not like Yen. He had not liked him when he was so transparently courting Hezhi, but the fact that he insisted on reminding him of her was intolerable. Though, to be fair, the young man had been discreet enough not to bring her up this time. So far. And Hezhi liked him, would help him if she were here.

“I can help you rather simply,” Ghan said. “There are no books concerning the Great Water Temple in this library. Not of the sort that you might want, anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the priesthood is exceedingly jealous of its secrets. The construction and content of the temple is their most ancient secret.”

“Nothing here at all?”

Ghan readied a surly reply but paused. “What is it you want to know?” he asked slowly.

“Well, if there is nothing here on its construction, I will surely be supplied with plans of what I am to work on. But… is there nothing of its history here? Of its dedication?”

“Why would that interest you?”

“If I am to have the honor of working upon something sacred, I think I would like to know more about it.” He blushed. “I suppose I am merely curious.”

Ghan regarded the young man steadily. What was his hidden motive? Everyone in the palace had one. He had seen that in Hezhi instantly, though it had taken many months for him to untangle her secret. It was important to understand that no one told you what they really wanted and that sometimes they themselves did not know. Now here was this merchant's son, a member of the Royal Engineers but a junior one, just in his first year of service. He wanted to know about the temple, and the assertion that he was to work upon it was clearly a lie. But why did he want to know?

But the answer was clear enough to Ghan. He wanted to know because of Hezhi. He was clearly obsessed with her, frantic to discover her whereabouts. He had heard something or seen something that made him certain she was not dead.

Ghan realized that his mind had wandered far enough afield that the boy had noticed.

He will think me a senile old man, Ghan thought.

“I can help you with that, perhaps,” he said. “Wait here while I consult the index.”

Yen nodded as Ghan unfolded his legs and stood; he winced inwardly as his stiff joints popped and complained at the shift in position. Moving into the adjoining chamber where he kept the index, he took the huge volume down and carefully spread it open.

He flipped through the subject headings until he came to Wun Su'ta, “temples,” and scanned through the lists, trying to remember which ones were most suitable. As he recalled, Yen could read only the syllabary, not the ancient glyphs, so he excluded many right away.

He felt a little catch in his throat as he noticed the last few entries. They were nicely formed, very distinctive characters. Hezhi's writing.

“Such a bright girl,” he muttered, and wondered what she was doing at the moment. Sitting in some Mang hut, bored to tears, or riding about the world, seeing things he himself had only read about?

He paused and faced the dread he had been avoiding. There were other possibilities. Only the word of a few Mang horsemen—certainly men of less than untouchable repute—evidenced that she had escaped the city at all. He had received no reply from the letter he sent with the horsemen, though he had not expected one soon. The simple facts were that Hezhi could be dead, or below the Darkness Stair with her monstrous relatives, or…

Why did Yen want to know about the Water Temple? What did he know, or suspect? Was she there, for some incredible reason?

He noticed that his hand was trembling, and he frowned. Weak old man, he chastened himself. Weak. Stupid. She is safe and far from here.

What had he been thinking, though? Entrusting her to that pale-skinned foreigner on no more substance than a dream? He had given her hope, and he desperately wanted to believe that her hope had been rewarded. But he was an old man, long familiar with failure and disappointment. Things never worked out as one hoped.

If he could only know what Yen hoped, and why.

With a heavy sigh he noted down the references. Best that he watch, for the moment. Yen was an engineer, whose organization rested somewhere between the priesthood and the emperor. It could well be that he knew something that Ghan did not, especially now, since he had been cautious of late. There were many in the palace who disliked him—hated him even—and rumors that he had something to do with Hezhi's escape were not lacking. Not common, either, but certainly not lacking. If he were to show the slightest interest in her whereabouts, the Ahw'en investigators would take note with their hidden eyes, and then he must kill himself, ere they could torture Hezhi's whereabouts from him.

But perhaps this Yen could look for him.

And so, sighing heavily, Ghan noted down the best reference he could find by shelf and location.

He took it out and handed it to Yen.

“You remember how to find things from an index reference?” he asked.

“I look for this number on the shelves.”

“Yes. The volume you are looking for is entitled Notes on the Codex Obsidian.”

“I don't understand. This tells of the Great Water Temple?”

Ghan smiled thinly. “If it said as much in its title, the priesthood would have taken it from me long ago. This is a modern translation of the Codex Obsidian, a book written in the ancient hand. But the Codex Obsidian itself contains a long citation from the Song and Consecration of the Temple, the holy text that describes the origin and building of the temple and its associated fanes.”

Yen shook his head in wonder. “Amazing. Books within books within books. I see now why she …” He paused, embarrassed. “Why some spend so much of their time here,” he finished lamely.

“Indeed,” Ghan intoned flatly. “Now, if you please, I have much to be about.”

“Yes, yes of course. Thank you, Master Ghan.”

“I accept your thanks,” Ghan muttered, waving, returning his gaze to the work he had been transcribing.

But he watched Yen from beneath his brows as the young man ventured into the labyrinth of books.

I have given you what I can of the temple, he thought. Now let me see where that takes you next. Tonight, when everyone was gone, he would retrieve the same book, read what Yen had read. He would keep pace with him, each step.

The old, he reflected, should be good at that, at least: watching, waiting.

He returned his hands to their work, but his mind haunted the world, the steppes of the Mang, the expanse of the River, the black depths of the Water Temple, searching. Searching for a young woman with a heart-shaped face and wonder in her eyes.

GHE found the volume easily enough, high on a shelf and weighty. Still, with his strength he had little difficulty in lifting it down.

He paused in midreach as a vivid memory flashed through him, brighter and more insistent than most that remained to him. It was of himself, looking at the girl, Hezhi, her black eyes with his features reflected in them. The look of delight on her face as he handed her the bronze statuette, his own sudden, unexpected reaction.

He would have killed her, he knew, despite that. He would have killed anyone, if the priesthood had asked him to.

But how much better now that he did not ever have to think of killing her again. That was not—had never been—the River's plan for her. So much better that he be her savior, especially now, now that he knew he loved her.

Loved her? Ghe felt a sudden trembling deep in his bones. When had he decided that! Back in the sewers as his head fell off? In the depths, in the death before his rebirth?

Had he decided it at all?

But, of course, he had. The River knew no more of Human love than it did of Human hatred. It could not make him feel thus. And so it must be he, Ghe, who loved Hezhi.

He shivered again and shook his head. What had he been about? He glanced down dully at the book clenched in his white-knuckled hands and remembered, though he did not recall actually lifting the volume down. The temple.

He took the tome over to a reading bench of polished teak and laid it flat. He admired the spine of ivory, the ivory pins that riveted it together. The cover was a sort of leather unknown to him, black and densely wrinkled. Some kind of lizard or alligator, perhaps, or one of the great tusked beasts he had heard of.

Inside, the supple white pages were tattooed in blue and black, the sometimes curving, often choppy lines of the syllabary. That was a relief; he had no facility with the ancient hand. Rebirth had made him no better at such things; the River had many powers to offer, but apparently the River could not read, not even books about itself.

The Codex Obsidian read the title page. Ghe began prowling through it, searching for what he was not certain. But the center of his lord's frustration and torpor—the place he could not even see—Ghe knew, instinctively, that it was the temple. When he looked out over Nhol from the roof of the palace, he could see all of the city; the wings of the palace sprawling crookedly along the crests of the hill, the docks and merchant quarter, the thickly cluttered Southtown, and the temple rising high above it all. But when he closed his eyes and pictured that same scene, he saw only darkness where the temple should be. The god that pulsed the blood in his veins simply could not perceive it.

The temple, he remembered hearing, had created the priests the way an oven creates bread. Ordinary men had walked into it, when first it was formed, and the first priests had walked out. Priests were still made thus, though the process took many years. But whence had come the temple itself? That seemed an important story, and there was a sort of itch in his brain that suggested, maddeningly, that he had once known it. Surely he had been indoctrinated into the lesser mysteries in the time he had been trained for killing.

It galled him that he must search so for something he had once known.

And after a time he found it, in spidery characters that were written differently from the rest of the book, so old in style he must furrow his brow to puzzle through them, whisper the words aloud.

We read that in the fiftieth year of the ascension of Water to the throne of Nhol, the last of the monsters were killed, and the surface of the Lake was forever broken. There was rejoicing, there was feasting. The Chakunge thought, then, that it would

be good to have a palace, and a keep, and walls to protect the city. It would be good to have canals to carry his Fathers waters into the dry land, it would be good to have letters to record his thoughts and the thoughts of his Father

And so he loosed some of his blood back to his Father, and he prayed.

A season passed, and then came a stranger. He rode in a boat of ebon wood, and likewise his clothing was jet, likewise his skin and hair.

“The Riven thy Father, has sent me, ” said he. “For though your king is of his blood, a son should not serve his Father. Servants are needed, and I am midwife to all servants. ”

A faint memory awoke in Ghe. The passage referred to Ghun Zhweng, the Ebon Priest, about whom the priesthood told many tales. It was he who brought the planting of crops, the knowledge to build canals, the sciences of architecture and engineering. It was he who established the temple. Ghe read on, impatient with the dry history, hopeful that he would find something of use. A bit later, his attention became more focused.

Then Ghun Zhweng drew for them a plan. “The River must be honored in a Great Temple, where his waters will flow, fourfold. It should be made in the shape of She 'leng, the mountain from which the great god flows; it should have places, hidden and deep. It must have a belly of crystal, wherein the treasures are kept and the bones laid to rest. It should be measured to the following height and width

Something turned in Ghe, twisted, and the bright images of his Riverdream seeped from his eyes onto the very page. A mountain, cone-shaped, steepling high into the clouds and capped with dazzling brightness, where he had once been contained, content: the mountain that was his home, his cradle, his source.

His shuddering became bright fury, inhuman fury so great that he felt the pulsing of his blood threaten to burst forth from his heart and break his mortal body. Who did this? Who is this Ebon Priest, who made these shackles, this priesthood, this temple? Who is he, for I shall shatter him, harrow and eat his soul!

His teeth began to chatter, and his fingers clutched spastically at the pages of the book. The colors from his dream filled the room, a vortex of nightmare light, and for an instant he knew that he lay once again on the surface of oblivion, a greedy darkness eager to swallow him forever. But then, by degrees, the anger retreated, diminished to mortal stature, and then less than even that, so that he was left wondering what he had felt, and why. He was dizzy and weak; sweat slicked his skin and matted his hair. Dazed, he wondered if the terrible lights he had seen had been only in his own eyes or if they had truly filled the library, and he looked around him carefully; no one was about, there in the most jumbled recesses of the archives, and so far as he could tell, no one had come to investigate. Still, to the senses of the Waterborn, or of a priest, it must have seemed as if a fire had burned briefly or a claxon sounded. Ghe swiftly stood, wiped his brow, and arranged his hair as best he could. He replaced the book on its shelf and, with a hasty word of thanks to Ghan, exited the library.

As he hurried toward his room in the abandoned wing, his sense of urgency sharpened with each step until it became a razor carving at the inner dome of his skull. His time in the palace was drawing to an end, one way or the other. As a Jik, he had been the stinging end of the wasp, not its brains. The brains were the Ah-w'en, and he vaguely recalled that they commanded intelligence and sorcery in no small measure. By now they certainly knew that something fell was loose in the royal halls. His experience with the old woman on Red Gar Street had reminded him to respect witchery. Whatever the River had made of him, it had not made him unstoppable; he was susceptible to the same measures used against ghosts and the Waterborn themselves. The incense that had stunned him was the same used to banish ghosts and to stupefy the Blessed; priests routinely swept the halls of the palace to chase its hundreds of specters back into the darkness below its cobbled courtyards, and incense was the least potent power the priests wielded; even the lowliest acolyte could be taught to use a spirit-broom. What secret weapons did they keep against demon wraiths, against ghouls such as himself? It was a shame that he could remember so little of his learning as a Jik beyond the reflexes of killing; he might have once known how to track, trap, and destroy such a thing, an eater of life. Instead he had only the vague knowledge that it could be done.

Probably he had capabilities he did not yet recognize; but the time to discover those things was in short supply. Yet he ground his teeth at the very thought of leaving the palace. The River had chosen him in a way that it chose no one else. It had given him life and power to serve him as the Waterborn could not and the priesthood would not. Who had more right to live in the palace than he? But it was foolish to risk himself in this way. He could hide in Southtown and feed on as many scorps and gung as he wished; the Ahw'en would not find him there—would probably not even bother to try.

He entered an abandoned courtyard and surveyed the cracked and weed-rampant walk through it. Not for the first time, he wondered why this part of the palace was empty, falling into dust. Once when he was a child someone had shown him a chambered shell from deep in the River. It was a straight cone, like a horn, and inside it was partitioned, the largest spaces toward the widest end. Trumpet-cuttlefish, someone had named it, and he had listened in wonder at how the creature, as its life progressed, added greater and grander chambers to its home while abandoning those it had outgrown. It had been a thing of water, of the River. Were the Waterborn of the same nature? No one had ever said such a thing—not that he could recall, of course.

In the center of the court was a sink, a well down which unwanted things and dirty water were passed. He lifted the grate and lowered himself into darkness. Passing a short distance—about twenty paces—he reached a second grate, clambered up and through it, thus entering his apartments.

His courtyard was bare of any life at all. When he had found it, it had been infested with weeds, as well, but a wave of his hand had withered them, given their water and life to him. Now the stone was clean and cold, simple and pure.

This suite of rooms was actually sealed off from the rest of the palace, the doors to the outside halls not only bolted but plastered over, like the backmost chamber of that strange creature.

He paused before entering the room he slept in adjoining the courtyard. Who had told him those things, shown him that shell? A seaman, at the docks? But that seemed wrong. It might have been a woman… He remembered, then, the old woman on Red Gar Street, and he felt a catch in his throat. Perhaps it had been she. He could not remember.

He crawled into his room, trying to ignore the hunger that gnawed in him. Soon enough he would have to feed again; it seemed that he needed to kill more and more often as time went on. It might, indeed, be best to retreat to Southtown, where monsters could Uve with impunity.

He curled up on his stolen sleeping mat like a spider, thinking, planning, and waiting for the darkness.

Almost he slept; his body sank into a torpor, though his mind remained active, peering at the strange fragments of knowledge he had attained.

He understood for certain now that he must invade the temple, though he knew not why. There his lord, the River, was no guide, for in that parody of some far-off mountain, he could not see. That was why Ghe was needed; to go where the god could not go.

Had that not always been his role, as a Jik, as a ruffian on the street? Always Ghe went where others were not willing to. As a child for pay and loot, as a Jik for pride and the priesthood. What reward would the River give him, one day?

But of course, he knew the answer to that, too: Hezhi. Hezhi would be his reward.

Thus he thought, and thus he was still thinking when the wall began to shudder beneath the weight of mallets, accompanied by the high, shrill keen of priests chanting.

XII The Breath Feasting

HEZHI heard the roaring of the crowd outside, but she had been hearing such for several days, and in her pensive, withdrawn state she certainly thought nothing of it. Nothing, that is, until Yuu'han and Ngangata dragged Perkar's still body into the yekt. His eyes were closed and a bright string of blood ran from one corner of his mouth. His nostrils, also, bore red stains. He was pallid, and she could not see if he breathed or not.

She stared, unable to think of anything to say.

Tsem, however, easily found his voice. “Is he dead?” the Giant grunted.

Hezhi frowned at Tsem, still trying to understand what she was seeing. Yuu'han had stripped off Perkar's shirt, and beneath it his chest was livid, purple and red, as if he had been stepped on by a Giant twice Tsem's size. No, not stepped on; stomped. But how could he be dead? She had seen Perkar alive after being stabbed in the heart. She had seen the blade appear from the front of his chest, a red needle with Yen behind it, laughing at her, at her stupidity. What could kill Perkar, if not that?

No one answered Tsem, and finally Hezhi, more irritated at that than Tsem's blurted question, finally asked, “What happened to him?”

Yuu'han met her gaze levelly, for just an instant, before looking off into some middle distance the way Mang were wont to do. “He played Slap,” the young man said. “He won't play again, I think.”

“Then he is—”

Perkar interrupted them by coughing. It was actually more of a gurgle than a cough, but he blew a clot of blood from his mouth. His eyes did not open, though his face pinched tight with pain. Yuu'han stared aghast, made a hurried sign with his hand in the air.

“Naka'bush!” he hissed. In Mang it meant an evil ghost.

“No,” Ngangata told Yuu'han. “No, he is alive.”

“He was dead,” Yuu'han grunted, watching Perkar's chest begin to rise and fall, hearing his wheezing, rasping breath.

“No. It is that sword he bears. It heals him.”

“Thegodblade?”

The Alwa-Man nodded. “Tell Brother Horse but no one else.”

Yuu'han looked uncertain, but after considering he nodded and then left the yekt.

“He will heal, then?” Hezhi asked, her voice still dull with shock.

“I believe he will,” Ngangata answered, “considering that he was deadbefore and is now breathing again. That would seem to me to be the biggest step toward recovery.” His alien face remained expressionless, and Hezhi wondered what the strange man was thinking. Were he and Perkar friends or just traveling companions, forced together by circumstance? Did Perkar really have any friends? In the past months, she had begun to regard him as such. There were moments when he made her feel better than anyone else did, happier anyway. And she believed that, unlike Tsem or Ghan or D'en, Perkar could not be taken from her by death. It seemed safe to care for him. Now even that illusion was shattered.

“I hope so,” Hezhi replied, still unable to think of much to say.

Ngangata rubbed his forehead tiredly and selected one of the yekt's large, colorfully felted pillows to slump down upon. He looked very tired. “I have to know what you have heard,” he said after a moment.

Tsem crossed the room bearing a pitcher and bowl.

“Drink something,” he told Ngangata. Hezhi felt blood rise into her face with a wave of shame. She should be doing something. Ngangata took the water from Tsem.

“Fetch me a rag, Tsem,” she said quietly. “A rag and some more water. We should clean him up, at least.” Perkar's breath was still coming erratically, labored, but at least he was breathing. Tsem nodded and went to search for a rag.

Ngangata watched her expectantly.

“I don't know,” she said at last. “I'm not sure what is going on.”

“You've heard about the war?”

She nodded. “Yes, just today. Some men came in earlier. They found me out in the desert—”

“Found you?”

Hezhi helplessly realized that she was only making things more confused. “I was walking over in the cliffs,” she explained. “Two Mang men from the west found me.”

“Found you in the cliffs? What were they doing over there?”

“I don't…” She didn't know. “That's a good question,” she finished. “It isn't on their way, is it?”

“Leave that for a moment,” Ngangata said. “What have you heard about the war?”

“Not much. Just that there is one, Perkar's people and the Mang. There was an argument between those men and Brother Horse. He told them they were not to attack the two of you. I guess he doesn't have much authority over them.”

“It's too bad he didn't have even less,” Ngangata said wryly. “If they had simply attacked Perkar, he would have killed them with his sword; that much is a fact. As it was, they challenged him to a 'game'—you see the outcome.”

“I don't know,” Hezhi said. “You know more about bar—about these people than I do. If there were a real fight, with swords and everything, wouldn't others join in?”

Ngangata nodded. “Probably. It might have even turned into a little war, with Brother Horse's closest kin trying to protect his hospitality. All in all it was probably best this way. His sword will still heal him.”

Tsem returned with a damp cloth and a basin. She reached for it, but he gently held her away and began sponging Perkar's chest himself. Hezhi started to protest, but realized that Tsem probably knew more of what he was about than she did.

“I've seen him with worse wounds and still capable of walking and talking,” she commented. “Worse looking, anyway.”

“As have I,” Ngangata agreed, and Hezhi thought she caught a deep worry in his burring voice. He did not, however, offer anything further.

Tsem wiped Perkar's face, and the young man hacked again, moaning a bit.

“Did he find what he went looking for?” she asked.

“I suppose. I think he learned much. We learned about the war, at any rate.”

“From this goddess of his?”

“And from another god. From Karak, the Raven.”

Hezhi pursed her lips. “Perkar told me of that one. It was he who set you and Brother Horse to watching for us, when we fled the city.”

“Yes. It was also he who tricked Perkar and his friends into betraying our king. He is a strange, willful god.”

Hezhi sighed and shook her head. “I know nothing of these gods. They are all strange to me.” Monsters, she finished inwardly.

“I don't know everything he learned from Karak,” Ngangata went on. He seemed to want to tell her something, but was trying to work to it carefully.

“Weren't you there?”

“I didn't hear the conversation. But afterward, Perkar was eager to return here, to find you. I think Karak told him something about you, something important.”

“Oh?”

Tsem growled low in his throat. “I like this not at all, Princess,” he muttered. “Too much, happening too fast. Too many people wanting you again.”

“I know, Tsem.”

“What do you mean?” Ngangata queried. “What is this?”

“Those Mang who met me in the desert. They acted as if they wanted something from me, too.”

“And they found you in the cliffs, though no trail from the west passes near. That means they were looking for you.”

Hezhi tried to deny that with a little shake of her head. “They might have seen me run into the cliffs.” But they hadn't. She knew that, somehow. “No, you're right, Ngangata. They were looking for me. And Brother Horse put me in this yekt, as soon as we returned, and set his nephews to guard me. He could tell something was wrong.” She did not add that she was worried even about Brother Horse's intentions. No one who could not see into him would understand, would merely think she had become mad with paranoia.

Ngangata nodded slowly. “Something with big feet is walking,” he muttered. “We were attacked by Mang, as well, up at the stream. They were looking for us. They said that a prophet had seen us in a vision. Perhaps he saw you, too.”

“But Perkar knows more.”

“He does, but he was tight-lipped with me. Whatever he learned worried him.” Ngangata chewed his lip, and then went on. “I did hear Karak say that there was some connection between this gaan and the Changeling.”

A sudden bright chill crawled along Hezhi's spine. “The Changeling? The Riverr

“Call him what you will.”

“I thought he could not reach this far.”

“Not with his own fingers, perhaps,” Ngangata answered. “But perhaps with the hands of a Mang shaman he can.”

Hezhi heard her voice tremble. “He wants me back, doesn't he? He will have me back.” And she realized that, once again, the scale on her arm was itching dully. She reached to touch it.

And gasped; the room seemed to turn around, sidewise, so that she could see it all from a different angle. Tsem and Ngangata appeared hollowed out, skeletal, and the fire in its hearth was a dancing blade with laughing eyes. Perkar…

Perkar was hardly there at all. His skin glowed translucent, and at his side there lay a god. She could not look at it, at that nightmare jumble of wings and claws and keen, sharp edges. It hurt her, scratched at her inside as if there were a man in her head with a sword, swinging it. She lifted up her sight, tried to tear it away entirely, but Perkar himself riveted her attention.

On his chest crouched a blackness, a crawling, shuddering blackness. As she watched, long hairs as thick as wheatstraw grew from it, wrapped sluggishly around Perkar, and reached inside of him to seize his bones.

The blackness opened a yellow eye and stared at her, and she screamed. She screamed and ran, tripped, sprawled, and scrambled back up. Even when Tsem caught her she kept trying to run, kicking at his shins and wailing, eyes closed, shuddering.

When finally she opened them again, the room was as it had been before.

But she knew now. She had seen it.

“Tsem, go get Brother Horse,” she choked out. “Go and hurry. And let me sit outside.”

SHE flinched away from Brother Horse when he arrived, fearful that her sight would return and reveal him for what he was. She should not trust him with Perkar—she knew that—but she could think of no alternative. She did not know what to do for him, and something was wrong, terribly wrong. Brother Horse regarded her sadly for an instant and then entered the yekt. Hezhi remained on the stoop, and Tsem joined her.

“That's a big fire,” he noticed, after a moment.

Hezhi regarded the enormous bonfire from the corner of her eye, unwilling even to risk seeing the Fire Goddess. For some time, the Mang had been carrying in fuel from all directions, and flames and black smoke rose in a thick column skyward.

“I wonder where they found all of the wood,” Tsem went on when she did not answer.

Hezhi shrugged to let him know she had no idea. “I think it's for the Horse God Homesending. A ceremony they perform tonight.”

“What sort of ceremony? Have you written of it in your letter to Ghan?”

Good old Tsem, trying to distract her. “I think Ghan will never get any letter from me. Whatever we thought, these people are not our friends.”

“They needn't be our enemies, either,” Tsem pointed out. “They are like everyone, concerned for themselves and their kin before all else. You and I don't threaten them; Perkar does.”

“Does he? Perhaps his people do. I don't know. We are lost here, Tsem.”

“I know, Princess,” he replied softly. “Tell me about this ceremony.”

She hesitated a moment, closing her eyes. The village did not vanish as she hoped it might; it was still there in the vivid scent of burning wood, in the shouts of children and the wild cries of adults, the yapping of dogs. It would not go away merely because she willed it thus.

“They believe that they and their mounts are kin,” she began. Who had told her that, so long ago? Yen, of course, when he gave her the statuette. He had told her something like that anyway, and it had not been—like everything else he told her—a lie. Yen, who at least had taught her the folly of trusting anyone.

Tsem's silence suggested that he was waiting for her to finish. “You know that by now,” she murmured apologetically. “They believe that they and their mounts are descended from a single goddess, the Horse Mother. Now and then the Horse Mother herself is born into one of these horses. More often one of her immediate children is, a sort of minor god or goddess. When this happens, the Mang shamans can tell, and the horse is treated with added respect.”

“That would be hard to imagine,” Tsem noted. “They already treat their mounts with more kindness than any servant in the palace is shown.”

“The horse is never ridden. It is fed only the best grains. And then they kill it.”

“Kill it?” Tsem muttered. “That doesn't sound like a very good thing to do to a god.”

“They kill it to send it home, to be with its mother. They treat it well, and when it goes home it tells the other gods that the Mang still treat their brothers and sisters—the other horses—well.”

“That is very strange,” Tsem said.

“No stranger than putting the children of nobility beneath the Darkness Stair,” she countered.

“I suppose not.” Tsem sighed. “It's just that everything these people do seems to involve blood and killing. Even worshipping their gods.”

“Perhaps they recognize that life is about blood and killing.”

Tsem touched her shoulder lightly with his thick fingers. “Qey used to say that life was about birth and eating. And sex.”

“Qey said something about sex?” Hezhi could simply not associate the concept with the servant woman who had raised her.

Tsem chuckled. “She is, after all, a Human Being,” he reminded her.

“But sex! When? With whom?”

Tsem squeezed her shoulder. “Not often, I suppose, and with an old friend of hers in the palace. She would have been married to him, I suppose, if it had been allowed.”

“Who?”

“Oh, I shouldn't tell you that,” Tsem said, mischief creeping into his voice.

“I think you should,” she rejoined.

“Well, perhaps if you were a princess and I your slave, I would obey that command. However, since you insist that such is no longer the case …”

“Tsem.” She sighed, opening her eyes and arching her brows dangerously.

Tsem rolled his eyes and put on an exaggerated air of secrecy. He leaned very near, as if confiding a bit of court gossip. “You remember old J'ehl?”

Hezhi's mouth dropped open. “J'ehl? Qey and J'ehl? Why, he was a wrinkled little old man! He looked just like one of those turtles with soft shells and thin long noses! How could she—”

“Perhaps he had more use for such a nose than you might imagine,” Tsem remarked.

“Oh!” Hezhi cried. “No! Darken your mouth! I won't hear any more of this. You're inventing this because no one can call you a liar out here. Except me! Qey and J'ehl indeed. Qey and anyone. She was too old, too dignified—”

“Oh, yes,” Tsem said. “Do you remember that time when J'ehl came to deliver flour, and I took you into your room and sang very loudly to you, the same song, over and over?”

“The only song you knew!” Hezhi exploded. “I kept telling you to sing a different song, but you wouldn't. After a while it got to be ftin, though, me trying to put a pillow over your face, and you just singing and singing …” She stopped. “What are you saying?”

“Qey made me do that. So you wouldn't hear.”

“No!” Hezhi almost shrieked, but she was laughing. Laughing. It was shocking, horrible even to think of Qey and that little man making love as Tsem roared and she squealed, but somehow it was funny. And she realized that Tsem had tricked her, tricked her into an instant of happiness, despite everything.

“Those were good days,” she told him as her laughter trailed off. “How old was I?”

“Six years old, I think.”

“Before D'en vanished.”

“Yes, Princess.”

“And how did that song go?”

“You don't really want me to sing it!”

“I think perhaps I do!” she commanded.

Tsem sighed hugely and squared his shoulders.

“Look at me.

A giant monkey

Live in a tree

A giant monkey !”

His deep voice bellowed out into the evening air, and three dozen Mang heads turned in their direction. Though they could not understand his words, most smiled and a few laughed, for off-key is off-key in any language.

“Abig monkey! Him love Hezhi!”

Tsem shouted on, until Hezhi was wiping tears of mirth from her eyes.

“Stop, stop,” she said. “We've too many serious things to worry about.”

“You told me to sing,” Tsem answered.

“You haven't sung that to me in a long while.”

“Well, you haven't asked me to, and when you got a bit older and started wandering about with D'en so much, Qey and J'ehl had little trouble finding time for their passions.”

I still refuse to credit that!”

“Believe it, little Princess. I could not imagine such a thing myself were it not true.”

“I think you imagine sex all of the time!”

“Yes, but not with Qey!”

She chuckled at that, too, but her brief happiness was already waning. It amazed her that she could have forgotten her troubles for even such a trivial moment, but Tsem had always been good at that.

“You are a big monkey,” she told him. ”And I love you.”

Tsem blushed but read her sobering mood, and from long experience he made no attempt to keep her laughing.

“I know, Princess, and thank you. Out here it is good to have someone who loves you.”

Hezhi turned her face back to the bonfire. She felt braver, and dared to look at it full on. “You've never said anything truer than that,” she said.

There was a small cough behind them. Hezhi turned to see Brother Horse regarding them.

“I need to speak to you, Granddaughter.”

“Call me Hezhi,” she said, frowning.

He sighed. “Hezhi.”

“Tsem will stay with us,” she informed him.

“Very well. An old man will sit, if you don't mind.”

“I don't mind.”

Brother Horse shook his head. “Look at that. They don't need to make the fire that big! They must have burned everything for a hundred leagues.”

Hezhi frowned over at the old man to let him know that today she had no patience for the Mang propensity to chitchat before getting down to the business at hand. He caught the hint.

“Perkar is very ill,” he announced, the playfulness suddenly gone from his voice and replaced by an almost shocking weariness. “He has been witched.”

“Witched?”

“You saw the thing on his chest.”

“I saw it.”

“You are strong, or you would be mad now. What you saw was a sort of spirit—something like a ghost, or god—perhaps the offspring of a ghost and a god. We call them 'Breath Feasting,' because they eat the life in a person. Usually they eat it right away, but Perkar's sword continues to heal him.”

“I don't understand. I thought Perkar was hit with a Slap paddle.”

“It must have been a witched paddle. Such things have been known to happen.”

“You mean someone did this to him.”

Brother Horse nodded. “Of course. It would have to be a gaan, someone with the power to bind spirits.”

“Like yourself, you mean.”

The old man grunted. “No. Someone with much more power than I ever possessed. Someone who could put the Breath Feasting in a Slap paddle and command it to wait.” He turned a frank gaze on her. “I know you were frightened by what you saw in me. I know you do not trust me now, and I should have explained before you saw. But I never believed that you could see into me so easily. That is one of the hardest things to do, to see a gaan. Gods are often disguised by mortal flesh, even from the keenest gazes. You must forgive me, you see, for I never thought that even if you did see into me, it would frighten you. I forget, sometimes, what it means to be from Nhol, where there is no god but the Changeling.”

Hezhi pursed her lips in aggravation and thrust out her jaw, trying to retain her bravery of a moment before. Tsem, beside her, was a presence of enormous comfort. “Are you telling me you are some sort of god?”

“What? Oh, no. No. But there are gods in me. Very small ones, very minor ones.”

“In you? I don't understand that.”

“There are many kinds of gods,” Brother Horse began, after a moment's pause to collect his thoughts. “There are those that live in things—like trees and rocks—and there are those that govern certain places, certain areas of land. There are also the Mountain Gods, whom we call the Yai, and they are different yet again; they are the ancestors of the animals, as Horse Mother is the begetter of all horses, as Blackgod is the father of all crows, and so forth. Those are the most powerful gods, the gods of the mountain.”

“Yes, this was explained to me,” Hezhi said, uncomfortably.

He nodded. “The Mountain Gods have younger relatives who walk about. Small gods cloaked in the flesh of animals—such as those we select for the Horse God Homesending that we hold tonight.”

“I know that, as well.”

“Such gods dwell in flesh, sometimes in places, and those places are like their homes, their houses. But when their house is destroyed—when their bodies are killed or their place ruined—then they are without homes. They must return to the great mountain in the west to be reclothed in skin. However, it is possible to offer them—or sometimes compel them—to make another home, here.” He tapped his chest with a forefinger. ”That's why we call this yekchag tse'en, 'Mansion of Bone.' You saw the dwellers in my mansion, child. Two spirits live within me and serve me, though they have, like myself, grown old and weak.”

Hezhi took that in doubtfully. “And what do these gods do, living in your chest?”

“First and foremost, they dim the vision” the old man said gently. “They toughen you so that the sight of a god does not enter you like a blade, to cut out your sense. Once you have a single familiar, no matter how weak, then you can resist.”

She suddenly understood what Brother Horse was getting at, and her eyes widened in horror. “You aren't saying I have to do that? Have one of those things inside of me.”

Brother Horse examined his feet rather closely. “It isn't bad,” he said. “Most of the time you never need them or notice them.”

“No!”

He shrugged. “It is the only way. And I can do nothing for Perkar. You can trust no other Mang healer, for we do not know who did this. You are his only hope, and you are your own only hope. You have been lucky and strong thus far, but you will weaken, and when you do, your Giant friend will not be able to help you, nor will I. I know you don't like it, but you must face this, Hezhi. I am trying to help you.”

“Brother Horse, I canW She worked her mouth helplessly, hoping it would fill with more words of its own accord, explain to the old man her horror of losing herself, of becoming something not Hezhi. That fear had been a strength when the River threatened to fill her up with himself, make her into a goddess. Now… one of those things, those monsters, living in her? How could she be the same, ever?

But if she did not, what would Perkar do? And what would she and Tsem do? Her talk to Tsem of using her power to help them survive—would she pretend she had never said it?

“How is it done?” She sighed weakly.

“Princess, no” Tsem gasped. He at least understood her, knew her fears.

“I don't say I will do it,” she muttered. ”Only that I want to know how it is to be done.”

Brother Horse nodded. “I have a few moments, and then I must return to my responsibilities. This is a bad time, such a bad time for all of this.” He reached around and pulled up the bag he had carried before, when they went into the desert. From it, he produced a small drum, thin and flat like the tambors played for jugglers in her father's court.

“I made this for you,” he said. “It is called a bun.”

“Bun,” Hezhi repeated. “Like 'lake.' ”

“Exactly. A drum is a lake.”

“That's nonsense,” Hezhi snapped. “What do you mean?”

Brother Horse continued patiently. “The surface of a lake is the surface of another world. Beat upon its surface, and ripples are formed. The things that live beneath that surface will see the ripples, feel the beating. Some may come to investigate. The skin of this drum—” He touched it gingerly but did not sound it. “—is the surface of another world, as well, or at least to a part of this one that only you and I—and others like us—occasionally see. And if you beat upon it…”

“Something will hear,” she whispered, for suddenly she remembered another time, in the library, a book in the old script. Two days before, Ghan had shown her the key to understanding the ancient hand, how the ten thousand glyphs were ultimately composed of just a few. She was reading of her ancestor, the Chakunge, the Waterborn, and how he slew the monsters. When he banished the last of them, the text said he “broke the surface of the lake.” At least that was how she had read it, though the character was just a little circle that she did not think resembled a lake very much. But she remembered the word: wun. Bun, wun. He had banished the monsters and broken the surface of that other world, and even in the ancient language of Nhol the name for that surface was drum.

“Something will hear,” Brother Horse acknowledged, and his voice brought her back to the dusty desert and the shouting celebrants. “Or feel. And if it pokes its head through the drum, you can speak with it and strike your bargain.”

“That simple?”

“It is not simple,” Brother Horse said. “There are songs to be sung—you can send your words through the surface of the lake. But ultimately, yes, that is the essence of it.”

“I hear drums beating now,” Hezhi said. “Are they attracting gods and ghosts?”

“Perhaps,” Brother Horse said. “But their drums are not like this one, or like this one will be when you have made it yours.”

“And how do I do that?”

“As I told you before, it begins with blood. You must wipe a bit of your blood on the surface of the lake, and it will be yours. The lake's surface will open into you rather than into the empty air. Your farniliar can climb right out of the spirit world and into your body.”

“Then I cannot pass through the drum, into that other world myself?”

Brother Horse smiled ruefully. “You understand quickly. Yes, you may. But you don't want to do that, Hezhi. Not yet, not until you have many gods on friendly terms with you, or in your power.”

Hezhi regarded the old man for a moment. She was still afraid, terribly afraid. And yet, with that drum she could have power. Like being the keeper of an important doorway, through which anything might come. It was weirdly compelling, and briefly, her curiosity nearly matched her fear. She reached over and touched the drum skin; it felt ordinary, not at all unusual. But then, Brother Horse had not seemed unusual either, until she suddenly saw inside of him.

“I'll take the drum,” she said. “But anything else—”

“Take the drum,” Brother Horse confirmed. “Think on this, and in the morning, after the Horse God has returned home, we will talk again.”

Hezhi nodded and took the tight disk in her hand. Its tautness felt suddenly to her like something straining, pulling. But it was straining to stay together, of one piece.

Much like Hezhi herself.

XIII Becoming Legion

THE wall shuddered again, and Ghe knew for certain that it was no hallucination. Impossibly, he could faintly smell incense, seeping through some unseen crack.

Found out. How stupid he had been! But he never imagined that it would be so soon, so sudden.

Ghe was not accustomed to panic, and panic he did not. Instead he quickly surveyed his meager possessions, choosing what to keep and what to leave. Nothing to assure them of his identity; they probably knew, but perhaps they did not.

He poked his head around the door into the courtyard. It was black as pitch, a moonless and overcast night, but that meant nothing to him; his vision was better than an owl's, able to pierce the deepest darkness with ease. Thus he saw the shadow shapes ranged along the palace roof, awaiting him.

Of course. Pound on the wall to flush me out, catch me in the courtyard. They are not stupid, my old comrades.

What of the sewers? But the duct from his courtyard's sink led only to one place—the sink in the other courtyard. Beyond that he might find liberty, but the chance was far too great that they had stationed incense-burners there. His best chance, he realized, was the roof, despite the six Jik he counted on it. None of them seemed to be burning spirit-brooms; he could not see the spots, like holes in the air, that he had come to identify with them.

He hesitated only an instant longer, for the door to the apartment had begun to splinter. Choosing what he judged to be the most thinly guarded wall, he sprang, darting across the court and leaping like some nocturnal predator for the second-floor balcony.

Instantly, light flared above him, soft witch-light that caused the air itself to incandesce, a burning cloud like swamp fire. Not bright enough to blind his enemies, but enough for them to see him by. An arrow whirred near, and another, and to him they seemed almost to hang in the air as his senses raced furiously ahead of their motion, the River in him flowing as swiftly as a mountain stream.

His leap brought him to the balcony, clutching at the wrought-iron railing. He hissed as the bolts that held it to the rotten stone protested and then tore, and for an instant he hung in space, sagging backward over the cold stone below. It was an instant the Jik on the roof did not waste; an arrow sank joyfully into his back, just missing his heart, puncturing his lung. The pain was astonishing; it was like being pinned with a lightning bolt, and a deafening roar filled his ears like the thunder following.

The railing held long enough for him to vault over and onto the stone floor of the balcony; two more arrows skittered by him. The one piercing him began to writhe Hke a snake in the wound it had made.

Ghe still did not hesitate; he could have run out into the second-story apartment, but he knew that it, too, was sealed and that he would be cornered there like a sewer rat. Despite the unnerving pain, despite the sudden loss of strength and speed he felt, he crouched and leapt again, this time for the very edge of the roof. A shaft skinned across his knuckles as he gripped the plastered edge, and then, with the strength of his fingers alone, he levered himself up onto the flat roof.

A Jik waited there, of course. Ghe lunged immediately; power was bleeding out along the squirming shaft of the arrow that was surely more than an arrow. He was still faster and stronger than a man, but only just so. A blade, a pale ribbon in the witch-light, cut just over his head, and then he was inside the swordsman's guard. He jabbed stiffened fingers into the soft flesh of his opponent's throat, felt cartilage crush as the man lifted from the ground with the force of the blow. Two more assassins converged from the sides, and Ghe now saw the bloom of flame that was a broom igniting.

A roll gained him the sword and saved him from two more arrows, but a third impaled his thigh and, like the first, began to work some killing magic. It might be that he was already doomed; he could not tell, knowing as little as he did about the priesthood's witchery.

It suddenly struck him as stupid to rely on the sword; his old instincts as a Jik were betraying him. Instead, he reached out and snatched at the nearest man's heartstrands and tore them brutally, gasping as the sweet reward of stolen life pulsed into his veins, replacing what the arrows were taking. Turning, more swiftly now, he blocked a single stroke from his second tormentor, slid his own stolen blade neatly through solar plexus and spleen, bathed in the sudden release of energy as the man's spirit gushed out. Another arrow grazed him, and he ran, burning his newly gained strength, dodging erratically, hoping to outguess the archers. Missiles flew from unlikely places, and he realized that he had not yet seen all of his attackers, but that mattered not, so long as he ran fast and well. Night was his ally, and though new witch-lights bloomed here and there, there were not enough Jiks to be everywhere. The single man who managed to place himself in Ghe's path died without succeeding in loosing his shaft or swinging his sword; Ghe tore his life out from thirty paces away.

I ama blade of silver, a sickle of ice. Ghe sighed, intoning his old assassin's mantra, hurtling across the space between two rooftops. He bounded up and over a ridgebeam, fell uncontrolled down the steep, opposite side as new fire entered his wounds. Fetching up against a parapet, he grasped the shaft protruding from his chest and yanked it out. The arrow squirmed in his hand, and he saw it as a line of darkness, like burning incense. Just holding it stung his hand, and he tossed it away, wondering if he had ever known of such weapons before this day.

He ran on across the rooftops, feet slapping on roof tiles, the black scales of the sleeping night dragon. When he was certain his pursuit was outdistanced, he stopped to withdraw the second dart from his leg; this was easy enough, for the missile had somehow eaten a nearly fist-size hole in his thigh.

He continued to weaken, even with the arrows removed. By the time he reached the wall surrounding the palace, he was dizzy, stumbling. He heard a surprised shout from one of the imperial sentinels, and then he was over, plummeting toward the street. He struck it clumsily, one leg twisting horribly beneath him. Had he been merely Human, he knew he would never have survived the fall at all, but even so, he felt things tearing.

Sobbing in frustration, he struggled to hands and knees and began to crawl.

No! he snarled inwardly, and then “No!” forced from his panting mouth. “No crawling.” He staggered up again and sagged against a wall. There were several shouts from atop the looming darkness of the palace, and so, gritting, he stumbled off down the street.

On the next corner, he met a woman, perhaps sixteen, and he took her life immediately, greedily. Her eyes never even registered shock, glazing over whatever thoughts she had been entertaining, the faint smile on her lips frozen as well. Ghe proceeded across the city like that, feeding as he went, leaving a score of dead behind him. It was like trying to fill a cracked pot; the new strength leaked from him as soon as it entered, and he knew he was leaving a trail of corpses any fool could follow.

Worse, he realized that he didn't know where he was. He had allowed some animal part of him to rule, and that was stupid, stupid, for any animal, no matter how strong, could be hunted and killed by the weakest man, so long as he was clever. The Ahw'en and the Jik were more than clever. He reeled about on the night-dark street, searching for some clue to his whereabouts. His wounds ached, and the life of his latest victim leaked from his yawning mouth. He leaned against a stoop to gather in his breath.

“What is wrong with you?” a small voice asked. Ghe turned in surprise, and his hunger urged him to reach to where the voice was and take sustenance. Ghe fought the impulse, focusing his sharp eyes instead. A child sat on the stoop, gazing at him with large, ebony eyes.

“Hezhi?” he gasped.

“No,” the child answered. “That isn't my name.”

It wasn't she, of course. In fact, it was a boy, and some years younger than Hezhi.

“Boy,” he whispered, “how can you see me in this darkness?”

“I can't see anything” the boy replied. “I've never seen anything. But I can hear you.”

“Oh.” It was difficult, fighting the urge to kill. But he had questions to ask. “Perhaps you can tell me,” he managed. “Where am I?”

“You sound hurt,” the boy said. “You smell funny.”

“Please. Just tell me.”

“This is Southtown, just along Levee Way. The River is behind me. Can't you smell him?”

Ghe closed eyes. He could. Of course he could.

“ I can smell him. I can hear him, too.”

“Hear him?”

“He sings to me. He woke me up tonight.”

“Did he?” Ghe was growing impatient, but something stayed his hand yet.

“And I dreamed. I dreamed of vision. I dreamed I could see.”

“What?”

“Yes,” the boy went on. “I dreamed some beast ate me, but he did not chew me up. He just swallowed me whole, and I could see through his animal eyes.”

Ghe had heard enough. He could no longer concentrate on the boy's words. He reached out hungrily, tore the pulsing strands of light from their fragile moorings. The boy gave a little cry, a shudder, and fell forward into the street.

He did not chew me up, the boy's words seemed to repeat themselves, and Ghe, despite his furious need, paused.

What would happen to these little bundles if he did not devour them? He remembered the Jik he had killed, days ago, how the heartstrands had drifted off, a seed that might become a ghost, but which more likely the River devoured. As he considered this, the boy's life began to tug toward the River, and Ghe followed.

It wasn't long before he could feel the water, his lord. This part of Southtown was mostly abandoned because the marsh had invaded it, and the mud streets were filled with standing water. He sloshed through the quagmire and instantly felt strength returning, hunger abating somewhat. His thoughts sharpened, cut from his brain through the flesh of the beast.

The little ghost was still tugging at its leash, trying to bleed into the River water, but Ghe kept hold, considering. The River had sent him this child; for what purpose? Experimentally, he pulled the knot of spirit into him, but not to the furnace in his heart. Instead he discovered a sort of empty space, one that he had not known existed. The ghost settled in there, tied itself to his own strands and, though it faded, remained. Ghe felt, then, a new sort of strength. Incremental, to be sure, but it was a strength he knew would not fade. The boy's memories were there, too, for him to use. He leafed through them as through a book, the years of darkness in Southtown, a hunger of its own sort. Memories to replace his own lost ones. And he felt the fear, the surprise of death, though it was retreating, replaced by awe and wonder. For what was left of the boy was part of Ghe, and Ghe could see.

Ghe reached the levee and strode over it, found the vastness of his lord beyond, waded in until he was submerged. In the water of the River, he had no need of breath, and as his wounds finally healed, he considered what he had done, what it meant.

What if he had not eaten that first monster, there beneath the Darkness Stair? Would its strength be slave to him now, bound to him as this boy was? How stupid he had been! The River meant for him to bind, not merely to feed. He could be not one, but legion, fill himself with a whole court, and he would be their emperor. That was where his real strength lay. Still he would be cautious, still the priesthood might find some way to kill him. But now he was more than he had been, and he would be much more still. Content for the moment, he rested, knowing his lord would hide him, even from those who followed.

BEFORE dawn he found an abandoned house, nearly consumed by the fringe of the Yellow-Haired Swamp. He watched the dawn flush the waving, waist-high grasses that spread out south for as far as he could see, bordered only by the River on his left and a string of huts trailing its western fringe. Someone had told him—he could not, of course, remember who—that before he was born, this part of the swamp had been a checkered expanse of rice paddies, and in those days Southtown had enjoyed a certain mild prosperity, its inhabitants working the fields and keeping some measure of the crop for themselves. The River had flooded, however, not hugely but enough to silt up the fine network of paddies, and whatever lord owned it had decided the rice wasn't worth his trouble, not with cheaper rice coming up-river by the ton on barges from the Swamp Kingdoms. The swamp had been allowed to have the fields.

The house that now sheltered him reflected that earlier, more affluent year. It had been raised on sturdy cypress posts, and its floor had once been polished, traces of smooth sheen still noticeable in a few places. It had two stories, though now the roof was gone and birds nested in the upper story, whose rafters were gently collapsing in like the ribs of a corpse. The posts had shifted and begun to sink, and the floor sloped at a noticeable angle, bird droppings covering most of the once beautiful planks. Such, in sum, was Southtown.

Even this early in the morning, Ghe could make out a few bobbing heads scaring up the cranes and blackbirds; men and women wading through the muck with gigs and nets, searching for the almost inedible mudfish, salamanders, and eels that lived beneath the grasses. More than one would probably cut his feet or calves on the spines of the mudfish. He could remember an old man he once knew, his foot and finally his whole leg distended, blue and purple, rotting even while he was still alive. The boy he had gathered remembered more, his father dying from such an infection, the unbearable sweet scent of it. Terrible grief.

There was food in the Yellow-Haired Swamp, but there was more danger. Most in Southtown preferred a life of begging or thievery to the dangers of the mud, though a few still cultivated pitiful patches of rice here and there, Wading in the swamp had never been for him, he was certain, though he remembered hunting frogs at its edge, recalled the stink of it more than well enough. As a Jik, he had learned the reason for the stink he had been accustomed to for most of his life: the central sewage ducts from the palace emptied there.

Still, the swamp had a certain beauty, he could see that now, and with the wind blowing at his back, bending the grass away from Nhol, the stench wasn't so bad. He found himself wishing the fishers luck, when before he had only thought them stupid.

He could afford to be generous with such sentiments; he was strong now, his injuries entirely healed. Only the oldest wound, the ridged scar encircling his neck, tingled a bit uncomfortably, and he suspected that he knew the meaning of that. The River was becoming, in his way, impatient. Things must be happening elsewhere, with Hezhi, with her demon swordsman. Now that he understood what kind of strength he had, it was time to put it to use; before the Ahw'en and the Jik found him once more and made a better job of ending his existence.

He fingered the scar and wondered, absently, when it had ceased to repel him, when he had ceased to be at least inwardly horrified at his state. His lack of memories still troubled him, but now he had those of the boy—smell, touch, and taste anyway—to fill in the blank spaces of his childhood. An odd comfort, and he knew he would once have been disgusted by that, as well, but that had been a different, somewhat stupider Ghe.

And what would the smarter, stronger Ghe do today? He would invade the Great Water Temple, though on the surface that hardly testified to intelligence. But it was now or not at all, he felt sure of that.

And so, after watching the sunrise, Ghe rose up from the floor that creaked beneath him, and he thought of how he might best enter the most holy place of the priesthood, the sanctum of those who hunted him so persistently.

The answer gurgled and spluttered no more than a stone's throw from the dilapidated hut: a sewer duct, emptying into the swamp. Wide enough to crawl through, but only just barely. Ghe allowed himself a bit of a smile. Hezhi would have crawled into such a tube, if she thought knowledge lay through it. Could he do any less?

He found the sewer firmly sealed by a heavy iron grate, but for him, at the peak of his power, that was no deterrent. The pins that held it in place were newer—much newer—than the rotten ones that had torn beneath his weight back at “his” apartments, but they protested no longer when he exerted himself. He peered up into the darkness, aware of the almost unbelievable stench but unconcerned by it. Even the old Ghe would have been able to deal with that, and he, the ghoul, cared far less about such temporary discomforts. He paused only a moment before entering, to check his weapons, a reflex so thoroughly ingrained in him from his training as an assassin that it was not a matter of thought. When he realized what he was doing, he chuckled aloud, for, of course, he had no weapons of steel. But still he had the jwed, the way of darting hands, and he had his power. They had nearly failed him back in the palace, but a weapon would have helped him not at all. His hands, his power, his cunning must serve him, or nothing would.

And so he crawled into the tube.

Only the faintest tingle of claustrophobia and a hint of boredom betrayed his Human origins; otherwise he slithered up the tube like a snake. When the sediment on the floor of the duct had settled too thickly, he could not move forward at all, and he would stop to patiently claw at the offending matter until he could squeeze through. When the tube dipped and filled with water for a time, he was just as unconcerned.

How long this took, he could not say and only vaguely cared. After some interminable period, he reached another grate, this one of steel, and though it resisted him a bit longer, it soon opened before him, too, allowing him to enter into a larger way, one that he could stand in, albeit hunched.

He twisted through the labyrinth, the complex overlapping of sewers, flood drains, and, finally, sacred water tubes that he knew Hezhi had mapped. He, however, did not have need of such a map, for in him was the River's strange awareness of flowing, his own expertise with the underways, and even an added tactile sense from the ghost of the boy that was tethered to his heart. The River's unspecified “map” of himself was somehow filtered through the boy's sense of space without sight, and though Ghe would not have needed this added advantage to find the temple, it helped. And when he reached the temple itself, the River in him would be blind, would it not? He wondered, then, how much of his power he would retain, in those dark precincts below the great fountains and the alabaster steps. Perhaps, once again, his head would merely roll from his shoulders, and he would be undone, a corpse made puppet and then corpse again as its strings were severed.

He did not believe that would happen, but no matter. This was the path to serving the River, and it was the way that led, finally, to Hezhi. And he was no mere puppet, not some silly creature on a string.

And that was what he was thinking when his vision blurred, grayed, and doubt renewed itself as, at last, he crouched beneath the Great Water Temple.

XIV Horse God Homesending

HEZHI sat on the stoop, contemplating her drum, as Brother Horse, with a pat meant to be reassuring, rose and went back to his duties. The sun set and stars scattered across the dome of the sky, obscured only by a few tatters of indigo velvet clouds that quickly faded to mist. The Mang kept up their chanting, and the very air seemed to hum with some secret presence.

Tsem went in to get some more water, and when he returned, he said in a worried voice, “Something is happening to him.”

Hezhi turned fearfully back to the yekt, reluctantly stood, and walked inside.

Ngangata watched Perkar, his thick features cast in a worried mold. His forehead—what little there was of it—bunched like columns of caterpillars, his eyebrows their furry sovereigns.

Perkar moaned, then thrashed a bit. He opened his mouth and a few syllables bubbled forth, nothing she understood. Ngangata, however, nodded. “Here,” he answered in Mang, then switched to another language. With his right hand he beckoned her.

To her horror, Perkar's eyes slitted open, and the orbs beneath were glazed a peculiar blue, like those of a fish several days dead.

“Hezhi,” he muttered, barely audible.

“I am here,” she answered. She thought of taking his hand from Ngangata, but the idea repelled her; she knew what was crouched on his chest, what she would touch if she touched him.

“You must… shikena kadakatita.“ His tongue stuttered off into something she didn't understand, as if his River-given command of Nholish were failing. She looked to Ngangata.

“You have to go to the mountain,” Ngangata translated reluctantly.

“Balatata. ” Perkar gasped.

“Yes, I know,” Ngangata assured him.

“What? What does he mean?”

“He is perhaps delirious.”

“Tell me what he said,” Hezhi insisted, and then to Perkar, in Nholish: “Perkar! Tell me.”

Perkar's eyes opened wider, but his voice dropped away.

“He seeks you,” the faint breath from his mouth said. “The River seeks you. You must go to She'leng, the mountain. Look for signs …” His mouth kept working, but even the semblance of sound failed.

“His body seems a bit stronger,” Ngangata remarked after a moment. “But he should be well now. What did Brother Horse tell you?”

“That he has had a witching placed on him.”

“No more?”

“More,” Hezhi admitted, “but I must think on it.”

“Think quickly, then,” the half man urged, “if there is anything you can do.”

Behind her, Tsem growled. “Have a care, creature,” he said, the Mang thudding clumsily, like stones from his mouth.

Ngangata frowned but did not reply. Nor did he relinquish the hold of his gaze on her for several more heartbeats.

“I will think quickly,” she said, and left the tent. Tsem followed her, but not without casting a hard glance back.

“Thank you, Tsem,” she told him once they were outside, “but Ngangata is right. I can't let him die.”

“You could. It might save us a lot of trouble.”

“No, Tsem, you know I can't.”

He grumbled incoherently and shrugged a bit.

“Ngangata is like you, you know.”

“His mother a Giant? I think not.”

“You know what I mean.”

Tsem nodded sadly down at his feet. “Yes, Princess, I know what you mean. You mean we are alike in what we are not, not in what we are”

“Oh.” She hadn't thought of it that way, but that was exactly what she had meant. Each was half Human and half… something else. What they were not was fully Human.

“Tsem, I—” But there was nothing right to say about that now. Instead she threw up her hands in frustration. “Leave me alone for a bit,” she said at last.

“Princess, that would be unwise.”

“Stay near the door. If anything happens, I will cry out.”

She thought, briefly, that he would disobey her, but he did not, and brushed open the doorflap with his enormous palm.

Alone on the stoop, she once more contemplated the drum.

It seemed alive; larger drums had begun thundering, out where the Mang were holding their ceremony, and the small hand drum shivered in sympathy with its brother instruments.

She remembered Perkar, the rides they had taken together, the brightening in his eyes when he spoke of his homeland. She recalled only a few days before, when he had shown her the wild cattle, the sudden intense affection that had seized her. How could she let some black creature eat all of that, if she had the choice? Perkar said he had done terrible things—and she believed him. But she had also done terrible things. And some feeling for Perkar rested in her, she knew that now, for it had glowed hot with pain when he left her to go to see the Stream Goddess, and it lay chill in her now like a frozen bone. She had denied that it was love—and it wasn't, not the sort of love that made you want to marry someone—but it was a fragile thing, a part of her that existed only because she knew him. And when it was not hot or chill, it was warm and pleasant. Not comfortable, but more like the itchy moment before laughing or crying with joy.

And, even all of that aside, Perkar knew something, something important about her.

So there was no question of letting him die; she must admit that now to herself as she had to Tsem earlier. There were few paths open to her, and that admission closed all but one for now.

Tomorrow she would ask Brother Horse to instruct her. She did not really trust him, not anymore, and the other Mang were clearly less trustworthy even than he. Their treatment of Perkar, even after months of companionship, testified to where strangers stood among these people.

But Perkar was dying and the River was after her. Perkar had said so, said that she must go to She'leng. She'leng, the mythical mountain from which he issued. If the River sought her, why should she fly to his very head? It made no sense to her, but Perkar had spoken to one of his gods, one that had aided their escape from Nhol, one who seemed inclined to help them. But what did it mean, and why? “Look for signs,” Perkar had whispered, but she didn't know what that meant, either. Perhaps none of it meant anything, as sick as he was, but she had to know, had to do something. Once again she was being tossed about by forces she did not understand, and that she could not tolerate. She needed information; she needed power. All of that lay in the little drum.

“How fares your friend?” a quiet voice asked, interrupting her thoughts. She turned, startled.

It was the strange Mang, Moss, the one who had found her in the desert. He had come up, apparently, from behind the yekt. Sneaking up on her? She prepared to call for Tsem.

“I mean you no harm,” the young man assured her quietly. “Really. I only meant to inquire after the stranger.”

“What business is that of yours? He is not kin to you.” She emphasized the word in a sudden disgust for the whole concept. Her “kin” back in Nhol had never cared for her; for her worth as a bride perhaps, but never for Hezhi. They would have placed her below the Darkness Stair and forgotten her. Family were people who never earned your respect or love but demanded it nevertheless. These Mang took that to such a ridiculous extreme she wanted to shout with laughter and disdain.

Moss did not flinch from her words or her rude, direct gaze. He only bowed slightly. “That is true, and to be honest, I will neither be happy nor sad if he dies. I will only be disappointed that the hospitality of this camp was violated.”

“That means nothing to me. You Mang make much of your laws and traditions, but like everyone else in the world, you compromise them the moment they seem encumbering.”

“Some do, that is true, when the danger seems great enough, when temper flares. That is not to say we ever discount our ways.”

“Words,” Hezhi scoffed. “What do you want of me?”

Moss' face held nothing but concern, but Hezhi had seen that before, on the face of another young and handsome man, and she would not be fooled twice in the same lifetime in the same way.

“I wanted only to explain.”

“Why do you owe me any explanation?”

“I do not,” Moss replied, and for the barest flicker his green-tinted eyes lit with some powerful emotion, then became carefully neutral. He was not, Hezhi reminded herself, more than two or three years older than she was herself.

“I do not,” he repeated, “and yet I want to speak to you.”

“Speak, then, but don't bother to try to fool me with any false concern. It only makes me angry.”

“Very well,” he said. He glanced back toward the western quarter of the camp; the drums were beating frantically as the fire threw new stars at the night sky.

“Soon the Horse God goes home. That you should see, if you care to understand my people.”

“I don't care to understand them,” Hezhi replied. “Get to your point.”

Moss frowned, showing irritation for the first time. “I will. You know of the war between my people and those of your friend?”

“I know of it. It was you who brought the news, remember?”

He nodded. “Just so. But this war is more than a war between mortals, Lady of Nhol. It is a war of gods, unlike anything the world has seen in several ages. Among my people, there are visionaries, shamans who see things in the future, who barter and truck in the world of Dream, and they have seen many ill things coming with this war.”

She noticed then that his gaze had fastened upon her drum, and she deliberately placed it on the other side of her. “Go on,” she said.

“It is only this,” Moss said, chewing his lower lip for a moment. “There can be war, and many men and horses and perhaps even gods will die. They are already dying, you know. I don't know if you understand what that means.”

“I have seen men die,” Hezhi told him. “I know death.”

“These are my kinsmen dying,” Moss said.

“For whom I care exactly as much as they care for me, for Perkar,” she retorted.

Moss breathed deeply. “You wish to anger me, but my people have charged me with something to say, and I will say it. You have been seen, Hezhi, in dream. A great man has seen you, a powerful gaan who would avert the worst of this war, bring peace. But what he has seen is that only you can bring this peace.”

“Me?” Hezhi narrowed her eyes to slits.

Moss nodded. “You. That is what was seen. You are the only hope for peace, and the Cattle-Man, Perkar, is the bringer of death. You must go from him, come with me. I can take you to the gaan and together we can stop all of this. If you remain by the side of this man—” He gestured at the yekt. “—then it will be as a rain of fire, sweeping over the land and burning all before it.”

“Me? Bring peace? How?”

“I know not. I have only been told this, but the one who told me is beyond trust and deceit. It is the truth, I promise you.”

“And of course I believe you,” Hezhi replied. She wanted to, of course. She had been the cause of so many deaths that the image of her as a peace-bringer was like a beautiful flower in a wasteland. She held on to that image wistfully but knew it had to be false. Must be false.

“How dare you?” she said slowly. “How dare you? For twelve years no one cared what happened to me, whether I was happy or sad, whether I lived or died. Now the whole world seems to want me, to use me like some workman's tool. I gave up the few things I loved to escape that, but I loved those things dearly. Do you understand me? I fled my home to live with you stinking barbarians to escape. I have given everything I'm going to give, do you hear me? How dare you say this to me?“ She was trembling, and her voice had risen to a shriek. Words were spilling from her mouth without any consent from her, but she did not care. The fierceness in her heart might have been panic or fury or both, it was impossible to tell, as tightly bound up and volatile as it was. “Get away from me, you hear me? If I had any of the power you people think, do you honestly believe I would help you? I would strike you down, burn you to blackened bones, scatter your ashes from here to the ends of the earth!”

She wanted to go on then but finally caught herself, panting, reason overtaking anger. But she wanted to hurt Moss, sear that mild expression from his face, and she arrowed her remaining anger at him, as she had done in Nhol. There men had fallen, twitching and dying. Here Moss merely smiled a bit sadly.

“I'm sorry to have upset you. I thought you would be honored to save two peoples and perhaps the world itself from so much pain and suffering. I suppose I have misjudged you.”

“Your gods have misjudged me,” Hezhi snapped. ”The very universe has misjudged me. I only want to be left alone.”

“That is not your fate,” Moss answered placidly.

“I will determine my fate,” Hezhi said, over the rising furor of the drums.

Moss stepped back, his condescending little smile still in place. “I must go,” he said. “The ceremony nears completion.”

“I have told you to go,” Hezhi retorted.

“Just so. But I would speak of this later, when you have thought upon it.”

“I have thought upon it,” she said. “I have thought upon it all that I will.”

Moss shrugged, bowed, and backed away for a few paces before turning back to the fire. Hezhi watched him go, aware that her entire body was trembling uncontrollably. She heaved in several deep breaths, attempting to steady herself. After a moment she glanced around her.

The yekt flap bulged slightly outward.

“It's okay, Tsem, he's gone,” she said, and the flap relaxed.

“And thank you, Tsem,” she finished. He, at least, was always there for her, because he loved her, and not for some mysterious thing she might be able to do.

She took the drum back up and stared at it, her fingers still trembling. She looked out toward the fire, where the Horse God was going home.

“Tsem, come on out here,” she called back into the yekt.

Tsem's huge head emerged immediately. “Yes, Princess?”

“Do you think that the roof of this yekt will bear our weight?”

He considered that. “I have seen many people sitting on them before. You weigh nothing, and I weigh as much as three men, but I think they can bear more weight than that.”

Hezhi nodded, remembering the thick beams that held up the roofs.

“Help me up onto the roof, then,” she said. “I want to watch this.”

“As you command, O Princess,” Tsem said, “if you will explain your conversation with that barbarian to me. I could not follow all of it.”

“I will explain, I promise,” she said. “But later.”

Tsem nodded and came outside. Together they walked around to the back of the house, where the outside beams formed a rough ladder. Tsem boosted her up and then followed, more laboriously. Hezhi expected the roof to at least creak beneath the half Giant's weight, but it held firm without protest.

She stood and peered out toward the assembled Mang.

She could indeed see better. The huge bonfire lit an encircling inner ring of excited faces, more dimly the next, until the crowd became a jumble of shadows and then darkness. The space cleared about the fire was perhaps twelve or thirteen paces in any direction. Seven drummers hammered away on drums from the size of her own to one monstrous instrument that stood as tall as the man striking it; it seemed, as well, that everyone in the crowd had some kind of noisemaker, a rattle, a string of bells, something. The drums, however, washed over these and engulfed them with thunder.

In the circle, masked dancers capered, wearing hoods or carved wooden masks that reminded her eerily of the masks the priests had worn when they came to test her. She shivered a bit, glad that they were distant from her. One dancer stood out, a madly prancing figure in bright colors who seemed to be making fun of the other dancers, like a clown or jester in her father's court. He wore a gaudy green shirt of Nholish satin, pantaloon breeks of some bright red cloth. His mask bore a ridiculous grin puckered out almost into a beak, and rather than hair the mask was furnished with a ruff of black feathers. The oddest thing about this dancer was his feet, which Hezhi could just make out; he wore shoes that somehow created the precise illusion that he danced upon a bird's three-clawed feet.

The Horse God stood nearby, and in Hezhi's vision she shimmered, a striking mare of the rare sort the Mang named w'uzdas, the gray of a thunderstorm streaked with jagged white bolts of lightning. Bedecked in fine harness, silver and gold bells, plumes of feather and long strips of ermine woven into her tail, she coursed in and among the dancers proudly but nervously, shying from the crowd.

“Barbaric,” Tsem muttered.

Hezhi agreed but thought that there was a strange beauty to the spectacle, as well.

The capering clown suddenly leapt at the mare, landed astride her, and in an instant she arched her spine, pawing at the sky with silver-shod front hooves and then reversing, planting front feet solidly and bucking her rump high into the air. The momentary rider was pitched head over heels, struck the ground, and rolled smoothly to his feet, to the appreciative roar of the crowd. The mare, furious, began to snap and paw at the other dancers and the crowd; she tore into one part of the circle, and Hezhi saw at least one person fall beneath the flashing hooves before the clown distracted her by swatting her rump. She turned to pursue him but stopped, puzzled by all of the sound and motion.

Now four women with spears emerged from the crowd, and Hezhi felt her throat tighten; but they did not move toward the mare, instead joining in the dance.

Hezhi glanced at Tsem, noticed that he was rapt, riveted by the spectacle. For no reason she could explain, she removed her own drum from its case. In watching the ceremony, in not thinking, she had completed her decision. From her skinning kit, a little leather purse dangling at her side, she removed a bone awl.

The dancing became more furious, the thrumming of the drums joining into a kind of breathless rushing with no space between their beats. Hezhi gripped the awl in her right hand and pressed it to her finger, felt the sharp point and tried to force it forward.

It hurt, and the thought of drawing her own blood suddenly sickened her; she bit her lip in frustration, wishing she had more courage. Why can yt I do it? She pressed a bit harder, still not hard enough to draw blood.

Then the night seemed to rupture; the drums and beaters crashed with a terrible furor and then died away; Hezhi gasped and started in surprise, pricking the bone awl into her finger. Her gasp turned into a little hiss of pain, as, in the same instant, the women plunged their spears into the mare.

The horse shrieked, screamed in a thoroughly inhuman and yet horribly Human way. She seemed almost to fly forward and flail at one of her attackers, catching one of the women in the shoulder with a sharp hoof, and Human blood joined the spectacle. The other spearwomen scrambled away, and the crowd was hushed as the mare started after one of them, stumbled, blood pouring from four wounds, three of the spears remaining in her. Her front legs buckled and she sank as if bowing, worked for a moment to regain all four feet, and then, as if suddenly resigned, slumped to the dark earth, rolling onto one side, flank heaving.

The dancers ran to her. One took the dying beast's head in her lap, another laid one hand on the mare's breast and stretched the other high. Hezhi watched, her own pricked finger forgotten.

The kneeling woman began moving her raised hand, beating a slow rhythm in the firelight. Tentatively the smallest drum began taking up that beat, and then the others joined, a slow, faltering rhythm, throoom, throoom, throoom, throoom.

“It's her heartbeat!” Hezhi told Tsem, and he but nodded. In her hand, Hezhi's drum was shivering again, shaken by the very air. People began emerging from the crowd, laying presents about the dying horse, gifts of food, incense, beer and fermented mare's milk, jewelry. Brother Horse had told Hezhi of this part; each Mang was whispering prayers for the Horse God to take home, back to the mountain. The mountain? She'leng!

Hezhi was dizzied by the sudden revelation. The River and the greatest gods of the Mang issued from the same place! It had to be true. There could be only one such place, one such mountain.

The drumbeat slowed, faltered under the direction of the woman pressing near the mare's heart. A final beat shuddered into the night, and then profound silence. Hezhi took in a quivering breath, wishing she understood. The pain in her finger reminded her of what she had done, and she glanced down. She dully realized that several drops of her blood had found their way onto the rawhide drumhead.

Well, that is done, she thought. Perhaps doing it at such an auspicious moment would lend her more power later, though she doubted it.

The drums boomed, shivered the earth, and Hezhi looked up, startled. They struck again and again, irregular at first, then gaining speed. Hezhi stared wildly, not understanding, and a peculiar panic seized her. She felt the hammering of her own heart, wildly fast, out of time with the increasing frequency of the percussion. If the drums had been the mare's dying heartbeats, then what was this? The quickening of the god, the ghost, the spirit?

And, all of a sudden, the drumming matched her own thudding heartbeat, and the little instrument in her hand suddenly came alive, not merely humming in harmony with the ceremony but awake, speaking in the same tones as her heartbeat as if actually drummed by the blood in her veins. The itch of her scale became a searing, livid pain and Hezhi turned into fire, a cyclone. The drum opened up a doorway into utter nothingness. Tsem was reaching for her, mouth agape, but he seemed to move slowly, so very slowly, as, like a storm seeking a vacuum to fill, she rushed through the doorway, screaming.

XV Beneath the Temple

THE sudden weakness did not pass, but neither did it worsen, and Ghe smiled grimly. He had been reborn to go where the River could not, and it seemed that this held true, even here, in the heart of his impotency. His vision remained viable, but only just so, and he relied more heavily than ever on the ghost of the dead boy, straining for sound, the touch of air moving on his skin—the senses of the blind.

The tunnel he traveled in debouched into a large chamber, devoid of furnishings but thrumming faintly, faintly. Ghe knew that he must be feeling the water being drawn up the great central well of the temple, further evidence that he approached his destination. By feel and faint sight he found a passageway, cemented shut with bricks. Though he was weak, still he was not as weak as a mere Human Being, and the ancient bricks were rotten, returning to the mud from which they were formed. Wishing now that he had at least a blade or bar of metal, he set to work pushing, tearing, prizing them apart. When the first hole appeared, an appalling stateness breathed through the aperture; whatever space he was digging into was sealed, as well.

He widened the hole enough to crawl through and slithered in, lubricated by the coating of muck on his body. He lowered himself gently to the stone floor, having already made more sound than he wished, wondering what wards this place held, if he had already triggered some alarm.

He had dug into a hall, its floor marbled, but with a low, vaulted roof. He could stand upright in it, but reaching fingers could touch the ceiling. The hall was wide, however, twenty paces or more, and the walls were stuccoed with faint images. He approached and tried to make them out, but his vision was too dim, his sense of color gone entirely. Shrugging, he passed on, removing his shoes, for they squeaked and squished with the moisture in them. The stone beneath his toes was smooth, cool, and still he could feel the hum of rushing water somewhere ahead.

The hall soon widened and deepened, the floor sloping away from him, and he saw that he was entering a chamber filled with water; at least its paths were, for what he saw resembled a city of canals, each building isolated from the others by a trail of water less than a full step wide. These miniature buildings were also of stone—most seemed to be composed of marble, granite, or striated sandstone. Ghe had learned each of these and their properties as a Jik, that he might know how each might be climbed, which were easiest to drive spikes into, and so forth. Puzzled, he moved on, until his toes encountered the still water, and then a sudden tingle rushed up his leg, much like what he felt bathing in the River, but somehow stronger, more forceful. He bent and touched the surface, and his fingers came away dry.

Smokewater, he thought. The Ghost of the River.

He recalled the hall where he had been reborn, the sunken place where the Blessed were placed. The smokewater contained them there, but it had not contained him, only given him puissance. He felt the raw power thicken in him as he waded into the dry fluid, but his vision improved only a fraction. The River's power was here but not his sentience.

If smokewater was a prison for the Blessed, then what was imprisoned here! But he believed he knew, both from memory and from hints in the Codex Obsidian. He approached one of the islanded structures and took the handle of its brass door.

The door opened easily, never protesting, and Ghe peered inside.

A man rested in the small space, or, at least, what remained of one. His bones lay jutting through rotten finery, a rusted iron scepter ringed by the disarticulated finger joints that had once held it. Ghe stared at the remains curiously. What king was this? Hezhi might know, would probably be able to read the ancient glyphs that patterned the tomb, recount some of the man's deeds. None of this really mattered to him, however, and with a small bow, he stepped back to close the door.

The bones shivered, blurred, and he realized suddenly that a nearly invisible shroud lay over the skeleton, a translucent film. This was now oscillating, wavering like the air above a stove or a fire. A tendril reached out tentatively to touch him, and he let it, wondering what it would do. A thin pain, a burning, started on his flesh where it touched him, and the shroud suddenly scintillated, glowed, tremors of color running through it. The bones themselves remained still.

He stepped farther back, brushing away the mist that touched him, and when that did not work, he disengaged it with his power. He could now see the simply knotted heartstrings, glowing above the dead king, the sort he had come to associate with ghosts. It had been clear, drained, and yet now with just a hint of his own power, it lived faintly.

These are not tombs for their bodies, he understood suddenly, but for their ghosts.

To trap them. To keep them from wandering or returning to their source. If the River could give him such power, what might it not do with a body and soul made to contain his will, the body of an emperor? This was the priesthood's way of making certain that such would never occur. The River's anger at that was distant from him, and so he did not fly into a rage as he had in the library. But what he saw confirmed his growing certainty that the priesthood worked against the River, not for him, and that they had been doing so for a very long time.

Staring at the fading ghost, it occurred to him that it could be tethered to him, just as the boy was. He could take the knowledge of an ancient king with him on this quest, use it to read the old hand and thus the enigmatic inscriptions all around him. Indeed, perhaps the solutions to all of the mysteries he sought to unravel lay here, in these tombs. But a strong instinct argued against that. The smokewater had so weakened these souls that to bring one to full sentience might drain him of power. Its touch had been so supremely hungry—what if if became the master of his body? A runner could usually gauge how far he could run, a jumper how far he could jump, and the same sense of ability made Ghe suspect that devouring the ghosts of these ancient Waterborn might be more than he was presently capable of.

So he moved on, brushing the tombs of kings with his hands, wading thigh-deep in water that did not dampen him. All here were dead: men, ghosts, River. As he advanced, he wondered what had brought him to this place. Understanding, surely, but understanding of what? What exactly did he seek? He hoped that the answer would be evident when he found it, that it did not lie in one of the many tombs. If it did, how would he discover it, by searching each and every one?

Perhaps he sought the priestly library, but he was certain most of those books were in hands he could not decipher easily or quickly. Of course, Ghan could, if he took one away. But how would he even know which one to take? In the end, he might have to gamble with a dead king anyway.

Perhaps he sought something more basic than books. The River wanted Hezhi back, but more, he wanted free of his shackles. Was there some way for him to overthrow the temple itself, compromise its power? That would be worth seeking, if he only knew what that might be, what valve he might adjust. It seemed unlikely that such a thing existed; more probably the entire structuration of the temple was responsible for its function; the bits of architecture he had read in preparing to converse with Hezhi had suggested as much. Certainly the fountain was involved, the flow of water up and into the temple, cascading down its stepped façade. And the Codex had suggested that the temple was in some way like She'leng, whence the River flowed. No, this was all too complicated for him. Still, he had to know what was here. Perhaps the River could sort some sense into it when he left the stultifying effects of the temple.

The hall of the dead ended at last, steep steps rising from the smokewater, and he set foot to their treads, padding upward carefully. He could hear the water now, not merely feel it and, at last, a few moments later, see it as he emerged into a grand hall, lit by a dim phosphorescence. As feeble as the light was, however, the walls and high ceiling picked up every bit of it and turned it back to his eye; for every surface of the room was mirrored with cut glass. The mere presence of his form awoke a million eyes that fluttered and blinked, his reflection passing through each facet.

And of course, the water. It rushed in a solid column from floor to ceiling, and he knew that it continued up through the many tiers of the temple until at last it emerged from its summit and streamed down the four sides like the water at the four corners of the world. He stared awestruck, despite himself. It had the appearance of a column of jet and silver; there was no spray, no spume; each drop went where directed, up and farther up still, like blood pumping through an artery. If he could sever such an artery—

“Who is this?” came a voice, but Ghe could not see from what throat it issued; he knotted his muscles, prepared to spring in any direction, but a long moment passed and still he saw nothing, scanning what he could see of the room again and again. It was a high voice, the voice of a priest, certainly. Slowly, very cautiously, Ghe sidestepped to his left, moving around the room's fountain core, until he saw the speaker at last. It was a boy, perhaps thirteen, perhaps younger or older by a year. He wore a black robe and his head was shaven. In his hand, limply, he held a golden chain, and a shadow was bunched at the end of it, a quivering murkiness.

“Who is this?” the boy repeated. Ghe pinched his mouth, wondering what to do: strike instantly or stay his hand, see what he might learn? Reluctantly he decided on the latter. It would give him a chance to close the intervening space, and surely there was more here than it seemed. He trod carefully, wary about placing his weight without first testing for a pit or some other trap; he had heard stories of the many ways in which the priesthood guarded its treasures. The Jik would plan such traps, and when it came to death, the Jik were inventive.

“I am no one,” Ghe replied softly. “Just a mouse scurrying in these corners. I mean no harm.”

The boy looked amused. He settled down on the edge of the dais on which he stood. Ghe could see more clearly now, could make out that the dais held all manner of objects: weapons, books, a rack of painted skulls, chests and boxes. The light was coming from there, as well; a wrought-iron lantern that burned quite dimly, with no flickering, as if its glow did not issue from any flame. Perhaps, like everything here, it was only the ghost of flame.

“Sit, be comfortable,” the boy enjoined. “I rarely have anyone to speak to, and thou must have questions, if thou comest here.”

“I have questions,” Ghe acknowledged. “But I would not bother you with them.”

“Thou bother me not at all,” the boy answered, as Ghe peered more intently at what crouched, leashed, at the boy's feet. The dark shape confounded him, refused to resolve into any recognizable form. The boy's accent was more than old-fashioned; it was nearly another language, and Ghe had to concentrate intently to understand him. He moved closer, since he seemed to have been invited to.

When he was ten paces away, the boy waved him back. “It would be well if thou approached no closer,” he said. “Mine dog is known to bite.”

Ghe nodded to show that he understood, but he did not sit, as instructed, preferring to stand so that he might quickly respond to a threat, if need be.

“Thou came in through the crypts,” the boy observed. “I have the right of it, have I not?”

Ghe saw no point in denying this and so nodded.

“Here, give me something to call thee. It need not be thy name.”

“You may call me Yen,” Ghe answered, wondering too late if the boy might not know of that identity.

“Art thou unsighted, Yen? I sense a blindness about thee.”

“I am blind.” It dawned upon Ghe that the boy himself was without sight, his pearly orbs never focusing on anything. If the boy thought him blind—perhaps sensing his ghostly thrall—then why argue?

“It seemed that it should be so. They say that only the blind can come here.”

“Why is that?” Ghe asked.

“My father made it so,” the young man replied, smiling.

“Your father, the River?”

The boy chortled. “Thou does not know where thee beest? No, my father is not the River. Not he.”

“Do you guard this place?”

“Thou lack persistence,” the boy said. “Thou wouldst know of my father.”

“I have no wish to be rude.”

“Trespassing is always rude, thou, but mind that not. I am the keeper of this place, and its guardian in that sense.”

“What do you guard?” Ghe asked, eyeing the treasure behind the boy but playing his role as a blind man.

“Baubles, bangles. Mostly Ms place, as I said.”

“But who do you guard it from?”

“Thee, I suppose.”

“I don't want anything here,” Ghe lied.

“No, I suppose thou merely took a wrong turning. It is a common mistake, and many make it,” the boy mocked.

“I was curious, nothing more.”

“Come,” the boy said, a bit of anger creeping into his voice. “Tell me why thou art here. It matters not what thou sayest, save that I am bored and wish to speak with someone.”

It matters not what thou sayest. Ghe caught the threat in that. Was this boy merely delaying him, as more priests came? But he had heard no alarm, felt no odd play of power. Though it was like peering through a mist, he had occasional glimpses of the guardian's heartstrands, and they looked strong and strange, and he seemed confident, as if understanding that he needed no aid. And then there was the shadow at his feet, pulsing with malevolent force. If he could feed on them, or better, capture them, what might he not learn?

“Very well,” he relented. “I have come seeking the secret of the temple, I suppose. Seeking how it holds the River senseless here.”

“And dost thou have thine answer now?”

“No. This place was mentioned in a book that was read to me, but now that I have reached it, I know no more than I did.”

“Fortunate that thou hast encountered me, then. I know this place well.”

Ghe hesitated barely an instant. “The book speaks of a mountain far away.”

“She'leng, the source of the Changeling.”

“Changeling?”

“Another name for the River. Yes, there is such a mountain, which thou namest She'leng. And what dost thou think that has to do with this place?”

“It was built to resemble that mountain,” Ghe answered, once again wondering at the antiquity of the boy's speech. No priest he knew spoke in such a manner, save in incantations, and never did it flow so smoothly from their lips.

“Very good. And thou wouldst know why?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Imagine,” the boy said, clasping one knee between his hands, leaning back and staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, “Imagine … Wert thou ever sighted? But of course thou wert; I can sense it. Imagine then, in thy sighted days, standing before a mirror. Imagine now, another mirror behind thee, just precisely behind thee. What is it thou seest?”

“Myself, I suppose, reflected into infinity.”

“Indeed. Now suppose thou art stupid, like a blue jay or some other noisy bird. Hast thou ever seen them fly against glass, accosting their own reflection?”

“No, but I can imagine it.”

“A truly stupid bird might batter itself into senselessness against a mirror. Caught between two, it would be a virtual certainty.”

“You say that the River is such a stupid bird? That the mountain and this temple are like mirrors, facing one another?”

“Well, I only offer a little story. The truth is much more complicated, I suppose. The River flows on past this temple, is aware beyond it. But in a sense, a part of him is fooled into thinking this place is his point of origination, his womb, and that—though he knows it not—is what he truly seeks: return to his ancient home. He cannot see this temple because he confuses it with the mountain, and for him the distance between is somewhat meaningless.”

Ghe remembered his dream, the dream of completeness long ago, when the River was an endless circle, content. He was aware that he sought his ancient state but thought to reachieve it by growing larger. But if part of him were fooled into a dream of contentment…

“So he feels the water rushing through the temple—”

“And believes that it is himself, flowing out from his source. It confuses him, but the nature of the wyrd is that he does not know he is confused.”

Ghe nodded his head. “That may be so. But there is more.”

“Oh, certainly. A thousand ancient songs—lullabies, if thou wilt—are pooled here, and over time such songs lie upon one another and gather strength. A thousand blocks of incense are burned, and priests are made so that the River cannot see them, either. But those things are just ornament, paint, gilding. I have given thee the very essence.”

“And this was all done by the Ebon Priest?”

The boy laughed. “The Ebon Priest is actually quite lazy, but he knows how to set others at a task. Thou wilt not see him here in the midst of this drudgery he created for us all. I suppose he laid out the plan but left others to refine the details. What thou seest is more my creation than his, in many ways.”

Ghe narrowed his eyes. Was this man lying? He seemed only a boy, and yet Ghe already knew better than that.

“You are the Ebon Priest's son?”

“His bastard, yes. Thou—you knew that.”

“I do now, I suppose. Then you have been here for some time.”

“You have an engaging talent for understatement.”

As they had been speaking, the boy's strange speech had gradually altered, until now he spoke with Ghe's own soft dialect. That was somehow much more unnerving than hearing him speak in the ancient, incantive tongue.

“You have been here since the First Dynasty?”

The boy shrugged. “Now and then I sleep. I was sleeping when you arrived, but my pet, here, awakened me.” He tugged playfully on the golden leash, and the darkness quivered a bit.

Ghe did not ask about the pet, remembering that he was supposed to be unsighted, nor did he ask about the books, the weapons, the skulls.

“Are those all of your questions?”

“I don't know what else to ask.”

“Perhaps you would prefer to speak to someone else?”

“Someone else?”

“Why, yes. One of my companions, perhaps.”

Ghe studied the room carefully. He saw no “companions” save for the “pet”—whatever it was.

“I listen for the Sound of Falling Water,” he said, the standard acceptance of a master's wisdom by the pupil. He realized, even before the boy had uttered his short, barking laugh, how ludicrous the phrase now seemed.

“Well, then, who shall we speak to?” The boy stood and walked over to the skulls, rubbed their smooth craniums with his palms.

“Su'ta'znata? Nungeznata? No! You would want to speak to Lengnata. Here.” He lifted up one of the skulls and brought it over, sat with it on his lap.

“There, Lengnata. Speak to your loyal subject Yen.”

The boy was certainly mad, Ghe thought. Quite mad indeed.

“Thou mockest me,” Ghe heard himself say suddenly, harshly. He clutched at his throat. “Leave me to sleep. I have no subjects, nor ever did I.” He heard himself go on. His voice, speaking from his throat, without his command.

“No! Stop! Make it stop!” Ghe cried, this time of his own volition. He could feel nothing, no intruding presence. It was not as if someone were forcing him to speak; it just… happened.

The boy tittered, as Ghe answered himself. “Slay him, if thou canst, and if not, escape from here. If thou ever wert a subject of the Chakunge…” Ghe concentrated furiously, trying to make it stop, but it would not; the words kept vomiting from his mouth. He barely noticed how, at the mention of the Chakunge, the boy nearly doubled over in laughter.

Stop, stop, Ghe thought, as Lengnata muttered on madly in Ghe's voice. Desperately he reached out with the tendril of his power, searching for a way to make the babbling cease, to kill the source of the utterances. He felt into the skull and found it there, the ghost knot, and frantically seized it, closed the fist of his mind on it, and squeezed. The babbling suddenly did cease then, and almost instinctively Ghe pulled the ghost of Lengnata into himself and tethered it with the bünd boy. It was a weak, starved creature, easier to manage than he had guessed.

He realized suddenly that his knees must have given up holding him; he was on his hands and knees facing the floor, shuddering heavily.

“Give that back, ” the boy said slowly, deliberately. He no longer seemed amused at all.

“No,” Ghe managed. “No, I don't think I will.” And he struck like a snake, reached for the bunched strings of the guardian's life.

Fire hollowed Ghe out, burst from his eyes and mouth, and, as if physically struck, his body arched back and slammed to the stone floor, writhing. He kicked away madly, aware of his own shrieking but unable to do anything to stop it. A small part of his mind remained intact, trying to ride the crest of the agony, understand what had happened to him. He had reached out toward the boy and encountered something, a venom that struck up through him like a sword. He waited for the next blow, the one that would finish him, but something stayed it. Surely not him, though he felt a hard kernel of power in him, still untouched. He kept that near as, trembling, he turned back to the boy.

The boy had a nasty grin on his face. His “pet” had risen up, and Ghe saw that it now wore Human form; a tall, striking man with enormous, fishlike eyes, a nose almost beaklike in its angularity. He wore armor made of some gigantic crustacean, and he carried an aquamarine blade. Within his bulging eyes were empty hollows in which danced darkness and white sparks. His hair hung long, jet, lank, bound by the golden circlet of a king.

“Bow down, Yen,” the boy spat. “Rise, but only to your knees so that thy emperor may receive you.”

Ghe still felt on fire, but the pain seemed to have been mostly illusion, or at least nonphysical. It had been as if his eyes and flesh actually melted, but he was still whole …

What was the guardian talking about? The apparition whose chain he held was not the emperor; he had seen the August One many times. No, this was some ghost, or demon.

“I see you do not recognize him, the First Emperor, the Riverson.”

Ghe parted his lips to retort but could not find the air. It couldn't be, he knew. Couldn't be not a Chakunge but the Chakunge. If such were true, the power of this boy must be hideous … But now he could see the boy's power revealed, the fire and lightning raging in his heart, a cyclone of light. What had he done, what had he wakened?

“Now. Give me back what you took.”

I return to death regardless, Ghe understood. And so he ran, striking out with the force in him rather than reaching to take.

Four steps he flew and felt his blow deflected, drained away, but then he was leaping, hurtling through the air. The boy shrieked in fury when he saw Ghe's target, and Ghe felt a thousand hot needles of brass piercing his spine. The ghost of the Chakunge moved as quickly as a dark lightning crackling across the floor, chips spalling from the stone where his feet touched. In the same instant Ghe struck the roaring column of water and it struck him, a giant's fist with no mercy or care. Light and thought vanished into thunder and then void.

XVI Gaan

THE sound of drums faded, replaced by an enveloping silence that included not even her heartbeat. Hezhi had a sense of rushing, but there was no confirming wind on her face. The terrible fear that gripped her faded, however, receding like the drums and her own heartbeat, and with some startlement she understood that her eyes were shut tightly. She opened them.

Something was hurtling by beneath her, a broad, endless something that could only be landscape, seen from high in the air. It was a dark landscape, the bunched masses of hills indigo, the plains mauve, wriggling strips of ebony that must be streams or rivers. The brightest color surrounded her; she was wreathed in clouds of sparks, exactly like the sky-seeking flashes from the bonfire, and with a shock she realized that the sparks were not merely following her but emitting from her; her body glowed like a red-hot brand.

What have I become? she wondered. But she still felt like herself.

Ahead of her, matching the pace of her flight, was a second brand, trailing flame like the comets she had read of, nearly white at its center, nimbused in orange and yellow, the faintest tail of the torch swirling away into turquoise, jade, and at last, violet. It was more than merely astonishing but beautiful, and she found that while her fear seemed to have been cut from her like a lock of hair, her wonder had not.

What had happened? She struggled to understand as her speed increased, the weird landscape sheeting beneath like an inconstantly choppy sea.

She had passed through the drum, the bun. She must be in that otherworld Brother Horse described, and she realized that she had never believed him, despite her experience with things arcane. Ghosts and the power of the River made sense to her; this land of gods and demons and worlds within worlds did not, and deep down she had always thought it to be some Mang superstition. That assumption had led her to be incautious, to meddle with something she understood not at all. It could be that she was dead, she thought. She must resemble a ghost quite strongly, a ghost such as the one that had attacked her in the Hall of Moments. Had her body been stripped from her like the peel of a fruit? Was Tsem even now holding her lifeless corpse, weeping?

She turned back, attempting to see more of her “body,” but only flame was revealed to her, a coruscating skirt billowing into nothingness.

If she were a ghost, then what flew ahead of her? But she thought she knew that, too. It must be the spirit of the horse, running back to its mother, the Horse Goddess. It was certainly dead, and that led Hezhi to suspect that she was, as well.

The land below grew rougher, and her flight swooped and climbed to follow the rising contours of it. She wondered, vaguely, if there was any way to control her flight, but after a certain amount of experimentation—willing herself to turn, waving her ethereal arms—she gave up. It was as if she were borne along on a swift stream, perhaps one that the Mang ritual had created to send the horse home. She was going farther and farther from her drum, then, which was probably her only way back to the world of the living—if that world even existed for her now.

Ahead, something bright shone, a brilliant eye with lids of rainbow arcing about it. It grew larger and nearer with immeasurable rapidity. She felt certain that this was their destination, for the shooting star ahead of her turned subtly to intersect it, weaving through the sawtooth silhouettes of mountain peaks, and she followed. The whiteness grew, expanded to fill the horizon. She had a sense of enormity, of a mountain larger than any mountain in the world and a tree with branches in the nether stars before the light enveloped her, and, shuddering, she came to a halt.

SHE first became aware of voices, muttering in a tongue she did not understand. She could pick out four, possibly five distinct speakers: two women, two men, what might be a girl or young boy. Around her, the light was fading, becoming red spots on her eyes.

Finally, magnificence replaced the spots.

She stood in the grandest hall she had ever known; no court in Nhol could even begin to match it for size. Its splendor was stunning, as well, but it was of an alien sort to Hezhi, resembling more the natural beauty of the cliffs and mountains than it did the refined—though often decadent—architecture of the palace. Still, in its vastness there was a simplicity that matched certain Nholish ideals.

The walls—those that she could see—were curtains of basalt, flowing to the floor and rising beyond vision above, though the hall was well lit by the barbaric guttering of perhaps a hundred torches. The floor was polished red marble, and by that she knew that some hand had crafted this place; otherwise she might have thought it a purely natural cavity. The floor was mostly empty, like a vast dance theater, and by comparison the part of it she stood upon was cluttered, for nearby were a throne, carved from a column of basalt, the dais that it sat upon, a vast table, and its attendant benches. None of these was occupied.

The other occupants of the room stood on the open floor, some forty paces from her, and they held her attention much more than the room. Foremost was a creature completely beyond her identification, a vast monster that resembled a bear but also resembled Tsem. He?—it had a single eye, a black orb filmed with faint rainbow. Perched on his shoulder was a raven the size of a goat, and still the bird seemed insignificant, so large was the bear-thing. A pace from both of these was a woman, naked, her flesh cloaked only in soft black fur. That and her pointed teeth reminded Hezhi of some sort of cat, save that horns grew from her head and tangled hair fell in a mass almost to her waist. A second woman seemed most familiar of them all; matronly, strong-limbed with thick, long straight hair, she appeared to be a Mang—or even a Nholish—woman. In fact, Hezhi was reminded of Qey.

Kneeling before them was the wavering, ghostly apparition of a horse. Hezhi held her own hands out before her and saw only bones swathed in shifting patterns of light and smoke.

“Well, well,” the cat-woman said, her voice barely a sigh and yet perfectly audible in the great hall. “And who have we here?”

“You know her,” the Raven clattered harshly, his voice just slightly more intelligible than the cawing of one of his smaller brethren.

“I don't,” the Mang woman said, stepping up to stroke her hand upon the horse's fiery mane. “How has this child come with my child?”

“I would say she did something very foolish,” the cat-woman said, walking toward Hezhi with fluid, padding steps. “You may speak to us, girl.”

“I… Ï don't know what—” These were gods. They must be. What could she tell them?

“You haven't come here to be clothed in flesh, that much is certain, for you still have the stink of flesh about you. You are no goddess, though you think yourself one, and you are no beast.”

“She smells of my brother,” the giant rumbled, in tones so low that Hezhi first mistook them for mere growling.

“Why, we should eat her, then,” the cat-woman opined, flashing her smile full of needle-teeth. “Yes, we have not dined on mortal flesh in some time.”

“Hush,” the Raven croaked. “You know what becomes of you when you dine on Human flesh.”

“Do I? I can never remember.”

“Exactly. Exactly!” the Raven cackled.

“What about you, girl? Do you wish to be eaten?”

“No,” Hezhi said, anger beginning to slice through her awe. “No, not at all. I only want to understand what has happened.”

“Well, you flew through a lake, I suppose, and came to the mountain. That would mean either that you are dead—which you are not—or that you are a great shaman …”

“Which she is not,” the black bird finished.

“No,” Hezhi agreed. “I don't think I am either of those.”

“You followed my child,” the other woman—who could only be the Horse Mother—said. “What do you want of my child?”

“Nothing!” Hezhi cried. “I only want to go back. I made a mistake.”

“Imagine that,” the Raven said. “But I say when one visits the mountain, one never goes away the same. Look at her, my kindred. A girl who flies about like a shaman, and yet she has no servants in her mansion.” He tapped his breast with his beak.

“What concern is that to us?” the cat-woman asked. “What does it concern us that this Changeling brat has no helpmates?” She looked suspiciously at the bird. “Is this some trickery of yours, Karak? Some part of your silly machinations?”

“I know her only by reputation,” the Raven said. “She caused something of a stir down the Brother's course.”

“I cannot see there,” the monster with one eye rumbled. “He has closed that to me.”

“Then it might not hurt to have an ally there, even a mortal one. Give the child what she came for.” The bird winked at Hezhi.

“I didn't come for anything,” Hezhi insisted.

“Everyone who travels to the mountain comes for something,” the cat-woman snarled. “I'll give her none of mine; she hasn't earned them.”

“Be reasonable, Huntress. I could only give her a crow, not really the sort of helper that would do her much good.”

The “Huntress” snorted. “No, I should think not. Silly, willful creatures, always cawing in alarm at the slightest scent of danger.”

“I won't argue,” Karak said agreeably. “That is why I suggest you give her something. A tiger, perhaps, or even a ferret.”

“A tiger? No, I think not. I'll have none of this.”

The Horse Mother looked up from her child. “Did you come for a helper? You must know it was foolish to come to the mountain for such a thing. Without one, you can never return.”

“I didn't mean to come here,” Hezhi said, helplessness—and thus anger—swelling in her.

“Life often ends with a mistake,” the Huntress remarked.

“Huntress—” the Raven began.

“No! Enough of you, Karak. Balati, judge!”

The giant blinked his eye slowly. “Hold her until her body dies,” he said. “Then we will reclothe her in something. You decide, Huntress.”

“Lord—” the bird began, but then his beak seemed to seal shut; and though he struggled to speak further, only muffled grunts escaped him.

“Fine,” the Huntress said, smiling. She waved toward Hezhi, and she lost consciousness.

SHE awoke in a chamber of obsidian, if “awoke” was the right word to describe her passage back to consciousness. Her “body” no longer sparked and flashed; it had faded to a faint translucence through which she could see the shadows of her bones, her organs, the faintly pulsing lines of her heart. The scale on her arm showed as a searing white spot, however, and from it whirls of color traced up her nonexistent arm, making it seem much more real than the rest of her.

“Hello!” she shrieked, but she expected no reply and got none. She wondered, dully, if the altered appearance of her ghost meant that her body had died or if it reflected some other change in quality about which she knew absolutely nothing.

She had met gods now, not just the little gods in Brother Horse and the landscape, but the Emperor of Gods, Balati, the Huntress, Karak the Raven, and the Horse Mother. Perkar had described all of them save the Horse Mother. It still seemed worse than unreal to Hezhi; it seemed like the cusp of nightmare and waking, her mind insisting that it was all illusion and night terror, assuring her that she need only keep hold of her fear until morning. How could this be real?

But the Blessed beneath the palace were real; the River was real. In a world that held those things, why not gods with antlers? Because she thought they were silly, or barbaric, or unlikely? They would kill her, no matter what she thought.

She set about exploring her prison. It was less a chamber than a glassy tube, traveling roughly upward. She wondered if she could fly, as she had before, travel up along it. She tried, but nothing happened. She attempted climbing and had better success. Her ghost body seemed to have little if any weight. The slightest purchase of her fingers was enough. Unfortunately, there was little enough purchase of any kind in her prison, and she never gained more than thrice her own height, climbing.

She was still trying, however, when a voice spoke from behind her.

“Such a determined child. The Changeling chose well when he chose you.”

She turned, lost her tenuous hold on the wall, and plummeted. She fell with a normal sort of speed, but the impact hurt her not at all.

“Who are you?”

“You should know me. Perhaps Perkar has spoken of me.”

She peered into the darkness, made out a pair of yellow eyes. “Karak?” she asked, the alien name croaking clumsily from her mouth.

“In the well-wrought flesh,” the voice answered.

“Perhaps you have come to taunt me, then,” she said. “Perkar speaks of you as a malicious god.”

“Perkar seeks to assuage his own guilt by blaming others. No matter; I am fond of Perkar, though he maligns me. Tell me, did he return to the camp yet?”

“Yes.”

“And what did he tell you of his journey?”

“Nothing. He was injured.”

The Raven stepped forward, or perhaps became somehow more visible. “What injury could prevent him from talking? He carries Harka.”

“He is ill; some sort of spirit is eating his life. That is one reason I attempted the drum.”

“To save him?”

“Yes.”

“How delightful!” Karak cackled. “But don't speak of that to anyone else here; his name is not particularly distinguished in these halls.”

“I know.”

“Well. This brings me, I think, to the point of my visit. I have decided to aid you.”

“You have?” Hezhi asked, hope kindling but kept carefully low. She did not ask why.

“Yes, as I said, I am fond of Perkar and, by extension, his friends. Actually, what you just told me clinches my decision. If he is ill in the way that you say, it will take a shaman to save him.” He changed then, went from being a bird to a tall, handsome man, though his eyes remained yellow. “Grasp my cloak and follow.”

Hezhi stared at him helplessly for a moment, but whatever he had planned for her could be no worse than remaining in this glass room for eternity. Karak had helped her once, in the past, or at least she had been told he had. Reluctantly she took hold of his long, black-feathered cape. Karak gave a little grak, became once again a bird, but this time the size of a horse, and she, she was knitted like a feather to his back. He rose effortlessly up the tube, spiraling higher and higher, until at last she saw a glimmer of light.

Karak emerged from the hole and alighted on a mountain peak, became a man again, and Hezhi was able to step away from him. If she had had breath, she would have been without it, for she had never been upon a mountain, never gazed down from the roof of the world onto it. Clouds lay out below her, like tattered carpets on a far vaster floor; they hardly obscured her vision of the surrounding peaks, marching away to the edge of the world, snowcapped, clothed in verdure elsewhere, revealing their handsome granite bones now and then. Farther down still, blue with mist, were the bowls and gashes of valleys.

She saw no streams save one: a bright, silver strand winding from the base of the mountain.

“Your kin,” Karak said, gesturing at the River.

“Then this is She'leng,” Hezhi breathed. ”Where he flows from.”

“Indeed, your people call it that. We merely call it home.”

“You keep calling him your brother. Are you kin to him, as well?”

“Indeed. I suppose that would make you a sort of niece, wouldn't it?”

“I—” But Karak was laughing, not taking himself seriously at all.

“What are those?” Hezhi asked, waving her hand.

Small lights, like fireflies, were drifting up from the valleys. From most places there were only a few, but from one direction—she was not sure of her cardinal points here—a thick stream of them wound.

“Ghosts, like yourself, coming to be reclothed. Some Human, some beast, some other sorts of gods.”

“That thick stream? Where do they come from?”

“Ah! That is the war, of course. Many are losing their clothing there.”

Losing their clothing. Hezhi had seen men die; they never seemed to her as if they were merely undressing.

“Can't you stop the war?”

“Who, me?”

“The gods,” Hezhi clarified.

“I don't know,” Karak said thoughtfully. “I doubt it. I suppose the Huntress could come down from the mountain with her beasts and her wotiru bear-men and join one side or the other; that would, I think, bring the war to an end more quickly. But I can't think of anything that would prompt her to do that—nor, I suspect, is that solution the one you were suggesting.”

“No,” Hezhi replied. “It wasn't.”

“Well, then, you have your answer.”

Hezhi nodded out at the vastness. “What of me, then? You said you were going to help me.”

“Yes, and I will. But I want you to remember something.”

“What?”

“Trust Perkar. He knows what should be done.”

“He said that I should come to the mountain. I am here.”

Karak cocked his head speculatively. “This is not what he meant. You must come here in the flesh.”

“Why?”

“I may not say, here and now. Perkar knows.”

“Perkar is very ill.”

“Ah, but you will save him, shamaness.”

“I am no—” Hezhi broke off and turned at a sound behind them.

The Horse Mother stood there, and the ghost of the horse.

“Is this the only way, Karak?” the Horse Mother asked. Hezhi could hear the suspicion in her voice.

Karak—huge crow once more—ruffed his feathers, picked with his beak at them. “Can you think of another?”

“No. But I am loath to give my child like this.”

“You have many children, clothed in flesh. And it is only for a time.”

Horse Mother nodded. “I know. Still, if I discover there is some trick here …”

“All of these years, and you still cannot tell the Crow from the Raven.”

She snorted, and it sounded like a horse. “No one can.”

Hezhi followed the exchange in puzzlement. She wanted to ask what they meant, but felt she had already been too bold around such strange and powerful creatures.

The Horse Mother turned to her. “Swear that you will care for my child.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman glanced hard at Karak. “She doesn't understand.”

Karak stared at Hezhi with both yellow eyes. “To return, you must have a spirit helper. The Horse Mother proposes to give you her child, since the Huntress will part with none, nor will Balati. Your only other choice is to wait here until you die and then be reclothed in the body of some man or beast, bereft of your memories, your power,”

Hezhi frowned down at the stone of the mountain. “I might be the better without those.”

“Your choice,” the Horse Mother told her. “But if you choose life now, you must do so quickly, before the others discover us. And you must swear to treat my child kindly.” Her face hardened. “And your companion, Perkar—he has offended me, tortured one of my daughters. When the time comes, he must pay a price, and you must not stand in my way.”

Hezhi turned her startled glance back to the goddess. “Perkar? What do you mean?”

“A trivial thing—” Karak muttered.

“Not trivial. Her spirit arrived here lately, told me how shamefully he treated her. I will remember.”

“Perkar is my friend,” Hezhi said. “He saved me from a terrible fate. I cannot knowingly allow harm to come to him.”

“Not necessarily harm,” the Horse Goddess said, “but he must certainly pay a price. Tell him that.”

“I will tell him. But if you seek to harm him, I must stand between you, no matter how grateful I am.”

The goddess eyed her steadily for a long moment before finally inclining her head slightly. “I give you my child freely, with only the single condition. I understand loyalty, no matter how misguided.”

“I swear to care for your child,” Hezhi said. “But—”

Karak vented an exasperated squawk. “What now?“ he croaked.

“I don't know if I want some creature living within me. I hadn't decided when all of this—”

Karak cut her off. “Your time for making such decisions is spent. Either you take the child, go back, live, save Perkar, and fulfill your destiny, or you expire and spend your days here, first as a ghost and then eventually as a salmon or some such. It should be an easy choice.”

“None of my choices is easy,” Hezhi burst out. “I should be choosing which dress to wear to court, which suitor to allow to kiss me, what kind of bread I want for breakfast!”

“What is this nonsense? What are you babbling about? You were never destined for such humdrum choices! You walk between gods and men. Your choices are only between despair and hope!”

“Karak is a poet,” Horse Mother grunted. “Who would have known thaf!”

“Not I!” Karak answered, spreading his wings and contracting them.

“He is right, little one, though he knows more of you than I do,” the woman continued, her dark eyes kind. “You will have my child. I will watch over you.”

Perkar would die without her. She would die and be lost, a ghost, as pathetic as the apparition that once inhabited her apartments.

“I agree,” she said then. “I will be as kind as I know how tobe.”

“Fine, fine,” Karak snarled. “Quickly, now.”

Horse Mother stroked the horse. Like Hezhi, she had cooled from her flight and now had the appearance of a gray skeleton filmed with gauzy flesh. Still, Hezhi could sense the creature's confusion, its fear. “Hush, my sweet,” the woman said. “This is Hezhi, and she will return with you to the land of the living, to the pastures and the plains.”

“Now?” Karak snapped.

“Now,” the goddess replied, reluctance still clear in her voice.

“Good,” Karak answered. He pointed to Hezhi. “Cut to pieces.”

Hezhi just stared at him, wondering what he meant, and then pain was all that she could comprehend. Something chopped her to bits, dismembered her violently; she felt each bone wrench apart, and each individual piece ached on its own, so that even severance added layers of agony so profound that, though she did not lose consciousness, she quickly lost the ability to interpret anything. How long her ordeal lasted, she had not the slightest inkling; she was only aware of trying to scream and scream without lungs, tongue, or breath.

She had no awareness when the bits came back together, knitted solid. The Horse Mother and Karak spoke, but she understood absolutely nothing of what they said. After that, she had only flashes of the purple and black landscape beyond the drum and a persistent pounding that seemed like hoofbeats. And inside, a frightened voice, as confused as she.

WHEN sense truly returned, it was to those same hoofbeats. She was still high in the air above the otherworld, but rather than being swept along, as she had been before, she was running, her own hooves carrying her through the empty spaces between the clouds.

Hooves? She glanced at herself. As before, she was glowing like a coal, striking sparks from the very air, but this time she had more of a form. She could see her own arms, her hands, her naked upper body. But below …

Hooves, the thick, layered muscles of a horse's forepart. Turning back she could see rump and a flying tail of lightning.

I have become the statuette! she thought. The half-horse woman.

But she was still herself. She could feel the Horse in her—that was who ran, who flexed the great muscles that carried them through space. But the spirit in her was not invasive, not seeking to seduce her as the River had or bludgeon her like the gods she had seen since escaping Nhol. Instead, she was there, tentative, but a companion willing to learn.

“Thank you, ” Hezhi said. “Thank you for coming with me. ”

The Horse did not answer in words, but Hezhi understood her response, her welcome. Together they struck lightning across the sky, and soon enough, Hezhi knew that they had reached the village of Brother Horse, the yekt where her body lay without her. Nearly laughing with the pleasure of thunderous flight, ecstasy replacing their fears, Hezhi and the Horse raced thrice about the village, above the racetrack. She could not see the people, save as flickers of rainbow, and she wondered if any of them could see her.

It was actually with reluctance that she approached the yekt, lit upon its roof. She saw no one there and so descended into the house along its central pole, whose shadow in the otherworld resembled a tall and thickly branching tree.

The tent was the belly of a shadow, the people in it less than specters. She saw them as frames of dark bone, cages that enclosed furnaces of yellow light.

One of the figures lay prone—Perkar, of course—and something squatted upon him. Something real.

As soon as she saw it, Hezhi steeled herself for the sickening stab she had felt before, but it did not come. It was as if a strong wind parted around her, and she suddenly remembered what Brother Horse had told her about spirit helpers. About how she could see now without the vision clutching her.

So she examined the thing carefully, though even so it was terrible to behold. At first, there was no sense to what she perceived, only a jumble of coiled, glittering sinew, scales, and polished black ivory. But then the Horse moved in her, just a bit, and her perspective changed. It was like a snake, or more, like a centipede, jointed and sheened as if with oil. It nestled a cone-shaped skull into Perkar's chest, and a thousand smaller worms wriggled from every part of the creature. The radiance in Perkar's breast was dim, though a stream of orange light fed into it from the sleeping, birdlike form at his side she guessed to be his sword.

Every now and then, the worm—or perhaps mass of worms—shuddered, rippled, and broke into crawling parts that then reformed. Two yellow eyes opened on the base of its “skull.”

“Leave. He is mine,” a voice told her. It was a clattery voice, like bones snapping.

Hezhi had no reply. She just stared at the thing.

“If you have come to fight for him, shamaness, you will surely fail. Go back to your bright world, leave this dying man to me in mine.”

The monster did not gesture, but she felt her eyes drawn beyond it, as if somehow it had directed her to look. There lay a circle of light. Through it she saw the interior of the yekt—part of a support pillar, a rug, and a hand. Her hand. The image wavered a bit, as if it were a pool into which grains of sand were dropping.

Hezhi hesitated. She could see plainly enough now that the thing on Perkar was killing him. But as of the moment, she had not the faintest idea what to do about it.

“I'll go,” she muttered to the thing. But I will return. Then she edged up to the drum and stepped through.

In a swirl of dizziness and disorientation, she bolted up, gasping. The horse body was gone, and she felt her own flesh upon her, suddenly so familiar, so well fitted that she would have burst into melancholy tears at being reunited with it.

Save that at the same moment, the body of a man slapped into the ground only an arm's length from her; she saw his eyes widen in surprise as the impact shattered his spine. All around her was shouting and the harsh grating and hammering of steel on steel.

INTERLUDE The Emperor and the Ghoul

THE great door creaked faintly as the emperor pushed it open, startling the orange-speckled house lizard on the wall into frantic though short-lived flight. It ran only a few spans before crouching against the edge of a tapestry, watching him with its cat-pupiled eyes. She'lu felt a brief amusement, considered flicking the tiny beast with his power. What audacity it had, a common house lizard, entering the court of an emperor!

He let it go. It was told that the spotted ones were good luck, and even an emperor needed that. Especially now, with the increased Dehshe raids on the border garrisons, the icy relations with once-friendly Lhe, and Dangul, at the limits of the Swamp Kingdoms, pressing to levy a tariff—a tariff-—on goods shipped through their territory. It was a modest tax, of course, easily paid, but a subject did not—could not—tax its emperor. Even the backward Swamp Kingdoms knew that, which could only mean that Dangul was testing the waters, hoping to gain greater, if not complete, independence.

In the morning he would dispatch a company of soldiers and Jik under the command of his nephew Nen She' to deal with the governor of Dangul, but there was no telling how well prepared the governor was, how good his spies were. Another reason to send Nen She'; he would be a capable enough ruler if the governor bowed to him without resistance, but if the mission failed and he was killed, no one would miss him, either—at least, not much. But then, of course, She'lu would have to send real troops, and that he did not relish doing at all. Wars cost money, and it seemed the Nhol had fought many wars of late. All small, all mere nuisances, but costly nevertheless.

He walked out onto the polished, bloodred stone of the court, enjoying the measured, solitary clapping of his wooden soles upon the floor. Seldom enough was he alone; even now, guards were near, but he had laid a minor Forbidding on them, preventing them from approaching him unless he requested their aid or called out. So now, in the hour past midnight, he could pace, sleepless and finally, finally alone in this, his favorite of courts, the Court of the Ibis-Throated. It was small, much too small for grand ceremonies, not severe enough to convene the everyday matters of the empire. Indeed, since his father's day, the court had seen no official use. But after She'lu's accession—when his father had begun the withering, as often happened to the Waterborn when they passed their seventieth year—his father had brought him here, with Nyas, the vizier, and the three of them had stayed, long into the night, drinking plum wine and speaking of things they had never spoken of. There were many such things; after all, She'lu had barely seen his father until after his fifteenth year, and even when he moved down the Hall of Moments to join the family after passing the priestly tests, his father was distant, cold, the emperor. It was only after, when the crown came off, that the old man spoke of love, of his pride in his son, of his grief over the loss of his other son, L'ekezh. Even that last had touched She'lu; he had always been jealous of L'ekezh, but when they took his twin off, shrieking, to the depths below the Darkness Stair and left him to inherit the throne unchallenged—well, after that he could afford to be generous, to pity his brother.

He had often met with his father and Nyas, secretly, the guards away and Forbidden, learning from the two of them how to be an emperor. Two years only, but he remembered them as the best years of his life. Young, excited by his role as lord of Nhol and its empire, touched by his father's long-hidden care. Then the old man withered and died, and his corpse was taken off by the priests while it was still warm, to be joined back into the River, and he had become emperor in earnest, learning the eternal, wearying drudgery that mingled with and eventually overwhelmed the excitement.

He stroked his hand on a yellowed column, slender as the legs of a crane, gazed up at the stars showing faintly through the eye-shaped aperture in the domed roof.

He had thought, someday, to bring a son of his own here. He would not have waited so long, until he stepped down and had only months to live. He would have shown a son affection the moment he ascended to the Hall of Moments, left childhood and its terrible possibilities behind. But the seed of the River had never produced for him a son. Of late he had turned his mind toward daughters—someone of his blood to share his stories, his secret thoughts, who would adore him as he had adored his own father. But with the two who had ascended, he had waited too long. Both were married, and like their mother they enjoyed the cloudlike wonder and oblivion induced by Nende'ng, the black snuff from Lhe, more than they did conversation. Hezhinata, who had been the youngest, was now slain by the Jik, but that had been necessary, and privately he would have rather had her slain than sent down to where L'ekezh still dwelt.

She'lu paused in front of the throne but did not sit on its sable cushion. Instead, he lowered himself to the steps, as he had when his father was still alive. He had refused to let the old man sit below him; even though She'lu was emperor in fact, in the Court of the Ibis-Throated, he gave his father the throne. Yes, it was a shame he had never brought any of his children here, when they were young enough, even though they were daughters. He could at least have told them about their grandfather. Hezhi—if not the others—would have probably liked that. Though he knew little enough of the child, he did know that she had spent her last months in the library, that she had apparently enjoyed reading, relished learning of the past He smiled; secretly—very secretly—he was proud of his daughter. She must have had power, power rivaling his own. Her sisters had shown no sign of such. Hezhinata had killed priests, many priests, and a Jik. Of course, her bodyguard had killed some of those, but still…

She'lu frowned. Certainly he felt pride, had felt it since the day Hezhinata was killed. But what he felt now was almost a glow, a silly sentimentality. He realized that all of his thoughts had been flavored with nearly lachrymose emotion, and a faint suspicion stole over him. Why had he awakened? Not that it was an uncommon experience for him to lack sleep. But it seemed to him that a dream had brought him out of bed, one of the simple-colored dreams the River sent now and then. More and more of those dreams had come of late, but rarely did they reveal anything to him that was of help in his policies. When he could remember them, he would discuss them with Nyas, and together they would try to sort them out, but this was different. He could not remember the dream itself, but it had left him thinking maudlin thoughts about his father and his daughters. No, not his daughters, but his daughter, Hezhinata, the only child of his to be born with power.

Thinking of this now, he recognized the signs. The River wanted him to think of her—something he was not in the habit of doing. Certainly the thought of bringing her here had passed briefly, whimsically, through him, as had the fleeting joy that one of his seed had so frustrated and wounded the priesthood. But these feelings of love came from the River. At least, most of them did. He sighed. Should he wake Nyas?

At that moment he felt something, the equivalent of a foot-scrape or a loud breath, but it was not sound. Someone was here, in this room, with power. She'lu pursed his lips. Not power like the priests, that annoying power of not that got progressively stronger with the rank of the priest. No, this had “sounded” more familiar.

He flooded the room with force, filling it so quickly with his puissance that it would be impossible for the intruder to slip away undetected. If the intruder were Human, he would be dead or mindless in an instant, but She'lu already knew the hidden one was more than that.

“Show yourself,” he snapped, as the air rippled with killing magics.

Someone stepped from the shadows. He seemed to be shrugging off the attack, maintaining an admirable calm as he did so. She'lu could sense a sort of raw power that might be as great as his own, but it was artless, and he knew that his attack must be causing some pain. Despite this, his visitor walked out into the center of the floor, bent to one knee, and bowed deeply.

More puzzled than ever, She'lu withdrew the spears and nets of his strength and laid them into a dike about himself, securing his person but still prepared to lash out if need be. Who was this man? Even the most powerful of the royal family would have been at least stunned by his show of force, and yet this man retained the ability to walk and kneel.

“Thank you, my lord,” the man said, and so showed he could speak as well.

“Who are you? Step closer.”

The intruder did so, rising and moving close enough for She'lu to make him out. He was a well-built fellow with a thin, ascetic face. He was clothed simply in a black tunic and kilt, the signature dress of the Jik.

“You are an assassin,” She'lu said flatly.

“I am an assassin,” the man acknowledged. “But I am no longer a Jik. I do not serve a priesthood that does not serve the River.”

She'lu stared at the man, more perplexed than ever. What was occurring here?

“I recognize you,” he realized. “You were the one assigned to my daughter. The young one.”

“My name is Ghe, Majesty, and I am your servant.”

“You were killed, or so I heard, along with my daughter.”

The man paused for just an instant, and in that flicker his guard descended a bit, and She'lu could suddenly make out more than one web of heartstrands in the man. A sudden fear knifed into She'lu. He had heard, as a child, of such creatures, been informed of them as an emperor.

“It is true that I was killed, Majesty. But your daughter was not. Of that, I pray to speak to you.”

“My daugh—” No, damn him. First things first. “You say you died,” She'lu hissed. “But I see no ghost before me. You are a ghoul, or something very like one.”

The man cast down his eyes and reached to his throat. He unwrapped the black sash that obscured it. She'lu could not make out what was thus revealed until he conjured a pale yellow glow to illumine the court. Then he could see plainly enough the thick ridge of scar encircling Ghe's throat.

“A ghoul, I think,” Ghe said, “though I know little of such things.”

“The River sends them,” She'lu said softly, wondering if it would do any good at all to call the guards. “When an emperor goes against the will of the River, he sends them to kill him.”

The ghoul stroked his chin with his thumb, a remarkably Human gesture for someone who must have been decapitated and then given new, unholy life.

“I cannot speak for other ghouls, my lord, but that is not the case with me. I think that you should consider what you have heard to be yet another lie of the priesthood.”

“My spies have told me of a ghoul in the palace. The priests drove it from here.”

“And I have returned, at great peril to my existence. It is true that the River gave me new life, but it was not to harm you. You are the Chakunge, the Riverson. Why should he wish to harm you?” The ghoul paced slowly across the floor, and She'lu opened his mouth to speak before he realized that he was bereft of anything to say.

“It is the priesthood, my lord,” the man continued. “They keep your power in check, do they not?”

“They are a nuisance,” She'lu admitted.

“I have discovered that they are much more than that,” the ghoul told him. “They and their temple bind all but the tenth part of the River's power, and you are the most of that tenth part, you and your kin. Hezhi was his greatest hope.”

“Hezhinata,” She'lu corrected.

“No, Lord, Hezhi. She lives yet. She escaped with a barbarian and her Giant bodyguard. Think on it and you will know that you never saw her body.”

“The Waterborn must be given back to the River in the crypts.”

“Another lie. I have been to the crypts. They are prisons for your ancestors, dungeons where their ghosts are kept to fade into eternity, never rejoining the god. But that aside, even if they did take Hezhi there, what of her bodyguard, the barbarian? Were their bodies seen by anyone you trust?”

“They were left in the desert to rot.”

“But I repeat, did this information come from a source that you trust?”

She'lu's head was awhirl. The things this man spoke of were incredible, but they were not preposterous; they were all things that he himself had considered, at one time or another. His own father had warned him of the priesthood, as had Nyas, countless times. They had always been a scratch in his eye, but to hear these things said, all at once—and of course he had been suspicious of the strange stories surrounding Hezhinata. Seven of his elite guard, killed by some “barbarian” at the docks? She'lu had always suspected the hand of the priesthood in that. In fact, the barbarian was said to have been nearly impossible to kill, bleeding from mortal wounds and yet still standing. Was that not a property ghouls were said to possess? How many ghouls did the priesthood control?

“Enough of this,” She'lu snapped. “Babble no more. If you have come to kill me, do your best. If you come for aught else, tell me what you want.”

The ghoul scratched his chin again, a gesture that She'lu was beginning to find annoying. “I want to find Hezhi and bring her back to Nhol. I want you to help me.”

She'lu could not speak for several moments, but the ghoul did not go on. The emperor vaguely realized that this “Ghe” had done what he commanded: told him only what he wanted and then stopped.

“What?” he whispered.

“I told my lord that—”

“Yes, yes, I understood you. She really is alive?”

“My lord, I cannot be certain. But I did not kill her, nor did the priests or the soldiers. She escaped into the desert, where the River has no power to see, and she may have been killed there, though, knowing her, I doubt it. But she is in danger; I know that to be true. The priesthood knows she is alive, and they will not rest until she breathes no more. There may be others.” The ghoul's voice dropped lower, and She'lu heard the deep sincerity in it. “My lord, the River brought me to life for this purpose, and this purpose alone: to find your daughter and return her to the River, so that she may fulfill the destiny of you and all your family. Can't you see how carefully the priests control you? They keep you from your children, slay or bind captivé all but a few who have power…”

“My brother was one so bound,” She'lu interrupted. “He was insane, and would have destroyed all. There is good reason for that binding.”

“In some cases. I do not doubt that the power drives many to madness. But Hezhi was his chosen, as you are, and yet they would have disposed of her. You, they keep tranquil with lies.”

“Have a care how you speak of me!” The ghoul seemed to be getting bolder, less respectful by the moment. She'lu tensed, expecting attack but unwilling to launch his own. Despite its insolence, this creature was making a sort of sense. And the River had prepared him for this, he realized, sent ahead thoughts of his daughter, fond memories. Behind all of that lurked his ever-present knowledge that the empire was losing its form at the edges, the persistent nagging feeling that power was somehow slipping past him, that his reach was not what an emperor's should be.

“I'm sorry, Lord,” the ghoul amended, “but I believe it to be the case. The priesthood has labored for centuries to check your power in a thousand subtle ways. Even your ghosts are kept chained.”

“You mentioned this before. What do you mean?”

The ghoul suddenly began shivering, power tightening around him like a cocoon, and She'lu raised his hands reflexively. But no thrust of potence came, no claws stretched to strike at his heart. Instead, the ghoul spoke again, but in a very different voice. Not merely in timbre and intonation; the very language was different, the ancient tongue of his ancestors.

“Thou knowest this be the truth, Chakunge my descendant. We are trapped in the tombs, starved to nothing, until such time as we amuse them. Then they may take us out, command us to speak, to sing, to blaspheme. We are their library, their drama stage. They play with us, grandson of my grandsons.”

“What?” She'lu sputtered. “What?”

“They keep us there, in their temple. The Chakunge himself, the First Emperor, they keep on a leash like a dog!”

She'lu knew that this was no trick; he could see the soul image, and it was not the ghoul's. Though he could not tell who it was, this was certainly one of his ancestors. His skin crawled like a bed of ants.

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Lengnata, fourth to the throne of the Nas Dynasty. Your ancestor.”

“The First Emperor is in chains?”

“As I said. You, too, will be chained when you die. Only a few escape, and them the priests destroy. I myself departed only in the heart of this ghoul, and now I am slave to him. But it is better, better. For through the ghoul, I see the River has a plan to destroy the priesthood, and that is good.”

“Lord Ancestor, I…” But the ghoul was the ghoul again.

“Pardon, my lord, but I have only recently entered into this power of mine. My control over it is growing but still imperfect.”

“You admit your weakness to me?”

“If I had no weakness, I would not beg for your aid. I was made to go where the River cannot go, Lord, and where the power of his true children thus cannot go. I cannot bear his strength as you can, cannot become him as Hezhi can; he has given me the strength to find my power as I go along, that is all. But to go where Hezhi is, I need help. Your help.”

“If this is all true …” He grimaced. “I must speak to Nyas.”

The ghoul shook his head. “My lord, the Ahw'en and the Jik seek for me everywhere now. I have killed many of them and invaded their temple. I have their secrets and I have stolen one of your ancestors back from them. I have seen the Chakunge of our most sacred legends on a leash like a dog. I have power, but the priesthood can kill me. If you do not ally yourself with me, help me, all will be lost. All And it must be now, quickly—this night.”

“Why did you not approach me sooner?”

“I did not know. We are taught that the emperor and the priesthood are warp and weft in the same cloth. Only as a ghoul have I found the truth.”

She'lu drew a deep breath. This was very sudden, but if it were true, if Hezhi still lived, if she could bring back the real power and glory of the throne… if even an emperor must eventually suffer a fate like that of the Blessed, a fate he believed he had escaped…

“What do you want of me?”

The ghoul knelt again. “A fast ship, to sail up-River. Horsemen and swordsmen, as many as you can spare. But most, most of all, I need the librarian from the archives.”

“Ghan? The old man?”

“He knows where Hezhi is. I know he does.”

“How do you know this?”

“I just feel it, Lord. They were very close, he and your daughter. He helped her escape, though none knew that but me. He knows where she has gone.”

“You may have him, then. And the ship, thirty mounted men, fifty foot. Will this suffice?”

“That will suffice,” the ghoul answered, and She'lu could hear the surge of victory in the voice.

“But tell me,” She'lu asked. “Why drag this old man out into the desert? We can torture the information from him, or merely snatch it from his brain.”

The ghoul smiled thinly. “I considered that. In fact, I could swallow his soul and keep it with me, open his memories like a book. Three things stop me: first, I believe he may be canny enough to prevent it somehow; you would almost certainly never torture him, for he would kill himself in some clever way rather than be the instrument of Hezhi's capture. The second is that I believe he will be wiser alive. Those Ï bind to me lose much of their essence, their ability to think. They are, really, just parts of me. This Ghan is worth ten counselors if he is on your side.”

“Three reasons?”

“Hezhi loves him and hates me. If Ghan is with me, she will trust us.”

“But you say the librarian helped her escape. You were a Jik at the time. Why should he trust you?”

“He never knew my identity. Still, he will be suspicious, and so a series of lies must be told him…”

She Tu scrunched forward, forgetting for the moment that he was an emperor and this man a ghoul. Something was happening, something that might make his reign a memorable one. He could not launch an assault on the Water Temple; such had been tried in the past and only resulted in the worst sort of bloodshed. But if this creature was right, he could free not only the River but himself. Of course, he would make some provision for his own interests; he could not trust this stranger—all the more reason to surround him with eighty of his handpicked men. That would be a thousand times better than having him skulking about the palace. Could he keep the priesthood from finding out? Maybe.

But in the palace, at least in his own section of it, the emperor was supreme.

Yes. A barge could be spared, and men. These were cheap; and if the expedition failed, he would be no worse off than before. But if it succeeded…

He was aware that the promise of majesty he felt was only partly his own, that most of it surged into him from the River. The god had never, in his memory, been this strong or wakeful. Some of his ancestors might have been glad of that, happier to rule without the intervention of the divine, but She'lu did not share their sentiments. He would see Nhol strong again. Perhaps, if all went well, he would see the priesthood spitted on stakes for his pleasure. He smiled then at the ghoul.

“Come with me. Tell me what else you require.”

PART TWO

UPSTREAM PASSAGES

XVII Kinship

TSEM roared and swung a stool at one of the swordsmen, caught the bright edge of slicing metal on the wood. The sword snapped with a metallic cry and the Mang echoed it as the half Giant's makeshift weapon thudded into his chest. He joined his fellow on the floor of the yekt, wheezing.

For an instant there was calm, in which Hezhi desperately tried to assess the situation.

“Princess!” Tsem growled, glancing toward her, but only for an instant, for another warrior stood in the yekt, menacing them. Ngangata, his face spattered with blood, held a throwing axe in each hand, his expression that of a caged predator, driven to fury. All told, three Mang lay on the floor, two unmoving, one clutching his chest and grimly working to regain an upright stance. A fourth warrior stood just inside the doorway of the yekt, and Hezhi could see several more just outside. She recognized two of them; the one whom Tsem had just battered with the stool was Chuuzek, the surly tribesman who had met her the day before; one of the men outside was his companion, Moss.

The interior of the yekt was in total disarray; only Perkar seemed unchanged, still pale with unnatural sleep.

“Tsem, what is happening?”

“Treachery,” Ngangata snapped, loudly enough for those outside to hear. “Though Brother Horse promised us hospitality, his kin seem bent on dishonoring his name.”

“There is no honor in harboring monsters,” Chuuzek gasped, already up on one knee. Tsem stepped quickly forward and slapped the man's broad face with the half-curled back of his hand, and Chuuzek sprawled back, spitting blood. A cloth bandage on his head, caked with old blood, began to dampen with new wet redness as well.

Moss stepped into the doorway. “Chuuzek! Stop!” he shouted, the first time Hezhi had heard the young man raise his voice. Chuuzek, fumbling for a knife at his belt, ceased, and instead scooted back against the wall of the yekt.

Moss took another step in, eyes intent on Hezhi. “There is no need for this,” he asserted. “These friends of yours need not die.”

“So far we aren't the ones dying,” Ngangata remarked. Hezhi had never seen him in such a state, either. He was normally so mild, deflecting insults or ignoring them.

“It's not to you that I am speaking, Brush-Man,” Moss replied.

“I don't understand any of this,” Hezhi groaned, and then more firmly, “Get out of this house. All of you, go away!”

Moss frowned. “I would not have chosen this,” he said. “My cousin acted hastily, but his motives were pure. You must come with us.”

I must do nothing,” Hezhi snarled. ”Yesterday you spoke of hospitality. What did you say? 'I'm only sorry the hospitality of this camp was violated.' Fine words, but I see now which hole they issued from. Not from your mouth, that much is certain.”

Chuuzek stirred again angrily.

“Stand back up, little man,” Tsem growled. “I will break your neck.”

“You cannot break all of our necks,” Chuuzek returned.

“He does not have to!” came an angry voice from outside. “Move out of my way, all of you, you worthless carrion dogs!”

Hezhi saw the look of consternation, quickly mastered, flash over Moss' face. Reluctantly he stepped back as a burst of shouting from outside was followed by sudden silence. Brother Horse shouldered into the tent, swept furious eyes over the scene. His short, spindly legs and wizened body no longer seemed in the least comical or kindly; the old man bore his rage in every angle of his stance, spat it in each terse syllable. The wolf she had seen inside of him now shone out like a candle through a red paper lantern.

“Get out of here,” he said to Chuuzek softly. “Get out of my house, and take these piles of buzzard dung with you.” He kicked one of the dead or unconscious men with the toe of his boot.

“Now we see,” Chuuzek said. “We see the great man cares more for his dun'cheen friends than he does for his own people.”

“I care,” Brother Horse gritted, “more for the ways of the Mang—the Mang, you whelp of a cur and a turd—than I do for your insolent disregard of all we know. I promised these people hospitality, and you steal that from me, you thief. You horse thief!”

Which was about the worst thing one Mang could call another. Raiding and robbing others was war—and acceptable—but stealing from one who gave you hospitality was one of the worst offenses conceivable.

“Perhaps you want her for yourself, old man.”

Brother Horse ignored Chuuzek. He swept his gaze over Tsem, Ngangata, Perkar, and Hezhi. “Are you injured, child? Has any one of you been hurt?”

“I'm fine,” Hezhi answered. “I don't know about Tsem and Ngangata. I just… awoke.”

“We are not injured,” Ngangata answered. “No true harm has been done … yet.”

“No harm!” Chuuzek roared. “My cousins lie there thus, and you say no harm has been done?”

“They begged for their fate,” Brother Horse answered venomously. ”Were they—and you—not protected by the same hospitality that protects these others, I would have you all on the frame, screaming for days on end.”

“I would spit in your face.”

“Brave talk,” Brother Horse answered him. “You have never been on the frame; I have.” He turned to Moss. “You had my answer yesterday. You may seek to turn all of this on your rock-brained cousin, but I know better.”

“I warned you,” Moss said quietly. “I respect you greatly, and I understand your position. If you had let us take her, you would not have been dishonored; the onus would have been shouldered only by Chuuzek and myself. You need only have been too long engaged elsewhere. As it is …” He signed with his hand and four more warriors crowded up to the doorway.

Brother Horse shook his head. “You would slay me, in my own house, during the Ben'cheen? You are not Mang.”

“We do what must be done,” Moss answered. “We will bear the dishonor. Please don't make us bear the responsibility of your death as well, honored one.”

“The warriors of my clan are just behind you. Make another move, and you shall wear a coat of arrows.”

Moss smiled grimly. “You mistake your own family. These warriors have agreed to stand aside. They will not aid me, but neither will they aid you. I have spoken with them all.”

“Yes, well, I have spoken with them all, as well, and I told them to answer you thus. I wanted to see how far down this wrong, waterless trail you would stumble. Now I know.”

Hezhi wished she could have laughed at the sudden understanding on Moss' face, but her heart was still thudding too painfully in her chest. Too much happening, too much. First the mountain and then, with no letup, this.

The green-eyed man seemed to sag slightly, but then he recovered himself.

“You will regret this,” he said sincerely. Not with heat, but with a kind of sadness.

“I regret much in my life,” Brother Horse murmured. “This will not greatly add to my burden, I'm sure.”

“In that you are mistaken,” Moss assured him.

Brother Horse merely shrugged and slapped his hands. Men came from behind and seized Moss and his kin roughly.

“Watch them,” Brother Horse called to his men. “Disarm them but do them no harm. They are protected by my word, and I will not break that word.”

Two men came in to get the bodies. Chuuzek managed to leave under his own power. Brother Horse grimly watched them go before turning to examine those he protected.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I didn't think things would go this far.”

“You knew,” Hezhi stated.

“Yes. I knew when I saw you with them in the desert. They meant to take you then, would have if I had not been present. Moss is honorable at heart, and thought to persuade me rather than slay me. It was a very near thing, though. Did you notice the way Chuuzek kept fondling his sword-grip?”

“No,” Hezhi admitted. “But I knew something was wrong.”

“Something is very wrong,” Brother Horse agreed.

“Thank you for your help,” Tsem said. “Thank you for protecting Hezhi.”

Brother Horse eyed the half Giant. “I had no choice, so there is no need to thank me.”

“I think you did have a choice,” Ngangata disagreed. ”Moss was right; had you turned your back, they could have taken us and no one would have faulted you.”

Brother Horse grinned tightly. “We work to keep the good opinion of our elders, but none here is my elder. That leaves me in the unfortunate position of having to stay clean in my own eyes.”

“They would have killed Perkar,” Ngangata answered, his tone still conveying thanks.

“They would have killed you all, all but me,” Hezhi added.

Tsem nodded. “They must have known you were ill and come to take you while you lay asleep.”

“Ill?”

“Princess, you have lain as dead for a day.”

That long? But it had seemed even longer.

“She was not dead,” Brother Horse said. “You bled into the lake, didn't you.”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “Yes. I wish I could have been with you, to help you.”

Hezhi held her hands up. “You were here when we needed you most, I think. What should we do now?” She surveyed her companions helplessly.

“Princess, that is your decision,” Tsem quietly responded.

She thought that Brother Horse or Ngangata would disagree—hoped they would—but to her surprise they did not, only watched her expectantly.

“I…” She stared back at them. I don't know what to do. We can't stay here anymore, though, can we?”

Brother Horse pursed his lips. “I never anticipated any of this. I offered you a life in this village, with my people, and yet…”

“We've been nothing but trouble to you,” Hezhi finished.

The old Mang grimaced. “It's this war, and something else, something Moss wouldn't explain to me completely.”

“He said I could bring peace.”

“Yes, he told me that, as well, but wouldn't explain how. I don't think he knows.”

“In any event, we have to leave,” Ngangata said. “We have to get Hezhi and Perkar away from here. They seem almost as bent upon killing him as upon snatching her.”

“What do you mean?” Hezhi asked.

“We were set upon by warriors out on the plains. They came to kill Perkar.”

Brother Horse waved his hand. “They are Mang, he is a Cattle-Man, and we are at war.”

“No, it was more than that. They were seeking him specifically, and no other.”

“It's because Perkar knows where we should go,” Hezhi broke in suddenly. “Karak told him.”

Brother Horse stretched a grim smile. “What do you mean, ‘where you should go’?”

“I… I don't know,” Hezhi realized. “There is something I'm supposed to do, but I don't know what.”

“You learned this on the other side of the drum?”

Hezhi nodded thoughtfully.

“Well, let me warn you that if you have only the word of the Blackgod, then you have little worth trusting.”

“He has only aided me” Hezhi said.

“When he set me to watch for you at Nhol?”

“No, since then.”

Brother Horse raised his eyebrows in surprise but did not inquire further.

“He works for his own purposes, that much is certain,” Ngangata said. “But he helped us against the warriors on the plains, too. He seems to have cultivated a liking for our little family.”

“How quickly do we have to leave?” Hezhi asked, mustering as much determination to put in her voice as she could.

“Tonight would be best,” Brother Horse admitted sadly. “We can hold Moss and Chuuzek and the rest for a few days, give you an escort and a head start to wherever you are going. Beyond that, my own people will begin to rebel at the thought of holding their cousins captive. Young people these days don't respect the old as they should.”

Hezhi nodded solemnly. “Ngangata, can Perkar travel?”

“Can you heal him?” the halfling countered.

“I don't know how.”

“Well,” the half man considered. “We can tie him to a horse, but that will slow us. It would be better if he could ride.”

“Put some distance between yourselves and the village first,” Brother Horse advised. “Then I believe I can show Hezhi what to do. She has the power now.”

He was looking at her strangely, deeply, and Hezhi understood that the old man could see what the others could not, the change in her.

“You will go with us?” she asked him.

“I will accompany you long enough to help with that. Afterward … well, there look to be many affairs that need my attention.”

Hezhi took a deep breath. “Running again. Always running.”

Tsem moved up to stroke her hair, and his tenderness awoke buried tears. She did not shed them, but they crowded into her throat and threatened to cut off her air.

“Well,” she gasped, “where shall we run? I know nothing of these lands.” Her pleading gaze fastened first on Brother Horse and then on Ngangata.

“North, perhaps,” Brother Horse muttered. “North, across the Changeling, ör perhaps east. Away from all of this.”

Hezhi sat on her mat. “Away. At first it seemed that just leaving Nhol was 'away.' Now … what lies north and east?”

“Ah … plains, forests, mountains. North, Human Beings are scarce. East are the Stone Leggings and other tribes. Giants northeast eventually. Beyond that I don't know.”

“We can't cross the Changeling,” Ngangata stated, his voice solid with certainty.

“No. No, of course.” Images of distant lands where no one knew or cared about Hezhi faded as soon as they formed. Was there such a place, anyway? A place where her blood would merely lie quiet and the River was not even a legend? Probably not.

“We'll go where Perkar said to,” Hezhi mumbled. “Where the Blackgod said to.”

“Where?”

“We'll go to the mountain.”

Ngangata frowned. “Princess, I—”

Hezhi stared at him, suddenly angry. “I know. I know he flows from there. But that is the only compass we have at the moment. If any of you has a better suggestion, tell me or decide for me. But if you want me to decide …”

Ngangata shifted uncomfortably. “The war is there. We would only be plunging into the heart of things.”

Brother Horse cleared his throat. “I know of a camp, up in the White Crown Mountains. It should be far from any such troubles.”

“If you know of it,” Hezhi retorted, “it is certain that other Mang know of it. Besides, this gaan seems to be able to smell me wherever I am. He knew to send Moss and Chuuzek here.”

“That could be coincidental, Princess,” Tsem pointed out.

“No. They came straight to where I was, in the cliffs. I was in a closed-off canyon, wasn't I, Brother Horse? What reason would they have for going in there?”

“They might have seen you on the plain, wondered who you were,” the old man muttered.

“You don't believe that,” Hezhi answered.

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “No.”

“If we go out into the desert and hide, they find us without you and your kin to protect us. If we go back to Nhol, the same fate that I fled awaits me. The same, too, if I try to cross the River. Twice now I have been told to go the mountain. That would at least put us in Perkar's homeland, where his people might protect us, would it not?”

Ngangata nodded wearily. “Yes. But that is a hard journey, by land, and we have to cross the country where the war is being fought.”

“One of you decide, then,” she said.

Tsem snorted. “You great men, you horsemen, you hunters. My princess has lived in these lands for half a year, you for your whole lives. Can't either of you think of anything?”

Brother Horse scratched his chin. “Only that she is right,” he admitted.

“That's all?” Tsem snapped—audibly, as his nut-size teeth cracked together on his last syllable.

“Listen, Giant,” Brother Horse suddenly blazed. “She is not a princess here. There are no armies waiting to march at her command. There are no kings on the huugau. Would that there were and I were one. I would surround her with my soldiers and a wall of stone and make her safe. But this is Mang country, do you understand? I have no soldiers, only kinfolk, and I have to spend as much time trying to please them as they to please me. And if I tell them to do something they are set hard enough against, they will ignore me. Then I lose face and power, and the next time they listen to me even less. Those men you killed today have relatives in my own clan. They will not forget you, or her, or me, for not giving you up. I have few enough years left to live, and I had hoped to live them in comfort, but that dream withers in the sun now. So don't you upbraid me for not being able to do what no man can do!”

Tsem's eyes widened with startlement, but his face stayed set. “I'll kill anyone else who tries to touch her, too,” he said. “So you better help us get away from here, before I have to break more of your precious kinsmen and make your old age even more uncomfortable.”

“Tsem,” Hezhi said softly. “Hush. He has already helped us, don't you understand?”

“No. I don't understand why they can't let you be. You've already … we've already…” Tsem suddenly bent and ground his face into the wall, shuddering.

Hezhi's gut wrenched. “Tsem!”

The Giant moaned and thrust his hand back, motioning her away.

“He must have been wounded,” Ngangata muttered. “I didn't see—”

“No,” Tsem croaked. “Not wounded.”

Hezhi understood then. The half Giant was crying.

“Please,” she said to Ngangata and Brother Horse. “Please get the horses together, or whatever. If we have to leave, we have to leave. But could the two of you make the arrangements?”

The old Mang nodded, but Ngangata hung back stubbornly.

“I will watch Perkar,” she assured him. “I'll watch him.”

After a moment the half man nodded curtly and followed Brother Horse from the yekt.

Hezhi approached Tsem and laid her hand on his massive ribs.

“I've never seen you cry,” she whispered.

“I don't mean to,” he wheezed. “It's just that… why can't they leave you alone!”

“Shh.”

“I saw how the priests hurt you, in Nhol, and I could do nothing. I saw the horror that never left your face, after you went down into that place, that place under the sewers. And then I could do nothing. Finally—”

“Finally you helped me escape the most terrible fate anyone could imagine.”

“Yes, and had to be carried away from Nhol on my back. I know who saved whom back in Nhol, Princess.”

She knelt, and hot tears were starting in her own eyes. “Listen to me, Tsem. You did save me, just not the way you think. I almost …” Became a goddess? Razed Nhol to its foundations? Would that have been so bad, looking back?

“I almost became something terrible,” she finished. “You saved me.”

“I don't remember that. How could I have done that?”

“Just by being Tsem. By loving me.”

“Ah. I thought you wanted me to stop crying.”

“I don't care if you cry,” she soothed. But she did. Even wounded, Tsem had not seemed so feeble to her. He had always been her wall, her strength. Wounded, he had merely been awaiting repair, being rebuilt to be her tower again. But this struck her down to the bone, all the way down. She was really alone here, in this place. She had to be her own strength, and even Giants couldn't protect her now.

She hated herself, but she wished he hadn't cried. She wished he had kept it in, wept to the wind later. But he hadn't, and now she knew, and she loved him enough not to tell him what he had done: that he had made it all worse.

“Come on,” she whispered. “We have to get ready to go. The world awaits us.”

XVIII On the Barge

A bright clattering of gulls blew through the door as the old man stepped into the darkened cabin. He stood for a moment, silhouetted in a rectangle of sunlight, a breeze that smelled like water and iron seeping past his body. Ghe motioned him in.

“You,” Ghan grunted. “What do you have to do with all of this?”

“My father has more influence than I ever told anyone,” Ghe answered, secretly amused by his joke. In his heart of hearts, his father was the River.

“Enough to command the use of a royal barge? Don't lie to me, boy.”

Ghe sighed and stood politely, smoothing the hem of his dark green robe. He motioned for the librarian to sit on the pillows heaped about the cabin. Ghan ignored the motion, stubbornly continuing to stand on the slowly rocking deck.

“Yes, then, you've seen through me,” Ghe admitted. “Please sit down. Have a measure of coffee.”

“I don't intend to stay.”

Ghe shook his head. “As you imply, you and I are in the grip of powers greater than ourselves. The emperor's soldiers are still outside, and I doubt that I can persuade them to leave.” Ghe was amazed at the strength of the old man. He could sense the cloud of fear and uncertainty about him, and yet his face and manner betrayed no such sentiments. A worthy opponent and a needed ally.

“But you know what this is all about?” Ghan asked, eyeing him critically.

“Indeed. As do you, I expect.”

“Hezhi,” the old man said dully, reaching to pinch the folds of his brow with one hand.

“Hezhi? Not ‘Hezhinata’?”

Ghan's only answer was a glare.

“She is in danger, you know. Master Ghan, she is in deadly danger.”

Ghan folded his thin arms across his chest like a hedge of bone, protecting him. “Danger.”

“Please sit down, Master Ghan. I tire of standing myself.”

Ghan pursed his lips in undisguised frustration and then, with a slight nod, settled onto one of the felted pillows. He appeared uncomfortable, sitting without a desk in his lap, a book splayed open before him. Ghe smiled reassuringly, bent, and poured coffee from a silver urn into twin porcelain cups. He offered one to Ghan, who took it almost without seeming to notice. His attention was focused entirely on Ghe, as if he were trying to peer through his clothing to the lies they hid, through the scarf about his throat to the impossible scar.

“Tell me what danger,” Ghan demanded.

“From whom else? From the priesthood.”

“The priesthood?”

“It has come to the attention of the emperor that the priesthood plans an expedition to search for her.”

“Search for her? Why?”

“Who knows what purposes hide behind their robes and masks? But the emperor believes that it has to do with the Royal Blood.”

“Away from the River, she is no danger to them.”

“I know little of these matters, Master Ghan. I am only the son of a merchant, an engineer at best. What I do know is that what is true or false is of no consequence to the priesthood. Set in motion, they are like a stone falling. What remains beneath them is crushed. For whatever reason, we know they seek her. Furthermore, we believe that they know where she is.”

“They could not.”

“Couldn't they? They have been sending out spies for the better part of a year. They have been working their sorcery, watching the stars.”

“All of this the emperor told you.”

Ghe held out his hands. “I did not, of course, have an audience with the Chakunge himself. But his minister spoke to me, after I made my concerns known.”

“Your concerns?”

Ghe nodded vigorously. “Oh, yes. The priests talk, and the careful ear ensnares their words. I have heard things.”

“Why were you researching the temple?”

“A false trail. I believed that they actually had her captive in their sanctum.”

“They do not.”

“You seem certain of that,” Ghe observed.

Ghan tightened his mouth, realizing that he had said too much.

Ghe leaned over the coffee urn and spoke intently. “The emperor knows, Master Ghan, that you helped his daughter escape the city. He has been watching you, hoping for some sign that you know her whereabouts.”

“And you were the spy?”

“One of them, Master. Please understand, it was from my concern for her.”

Ghan frowned sharply. “What is this all about? If you wish me to confess some crime, I will not. I have no patience for these courtly games.”

“This is no game, Master. In the morning, this barge swims upstream to search for the daughter of our emperor. Unlike the priesthood, we have no idea of where she is, save north and away. You can help us.”

“I do not know where she is.”

“You do. Assuredly, Master Ghan, you do.”

“Torture it from me, then.”

“The emperor won't do that. At least, he said he would not. He wants your cooperation and your loyalty. You are dear to Hezhi, and it is important that she believe in our good intentions when we do find her.”

“You aren't—” Ghan's face registered shock for the first time. His mouth actually dropped open. “You aren't really suggesting that I go with you on this mad search?”

“But that is precisely what I am saying.”

“Out of the question! The library—”

“The emperor has actually been considering sealing the library. It has been the center of much trouble, of late.”

“Sealing the library?”

Ghe sipped his coffee, let the implicit threat sink in. A mask of fury settled on Ghan's face and then quickly vanished.

“I see,” he clipped.

“Perhaps only temporarily, until you return.” He regarded his coffee cup once more. “There has also been talk of restoring certain names in the capital, of ending certain exiles.”

Ghan was nodding his head now. The sweetmeat and the rotten pear were both on the plate before him. Ghan's family was in exile and had been for decades; only his intense love of the library kept him in Nhol. The simultaneous threat to close the library and promise to reinstate his clan had to be a powerful combination.

“No purse is large enough to make me a whore,” the old man declared almost inaudibly, eyes nearly shuttered by his angry lids.

“Those were the emperor's words, his promises and threats,” Ghe whispered. “These are mine. I love Hezhi, Master Ghan, and I know you do, as well. You helped her once, at gravest risk to your own life and everything you hold close and dear. Help me help her. When we find her, I promise you—I swear to you—that whatever pleases her, we shall do. The emperor wants her back here, but I want what is best for her. And she must be warned, at the very least, about the determination of the priesthood. At the least.”

“You are mad. This entire city is mad, the nightmare of a brutish, sleeping god.”

“What does that mean? Do you mean to wish away the world as it is and replace it with one you imagine? If so, you must cease merely reading your books and do something. Come with me, Master Ghan.”

For the first time, Ghan raised his coffee to his lips, and in an instant—like the batting of an eye—Ghe sensed his fear and hesitation vanish. Replaced by … Ghe's new senses were like smell. Fear he had scented often enough to know it. This was something he did not know.

“I must have certain books. I must have maps.”

“You are free to return with the soldiers to the library. They will help you carry anything you need. You accept, then? I can relay that to the emperor?”

“You may tell him I will accompany you.”

“I will tell the captain, when he boards.”

“You are not the commander here?”

“As you say, Lord Ghan, one so lowly as I cannot command a royal expedition. A noble will be placed in command. But you and I will lead them, will we not?”

Ghan did not answer. Instead, he stood shakily. “I wish to gather my things now.”

“Very well. The emperor thanks you.”

“I'm sure.”

“And I thank you.” Ghe was surprised to find that his voice rang sincere, even in his own jaded ears.

SUNLIGHT sheathed the streets in molten copper, beat them bright and hot as Ghan trod across cobbles worn smooth by a hundred generations of feet. Last time he had walked this path, it had also been to board a boat, to arrange passage for Hezhi to his kindred in the Swamp Kingdoms and thence to far-off Lhe.

In hindsight, that had been a poor plan. Not only because it had not succeeded—the boat had been attacked by members of the same royal elite who now escorted him—but because in Lhe the priesthood would have found Hezhi easily, had they cared to look. In the Mang Wastes, finding anyone would be no easy task.

For weeks and then months he had awaited the writ of the executioner, sure that in the chaos of Hezhi's escape he had been found out. If the arrangements at the docks were known to the emperor, then surely the arranger was known, as well. But the writ had never come, and his old head remained where it had been for sixty-three earthly years, bobbing about on a neck that sometimes seemed too thin to support its weight. Now was such a time.

If he weren't in such terrible danger, he might be amused that the emperor and his servants could so deeply underestimate him. They believed that their courtly intrigues were so complex, so deeply cunning, that they could shift Human Beings about like the markers in a game of Na. Perhaps they shifted each other around so, but he was a scholar. He could see through their pitiful, dull machinations as if they were sheerest silk. Not every detail, perhaps, not yet, but he could see the shape of something beneath that thin skirt, and it was not the curved courtesan he was expected to see.

Who was Yen? That he did not know, but he was no merchant's son. His accent, while passable, was all wrong. His manner, his pretense of submissive cooperation was poorly acted indeed; they hoped to disguise a deeper haughtiness. None of this had mattered before now, and thus he had simply not expended the mental energy to make these connections. But since Yen's reappearance, his questions about Hezhi, his research on the Great Water Temple, Ghan was forced to reevaluate everything about the young man. Now that he set his mind to it—a finely tuned instrument, even now—it was clear to him that Yen had pretended from the first moment. His intention had always been to be near Hezhi. That made it likely—almost certain, in fact—that it had been Yen set to watch her, Yen who betrayed her, and who now sought to redress his error in allowing her to escape. And so Hezhi was in danger. Yen's suggestion that her peril came from the priesthood was probably a lie—unless the expedition the man was assembling was created by the priesthood. That was a logical conclusion—after all, those set to watch royal children were usually Jik assassins and therefore of the priestly order. Yet these were unquestionably the emperor's elite escorting him, and it seemed improbable that the emperor and the priesthood would work together on anything.

Anything, that is, save perhaps in the containment of one of the Waterborn. The priesthood and the emperor were of one mind on that, and only that. And perhaps they knew something Ghan did not, something about Hezhi's power or potential that moved both parties to cooperate above and beyond the norm.

So, Ghan thought as he passed the ever-grander house walls lining the street, best assume it is both of them. The emperor and the priesthood, but only I know where Hezhi might be.

And so this elaborate tale to convince him. Well, he was convinced. If he resisted, they might find some way to force him to tell. If he pretended to be duped by their moronic ruse, then he could do something. Something. But what?

AFTER Ghan departed, Ghe sat brooding in the cabin. He wished to leave the narrow confines of the living quarters, to pace the proud decks of the barge, meet the sailing men who would carry him up-River. But by now, surely, the priesthood had gotten wind of something. He knew well how deeply the palace was penetrated by the eyes of the temple, and this movement of men and supplies to one of the barges must have raised at least a few suspicious hackles. If he were seen, they would know for certain what was afoot, and whatever story was being circulated about the purpose of the expedition would be known as false. He was commanded by the emperor to remain cloistered until the barge was well away from Nhol.

It was a wise command, and therefore he heeded it. And so, instead of following his desires, he explored the world he was allowed, for the moment. That meant the little cluster of rooms at the rear of the barge which, from off of the boat, resembled an elegant, spacious mansion.

Inside, that apparent grandeur was seen as illusion, though the design of the cabins was essentially the same as a suite of rooms in the palace. His cabin opened directly onto the central deck, but it also had an entrance into a courtyard, of sorts. It was a small, narrow imitation of the ones in the palace, but it served the same purpose, allowing fresh air into the cabins arranged about it, especially those that crowded to the edges of the barge and could not thus open onto the deck. In all, four cabins similar to his own opened into the yard—relatively capacious rooms, furnished with colorful rugs and pillows, beds of down-stuffed linen. There were two much larger spaces, but those stacked sleeping shelves so that ten men could room in each. The whole complex was sunken into the deck on the rear end of the ship, and Ghe knew that there was another such cluster of rooms forward, but all of those were crowded ones, built to accommodate sailors and soldiers. The floor of the cabins was the bottom hull of the barge; the surface of the deck set a half a man's length higher to provide protected space for cargo.

Ghe wandered through the various rooms, noting their furnishings, access, and escape routes. He always preferred to know every way by which a room could be exited. One of the larger cabins, he discovered, had a latched access to the cramped cargo space that ran the length of the barge between the two “houses” at each end. After a moment's pause, he shucked his expensive robe—it had come with the cabin—and entered the dark space, clad in only the brief cotton cloth that wrapped twice around his waist and once to cover his crotch and in the scarf tied about his neck. Unused as he was to fine clothing like the robe, he did not want to soil it in his explorations.

In a deep crouch, he wandered curiously about the hold. Light streamed through a pair of open hatches and through the occasional perforations in the bulwarks at floor level that would drain rainwater or any other inundation that might tend to flood the barge or stand in the hold. Several sailors stood in the hatches, shuttling a few remaining items into storage. Though there was no particular need to, Ghe avoided them, padding through the shadowed crates and bags, identifying them by their markings: food, rope, assorted trade goods if they needed them. In addition, Ghe knew, there were sealed packs of arrows, spare edged weapons, extra boots and clothing for cooler climates. Finally, wrapped carefully and stored separately, a number of the head-size pitch balls that the catapult mounted abovedeck could fling at any vessel that might oppose them.

The horses were not on board yet, but Ghe found and wandered through the maze of stalls, wondering how such large beasts would be able to stand imprisonment that scarcely allowed them a pace to move in. This part of the hold was also open to the sky, though canopied in good weather with an elevated tarp. He wound through the stalls in the suffuse light that bled through the canvas, and though the deck was clean to a polish, he smelled the faint, musky odor of beasts. He found where the bulwark could be opened to let the animals on and off and marked it in his memory for his own possible use.

It seemed, to Ghe, a well-equipped expedition. Fifty footmen—most of them elite—thirty horse, himself, an engineer, the captain, whoever he was—and Ghan. Yes, it seemed a force to be reckoned with, but then, what did he know of that? What sort of dangers might they meet? He would have to talk—to Ghan, to the sailors who had been up-River before. Despite the tales he had told Hezhi, Ghe himself had never been more than a league beyond the walls of the city.

He could summon the ancient lord living in his belly to his lips, he supposed, ask him a thing or two. He could reach vague understandings with his ghosts without empowering them. But to deal with them specifically, he had to give them his voice to speak in. Though he could now summon and banish them at will, still he disliked hearing his voice chattering without his leave. No, he would save that summoning for later, when he had learned what he could from the living.

There was some change above him; the faint cadence of work songs, the thudding of feet on the heavy planks died away into silence, and replacing that, the faint tones of a single voice.

This must be my captain, Ghe thought wryly. He considered once more that this might all be some elaborate trick, that the emperor had merely devised a ruse to rid himself of a dangerous ghoul. It would make more sense, in many ways, than the scenario he seemed to find himself in. Hiding like a spider in the rich cabin of one of the emperor's own barges, the elite guard obeying his orders? Much since his rebirth had been painted with the gray and blue of nightmare. Even moments of success and joy would suddenly flatten into something akin to terror when he remembered that he was, after all, dead. Here was one such moment, mocking even this achievement. A gutter scorp from Southtown on a royal barge …

He had taken the risk, and he believed he had won. Had to believe it, for the nightmare reached its nadir in the Water Temple. Returning again from oblivion, awakening in a canal with priests and Jik swarming in search of him, he had known that without powerful help his mission was doomed. He would fail against whatever that thing was that held the first emperor himself on a leash. Ghe was not the only inhuman creature walking in Nhol, nor the most powerful. Only the emperor himself was an ally worthy of that thing, and Ghe had known, then, that it was his to win the emperor or win nothing at all.

But the Chakunge was a man as well as a god, a living man,and as such had a natural abhorrence for Ghe and what he was. Perhaps the expedition was meant to go on, but he was not.

If so, however, the emperor should have had him extinguished in the palace, for here, floating on the very skin of the River, Ghe was in the flower of his strength. Even the gnawings of hunger stayed distant, an occasional irritation, but nothing he need feed. This was fortunate, since on a ship with only eighty people, he could not sate his hunger without being noticed.

So, with the barest hesitation, he threaded softly back to the entrance to the cabin, lifted the board aside, and entered.

“What sort of ship's rat is this?” a voice purred softly. A woman's voice. Ghe whirled, wondering how he could have been so preoccupied.

She stood there, regarding his condition of undress with obvious amusement. Thick, sensual lips bowed faintly at the corners of a narrow, tapered face. Opalescent eyes shimmered with amusement, curiosity—perhaps cruelty, as well. Her hair, bound up with a comb, was black, but unlike that of most of the nobility, it was not straight but instead slightly wavy, like his own—usually a sign of lower-than-noble birth.

Her clothing carried a message quite different from her features and hair, however. Though not ostentatious, her dress was of jeh, a fiber much like silk but rarer yet, available only to Blood Royal.

“Well?” she asked, and he realized he had not answered her. “What cause have you to skulk in my quarters? And what sort of apparel is this, loincloth and neck-wrap? Some new fashion in the court I haven't learned of yet?”

“A-ah,” Ghe replied, all but successfully avoiding a stammer. “You must pardon me, Lady. If you will hand me my robe, I will don it.”

“arrobe?”

“Yes. I did not wish to stain it inspecting the cargo.”

“I see.” Her gaze fastened on his scarf, and the amusement faded a bit, replaced by … fascination? An odd gleam in her eye, anyway. “You are Yen.”

“I am he.”

Only the emperor and perhaps Nyas, his advisor, knew Ghe's real name. Easiest to hide his identity from Ghan if he were the only one avoiding mistakes.

“Well, I think we expected you to be dressed to receive us. I do not stand on such formalities—with men, anyway—but Lord Bone Eel shall, I think.” She stooped and handed him the robe, which he stepped into immediately. She was slight though not particularly short. Young.

“I was expecting only Bone Eel,” Ghe said, frowning, trying to understand the faint buzz of emotion emanating from her, and failing.

“Lord Bone Eel is my husband. I am the Lady Qwen Shen.”

“Oh. I was not informed.” He stopped and bowed what he thought to be the appropriate bow, and she did not laugh outright.

“You will be accompanying us?” he asked when he straightened.

“Yes, of course. I could not let my husband stray far from my sight. Servants will be along soon with my clothes. I only wanted to see my quarters.”

“Well, then,” Ghe answered. “I hope that you approve.”

“Oh, I don't,” she said. “They are drab and cramped, and I detest them already.”

“Except when it rains, a pavilion will be erected for you on deck,” Ghe informed her. “I have seen such pavilions, and they are much more comfortable than these rooms.” Though he thought his cabin was very nice indeed, compared to anywhere he had ever lived, or to the crowded common rooms the soldiers must make do with.

“Well, it isn't raining now. Come up on deck and greet my husband.”

“Unfortunately, I am under direct orders from the emperor himself to remain here until the voyage begins. I regret the inconvenience, but the lord must come below to meet me.”

“He won't like that, even though he must come down here anyway. He prefers for his men to greet him on the deck.”

“Once again,” Ghe said, “I must apologize. But I must also do the emperor's bidding.”

“Yes, you must, I suppose,” she replied indifferently. Her mood had changed; whatever interest and amusement she might have found in him earlier departed. “Well.” She brightened. “Perhaps I will go see about having that pavilion erected.”

There came a clumping behind them, as someone descended from the upper deck. “I have seen to it already,” a man's voice assured her. Ghe turned, not caught unaware this time.

“Lord Bone Eel,” he replied, bowing a degree or so lower than he had for Qwen Shen.

“Yes, yes, enough bowing. We are shipmates, and you will find that on board ship there is less of that stifling formality we have in the city.”

“Yes, Lord,” Ghe replied, trying to get the captain's measure.

He already knew a thing or two, of course. The highest nobility, those in the immediate family of the Chakunge, were all named so that water was actually mentioned in their names. It was the next tier down, the secondary nobility, who tended to be named for creatures of the water. He thus knew Bone Eel to be well removed from the line to the throne, but not as far removed as the most minor nobility, who were named for creatures that lived around but not in the River, such as the little whelp who had courted Hezhi. Wezh, whose name meant “gull.”

Bone Eel looked like a captain. He was tall and striking, his profile hewn from a strong stone but polished to perfection. His hair was straight, glossy black, and worn cropped like a helmet at his ears. He was dressed in a simply cut but elegant yellow sarong and a sailor's loose shirt, umber with bluish turtles batiked upon it. A scabbarded sword hung casually from a broad leather belt.

“You are Yen, the diplomat of whom the emperor informed me?”

Diplomat? “Yes,” he answered cautiously. “I am Yen.”

“And who do we wait for now? This scholar, Ghem?”

“Ah, Ghan, my lord,” he corrected. ”And he will join us sometime hence.”

“Well, let's hope he arrives soon. I wish to be under way before nightfall.”

“Nightfall? I thought we were to leave by morning.”

“As did I,” Bone Eel replied, his mouth flattening into a grim line. “But the emperor said that we were to take no priests on this journey, you see?” By his look he clearly took for granted that Ghe did see.

“No, Lord, I'm sorry, I don't.” Ghe was beginning to feel a certain irritation with the man. He let his gaze wander inside the captain's chest, thought idly about just stroking the strands there, the way one might stroke a harp. But the time for that would probably come soon enough, not now. He must have patience, for there was much he did not know. If he had learned anything at all in the past days, it was that impulsive actions were not always wise ones.

“No? Well, ships are supposed to carry at least one priest, and they are raising a mighty hue and cry about this barge leaving without one. We must be under way before things become too noisy.”

“Oh.” Ghe wondered if the Ahw'en were behind this—if they suspected—or if it was just the usual petty political war waged daily in the palace courts.

“In any event, I am ready to go!” Bone Eel exclaimed, his deep voice tinged with enthusiasm. “Too long have I been a prisoner of land. I'm ready to feel the River beneath my feet again.”

“And how long has it been since your last voyage?” Ghe inquired.

“Oh, it's been—well, let me see …” He ticked off one finger, then the next, frowning.

“It's been five years,” Qwen Shen put in sweetly. She beamed at Ghe, but he thought perhaps there was a hidden glare in the expression.

“That long?“ Bone Eel muttered. ”Yes, too long indeed.”

Bone Eel continued to agree with himself as he went back above.

XIX Drum Battle

A wind slanted out of the east with the dawn, and Hezhi leaned into it, let it relieve her weary muscles of some small part of the task of supporting her. She was listing in the saddle anyway, worn out in more ways than she knew, and she could almost imagine that the wind, fragrant with sage and juniper, was a pillow, nestling against her, welcoming her to sleep.

Her body may have lain as if asleep while she traveled the skies, but it had apparently received no rest. After the fight and the discussion—after her decision—they had wasted little time, slipping from the camp while the sky was still an inky beast with a thousand eyes. Now they were more than a league from the Mang camp, the most immediate danger behind them, and events, unbroken by oblivion, crowded together in Hezhi's brain until they were a senseless litany of colors and shapes. Her eyes read the sky and the landscape only from habit, without much comprehension.

Of the night's watchful eyes, only one remained, the rest having fled or fluttered shut beneath sky-colored lids at the graying of the horizon, and that only made her sleepier, made her wish that she were a cold, distant, sleeping star. The holdout still flamed, defiant, defending his domain in the vault of heaven even though his was the easternmost portion, where the sun's birth was heralded by servants of copper and gold.

“What star is that?” Hezhi asked wearily, in an attempt to keep awake.

Brother Horse cracked the barest grin in the gray light. Hezhi noticed not so much the show of humor as how old he looked, with the stubble of beard on his chin.

“We call him Yuchagaage, the 'Hunter.' ”

“What does he hunt?”

Brother Horse waved the back of his hand at the star, winking dimmer each moment to their right. “He has hunted many things. Right now he hunts the sun.”

“Will he catch the sun?”

“Well, watch for yourself. The Bright King will kill him, sure enough, before even he has risen.”

“The Hunter is not the most intelligent of gods,” Raincaster added from up ahead of them, next to Tsem. Hezhi had been staring east in the first place to avoid watching the tail of Rain-caster's horse, which threatened to mesmerize her as it switched back and forth.

“True,” Brother Horse said. “He lies in wait for the sun, each morning getting closer. Always he is slain; he never succeeds—nor learns, apparently.”

“But he is still here, when the other stars have fled,” Hezhi noted. “He lives longer in defiance than in retreat.”

“The other stars are smarter,” Raincaster answered, but Hezhi thought she heard a faint contempt in the young man's tone—or had her ears added that?

“But not braver,” Hezhi retorted sourly. “And he isn't always running”

“I won't play this word game,” Tsem said, turning to speak but not so much that she could see his face. These were the first words he had spoken since crying the night before. “It was you who decided we should leave.”

“I never decide, Tsem,” Hezhi replied. ”It always happens, but I never decide.”

“Well, you are not a star, Princess, and if you are blown out like a candle one morning, you will not return to light the world again. I don't know much about these ghosts that people out here call gods—you know much more than I, as always. But they seem to me, from what I have heard, to be poor creatures to model your actions after.”

“Well put,” Brother Horse agreed, “though I must admit that as a young warrior I carried the likeness of the Hunter on my shield. Many young Mang do so still. He is a rash god, but then, young men value rashness.”

“What do old men value?“ Raincaster asked.

“Young women,” Brother Horse answered. “If I carried a shield now, I would paint one on it.”

Ngangata—riding slightly ahead of Raincaster—turned, his face a weird rose color in the light of the rising sun. “Perkar is like the Hunter,” he put in glumly. “Always. And you see where it gets him.”

The wind picked up, clean and cool, and for an instant it swept the rooms of Hezhi's mind of the broken bits of thought that cluttered them. She had to raise her voice a bit for Brother Horse to understand her.

“Yes, Perkar,” she said. “You told us we would speak of him.”

“Later, when you have had some rest.”

“I should rest soon, then. When I returned—well, just before I awoke, in your yekt—I saw the monster again, the one feeding upon him. I think it may be winning. If I do have the power to help him now—as you say—I may not in a few days.”

“That's probably true,” the old Mang conceded. “But first tell me everything. How you went through the drum, what happened—everything. We have time enough for that.”

Hezhi nodded and told him, trying to leave nothing out, though even the wind failed to keep her mind clear and the droning of her own voice threatened to put her to sleep. Her story became a patchwork of digressions, and she feared that what little sense it had ever made was now lost. The sky continued to brighten, as the sun puddled red on the horizon, and then, finding its spherical shape, rose up. At Brother Horse's direction, they put the rising light to their backs, bearing nearly due west. The land rolled and then flattened out like a pan, rimmed at the limits of their sight by hills on the south and north. Ahead, Hezhi could make out the purple contours of distant mountains. The sky was as clear as blue glass, and the last traces of snow were gone from the ground.

The end of Hezhi's story whipped off with the wind across the endless plain, and Brother Horse rocked silently in his saddle for some time without commenting on it. Hezhi did not rush him, instead looking about her once more.

Tsem sat a horse nearly twice as massive as the one she rode, and he was still too large for it, though the horse bore his weight without complaint. Tsem himself remained glum, his visage hidden from her as she recounted her journey to the mountain. It was just as well, for she feared what her words might have written on his face. Ngangata now rode well in front of the rest of them, ever the scout, and Heen had paced ahead with him. Yu-u'han led Perkar's horse, and Perkar dragged and bumped along behind on a travois. At Ngangata's insistence, they were also accompanied by Sharp Tiger, the mount that Perkar had been leading when he reached the Ben'cheen. Raincaster, after their conversation, had dropped back to rear guard, his hawklike features clouded with exhaustion. Two additional horses carried their provisions and tents.

Seven people and nine horses. We make no more impression on this plain than a line of ants, Hezhi thought. Dust in the eye of the sky.

Brother Horse broke the silence, clearing his throat. “You have had an unusual experience,” he said. “Unusual, I mean, even for a gaan.”

“It seemed unusual to me,” Hezhi admitted. “But I know nothing of these things.”

“You were caught up in the wake of the sacrifice. Traditionally we must make certain that the Horse God returns home without delay when she is slain. We must make sure she does not lose her way. So we sing her a path to follow.”

“It was more like being caught in a stream,” Hezhi said.

The old man nodded. “I have never flown in such a manner. Few gaans ever purposely risk the mountain. It is too dangerous by far.”

“Then perhaps,” Tsem exploded, turning in his saddle and unwittingly yanking his poor mount's head about, as well, “perhaps you should have warned her before giving her the means to do so. Or did you hope that she would do what she did?”

“I did not think? Brother Horse admitted, more to Hezhi than to Tsem. “I did not think. I honestly never believed you would open the lake without my help… without my urging, even. You seemed so reluctant.”

“Whatever else she is,” Tsem said, “she is still a very young woman. Impulsive.”

“Tsem—”

“Princess, I have served you for many years. Until quite recently, it was not enemies I protected you from but yourself. You have the mind of a scholar—I know you are smarter than me—but you have no sense sometimes.”

Hezhi opened her mouth to frame an angry retort, but she let it die unsaid, for Tsem was right, of course. Sometimes she became so lost in thought, she could not see where she was walking. At other times, it seemed as if she acted without any thought at all and had to spend her wakeful hours making up stories about why she did things. Anyway, it was the same old Tsem litany. He didn't really understand.

Instead of replying, she nodded wearily.

“In any event,” Brother Horse said, “with some rest, you should be adequate to the task of helping Perkar.”

HEZHI awoke, cold, though she was well bundled in blankets. The embers of a nearby fire gave out a dull heat, as well, but the air quickly sucked it away. Hezhi could not remember stopping; she must have fallen asleep in the saddle. She still felt tired, but it was a manageable weariness, not the soul-numbing shroud of exhaustion she had worn earlier. Most everyone else seemed to be asleep, as well, scattered here and there about the floor of some sort of cave or rock shelter. Outside the gaping entrance, moonlight drizzled onto the plain when swift-flying clouds allowed; she watched several of the dark forms pass before the Bright Queen, dress briefly in silver, then rush on to their nameless destinations. The air smeiled wet.

“It will rain soon,” a voice raspily whispered. Hezhi turned from the tableau to Ngangata. She could see only bits of his face in the dim glow. It seemed very inhuman, and she suddenly remembered the dreams she once had of a deep, ancient forest, of trees so huge and thick that light never fell, undiffused, to the earth. And though she had never dreamed of Ngangata—only Perkar—in the bits of his face she somehow sensed those trees.

“You can tell?”

“Yes. It is no difficult thing, really.”

“How is Perkar?”

“Breathing a bit more shallowly, I think,” he answered.

“Well,” she chuffed, rubbing her eyes, “would you go wake Brother Horse for me?”

“Do you have the strength for this? I know I urged you earlier, but…”

“I won't let him die, Ngangata. Not if I have a choice in the matter.”

He nodded and rose lithely, with no sound, and padded off on cat's feet.

Nearby, Tsem stirred. “Princess?”

“I'm here.” She rummaged through her things—they were in a pile near the blanket she had been wrapped in—and withdrew her drum.

“Can't that wait?” the half Giant asked.

“Wait forever, you mean? Tsem, try to understand.”

“Tsem always try to understand, Princess. Tsem just not very bright.”

Hezhi could not tell if Tsem was trying to make her smile or rebuke her with his “dumb act,” the one he had used in the palace so often.

“You'll be right beside me.”

“I was right beside you before, when your spirit left your body. You almost fell off the roof and broke your neck.”

“I was foolish. I didn't know what I was doing.”

“And now you do,” he replied sarcastically.

She didn't answer. Ngangata was returning with Brother Horse. The old Mang man knelt and touched Perkar's brow.

“Yes,” he muttered. “We should do this now.”

“How?”

“I will do it. You will lend me the strength I need.”

“I don't understand. You told me you couldn't heal him.”

“I can't—not without you. I don't have the strength. On the other hand, you don't have the knowledge, and I don't have time to teach it to you; that would take months of apprenticeship.”

“What do I do, then?”

“Tap your drum; follow me and watch what I do.”

“What will you do?”

He spread his hands expressively. “We must fight and defeat the Breath Feasting. We will use our spirit helpers. Watch how I call mine forth, and then call yours forth in the same manner.”

“The Horse, you mean—the spirit of the Horse.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Of course,” Hezhi repeated, not at all certain things were as obvious as Brother Horse seemed to think them. “I'm ready.”

“The rest of you be silent and do not touch us,” the old man warned. “Do you understand? Giant, do you understand?”

“If anything ill befalls her, I will break your neck.”

Brother Horse sighed and shook his head slowly at the cave floor. “If, when we get started here, you interfere, you may have no need to break either of our necks. The Breath Feasting may do it for you.”

Tsem glowered but protested no more.

They sat and after a still, silent moment, Brother Horse began scratching the surface of his drum with his nails, faintly, faintly. Soon he began to tap it, and Hezhi joined in, also tapping with the nail of her index finger. The effect was nearly immediate; though almost negligible, the vibration of the taut rawhide tremored up her finger and into her bones and blood, filled it with rhythm. She moved to a pulse not her own, pumped not by her heart but by the skin head, by the scale on her arm. She was only remotely aware when Brother Horse began to chant, a wordless incantation at first, a droned note repeated over and over and an occasional odd rise in pitch. But in time, the meaningless syllables resolved into words, and these she caught as they drifted by.

Wake up, my guest You have slept long In the house of my ribs, The house of my heart Wake up now, See through my eyes, Walk with my feet, Yush, my old friend

As he sang, Brother Horse began to shiver, wavering like flame in high wind. In that uncertainty of form, his face was the face of a wolf and his own at once, and she gathered from his limbs a sense of lean gaunt grayness that was not wholly Human. He chanted on, speaking to the spirit in him, and the air about Hezhi began to dream, to fill with the colors from behind closed eyelids. Tsem, Ngangata, and the others became shadowed, dimmed away as the real and the unreal traded their substance. Brother Horse continued to spread, became two shapes, wolf and man, though they were not entirely separate.

“Now,” the old man told her, though he still chanted when he said it, “sing as I sang. Call up your helper.”

Hezhi closed her eyes, rocking. It no longer seemed as if her finger moved the cadence of the drum; rather, it seemed to move itself. Hezhi's sight turned inward, and there she saw the horse-child, waiting for her call. She appeared as she had in life, iron gray with blazing white stripes, mane whipped by a fierce wind, racing upon a limitless, grassy field.

This is in me, Hezhi realized. The Horse's world nested within her, a world of hooves pounding and strong, willful blood.

Come on out. Come out and help me, she thought. Her lips formed the same chant that Brother Horse had recited, but this inner speech seemed more important than the formal words. It was her wish that the mare responded to, not the syllables in Mang. The mare came gladly, the thunder of her hooves shaking the drum so violently that Hezhi very nearly dropped it.

Hezhi opened her eyes. Brother Horse was talking again, perhaps to her. He seemed to be speaking urgently, but in her dreamlike state she felt sluggish, too lazy to puzzle at his meaning. She was more interested in the spirit emerging from her; it was almost as if she were giving birth—or at least, the way she had imagined giving birth might be. Far away, she heard a dog barking frantically. Heen? He was never frantic about anything.

Then she noticed Perkar standing, facing her, bending toward her. The almond molds of his eyes were entirely black, seething, bubbling like boiling tar. He grinned oddly, and his teeth were black, too. His sword squirmed in a white-knuckled grip, now a blade, now an eagle, now a single long beak or claw.

“I told you,” Perkar said. “I warned you.” He lifted the sword to point at her throat slowly, as if it were heavy and he was having trouble raising it.

A feral swirl of gray and teeth and claws smacked into Perkar and his black grin turned to a snarl. He staggered beneath the onslaught, swiping clumsily about him with his weapon. Brother Horse still sat, hands tapping the drum, as the wolf that had emerged from him tore with white teeth at Perkar.

Hezhi stared, gaping. Were they to kill Perkar? If the price of evicting the Breath Feasting from his body was to kill him, what was the point? But Perkar did not seem in danger of losing. One hand gripped the wolf by the throat now, and though it squirmed and shifted shapes from wolf to serpent to man, still he held it and brought the godsword around. The wolf split nearly in half, and its yowl was deafening. Perkar tossed it aside and advanced upon Brother Horse.

“Old man, you should have stayed away from this. He has been given to me by one much stronger than you.”

“By whom?” Brother Horse asked. His eyes remained on Hezhi, however.

“I will take your ghost to him, and he will have some use for it, I think.”

“I regret that I cannot accompany you.”

Hezhi noticed that the two halves of the wolf were still joined by a thread of life, and the doglike creature was obstinately dragging itself across the cave floor toward Perkar. It would never reach him before the Perkar-thing reached Brother Horse, however. Only Heen stood, teeth bared, between the old gaan and death—but if a wolf god fell so quickly, how long could an ordinary dog stand?

Hezhi hesitated just an instant longer. What if Brother Horse was the enemy, and this all a trick to kill Perkar once and for all? She still, despite all of her experience, had only his word that he was on her side. But watching him sit there, calmly, facing something that looked like Perkar but was not, not really—

“Come, Goddess, ” she cried. “There is your enemy!”

And the spirit bolted from her chest, like a heartbeat escaping, heart and all. It was not unlike the feeling of terrible sadness or joy, tightened beneath the tiny bones of her breast, suddenly bursting out, and of the two, more like joy. The gates of her heart swung open, and the Horse God sprang out.

Perkar turned at the sound, gaping wider than humanly possible. In fact, his whole head hinged open, almost comically. Black flame coiled out from an open mouth framing sharklike teeth. He brought his blade up, but he was too late. The mare erupted into existence, fury and passion rolling in her eyes, and her hooves slashed with more speed and force than summer lightning. They caught Perkar in the head and his skull split, burst into shards like a shattered pot. He swayed on his feet for an instant, as the Breath Feasting pulled free of the stump of his neck. The demon leapt out, coiled sinew and scales scratching at the air, spinning out rays like a thousand-legged spider, each leg a segmented worm tipped with a sting. It wheeled toward the Horse God, who reared to meet it, teeth bared and snapping. Hezhi braced for their impact, but it never came; something suddenly settled about the demon, a hoop of shivering light, and Hezhi realized that she had not seen Brother Horse approaching the duel, though now she felt how insistent his drumbeat had become. He swept the circumference of his instrument—which seemed now much larger than before—over the Breath Feasting, and as the beast passed through, it came apart. It literally burst through the skin head of the drum, a fountain of worms rotting into shreds of moldy black cheese and finally smoke. The only sound was faint, something between a snap and a gasp.

The old man made a few more passes with the drum, making certain that all of the fragments had become vapor, but no darkness was left, no visible remains of the demon; even the smoke was gone now. Then he bowed to the mare and knelt by the wounded wolf-spirit. He drew the creature to him, and in a gentle shudder they became one again. When he came back to his feet, there was a new shuffle and limp in his gait, pain etched plainly on his brow. He approached Hezhi and gently took her hand. It seemed as if her fingers were farther away than Nhol, not part of herself at all, but when he took them, the sound of drumming ceased, and she realized that she had never stopped tapping her instrument. The Horse whickered, pranced widder-shins around them both, and then leapt back into her; Hezhi felt only a vague shock, smelled horse hair and sweat.

Fear smote her. The world beyond the drum was stark and, in its way, simple, and Human emotions were dim things there. But now, afterward, the reaction set in as wonder realized that it should have been terror. And Perkar had been killed, not saved. His head had burst apart, destroyed by her own hand—or by the hoof of her spirit helper.

She blinked. Perkar lay on the cave floor, as he had before. His head was whole, and as Brother Horse and Ngangata bent over him, he moaned once.

“What happened?” Tsem demanded. “Why are you shaking?”

Hezhi looked up into the Giant's puzzled face.

“The fight? Didn't you see?”

“See? I saw you and the old man tapping your drums and singing nonsense. Heen there started howling and growling, and then Brother Horse stood up and waved his drum around. There was some smoke or something; that's all I saw.”

“Truly?”

“Princess, that's all that happened.”

Frowning, Hezhi turned back to Perkar and the two men with him.

“Well? Is he better?”

Brother Horse shook his head solemnly. “He is still ill. It will take time for Harka to heal him entirely. But the Breath Feasting is gone.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Thank the Horse Goddess, or yourself.”

“You slew it.”

Brother Horse spread his hands. “It is not really slain, but it will be many years before its substance knits back together.”

“You drew it through the drum.”

“Yes. It is a dweller in the lake. Cast out of its waters, without flesh about it, it suffocates, in a sense. It comes unbound.”

“Are all gods thus?”

“No. The Breath Feasting is delicate, in some ways. But any passage through the drum—from one side of the 'lake' to the other—must be prepared for, by spirit, god, or Human. The transition is always dangerous.”

“What are you talking about? What lake?” Tsem asked.

“I'll explain later,” Hezhi said, patting his arm. “I promise I'll explain later.”

“Good. Because right now, the two of you sound quite mad.”

Brother Horse did not grin, but his old humor seemed to flicker in his eyes as he shook his head and said, “Indeed. Madness is a prerequisite for becoming a gaan.” He reached down and gave his dog a scratch between the ears.

Tsem rolled his eyes. “Then everyone out here but me must be one.”

Yuu'han chose that moment to interrupt.

“Out on the plain,” he said. “Look.”

Hezhi followed the pointing finger, but all she saw was moonlight and clouds. Ngangata and Brother Horse, however, had a different reaction.

“I thought they would hold them longer,” the old man remarked.

“Perhaps it is someone else.”

“Perhaps.”

“What? What is it?” Hezhi asked.

“See there?” Ngangata pointed.

Hezhi followed the imaginary line described by his finger, but still she saw nothing. “No.”

“It's a campfire. Someone following us, between a day and half a day behind.”

Brother Horse groaned. “I had hoped to rest before sunup.”

“We can rest in the saddle,” Ngangata answered. “At least our tracks will be covered.”

“What do you mean?” Hezhi asked. But then she understood, as the first patter of rain came from outside. A distant thunder tremored, and a line of blue fire walked around the far horizon.

“I told you it would rain,” Ngangata said. But he was looking at Perkar, who moaned once more, and Hezhi thought she caught the hint of a smile on his wide, strange lips, a whisper of thanks from his halfling eyes.

XX Dragons

GHAN paused at the threshold of the library and turned back, scrutinizing each block of visible shelving as the soldiers with him coughed impatiently.

“Wait,” Ghan grumbled. He could see a volume, lying on a table, out of place. He moved stiffly across the room to retrieve it.

“Now, where do you go?” he asked rhetorically, checking the notation on the book, which told him exactly that. It belonged in the labyrinthine rear stacks—the ones Hezhi had named “the Tangle.” He motioned to the soldiers to indicate he would return shortly and took the book to its shelf. Alone, he rested his head against leather-bound spines.

“I've spent my whole life among you,” he muttered to the books. “What will you do without me?”

The tomes did not answer him, of course, but as he walked heavily back to the waiting guards, to his surprise, he answered himself. He rested his fingers on Grimoire Tertiary, the last in the row before he again crossed the reading area.

“Good-bye,” he whispered. “Someone will always come who cares for you. Someone.”

And then he left, not looking back again, turning his mind stubbornly outward to what must be.

I have seen dragons, he wrote a bit later as, ignoring everyone else on the barge, he spread his things in his quarters and began to write. They were, in their way, magnificent. Bone Eel called them with his blood, though I would have believed it too deficient to summon even a worm. But it was enough; they turned and writhed in the water like living waves, scintillating with the hues of a green rainbow. Quite beautiful. When they slid into their moorings, down beneath the barge, the first tug showed their power, for in one moment we were still and in the next the boat was in motion. Soon we will not give them a second thought, but they must work tirelessly, pulling us up the River that gives them life.

He set the pen aside then, folded down onto his bed, and closed his eyes. The day had been long and wrought much upon him, and even writing gave him little solace.

GHE emerged into the light before dawn, and Nhol was gone. Even with his enhanced vision, the River was almost all that he could see; on the nearest side he could make out the artificial horizon of the levee, willow, cottonwood, and bamboo rambling at its base. The other bank was so distant that it showed only as a thin green line. He took in a breath and thought it clean, new. They were in motion! The expedition—his expedition—had begun. And they would find her, he was sure of that. It was a vast certainty, inhuman in scope, but it still gave him joy.

Footsteps approached; the ghost of the blind boy identified them instantly, knew the cadence of walking like a name from first introduction, and so Ghe did not turn but called out, instead, a soft greeting, enjoying the sigh of air across the moving barge. “Lady Qwen Shen,” he remarked. “You stir at an odd hour.”

“As do you, Lord Yen.”

He half turned his face toward her so that she could discern his sardonic grin. “No lord I, Lady.”

“Is that so? I wonder, then, why the emperor gave this expedition into your hands.”

“Your husband is the captain, madam.”

“Oh, yes.” She sighed. “My husband. Perhaps we should speak of him.”

“Speak, Lady?”

The corners of her mouth turned up, and he noticed, once again, her great beauty, the slightly … exotic air about her.

“The emperor told you that he would furnish you with a barge to pursue your quest—and the trappings to go with the barge. A crew, a captain. My husband, Bone Eel, is just such a trapping.”

Ghe scratched at the scar on his chin. “Then who gives these soldiers their orders?”

“Bone Eel does. But he gives the orders I suggest, and I suggest what you tell me to. That is how command works on this vessel.”

“That seems needlessly elaborate,” Ghe observed. “Is Bone Eel aware of this arrangement?”

“Aware?” Ghe turned so that he could see the lady's eyes sparkle as she spoke. “He is barely aware that breath passes in and out of his lungs. He is quite unaware that he never conceives an idea of his own. The emperor has given him a charter to sail up-River to 'Wun and parts beyond' as the emperor's ambassador. It is up to you and me to determine to what 'parts beyond' we shall navigate.”

“No offense, Lady Qwen Shen, but wouldn't it have been simpler to put Bone Eel—or some other captain—directly under my command?”

“Of course not,” she said, turning her face to catch a zephyr sighing across the water. “No lord would suffer to be commanded by a commoner—and a commoner cannot command a royal barge. Believe me, this is the best arrangement that can be made. Your directives will be carried out, never fear.”

He simply nodded at that. “The emperor explained our true mission?”

She solemnly returned his nod, and her voice husked lower still. “His daughter,” she all but mouthed.

Ghe nodded. “You've said enough.” But his brow stayed bunched in consternation.

“Don't worry,” Qwen Shen soothed. “This is a charade I am accustomed to. You and I will captain this vessel quite efficiently.”

“An honor,” Ghe said, but what he thought was that he was at this woman's mercy and a bit of his earlier elation faded. A gull cried in the darkness, and far out across the River's supine majesty, Ghe could see another, smaller barge moving with the current. He wondered if it, too, had dragons leashed beneath its bow—or if it moved at the behest of more mundane forces.

“Bone Eel does not know?”

“As I told you,” she answered. “Nor anyone else save the old man. You must tell him to watch his tongue.”

Ghe flashed her an evil little smile. “No one has to tell him to keep his mouth darkened. He usually only opens it to insult or argue. But I will make certain he understands our situation, anyway. Just so long as you understand that he is not to know I have any real role in this expedition. He believes me to be an engineer with some love for Hezhi, that is all.”

He was aware of her regard spidering about him as they spoke, walking delicately here and there. Often it touched lightly on his throat. He kept his own gaze studiously out and away. When he did glance at her, the intensity of her inspection disturbed him.

“What of you, Lady? What do you think me to be?”

She was silent, and the boat glided on for a time, before she turned to him frankly and answered that question by asking her own.

“May I touch your flesh?”

“What?”

“Your hand. I wish to touch your hand.”

“Why?”

“I want to see if it is cold.”

“It is not,” he assured her. “It is the temperature of flesh.”

“But I want to touch it,” she insisted. “I want to know …”

“You want to know how the flesh of a ghoul feels?” he hissed.

She did not flinch from him. “Yes.”

He darted his hand out, swiftly, so that she would understand that he was more than Human as well as less, and he gripped her hand in his with enough strength to hurt her. She gasped but, other than that, did not complain.

“That is how my flesh feels.” He grinned savagely.

She closed her eyes but did not jerk away as he thought she might. “You were wrong,” she told him instead, and he suddenly felt her other hand, the free one, tracing along his knuckles. “Your flesh is warmer than that of a man.”

He released her hand with a dismissive thrust. “Does that satisfy your curiosity, madam?”

She rubbed her abused hand absently with her other. “No,” she said. “Oh, no. My curiosity is just beginning to awaken.”

And she favored him with her own sardonic smile as she retraced her path to the colorful pavilion beneath which her husband slept.

Ghe, for his part, stood rooted where he was long after sunup, nursing his astonishment into anger, the anger into rage. If Qwen Shen were going to play games with him, she would regret it. He planned a number of inventive ways to make her do so, and then, as more sailors began to move about the deck, checking the depth with long poles, casting out nets, or merely watching the River and shore for dangers, Ghe went below to speak with Ghan.

“SHE is not near the River, you can be certain of that,” Ghan told him—a bit warily, Ghe thought.

“Why is that?”

“I am Forbidden, so I will not delve in great detail into the subject. Suffice to say that she fled not Nhol so much as she fled the River, and to return to him would thwart all of her hopes.”

“Then we shall not return her,” Ghe assured him. “We will find her and warn her of the priesthood and its plans.”

“I don't see how the priesthood can find her.”

“They have ways.”

“And you know that the temple's expedition goes up-River rather than overland? That is why the emperor outfitted a barge for our journey?”

In fact, Ghe had not thought much about why he requested a barge; it had seemed the natural thing, at the time. Now he realized that he might have let the River God betray himself; the River could only conceive of up-River and down-River, and so naturally Hezhi must be in one of those directions. Ghe's sense was that she was up-River, but now it dawned on him that the River's belief in this matter—even filtered through him—was not trustworthy. The River did not know where she was.

His only clues were visions the River had been sending him in the past few days. Unlike the first—which had been about the River himself—these pictured a man, a dark, wild man on a striped horse who rode with companions dressed, like himself, in barbaric costumes. It seemed to Ghe—in this dream—that the wild man knew where Hezhi was, was somehow like himself: an extension of the River's purpose into places where he could not flow. But the River gave him precious little information otherwise. And he needed information, something to make Ghan think he knew more than he did.

The man on the horse reminded him, almost against his will, of the little statuette he had given Hezhi, the half-woman, half-horse creature from Mang fantasy. If the man in his dreams was Mang, then perhaps—but all barbarians looked alike.

No, that wasn't true. Some of them were as white as albinos with eyes like pale gray glass. Mang, at least, looked like people.

If he did not take the chance now, before Ghan said something, then Ghan would control all of the information. The old man could tell him anything, and Ghe's arcane senses were not keen enough to identify subtle falsehoods. Ghan had to believe in the fictitious temple expedition, had to believe that the priesthood knew where she was.

And so, mustering all of his confidence, he asserted the only thing he could think of. “We—and the priesthood—know only that she is among the Mang.” Then he fought to suppress a triumphant smile, for he smelled Ghan's chagrin, a bitter, salty scent. He had been right! Or partly right. Now Ghan would have to be careful what he said when he lied, for he could no longer be certain of what Ghe did and did not know. He could see the struggle in the old man, the hope of formulating a lie, the desire to fashion one as close to the truth as it needed to be to be believed. He nodded inwardly; yes, Ghan would deceive him, if he thought he could get away with it. Where would the scholar have led them, if he no longer believed the priesthood to be a threat to Hezhi? Then he would conclude that the only possible threat was from this expedition. But now he had evidence that the priests knew where she was, and that would motivate him to tell at least part of the truth.

“She is among the Mang,” Ghan finally agreed, and Ghe clenched his fists in victory. “That much is true. The priesthood must have been watching me more closely than I thought, must have known when I got word from her.”

“I have seen maps,” Ghe said. “The Mang Wastes are enormous. Knowing she is in them does not narrow our search significantly.”

“Yes,” Ghan said quietly. “But I know where she is to a much finer degree.”

“Must we travel overland? What is our course?”

Ghan sighed and lifted up a tube of bamboo and brass from beside his desk. He pulled a chart from it and spread it across the flat surface.

“Here is Nhol,” he explained, and Ghe recognized the spot easily enough. The River was represented by three waving lines, parallel to one another. Nhol was a drawing of the Water Temple, a stepped pyramid. Ghe felt a bit of familiar anger at that—that the city of the River should be represented by his nemesis.

“These are the wastes,” Ghan went on, gesturing at a vast area that lacked any real detail—save for the figure of a man on horseback, sword raised. The River cut right along the edge of those lands. The other side of the River was labeled “Dehshe,” which Ghe knew to be another barbarian tribe.

“We might as well stay on the River until we reach this point here,” Ghan said, indicating a single waving line that intersected the River.

“What's that?”

“Another, smaller watercourse. It may be that we can take the barge up it some distance. Then we will have to debark and go overland.”

“To where?”

Ghan glanced up at him frankly. “Understand me,” Ghan said. “I think I have little use to you or the emperor other than my knowledge of where Hezhi is. I wish to preserve that usefulness as long as I may. For now, I will say only that you should sail to the mouth of that stream and then up it, if possible.”

Ghe nodded. There was nothing stupid about the old man. Indeed, he reminded Ghe of someone. For an instant, he knew who it was; the old woman on Red Gar Street, whom he had murdered. He felt a sudden flush of emotion at the thought, a shadow of the sadness that overtook him after she died. Why should this old man remind him of her?

They were both old, both ugly, both hard and unforgiving, that was what. Both dangerous, added to the list. But there was something more fundamental he could not remember.

“Well, then,” he said, to interrupt his own thought. “I shall take this news to Bone Eel, unless you wish to advise him yourself.”

“Please.” Ghan snorted. “I have spoken to him once; that shall suffice until such time as I die and he summons my ghost and compels me to speak to him again. I have avoided his sort for many years, and now I am crowded shipboard with one.”

Ghe nodded. “I understand you. The priesthood and engineers are full of his kind. I believe that it is actually Qwen Shen who leads this expedition.”

“Yes, Qwen Shen. Lady Fire, Lady Ice.”

“What?”

“That is the meaning of her name, you idiot,” Ghan said. “Fire, ice.”

“Oh.”

“Go. I have much reading to do.”

“Master Ghan, do you never do other than read?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know that you have never been north of Nhol on the River. And yet, here you sit, closeted away, rather than beholding the world as it unfolds.”

“Yes, well, as of now I can pretend I am not on this mad journey. I can keep my mind on important things. Soon enough—when you have me marching overland on these ancient legs—I will not have that luxury. Besides, what can one see 'unfolding' out there?”

“Well … water and distant levees, I suppose, another boat now and then. I see your point.”

“Indeed. And a person of normal intelligence would have seen my point long ago and thus spared me wind that I cannot afford. I am old; there is not that much left in me.”

“Once again I apologize, Master Ghan, and I will leave you to your work.”

He bowed briefly and exited the room. He went back above and thought that he did not see Ghan's point. As he stepped out onto the polished planks, the world seemed wondrous and entirely new. The sun cast a cheerful yellow light on the world, and clouds meandered good-naturedly across a sky that, like the sun, was as simple and unshaded as the colors in his dreams. Some thirty or so of the soldiers stood along the railings, still in their aquamarine-and-gold kilts and burnished steel armor. His soldiers, really, here because he asked the emperor for them. Men who would fight and die at his command.

Best of all, the enterprise was not the wan hope it had once been. Ghan knew where Hezhi was, knew exactly where she was. Soon he would find her, protect her from her enemies, embrace her once again. He would bring her back to her father—not the poor flesh-and-blood one in the palace, but the one she truly belonged with. She fled him only because she did not understand him, and that because of the priesthood filling her from childhood with the wrong notions, notions that came from that dark place beneath, where a terrible creature masqueraded as Human while toying with the First Emperor on a chain. She had learned to fear the God, equate him with the perversions of the priests—perversions and fears that he himself had once embraced before death awoke him. But the River—the truth of him—was this he saw now, vastness, the sky come to live upon the earth, Ufe, the cycle of rain. Joy. In that instant, he felt his head and his feet as a world apart, and between them crawfish, gar, flatfish, crabs, catfish, eels—all of the living things in the waters, the vast brakes of reed and cane, the thick cypress and mangrove stands of the Swamp Kingdoms. No trace of hunger pained him, and the nightmare verity that he was dead seemed far distant, a misplaced worry. Only one unquiet thought lay in him, and it was annoying because he could not find its heart at all. In it was something of the temple and its weird master, but that was not the seed of his … worry? Fear?

Whatever it was, he would deal with it when it came, and now, for the first time since his rebirth, he felt—bizarrely—almost like singing. He would not let one skewed thought pull him away from this rare sensation. Nor would he sing; that would be too much, and others on the boat would think him addled—but he would watch the River gliding past and worship it, know it for his destiny, and that would be like singing.

IN his cabin, Ghan studied the map carefully, and another that held more detail. He cross-referenced it against the geography he had brought with him.

He trod a tightrope now, with razors on either side. If only he were absolutely certain that the priesthood had not sent a mission. But if they had, it was far ahead of them, and Hezhi and Tsem would have already escaped or been captured.

He did not see how the latter could happen unless the Mang sold her to them, and he could not imagine what a priest might offer or wield that would buy or intimidate the Mang.

His plan was still only half shaped, still coming together. Too much of it hinged upon Yen, who continually surprised him. There was something about Yen he did not understand, a part of the tapestry unwoven or out of sight, at least.

Meanwhile, he had his maps and his geography. He would learn what he could from them.

Thus, as Ghe walked abovedecks, wondering what prickled at his happiness, Ghan turned back to the first map and absently ticked his finger upon the conical drawing of a mountain labeled “She'leng,” whence the wiggly line signifying the River began. It was odd, he thought, how much it resembled the drawing that marked Nhol, half a world away.

XXI The Shadow Man

WAKE up, Perkar opened his eyes to a sky that shuddered and bumped so that he feared the clouds would shake loose from it and fall upon him. In fact, it seemed that some of them already had, for he was soaked to the bone. He raised his hand feebly in a vain attempt to brush the water from his clothing, and the world wobbled even more dangerously.

Someone chattered in a language that he didn't immediately understand—and then recognized as Mang. He jerked up, realizing suddenly how weak his body felt, how limp. His last real memory was of playing Slap with a big Mang warrior—and losing. What had they done with him?

He couldn't sit up, because he was tied down, strapped to a travois.

“Hey!” he tried to roar, but instead issued only a weak cough. Still, someone else heard it, and the scratching progress of the travois suddenly stopped.

A thick, half-Human face blotted the sky, and quick fingers pulled at straps on his chest.

“Ngangata,” Perkar croaked.

“How do you feel?”

“The way I felt after the Huntress was done with me. What happened?”

“Well, that is a very long story, and—”

“Perkar!” A rustling of cloth and soft boots on sand accompanied an excited shout. He turned his head and saw Hezhi scrambling across desert toward him.

“Brother Horse said you would wake up soon! I thought the rain would do it!”

“Hello, Princess. I hope someone can explain something to me soon.”

Thank her for saving your life, Harka muttered in his ear, faintly—as if the sword, too, were ill.

“Saved my life?” Perkar paraphrased. What was going on here? Surely he had broken his neck in the game of Slap and had taken some time to heal. But Hezhi stood wringing her hands, a variety of emotions playing across her face, and Ngangata looked happy, and perhaps surprised—as if neither ever expected to hear him speak again.

“What do you remember?” Hezhi asked, biting her lip.

“Nothing, I only—” But then Hezhi had buried her face in his shoulder, kneeling down to do so.

“I'm glad you're back,” she gasped, and her throat caught once, as if she would cry. Perkar was so startled that he had no reply, and by the time he thought to raise his own arms and return the embrace, she had already pulled away again. Her face was dry, and moreover, she suddenly seemed a bit embarrassed.

Ngangata had finished untying the straps. “Don't try to stand yet,” the Alwa-Man cautioned, but Perkar ignored him, trying to swing his feet around and ending by tumbling into the wet sand. Distant thunder rolled across the hills, probably one of the gods laughing at him.

“Well, alive again,” a gruff voice barked. It was Brother Horse. “Remember what I told you about the Mang being the only race to survive out here, in the time of creation? Remember that next time you think to play one of our games.”

“I will try to remember.”

“I will help,” Ngangata said. “Next time I will remind you by rendering you unconscious. You would suffer less damage that way, you idiot.”

“Nice to be back,” Perkar said, wobbling—-finally—to his feet.

“Stay in the travois a bit longer, until you are stronger,” Brother Horse suggested. “We have to be moving.”

“Why?”

“We are being pursued. We will explain that later, too.”

“I can ride alongside,” Hezhi offered.

“Give me a few moments to think,” Perkar said, “to speak with Harka. Then tell me.” He lay back into the rough construetion of hide and poles, then bolted back up as a sudden thought occurred to him.

“Sharp Tiger? Did you think to bring Sharp Tiger?”

Ngangata gestured with the back of his hand. “There he is. Now lie back.”

Perkar strained his neck to follow Ngangata's gesture, but he could see Sharp Tiger there, staring at him with what was probably horse-ish disdain.

He lay back and soon the sky began to rattle again. A gray cloud was winging over, and against it the tiny but brilliant form of some sort of bird—perhaps a crane.

“You seem to know what has happened to me, Harka.”

“Indeed, what has not happened to you? At some points I was nearly as ill as you, so my own memones are shaky through some of it. ”

“You were ill? What does that mean?”

“Our heartstrings are paired. Anything that brings you close enough to death weakens me, as well. ”

“But if I died, you would be set free.”

“Normally. Not in this instance, however. ”

Perkar shook his head in amazement. “Impossible for me to believe any of this. Tell me all, then, Harka. And tell me why I have Hezhi to thank for my life.”

Harka told him then, and afterward, Hezhi rode alongside to explain the occurrences in the world outside of his body. The fight, their flight from the Mang village, the battle of spirits for his life, the pursuit that they could see in the distance. Through all of this, Perkar felt steadily stronger. Without a supernatural entity to battle, Harka was healing him at the usual rapid pace. By the end of her story, Perkar was ready to try riding.

“Good,” Hezhi said. “Ngangata says we will be harder to track without the travois.”

“Probably. A travois leaves pretty deep and unmistakable prints. Even a hard rain might leave traces. How hard did it rain?”

“Not hard enough.”

The party regarded him silently, nervously, as he placed one boot into T'esh's stirrup and then heaved his belly onto the stallion's back. Grunting, he pulled his other leg over.

They resumed, and though he felt faintly dizzy and still very weak, Perkar was able to stay in the saddle for the rest of the day, refining his questions as they went along.

THAT afternoon they entered a hillier country, and their path tended generally to be upward as the land itself rose away from the lower steppe. In the distance, the mountains ceased to be faint purple clouds and had become worlds unto themselves, with forests, deserts, snowfields—close, it seemed, yet still far away and above them, it made Perkar feel easier, more at home, and a sudden realization struck him.

“Hezhi, where are we going? Other than fleeing from pursuit?”

“We are going to the mountain,” she stated, simply.

“The mountain.” There it was, lurking. He had been so concerned with the events during his days of forgetfulness that he had not put the days before it into perspective. Though he had not forgotten it, he had delayed thinking about his meeting with Karak—or the Blackgod, or whatever the fickle deity insisted on being called. Karak had told him to make certain that Hezhi reached the mountain.

“Why? Who made that decision?” he asked.

Hezhi pursed her lips. “You don't remember telling me to go there?”

“No.”

“Was it just your madness then? Did the Raven not instruct you to escort me to the mountain?”

Perkar felt a wave of irritation. “Did Ngangata tell you that?”

Hezhi frowned further, and her voice frosted a bit. “No. He told me that you spoke with the Blackgod, but he knew little of the substance of what you said to each other.”

Perkar took a deep breath, using it to cool his growing angst. What was upsetting him? “I'm sorry, Hezhi,” he said. “What I told you—though I don't remember telling it—is true. Karak says we are to go to the mountain in the heart of Balat.”

“He told me the same thing.”

“You spoke with Karak? Where?”

Hezhi couldn't suppress a grin when she answered.

“Another story I need to hear,” Perkar said, dazed. He felt as if he had awakened sliding down the slick side of a mountain of ice with only one foot under him. After the meeting with Karak, he thought he knew what to do, but the world had moved on without him as he lay among the dead.

“After,” Hezhi insisted a bit forcefully. “First you tell me: why must we go to the mountain?”

If she had spoken to Karak, why hadn't the Crow God told her that! Perkar brushed at T'esh's mane thoughtfully. She deserved to know. Particularly she deserved to know after saving his life from the Breath Feasting. But his people—possibly his father and his brother—were dead and dying. It was his fault, and he must weigh that into all of his decisions. Piraku insisted that he put the higher cause first. At least, he thought it did.

“Karak was vague,” Perkar answered carefully. “But he said that if we went to the mountain, to the very headwaters of the River, we could slay him.”

“Slay him? Slay the River?” Hezhi's voice was thick with incredulity. “Haven't you already stumbled drunkenly down that path? Haven't I heard this story?”

“It sounds insane,” Perkar admitted. “I abandoned that ambition long ago. But Karak—Karak tells me we can do it, and moreover that we must? That you can do it, he thought guiltily. But she had to be convinced a bit at a time.

“And Karak is trustworthy?” Hezhi asked.

“No, but Karak is a god of the same sort as the River, one of the ancient gods who created the world. And he has no love for the River—”

“You used to scoff at that. When you tried to explain about all of the gods out here, you were skeptical of their claims.”

“I am less skeptical now,” Perkar admitted. Deep down, he knew that he was overstating the case. He still doubted Karak rather deeply, but he believed his assertion that they could slay the River. He believed it because of Hezhi and the power he had seen her gathering about her, back at Nhol.

“I will not go near the River, Perkar,” Hezhi insisted quietly.

“It may not be necessary that you go,” Perkar lied. ”But please, hear me out. I don't know the entirety of Karak's plan. It may be that it will make more sense as we near the mountain. It will be a long journey, and Karak promised to leave signs. In the meantime, where else should we go?”

“He told me, too,” Hezhi muttered. “He told me to go there.” ”Tell me of that. Of your conversation with the Crow God.

Perhaps we can piece more together from both stories than from

either.”

HEZHI agreed, and told of her improbable journey. In telling it, she realized how ridiculous it sounded and for the first time really began to doubt the truth of it. It might, she realized, have been some sort of vivid dream.

Save for the goddess living in her chest. She could hardly doubt that anymore.

Perkar's recovery had loosened some of the despair in her heart, and with a little time she thought she might cough some of it up and spit it out. She understood that much of her depression came from powerlessness, from being swept along by events, with no part in shaping her own fate. The reality of her new powers cast all of that in a different light. That new light filtered through a shattered crystal, producing more than one image and color—she was in many ways as terrified of what she had done as she was elated. But she remained herself and yet wielded power—in the end, the direction of the journey had been her decision, and that felt good. The power she had been offered before—the power of the River—would have been immeasurably greater, but such puissance would mean the end of her, Hezhi. She understood now that though the world of the “lake” was strange and terrifying—still, the spirit that moved there was her own. The Mountain Gods had trapped her, they would have killed her—but even they had no wish to transform her.

Brother Horse, Ngangata, Yuu'han, and Raincaster all looked at her with more respect now, she was certain of that. And Perkar was back, alive, and best of all, she had played a major role in saving him. Now perhaps the debt he pretended she did not owe him would be mitigated, at least somewhat. Perhaps without that between them, they could really become friends. When he understood her part in saving him—and she thought she had minimized her role—he had thanked her, humbly and sincerely. She captured that moment like a butterfly, enjoying the motion of its wings while it lived. Knowing Perkar, she thought a bit sourly, it was not likely to live long. He was too preoccupied with his own worries, his own guilt—what, together, he called “destiny.”

Did he really believe he could slay the god of the River, merely because some self-styled Crow God told him so? Well, perhaps it was true. Perhaps that was the only way she could ever be truly safe from the River God. But she knew his power, knew it the way a child knows the fists of a father who beats her, and she did not believe he could die. If there was anything in the universe that was eternal, it was the River.

But perhaps nothing in the universe was eternal. She had read cogent arguments in several books to that effect.

For the moment, it seemed reasonable—insomuch as anything seemed reasonable—to pursue the course that, after all, she had chosen: to go on to She'leng. But unless she learned much about this plan of the Blackgod, particularly its execution and its likely aftereffects, she would not actually commit to approaching the source. The scale upon her arm told her just how dangerous that could be.

Perhaps her new gaan powers could help, however. She would have to ask Brother Horse, then consider all of the information available.

That night they had no choice but to sleep in the open, so they camped in the lowest spot they could find and ranged the horses about so that they might serve as sentinels. There was no sunset, for the sky had gone leaden, and the day faded pitifully away. Hezhi felt cheated; each sunset and sunrise usually seemed more spectacular than the last in the Mang Wastes, as if there must be some compensation for the lack of splendid palaces, gold filigree, and books.

As she closed her eyes, she wondered what Ghan was doing right then. She speculated, briefly, whether she could send her spirit abroad to Nhol, but the answer to that seemed obvious. If she went near him—or sent the Horse—they would be eaten. Brother Horse had done nothing in the lands of the River but watch, with his vision, if she remembered his story. He had never loosed his wolf or sent his senses out. She added that to her list of things to ask him about.

But she could picture Ghan, bent over a book by flickering lamplight, tracing the sublime curves of the ancient hand, certain of each stroke. She missed him.

I shall have to write him another letter soon. Though, of course, she had never managed to send the last. In fact, she realized with considerable chagrin, the earlier one was still in the yekt at the Mang camp.

Mentally composing its replacement, she drifted into sleep.

IN her sleep came a hurricane. Wind shrieked across a darkling plain, the colors of which were indigo, black, and beetle green. Rainbow lightning brightened the sky so that it resembled the stained glass Hall of Moments, back in the palace, save that here the glass shattered and re-formed in every instant. Images formed and faded in the trails the light burned on her eyes.

She did not stand but sat a horse, and she understood that it was her mare, her spirit. Dust devils birthed and died about them, danced like the ladies of the court, stunned into a simulacrum of carefree behavior by Nende'ng and wine, seeking only the sensation of movement and the promise of oblivion.

Across the vast courtyard—for such it was, she understood suddenly—a shadow man came walking. She saw him enter from a hall on the horizon, as tall as the great Water Temple, stalking toward her, lightning pattering upon his head and shoulders like fiery rain. From most of these obvious attacks he did not flinch, and she watched him approach in growing terror that even the nature of the otherworld could not entirely suppress. Beneath her, the mare whickered, stamped, and rolled her eyes. Hooves rang like bells on the polished marble.

Suddenly the sky sleeted white, however, a bright, furious light that blinded her, stilled the wind, and rocked the earth the mare stood upon. When the blaze faded, she saw only the giant's court, darker than before. The hulking shadow giant was gone. Above, she thought she saw vast wings vanish amongst the lofty unlit regions of the roof-sky.

“I had hoped to impress you,” a voice sighed from nearby, breaking the new stillness. “Now I am fortunate merely to be alive.”

She peered toward the voice. It was Shadow Man, but grown much smaller. Smaller than she, even, and curled into a ball like a fist.

“Who are you?”

“I am the gaan, the one who sent Moss and Chuuzek to find you.”

Hezhi opened her mouth to speak, but he quickly went on.

“I know you have been told I am your enemy. I know it must seem that way to you. But you have many enemies, Hezhi, and only a few who love you.”

“You do not love me,” Hezhi snapped scornfully.

“No. But I know who does. I know he is coming. I can take you to him.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Your old teacher, Ghan.” The shadow paused and clucked. “Gaan—Ghan. Have you ever noticed that?”

“Ghan is in Nhol,” she snapped, ignoring his linguistic observation. “I can never go there again.”

“Both of those statements are untrue,” the Shadow Man contradicted. “They are both lies, though you know not why you tell them. Ghan is coming here. Your father has sent him to make you understand.”

“Ghan sent me from Nhol in the first place,” Hezhi whispered, feehng as if she would fall from the mare. “He would not come to get me back.”

“I know what I know. Even Ghan can come to understand he was wrong. Hezhi, listen to me. Before, the River—your ancestor—was asleep. I do not know what transpired between you, exactly, but I know that it frightened you. Imagine him as a great creature, who, while asleep, did not recognize even his own daughter. In that state, he may have frightened you, and you would have been right to worry, perhaps even to flee him. But he knows you now. He feels remorse. Hezhi, you are the most important child he has ever produced. Karak knows that, that's why he plots with Perkar. Karak and Perkar will do you harm, Princess, though I cannot see of what sort.”

“Perkar is my friend.”

“Oh, no, Princess, he is not. Neither is the Blackgod. It was he who attacked me just now.”

“So you say. And even if he did, that would only mean he was helping me. Before you were a monster filling the horizon. Now you are a somewhat pitiful thing.”

“As I said before, I only endeavored to impress you. Even the greatest gaan is no match for a god like Karak, and Karak and all his brethren are no match for the Changeling. You are the Changeling's daughter, Hezhi, and they are no match for you, either, not if you don't want them to be. This tinkering about with little spirits and little victories—that is what I do, what I am capable of. You are destined to change the face of the world, not dirty yourself with such paltry forces.”

“What do you propose I do?” Hezhi snapped, making no effort to hide her irritation.

“Separate yourself from those you ride with. Find Moss and Chuuzek, who follow you. They will take you to Ghan. He will explain to your satisfaction the rest.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Listen to me,” the shadow hissed, rising up, growing to Human size as it did so.

Hezhi clapped the flanks of her mount, and the mare leapt forward, hooves flashing. Shadow Man leapt back, kept leaping back, growing more distant in a series of bounds that eventually carried him beyond the horizon and out of the hall. His voice, however, stayed near.

“You must learn who your friends really are. You have been mistaken about such things before,” he said. “Watch Perkar. Especially watch the Crow God.”

Then the plain went dark, as if it were a room in which all of the candles had been blown out. Real sleep swallowed her up, and no more dreams came until dawn.

PERKAR sat gazing at the fire, knowing he should feel elated, wondering why he did not. He felt weary—unbelievably weary, considering that he had only been awake for half a day at best—and yet the thought of sleep unaccountably sickened him.

“They say there is a man at this fire in need of some wine,” a soft voice asserted from just behind him. It was Raincaster, returned from rubbing down the horses for the night. Yuu'han was only a score of steps behind him, bearing a wineskin.

“I should have helped you with the horses,” Perkar murmured. “I feel well enough.”

“You don't look well enough,” Raincaster said. ”And it insults a horse to treat her halfheartedly.”

“I would not have been half—”

“Raincaster meant no insult,” Yuu'han intervened. “You are not as strong yet as you would like to think, that is all. Have some wine.” He proffered the skin.

Perkar sighed. “Very well. I'm sorry, Raincaster.”

Raincaster wiped his forehead, a Mang gesture that dismissed all blame. “You have been fighting for your life against demons,” he reminded everyone. “No reason to think such an experience would sweeten your mood.”

Perkar returned the smile, though he did not feel like doing so. He liked Raincaster. He liked Yuu'han, as well, but with Yuu'han there was always the sense that his cordiality to Perkar arose out of duty—duty to Brother Horse and the responsibilities of hospitality. Raincaster seemed to genuinely like him—and to have an interest in the ways of the Cattle People. “Perhaps I do need some wine,” he said, by way of further, though indirect, apology. Perkar accepted the proffered skin, tilting it back and catching a mouthful of its contents—though with some misgivings. He quickly discovered his misgivings were justified; the wine was kbena, a strong drink made from some sort of desert plant, sweet and tainted by an unpleasant aftertaste that reminded Perkar of rotten pears. It was certainly nothing at all like woti, the prized drink of warriors in his home country—save that it did warm his belly. He also knew from experience that the first mouthful was the worst, and so quickly swallowed another before passing the skin on to Raincaster. The three of them drank in silence for a while, watching the Fire Goddess consume withered juniper scraps. The night sky lay heavy above, revealing no light.

Perkar quickly realized that he did not want to get drunk any more than he wanted to sleep. The fifth time the skin came around, he shook his head and passed it on. Yuu'han shrugged and took a long draft.

The wine stirred something in Perkar, something he might ordinarily not have brought up.

“I know it was hard for you,” he mumbled, addressing both of the Mang.

Yuu'han nodded, understanding him and already accepting the implied thanks, but Raincaster's expression demanded that Perkar express himself more fully.

“To leave your kin to help us. With the war and everything.” Even a mere five drinks of the potent kbena was enough to thicken his tongue and make him feel more stupid than usual. He wished for eloquence rather than the gruff, clumsy, apologetic statement he had just uttered—but, as usual, it was too late to correct.

Raincaster shrugged, apprehending the spirit of the comment. “Our uncle is right, and the others are wrong. Anyway, I've never cared much for those Four Spruces People. They've always had delusions of grandeur.”

Yuu'han's somewhat bleak expression softened at that. “Remember Mane Gatherer?” he said.

“I've heard the story,” Raincaster replied.

I haven't.”

“Mane Gatherer told us the sun had spoken to him. He wanted us all to band up behind him and invade the Southlands—conquer Nhol, the Fisherfolk, the whole world, he said.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.” Yuu'han gulped down another mouthful. “He said it was the destiny of the Mang to rule the cities.”

“What happened?”

Yuu'han cracked a cryptic grin. “You've seen a city. Would you want to try to rule one?”

Perkar stared at the two Mang for only an instant, considering, before swearing, “No. By the gods, no.”

Raincaster clapped his cousin on the shoulder. “Our reaction exactly,” he proclaimed.

NOT much later, Yuu'han took the watch and Raincaster retired. Two tents had been erected: one for Tsem, Brother Horse, Heen, and Hezhi, the second for the two younger Mang, Ngangata, and Perkar. Perkar sought his blanket near Raincaster, after making Yuu'han promise that Raincaster—who had the next watch—would wake him for the last, or dawn, quarter. He could tell by Yuu'nan's answer that he would not be trusted to stand watch, not in his present condition.

He lay awake long, unable to understand what was growing in him, gnawing at him. He dozed fitfully once and awoke sweating, heart pounding. Raincaster was gone, Yuu'han in his place. Ngangata was curled in his blanket, snoring faintly. The brief nap had not rested Perkar in the least, but it had tightened something in his mind, so that he knew what dark disquiet had replaced the demon Hezhi and Brother Horse had driven from him. It gathered itself together and shouted him its name.

Fear.

A mere spark before, it had caught in him now and burned furiously. In the past year, he had seen more bloodshed than he dreamed possible. He had murdered and fought fairly. More to the point, he had been disemboweled, been lanced through the throat, and stabbed numerous times—once through the heart. He still dreamed of each of those wounds; the pain of each was written clearly on his body and in his mind. When he thought about it much, it revolted him. Despite all of that, still he had developed the illusion that he was invulnerable, unstoppable, because keeping grasp of that belief was the only thing that kept all of his terrors at bay. When he was a child lying in bed with the terrible nighttime understanding that death would claim him one day, he had faced that by pushing it away, insisting that it was many, many years before he would have to face such an unfair reality. The child in him had used Harka to do that again, to place death in a far-off place and time he need not think about.

But now he had experienced the pain of death several times over and no small taste of her oblivion. He owed his beating heart to Harka, but now he understood that even Harka could not protect him. Not against Karak, who had brushed him aside as if he were a child—not against Chuuzek, either, who had flicked him almost casually from his saddle.

He did not consciously remember the past several days, but something in him did. He felt as if he had been lying in a grave with spiders crawling in and out of his mouth, with worms chewing at his eyes. A simple warrior—a boy—was not fit to deal with such things. He was in a struggle meant for shamans, wizards, and godlings. Useless, even if he had his heart, whole and full of bravery, but his heart was not whole; it was deeply scarred, and not just metaphorically. Now … Now what he wanted most to do was ride away, leave Hezhi and Ngangata and all of his responsibilities, and hide—hide from gods, from wars, from the sky itself.

HEZHI awoke with the dawn. Ngangata was cursing and saddling his horse, as were all three Mang.

“Stupid. I should have watched him. We should never … whose watch was it?”

“Mine,” Raincaster answered, voice carefully neutral. “He said that he was going back a bit, to see where our pursuit was when the sun rose.”

“I'm sure,” Ngangata snarled. Hezhi sat up, fully alarmed now.

“What's happening?”

“Perkar,” Tsem told her. “He's gone.”

XXII The Dreamsnare

GHE felt a flash of pain and smelled life leaking into the air. He turned, puzzled, to see that one of the soldiers had thrust an arrow into his own eye and was working it deeper even as Ghe watched.

No. He had been shot in the eye and was merely grasping at the shaft as he died. Even as Ghe realized that, two more soldiers swore at arrows sprouting in the deck next to them.

The mist had hidden them, but now Ghe could see a half-dozen canoes ranged upstream on the River. All were converging on the barge furiously, each paddled by ten or fifteen barbarians.

The soldiers knew their jobs and did not remain surprised for more than an instant or two. Within heartbeats, twenty of them were at the bow, a wall of spears and swords, bows twanging behind them. Three men loaded and cranked the catapult. Ghe was just wondering what he should do when his better-than-Human ears detected a clamor aft. Grimly he raced toward the rear of the boat, springing up upon the cabin roofs and crossing them in great strides.

A boatload of the barbarians swarmed over the brass railing onto the afterdeck; three Nholish soldiers lay beneath their feet, pumping red life onto the planks. Other than barbarians and dead men, there was none to witness Ghe snarl and leap from the roof; two of the invaders managed to shoot him before he was amongst them, but neither shaft gave him pause. He was a panther among dogs.

The trip up-River had lulled them all. The people in the villages nearest Nhol had been coolly cooperative when they docked for supplies, but the farther away they voyaged from the great city, the more eager were people to see them. At Wun, the governor had thrown them a magnificent banquet, and though Bone Eel seemed bored by it—it was perhaps not sufficient for his jaded standards—Ghe thought it a grand show of hospitality, as did the soldiers. That had been a day ago. The governor had warned them that the Dehshe tribes on the east bank of the River were troublesome, but Ghe had gathered that most real attacks were on the outposts farther south and east.

But here they were. The impact of his body hurled several of them back, and then he was amongst them, carving at their hearts and lungs with the icicle point of his knife. He used the blade for two reasons. The first was that the soldiers on board the ship did not know his nature, and he did not want them to know. Let them think him a superb fighter—which, in fact, he was and could easily demonstrate. A more salient justification was that he enjoyed the feel of his blade in flesh, the exquisite geometry of cut-and-thrust, and though he could draw their lives from them more easily than he could stab them to death, the latter gave him greater pleasure. It recalled the joy of learning the ways of the Jik, and with that memory came a vague inkling of why he had ever been loyal to the priesthood, though they were so clearly monstrous. They gave him a thing of beauty; the discipline to kill with elegance, with art.

Of course, he did have the unfair advantage of already being dead. His wounds closed almost as quickly as his enemies made them, for this near the River, the flow of energy through his body was continuous.

He shattered an instep with a staccato stamp of his foot, plunged his blade through the gaping mouth of the ankle's owner, spun to parry—again, more for pleasure than anything else—a descending blade.

A flash of metal from his blind spot, and suddenly steel bit into his neck. His neck.

Ghe's shriek turned gurgle as his head flopped onto one shoulder. The blade had cut almost halfway through. He felt, rather than saw, the enemy arm cock back for a second blow.

Ghe blew the rest of the barbarians out like candles, reaching frantically for his head. It was already straightening, a weird, familiar tingling setting in. Ghe bit down on another shriek when the halves of his windpipe knitted back; then he nearly collapsed in a fit of trembling. He saw again the face of Hezhi's white barbarian, the demon, cleaving his head off, his life, his remembrance, blowing away on dark winds. Sagging against the rail, he shook like an ancient, palsied man.

And then his heart exploded. It was more reflex and gravity than design that toppled him from the barge and into the furrow of water behind it. Li, think kindly of my ghost, he thought, for the second time in two lives.

GHAN heard the sudden explosion of shouts, the twang of bows. He put his writing brush down carefully and approached the door to his cabin. He latched it. It was clear enough to him that the barge was under attack or that some sort of dispute involving most of the crew was coming to a violent resolution. He suspected the former rather than the latter. Though Bone Eel commanded no real respect from the men—he was such a fool—no one seriously questioned his station. And Qwen Shen did a fine job of seeing that he made the correct decisions, anyway, and so kept the men on his side. These were also imperial elite troops, not likely to mutiny under any circumstances—and thus far the voyage had been rather pleasant. Surprisingly so.

So they were likely being attacked, and likely by Dehshe barbarians—though also he considered that it could be the doing of the governor at Wun. The man, while affable enough on the surface, had a devious countenance when he thought no one was looking, and he seemed more than passing curious about the barge and its purpose. He had certainly not believed their stated reason for going up-River, which from the lips of Bone Eel amounted to no reason at all. What if the governor were in league with the barbarians, hoping to set Wun up as some sort of independent state? Ghan was familiar enough with the history of Nhol and other empires to understand that when an empire was weak—as Nhol was now—such things tended to happen. Or perhaps it was even simpler than that; perhaps the governor had turned pirate.

Ghan heard the clatter of a door opening and footsteps outside his door. Crouching slowly, so as to make as little sound as possible, he crouched to peer through the keyhole. He saw a figure just crossing from the sunlit hall into the shadow by the door that opened onto the narrow rear deck. That door suddenly swung wide, and a blaze of light flooded through, burned the person into a black silhouette bearing the arcing sliver of a bow in his hand. Through the door, Ghan could just make out another figure on the sunlit deck, leaning heavily against the rail. He thought it was Yen but could not be certain. The first figure raised his bow and fired. Yen—if it was Yen—tumbled over the rail.

The bowman stepped out onto the deck.

In the sunlight, Ghan could see that the man was not a barbarian or one of the governor's troops; he was one of the emperor's elite soldiers. Ghan had seen him several times standing watch. His scalp prickled. What was going on? He suddenly reassessed the possibility of mutiny and stepped gently back from the keyhole, realizing that he was holding his breath.

There came the sound of the outer door closing, then more footsteps, approaching his room. There they paused, and the door strained slightly against the latch.

By now Ghan was sitting on his bed. He looked up at the ceiling, an exaggerated expression of concern on his face. If the assassin looked through his keyhole, he did not want to be seen studying the door. Rather let him think him an old man, cowering until the battle was over.

Which, of course, was exactly what he was.

The footsteps went on. He heard the door to the main deck open. By then, the clamor of battle seemed to have mostly ceased. He heard soldiers barking orders, but no more frantic shouting or screams of pain.

Ghan's hands were shaking a few moments later when he screwed up the courage to open his door. There was no one in sight, but he could hear several soldiers talking on the rear deck. They must have catwalked around the side of the cabins or across the roof; Ghan had heard much trampling up there since the fighting began.

As he opened the portal, the entrance to the outer deck swung wide, as well, and for a terrible instant, Ghan thought it was the killer. But, though it was a soldier, it was certainly not the same man.

“Are you all right?” the man asked hurriedly. “Did any of them get in here?”

“No,” Ghan replied. “Any of whom!”

“Barbarians, either Dehshe or Mang. I don't know the difference.”

“Are they gone?”

“Yes, or dead.” The man smiled a bit wolfishly. “Took on more than they bargained for, I'd say.”

Ghan nodded absently. The soldier moved around the cabins, the rest of which were empty. Ghan followed him onto the rear deck.

“Great River, what happened back here?” the soldier muttered.

Ghan counted eleven dead men. Three were soldiers, but the rest were barbarians of some sort, dark-skinned, clad in rude leather and felts. He thought that the thick, lacquered wood and leather jackets they wore were probably intended to be armor. Most of them were heavily tattooed with blue unes and circles.

“Dehshe, I think,” he told the soldier. “I've read that they tattoo their faces—and that the Mang don't.”

“Well, Dehshe or Mang, they're as dead as dogmeat,” the soldier observed unnecessarily. He rolled one over. “This one's not even cut.” The corpse in question stared at Ghan with vast surprise and horror.

Ghan realized that he was going to be sick an instant before he actually was, and so he made it to the rail in time not to add more noisome fluids than blood to the deck. The soldier, probably embarrassed for him, left. The other three, having completed their inspection, moved on, too, leaving him mercifully alone. After he was done heaving, Ghan stayed crumpled on his knees, unwilling to turn back to the corpses, afraid that he would choke out his very stomach if he did. His chest ached from the unusual action of die muscles there, and he took deep breaths, hoping thus to soothe himself. Watching the boiling gash of wake, he tried to pretend that the whole nightmare would be over soon.

Though, of course, he knew it was just beginning.

It was as he rose to leave that he saw a hand emerge from the water and reach weakly for the barge. It clawed at the side, failed to find purchase, and fell away again. Ghan furrowed his brow; a mooring rope lay no more than an armspan from him, already knotted through an eye on deck. But was this friend or foe? As if he had any friends on this ship. Fingers showed again, grasping more weakly.

Ghan fumbled for the heavy rope. A corpse lay half upon it, and he had to shove the still-warm body aside. He pushed the coil beneath the rail, and it unspooled into the River with a muted splash. Ghan then picked up one of the fallen swords, thinking that if the man in the water were an enemy, he would merely sever the rope. He realized—too late—that the sword was so heavy, he might have real trouble doing that.

It was the first time he had ever held a sword in his life.

The rope tightened. A face emerged from the water, and Ghan let the blade relax when he saw it was Yen. The boy had an expression of dumbfounded pain on his face. He looked up vaguely at Ghan.

“Li … ?” he gasped. It was both a question and an imprecation.

“Come on, boy,” Ghan urged. “I don't have the strength to help you. But you've done the hardest part.” He remembered the archer, certain now that it was Yen who had been shot. He felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach as he realized that this was probably all for nothing, that the young man would die regardless. How had he kept up with the barge?

Yen managed to pull himself to the rail, and Ghan took hold of the man's shirt and leaned back, felt how appallingly weak his grip was. He was not certain that this helped in the slightest, but the younger man flopped up, under the lowest rail, and dragged himself stubbornly onto the deck. Ghan could see the arrow wound now, though the arrow itself was gone. It oozed blood, or some fluid that resembled blood but was darker. He darted his head about, but there was no one aft.

“Come on. Can you walk? We have to get you to my cabin.” Because the assassin was somewhere on the ship and, when he learned that his job was not complete, would probably wish to finish what he began.

Yen managed to get to his knees and, by clawing at Ghan's proffered shoulder, to his feet, though he leaned rather heavily. Puffing, Ghan steered him toward the open door of his cabin. He tried to lower him to the floor gently, but the result was that both of them collapsed. Ghan fell awkwardly, his hip slapping painfully against the hardwood floor. The hurt was mind-numbing, and for an instant he believed that he had cracked the bone.

Outside, he heard several men enter the corridor between cabins. Groaning, he disentangled himself from Yen, crawled on all fours toward the door, and pushed it closed before anyone could come in sight. Then, back to the door, tears of pain in his eyes, he waited for the inevitable shove against it. What story would he tell? He tried to think; the pain was subsiding to a warm numbness. No one tried his door.

Yen, for his part, coughed. A few flecks of blood came up, and Ghan knew that to be a bad sign. It was thus strange when the boy rose unsteadily to his feet, went to the door, and latched it. When he looked down at Ghan, this time, there was a sharp sense of recognition, and something unreadable flashed across his face.

“No,” Yen muttered—clearly to himself. “No, I won't.”

For the first time, Ghan stopped to wonder why he had rescued Yen at all, despite his basic distrust of the man. But the boy was the only one on the barge he really knew. And Hezhi liked him, which surely meant something.

Yen reached down for him and lifted him off the floor as if he weighed no more than a feather, cradling him like a baby. Ghan tried to protest, but the pain and his exertions had left him without a voice. The bed was soft, wonderful, when Yen laid him in it.

“Thanks,” he managed to breathe.

“No, thank you,” Yen answered. “I … may I stay in your cabin for a time?”

“I think you should,” Ghan replied. “Someone up there is trying to kill you.”

Yen raised an eyebrow. “You know who it is?”

“I saw him. I don't know his name.”

“Really? That's good. That you saw him, I mean.” He sat down and drew his knees up to his chest. His breathing seemed to have evened out.

“It might be Li, I suppose,” Ghan offered.

Yen looked startled—no, he was shocked. “What? Why do you say that?”

“It's the first thing you said, when you came up out of the water.”

“Oh. No, I… Li was someone I used to know, when I was a boy. I thought you were her for a moment.”

“She must have been hideously ugly,” Ghan remarked.

Yen chuckled. “Most found her so,” he said, “though I did not. Funny.” He looked at Ghan with clear eyes. “I believed I had forgotten her. And yet there she is.”

“Memory is strange,” Ghan said. “There are moments from my boyhood sixty years ago that I recall more vividly than yesterday. As you grow older, you become accustomed to that.”

“There is no 'older' for me,” Yen mumbled, and Ghan caught the glitter of tears in the dim lantern light.

Ghan swung his legs toward the edge of the bed, still worried about the ache in his hip, but certain he could walk now.

“I'll find Lady Qwen Shen. There must be someone on board who has medical knowledge.”

Yen shook his head vigorously. “No, let it be. I'm growing stronger each moment.”

“Let me see your wound, then.”

“You won't see much.”

“What do you mean?” But Ghan felt a sharp jab of premonition. It turned into a pain in the center of his chest, and he clutched at it, astonished by the sudden force beneath his sternum. The room shuddered. Somewhere, inside the maelstrom of pain and fear, he knew he was about to die.

But then Yen quietly said “No,” as he had before, and the ball of pain in his chest was released. A sweet breath surged into his lungs, and another.

“I'm sorry,” Yen said. “You didn't deserve that. I—”

“What are you jabbering about?“ Ghan snarled, pain and relief suddenly churning into anger.

“Listen to me, Ghan. I wasn't lying when I said you and I were Hezhi's only hope. We are, and that is more certain to me now than ever. The emperor gave this expedition into my hands, do you understand? Not Bone Eel's.”

“Yes, yes. That much is clear. You and Qwen Shen control this expedition.”

Yen nodded grimly. “So I am betrayed by the emperor or more likely the priesthood. Possibly both.”

“I don't understand.”

Yen sighed. “I'm not certain I do, either. Have you explained to anyone else about our destination? Does anyone else but myself know even generally where we are bound?”

“The Lady Qwen Shen knows as much as you do. No one knows more.”

“Then they must feel certain they can get the information from you. They don't want to risk me because they can't control me.”

Ghan realized that Yen no longer seemed as if he was in pain at all. He had risen, begun pacing furiously about the cabin, though he kept his voice low, raspy.

“I saw your wound,” Ghan said, articulating each word with great care.

“You are the greatest scholar I know,” Yen said. He stopped pacing, and Ghan could see that his face was nearly drained of color. “Probably the greatest scholar in Nhol. And so you must tell me what I am, Ghan.” He reached to his throat and unbraided the silly-looking scarf he always wore, let it drift to the deck. Ghan stared, frowning for an instant, before what he saw made itself understood. Yen turned slowly, to help him.

Another shudder touched his chest, just a light caress, but Ghan thought he knew now where the pain came from, what it threatened.

“L-let me think,” he gasped, stammering for the first time since his eleventh birthday, eyes fixed on the impossible scar.

“Take your time,” Yen said.

THERE was a rap at the door. Ghan, deep in furious thought, looked up at Yen. Yen placidly replaced the scarf on his horribly scarred neck and went to the door.

Their visitor was Bone Eel, dressed handsomely in blue turban and matching robe. Ghan caught the gleam of steel beneath the robe, however. Bone Eel had apparently been moved to don a cuirass, at least.

“Ah, there you both are,” he said, sounding delighted. ”I only wanted to make certain you had both weathered our recent bit of trouble. Very exciting, wouldn't you say?”

“Oh, indeed,” Yen answered.

“Master Yen, your clothes are wet.”

“True. Unfortunately, as I rushed to defend the barge, I stumbled and fell overboard.”

“No! That's dreadful.”

“It was. Happily, one of the mooring lines hadn't been tied up properly, and I managed to get hold of it. Otherwise, the boat might have left me behind with those barbarians.”

Bone Eel smiled happily. “There wouldn't have been many to bother about, I assure you. We killed most of them, I'm happy to report, and the others will think long and hard about ever attacking an imperial vessel again.”

“That's good to hear.”

“Master Ghan? All is well with you?”

Ghan tried to focus his thoughts on the lord's demented patter. It was difficult. It was very much like sitting near a fantastically poisonous viper; the viper had struck, playfully, once, just to show him its speed, leaving him to wonder whether the viper would strike him, or Bone Eel—or not at all.

“Well enough,” Ghan tried to snap. “Though I would be better—far better—if I had never been included in this ridiculous mission.” His tension loosened, just a bit, as he warmed to playing himself. ”I think your charter has been well satisfied. We have sailed to Wun and 'points beyond,' and I think it's time we pointed the nose of this scow back down-River, to civilization.”

“Now, Master Ghan,” Bone Eel soothed. “One day up-River of Wun is hardly 'points beyond.' I think young Yen here would agree with that.”

“I do,” Yen confirmed.

“I never asked to be included on this trip, however,” Ghan acidly retorted. ”If I had—”

“Master Ghan, I've heard this objection from you before, several times, and I say what I said then. It is the emperor's wish that you chronicle this voyage, and so chronicle it you will. Now, I'm sorry for all of this unpleasantness, but the barge was never in any serious danger. We repelled all boarders and lost only seven men in doing so. Those are remarkably small losses, as I'm sure you know. Now, I must see to things, and knowing you are well, I do so without concerns for your health.” He made as if to leave and then stuck his head back in and said, “Try to be more cheerful, Master Ghan. It is good for digestion.” Then the noble left, closing the door behind him.

“Yes,” Yen repeated. “Try to be more cheerful.”

Ghan turned to face him. His speech about going back was contrived, but the outrage he had discovered was real. “You ask me what you are? Don't you know?”

Yen's show of tears was over; his face was placid, his eyes frozen jewels. But though his lips formed a faint smirk, Ghan thought they lay there uneasily. He had a brief ridiculous thought that Yen had pressed them into shape with his fingers while Ghan's own attention was on Bone Eel. In any event, Yen did not answer except to gesture with his hand for Ghan to go on.

Ghan shook his head stubbornly. “No. You can kill me if you wish—that much is clear to me—”

“I can do far worse than kill you,” Yen interposed, sending a chill down the knotted bone of the old man's back.

Ghan drew on all of his obstinance to continue. “But if you want my help, you must help me. What do you think you are?”

Yen stared at him poisonously for a moment, and Ghan wondered how this could be the same boy who had seemed so grateful a moment ago, who had so thoroughly charmed Hezhi a year before. But, of course, they probably were not the same.

“Very well,” Yen snapped. “I call myself a ghoul. That was what we called creatures such as myself when I was a child.”

“You have been a ghoul since childhood?” Ghan asked, his accustomed sarcasm reasserting itself finally. It was an old friend, comforting to have around, especially in the face of this.

“Very clever. I am not asking you to be clever in that way, Master Ghan.”

Ghan was impressed by the gentle force behind the threat, but he had found himself now and wasn't about to retreat to that younger, fearful self. He was Ghan, and Ghan would not cringe.

“When did you become this?”

“The day that Hezhi escaped from Nhol. Her white-skinned demon—”

“Perkar.”

Yen stopped, and a look of utter hatred crossed his face. “Perkar. He has a name. I knew I should have consulted you long ago.”

“What did Perkar do?”

“Cut my stinking head off, that's what.”

“You were in the