/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Stormlord

Stormlord rising

Glenda Larke


Glenda Larke

Stormlord rising

PART ONE

The Bondage of War

CHAPTER ONE

Scarpen Quarter Breccia City Breccia Hall, Level 2

The man lying next to Lord Ryka Feldspar was dead.

His eyes stared upward past her shoulder, sightless, the vividness of their blue already fading. For a while blood had seeped from his wounded chest onto her tunic, but that had slowed, then stopped. She did not know his name, although she had known him by sight. He'd been a guard at Breccia Hall. Younger than she was. Eighteen? Twenty?

Too young to die.

The man on top of her was dead, too. He was a Reduner. His head lay on her chest and the beads threaded onto his red braids pressed uncomfortably into her breast, but she didn't dare move. Not yet. Around her she heard Reduner voices still; men, heaving bodies onto packpedes, talking among themselves. Making crude jokes about the dead. Coping, perhaps, with the idea it could so easily have been them. Death or survival: even for the victors, the outcome was often as unpredictable as the gusting of a desert wind.

Reduners. Red men from a land of red sand dunes, flesh-devouring zigger beetles and meddles of black pedes. Drovers and nomads and warriors who hankered after a past they thought was noble: a time when rain had been random and they ruled most of the Quartern with their tribal savagery. A people who had recently returned to a time of slave raids, living under laws decided by the strength of a man's arm and dispensed with a scimitar or a zigtube.

Ryka had been a scholar once, and she spoke their tongue well. She could understand them now as they chatted. "Those withering bastard rainlords," one was saying, his tone bitter and angry. "They took the water from Genillid's eyes while he was fighting next to me. Left his eyeballs like dried berries in their sockets! Blind as a sandworm."

"What did you do?" another asked, a youngster by the sound of him.

"For Genillid? Killed him. That was Sandmaster Davim's orders. Reckon he was right, too. What's left for a dunesman if he can't see?"

"I heard he went around the men afterward and killed everyone who was like to lose a hand or a leg as well. No place for a cripple on the dunes, he said."

Ryka felt no pity. They had taken her city. Killed her people. Cloudmaster Granthon Almandine, the Quartern's ruler, its bringer of water and its only true stormlord, was dead, she knew that. His son, Highlord Nealrith, the city's ruler, had been taken and tortured. He'd died in a cage swung over one of the city gates. She knew that, too. She'd heard Jasper Bloodstone had killed him to save him the agony of a slow death.

Poor Jasper. She'd seen the respect and affection in his eyes when he spoke to the highlord.

Gentle, kindly Nealrith. She had grown up with him, gone to Breccia Academy with him, attended his wedding to that bitch, Lord Laisa. Oh, Sunlord receive you into his sunfire, Rith. You did not deserve your end.

"Did we get all them bastards?" the same youth asked.

"The rainlords? Reckon so. I hear exhaustion finally sapped their powers, leaving them defenseless. My brother killed one of them rainlord priests. Still, not even a sandmaster can tell one from an ordinary city-grubber. They don't look no different."

"I heard some of them are women."

The first man gave a bark of laughter. "One thing's for sure, we can slaughter any force that has to use women to fight a battle!"

Ryka wanted to grit her teeth, but couldn't risk even that slight movement. Blast Davim's sunblighted eyes. The tribes of the Red Quarter had been leaving their violent past behind until he'd come along to twist their view of history.

Sandmaster Davim, with his vicious hatreds and his brutal desire for power, had taken away her scholarly life. He'd shattered the Quartern's peace, mocked the cultures not his own, destroyed the learning, all in a couple of star cycles. His men had killed her father. Watergiver only knew what had happened to her sister and her mother. And Kaneth?

No, you mustn't think he is dead. You mustn't lose hope.

Strange even to think of the life she'd had; it was all gone now, spun away on the invaders' swords and the shimmering wings of their ziggers, like sand whirled into the desert on a spindevil wind. A wisp of her hair tickled her cheek. She ignored it. She mustn't move. Not even a twitch. She had to live through this, for the baby. For Kaneth.

Sunlord, I know I don't really believe in you, but let him be alive, that wonderful, gentle bladesman-warrior of mine. Father of my child. She longed to raise her head and look for him. Perhaps he lay somewhere beneath her, still alive. Or dead. Her hand longed to move to cover her abdomen where their son stirred. She knew his water and thus his maleness. Oh, Kaneth, we had so little time…

The memory of her last moments with him replayed over and over. The battle in the waterhall. His last conscious act had been to protect her with his body. Could she have done more? Done something differently? She had used the last of her power to stop his bleeding, to dry the horrible wound exposing the bone of his scalp as he floated face down, senseless, in the cistern. She had kept pure the bubble of air around their faces so they could both breathe. But mostly she'd just had to float there, eyes almost closed, hoping the invaders would leave the waterhall so she could pull Kaneth out of the water and take him to safety.

A futile hope, easily splintered. The Reduners had slung them both out of the cistern. They had dumped Kaneth, unconscious-or dead-on the floor; the sound of his body thudding onto the paving echoed in her head still. She'd landed on top of him a moment later. It had taken all her courage to allow herself to fall like a dead body. Not to stretch out a hand to break her landing. Not to open her eyes, not to touch him, not to look to see if his wound was bleeding again.

More waiting then, more futile praying that the Reduners would leave the waterhall, more begging a boon of a Sunlord she didn't believe in. A little joy, too, when she'd felt the baby stir within her.

She'd tried speaking to Kaneth, whispered words of encouragement and love, but he had not replied. She thought she'd felt the movement of his breath faint against her cheek, but she couldn't be sure.

Several runs of the sandglass later, the guards had received fresh orders. She'd heard and understood:

"Take the dead outside. Load them onto a pede and dump them outside the walls."

Her heart had leaped within her. A chance. A chance for both her and Kaneth-if he lived. Please let it be so…

More rough handling when she was thrown over a man's shoulder and carried, her face bumping against his back, only to be dumped once more, onto this heap of the dead. She wasn't outside the city walls; she knew that much. Cracking open an eyelid, she'd recognized one of the Breccia Hall courtyards. Hampered by the confounded short-sightedness that blurred the details of anything more than ten paces away, she saw enough to know the last bastion against the invaders had fallen. They had lost the city to the Reduners.

And so it was that she now lay motionless, cushioned by lifeless bodies, her clothes drying out in the heat of the afternoon sun, as she listened and awaited her time to move.

Sunlord, but she was tired! She needed to eat, and eat well. Without food she had no energy, and without energy she had no water-power, no way of fighting back. Her sword was gone and she doubted she could have lifted it anyway.

Some more desultory conversation, laughter, and then a voice answering an unheard question. "No. It's the dead burning outside the city wall you can smell."

The words sent fear stabbing into her bowels. They were burning bodies.

"Are we eating them now?" someone asked, amused.

"You sand-tick, Ankrim! The sandmaster ordered all the dead burned as soon as possible. Easier, I suppose, than burying them, when we have all those bab palms to fuel the pyres."

"Nah. More to teach a lesson to the living, I reckon. Here, let's get this pede loaded."

She stopped listening. Burned! Sandblast the bastards-if Kaneth was unconscious, then… Being taken outside the wall began to sound like a rotten idea.

The packpede was loaded, but no one approached the heap of dead Ryka was on. The nearby voices were gone, leaving only far-off screams and shouting. She risked opening her eyes. No one. Cautiously, she raised her head and looked around. She was in front of the main entrance to the pede stables adjoining Breccia House, and as far as she could see, there was no one in sight. As she climbed down, bodies squelched under her sandaled feet and the odors of death intensified. Rot, shit, piss, blood. She gagged.

Boys, some of them. Not all soldiers, either…

In death, there was little difference between those who had their skin stained red by desert dust and the fair-skinned Scarpen folk like herself.

Her feet reached the gravel surface of the courtyard and she stood up. She was sore all over, and stiff. She moved like an old woman. After another swift glance around to make sure she was unobserved, she poked through the piled corpses. The Reduners she ignored, and those wearing a guard uniform. Kaneth had never been one for uniforms. "If I am going to fight, I want to be comfortable," he'd said as he chose his oldest tunic and trousers. She'd joked that he looked like a brass worker from Level Twenty, but she had followed his lead and worn clothes more suited to a laborer than a woman of her class.

She couldn't find him. Tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, long-limbed-he was hard to miss. And that sun-streaked fair hair he kept tied at the nape, it would stand out among the Reduners.

Again she searched, even more carefully. He wasn't there. There had been a second pile of bodies, but it had disappeared. If he'd been among those…

Panicking and weak and thirsty, she swallowed back a surge of dizzying nausea.

"Looking for something?"

The voice, and the accompanying sound of a weapon being drawn from its scabbard, dulled her fear for Kaneth, smothered it in more immediate terror. Her heart skipped, pounded. Slowing its beating by force of will, she turned to face the speaker. A Reduner man, for all he spoke the Quartern tongue with a strong Gibber accent. He'd just stepped out of the stables. Slim, athletic, armed, his red skin streaked with dust and blood. His dark red braids were untidy with beads missing or broken. His sword was blood-drenched.

The darkness of his eyes contained no hint of mercy, no hint of anything. She guessed he was at least ten cycles younger than she was, but he carried himself with assurance. His belted robe was elaborately embroidered, so she knew why: he came from a wealthy and important family.

Probably learned his Quartern tongue from his Gibber slaves, she thought, her bitterness deep. Reduners had been raiding the Gibber, almost with impunity, for more than four years. Kaneth and his men had done their best to curtail the raids, but their success had been limited.

"My husband," she said, keeping her voice level and respectful-but not meek; she would not grovel, even though she knew she was a finger's breadth away from death. Or worse.

He held his scimitar up and took a step toward her, the blade pointed at her chest. She did not move.

"Find him?" he inquired, his tone deceptively mild if the sword was to be believed.

"No."

"You're supposed t'be in the big room." He waved his free hand toward the hall. "In there. How did y'get out?"

The point of the scimitar came within a whisker of her left nipple. She refused to look down and held his gaze instead. "A woman will risk much to serve her husband."

Something flared in his eyes then, but she wasn't sure she could read it. "Not in my experience," he said, his lip curling in cynicism. "These folk," he added, indicating the heap of bodies, "came out of the waterhall. Your husband-guard, was he? Fighting up there?"

"He was up there," she said, "but he wasn't a guard. He was a brass worker from downlevel. He went to help." She did not have to feign grief; she knew it was written on her face and captured in her voice for anyone to see and hear. "He brought me up here for safety. He knew nothing about fighting."

"Then I think you can be certain he's snuffed it. Everyone in the waterhall died."

No, they didn't. I'm here.

She didn't move. Every piece of her being concentrated on not showing fear. Reduners valued courage and despised weakness, even in their women. Not, of course, that he would think twice about lopping off her head with his blade if it pleased him. "Doubtless you're right," she said, fighting her nausea, "but I would like to know one way or the other."

"What's your name?"

I shan't make you a present of that, you bastard. If he realized she was a rainlord, she was dead-and someone among the Reduners might know the name of Ryka Feldspar. "Who wants to know?"

He stared at her as if he couldn't believe his ears. "My name's Ravard," he said finally. "But what should count with you, woman, is the weapon I hold t'your body. What's your name?" The blade tip brushed her nipple this time, then traced a pattern up to her throat.

"Garnet," she said, appropriating the name of the cook in Carnelian House and then adding another gemstone at random, "Garnet Prase."

"Dangerous for a woman t'be out on the streets after a battle," he remarked with heavy mockery. "You never know what nasty thing might happen. There's men wanting their reward for a battle well fought, and they'll take them anyhow they please."

"So your men are out of control already?" she asked, and then bit her tongue. Why could she never learn to keep silent when it counted!

His eyes narrowed. "You play a dangerous game, woman, with your Scarpen arrogance. Perhaps you care nothing for yourself." The sword point dropped to her abdomen. "But what about the brat you carry?"

This time she couldn't control her shock. "How-?" she began, and then closed her mouth firmly, though her hand dropped to cover the roundness of her belly, as if she could protect her son from his weapon. If only I had my water-power-

"I have eyes in me head," he said. "Suggest you keep a still tongue in yours, Garnet, 'less you want t'lose your life and your man's get, as well. I'll take you to the other women in there. Tonight you sleep with a man who's not your husband, or you'll lose more than your man. Think on it."

He turned her roughly and started her walking in front of him toward the hall's main door. She hugged her arms about her to stop the trembling.

A complete stranger works out I'm pregnant at a glance? It took Kaneth nearly half a cycle to wake up to it! This fellow was strange.

When she slipped in a patch of blood on the gravel, he grabbed her by the arm, wrenching her upright before she hit the ground. "Careful, sweet lips," he said in her ear. "We want you undamaged, don't we?"

Ryka gasped in pain. The sword-cut on her upper leg-not deep but raw and throbbing nonetheless-had opened up.

He hadn't noticed it before because the cut in her trousers was almost covered by her tunic, but he saw the fresh blood now and gave an exasperated grunt. "Why didn't y'tell me you were hurt?"

"It's nothing."

He pulled up the hem of the tunic and looked at the wound. A makeshift bandage around her thigh had long since come loose and fallen off. "Hmph. Maybe not, but needs covering nonetheless, t'stop that bleeding."

He left her where she was and went back to the heaped-up dead. With his scimitar, he slashed at a dead man's tunic and brought back a piece of the cloth. She wanted to take it from him, but he ignored her gesture and knelt to wrap it around her thigh himself, over the top of her trousers. She braced herself for an intimate touch, a leer or a sneering remark, but all he did was bandage her.

As he tied off the ends, he said, "When you get a chance, wash the wound 'n' put a clean cloth 'bout it. Even a small cut like that can kill you if it gets dirty."

Perhaps that would be best, anyway, she thought. To die.

The thought must have been reflected on her face, because he said harshly, "Listen t'me, you water-soft city groveler. Living's what counts, understand? Your man's dead. Probably your whole withering family's been snuffed. Your city's fallen. Your rainlords are rotting in the sun. Soon there'll be no more water in your skyless city. Take your chance with us. We've not got rainlords, but our sandmasters and tribemasters can sense water on the wind. Our dune gods protect us." He pointed to her abdomen. "That young 'un of yours? It can grow up Reduner, a warrior or a woman of the tribe. Reduners don't make no difference 'tween folk. Out there on the dunes, we're all red soon enough. Being alive, that's all that matters. That's all."

She stood facing him. Wasn't there more to life than that? Yes, of course there was-but you had to be alive to achieve it. Sandblast it, she thought, despairing. How did we Breccians ever come to this?

She nodded to the man. "Yes," she said. "You are right."

"Now, get going, Garnet. I don't have time t'waste on you."

Kaneth, I will be strong. I promise, for the sake of our son. You're on your own, wherever you are. And so, damn it, am I.

And then, just a whisper in her mind, to a man who was probably dead: I love you.

CHAPTER TWO

Scarpen Quarter Breccia City Breccia Hall, Level 2 Ravard handed Ryka over to a Reduner bladesman guarding the double doors of Breccia Hall's public reception room. The man pushed her roughly inside and closed the doors behind her.

Though the area was large, it was crowded. And noisy with crying. Her heart sank as she looked around and absorbed the significance of what she was seeing. Women. No men. Women, yet no small children. Every head turned her way to see who had entered, eyes fearful. And she was standing in a patch of half-dried blood on the floor.

Waterless hells.

There was a gasp from a group sitting on the floor, and a figure came flying to grab her in a tight embrace, sobbing, gasping, shuddering, pouring out her woe. Beryll, but not her pretty, carefree tease of a little sister. Not anymore.

"Beryll," she whispered, "quietly, quietly. I can't understand what you are saying! Calm down."

"Ryka, oh, Ryka! Mother! They killed Mother! They didn't give her a chance. She-she-"

Ryka had been expecting it, but still the stab of grief pierced deep, then twisted painfully with the bitter rage that followed it.

Her eyes swollen, her chest heaving, Beryll wailed between gulping sobs, "I wanted us to escape with the others down the underground passageway, but she said she'd wait until Father came back. He never came. Then we heard he was dead, but she still wouldn't go. And I couldn't leave her, could I? Anyway, there was the Lady Ethelva and the ceremony of the taking of the Cloudmaster's water and Mother thought we ought to be there, so we went to the House of the Dead and we couldn't come back safely because of the ziggers until Lord Gold brought us with the Lady Ethelva afterward. Oh, Ryka, it was awful. Lady Ethelva seemed so-so old, all of a sudden. Like she'd all shriveled up. It was so horrid. And we didn't know whether you were all right, or if Papa really was dead, and then the Reduners broke through…" Her face went white just with the remembering.

Ryka led her away from the door to a more private spot near the wall. Her sandals left sticky footprints on the floor.

"But Mother really is dead? Are you sure?" She was having trouble absorbing the reality behind the words.

"They-they slit her throat. Like they were slaughtering an animal."

Oh, sweet water save us. "You saw it?"

Beryll's frame shuddered in her arms as she nodded. "Her and the Lady Ethelva. Oh, Ryka, they killed so many! The guards and the men first, in the fighting when they broke in through the gates. Then they rounded up the women, servants and all. They took the older ones out and-and just killed them. Just like that. They said it was because Stormlord Jasper didn't surrender himself. There were so many dead. So many of the older ones had thought they'd have a better chance if they didn't go down the tunnel. There wasn't room for everyone, anyway…" Her voice trailed away in misery.

Ryka tried not to change words into images. The words were bad enough. Blindly, she patted her sister on the back; aching, she kissed the top of her head.

When Beryll had calmed, she changed the subject. "Listen, you mustn't call me Ryka. If the Reduners know they have a rainlord, I'm dead. Our only chance of getting out of this alive is to hide who I am. Call me Garnet."

Beryll lifted her puzzled gaze to look at her sister's face. "What? Garnet? Why?"

"Just in case they know there is a rainlord called Ryka Feldspar."

"Oh. Would they know that?"

"I doubt it, but I don't want to take the risk." There was also a slight risk a Reduner warrior might see her and recognize her as a woman who'd fought in the waterhall, but she didn't think there was much of a danger of that, either. Those still alive were under the impression she had died; certainly none of them knew she was a rainlord. To make herself less recognizable, she untied her hair, shaking it loose over her shoulders and around her face.

She looked around short-sightedly, seeking familiar faces, neighbors from her level perhaps, anyone who might give away her identity, but saw no one she knew. "Is there anyone here who will recognize me?"

Beryll shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't know these people. They were from the other levels. They took refuge here when the city was attacked."

As far as Ryka could tell, no one was looking at her with recognition. Dirty, sweaty, bloodied and dressed as she was, she was not surprised. She hardly looked like an upleveler rainlord. Besides, she was not well known, not like Kaneth or the Cloudmaster's family, the Almandines. She was a scholar who fulfilled her duties as a rainlord by teaching at Breccia Academy and taking her turn to check on the mother wells and patrol the water tunnel between the city and the Warthago Range.

"We are going to be slaves, aren't we?" Beryll whispered.

"Beryll, I'm a rainlord, remember? We just have to wait for the right time, for when I am strong again and can get us out of here."

"Can't you do it now? I don't want to stay here! They-they murdered children, Ryka. Children. All the really young ones."

And left the older ones and the young women, Ryka thought, but she didn't give voice to the words. Instead, she said, "I don't have any power left. I haven't eaten in so long. Or slept. Is there any food here? If I had something to eat…"

"I don't think so. After the Reduners herded us in here, they seemed to forget all about us. No one has brought us any food. But then, they killed the servants. Except for the pretty ones. Ethelva sent them down the tunnel before the Reduners came." She brushed hair out of her eyes with a trembling hand. "I wish-I wish I had gone, too."

"Where is everyone from our level? Why aren't they here?"

"Most of them went down the tunnel. Level Three and Four people had first choice. Maybe they're still hidden there. Where's Kaneth?"

"He was injured. I don't know what happened to him."

"Oh." Beryll started to cry again, in juddering sobs. Helplessly, Ryka patted her on the back. Oh, Beryll, she thought, things could get a lot worse even than this.

Miserably, she looked around. Nealrith had brought as many of the city folk into the protection of the level's walls as he could, but it had been an illusory safety. The city's two top levels, where the waterhall and the Cloudmaster's residence were located, had lasted longer than the stepped levels of the lower city, but in the end it had made little difference. We rainlords failed these people.

The Scarpen's only hope was that Jasper Bloodstone had escaped with Nealrith's wife, that spitless bitch Laisa, and their daughter, Senya. Perhaps Jasper and Senya could start a new line of stormlords.

Perhaps the other cities will prevail. Perhaps they will stop this Reduner sandmaster. Perhaps in the end it will be that bastard Taquar Sardonyx who will stop him…

"Listen, Beryll, you must tell me all you have seen. The Reduners-the leaders. Who are they?"

Slowly, Beryll calmed enough to speak again. "Well, there's Davim. He's the sandmaster. He's horrible." She was trembling still, and stark fear shone in her eyes.

"How will I recognize him?"

"He wears a red robe that's got all this red embroidery down the front and lots of gemstone beads-no one else has as much. He's maybe about Kaneth's age. There're some others who have some embroidery. Like the man who translates for those who don't speak the Quartern tongue. His name is Ravard, I think."

"Ah. I suspect I've met that one."

"I-I don't know about any of the others. Someone said the man in charge of all the killing is older. They call him the Warrior Son, but I don't know which one he is. They all look alike to me, anyway. And it's better if you don't stare at them. They don't like you to stare." She clutched at Ryka's arm. "Be careful, Ry. You can't argue with them. They don't like that, either." Time passed so slowly. Ryka circled the room, looking for a way out, but the doors were locked and the openings for light and air were high above their heads. There was a small water-room tucked away at the far end, its facilities too few for so many people. There was always a queue, and the place stank because there was only a trickle of water. No one seemed to have any food, and most had not eaten anything in over a day. The wailing of grieving women and terrified, hungry youngsters-not one of them under nine or ten-was a constant noise, grating on her nerves because no one had the means to comfort them.

In the end, Ryka fell asleep lying on the floor in Beryll's arms.

It was dark when she woke to the sounds of commotion. Slamming doors in the distance, fear-saturated muttering, renewed weeping. Everyone scrambled to their feet. Beryll clung to Ryka's arm. The central double doors were flung open and a line of Reduner warriors, some bearing torches, entered behind two of their leaders. One was the man who had brought her there: Ravard.

Staring at the other, Beryll hissed in her ear, "That's him. Sandmaster Davim!"

Her first thought was, But he's so young! The next: Watergiver damn his eyes. The man has no soul. There was nothing in his gaze that spoke of pity or compassion, and much that rejoiced in the misery he saw before him.

Silence spread to cover the room, as if the sandmaster's gaze compelled all sound to cease. Even the children were silent. He stood in front of the doors, Ravard at his side, his warriors arrayed behind him. He wasn't a tall man, but there was no doubt he commanded.

He nodded to Ravard and the younger man stepped forward. He said, "I speak for Sandmaster Davim of Dune Watergatherer. The sandmaster rules here now. Kneel before him."

The room stilled. For a moment no one moved. No one even seemed to breathe. Then, when Davim's stare bored into the women closest to him, they fell to their knees. Gradually, others around the room followed.

"I won't!" Beryll whispered. "He's the one who ordered Mother killed! And Lady Ethelva."

Ryka grabbed her by the arm and yanked her down as she herself knelt. "Oh, yes, you will," she murmured. "Your job is to stay alive until I can get you out of here. Pride means nothing. Living is what's important. And don't forget-my name is Garnet." She glanced around, relieved to see no one remained standing.

Davim spoke then, in his own tongue. His voice snapped into the silence, confirming Ryka's every fear. She was probably the only person in the room who understood the language, but the others weren't left wondering for long. Ravard translated all the sandmaster said.

"Sandmaster Davim wishes t'tell you everyone here will serve his men, or die. You are Reduner women now. He is going t'honor one of you with his personal choice."

Beryll shuddered and turned her face into Ryka's shoulder once more. "Oh, Sunlord save me," she whispered. "Ryka, he wants me, I know it. He looked at me in such a way before." Her trembling wouldn't stop.

"Hide your face," Ryka said softly. But even as she spoke she knew it was too late. The sandmaster was threading his way through the kneeling women toward them.

He pointed at Beryll and said, "Stand."

Ryka stood, pulling Beryll up with her. At Davim's shoulder, Ravard's dark eyes were fixed on hers, but there was no expression there. The sandmaster reached out and pulled Beryll away from her. He cupped her chin with a hand and forced her face up. "Her," he said to Ravard in his own tongue.

"The sandmaster has done you great honor," Ravard told Beryll. "You'll share his pallet tonight. If you please him, he'll spare your life."

"Does the sandmaster not want a real woman in his bed," Ryka drawled before Beryll could react, "instead of a mere child?"

Davim's sharp eyes snapped from Beryll to her.

He knows what I said, Ryka thought. He may not speak the Quartern tongue well, but he understands.

As if to confirm that thought, Ravard did not translate.

Davim's arrogant gaze slid up and down her body, assessing. Critical. "Ugly she-pedes don't please the bull when there are prettier pede-heifers to hand," he said in his own tongue, his tone mocking. He grinned at Ravard, who grinned back.

Not wanting to let any of the Reduners know she could understand them, Ryka was careful not to react. Beryll, still held by the sandmaster, darted a despairing, frightened look at her.

Ravard translated Davim's words.

"Bulls are blind in the dark," Ryka replied, looking past Beryll to hold the sandmaster's gaze with her own. "And all she-pedes are black in the depths of night." She gave what she hoped was an enticing smile. "Touch, on the other hand…"

"Whore!" one of the Breccian women spat at her from behind.

Davim, laughing, said to Ravard, "The ugly bitch thinks to seduce me! Who wants stringy pede meat if he can have the tender venison of a young desert deer?" He turned his attention back to Beryll. "Come with me, eager to please," he said. "Or die."

Ravard translated-and Beryll spat in the sandmaster's face.

A split second later, she dropped to the floor. For one frozen moment, Ryka didn't understand. Refused to understand. She saw Davim's merciless rage as he wiped the spittle from his face with the back of a hand. Only when her gaze dropped to Beryll where she lay spasming on the floor did she see the glistening red of the slash across her neck. With unbelieving eyes she stared at the welling blood, matched by scarlet drips along the sandmaster's dagger blade. She hadn't even seen him draw it. Behind her, someone screamed.

With an agonized cry, Ryka fell to her knees to gather Beryll into her arms. In her dying moments, the girl flailed. A horrible sucking sound came from her throat. Her eyes closed as she desperately tried to draw breath. And then she was gone.

No!

For a moment, Ryka remained where she was, stunned, disbelieving. When she looked up again, Davim was already turning away, uninterested. Shock turned to blinding rage. She wanted to rip out his throat. She groped for the power to kill him, but because she was drained and starving, nothing came.

He didn't see the uncontrolled fury, didn't see her naked desire to kill. And that saved her. She had the fleeting moment she needed to dampen down her emotion.

In agony, she touched her sister's face with trembling fingers. Beryll. Oh, Watergiver, why? Oh, Sunlord. Oh, Beryll.

She'd kill him. Then, common sense prevailing: This is not the time to try, Ryka. Not yet. Oh, Watergiver have mercy. Beryll!

"Find me a pretty young woman, Ravard," Davim was saying. "Young, the way I like them. And kill the stringy meat. She does not please me."

Terror ripped through her. I've run out of time. She flicked a glance to the row of Reduner warriors. The nearest, one of those bearing a burning brand to light the room, had propped his chala spear against the wall. I'm dead, but maybe I can take Davim with me, she thought, eyeing the spear. If Davim dies, maybe the Scarpen has a chance… She tensed herself for a leap past the sandmaster to the weapon.

Ravard laughed easily. "That's because you have experience and can teach the young to please you. Me, I need the stringy old ones to teach me how to be pleased!" He stared at Ryka in open appraisal, halting her intention to move. "Kill her? Certainly, if that is your wish, but I'd rather sharpen my, er, sword on her experience."

Davim frowned and stared hard at Ryka. She dropped her gaze submissively, still pretending she did not understand their conversation. He shrugged. "As you wish. If she gives you any trouble, hand her over to the chalamen. They can use her for target practice for their spears."

The Reduner warriors chuckled, leaving Ryka in no doubt that the double meanings were intended.

Ravard nodded, grinning. "Take her to my rooms," he told one of the warriors, "and lock her in."

CHAPTER THREE

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Scarcleft Hall, Level 2 Lord Taquar Sardonyx looked up from his desk, frowning. It was late, it was cold, and he had been about to go to bed. In fact, he'd been wondering whether to ask his steward to fetch him a woman. That pretty new servant girl, for example. Eighteen, wistfully innocent and adoring-she would do. And yet… he glanced at the painting he had mounted on the wall. Terelle's painting. A waterpainting once, until the earthquake had separated the paint from the water. Now it lacked a little of the life it must have once had, but still the figure leaped at him out of the paint.

Taquar, Highlord of Scarcleft, driving a pede.

She had captured everything he liked to think he possessed: the aura of power, the ruthlessness, the strength, the commanding stature, and of course the sensuality. But more than that, she had painted something of herself into the work: her fear of him, her fear of her attraction to him. Every time he looked at it, he cursed the earthquake that had enabled her to escape. Watergiver, what a lover she would have made! All she'd needed was the awakening, and he could have stirred her senses so easily. Stupidly, he had thought her not ready. And now, whenever he took another woman to bed, he thought of what he had missed, and cursed again. Innocence and the promise of initiating a maiden's sexual awakening-it intrigued him every time, and rarely disappointed. A victim either learned to match his passion or shivered in fear. Either way, he enjoyed the result.

He'd sent people out looking for her, of course, once he realized she had escaped. Unfortunately it had been a day before they had cleared away enough of the rubble along the passage to her room to see that she was not dead or trapped, but missing. Even then, he'd assumed she was still in the city. Now, five days later and thanks to his seneschal's investigations, he knew better.

It was infuriating. How would he ever entice Shale Flint-or Jasper Bloodstone as the wretched lad was called now-back to Scarcleft City if he found out Terelle had fled?

Scarcleft was a wounded city still, and it riled Taquar that the most serious damage was to his own hall on Level Two. He was tired of the noise and dust of cleaning up and the preparations for rebuilding. He was infuriated by the grumblings of discontent from Level Thirty-six, the lowest level, where the waterless lived. How dare they protest the slow reaction to their plight! As if they had any rights at all. He would have killed the lot of them long ago, if some of the merchants and tradesmen and artisans had not made it clear they needed the labor of the waterless from time to time.

Definitely, he needed a little solace in his bed. He was reaching to ring for his steward when a knock sounded at the door.

The visitor the servant ushered in a moment later took Taquar by surprise. He rose to his feet, trying to conceal the extent of his astonishment. "Laisa? My dear, this is a surprise! A pleasure of course, but… unexpected." Even as he spoke he was taking in her grubby appearance, the fatigue about her eyes, the tension around her mouth. Her long blond hair was dusty and tumbled out of its jeweled clips, her skin bare of any artificial powders or paints. She was still beautiful, of course. She had the kind of looks that weren't ruined by a little grime or lack of sleep; a brilliant, cool beauty that improved rather than diminished with age. Looks that suited a harsh land and matched a nature that reveled in luxury. Laisa was a sensual woman, yet pitiless.

And he had never seen her so disheveled. What the salted damn had happened?

"What brings you here? And looking like this?" he asked, keeping his tone carefully neutral.

"Don't pretend you don't know what happened to Breccia City," she said. "You can't really be unaware that the desert beast has slipped the leash you tried to put around his neck!"

"I don't know what you mean." And he didn't, but he could guess, and the guess left him cold. Davim. That spitless sand-louse of a Reduner. He must have moved his forces from Qanatend to Breccia City. Why couldn't he have waited for things to fall into place of their own accord?

The answer came all too soon. He must have found out I don't have Shale.

Aloud, he said, "Suppose you tell me, my dear." He nodded to the servant. "Bring us some of the best imported wine and sweetmeats, man." When they were alone again, he waved at a chair in front of the fire. "Sit down, Laisa."

She flung herself into the chair, saying, "What the sandblasted hell happened here, Taquar? Why is part of your city in ruins and much of the lowest level burned? Did Davim attack Scarcleft, too?"

He shook his head, and went to stand with his back to the fire. "Hardly! No, it was the earthquake. You didn't hear? I sent word. It happened a few days after Gratitudes."

"We have been otherwise occupied," she said, her voice brittle with irritation. "We were attacked five days after Gratitudes. Nealrith sent word immediately."

"I see. None of your messengers arrived, and neither did mine to you, apparently. Davim's to blame for that, I suppose. He must have Breccia ringed. You were lucky to get through yourself."

The look she gave him was scathing. "I did not take the road, and anyway give me some credit. I do have enough water-sense to dodge men out looking for people escaping the city. So what was this earthquake? I've never heard of one doing this much damage."

"The damage was fairly localized, fortunately. Some damage to the hall. And a fire on the thirty-sixth level, but that place is no great loss. Far from it, in fact. Gave me an excuse to clean out some of the water-wasters. But tell me about Breccia's troubles."

"Troubles?" She shot him a look of scornful fury as she warmed her hands at the fire. "Is that what you'd call it? The city has fallen, you withering sand-brain! Nealrith is dead. So is Granthon. And doubtless most of our rainlords as well: Ryka and Merquel Feldspar, Kaneth Carnelian, Lord Gold and most of the rainlord priests, for a start. The Scarpen is without a competent stormlord."

Baldly, concisely and without histrionics, she told him all that she knew about the siege and how she had escaped with her daughter and Shale Flint. Except, he was quick to realize, the most important fact: the exact whereabouts of Shale. The tale didn't take her long; she finished just as the servant came in and left the tray of refreshments.

He poured her some wine, imported from across the Giving Sea, saying, "Let me see if I understand you: Breccia City's rainlords decided to die fighting-a piece of monumental stupidity on their part. Typical of Kaneth Carnelian, of course, to indulge in heroically futile gestures, but I expected better of some of the others. Doubtless the city will have been thoroughly subdued in the time it took you to cross the desert to my gates."

"Doubtless," she agreed.

"Sandmaster Davim now controls both Qanatend and Breccia and has access to whatever water the two cities have. At a guess, you are now about to offer me the estimable young man, our only stormlord-in exchange for what, I wonder?"

She took the proffered drink in its imported goblet of blown glass, and he had to admire her aplomb. Newly widowed and having just ridden several days across a desert, dispossessed of all her wealth and much of her status, and still she could look at him coolly across her glass of wine and say, "What did you hope from all this, Taquar? Were you really so sun-fried as to bargain with this Reduner nomad and think he would do your bidding?"

He shrugged indifferently. "It could have worked. But he is an impatient, arrogant hothead. And greedy with it. I promised him free rein in the Red and White Quarters in exchange for water when and where he wanted it, but apparently it wasn't enough for him. I must assume he found out Shale ran to Nealrith?"

"Cloudmaster Granthon made sure he knew."

"Which prompted him to renege on my alliance with him, of course. I assure you, these attacks on the cities of the Scarpen were not my idea. Oh, I thought to threaten the other cities with the idea of Reduner attack, yes-but I want to rule a wealthy nation, not a huddle of ruined buildings and groves."

Laisa turned on him, her anger vicious. "You were out of your sand-stuffed mind! Do you think a rainlord can control a sandmaster, one whose thinking is as twisted as a spindevil wind? He dreams of returning to a Time of Random Rain, when the dunes managed without rainlords. You unleashed a force you can't control, you fool! And now we all have to suffer for it."

He felt the heat of his anger flood his face, but kept his temper under control. "I don't fear for Scarcleft. Unlike the late unlamented Granthon and Nealrith in Breccia, or Moiqa over in Qanatend, I believe in ziggers and a trained army. Every young man of this city can handle a pike and a scimitar or a sword. They can drive a pede or fight from its back. They can handle ziggers. They don't get their water allotments unless they undergo training sessions once a year. Davim would never take Scarcleft-but that is neither here nor there. You were wise to get Shale out of Breccia City. The idea of Davim getting his hands on our last stormlord at this stage does not bear thinking about."

"Pity you didn't think before you began all this," she retorted.

He ignored that. "The question is, what do you want in exchange for Shale?" He rubbed a finger around the top of his glass reflectively. "Of course, I could force you to tell me where he is, but bargaining is so much more civilized, is it not, my dear?"

She leaned back in her chair, both hands cradling her goblet. "And more rewarding, I think. You won't find my terms too arduous. Put simply: I want to be the wife of a highlord, with all the, er, panoply that entails, and I want my daughter to be the wife of the Quartern's one and only stormlord. That's basically it. The details can be negotiated later."

Taquar almost laughed. "Not quite the grieving widow, are you?"

She did not deign to reply, merely helping herself to a sweetmeat instead.

"What in all the waterless sands of the Quartern makes you think I would want to marry you, Laisa?"

She took the insult in her stride, shrugging. "I don't really care whether you want to or not, Taquar. I want the position. As Nealrith's wife, I've grown used to being pampered. I like the power I have as a rainlord, but I also like the extra that comes with being the wife of a city's highlord. I don't want to give it up. I'd be willing to let you have all the freedom you need, to do whatever it is you've always done. In return, I can run your household, be your hostess, share your bed if you want, or not if you don't."

He chuckled. "I do not need a hostess or another seneschal when I have Harkel Tallyman, and I have plenty of women for my bed."

"Harkel? I heard you were so enraged when he let Jasper escape to Breccia that you threw him in your deepest pit."

"I am a civilized man. He was ensconced in the tower for a while, deprived of all his normal luxuries. After half a cycle both he and I were fed up with the situation. He missed his luxuries; I missed his organizational skills. He is my seneschal once more, and vastly more subservient." He paused, suddenly thoughtful. "However, you do tempt me. My original idea was to keep Shale hidden. To have everyone thinking I was the one who shifted the storms, that I was the stormlord. Not possible now, of course, seeing everyone knows about the lad. But I will need someone to keep him in line. He is not going to take kindly to doing my bidding… Take on that job, and I might think about it."

She waved a careless hand. "I can manage a young man of his age."

"And then there is one slight problem you have neglected to mention, my dear. You are selling me a carpet with a flaw in the weave."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, come now, Laisa. When I lost Shale to Breccia, I decided it wasn't such a bad idea. The Cloudmaster could teach him all he knew about making and breaking clouds. Once he'd learned, I had the means to entice him back.

"I did hear that he was cloudshifting, so I put the plan into operation. But then I heard a few windwhispers from our fellow rainlords. Shale Flint, or Jasper Bloodstone if you prefer to call him that, has only been shifting storms, and has needed Granthon's power to lift the water vapor from the ocean in the first place. He cannot do it on his own. Moreover, as far as I can tell-and I may be wrong because I cannot always sense far-distant clouds the way a stormlord can-no rain has fallen anywhere in the past few days. Which, I assume, means since Granthon died. Tell me, do I have the truth of it?"

Unfazed, she said, "Unfortunately, you do. However, Jasper told us you were the one who stole Granthon's storm. That makes you a very powerful rainlord, Taquar. It seems to me you have neglected to mention to other rainlords the extent of your abilities. I have the feeling there is a good chance, if you back Jasper with your power, that the young man will be able to do what is needed. Of course, it won't be enough water for everybody, but that can't be helped."

He sipped his wine, thinking. "Unhappily, the reason I stole a storm was because I couldn't make one. As it turns out I didn't do too good a job of moving a cloud a long distance, either. I lost the cloud I stole, remember? Let's face it, Laisa, I may be a damn fine rainlord, the best there is in fact, but I am nowhere near being a stormlord."

"Together the two of you may achieve something. Jasper's talents at moving water and sensing water are phenomenal. And he can extract vapor from pure water, just not from a salty sea. Anyway, we don't have a choice. We have to try. You have to try. Otherwise there's no rain and we are all in trouble. How long will Scarcleft's water last, Taquar?"

"Not long enough. All right, I'll try. And at least we don't have Granthon or Nealrith's highly developed moral sense to deal with anymore, do we, m'dear?"

"Exactly. But we do, unfortunately, have Jasper's. Extraordinary just how moral he is, considering he comes out of the Gibber. He can hardly have learned ethics from you, either, can he? However, with his nicely developed sense of duty, I think he can be persuaded it's necessary to work with you. He won't like it, but he'll do it."

"You have it all worked out already, it seems." He sat back in his chair, absently swirling his wine, while he considered her proposal. It was some time before he added, "One other thing before we seal the bargain, something I have idly wondered… I want an honest answer to a query."

Laisa raised a questioning eyebrow. "You trust me to be honest?"

"There's no reason not to be, now Nealrith is dead. Who is Senya's father?"

She laughed then, with full-throated amusement. "So you have wondered? I'll give you an honest answer: I don't know. It could have been either of you. I doubt she's dark enough to be your daughter, but I could never see anything of Nealrith in her, I must admit. But you-everything I've heard seems to indicate you don't leave a trail of bastards behind you. Is it possible I could be the only woman who ever bore yours? It seems unlikely. Does it matter, anyway?"

He shook his head. "Not really. Stormlord children would have been an asset, but apart from that, I have never hankered after brats, especially not one as spoiled as Senya. You are going to have to rein her in, Laisa, if she is to reside in my household."

With an airy wave of the hand she dismissed that problem. "That won't be a problem now that Nealrith's not here to spoil her."

"Very well. It won't harm me to have a decorative wife, I suppose-will it?"

There was more than a note of warning in his tone, and she raised her eyebrows in acknowledgment. "I know where my interests lie, Taquar. But tell me, what happens now you have Jasper again? Where does that leave Sandmaster Davim? Is he still going to go on the rampage around the Scarpen?"

He rose to put another couple of seaweed briquettes on the fire. The Scarpen sun may have seared the land by day, but at night the cold had an edge to it. "No. I think I can bridle him, if I have Shale. Jasper. Davim knows I'm no Granthon, and no Nealrith either, with silly scruples about bringing water to everyone. I shall tell him he will not receive any water at all-random or otherwise-unless he holds to his end of the bargain. He can have the White Quarter, and I will assist him if any of the other dunes in the Red Quarter prove restless under his rule. He wants his Time of Random Rain, true, but until he has the logistics of that worked out, he needs predictable water."

"At the moment he is stealing it," she said. "He is draining the Qanatend mother wells dry, and doubtless he intends to do the same thing to Breccia."

"That water won't last forever without a rainlord replenishing it. We can bargain with him. He needs us. Any trouble and I will see to it the dunes will not receive any rain. As long as I have Jasper and Davim fears the power I have over water as a consequence, he will behave. In exchange, I get to call on his troops if I need them to quell a rebellious city or a recalcitrant Gibber settle on my own. And so, Laisa, it seems we have a bargain. Now tell, where is Jasper?"

"Not far from here. I killed the pedeman shortly after we left Breccia, and I drugged Jasper's water." She laughed. "The little idiot made it so easy for me-he even gave me his water skin to carry when he was organizing his rather spectacular departure from the city. Senya is keeping an eye on him at the moment. He's been befuddled out of his mind for a couple of days now, and I fear he will wake up in a fury when he realizes I led him here and not to Portennabar."

He laughed and stood, holding out a hand to her. "Then let us go find them, my dear. I cannot wait to see the look on that Gibber grubber's face when he sees me again!"

Laisa stood, a little too close to him for normal social conventions. He took the hint and pulled her into his arms, kissing her roughly, deliberately bruising her arms and lips, kneading her breasts with a shade too much force. When they parted, she was still smiling.

Softly, full of menace, he said, "M'dear, do not ever treat me as you treated Nealrith. Never. Or you will regret it."

Her smile didn't waver-but he thought her confidence did.

Which was exactly what he wanted.

CHAPTER FOUR

The Scarpen to the White Quarter Caravanner routes The two waterpainters left Scarcleft on the morning after the earthquake, just as dawn was breaking over a tattered city. Crumbled walls, collapsed roofs, broken pipes and cracked cisterns, water gushing into the streets, fires raging through the lowest level-they'd seen it all on their way to the city gate.

And they were the only two people alive who knew who was to blame.

Only one of the two looked back as they left, and she cried, water-wasting tears that no one else in the Scarpen ever shed unless they had something in their eye. She cried because she knew people had died that night-died because she had inadvertently killed them; she cried because she wasn't going to Breccia toward the only friend she had in the world.

Oh, Shale. I'm sorry.

And then, because she hated people who whined about their fate, she dried her tears and looked resolutely ahead. She was Terelle Grey, nineteen years old, and one day she would be truly free. She swore it. Perhaps she'd even find Shale again.

Russet Kermes had not hired a guide or a pedeman. Terelle had naively assumed her great-grandfather knew what he was doing; after all, years before he had made the trek from his home in the Variega mountains of Khromatis, through the White and Gibber Quarters to the Scarpen Quarter. He'd spent years traveling the Quartern in search of her mother, Sienna. He must have ridden myriapede hacks as well as the huge packpedes capable of carrying up to fifteen people.

However, soon after they left the Scarcleft livery in the aftermath of the earthquake, she was forced to revise any assumption about his competence. He had bought a single myriapede, and piled it with their supplies on the back four segments, leaving the first two segments for the two of them. He took the front, sitting cross-legged on the padded cloth saddle as pede drivers and riders did, but as they headed along the trail up the scarp heading directly north, he had trouble organizing the reins. The pede sensed his incompetence and indicated its irritation by clicking its mouthparts and flinging its long feelers around.

"Never be driving pede before," he confessed when Terelle, seated behind him on the beast, asked him how much experience he had. "Always be passenger in caravan, or hiring pedeman. Offered tokens, but nobody be going White Quarter now. Dangerous. Reduners be raiding the 'Basters and killing caravanners. So-we go alone."

Terelle felt her mouth go dry. Dangerous? "Do you know the way?"

He pointed ahead with his riding prod. "There be trail. We follow."

"Aren't we heading north now? The White Quarter is to the east, isn't it?"

"I be knowing the way!" he snapped. "Waterpainters never forget a route. We turn northeast at second caravansary."

She wanted to ask if he knew how to harness the pede, or any of the hundred and one other things that must have been necessary to cross a desert safely, but before she could frame the question, he said, "If anything wrong, ye can be painting our way out of the problem, no?"

"No, I can't. I'm not painting anymore. At least, not in order to shuffle up the future."

He twisted in the saddle to look back at her in open surprise. "What ye mean? Of course ye will! Why ever not?"

"Because we can't tell what will happen! Artisman, people died when the earthquake came. They died just so I could walk free of my prison." The horror of it was still fresh in her mind, as raw as the moment it had occurred.

A mother rocking her dead child in her arms, keening her loss…

No, don't remember. Some things are better forgotten.

But there was no escaping what had happened. True, she had not been the one who had painted the wreckage of Scarcleft Hall with her scrambling over the ruins; that had been Russet. Nonetheless, she had been the one who'd made the quake possible. Russet no longer had the power to shuffle up the magic into his paintings; he could not now move water through the motley undercoat and the layers of paint, nor couple it with his waterpainter's power and fix the future of whatever it was he had painted.

She could, though. When Highlord Taquar Sardonyx had sent the waterpaints to her prison room, she had even tricked the magic and done what was supposed to be impossible. She had influenced her own future. How could she have known that shuffling up her shadow would also give power to Russet's concept of an earthquake?

Behind them, the lowest level of Scarcleft still burned. If she turned, she would see the smoke. "Sunlord help me, how many innocent people did we kill, the two of us?"

Still looking at her, Russet shrugged. The pede moved steadily ahead in spite of his inattention. "Who cares if folk died? Scarpen folk only. Not be our people. They imprisoned you to use you. Deserved to die!"

Furious, she glared at him. "You're sun-fried! Taquar imprisoned me, not some poor boy asleep in his bed who'll never wake up because a wall fell on him. What kind of monster are you?"

He shook his finger at her. "Ye matter! They not matter. Ye are Pinnacle heir. Must be going home. Quartern folk no more than sand-ticks beneath your feet. Ye be not even knowing them."

"Do you think that makes me feel one sand grain better?" she asked, incredulous. She took a deep breath. "I am not shuffling up, not ever again." She pressed her lips together in what she hoped was a determined line.

Russet scowled. "Foolish frip of a girl! We could die." When she didn't reply, he looked behind them, as if he expected to see someone following. "Best we leave this trail. Taquar might be finding out we left city and sending enforcers after us."

She looked at the stark brown dryness of the fissured land to either side. "Strike out across the desert? We'd be lost in minutes!"

"Not if I be painting me riding into Fourcross Tell, and ye use waterpainting skills to make that the future." He was intent on her now, still paying no attention to the pede. "Try it."

"Taquar's far too busy coping with the earthquake," she said. "We'll take our chances following the track."

"Ye defy me, girl? After all I be doing for ye?"

Her knuckles whitened on the handle driven into the segment in front of her saddle. "I owe you nothing! Not since you painted me into your pictures to take away my freedom to determine my own future." Worse, every time she had tried to defy the magic of the shuffled-up paintings, she'd been sick. He'd done that to her. To her mother, too. Sienna had been ill for a long while, probably because she'd tried to resist her painted future, until she had died giving birth to Terelle.

Murderer.

With sudden resolution she met his gaze squarely, ignoring the disquieting fanaticism in the glare of his age-rheumed eyes as the pede lurched and scrambled up the steepest part of The Escarpment trail. "I don't want to be here. I escaped from Highlord Taquar to go to Shale, not to you. I am only here because you painted my future and I cannot fight the magic of your art. But don't ask me to like it. Or to feel loyalty to you. Or even to obey you."

"Be for your own good."

"My good???or yours?" she snapped.

"Ye be kin! Ye could lead a nation."

Watergiver help me, he's crazed. "That's my misfortune, not my obligation! You can't think your people would welcome me simply because my mother was the heir."

Forced to turn his attention back to the reins, he didn't reply. Her stomach roiled, protesting her rebellion, and she suspected he would not forgive her. However, he did not turn off the caravan trail, and that was her first small victory.

Instead, he started to teach her the spoken language of Khromatis. The journey was a nightmare, yet a nightmare painted on a background that stirred Terelle's soul. The wide skies, the strange orange light of dawn, the burning white sun of midday and the crimson dusks; the shadowed scarps, the gnarled trees clawing their way into barren soils, the weathered rocks and sculpted cliffs: she remembered it from her childhood's single journey, but then she had seen it with a child's eye. Now the artist in her saw the beauty of the land's raw roughness. It murmured to her, stirring a restless desire to record it, to capture it, to make it her own.

But there was no time to paint the scenery, and the nightmare was always there, riding with her: her great-grandfather was a murderous old man who didn't care that he had killed people to pursue his quest for power. Worse, she couldn't free herself. She was chained to him by the paintings he had done when he still had the power to make them come true. She would never be free until she stood on a green slope next to running water; the scene he had painted all those years ago.

It was a lonely journey. All trade between the quarters had ceased because the White and Gibber Quarters had been under periodic attack from Sandmaster Davim's marauders. Where once there had been a thriving trade route, a deserted trail was now often covered by wind-blown dust unmarked by any pede prints. Where there had been Alabaster salt and soda traders and gypsum merchants, where pede caravans of Reduner drovers had passed, laden with minerals and gems from the Gibber Quarter or herding a meddle of pedes for sale, now there was nobody.

The first caravansary along the route was a huddle of deserted buildings just a day's ride from Scarcleft. The cistern was still half-full, even though the windmill normally drawing water from the Scarcleft tunnel had been shut down and disconnected.

"Used to be caretakers here," Russet muttered. "Reeve too, to stop water theft from tunnel. Must be leaving after Qanatend taken by Reduners. Afraid Reduners come this way."

"I don't understand," she said to Russet. "Why did the Reduner sandmaster attack Qanatend? Reduners benefited from trade with the Scarpen as much as everyone else. They bought our bab oil and our beads and Gibber gems, our cloth and bab-weave canvas for their tents-so many things. They sold us pedes and animal pelts and dyes and wild herbs."

"Street gossip say Davim be thinking to return people to old time of noble warrior. Nomads, raiding and stealing and hunting. Hear he says dune gods be angry because tribesmen deviated from nomadic ways." He shrugged. "Foolishness of ignorant man hungry for power."

And you? Terelle thought. That describes you, too, you frizzled old driveler.

They lost the trail half a dozen times the next day when the hardened ruts left by generations of pede feet disappeared under sifted dust. Russet's remedy was simple. He gave the pede its head and hoped it at least knew where it was supposed to go. Sooner or later, the trail would magically reappear under the points of the animal's feet and Terelle would breathe a sigh of relief.

Late that night they arrived at the second caravansary. It was larger than the first, but equally deserted. Fortunately there was a small grove of fruiting bab trees, so they ate well and the pede gorged itself on the fallen fruit until it could eat no more.

The language lessons continued until they went to bed. The trail divided at the caravansary, one branch veering off to Pebblebag Pass and Qanatend, a second heading northeast toward the White Quarter, and a third due east. "Goes to Pahntuk Cistern," Russet remarked about the last in the morning. "Route to Breccia."

She thought nothing of that until later in the day when they were following the middle trail up into the foothills of the Warthago Range. The way was steep, the views spectacular. Ahead were the savage peaks of the range scarifying the sky with their clawed edges. When she looked back, she could see for miles across The Sweeping, the rugged gullies they had crossed now no more than insignificant cracks on the landscape. Maintenance shaft towers cast their shadows across the land in lines, one to the west, one still ahead of them, marking the water tunnels to Breccia and Scarcleft respectively.

And far below, a spindevil whirling up the dust in his dance…

No. Not a spindevil.

She clutched at Russet's shoulder. "Artisman. Look behind."

He reined in and turned.

"That's not a spindevil wind," she said. "That's dust from pedes."

They sat in silence, watching, their shock growing. There were so many.

"They can't be after us. I don't think there are that many pedes in the whole of Scarcleft."

"No," Russet agreed. "Look. Not following us. They crossed our trail. Be riding south from Pebblebag Pass toward Breccia."

"Who-?" she began, then stopped. "Reduners."

He nodded. "Interesting. Pedes plenty; men not so many, I think. But too many of both to be trade caravan."

Shale. "We must warn Breccia!"

He gave her a contemptuous look. She flushed, acknowledging it was a silly idea. She and Russet were further away from Breccia than the Reduners, and they were two unskilled riders mounted on a slow hired hack.

"Be too late anyway," he said. "They be looking like supply caravan."

He flicked the reins again and the pede ambled on.

"What do you mean?"

He was silent.

"You think Reduners have already attacked Breccia!"

Russet looked over his shoulder at the caravan, squinting against the light to see better, and shrugged indifferently. "I think maybe we be lucky. I think we be missing the main army. They already in Breccia." She stared at him, appalled, as he added, "Besieging, maybe."

"Oh, Sunlord-no." Shale.

"Not our business."

He flicked the reins, but the pede maintained its leisurely pace. He jabbed it with his pede prod, and it reluctantly moved a little faster. Terelle watched behind. Sunlord save them, she thought, and reached for her water skin to pour out a little water to give force to her prayer. They crossed over the Breccian tunnel several runs of the sandglass later and breathed a little easier. Folds and gullies in the land soon blocked their view and they saw no more of the pedes or their dust.

Another night passed, so cold the stoppers froze in the necks of their water skins. The chill didn't stop the sand-ticks and sand-fleas, though; Terelle rose in the morning itching all over. Another blisteringly hot day followed. Harnessing, saddling and packing their innately lazy mount every day took almost an hour because it would not cooperate. The terrain worsened and the distance they traveled each day decreased. It took them two days now to ride between the deserted caravansaries.

After that, the language lessons became more sporadic. Russet was morose. Terelle would even have welcomed a return of his malicious humor; anything would have been better than hours of riding behind his hunched and silent back. Then, one day, when he seemed slower than usual rising from the sleeping platform in an empty caravansary, it occurred to her it wasn't just bad temper making him so taciturn. He was tired and old and the journey was wearing him out.

Uncharitably, she thought it served him right, but she did take over most of the driving after that, learning to manipulate the reins and the prod and to battle the recalcitrant pede. Russet sat behind her, sunk in his own thoughts, rousing himself only to teach her a few more words in the language of Khromatis.

Her arms and shoulders ached. To dismount after hours of riding meant loosening stiff muscles and joints as if she was teasing out knots. No wonder Russet had been so tired. Still, she had no affection for him. Nothing could erase the knowledge that he had murdered her father and caused her mother's death. It was the pull of Russet's waterpainting that was sending Terelle to the White Quarter, not any genuine wish of hers to find out her history or to meet what was left of her family.

Russet had told her that his son-in-law was the Pinnacle of Khromatis, but the old man had not set foot in his country for twenty years. His son-in-law could just as easily be dead. Anything could have happened. All Russet's dreams for power could be so much dust in the wind. And what did it matter to her? She was Gibber born, Scarpen bred; she didn't want to go to Khromatis. She wanted to make sure Shale was all right. She wanted to explain about the letter Taquar had forced her to write. She wanted to be certain Shale had not done anything foolish because of that letter. What if he surrendered himself to Highlord Taquar again because she had begged him to do so in writing-?

But no, Cloudmaster Granthon would never have let him do that, surely.

What if Sandmaster Davim and his Reduners took Breccia City? Had already taken it?

No, don't even think that.

Sleep, whether wrapped tight in blankets on the ground or barricaded inside a mud-brick caravansary, offered relief from Terelle's tangled thoughts of Taquar and Shale, but dreams brought nightmares which might even have been real. Her sister, Vivie, trapped under the ruins of Opal's Snuggery. Garri the snuggery gatekeeper lying dead in the courtyard, hit by a falling balustrade. Madam Opal herself crushed under a fallen roof… She would wake, cold and shivering, wanting it all to be untrue. Wanting to wake up and find everything was all right.

But it wasn't. She and Russet had caused an earthquake and people had died because of it. Vivie could be dead in truth; she didn't know and had no way of finding out. I will never shuffle up the future again, she thought. Never. Waterpainting power is wrong. To secure the future for your own benefit was wrong-because you never knew who would suffer to make that future real. Their journey continued, apparently interminable. Russet had a fall from the pede and was badly bruised, which necessitated staying days at one of the caravansaries while he recovered. Their supplies ran out and they were reduced to living solely on the bab fruits they found in the caravansaries' groves. The pede liked nothing better, but Terelle found it a boring diet. Fortunately, now there were no travelers, the caravansaries had plenty of water in their cisterns.

With a normal caravan, fifteen days would have found them entering Samphire, the main Alabaster city. It took them almost double that before they even reached the border between Scarpen and the White Quarter, a place called Fourcross Tell where all four quarters met.

The caravansary there, on the heights of a crumbling plateau, was not deserted as the others had been. The keeper and his family were, however, readying for their departure to return home to the Gibber.

The keeper's wife, a spare woman with straggling gray hair and a harassed expression that could have been permanent, was only too glad to explain why. "We was attacked this morning, by a small band of them withering red marauders, the beaded bastards," she said. "Took everythin' they could find, they did. They're ridin' into the White Quarter, seizin' water-anythin'. They spared us till now 'cause we served Reduner caravans well in the past, but we've decided we don't want t'risk it no more. Got to think of them." She indicated the two children clinging to her traveling breeches. Their worried faces, wearing expressions that were miniatures of their mother's, peeked out through uncombed hair.

Her husband looked Terelle up and down in pity. "You'll be ripe for their pluckin', girl. Watch how you go. You're welcome t'whatever we've left behind. We won't be comin' back. Get the young 'uns up on the beasts," he added to his wife. "We've lingered long enough."

"You think they'll be back? The Reduners?" Terelle asked.

He gave a bitter laugh. "Oh, yes. They made that clear. This part of the Quartern belongs t'them red savages now."

Terelle and Russet watched the family urge their mounts down the hill slope into the Gibber, the two pedes-prodded into fast mode-scudding up dust that hung in the air long after they'd gone.

"Are we going to be safe?" Terelle asked as they shared a meal that evening while the sun slipped behind the Warthago Range. "Shale told me Davim and his tribe wanted to take over the White Quarter. We might be riding into the middle of a battle."

Russet thought for a moment. "Best we pass Samphire by, no?"

"How do we do that?"

"Cross Whiteout."

"The Whiteout? I've heard of that. It's a salt plain."

"Flat. Easy ride. No Reduners be finding us on Whiteout. Cross straight to salt marshes. That be the border to Khromatis."

"I've heard stories about the pans. Trackless, they say. Just heat and salt and nothing else in all directions. I heard the white sends folk mad. How will we find our way?"

"I crossed it once. Can be doing it again." Russet stood abruptly and walked to the doorway. He pointed across the courtyard to the open gateway. "Look! See that white line bordering the sky? Those be the clouds over Variega mountains in land of Watergivers. That be where we be heading. Keep clouds in sight, can never lose selves."

She squinted. The caravansary was high on the range dividing the southern quarters of the Gibber and the Scarpen from the northern two-the White and the Red-and the view to the east and northeast was extensive. The plain far below stretched without interruption to the distant line of pinkish white, illuminated by the last long rays of the setting sun. "Why can't we see the mountains themselves?" she asked, doubtful.

"Far, far away. Later ye see the white tops."

"White? Are they made of salt then?"

"Be topped with snow," he said, and she heard his familiar mockery of her ignorance.

"Snow? What's that?"

"A form of water. Like-like shavings of white ice."

She tried to imagine a world where there was so much water it coated the hilltops with ice shavings, and failed.

"That family leaving much food behind. Pack it all," he said. "And all water pede can carry. Make sure it drinks well too, before we be leaving." He already sounded invigorated, as if the hint of his homeland had infused him with energy.

Terelle did as he suggested, stripping the bab palms of their ripe fruit the next morning in the washed-out light of predawn and cutting them into strips so they would dry easily. She filled every water skin they had to the brim, sealing them with candle grease after stoppering them tightly. Russet found some extra dayjars, and she placed those in the side panniers of the pede as well. When they'd finished, Terelle regarded the loaded pede dubiously.

"That's a heavy load for a myriapede," she said.

"Downhill," Russet said. "Then flat, mile after mile. Each day weight less as we drink and eat, no?"

"The pede will need to drink a lot, and often, out there. How many days will it take to cross the Whiteout?"

"Less time than be taking to finish the water," he replied.

Unsettled, she wondered if he really knew. In the snuggery, she had heard tales of the White Quarter, of travelers dying on the salt, their bodies found years later, mummified and dried solid. Pickled. What kind of people were they, these Alabasters, who apparently did not have red blood in their veins? Who could live in a land where the very ground beneath one's feet was made of salt?

In the first few miles after Fourcross Tell, the land was not all that different from the areas they had already crossed: stunted trees dug into the soil with grotesquely twisted roots, gullies scarred the land in memory of long-ago streams. Even the dust felt the same. Later in the day, though, as they descended to the plains, the vegetation changed and she felt as if she was leaving everything sure and familiar behind. The trees disappeared, replaced by low bushes and creepers snaking over the ochre-colored earth. When they stopped to rest, Terelle fingered the leaves of one plant and found it dusted with salt.

It was hot by then, stifling. The air hung so still it felt heavy on her shoulders, and thick to breathe. When she licked her lips, she tasted salt. When she touched her hair, it was stickily coated.

"We stay here while sun high," Russet said. They dismounted and he sat in the shadow cast by the pede. Wearily, he pulled his embroidered head-wrap loose and drank from his water skin. His earlier vigor seemed to have been vanquished by the heat. "We go on later; be cooler."

Terelle nodded and strung up bab matting for shade by tying it to the pede on one side and a single saltbush on the other. She sat down next to Russet, using the pede as a backrest. Even under the cover, the heat was intense enough to shrivel the skin. Carefully she smoothed some of the pede ointment onto her face; Vivie would have approved. The pede flicked one of its feelers backward and touched her cheek in a tentative gesture.

"What is it, girl?" she asked. "You can't be thirsty already." Gently, she prodded the belly between the segments; the moisture-saturated tissues were soft. She gazed into its myopic compound eyes, and wondered whether it had a name or not. The liveryman had called it Number Twelve-indeed, it had the number etched into its rear segment. It wasn't a handsome creature, all carved and polished and sewn with embroidery, like a lord's animal. It was just a plain, working hack. Still, she tried to do what was best for it. Russet had said pedemen kept the crevices between carapace and skin cleaned of grains of sand and such, so every evening she groomed the pede carefully and checked every segment groove for sand-ticks, every one of its eighteen pairs of feet for injury. When she found abraded spots on its skin, she smeared on the lanolin supplied by the livery.

Encouraged by Terelle's words, the beast curved its front end around, poked its head into the shade cast by the cloth, then rested the base of its head on the ground at her feet. If a pede could look soulful, then that was what it did. Terelle chuckled. "Oh, I see-you're just hot too, eh? Fine, Number Twelve, you stay right where you are. We can share the shade." The creature settled its first segment mantle down over its eyes-the only way it had of closing them-and dozed. Next to her, Russet was already sleeping.

Terelle glanced around. Nothing moved in the midday heat, so she, too, closed her eyes. She was awoken by a scream.

She leaped up, whirling around to find the danger. The pede raised its head and flicked its feelers. Russet was clutching his leg and moaning.

"What is it?" Terelle asked, trying to slow the thumping of her heart.

"Something be stinging me." Hurriedly, he pulled the cloth of his wrap back from his calf. A single spot of blood oozed just above the ankle.

"Snake?" She cast around where he had been lying, but nothing moved.

"Only one hole."

"Sand-leech?"

"More painful. Scorpion."

"That-that's not-not so very serious, is it?"

"Not if ye be treating it," he replied between gritted teeth. "Reduners use herbal concoction."

"We can go back to the caravansary-"

"Don't be stupid. We be going on. Get the water skin. Must be washing leg." He took the water and waved her away, indicating with further gesturing that she should dismantle the shade cloth and reload the pede. She did as he asked; she knew better than to argue.

They set off once more, in silence, and she concentrated on persuading the pede to whatever speed it was capable of-which never seemed to be as much as she had seen other pedes do. Whenever she looked behind at Russet, he was staring straight ahead, expressionless.

When she slowed their mount some hours later, thinking to stop for the night because the sun had almost set, he spoke again. "No," he said, "go on."

"I won't know what direction. I can't even see the ground properly." And I'm tired. And you are sick.

"See well enough once star river shines. Go on."

She did as he asked. A little later he brusquely pointed out a particularly bright star in the sky and said, "Be keeping that on your left."

He was silent for a long time as they continued. Every now and then she turned her head to check if he was still there, to find him hunched up and motionless behind her. In the silver-blue light she could not tell if the bite was bothering him. She felt a pang of guilt at her lack of compassion, but he was forcing her on this journey, sunblast it! He had no right to expect anything of her except rage.

It was pleasant traveling in the cool of the night; at least at first. Later the slight breeze they generated with their passing chilled her skin like slivers of ice. She drifted off, dozing on the saddle, but roused with a start when he spoke.

"We camp now."

His voice sounded small and thin in the silence of the night, as friable as ancient sun-bleached rock. She reined in, dismounted and went back to help him. Even so, he fell out of the saddle rather than climbed down, and then collapsed, unable to stand.

"Give me my pack and be fixing a meal," he said, and there was still enough authority in his tone to have her obey without protest. If he did not ask for help, she knew it would only anger him to offer it. She stifled a sigh.

By the time he was wrapped in his blanket, she had a fire alight, using dry twigs and leaves for fuel. The salt coating the soil and plants spat in the flames with green and blue sparks, the sound animating the quiet of a salt-encrusted world. She made some soup out of the shredded dried meat and bab root she had obtained at the caravansary. She had to wake him when it was ready, but he ate gladly enough, then slept again. After she'd had some of the soup herself, she went to groom the pede. It was eating the low plants with enthusiasm and took no notice as she followed it around brushing out its segment joints. When she'd finished, she hobbled the animal by linking its antennae together. No pede moved far or fast when it didn't have the free use of its feelers.

Just before she turned in herself, she felt the pull of her journey as sharp as a knife beneath her ribs. The pull of the future Russet had painted for her.

My mother could resist, she thought. Why can't I? And she remembered once again the offhand words Vivie had uttered about Sienna: she was always ill.

Resistance came with a price.

CHAPTER FIVE

Scarpen Quarter Breccia City Breccia Hall, Level 2 Beryll.

She was dead. One moment Ryka had been so relieved to find her little sister alive and unhurt-and then she was gone. Those blue eyes had lost their light like a candle suddenly snuffed.

Ryka's stomach heaved in rebellion. No. She clamped a hand across her mouth. Not Beryll. She was so young.

She swallowed the bile in her throat. Sweet Sunlord, why? Beryll, you could have recovered from rape, but there's no coming back from death… Why, oh why couldn't you see that?

She mustn't think about it. Mustn't dwell on it, or she'd lose her edge. Beryll was dead; accept it. But Kaneth? She had to believe he was still alive. His son moved within her body, and him she must keep safe, no matter what it took. She inhaled, a deep calming breath to push away the paralyzing grief. Think, woman. Start planning. You are Ryka, rainlord.

She glanced about Ravard's quarters. Watergiver damn, I recognize this. It's Nealrith's private reception room. Her next astonished thought was tinged with fear. Who the sunblast is this Ravard fellow that he warrants the Breccian highlord's quarters?

Davim, obviously, would be quartered in the Cloudmaster's rooms, if he wanted them. She'd already known Ravard must be important from the way he dressed and the way he had bantered with Davim, even defying his orders to kill her. But to be assigned the highlord's apartment?

Davim's son? No, not possible, surely. Ravard must have been twenty or so, and Davim didn't look much older than Ryka herself. His sons, if he had any, would still be children.

She shivered and wrapped her arms around her upper body. Night had fallen and the rooms were cold. The shutters had been left open, and no one had brought fuel for the night braziers. Limping because the wound in her leg pained her, she stepped out onto the balcony and looked over the balustrade for a way to escape. Her distance vision was blurred, but the burning torches helped her recognize where she was. Below was the open forecourt in front of the main doors of the hall. Now there were guards camped there and fires burned on the paving. The smell of cooked meat wafted upward. She wasn't surprised. She knew many Reduners hated the idea of sleeping within solid buildings.

Oh, the smell of that food… Sunlord, but she was hungry!

Quelling all thought of eating to concentrate on her escape, she raised her eyes to the defensive wall surrounding the first and second levels. It was patrolled by Davim's men; she could see their shapes against the sky. If she tried to escape via the balcony, she would just be climbing down into an ants' nest of Reduner warriors-and still be on the wrong side of the wall. There was no freedom for her that way. For a moment despair overwhelmed her.

Her father, her mother, Beryll. All gone. Her friends, her city, her whole way of life; too much, too soon. It numbed her, and she couldn't afford to be numb. Watergiver's heart, she had to fight. For Kaneth. For their son. For their land.

Closing the shutters behind her to keep out the cold of night, she stepped back inside and examined the apartment with more care by the light of the single tiny oil lamp they had left for her. If the mess was any indication, the place had been searched and looted. No, more than that: it had been the scene of a fight. The head of a Scarpen-made spear was buried in a cupboard door, the shaft missing. The tip of a sword blade lay on the floor. The rest of the weapon was nowhere to be seen. A chair was smashed, the pieces lying where they had fallen.

She tried the door she had entered by, only to find it firmly barred from the outside. When she crossed to one of the other two doors, she found it led to Nealrith's private study. The floor and desk there were strewn with parchment and scrolls. A dark splash of blood had sprayed across the wall and then dribbled downward in parallel lines.

The second door opened into Nealrith's bedroom. The bed was unmade, and a Reduner cloak had been flung carelessly over the end. The wardrobe and a trunk made of bab wood had been emptied, although some of the contents seemed to have been discarded on the floor. The entrance to a small water-room was hidden behind a carved screen. There was another door as well, bolted top and bottom. She opened the bolts, only to find it was somehow locked or barred on the other side as well. She guessed Laisa's bedroom lay beyond.

Ryka wanted to sit down and give in to despair. Instead, she began to search methodically, looking for anything that could be helpful. In the study she salvaged some paper and a graphite stick for writing, a piece of twine, a tinderbox, flint and steel. In the water-room she drank deeply from the dayjar; in the reception room she examined the broken sword point. It was, she decided, too short to be of any use to her as a weapon. She considered digging out the spearhead, decided Ravard might notice it had gone and reluctantly left it where it was, a symbol of a battle lost. Her gaze alighted on the wood of the broken chair with more hope. The shards were long and sharp; the wood hard. She found a number of pieces that might have potential as makeshift daggers, and secreted them in various places around the rooms, tucking one under the pallet of the bed.

In the bedroom she picked through what was left of the clothes to find something clean and small enough for her to wear, finally selecting a tunic and a pair of trousers probably dating back to Nealrith's adolescent years. In the water-room she used the water closet, then eyed with interest the porphyry bathtub big enough to sit in, the full copper, the seaweed briquettes in the fireplace underneath, and the soap. She hadn't had a proper bath in over a star cycle. She and Kaneth had done their best to cut water consumption, wiping themselves clean with wet cloths-but right now she couldn't think of any material thing she wanted more than a soaking hot bath. And why conserve water, anyway? Whatever there was would only go to the city's conquerors.

She started a fire under the copper, and when the water was warm she ladled it into the porphyry tub. After a quick listen at the door to the outside passage just to make sure there was no sign of Ravard's approach, she returned to the water-room, stripped off and stepped into the glorious decadence of a hot, soapy bath. Ryka woke before dawn, ravenous and in a state of unfocused terror. Fatigue and tattered emotions had plummeted her into the oblivion of an exhausted sleep in one of the large woven chairs in the reception room, covered by a blanket taken from Nealrith's bed.

Even before she was properly awake, she was on her feet. She had slept. How could she have fallen asleep? She'd been devastated by Beryll's death. So scared of the Reduner returning and demanding the use of her body. Worried sick by Kaneth's disappearance, by the unthinkable idea the Reduners had thrown his unconscious body on a funeral pyre and burned him alive.

And she had slept like a child. What sort of woman was she? Furious with her weakness, she stood in the dimness of the room lit by a single guttering oil lamp, shivering. And then realized-this was not the lamp she had been using.

Her nebulous fear coagulated into something more immediate. She drew in a sharp breath. She wasn't alone.

Someone stood beside the open door to the bedroom. She stared. A Reduner. Not Ravard. Someone else-a man standing with folded arms, a favorite stance of a dune warrior on guard. Guarding the door from her? She stared past him to the room beyond. A man lay sprawled on the bed, on top of the covers and still dressed. Another lamp at the bedside showed a face smoothed by sleep into youthful innocence.

She knew better than to trust her eyesight. "Ravard?" she asked softly, raising an eyebrow in query at the guard. His face was impassive, but his eyes glinted, promising action if she moved toward the door.

"Kher Ravard," he agreed, his tone chiding because she had not used the honorific.

She allowed herself the hint of a smile. So she worried Ravard enough he didn't feel quite safe and had to have a guard at his door? Good. She wanted to keep him off balance. Then her smile faded. He had come, found her asleep in the chair and then left her alone. Strange, unsettling man.

Who could this Ravard be?

Kher, she knew, meant the equivalent of lord. It was a title carried by only a handful of any dune's elite, including the tribemasters, the men who commanded one of the encampments of that dune. No more than ten men, fifteen at the outside, even on a large dune like the Watergatherer.

Three of these tribal leaders were particularly important; they were the sandmaster's blood sons or adopted sons and they would all be water sensitives. The least of them was the Drover Son, who was charged with the care of the dune's pedes, their capture, training and sale. The second in importance was the Warrior Son, who trained and commanded all the dune's armed tribesmen. The most important was the Master Son, who would one day be sandmaster unless there was a closer blood relative with water sensitivity to take his place.

When a sandmaster didn't have three blood sons, or if his sons were still children, or if they were water-blind, then it was common practice to adopt sons. This arrangement was sometimes lasting, sometimes temporary.

Ryka wrinkled her forehead, trying to recall anything else that might be useful to know. There were at least two others who would be addressed as kher as well, the Shaman Kher and the Trader Kher, but neither of them, she decided, would be given Nealrith's rooms for their use, even if they were in Breccia. No, Ravard must be a tribemaster at least, sandblast his eyes.

Cold and frightened, she turned away from the guard and limped to open the shutters and walk through to the balcony. He made no move to stop her. Dawn light was already in the sky, and the wall and its sentries were outlined against a pale background streaked with rose pink, promising a lovely sunrise over a devastated, suffering city. She dropped her gaze to the huddled sleeping warriors below; their fires extinguished, they were barely visible in the darkness of the courtyard.

"Kaneth," she whispered, "where are you? Please be alive. I need you to help me protect our son. He is all that matters. He must have a future, even if we do not…"

She waited for the sun to rise and the day to begin, dreading the new griefs it would harbor. Hunger gnawed at her insides, not just for food but for the renewal of her power. In her weakened state, she could feel neither the water within living things nor the bodies of water within the city; she had no more perception than an ordinary citizen. She'd never been the best of rainlords, but she hated being so water-blind, so cut off from her surroundings. To add to her physical misery, her muscles ached from the fighting of the previous two days and the healing wound on her leg was stiff and sore.

When there was movement in the rooms behind her, she did not move. She heard Ravard murmur something to the guard, but could not sense his water, so when he stepped up behind her and draped his cloak over her shoulders she jumped.

"Cold at this time of the morning," he said. "You shouldn't be standing out here so ill-clad."

She did not turn to face him. "Thank you," she said, her voice flat.

"Glad t'see you slept," he added.

"Better than remembering the horror of yesterday."

"War and horror are twin brothers."

"We did not ask for this war."

He shrugged. "Weren't none of my doing, neither." When she didn't reply, he added, "I'll not force you t'share my nights, y'know. I get no joy from that. But I need a woman t'warm me. Last night I was too tired, but that won't last. If it's not you, then I'll choose another."

"And what happens to me then?" she asked, already knowing what the answer was likely to be.

"You go back to the general pick. Take your chances when the warriors choose a woman. Many of 'em share and some are none too fussy what they do with a woman. You're better off with me, but it's your choice."

She turned to face him then, tilting her head in question as she asked with genuine curiosity, "Why me?"

His mouth quirked up. "I like a feisty woman. Women of courage breed warriors. The tribe needs good strong blood, like yours. Pretty faces mean nothing. Not to me."

Well, thanks for that, you oaf. "I've got to be ten years older than you."

Ravard continued to smile. "An advantage. I seek learning from the experienced."

"What do you offer me?"

He laughed out loud. "I'll be waterless! You have the cheek of a sand-tick, woman. All right, I'll tell you. The alternative you know, and it's not pleasant. With me, there's only me. No one else will dare t'touch you. And best of all, your child-girl or boy-will come under my protection. Not just now, but always. On that you have m'word."

"What proof do I have you'll keep your word?"

His face darkened and his jaw tightened. It was a moment before he replied. "I am Tribemaster Kher Ravard, son of the sandmaster. My word is my honor."

Son? Watergiver help me. He would have water competence equivalent to a reeve! A chill coursed down her spine. He could resist any attempt she made to kill him by taking his water.

Damn, damn, damn. "I apologize. How could I know that?"

"Don't make the same mistake twice. Grown men have died for less insult to the son of Davim."

"I am not a fool. Very well; I accept your offer. I will, er, warm your bed." You withering waste of water.

"Willingly?"

"Yes, in exchange for your protection for me and my child. But I would ask a small boon."

"Boon? I don't know the word."

Ryka was gambling, she knew. "A favor. Yesterday I lost my husband, my sister, my parents, my city. To lie with you so soon would be to dishonor them. Give me ten days to grieve. It is our custom."

His eyes narrowed. "You dream."

"The difference between a reluctant woman in your bed and a willing one is worth the wait."

He considered and then shrugged. "Three. You can have three days and nights to grieve. Starting now."

She allowed a short silence before she nodded. And you'll be dead before then, you arrogant louse. You think a woman forgets the father of her son so readily? "I sleep alone three more nights, and then come willingly," she agreed. Blighted eyes, this has to be the strangest ravishment ever.

Before he could answer, a loud knocking came at the door. Ravard stepped back into the reception room to deal with the visitor, and Ryka turned away to look down at the forecourt once more. The warriors were awake, eating food brought to them from the kitchens by Scarpen women. She looked on the scene with pity; even with her poor eyesight she could see the women looked wretched and that most had torn clothes. She averted her eyes, rather than watch.

Ravard came out onto the balcony once more. "My father calls me. You stay here, in these rooms. I'll be back on the fourth day. I expect to be welcomed."

"I hope you intend to feed me in the meantime. I had nothing to eat at all yesterday, and not much the day before, either."

"Oh. Of course. I never thought of that. I'll have something sent up."

As he turned to go, she asked, "Are you really Davim's son?"

He paused to answer. "Not blood son, no, but his son for all that. If not, you'd have died on the floor together with the girl you so foolishly tried t'protect."

Once again she gambled, hoping he would not see anything odd in her knowledge. "You are the Warrior Son?"

Another smile. "No, Garnet. I'm the Master Son."

He departed then, leaving her in shock. Master Son! He was heir to Davim, to the leadership of the whole Watergatherer Dune. Not only would she be unable to kill him the rainlord way, but his importance meant she would be under scrutiny, too. She leaned against the balcony railing and dropped her head into her hands, giving in to her despair. Barely half the run of a sandglass later, still before any food had been brought to her, Ryka saw Ravard again. He was in the forecourt talking to several guards, giving orders. A few moments later, a number of prisoners were brought out of the building. Most of them were boys, varying in age from about nine or ten to fourteen or so. Scattered among them were some older men. She squinted hard, cursing her inadequate eyesight, and thought she recognized Breccia Hall livery.

Skilled men, I bet, she thought. The kind of people they need as slaves. Cooks, perhaps. Or pede grooms.

Anxiously she scanned the men, looking for others she might know. And spotted one she had not thought to see again: the pikeman Elmar Waggoner. At least he was easy to recognize; there was no mistaking his face with its twisted scar from the chin across his left cheek to his forehead. She drew in a sharp breath. He had been one of their academy teachers and later one of Kaneth's men, the pikeman who had fought at his side against the Reduner incursions into the Scarpen. He had been with Kaneth when they snatched Jasper from Highlord Taquar and the seneschal of Scarcleft. And he had fought alongside her and Kaneth in the waterhall. She'd thought him dead, but he must have been one of the few who'd escaped in the final few moments after the roof was breached.

She shook her head in disbelief. The man led a charmed life. Possibly because he's a damn fine warrior. Smart, skilled and withering lucky, the ugly bastard, she thought affectionately.

Fingers gripping the balcony balustrade, she stared at him, willing him to look up. He did not notice, apparently fully concerned with the man dressed in a hall servant's livery who stood, half-slumped, next to him. The fellow swayed as if injured; a rough bandage had been wrapped around his bald head. Which was odd, when she came to think of it. They killed their own badly wounded; why by all that's wet would they leave a wounded Scarperman alive?

The prisoners were lined up at the foot of the steps leading to the massive main doors of the hall, from which Davim emerged a moment later. He halted on the top step to survey the people arrayed before him, then beckoned to Ravard. The young man took the stairs two at a time to his father's side. The two men had a conversation, after which Ravard turned to address the prisoners, his voice strong and clear. Ryka had no trouble hearing him from where she was.

"You're now slaves of the dunes," he began. "You have a choice. You can submit t'slavery, or you can die now. Your women folk had the same choice. Most chose t'live. Work hard and display loyalty to your masters and one day you'll earn your freedom. If you choose t'serve, tomorrow you will be taken to the dunes-refuse, and you die here, today. Now."

He nodded to the row of watching guards. Five of them came to the bottom of the steps, where they drew their scimitars. Davim stayed where he was, but Ravard descended to the forecourt, where he seized one of the prisoners, a half-grown boy, by the scruff of the neck and pushed him down onto his knees. When he spoke again, the words were still loud enough for all the slaves to hear. "Say this, lad: 'I swear obedience t'my new masters. I swear loyalty t'Davim, sandmaster.' "

The boy looked around wildly, seeking aid from the crowd of slaves. One of the guards slapped his face with the flat of his scimitar, drawing a thin line of blood. The boy started to stutter the submission, but Ravard had to prompt him several times before he could get the words out.

Ryka watched, unable to drag her eyes away from the sickening fascination of the scene. One by one the other boys in the front row followed the example of the first, but she knew sooner or later someone would choose death. It came with the tenth prisoner-a lad of perhaps fourteen or fifteen who refused to kneel. He was not given a chance to draw another breath. His throat was slit and his blood pumped out onto the paving, dark and viscous.

Yet still Ryka could not look away. It seemed right that she was there to bear witness to such bravery, even as her heart ached and her logic told her it was better to go on living-to live so one day you could fight back.

Elmar was the first adult to be asked to swear fealty. Ryka's fingers tightened their grip on the balustrade. She expected him to choose death. Elmar, a slave? It was unthinkable. He was one of the bravest men she knew, never showing any fear of death. Anxiously she strained to hear his answer.

Before he gave it, however, Davim intervened, calling out in Reduner, "Why do we want this man? With a scar on his face like that, he must have been a warrior."

Ryka felt sick.

Ravard replied in the same language, "He's a worker of metals. He told me the scar's from a splash of liquid metal. We need his skills, and he says he'll work for us."

"And the man standing next to him?" Davim asked.

"That's the fellow I mentioned earlier," Ravard said. He had to speak loudly so Davim could hear, but Ryka guessed it didn't worry either of them because they assumed no one except the Reduners understood their tongue. "The one who survived the fire and can't remember who he is. He has a wound on his head, in addition to the burns, which probably explains the loss of his wits."

Ryka stiffened and leaned forward. Nausea swamped her, trailing a futile hope. The man didn't look like Kaneth.

At Ravard's words, several of the guards shifted uneasily, and exchanged glances. Davim, his interest sharply focused, took several steps down the stairs to see better. Ryka could not take her gaze from the wounded man. He remained where he had been, his stillness remarkable in one who had obviously been so badly hurt. He waited as if he was uninterested in the outcome, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. There was nothing in the relaxed way he stood to tell Ryka it was Kaneth, yet her heart started to pound.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to have decent eyesight!

"Bring him here," Davim told Ravard.

Ravard gripped the man by the arm and urged him to mount the steps to the sandmaster. At that moment, Ryka heard the door to Nealrith's reception room open and looked over her shoulder. A young woman she didn't know entered carrying a tray laden with food. Bobbing her head quickly in Ryka's direction, she deposited the tray on the table and scuttled toward the door where a guard waited.

Ryka, no longer interested in food, quickly turned her attention back to what was happening outside. She heard the door close, but her focus was elsewhere.

"Food," a voice behind her said.

She jumped, her heart pounding wildly as she whirled to see that, although the woman had left, the guard had not. He stood close behind her, pointing at the tray. "Eat. Kher Ravard say."

She nodded and calmed. The smell of freshly cooked bab bread wafted her way. "All right. I will," she told him with an impatient nod, still not interested.

He frowned, not moving, worried perhaps that she was refusing to eat at all. To distract him, and because she wanted to know the answer, she pointed down into the courtyard and asked, "The man down there in front of Sandmaster Davim-who is he?"

The guard, his frown deepening, approached the balcony railing. She pointed again, to where Davim stood with Ravard, both staring at the man with the bandaged head. She could no longer hear anything they said to each other, but the man was unwinding his bandage in apparent answer to a request.

"Half-face," the guard said, his words guttural, as he struggled to speak an unfamiliar tongue. "Born mother fire. Dune god sire."

She stared at him blankly, wondering what he meant. Mothered by a fire and fathered by the dune god? Ah, one of the stories found in Reduner myths, if she remembered rightly.

He struggled on. "Half-face. Kher Shaman. Dune god son." When she continued to look blank, he gave up trying to explain. "Eat," he repeated. "Kher Ravard say."

"Yes, yes, all right. I will." She stepped toward the tray and stuffed some bread into her mouth.

Satisfied, he left then, and she turned once more to the tableau on the steps. Davim was reaching out a hand to cup the cheek of the wounded man. He spoke, Ravard translated, and the man sank to his knees, apparently uttering his promise of allegiance. Ravard said something more and the man rose.

As soon as he turned to descend the stairs, the warriors drew back out of his way, and Ryka saw his face for the first time. Half of it was horribly and freshly scarred. All his hair had burned away to leave him bald and the skin of his head was unnaturally red. A rough twist of fresh scabbing tissue crossed his skull-but in spite of his injuries and the relaxed way he walked, she had no trouble recognizing him now. He may have worn the livery of a Breccia Hall servant, but he was Kaneth Carnelian, rainlord.

CHAPTER SIX

Scarpen Quarter The Skirtings between Breccia and Scarcleft Cities Scarcleft City, Scarcleft Hall, Level 2 Jasper woke in the cool of the predawn, with a savage headache throbbing at the back of his eyes and a foul taste on a coated tongue. Thoughts jostled, unpleasantly confused. He frowned, sorting through the muddle in his head for something coherent, for something that made sense of how he felt.

He was on his way to the sea, he remembered that much. Breccia had fallen. He had killed Nealrith, rather than see him suffer. Cloudmaster Granthon was dead. And he, Jasper Bloodstone, was the only stormlord the Quartern now possessed, even though his water sensitivity was flawed and incomplete. Making clouds from sea water was beyond him, which meant people would thirst and die.

He blinked, looking straight up at the fading stars in the sky. Somewhere under his bedroll, a stone dug into his back, so he shifted position-and saw someone looking down at him.

Taquar. Taquar Sardonyx.

But that couldn't be right. Taquar lived in Scarcleft on The Escarpment, west of Breccia City. But he, Jasper, was going to Portennabar on the south coast with Laisa and Senya. His frown deepened. There was something. A memory. Hadn't he protested at one stage about going in the wrong direction? He groaned. Why couldn't he remember?

He blinked, focusing. And sat bolt upright. It was Taquar.

The man was looking down on him, with a half-smile on his lips and a sardonic glint in eyes reflecting the light from the lantern he held high.

"Good morning, Shale," he said softly. "It is good to see you again."

Jasper scrambled to his feet, senses muddled, thoughts lagging behind what his eyes told him was true. Senya stood behind Taquar with the smug, superior expression on her face that he hated so much; her mother stood further back holding the reins of a pede. What's going on?

And then he knew.

His gaze flew to Laisa.

She shrugged. "Sorry."

"Why?" he asked. "Why, damn it?" Bitterness consumed him. How could he have been so stupid as to trust Laisa? Kaneth had even warned him about her!

"It's for the best."

He refused to look at Taquar, but pointed to him as he yelled at Laisa, "After what that withering bastard did to us? He encouraged Davim! And now Breccia's fallen, the Cloudmaster is dead, your own husband tortured so badly that-" He choked. He'd slit the throat of the man he was proud to call a friend. The kind of man he wished had been his father. "Why?" he cried again.

Laisa shrugged. "To be on the winning side, why else? I didn't want to be harried from city to city by Davim's marauders, always wondering whether I'd be dead before the end of the next star cycle." She sighed, more a sound of regret than exasperation. "Jasper, look at it this way. In Scarcleft you will be safe. Davim is not going to take Scarcleft the way he took Breccia City and Qanatend. Taquar has defenses: ziggers, pedes, more trained men than Breccia City ever had. He can protect you, and he can take the battle to Davim in a way Nealrith never could, if it proves necessary."

It was well she did not wait for a reply because, although he heard the words, his head felt as if it was filled with sand.

"And with Taquar to help," she continued, "perhaps you can be a stormbringer. He was strong enough to steal Granthon's storm, remember? He can help you extract clouds from the sea."

Senya interrupted. "How else are we going to get water? You can't do it on your own! If it weren't for Taquar, if we'd gone to Portennabar, we'd all be waterless, with you being as much use as a pebble in a dayjar."

Her contempt riled Jasper beyond measure, and his distaste made his head ache even more. With difficulty, he reined in his rage. "Where are we?" he asked.

It was Taquar who answered. "Two hours' ride from the walls of Scarcleft."

The words mocked him. Mocked his brief taste of freedom. He looked at the highlord then, locked his gaze onto the man's gray eyes set in a face as swarthy as his own.

"You aren't going to Portennabar, Shale," Taquar said with quiet certainty.

Deliberately, Jasper began to relax the muscles of his back and neck, to ease the tightness of his shoulders, in an attempt to appear in command of himself. If only his damned head would cooperate. "No? And if I insist? What will you do-use those ziggers on me?" He gave a derisive snort and nodded at the zigger cage strapped to the back of the pede Laisa held.

Drugged, he thought, those two spitless women drugged me. That was the only explanation for his confusion. He felt like killing them both. His drinking water, of course. Laisa had carried it for him while he covered their escape by fighting the Reduners outside the walls of Breccia. He'd had to show Davim's men that he'd escaped the city so they would not kill the hostages in their attempt to force his surrender to the sandmaster.

He still didn't know what had happened after that. Perhaps they had killed the hostages anyway. Perhaps all the Breccian rainlords were dead, not just Nealrith and Cloudmaster Granthon. Maybe even Ryka and Kaneth. His heart lurched. Please let them at least be safe…

But he had no way of knowing.

"Laisa's right," Taquar said. "On your own, no one gets water. With me, we have a chance. You are stronger and more experienced than you used to be, and I have been working on vapor extraction in the years since I saw you last. But we will talk of this again later, in Scarcleft." He snuffed the wick of his lantern now that the sky was pink with dawn.

"I'm not going back to be imprisoned by you all over again. You're sandcrazy to think I will! And what did you do to Terelle? Kill her the way you killed Amethyst?"

"I didn't kill Terelle, I assure you. She is free, living her own life. And who mentioned a prison? You will live in Scarcleft Hall with Laisa, Senya and me, an honored guest. The Quartern's Stormlord. You'll have whatever you need. My word on it."

"Your words are not worth as much as the air it takes to say them. How do I know anything you say is the truth?" Terelle. Ah, please let that be the truth. Jasper's heart thudded under his ribs as he dared to think of her, dared to hope she was alive and free.

Taquar shrugged. "Then think of the Quartern. Without me, you will never bring clouds to the Warthago, or anywhere else, either."

The horrible thing was, he was probably correct. Without help, will I be able to lift a single drop of fresh water into the sky from the ocean? He could move clouds all over the sky afterward; he could send them wherever he wanted-but that initial pulling of the vapor out of the salty waters of the Giving Sea was, as far as he knew, still beyond his flawed powers. They had been planning to go to Portennabar because Nealrith and Granthon had hoped being close to the sea would make it easier for him. Even Taquar had once suggested it as a possible solution. Jasper had always been dubious.

In no mood to be conciliatory, he glowered at Laisa. "You think the Quartern will be best served by having its only stormlord under the thumb of the man who as good as invited Davim to attack us?"

"Come now, Jasper. Think," she said in answer. "Taquar's reason for keeping you hidden no longer exists. If he was the only one who knew who you were and where you were, then he had power. His aim was to make us believe he was the stormlord." She smiled at Taquar, her glance gently mocking. "The irony of that, of course, was that it wasn't necessary. Granthon made him heir-if he'd waited, he would have had the power of a ruler legitimately, even if he couldn't be a proper stormlord."

She handed the pede reins to Senya and came forward to lay her hands on Jasper's shoulders. He was uncomfortably aware of her, of her perfume, of her sensuality. He was taller than her now, but she made him feel awkward, clumsy, and very young. He schooled his face into an expressionless mask as the first rays of the sun cast morning shadows across The Skirtings.

"But that has all changed," she said. "All Taquar wants to do now is keep you safe in Scarcleft and help you create storms. He needs water just as much as the rest of us, after all. If we abandon the other three quarters, the two of you may manage to supply all of Scarpen."

He was silent, hiding his rage behind the mask. She so easily dismissed the rest of the Quartern and all its people as if they were of no import. Faces skimmed through his memory: the Alabaster salt trader Feroze Khorash, who had offered aid when he needed it; the Gibber folk of his childhood. People like them would die of thirst, if Laisa and Taquar had their way.

He shook off her hand and bent to pick up his cloak and put it over his shoulders. The sun might have risen, but there was little warmth to the air yet.

Laisa added with unusual gentleness, "If Taquar wants to sever the power of the stormlord-you-from that of the Quartern ruler-himself-then let him. It's no bad thing, you know. People will not protest his rule. They are afraid, and they know Taquar is the strongest leader we have. It will not diminish your standing; you are a stormlord-the stormlord. You will be revered; you'll have everything you want."

He stared at her, wondering what her motive was, hating her because she could forget Nealrith so soon. Because she could forgive Taquar so easily. Because in a terrible, ghastly way, she too was right.

He looked away from her back to Taquar and said levelly, "I know what you plan. You want to give the north to Davim and his tribe to do what they want with. And you think you're going to rule in the south in a way the Scarpen and the Gibber have never been ruled before. As a-a-" he searched his memory for the correct word "-a tyrant. The cities of the Scarpen and the towns and villages of the Gibber will have no autonomy, no freedom. And what will be left of the Gibber, anyway, if it is sent no water?"

Laisa arched an eyebrow. "Autonomy? Where did a Gibber grubber learn a word like that?"

Senya sniggered.

He did not look at either of them, but kept his gaze pinned on Taquar as he continued, although he addressed Laisa, not the highlord. "I read a lot." His voice was steady, uninflected. He wondered if she guessed how inadequate her scorn made him feel. "Let's assume for a moment that Taquar and I, in combination, can indeed create some clouds as you believe. Tell me, Laisa, just what do you suggest I do when Taquar tells us to withhold water from one of the Scarpen cities, as punishment for an indiscretion on their part?"

She gave him a withering glance. "They would still be better off than if they were captured by Davim! The whole of the Scarpen is better off, including yourself, if you work with Taquar. Can't you see that?"

Taquar, still holding his stare, said urbanely, "I will send a message to Davim telling him I have you. I will insist his men return to the Red Quarter now and stay there unless invited back. And Davim has to do it, or risk having us send no rain to the Red Quarter."

"That won't worry him," Jasper pointed out. "He wants to return to a Time of Random Rain!"

"Yes, but in his time, and his own way. Gradually, so his people have time to adapt. He wants to make sure we will send rain. He still needs the aid of a stormlord; he has made that clear to me."

When Jasper didn't reply, Taquar continued, "Besides, I can tell him we not only have the power to send him rain-or not-but we could also ensure they get no random rain, if we so wish. You and I could divert natural clouds from the dunes, just as we could create clouds for them." He gave a malicious smile. "That won't have occurred to the red drover, but I intend to make it clear in due course. If he defies us, if he tries to seize our cisterns to bring us down or to steal our water, he risks ultimate unimaginable disaster for his people. I can still bring him to heel, believe me."

"You underestimate him."

"I don't think so. I can threaten him with you. Imagine what a single stormlord could do to his dune. You could drain his waterholes, empty his water jars, steal the water."

"Not so easy. I can't get at water enclosed in a jar! I might be able to steal all the water in a waterhole and dump it a few hundred paces away, I suppose, but I'd have to be a great deal closer than this."

"You could steal water from a waterhole by turning it into a cloud. After all, it's not salty," Laisa said.

He contradicted her. "Not necessarily. I can't make vapor from muddy or dirty water, either."

"The threat is all I need," Taquar said. "I doubt Davim knows the details of your abilities! Anyway, reverting to the other part of your argument, do you really think the poor of the Quartern have ever had choices about the way they live? Freedom means nothing to someone who has to wonder where his next full dayjar is coming from!"

"Are you telling me what it's like to be poor?" Jasper asked, incredulous.

"Yes, because you have evidently forgotten. You aren't the only one who was once a dirt-grubber, you know. Although in my case it was more often the midden heaps of Breakaway. That's where I started and I'm damned certain I don't want to end there. When did your Gibber family ever care about who ruled in Breccia City? What did they care about autonomy? As I recall, in your village they thought rainlords were gods!" Taquar's sneer stabbed at him, all the more hurtful because it was true.

Feeling himself under assault, he was silent.

Laisa had not finished with him, either. "And anyway, let's be honest, Jasper. Do you really want to be the ruler of the Quartern? Can you imagine the responsibility? You are hardly more than a child. In the past there have been as many as ten or so stormlords at any one time, dividing the duties of cloudshifting and cloudbreaking. You will have to do the work that was once shared between many. Why would you want to burden yourself with the additional task of governing?"

He thought of replying to that. Of telling her even an incompetent ruler would be better than Taquar. Of telling her he had an inkling-no, he had a vision-of a better world. Of a place where Gibber urchins could get an education, where a snuggery girl could rise above her fate, where a rich upleveler couldn't pay for extra water so he could have an extra child or two even as lowlevelers thirsted. But he knew when he was beaten. The trick was to put yourself in a position of strength before the fight began; he had learned that much from Kaneth and Ryka.

He forced himself to be calm. "No, of course I don't want to be the ruler of the Quartern. You're right-it would be more than I could do. More than I would want to do." He switched his gaze to Laisa. "How wise of you, Laisa."

The look she gave him was sharp, wondering how he dared to mock her, not quite certain if he did. She said, "Anyway, what are we doing discussing this in the middle of The Skirtings? Let's go to the city and have a civilized meal and a bath, and thrash out the details of an agreement between you and Taquar in more pleasant surroundings."

"Indeed," Taquar agreed. "Much more pleasant-and once there, I will tell you all I know about what became of Terelle."

They waited for Jasper's reply. He looked from one to another, sickened, hating their cynical manipulation, their selfishness. But what choice did he have? In the long run, what mattered was the Quartern-and its water supply.

He nodded, unable to speak, and thought of Terelle.

***

In the end, it was just Taquar and Jasper who had the discussion. Jasper had washed-using as little water as he could, even though the servant attending him had offered to heat an entire bath full to the brim-and changed into the clean clothes provided. A lavish meal was delivered to his room, and he found to his surprise he was ravenously hungry. When he thought back, he realized he had no memory of eating much on his journey from Breccia. When he was finished, a servant led him to the highlord's sitting room. Neither Laisa nor Senya were anywhere in evidence.

"I thought we might do better without them," Taquar said. "Women tend to complicate things. Please sit down and allow me to pour you something refreshing. Do you drink amber now? You must have endured quite an ordeal over the past few days and I imagine a drink might be welcome."

Jasper sat, but did not reply to the question. "Where's Terelle?" he asked instead.

Taquar shrugged indifferently and poured two goblets of amber. "I've no idea."

Dragging in a deep breath, Jasper curbed a desire to slam a fist into the man's face. "I know you had her-you forced her to write that note to me. You said you'd tell me what became of her. Do so."

"I don't know where she is. Nor do I have any interest now you are here." He handed one of the goblets to Jasper.

You wilted bastard. You're playing games with me. He took the goblet, but did not drink. "In the letter you sent, you threatened to kill her. To torture her, if I did not return."

"And you were supposed to believe it. But really, I am not the monster you think me to be. Having written the note, the little whore was free to go. After a while, she did." He turned to look at the portrait of himself on the wall. "She left me that, a memento of our times together, the little jade! Quite a fine painting, don't you think?"

The feeling smothering Jasper was so intense he could hardly breathe. It was every searing event he had ever endured: the moment when Citrine had been thrown into the air and skewered on the chala spear; the moment when he had seen carvings on a pede and known its owner was the man who had killed her; the moment he had drawn his blade across Nealrith's neck; the moment one of Davim's bladesmen had uttered Mica's name only to die. It was the last time he had seen Terelle, when Harkel Tallyman, Scarcleft's seneschal, had said so casually: "Kill her."

Silent, struggling with the intensity of his feeling, he stared at the painting and saw all Terelle had put into it: the despair, the hate, the fear of the power intimidating her. Worse, he also saw Taquar's sexuality, his attractiveness, through her eyes. The allure. Terelle had looked at this man and part of her had been mesmerized by him.

Jasper's bitterness stirred. Is that what attracts a woman? Sensuality coupled with a callous indifference to others? An attractive body coupled with the reality of power?

He battled his jealousy, knowing it was ridiculous. No, not Terelle. Never Terelle.

Yet the pain of those thoughts ebbed but slowly. Expressionless, he looked at Taquar. "Yes," he said. "It's a very fine portrait. And you are lying. What happened to her?"

Taken aback, Taquar blinked.

Good, I've disconcerted him.

"You saw the damage to part of the city as we rode in."

"The earth shook and walls fell down, you said. What did you call it? An earthquake? What has that to do with Terelle?"

"She escaped that night. She was here in the hall. You're right; I had no intention of letting her go. I thought if I had her, I had a way of ensuring your cooperation. Believe me, the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt her."

"Did she have her paints?" Jasper asked suddenly.

Taquar blinked in surprise at the question. "Yes, she did. So?"

"Nothing. Nothing that matters now, anyway." But inwardly he smiled. He knew now what had brought down the outer wall of Scarcleft Hall. Terelle had not escaped by accident-she had painted her way free. "I am sure you tried to find her afterward," he said. "Where did she go?"

"It was a day before I realized she was even missing. We were somewhat preoccupied in the aftermath of the earthquake," Taquar said, his irritation surfacing.

"I can imagine. But I still know you tried to find her. Are you saying she escaped your clutches leaving not a single clue behind?"

"Not exactly. Harkel found out she went to that old man-the waterpainter. What was his name again?"

"Russet Kermes."

"Russet, that's right. The two of them left Scarcleft on a pede, immediately after the quake. No one saw which way they went. By the time we found out, there didn't seem to be much point in searching."

Jasper considered, wondering if he should continue to needle the highlord or if he now had an approximation of the truth. He was inclined to think so. A spike of grief jabbed at his heart, then receded to a dull ache. The odds were he would never see her again. Russet had wanted to take her to his home, way beyond the borders of the Quartern. Terelle was lost to him.

"All right," he said. "I'll accept that as the truth. But it's not the only thing I need to know. You told me you had no knowledge of Mica's fate. But all the while you were allied to Davim. I assume you asked him what happened to my brother. What did he tell you?"

"That he had placed your brother in one of the Reduner tribes. He didn't tell me which one. Several years later he told me Mica died in an accident with a pede. That's all I know."

He went cold all over. Mica was dead? Only a few days earlier, back in Breccia, he'd talked to one of the invaders from the Red Quarter who'd known Mica and he'd begun to hope again that his brother was alive. "Was-was that the truth?"

"I can't think of any reason he would lie."

Jasper put down his drink, untouched, and stood up. He went to stand at the window, looking out, yet seeing nothing beyond his memory of the day Wash Drybone Settle had been slaughtered. The fires, the blood, the screams, the dispassionate killing by men who simply didn't care. He remembered hearing Mica calling out to him as he was taken away.

I didn't believe he'd died, he acknowledged. I never truly admitted it was even possible. Even now, I go on hoping.

How long he stood there grieving, yet refusing to lose hold of hope, he did not know. If Taquar spoke to him, he did not hear. When he turned once more to face the highlord, he said calmly, "Now, shall we see if we have any real basis for a partnership? I want to know if you can truly raise water vapor from the Giving Sea."

"Now?" Taquar appeared dumbfounded.

"Why not? I have no intention of staying here unless there is good reason. And cloudmaking is that reason. The only one." He put his drink down. "Do you have a stormquest room?"

Taquar drank the last of his amber. "Yes. Although it hasn't been used as that for as long as I remember. It's the library now." He rose to his feet. "Follow me."

The library had the elements Jasper had come to think of as essential to stormshifting: a view out toward the Giving Sea, lecterns suitable for looking at scroll maps and a large table for bigger maps. For the time being, though, he was unconcerned about where to send water. He just wanted to know if they could do it at all.

He walked straight over to the open shutters. He could not see the sea in the heat haze of the horizon, but he could feel it: a vast expanse of water impinging on him as a vague presence just at the edges of his conscious thought. "Show me."

Taquar came to stand beside him. Without speaking he stared outward. Jasper waited at his side, sending his water-sense seaward, concentrating to feel the first movement of pure mist wisping out of the salt water. It came, such a tiny spiral of vapor he almost missed it. He gathered it together, controlling it with ease so it didn't escape and dissipate. Easy enough, especially when the amount was so small. He searched for other misty half-formed clouds typical of the coastal areas and started to pull them together. Not enough to form a rain cloud, he had to admit, but it all helped.

He glanced at Taquar. The highlord was sweating with the effort.

Pede piss, Jasper thought. Is this the most he can do? If a cloud hardly the size of a myriapede took this much effort, how were they ever going to create clouds containing enough water to supply even Scarcleft, let alone the whole of the Quartern? Impatiently, he tugged at the vapor, pulling it upward away from the surface of the sea, dragging it out of Taquar's hold as fast as the highlord created it.

"That's it!" Taquar said, gasping. "Makes it easier."

It was true. The set of Taquar's shoulders relaxed, his breathing steadied. The vapor eased out of the Giving Sea at a faster pace. The cloud thickened, billowed larger. It took time, but finally Jasper could feel the weight of its water.

But even so, he thought bleakly, people are going to die all over the Quartern. Taquar hasn't as much power as Granthon, even when Granthon was at his most ill. He swore under his breath, all the worst epithets he had learned down on Level Thirty-six.

Still, it was a start. It was a cloud. It held water and he could send it high enough over the Warthago to bring rain to the mother wells of one of the cities.

And, sunblast it, it meant he had to stay in Scarcleft Hall.

Then he smiled, a grim smile of determination. He had been Taquar's prisoner once, but this time things would be different.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Scarpen Quarter Breccia City Breccia Hall, Level 2 Kaneth is alive.

Ryka was consumed by the thought. He was alive. Injured, but standing. They had thrown him onto a pyre and burned his face, yet he was still alive. Dear Watergiver. She stopped that thought, fought her nausea, quelled the bile in her throat. Don't think about that. He was here, that was all that mattered.

Kaneth-his name an anguished whisper in her head-we can get out of here, the two of us. And we can kill Ravard and Davim before we leave. After all, Kaneth was a more powerful rainlord than she was, and a fine swordsman, too. If the Reduner sandmaster and his heir were dead, that would leave their forces in disarray, surely.

Leaning against the balcony railing, she willed him to look up. Please, love, see: I'm here. You always said you knew when I was near; you sensed my water.

It was one of the quirky oddities of his unpredictable power, and she was the only person he could recognize that way. The ability to identify people by their water was supposed to be a stormlord skill, and Kaneth was no stormlord.

But he didn't look her way. No, of course he wouldn't. He's too afraid to give away his identity. Her next thought horrified her. But Ravard said the burned man can't remember who he is. What if that's true? For a moment she was back in the Breccia waterhall. A spear had creased Kaneth's head. He'd staggered and fallen, dragging her with him into the cistern. So much blood… He'd been conscious for a bit, then he'd drifted away to some place and she hadn't been able to call him back. For a moment she was paralyzed with pain and grief and worry.

Get a hold of yourself, Ry. You need to eat to restore your power. She had to eat a lot. Drained by the battle, without food and rest, she wouldn't have sensed even a cistern two paces away. Ravenous, she left the balcony to fetch some food from the reception room.

She stuffed a slice of bab bread into her mouth, all of it at once, then followed it with a piece of unidentifiable meat and a boiled egg. Piling more food into a bowl, she carried it out to the balcony. Overlooking the forecourt once more, she continued to eat greedily as she watched what was happening below.

When several more men were killed with casual efficiency because they refused to swear fealty, she almost vomited all she had eaten. Kaneth hardly seemed to notice. He swayed slightly as he stood, and several times Elmar reached out to steady him. Ryka's heart plummeted.

He looks ill, she thought. And so hurt.

She forced herself to eat more even though her appetite had gone. Gradually, she felt the dim stirrings of her power within her once more. Not enough to kill a man, but she thought she could move a drop of water. When they were all students at Breccia Academy, much of the flirting had involved moving drops of water. He would recognize that, surely, and think of her?

She separated a drop out from the onyx carafe on her food tray and sent it down into the forecourt. Carefully, she manoeuvred it to trickle down Kaneth's face, the unburned side, just as she had done so often when she had been a cheeky academy student and he an exasperated senior. He batted absently at his face, as if brushing away an insect. When his fingers came away wet, he looked at them absently and wiped them down his tunic.

Ryka winced. No… make it not true. He must remember. He must. She brought out another drop from the jar. This time she danced it right in front of his eyes. At first he didn't seem to notice, then he caught the drop in his fingers, but made no move to look around. Instead, he rubbed his forehead the way he always did when something puzzled him.

Thank the Sunlord, no one noticed. They all had their own problems. But, agonized, she wondered how he could be so… so… unlike himself.

The last of the slaves swore their fealty, Davim disappeared inside the hall once more and Ravard gave orders to the guards. The slaves were marched out of the courtyard in the direction of the pede stables and all was quiet in the courtyard again.

Ryka returned inside and began to pace. She tried the outer door once more. Barred on the outside, of course. She raged with frustration, desperate to build her power and let it fly, to do something, anything.

Kaneth was acting a part. Of course he was. He had to be. If they thought he was half-senseless, they wouldn't fear him, even if they found out he was a rainlord. He was waiting for the best moment to kill Davim and his immediate underlings, that was all.

And yet her fears niggled. Maybe he was as sick as he appeared. Maybe he couldn't remember who he was. Maybe he didn't remember her.

She paced some more, swallowing her fury at her situation, battling her frustration. The woman delivered another meal in the late afternoon. The guard accompanying her, a man Ryka had not seen before, let the servant into the room and then leaned against the doorway, watching. He was a gaunt man with bushy eyebrows as red as his skin; elderly, but a warrior nonetheless, with scars on his face and several fingers missing on his left hand.

She inclined her head respectfully in his direction and, using the Quartern language, asked him what his name was. He just stared at her.

"You are the son of a whore and you have the prick of a wilted sand-leech," she said with a pleasant smile. The woman's eyes went wide with horror, but the Reduner didn't react. Still smiling, Ryka spoke to the woman, waving a hand at the food as if she was merely thanking her for bringing the meal. "Don't worry, he doesn't understand. Can you tell me where the Breccians intended for slavery are being kept? The men and the boys?"

The woman paled, but fortunately did not look guiltily at the guard as Ryka had feared she might. "The pede stables," she said, as she stacked up the empty dishes from the morning's meal. "They took all the pedes away and they're using the stable to keep people." She glanced at the guard then, to see if he objected to the conversation, but he was gazing around the room, his look one of scornful contempt. "They're being taken to the dunes tomorrow morning. Early, like. The kitchens have to prepare food for the journey."

"Are the stables guarded?"

"'Course." She looked at Ryka, and the desolation in her gaze was almost beyond fear, or grief. "They say-they say all the rainlords are dead. The Cloudmaster and Stormlord Jasper, too. They even killed the priests. There's no hope for us. We either die now, or thirst to death later." She ducked her head and turned away. The guard didn't react.

Ryka, sick at heart, said nothing. She was one person, one rainlord.

Watergiver forgive me. What can we do? I can't save everybody; not even Kaneth and I together can do that.

She turned her back as the woman and guard left.

She ate again, forcing the food down, even though her anxiety made her nauseous. Her power was nearly wholly restored, and she wanted to keep it that way.

Come on, Ryka; you pride yourself on your mind. You need a plan, and you need it quickly.

Ravard had given her three nights to sleep alone. Could she trust him? He'd made a promise and something told her he took his promises seriously. He'd told her he preferred an acquiescent woman in his bed and she had no reason-yet-to think he lied. She was reasonably certain he would not come to Nealrith's quarters until the three nights were up.

She had to use the time alone to escape. Or at the very least, to arrange an escape. Leaving the room would not be difficult. She could tear bedding to make a rope from the balcony to the ground, for instance-but to remain unseen? The courtyard was never empty of Reduners.

She could entice the guard outside her room to enter, kill him, and escape that way. A better solution, perhaps, but there would be no going back from that. If she used her water skills, the Reduners would know they had a rainlord in their midst. They wouldn't know who, so they might well kill all the Breccians in the hall just to make certain they had eliminated all possibilities. If she didn't use her water-powers, she might die in a fight.

Once free of the room, she would still have to enter the stables, presumably by killing more guards. Then free Kaneth. Elmar, too; he would be an asset in any escape. But how would they get out of Breccia Hall? Through one of the water tunnels? What if Kaneth was too sick to use his powers? And she was one of the weakest ever to be granted the title of rainlord. Yet she had to do something. She couldn't allow them to move Kaneth to the Red Quarter. In his condition, he might die. Unless he was faking it…

She grunted in exasperation. How could she plan anything when she knew so little about what was happening outside Nealrith's apartment?

Restlessly she prowled the rooms, seeking ideas or a fresh perspective. Just as the sun set, she realized she had overlooked the obvious. The room above had a small projecting balcony. She could climb to it by standing on the balustrade of her own balcony, with a good likelihood no one in the courtyard below would notice in the dark. She had no idea who was sleeping up there, if anyone, but she did know most Reduners did not favor sleeping indoors, enclosed by walls. From the room above, she might be able to make her way through Breccia Hall, using her water-sense to avoid meeting Reduner guards as she went.

While trying to picture what she knew of the layout of the hall, she heard the door of Nealrith's bedroom opening, the one she had guessed led to Laisa's rooms. A moment later Kher Ravard was striding across the reception room toward her. His eyes flashed with anger; his whole stance radiated suppressed rage.

She took a hurried step backward.

His anger, though, was not directed at her. He said, "Came t'tell you we leave for the dunes t'morrow morning." He grabbed her arm and pulled her into Laisa's room, his grip more urgent than rough. "Choose some clothes. Whatever you need. Bundle them up and I'll see they are put in a pede pannier."

She found herself gaping at him, and quickly closed her mouth. "Reduners are abandoning the city?" she asked. Already? Her heart lurched with hope. Holy Watergiver, it can't be that Taquar or one of the other cities has come to our aid, can it?

His lip curled in sardonic amusement. "Hardly. Just me and the men of my tribe. My father has ordered us t'take the new slaves for Dune Watergatherer back t'our dune."

"Oh." She kept her face a blank mask, but her feelings roiled-horror and hope entwined as she struggled to think how she could use this. "The men I saw in the courtyard today?" she asked.

"Them, plus some women. The sandmaster is humiliating me by sending me home," he added bitterly, "as you'll doubtless be glad t'hear." He grimaced. "'Cause I didn't kill you when he ordered it. He let me keep you, but a Master Son's defiance, however small, must be seen t'be punished." He shrugged. "So Tribemaster Ravard is dismissed back to the dunes t'think on his lack of respect for the sandmaster. You cost me a cut to my pride, city-woman."

She snorted. "You have plenty left, Reduner."

He leaned against the bedpost, indicated the curtained wardrobes along one side of the room, and folded his arms. "Choose."

She pulled back the curtains and was faced with an array of silken dresses, many of them either embroidered or sewn with jeweled trimming. She sighed. Definitely Laisa's, and a complete contrast to anything Ryka Feldspar liked to wear. She abandoned the first cupboard and looked at the next. These were more to her taste-traveling clothes: trousers and tunics. There was also a fine cloak lined with the fur of the red desert fox. She selected that and chose a number of the other outfits, grateful she and Laisa were not too different in size. And the fine cloth was beautiful, the weave tight enough to keep out the dust and the sand-ticks.

"Take some of the dresses, too," he said when he saw what she was choosing.

"They aren't my kind of clothes."

"Maybe not, but I like them."

"Then you wear them!"

"You test my patience, woman!"

"And you mine, if it comes to that."

He flushed angrily and came across to her, seizing her by the chin and forcing her to look him in the eye. "Don't ever forget, Garnet, I'm the conqueror here, and you the conquered. I give the orders; you obey."

She returned his stare, unblinking. "You can't intimidate me, Ravard." A lie uttered in defiance, but she sensed it would be a mistake to give any appearance of total submission to this man with his odd mix of wilful youth and cruel warrior.

"Oh yes, I can," he snapped. "You wouldn't like the slave women's meddle, believe me. A different warrior every night? Two or three at a time, perhaps?"

"You can't fool me, Ravard. There is no way you can send me to the slave women's meddle now. Your men would laugh at you-a leader who accepted a humiliating punishment for a woman who wasn't even worth keeping?"

He glared at her and she glared back, stare for stare. Suddenly he started to laugh. "Gods, but you are a woman! Did your husband know what he had, I wonder? Let me tell you something, sweetling; you're mine when your three nights are up, and I'll never let you go for any man. Not even my father. But if you mock me, I'll make you regret it. I'll see you naked and beaten raw while the whole tribe watches, till you have no pride under that tough skin of yours. Now, choose four of those dresses."

Without a word, she turned back to the first of the cupboards and began to hunt out dresses which were neither too revealing nor too impractical.

"And call me Kher," he added as an afterthought.

I have to think of a way to kill him. But not yet. Now is not the time. She cursed silently. "As you wish, Kher," she said meekly, with just enough sweetness in her tone to have him wonder if she was making fun of him. She held up one of the dresses against herself. "I had not thought dunesmen dressed their women in city finery."

"We're not barbarians, as ignorant as Gibber washfolk!"

"No? Yet you come into our land and destroy and thieve like the barbarian tribes of our histories. I see little difference."

"We're a cultured people, with a love of the beautiful. As you'll see soon."

Ryka almost threw up her hands in despair to mock him, just stopping herself in time. Watergiver help me, she thought. He is so damnably young, a puffed-up sandgrouse cockerel, full of a cockerel's pride… And dangerous, nonetheless.

"You will need sandals and undergarments. If this woman's do not fit you, tell me, and I will get others."

With heavy distaste, she continued to search through Laisa's things. When she unearthed some jewelry, Ravard insisted she take that as well. She spared a wry thought for how much that would enrage Laisa if she knew.

When the pile of selected items was large enough, he gave a nod of satisfaction. "We breakfast before dawn t'morrow and head out before first ray. Choose something t'wear from this pile, and take the cloak as well."

She pawed through the selection, looking for the most practical and least attractive of the traveling clothes. Damn Laisa, she couldn't have an ill-made garment in her whole wardrobe, could she? How the sweet waters do I calm down the passions of this silly man if I have to dress like a snuggery girl? Even as the thought crossed her mind, she shivered in a mixture of exasperation and fear. The trouble was, he was far from a boy in stature and body, and he had the power of a Master Son. She would have to deal with that. Oh, Beryll, maybe yours was the easier route…

No. Never think that. You have a son to think of!

"So, you're taking all those slaves who were down in the courtyard this morning," she remarked, pulling out a traveling tunic. "What was so special about that burnt man?" Her tone was casual, but her heart thundered so loudly she wondered he did not hear it. "The injured one."

"Him? Ah, just a whim of the shamans. They think he's some kind of reincarnation of a mythical hero. He's as dumb as a neutered pede, but strong. Fortunately he hasn't the wits t'be disloyal."

That, she thought with grim satisfaction, is what you think. Back in Nealrith's room and alone again, Ryka pondered her decision to seek out Kaneth that night. Their best opportunity to escape would be once they had left the city. There would be pedes they could use, and with the power of two rainlords and any other slaves willing to flee, their chances of success were high.

But what if she was kept apart from the others? What if Kaneth and Elmar didn't know she was part of the caravan? Best to let them know beforehand. She would try to reach the stables.

She slept a little in the earlier part of the night, and then followed her plan to climb up to the balcony above. First she tried to sense the air to see if there was any living water in the room above, but could find none. All was quiet in the courtyard below as well.

Hauling herself up was harder than she had thought it would be. She blessed the training Kaneth had insisted she undertake to strengthen her arms and shoulders after they had realized war with the Reduners was a likelihood, but still it took three attempts before she succeeded in scrambling to safety one floor up. Once there, she found the shutters were latched from the inside. She had expected that might be the case and had come prepared. It was the work of moments to slip the broken sword tip through the gap between the closed doors and flip the latch.

The room beyond was small and pokey and dark. She paused on the threshold, tasting the air with her water-sense. There was no one there.

Leaving the shutters open for light, she crossed to the door on the other side. It gave out onto a passage so narrow and dark she guessed this was part of the servants' quarters. No light, no sound. Still no one around. Making a guess at the best direction to head in, she felt her way along. The passage led to another, slightly wider, and a faint light ahead proved to come from an oil lamp at the head of a set of rough stone stairs heading downward. Definitely servants' stairs.

She picked up the lamp and headed down to the next floor, but didn't linger there. A further set of steps beckoned her on to the ground floor. At the bottom, she emerged into the kitchens where a coal fallen free from the banked fire gave a gleam of light. A candle lantern, designed for outdoor use with a handle and shutters to protect the flame against the wind, was hanging on the back of the door. Just what she needed. She lit it from the other lamp and looked around.

The sense of water was overpowering: the kitchen cistern, water in pots on the hobs of the two huge fireplaces, water held in fruit, bab-palm mash and other food in the pantry. A line of moving water marked the underground channel of a water tunnel. The only living water she could detect nearby was small and stationary-a cat asleep somewhere, she guessed. She edged the leaf-woven cover of the kitchen cistern back to expose the surface of the water.

Then she turned to the door in the outside wall. It was heavily barred on the inside. Quietly, she lifted the bars and eased the plank door open. She was looking out onto a walled kitchen courtyard. Oil jars were stacked two deep and three rows high along one side. A rat scampered over the top of them, but apart from that, she could detect nothing alive nearby. She left the door open so she could return the same way.

The courtyard was accessible through an archway, and when she moved quietly to the edge of the arch and looked out, she sensed people beyond. She cursed her inability to sense far, but thought she was safe enough from immediate detection. Better still, because she was aware of a number of prone bodies at the edge of her water-sense-the sleeping warriors in the entrance courtyard-she could place herself in relation to her knowledge of the layout of Breccia Hall. She needed to turn right to reach the stables. Shuttering the lantern so as to allow no light to escape, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the starlit world outside.

To her right was a narrow lane running between the main hall building and some outbuildings, roofed by another storey of the hall. She edged her way along this covered way to the end, her footfall silent on the paving stones.

When she peered from the archway at the other end, she could see the open rectangular courtyard in front of the main facade of the stables. The huge double stable doors, directly in front of her and large enough to allow the passage of a fully loaded packpede, were closed and barred from the outside. They were also guarded by two men, both squatting on their heels as they talked quietly. The sandmaster was wisely not taking any risks with his new slaves, sandblast him.

The right-hand side of the courtyard was formed by the wall of the main hall. The left-hand side gave onto a large rutted road she guessed led between more outbuildings to Breccia Hall's main entrance and its main gateway, the only gateway large enough for the use of packpedes.

Ryka bit her lip, perplexed. How could she pass those guards unnoticed and enter the stables? Recalling the few times she'd been inside those doors, she remembered entering from the main building. If she went back inside the hall she may be able to locate that entrance. Or she could spend half the night searching, only to find that door guarded as well.

She tried to conjure up memories of being inside the stables. Talking to a pede groom. A stablehand doing something. Shoveling manure. Now, why was that important? Of course-he was throwing it into a muck chute. A muck chute to the right of the main door… but how was that possible? That side of the stable shared its wall with the main hall building.

She frowned into the darkness. To the right of the facade, a patch that wasn't part of the brickwork showed up black as obsidian. An impasse, that's right. She remembered now. A short piece of laneway going nowhere, a delivery bay, where they brought the pedes to unload feed directly into the bins through openings in the stable wall. And a muck chute, where the dirty straw and pede manure were shoveled from the stables directly into a handcart. Those openings would probably be boarded over, but they weren't guarded.

Her problem would be to reach them without alerting the guards at the main doors. With a sinking heart she stared at the surface of the courtyard. It was covered a hand-span deep in loose gravel, so as not to blunt the pointed feet of the pedes the way a smooth, hard stone surface would. And it was the noisiest surface in the world to walk across. Even if they didn't see her in the dark, they could hardly fail to hear her.

Diversion… she had to make a diversion. A noisy diversion to cover any sound she made. Something that would leave no trace behind. Come on, Ry, think!

She retreated down the passageway to the other end, until she was close enough to the kitchens to pull a brick-sized chunk of water out of the uncovered cistern. She was not Jasper, and it took her time to maneuver it and then to keep it moving through the air in front of her without spilling or having it fly off in all directions in countless little drops. The effort of maintaining it as a single entity made her sweat. She gave an irritated grunt, recalling all those hours of frustration in Breccia Academy as she had tried to learn the art of watershifting. She had never been much good then, either.

Facing the stables once more, she shifted the brick of water over to the left. Pressed up against the wall of the passageway so she would be hard to spot, she lowered the water into the gravel and then barreled it through the pebbles straight down the center of the road. The small round stones rattled and danced noisily as they were ploughed aside by the water brick. Both guards jumped to their feet and stood rooted, staring. The noise was uncanny, the cause invisible.

"A cat?" one ventured, his question tentative.

Ryka doubled the amount of power she was using and the gravel shot away, flung aside by the speeding brick. She eased herself out from the shelter of the passageway and skirted the wall to her right, keeping to the perimeter of the courtyard. If either of the guards turned his head, he would see her. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, she wanted to run but curbed the desperation that prompted such risky behavior. She flattened herself against the stones of the wall and slowly edged toward the murky darkness of the delivery bay. The gravel scrunched under her feet, but much more quietly than the noise made by her water brick as she reversed it and then spun it around and around in the gravel.

"That's no cat," the other guard muttered in Reduner. "We'd better look." He unhooked a lantern that had been hanging on the outer stable wall and directed a beam of light toward the noise.

She swore silently, wondering if the water would glint in the light. Squeezing her eyes shut in concentration, she flattened and broadened the water into a plank instead of a brick, buried it just under the gravel and then moved it along broadside. The pebbles danced and clinked and jostled in a wave.

Ryka crept on, sweating with the exertion. Blighted eyes, it was easier to kill a man than do finicky things like this. The water brick wanted to weep its contents onto everything it touched. Never mind, she told herself, if she did leave some behind, it would be invisible in the dark and would soon evaporate.

The two guards followed it still, but were cautious about catching up. She slowed the water down, but when they approached it, she sent it furrowing through the gravel once more. She whisked it suddenly around the corner in the direction of the main gate. As soon as it was out of sight, she raised it high into the air and tossed it over the roof, deliberately splitting it into as many drops as she could and casting it wide enough not to be noticeable. At the same time she dashed into the dark bay along the side wall of the stables. Once there, she briefly cracked open the lantern shutter to cast a sliver of light on the wall.

She could just make out a wooden cover of some sort projecting out of the wall at waist height, about a quarter of the size of a normal door: the muck chute. Next to it was the delivery door. Designed to be opened by someone standing on a pede, it was too high for her to reach. She cursed richly under her breath. Such a simple way to enter the stable: easy to unbar, out of sight of the guards even if they returned to their post in front of the door-and she couldn't open it.

Ryka screwed up her nose at the muck chute. It smelled, even with the entrance closed. The cover was easily unbolted from the outside and lifted away from the opening, to reveal a short chute sloping upward. She poked her head inside. Pede pellets were dry, so it was not slippery or slimy-but the smell was intense, reminiscent of dried antiseptic herbs mixed with ammonia. There did not appear to be a cover at the other end, but the stable beyond was in total blackness. Snorting sounds punctuated the darkness in an unattractive din. Not pedes, she decided. Men. Snoring, bless them.

Withdrawing her head, she propped the chute cover against the wall, then hooked the lantern onto the back of her tunic belt, took a deep breath and ducked down inside the chute again. It wasn't difficult to scramble upward, and a moment later she poked her head into the stable. She couldn't see a thing. She waited for her eyesight to adjust, but even then the darkness seemed total. Unhooking the lantern, she looked to see if the candle was still alight. It was, but guttering badly. She unshuttered one side and shone it around.

The stable floor was untidily scattered with straw and sleeping bodies. Stealthily, she hauled herself out of the chute and stood up. No one stirred, and the snuffling and honking and snorting helped to cover any noise she made. As far as she could determine, there were no guards inside the building.

She began to walk between the rows of sleeping men. It was hard to make out faces and, short of waking everyone up, it seemed an impossible task to find either Elmar or Kaneth. As she hesitated, though, she saw one of the stall doors open. A tall man stood in the doorway, looking her way. She didn't need to see him properly to know it was Kaneth.

He always did recognize my water, she thought, emotion bringing a lump to her throat. She began to thread her way through the sleeping bodies to his side. When she arrived, he didn't move, but just stood there, looking down at her. She raised the lantern to view his injuries, and the sight was enough to wrench her insides.

"Oh," she whispered, and her hand touched his cheek with gentle tenderness. "Your poor face…"

He gave a half-embarrassed smile, and when he spoke, he sounded at a loss. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I don't seem to know you. Who are you?"

CHAPTER EIGHT

Scarpen Quarter Breccia City, Breccia Hall, Level 2 Warthago Range, foothills Ravard had called him witless. Ryka had hoped he'd hidden his sharp mind along with his identity, so his words had the impact of a physical blow. She was unprepared for the sense of rejection, unprepared for the pain his inadvertent betrayal of their love would cause her.

She stepped away from him, and perhaps he glimpsed the horror in her expression because, whispering, he apologized again. "I'm sorry, I just don't remember. I don't even remember my own name." He pointed to the scar on his head. "I was hit here, I think. In a fight, I suppose. I don't recall."

"I do," she snapped, and was instantly contrite. It wasn't his fault. "I was there," she added more gently, lowering her voice. "It was a spear-you fell into the cistern." And saved my life. "You truly don't remember?"

He shook his head. "We knew each other?"

His polite disinterest was shocking. It was a moment before she could bring herself to reply. "You could say that." Watergiver, how do you tell a man who can't remember his own name that he has a wife-and a baby on the way? "I'm-"

She didn't finish. Elmar Waggoner stepped out of the shadows in the pede stall and grabbed them both by the elbows to pull them inside, away from the men sleeping in the common area. Already one or two were stirring and someone had roused himself to look around to see who was talking.

"Shh," Elmar said, his urgency intense. "You can't trust everyone." The look he gave her was meaningful, but she could not interpret it. She stared, uncomprehending, as he closed the door to the stall. They were alone, just the three of them, but her mind was appallingly blank. Elmar took the lantern from her and hung it from a hook on the wall.

"He really can't remember?" she asked Elmar, finding her voice at last, but it was belief which made her wretched, not doubt. She didn't need an answer.

"Not even me. I'm a metalworker from Level Twenty-five, by the way. Never been in the army and the only bleeding thing I know about a sword is how to craft one. Taken it upon meself to look after this great hulking lump here, even though he's missing half his wits. He needs someone to keep an eye on things for him. Doesn't remember a thing. Not even which side of the battle he fought on. Mind's as blank as a baby pede carapace."

She looked back at Kaneth, her breath coming in quick gasps. Not remember which side-? He smiled at her with a shining innocence that recalled to mind the words Ravard had used. Half-wit.

"What name do you go by here, lady?" Elmar asked politely, his gaze locked on her face. Lady, not lord.

When the silence threatened to become embarrassing, she said quietly, "Garnet Prase. Housewife from Level Ten, who can't find her husband. I am slave to the Master Son, Kher Ravard. We are all being taken to the Watergatherer Dune, setting off tomorrow morning, you two and me included. Did you know?"

Kaneth shook his head. "I didn't." He frowned. "Kher Ravard is a good man."

"He's a slaver," she spat back at him, aghast, not quite believing she had heard him correctly.

He wrinkled his nose. "You smell really odd. Did you know that?"

Nonplussed, she was speechless.

Once again Elmar intervened. He picked up two water skins from the floor and thrust them at Kaneth. "Go fill these. We will need them if we are travelling in the morning."

Kaneth frowned, baffled, but he took the skins. "It's too dark."

"Then take the lantern." Elmar thrust that at him as well and he took it without comment, turned and went back into the main area of the stable. Elmar closed the stall door again, and they were plunged into almost complete darkness.

"Blighted eyes, Elmar-what the withering shit is going on here?"

She felt rather than heard his intake of breath. She was still whispering, but her tone and her swearing had startled him.

"Watergiver forgive me, Lord Ryka, but he doesn't remember as much as a newborn babe about himself. He doesn't know he's a rainlord. He doesn't remember you, or me, or the fighting, or who he was. And the worst of it is, he doesn't seem to care."

She wanted to call him a liar, to pound her fists against his chest in fury, but part of her knew her indignation was irrational. This wasn't Elmar's fault, and he wasn't lying. She took a deep breath. "How did you find him?"

"I managed to flee the waterhall. I didn't see what happened to the two of you. By the time I got down to Level Two, the Reduners had the main gate to the hall open and the battle was over. I got rid of my sword, changed my clothes and tried to blend in with the servants. I was hauled off to carry bodies to the pedes. Ended up down in the groves, building pyres for the dead. I worked all day at it-fetching dry fronds, heaving the corpses into the flames. Sunlord save me, the stench! It was a horrible day. So many people I knew…"

Impatient to know what had happened, she choked down her dread and asked, "You saw him flung on the pyre?"

"No, no. I was collecting fuel. I didn't know he was among the dead until I saw him lying there, burned, coughing up his lungs, with people standing around, Reduners among them. I reckon he was out cold when they flung him into the flames, but-thanks be-being burned roused him enough to shout. Somebody pulled him out. He wasn't much burned anywhere except the face and his hair." His voice stumbled and grew hoarse. "It's not too bad, but he'll-he'll never be the handsome man he used to be."

"The Reduners-why didn't they kill him? Don't they know he's a rainlord?"

"No. No one knows who he is."

"But he's Kaneth! You recognized him! Others must have, too."

"Lord Ryka, most of the soldiers and the uplevelers-people who would know him well-they're dead." His voice was low and urgent. "If they survived the fighting, they were slaughtered afterward. Don't you know that? Men, women, children! Sunlord save me, I probably tossed bodies of people from every house on Level Three and Four onto the pyres. And I doubt there's a single priest or reeve left in the whole city. If you are looking for friends or family, forget it. They're dead and roasted. Their water not taken, no ceremonies, nothing."

She was glad the lantern was gone. She didn't want him to see her face. She didn't want to see his, either; the bitter horror in his voice was enough.

Elmar lowered his voice still further. "As far as I can find out, just about everyone here is a downleveler, an artisan of some sort. If there are some who've seen him before, they don't know him well enough to recognize him when he's bald and half-burned. You just saw his face. Besides, he doesn't act like Kaneth, or a rainlord. He even holds himself different. Humble, like. And if they do recognize him-or you, come to that-who are they going to tell?"

He continued, calmer now, "The only reason I'm alive is 'cause the Reduners think me a metalworker, not a soldier, and it seems they need metalworkers. My brother owns a metal workshop and I do know a thing or two, fortunately."

"We can escape. With his power and mine, we can kill guards, seize the pedes, maybe even free the rest of the slaves. I thought perhaps our first night out from Breccia might be a good time-"

"Lord Ryka, Kaneth doesn't even know he's a rainlord."

"Then tell him! I'll tell him who I am! Remind him he is to have a child-anything! How can we bring back his memory, if we don't stimulate it?" Frustrated, she glanced toward the stall door herself, wanting Kaneth to return. Why had he left so meekly at Elmar's bidding?

"You're expecting a baby?" He sounded taken aback.

"Yes! We have to make him remember."

"No, we mustn't. Not yet. My lord, he is ill. His vision is blurred, his thoughts confused. His head aches, and he is in constant pain from the burns. He doesn't understand anything yet."

"But we must escape before-" She hesitated. Before Ravard climbs into my bed. "Before we reach the dunes. Before we cross the Warthago Range."

"Lord Ryka, he's not-"

The door opened then, and Kaneth stepped in with the lantern and the water skins, now filled. He smiled absently at Ryka, as if he had forgotten her all over again. She felt her heart break, all over again, in answer.

"Go," Elmar muttered. "Before you are caught here. Look after yourself and the child. It is all you can do."

She turned away from Kaneth to stare at him. "How can you ask that of me? I made a vow once-"

"Yes. I know. I was there, remember? But now your duty lies with your child. I am sure your man is in good hands," he said carefully.

"He is also a prisoner of his worst enemies." For a moment she felt as if she had lost her hold on the conversation, as if the words were flowing by her like water from a broken jar. There was so much to say, to find out, but shock had left her with no idea what she should be asking first. Or how to grasp the meaning of words as they streamed past.

Kaneth did not appear to be listening. He hung up the lantern again and placed the water skins back on the floor. "My head hurts," he said. "I think I will lie down."

"Good idea," Elmar agreed. The look he gave Ryka was full of meaning, and Ryka saw his unspoken, You see?

"This is insane." She lowered her voice still further. "Elmar, he is in such danger. If anyone gives them a hint of who he is-if he gives himself away, because he doesn't know his power…"

He snatched the lantern from the hook, grabbed her by the elbow and pushed her through the door, which he then closed. Her last glimpse of Kaneth was of his burnt face as he lay on his side in the straw. The fresh scar was still raw and ugly. I wonder if I could quicken the healing, she thought, by drying it out… Or would that make it worse? She didn't know.

Elmar handed her the lantern, then pushed her against the wall with an urgency she sensed rather than felt. "Lord Ryka, please heed me," he whispered in her ear. "He is not to be trusted. Do you understand? He doesn't know who he is. If you tell him your name and his name, he's likely to blurt them out to the first Reduner he meets. He's like a small child, with no sense of danger."

"He wouldn't," she protested, her anger surfacing. "He is Kan-"

He stopped the word by jamming his hand across her mouth.

"No, he's not. Not yet. He's a sick man who can't remember a thing. His thoughts go nowhere and his pain is intense enough to make a sane man act sun-fried. The less he sees of you the better at this point, for your own safety."

She pushed his hand away, the pain of his truth more than she could handle. "I'll never abandon him. Never. What kind of a woman would that make me?"

"A living one! What kind of a mother would it make you to stay in danger when you have the power to escape?" he asked.

Ryka's desire to slap him was intense and immediate, but she was also aware her anger was only so sharp because she knew he was right. And because she did not want to relinquish the man she loved into the hands of another who sometimes looked at him the same way she did. It was her duty to guard her child. Kaneth's child. Her duty as a mother, as a wife-and, as a rainlord, to bring another water sensitive into a thirsty world.

"Escape now," Elmar whispered. "You know that's what your husband would want, if he was himself. If he regains his health, he will be able to get himself out of this. Me, too, I hope."

She hesitated still.

"You cannot trust him," he repeated. "Trust me. You know I'll care for him."

Just then Kaneth called out petulantly, so unlike the man he had been she could almost believe it was someone else. "Elmar! Where are you?"

She turned and walked away, back toward the muck chute. Ryka retraced her steps back to her room without any trouble. The two guards at the stable entrance had returned to their post by the time she reached the edge of the courtyard again, but were easily distracted by more gravel scattering in front of another block of water-stolen from the prisoners in the stable this time.

No one had noticed the open kitchen door, the lamp from the passageway burning in the kitchen, or the missing candle lantern. She put everything back the way it had been. The climb down to her balcony proved easier than the climb up. She lay down on her bed-no, on poor dead Nealrith's bed-and surrendered herself to her grief.

An hour later, feeling no better, but more in command of her emotions, she roused and went to wash away the lingering smell of pede droppings and stable hay. Her dirty tunic she stuffed under the mattress in the center of the bed.

Odd, she reflected, for the first time in my life, I don't care about how much water I use. It was Reduner water now, not the Scarpen's, and she felt no desire to conserve it.

Afterward, she sat in the darkness of Nealrith's study and tried to come to terms with all that had happened. She had already made up her mind that any escape would be better made from the caravan with a pede under her. That way there was the possibility of making it to one of the other cities and freedom. What she had not yet made up her mind about was whether she would escape at all, if Kaneth wasn't prepared to go with her.

One by one she marshaled the advantages and disadvantages. With cold dispassion, she examined her own motives. If she was going to choose an alternative based on emotion rather than academic impartiality, she wanted to be aware of it.

Finally, she drifted into an uneasy doze. An hour later, the serving woman brought in her breakfast. Quickly, Ryka roused herself and dressed. As an afterthought, she selected a number of board books from the collection in Nealrith's study and tied up the bundle with bab string, giving a wry smile as she did so. Even in a desperate situation, she could still dread the horrors of having nothing to read.

She was just sitting down to eat when the door opened again and Ravard entered. She glanced up but did not rise.

"Pour me some tea," he said, indicating the pot. "I'll eat with you."

Silently she did as he asked, only then noticing there were two drinking mugs on the tray.

He sat opposite her at the table, dumping the small cage he carried down on a spare chair beside him. She smelled its occupants: ziggers. Sunlord, how she hated them! Their sickly smell, their greed for human flesh, the promise of pain in their dribbling saliva and their clicking mouthparts.

Oblivious to her distaste, he helped himself to a steaming bowl of bab-fruit porridge. "Dune god save me, I'm getting so sick of Scarpen food," he remarked. "At least there's one good thing 'bout going back t'the dunes. Decent game on the platter and damper made from root mash, not withering bab flour." He glanced across the table at her. "Why so silent?"

She shrugged. "I have nothing to say."

"What, no sharp words about my moral standards or my taste? Now that's a change!"

"You expect me to be brimming over with delight at being carted off to another quarter as a slave for the entertainment of a man who has just helped lead an invading horde into my country, an invasion that killed my family?"

"Why not? You'll share the bed of the Master Son, the man who will one day lead the dune that rules all others. That's a position some women of the tribe would kill for! 'Sides, I am young and virile, as older men are not. Bet your husband was old and lacking."

She took a bite of her bread to stop herself from saying something she would be made to regret.

"And remember," he added, spooning down the porridge in noisy gulps, "we have a bargain. You welcome me t'your pallet, I protect the child you carry, and keep the other men from you."

"It would be easier if you tried courting me," she snapped, "after a decent interval of mourning. And if you didn't come to my bed while I carried another man's child!"

He tilted his head, amused. "Maybe I would-if I loved you. But I don't. I want you. There's a difference."

"You've just told me there are plenty of others who would like the company."

"Ah, but I'm stuck with you now for reasons of pride, aren't I?" He grinned at her. "Besides, I like a challenge."

She gritted her teeth.

"Don't be so difficult," he said. "I gave you a choice, remember?"

"A choice? When the alternative is a piece of personal horror? You have a strange idea of choice, you Reduner barbarian."

Ryka thought he would match her fury with his own, but he shrugged with an indifference that was chilling. "I suggest you make it easy on yourself when the time comes."

"And just how do you recommend I do that?"

"By accepting the inevitable calmly. What you had is gone. So why not enjoy what replaces it? A roll around on my pallet each night could well be pleasurable." He stood up and spread his hands out. "Look at me. Am I so unattractive?"

She stared at him. Since she'd first met him, his hair had been washed and rebraided with red and black beads. His red belted tunic with its embroidered panel down the front accentuated his broad shoulders. Underneath he wore full breeks gathered in at the ankle. He moved with all the muscular power of the young and virile, yet his smile, revealing white, even teeth, was more boyish than manly. Even his reddish skin and hair were attractive. If he had not been a threat to her, she would have thought him appealing. And handsome. Instead, he represented a future she was dreading with a sickness deep in her gut.

"You appeal to me about as much as those ziggers in the cage." She waved a spoon to where one of the beasts had climbed up the bars and was gazing at her with sharp beady eyes-more like a bird's eyes than an insect's-smelling her with its waving antennae and slavering at her taste on the air. She thought of it burrowing deep into the soft tissues of her eye, spreading its acid as it went, feeding on her flesh.

"You'll get used to me, and them, too." He tapped the cage top and the zigger fell from the bars to the cage floor, where it spun on its back, legs flailing. For a brief moment it could have been just an ordinary beetle, but then it flipped right side up and snarled at her, as if blaming her for its indignity.

"They are as much a part of a Reduner warrior," Ravard said, "as the scimitar at our belts. Without ziggers, we are not warriors and must have the status of a servant. On the Watergatherer, I own more ziggers than anyone but the sandmaster, as is my right."

Ryka snorted. "Owning those monsters is nothing to be proud of."

Once again he took no offense. He held out a hand to her. "Come," he said, "it's time we left."

She snatched up her bundle of books without taking his hand, so he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the door.

"What are those?" he asked.

"Books," she said.

He laughed. "Books? You want t'take books with you? Woman, there are better things t'do with your time on the dunes than read."

"Like what?"

"Weaving and sewing and tent-making and cooking and fetching water. And sharing my pallet. Womanly things. Your job is t'look after my comfort." He looked contemptuous. "We don't have women warriors as you Scarpen folk do. It's unnatural. A woman is not built for such things."

"No? They cart water, bear children, dig for roots, cook over open fires in the heat while they are pregnant, and lots of other things suitable only for weaklings, eh?"

"You don't know the strength required for a warrior."

She looked at him brightly. "No, of course not. Funny, though-I did hear there was a Reduner woman warrior of considerable skill who has outwitted Davim himself. What was her name now? Redmane? Yes, that's it. Vara Redmane. Old woman, too, I heard."

She expected him to be angry, she didn't expect him to flush; but he reddened enough for her to be aware of the darkening of his cheeks and neck. Embarrassment or anger? She couldn't tell.

He changed the subject and asked, snappishly, "What's in the books?"

"They are histories, myths of the past, that sort of thing."

He snorted. "We have storytellers for all that. You have no need of books." He pulled the bundle from her and tossed it on the floor. "Come."

"Just because you are an ignorant barbarian who doesn't know how to read or write his own name, doesn't mean there's no value in it!"

Without warning, Ravard slammed her up against the wall. Her head rang as it hit the stonework. He leaned in against her. His arm pressed her back as he snarled, "Don't you ever despise me for what I am. Being different doesn't mean being ignorant! Not reading or writing doesn't make me a fool. Just 'cause you read your bleeding books, doesn't mean you know a sandflea's piddle about anything. You with your city upbringing have no right t'despise me 'cause I had a different life when I was a young 'un. Y'understand me?"

Weakly, she nodded. She had feared him from the moment they had met, but this was the first time he had terrified her.

"Sorry," she said unsteadily. "You are right. It doesn't make me wise, or you stupid." And that's the truth. Especially the bit about me being wise.

He released her, opened the door and gestured her through to where the guard stood outside in the passage, but then turned back into the room. When he joined her, it was to thrust the bundle of books into her arms.

I don't understand you, she thought, surprised. I don't understand you at all. Ryka rode with the female slaves, fifteen of them, all now belonging to Davim's dune and mounted on the same packpede. A Reduner drover guided the beast from the front segment, and another took the last seat at the back. None of the women were roped as the male slaves were. The men had their hands lashed together at the wrist, the rope then threaded through the handles screwed into every segment.

As they rode away from Breccia heading north, Ryka gave a sour smile. The Reduners didn't trust the men, but it had evidently never occurred to them a woman among their slaves might not only know how to drive a pede, but had also accumulated several years of desert experience doing just that. If she could steal a pede, she could drive it.

She knew none of the other women on the pede and none of them indicated that they had any inkling of who she was. Listening to their chatter as they rode, she gathered they were all women from the lower levels, all but one chosen for their looks and youth. The exception was Junial, a plump older woman, kidnapped, or so she said, for her baking skills. Nine of the younger ones were snuggery girls resigned to their fate; five others-inexperienced girls between fourteen and twenty-were dull-eyed with fatigue and the memory of horror, or weepy in their despair. Some bore the external marks of the abuse they had already suffered because they dared to resist: bruised faces, black eyes, cracked ribs.

Rage gathered in Ryka. Sunlord forgive me, but if I had the power I'd kill every single warrior here…

There were a hundred or so of them, every one a seasoned fighter, so it was hardly a sensible objective. And Ravard she could not kill with her water-powers, not if he had the usual skills of a tribemaster.

The Escarpment dropped out of sight behind them as the pede caravan pushed its way in single file up the track toward the Warthago Range. She glimpsed Elmar on the pede ahead of her and thought with vicious enjoyment, Leaving him alive was another mistake you Reduners have made. Her next thought was one she tried not to think about at all. What if Kaneth never recovered from his injury?

How the Reduners regarded him was puzzling. In the stable, he and Elmar had been given a stall to themselves. Now he was not roped and was being kept separate from the other slaves, including Elmar. He rode behind a couple of warriors on a myriapede. When they stopped to rest at midday, a bladesman brought food to him. Another gave him a water skin. Both men treated him with deference.

Ryka watched, mystified. What the blighted eyes is going on? She looked across at Elmar where he sat with the other men on the ground, still roped together. He shot an unhappy glance at her and she guessed he was aching to get to Kaneth's side. When Ravard strolled up to Kaneth and sat beside him to eat his own meal, Elmar appeared positively sick. Ryka didn't blame him. She looked away and tried not to think too much.

***

They traveled north from Breccia all day. Every now and then they passed one of the inspection towers, obese brick giants that strutted in lines across The Sweepings. Their midday rest lasted several runs of the sandglass, until the sun had settled a little lower in the sky and the burn had gone from its rays. The pedes then rose of their own accord, shaking the sand out of their segments and swinging their heads around in search of their owners as if to say it was time to move on.

Ryka saved some of her own food and, choosing a time when none of the warriors was looking, fed titbits to the mount she rode. She studied its carvings carefully so she could recognize it again, even in the dark. Then she spent the few moments before they mounted up rubbing the soft tissue where its head joined the first segment behind. The animal rasped its purring approval of her touch and gazed at her in short-sighted adoration. You never knew when a friendly pede would be an asset.

Shortly afterward, the beast's driver shooed her away, and they were on their way once again.

They passed through the first of the caravansaries without stopping, and it wasn't until the sun slipped below the rugged spur of the Warthago Range that they halted for the night alongside one of the inspection towers. In the shadows of dusk, the warriors untied the men and set all the slaves to work, the women to prepare the food and the men to unburden the packpedes, groom the animals and erect tents. To Ryka's horror, several of the warriors smashed the wooden cover and the iron grille over the shaft and bade the women haul up water from the underground tunnel. All her years as a Scarpen rainlord were assailed by their action. Hard-earned water-pulled from the sea by the sacrifice of Cloudmaster Granthon-now defiled, opened to the elements and stolen by invading travelers. They cared nothing for the damage they did, for the destruction they would leave behind. Breccian water meant nothing to them. As a rainlord, it was her duty to prevent both such thefts and any damage to the tunnels that would lead to silting. Having to stand and watch it happen galled her.

"Your second night alone," Ravard whispered in her ear as she stirred a cauldron of food over one of the fires. She didn't react and he walked on.

Her gaze sought Kaneth. Excused by his captors from the chores, perhaps because of his injuries, he sat alone on a rock, looking peaceably at the colors in the sky. No one seemed to care when she strode to his side, not even Ravard.

He looked up when she arrived and greeted her with a simple "Hello."

She greeted him, feeling oddly uncomfortable as she sat down nearby. He looked weary and was, she suspected, in considerable pain. She said, "Have you thought of escaping? Of stealing a pede and riding to one of the other Scarpen cities?"

He blinked in a puzzled way. "Why?"

"Because here we are slaves!"

"Slavery is not allowed."

She curbed her frustration as best she could, striving for an even tone. "The Reduners don't follow our laws. I am a slave. So are you. They are taking us to the dunes. If you want to be free, you must escape." She looked over her shoulder. No one was looking their way. Ravard had his back to them, directing some of the slaves where to put his tent. Never having raised a tent before, they were clumsy and inefficient. Ravard was yelling at them.

Kaneth frowned. "I have a headache. I don't think I can ride anymore tonight. I want to sleep. And nobody's said I am a slave."

She hid her dismay, "The rest of us are, believe me. We Scarpen folk, I mean. Doesn't that worry you?"

His frown deepened, as if he was trying to work through a problem. "Slavery-I thought-I thought there was no more slavery. I don't remember there being slavery." He gazed at the Scarpermen. "That's why they were roped?" The question was as innocent as a child's.

She nodded. "We are all slaves. We folk from the Scarpen Quarter-as you are." When she looked around again, Elmar glared at her and then mouthed the words she had no trouble deciphering. Don't trust him!

Kaneth did not notice. He looked at her, troubled. "The drovers say they know me. That I was born of the dunes, a long time ago…"

"That's not true."

Watergiver's heart, Kaneth. How can you not know who you are? She desperately wanted to jog his memory. She wanted to tell him his name. She wanted to place his hand on her abdomen so that he could feel his son move under his palm…

Instead, hoping that she might be able to stir a memory, she said, "Ravard wants me to share his bed-"

Her heart sank still further as he smiled pleasantly at her. "That's good. He's a handsome man."

Ryka felt as if she'd been stabbed through and through. Speechless, she rose to her feet. He ignored her as he gazed at the sunset and the light fading from the sky.

"What are you wasting your time talking to him for?" Ravard's voice asked from behind her. "You won't get much sense out of him, y'know."

She turned, smiling faintly to hide lacerating pain. "So I discovered. You were right. His head's stuffed with sand."

"Come, have something to eat." He led her toward the campfire, sat her down on one of the many boulders scattering the area and seated himself beside her. She was uncomfortably aware of his proximity. A woman came to push a bowl of food into her hands, and she toyed with it, but ate hardly anything. "Relax," Ravard said. "I don't bite." He nibbled her ear.

"Don't start what's not going to be finished tonight," she told him, keeping her voice low.

He shoveled some food into his mouth. "Don't worry. I don't break promises. But you seem so sad tonight. I shall keep you company. Would it not be good to fall asleep in my arms?" He nuzzled at her cheek. "Nothing more."

"I don't trust you."

"I don't break my promises," he repeated. "And my men expect to see you share my tent."

She glanced around, to see both Elmar and Kaneth watching them. Elmar looked away, frowning; either upset or angry, she wasn't sure which. Kaneth smiled at her gently with benevolent interest, and it was Ryka who looked away.

"It would be good to fall asleep in the arms of someone who loved me," she murmured. "But you do not."

"Never mind. Tonight you can lie next to me and pretend I am your lost husband, the father of your child. Another night after this one to grieve, and then you'll begin a new life on my pallet. You'll start t'be a dunes woman."

Nauseated, she glanced back at Kaneth, but he had already looked away, bestowing that same smile on everyone. It devastated her, that fickle smile.

She had never felt so alone.

CHAPTER NINE

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City On his second full day in the hall, Jasper decided to test just how much freedom he had. When he left his room in the morning, the two men on guard outside fell in behind him, marching in step in silence. They followed him to breakfast. Later, they waited outside the stormquest room while he and Taquar cloudshifted. When he went outside to the roof gardens of the hall, two more men fell in step behind. Four of them, discreetly watching everything he did, listening to every conversation he had, even though the only people he spoke to were the gardeners and servants.

After lunch, he left the hall for the streets of the city, and his escort expanded as four of the seneschal's water enforcers joined them. Jasper's previous experience with enforcers had been unpleasant, and these strengthened his mistrust. The men formed a wall around him and gave him the impression they reveled in pushing people on the street out of his way with the shafts of their spears. "Just guarding you," one said with an ill-concealed sneer. "Looking after your security, your safety, your wellbeing, m'lord."

"There's no need to be so rough," Jasper protested, painfully aware of their contempt for outlanders.

"Stormlord," the overman among them replied, "we've been told to make sure no one approaches you. In case of assassination. M'lord."

"Assassination? Who in their right mind is going to assassinate the only stormlord the Quartern has?"

"Reduners might, m'lord."

"And just how many Reduners are there in the streets of Scarcleft? If you see any, you have my permission to protect me. In the meanwhile, my orders to you are to treat the people in the streets with respect."

The man looked at a point somewhere over Jasper's head, his face impassive, and said, "Stormlord, it's the highlord gives us the orders."

"Watch what you say," he snarled. "Taquar is not the Cloudmaster yet. And he won't be until the Council of Rainlords agrees that he is. Is that clear? In the meantime, he may rule this city, but I am a stormlord of the Quartern. I would suggest you don't forget it!"

The man barely hid a smirk. "I serve Lord Taquar." There was a lengthy pause, long enough to be an insult, before he added, "My lord."

Painfully aware that he was friendless in Scarcleft, Jasper narrowed his eyes but said nothing.

"If the stormlord wishes to make a purchase, we can do it on his behalf."

Jasper let the matter ride. It was between him and Taquar, not him and the enforcers. "All right, let's just walk. I want to see the damage done to the city by the earthquake."

"Of course, m'lord."

When he returned to Scarcleft Hall, it was time for the afternoon session of watershifting. When that was over, he headed back to his own rooms, accompanied by a different pair of hall guards. Frustrated, he tackled one of them. He was young and, if his awkward manners were any indication, awed by being assigned to look after the stormlord.

"What's your name?" Jasper asked.

The man shifted his weight from foot to foot, rather like a child in need of an outhouse. "Er, Dibble Hornblend, m'lord."

"Dibble?"

"A nickname, m'lord. My friends think it amusing. A dibble is used for boring holes."

"Your friends think you are boring?"

"I think it was more they thought me good at digging holes for myself. Getting into trouble, that is, m'lord."

"Ah. What are your orders about me, Dibble?"

"To keep you safe, m'lord."

"How?"

In an apparent agony of embarrassment, Dibble grasped his sword hilt, then removed his hand, looked at it as if he'd never seen it before, and finally clasped both hands behind his back.

Jasper took pity on him. "Perhaps you should just recite your specific orders."

"To never permit anyone to be alone with you, to prevent the approach of strangers, to be at your shoulder with at least one other guard at all times within the hall, and to have no less than eight guards outside the walls, m'lord."

"Would it be all right if one day I go for a ride in The Skirtings?"

Dibble looked appalled. "Oh! Er… I shouldn't think so, m'lord. You could meet some of those marauding red bastards out there."

Of course, silly question.

"I would like to see the damage done to Scarcleft Hall by the earthquake, Dibble. I understand it was worst around the room where that waterpainter girl was confined. Can you show me the place?"

"No, m'lord. I don't know where it is."

"Could you find out?"

"Of course, my lord."

However, when Jasper asked him about it later on that evening, Dibble looked agonized, finally blurting that the damaged part of the hall was still dangerous, and no one was allowed entry. It sounded logical enough and Jasper might have believed him, except Dibble was a poor liar and blushed red as he said it.

Jasper concealed a sigh. "Very well. Never mind," he said, and retreated to his room. In the middle of the night, after lighting a lantern, Jasper ruffled his hair and flung open his bedroom door, the lantern clutched in his hand and an anxious expression fixed on his face. The two guards on duty outside his room immediately sprang to attention.

"I heard a noise at the shutters," he told them. "Take a look and see if anyone is there, will you?"

They crossed the room, opened the shutters and stepped out onto the balcony. While they were staring into the darkness of the roof garden on the level below, looking for a nonexistent intruder, Jasper formed water from the large jar in the water-room into a human shape, then whisked it out into the passage, out of sight.

"Can't see anything, my lord," one of the guards said a moment later. "Likely a cat, or such."

"Probably." Jasper shrugged. "All right, never mind."

Before either guard moved, he swept the water down the passage past the door. In the dim light cast by a candle lantern outside, it could have been a person. The guards shot out of the room to investigate.

Jasper grinned. He had whisked the water out of sight through one of the passage's unshuttered window slits. When the guards disappeared around the corner, he pulled the water back inside and replaced it in his water-room. He then took advantage of the men's absence to head off in the opposite direction. By the time the guards returned they would find the door firmly shut and Jasper nowhere to be seen. If he was lucky, they would assume the stormlord had returned to bed.

He knew vaguely where he wanted to go. He had asked the odd question, listened to servants and workmen, and from the outside he'd studied the damage to the hall and matched it up with what he knew of the interior. Terelle had done the damage herself; he was sure of that, and it would have been greatest where she was imprisoned-otherwise, how had she escaped? The thought amused him. Taquar had poked a stick into an ants' nest when he imprisoned Terelle the waterpainter, and he'd been bitten.

After one or two false forays into empty bedrooms, he found the room soon enough. As he shone the lantern around, he was surprised to find it looked as if it had not been touched since Terelle left. There was a gap in the outer wall. One of her paint trays was upturned on the floor; the chair and desk lay toppled over; a candle had rolled from its holder. A painting, freed from its tray, had rolled under the dust-blanketed bed, and another was crumpled on the covers.

He righted the desk and put his lantern down. Then he picked up the painting from the bed and gently unrolled it onto the desktop. It was already torn, as if someone had roughly opened it prior to this, but the scene was still recognizable: the entrance to Russet's rooms down on the thirty-sixth level, with the profiled shadow of Terelle herself on the wall. Smiling to himself, he let the painting curl up again. He picked his way over the debris, dust eddying around his feet with every step, to the missing wall, and looked down on the starlit repair work.

Workmen had already cleared most of the tumble of mud bricks and rubble below. New bricks were stacked ready to put in place. He could see the shadowy outline of ladders and bab trunks lashed together as scaffolding.

As he gazed, he tried to imagine what it had been like the day Terelle had looked down on the destruction of the earthquake and risked her life to escape. He thought about her, the turn of her head, the scornful way she would look at him if he said something stupid.

I miss you, he thought. Sandblast, but her absence hurt.

He turned to go, then remembered the second painting sticking out from under the bed. It was a portrait of a woman standing outside a door down on Level Thirty-six. He recognized it; Terelle had shown it to him. She'd said Russet Kermes had painted it to show her the power of waterpainting. He'd told her it was payment for the soul of an artist, payment for her. She'd thought he was mocking her, an unpleasant habit he had, but she'd changed her mind later.

That painting and the way it had changed had been the bait for the trap Russet had laid for her. It had intrigued her and she'd been snared. Jasper sighed and flung it away in distaste.

Just to make sure there was nothing else he'd missed, he knelt to look under the bed. And found another portrait, this one half-dislodged from its now empty tray. It portrayed Taquar lying on the ground, his head at an odd angle like a broken doll. An ugly wound in his chest and an inordinate amount of blood made it clear she had intended to paint the highlord dead.

But Taquar was still alive. Had her magic failed her? Or had she never tried to shuffle it up? He rolled the painting up, remembering her smile, her laugh. I loved her, he thought, and grieved as he tried to come to terms with the knowledge he'd probably never see her again.

"So," said Taquar, "you came here."

Jasper spun around, shocked. He had been so engrossed in his memories he'd been unaware of the highlord's approach. "How did you find me?" he asked, gathering his scattered wits.

"My guards keep me informed. And as you know, it is easy enough for people like us to track a moving body of water. You are the only person up and about. You even have an added advantage over me. You can tell who a person is by their water." He looked around the room. "So you came here."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Why not?"

Taquar stood, waiting for him to say something else, but he kept quiet. With growing certainty, Jasper knew his silence was a victory. There was nothing Taquar could do to him now, nothing. He smiled in the darkness, picked up his lantern and walked to the door. As he passed Taquar, he shoved Terelle's painting of him into his hands, saying pleasantly, "Perhaps she wasn't as fond of you as you like to think," and walked back to his room.

The next night, he was dismayed to see that the sentry outside his room was not a hall guard, but an enforcer. "You're going to marry Taquar?"

Jasper stared at Laisa and then started to laugh. She had come to the stormquest room just after lunch on his fourth full day at the hall and was now seated, swinging an elegantly crossed leg, in one of the upright chairs. He'd been looking at the chart Cloudmaster Granthon had given him, pinpointing all the water catchment sites and detailing how to recognize each using his water-sense.

"Is that so amusing?" she asked.

"Marriage to Taquar? I wish you joy of that!"

"It makes good sense," she said, defensive.

He thought about it. "Perhaps. I'd watch my back if I were you, though. Have you told Senya?"

"No, not yet. Why?"

"Nothing. She may be a little dismayed." The sidelong looks and flirtatious smiles Senya had been giving the highlord since they arrived in Scarcleft had not escaped his notice.

Her brow wrinkled. "She has a mild infatuation for him, it's true. She'll soon grow out of that."

"Not, I suspect, soon enough. When is the wedding?"

"We have asked Lord Gold to perform the ceremony next Sun Day. Nothing elaborate, given my recent widowhood."

Jasper stared at her. "Lord Gold?" he asked. "The Quartern Sunpriest-that Lord Gold? He's here? Someone told me he died in the fight for Breccia!"

"Oh, the old one. Yes, he did. But his underling escaped."

"Ah." He added flatly, "That would be the last High Waterpriest, I suppose. Lord Basalt."

"Yes. As the most senior of the waterpriests, he became the new Lord Gold when the old one died. He is making the Sun Temple here in Scarcleft the main seat of the one true faith. I believe he slipped out of Breccia before the fighting started with all the regalia in his baggage. He says the old Lord Gold sent him. I wonder if that is true, myself. I suspect he fled the moment he heard Kaneth give the warning that the Reduners were attacking. As a rainlord, he had a good chance of avoiding the Reduners. He's a conniving, money-grubbing sneak if ever there was one."

"Takes one to know one, I suppose. A nasty little man, I agree."

Laisa ignored the insult. "He's already insisting on donations from the faithful to make the temple on Level Three suitable as a place of worship for a Sunpriest." She snorted.

He grimaced inwardly. The man was a religious fanatic, lacking both compassion and tolerance. Worse, he loathed Jasper. In Breccia, he had been tasked with Jasper's religious education, and had developed a deep-and justified-suspicion of the sincerity of the new stormlord's religious convictions. He was not a man Jasper had any wish to meet again.

When he didn't reply, Laisa added, "You and Senya must give some thought to your own wedding."

Jasper nodded neutrally. "Oh, I will. I will. A lot of thought."

She gave him a sharp look, but changed the subject. "Where's Taquar?"

"I have no idea. After he has brought a cloud out of the sea, he leaves me to do the rest. I am moving a cloud as we speak."

"That's impressive skill-to do it without any signs of stress."

"Moving water is not my problem."

"Taquar has been very secretive about whether you are having any success. That's why I decided to drop by today and find out for myself."

"We have two sessions a day," he said, not seeing any reason why she should not know. "Whatever he can bring out of the ocean, I can shift. Unfortunately, it is about half of what Granthon achieved, even at his sickest. Taquar finds it exhausting. He really isn't a stormlord."

"Ah. That explains his bad temper, I suppose." She was examining her nails as if they suddenly fascinated her. Without looking up, she said, "He told me he was insisting you fill the Scarcleft mother cistern before you send water elsewhere."

"That's right. He is quite vociferous on the subject."

Her sharp gaze stabbed at him. "Taquar may be too exhausted after your sessions to sense where you send the clouds, Jasper, but I am not. That cloud you are manipulating as we speak is heading off to the northeast, outside the Scarpen. At a guess, you are going to make it rain in the White Quarter."

Sandblast, of course she would feel the cloud; she's not a bad rainlord. I should have thought of that. "Sometimes the clouds wobble across the sky in unexpected ways."

She dismissed that excuse with the contempt it deserved. "Are you mad? Taquar may not have sensed it, but he does have two rainlords in the city's employ, quite apart from waterpriests. True, they are old men, and not particularly talented, but they are experienced. And there's our new Lord Gold. Sooner or later they'll wake up to what is happening, especially if Taquar asks them to watch out for it. Anyway, his reeves will tell him the level of water in our waterhall is not what he expects. You, of all people, should know what he is like. You don't thwart Taquar with impunity."

"So? Without me, his clouds go nowhere. I am the only person who can move them, just as he is the only person who can make them, and only then if he has my help. He's hardly going to kill me. Or even risk making me so furious I won't cooperate."

Laisa gave another snort. "As if you would do that. He reads you like a scroll. You haven't the guts to cut off water to the people of the Scarpen by refusing cooperation."

"Exactly. I won't cut off water-to the people of the Quartern."

She stared at him for a little longer, then shook her head. "Don't come running to me when you rile Taquar, Jasper. There is a point beyond which I won't risk my neck. You are playing a very dangerous game with a very dangerous man."

"Laisa," he said with a sigh, "there's a point beyond which you won't risk a broken fingernail."

Her eyes narrowed, but she didn't waste any breath on a reply.

After she had gone, he continued to work on sketching out a comprehensive program of water distribution. His biggest problem was that Taquar could not raise much water vapor. He tired too quickly. Their clouds were small.

His second problem was what to do about Qanatend and Breccia, both now in the hands of the Reduner warrior armies. And he had to include Portennabar in the problem, too; the port might still have had its freedom, but it received its water via tunnels from Breccia. Just thinking about it all was enough to make him feel ill. If he sent storms to the Warthago catchments for those cities, the Reduners would benefit, continue their occupation and steal water to send back to the Red Quarter. If he didn't send storms, the people who thirsted first would be the Scarpen inhabitants, not the Reduners.

He sighed, regretting the limitations of even a stormlord's power. The only way to move large amounts of water, from a distance and over long distances, was through stormshifting clouds. Moreover, to change clouds into water was fiendishly difficult without cooling them first, and it was tough to send the clouds high enough to do that without being aided initially by the updrafts along the slopes of the Warthago Range. Even clouds for the other quarters had to be lifted over the Warthago first, then moved to wherever they needed to be broken.

Always the limitations…

If the Sunlord wanted to help us, why the withering winds didn't he just send us regular rain in the first place? The people from across the Giving Sea say it rains all the time there!

He was still mulling over the best course of action when he heard Senya's voice, shrill with indignation, outside, arguing to be let inside.

"You can't go in there like that," Jasper heard a guard say. "The stormlord is cloudshifting-he needs to concentrate."

"I need to speak to him!" she snapped. "Is Lord Taquar there, too?"

"He left some time ago. If you wait, the stormlord will attend to you when he has completed this cycle of rain."

"He doesn't know I am here!"

"He always knows when someone comes."

She took a deep breath as if to berate him still further, so Jasper opened the door. He inclined his head politely. "Senya. Please come in."

She entered, her ruffled feelings evident in the irritable way she tilted her chin.

"What's the matter?" he asked. He indicated the chair Laisa had vacated. "Sit down. Did you come for a lesson on how we go about cloudshifting?" He waved a hand to take in the shutter flung wide to display a distant view, the book spread out on a lectern close to the window and the table strewn with maps and instruments.

She looked at them vaguely with a complete lack of interest. "It's Mother," she burst out. "She's going to marry Taquar!"

He nodded. "Yes, I know."

"You knew? Why didn't you tell me?"

"It was up to your mother to do that-as I see she has."

"How can she do it? Papa is only just dead! And Taquar! If anyone should marry Taquar, it's me."

"He's a good deal older than you," Jasper said reasonably, "and your parents have always hoped you would marry me."

"But you're a nobody from the Gibber! And I'm the daughter of a highlord, from a long line of stormlords and highlords. Just as Taquar is."

"Actually, from what I understand, Taquar was a nobody from Breakaway. And his mother was from the Gibber. But that's not really the point. The point is that he's childless. The whole point of your marriage-or mine-is to produce water-sensitive children with the potential to be stormlords."

"There's nothing to say you would have stormlord children," Senya said. She looked him up and down. "I don't want to marry you. I think you're ugly and stupid and you behave like a-a-lowleveler. I hate you."

Expressionless, he considered her words. "And if the future of the Quartern depends on having more stormlords?"

She stamped her foot. "I don't care. Why should I care about what happens years hence? While you are alive, we are all safe. Why should I have a meddle of half-Gibber brats just in case one of them is a stormlord?"

He inclined his head. "Good point." He stood up straight, his smile deliberately warm and encouraging. "Why don't we forget the whole thing then?"

Ducking her head, Senya looked at him through her eyelashes. "But Mama says I must-and so does Taquar-"

"No one can persuade me to marry if I don't want to," he said. "No one can force me to do anything. If I don't want to marry you, I won't."

"Can you talk to them?"

"I will. I promise. Don't worry about it, Senya. You may not get to marry the person you want, but I swear you'll never have to marry someone you hate."

She blinked, and he suspected she was disconcerted. He went to the door and opened it politely for her to leave. "Thank you," she said in a small voice, as if she was wondering why she felt so dissatisfied.

Once she'd gone, Jasper went to the window and looked out. He stood very still, sensing the water in the sea, feeling its presence: overpowering, seemingly endless.

"Terelle," he murmured aloud. "Oh, blighted eyes, how I wish you were here!"

There was nothing he wanted to do more than ride after her, wherever she was. Nothing he would like more than to rescue her from Russet. He would even have killed the old man to do it.

But he held a secret inside, where it gnawed at him from within, eating away his esteem, his hope, his future. He had analyzed his abilities, he had studied all Granthon, then Taquar, did when he helped them to raise clouds from the sea. And beyond all whisper of doubt, he knew the crucial foundation on which to build the ability necessary for that task was absent from his mind. Somewhere in his childhood he had missed the moment to develop the basis for the skill, and so it had atrophied and vanished. He could boost Taquar's power to effect the change but the technique-the magic-was all the rainlord's.

I am never going to be able to change salt water to pure water vapor.

Which meant he was forever tethered to a man he despised. For the rest of my life…

CHAPTER TEN

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Scarcleft Hall, Level 2, and Sun Temple, Level 3 Jasper had more time on his hands than he'd expected. He could have worked much harder and longer hours, but Taquar could not. Or would not.

He filled his spare time in a number of ways. His priority was to study all the documents and information Cloudmaster Granthon had given him on stormbringing until he knew them all by heart. To improve his fighting skills and keep fit, he asked Taquar's permission for some of the Scarcleft Hall guards to become his sparring partners.

"Practice your blade skills?" the highlord asked, amused. "Think you'll be good enough to take me on one day?"

Jasper shrugged. "I doubt it. Anyway, we both know I will never be able to give you the death you deserve. You are too valuable to the people of the Scarpen. My sword practice keeps me fit and prepared for the day the Reduner hordes ride down on Scarcleft, that's all."

"Fine. Keep fit, by all means, but allow me to worry about Davim. He will not approach this city, never fear."

Even with the sword practice, the cloudshifting and his self-imposed studies, there was not enough to fill all his time, and it was therefore almost a relief when-after he had been in Scarcleft ten days-Jasper received a request from the new Lord Gold to present himself at the temple on Level Three. Almost. His memories of the man's ill-concealed dislike, his uncompromising religious pedantry and his hypocrisy were too fresh in his mind for there to be any real pleasure in the idea that the Quartern Sunpriest wished to see him. He thought of insisting, just to make a point, that Lord Gold come to Scarcleft Hall to meet him rather than the other way around, but decided it would be more interesting to visit the Sun Temple.

In the end, it was Lord Gold who made the point by keeping him waiting for half the run of a sandglass. Jasper didn't have the slightest doubt the withering petty bastard intended it as an insult.

When an acolyte finally ushered him into the office on the top floor of the temple's tower, Gold was standing talking to a waterpriest, a man whose spine was hunched with the gnarling of old age. They stood beside a large desk and matching chair, all made of hardwood, itself an extravagance considering the scarcity of trees. The other chairs in the room were made of bab palm. The ceiling above had skylights, unglassed holes positioned to allow direct sunlight to beam in at different times of the day. The man Jasper had known from Breccia as Lord Basalt was now standing in a pool of light. The other man stood where he was untouched by the sun's rays.

He timed it, Jasper thought, incredulous. Just so that when I entered he'd be illuminated by the Sunlord's radiance. He almost laughed. "Lord Gold," he said, inclining his head.

"Stormlord." Basalt nodded in turn. "I do not think you have yet met the High Waterpriest of Scarcleft City, have you? This is Lord Taminy."

Jasper murmured a greeting; the other man bowed. "It is a pleasure to know we have a stormlord once more," Taminy said. "Forgive me for not presenting myself at the hall to welcome you, but Lord Taquar informed me you have been too tired."

Did he indeed? "Being the Quartern's only stormlord is an exhausting task," Jasper said blandly. "However, I am sure I will benefit from the walk down here today."

"I understand Lord Taquar is doing much to help you," Basalt said.

"He tries," Jasper said. "However, he is not a stormlord and cannot stormshift." There, Taquar, you will learn it is unwise not to give me my due… "Tell me, don't you feel a little unsafe using the tower in its present state? I understand the top was damaged in the earthquake. I notice there is still scaffolding around it."

"The Sunlord protects his own," Basalt said, his tone admonishing.

"He certainly protected you," Jasper agreed amiably. "I'm amazed you managed to escape from Breccia. There was so little time between the warning and the Reduner attack. You must have moved quickly."

"The previous Lord Gold and I had my escape planned. Just in case."

"Ah. A farsighted man. It is a pity he did not arrange his own escape. I must admit, I am surprised you have taken on the mantle of his post without waiting for confirmation from other senior waterpriests of the Quartern."

He knew he'd hit a raw nerve when he saw Taminy look away uncomfortably.

"And just how can one obtain such confirmation?" Basalt asked, sour-faced. "There is hardly an open line of communication to the priests of Breccia or Qanatend at the present time, if any are still alive. There is, however, a need for continuity of prayer and worship and leadership. The other cities have been informed."

"Informed?"

"They were informed that I have taken on that mantle. It is, after all, normal for the High Waterpriest of Breccia to become the next Sunpriest. And the Cloudmaster assented. But there is no need to concern yourself with temple matters."

"The Cloudmaster? We have a Cloudmaster?"

Basalt blinked in surprise. "Lord Taquar is Cloudmaster!"

"It is my understanding that after the death of the last Cloudmaster, a new one needs to be confirmed by his peers. There has been no such confirmation. Lord Taquar is not yet the Cloudmaster. Nor was he the heir, either. Cloudmaster Granthon withdrew that post from him on evidence that he was a traitor to the Quartern."

"Without Lord Taquar there is no Quartern! He tells me we would thirst to death without his aid to you."

"You'd thirst to death without me, Lord Gold."

Taminy looked sick with worry. Basalt, however, was purple, with anger Jasper guessed, although he was managing to keep it under control.

"These matters are not your concern," Basalt snapped. "I asked you to come because your spiritual health concerns me."

"Just as your health-and the health of all the Quartern's people-concerns me. No one will be particularly healthy if there's no water."

"You cannot have a truly healthy body without a healthy spiritual life. And your spirituality has always been suspect. You are our only stormlord. You must be seen to be pious and devout. You should be devout."

"Oh, I am." Devout about doing my job, anyway. "I just feel it is more important I stormshift than that I be seen at the Temple, spending my time in prayer."

"You have the power to stormshift only through the Sunlord and the gift of knowledge made to the Watergiver. You must be seen to give thanks for their gifts at the Temple. And you should continue to receive spiritual teaching from me or one of my colleagues until you have a full understanding of the nature of our faith. I am sure Lord Taminy can arrange for a suitable teacher."

"I already have a deep understanding of your faith, Lord Gold. And I shall, of course, present myself at the Temple for festival days such as the Gratitudes. You have my solemn undertaking."

"The understanding of faith is a lifetime undertaking-"

"For a priest, such a lifetime undertaking is indeed a necessity. I hope you, for example, are indeed growing in your faith and piety. I trust you will pray for my spiritual wellbeing as I am sure I am not as steadfast as I should be. I shall have to rely on your prayers to guide me, in fact, Lord Gold, seeing as the Sunlord has seen fit to put me in a situation requiring constant use of power and its debilitating consequences, leaving me no time to attend to religious study. I feel sure you will be a great source of comfort and spiritual sustenance to me with your prayers. And now, if you will excuse me, I need to return to my more… temporal duties."

Basalt's face was dark with suppressed rage, but he inclined his head and said, "Lord Taminy will see you out."

As the High Priest escorted Jasper down the stairs, the rainlord waterpriest said neutrally, "Lord Gold feels you mock him and the one true faith."

"And you, Lord Taminy? Do you agree with him?"

"I do not know you well enough to say, Lord Jasper. Although Lord Basalt informs me that you came under the influence of a person from Khromatis while living on Level Thirty-six."

Jasper's interest quickened. "Do you know anything about Khromatis, Lord Taminy? And what has my acquaintance with someone from there got to do with anything at all?"

"They are blasphemers, my lord, denying our faith, usurping the story of the Holy Watergiver and making it their own. Contact with them is the reason the Alabasters are heretics! The people of Khromatis taught the 'Basters to deny that the sun is the outward manifestation of the Sunlord, pouring his beneficence down upon us. It is of concern to Lord Gold that you have come under the influence of such a blasphemer. They are anathema to our faith."

"I assure you, Lord Taminy, the man from Khromatis whom I met did not alter my faith by as much as a grain of sand."

"I think Lord Gold was referring to a woman, my lord."

"A woman? I know no women from Khromatis."

Taminy frowned. "I am sure he said a young woman."

"Perhaps he was thinking of a friend of mine, Terelle Grey. If so, he is mistaken as to her origins. She is Gibber born and has never set foot in Khromatis, let alone been taught anything of their faith. She sacrifices to the Sunlord."

"I am relieved to hear it."

To Jasper's amusement, he did indeed appear relieved. They stepped out into the sun at the foot of the tower just then and the heat blasted down on them. I could wish for a little less of the Sunlord's beneficence, he thought wryly.

"My lord," Taminy said, clearing his throat in an embarrassed fashion. "I do know it is unwise to tease Lord Gold. He has a low threshold for insult, imagined or otherwise. I also know it is unwise not to give due respect to the Sunlord and his Watergiver. They are the bringers of life-without them there would be no sun and no water. They are to be adored, and are mocked at your peril in this life and the life beyond. Have a care, my lord."

"Indeed I shall. This land depends on my continued good health."

"You will have my prayers."

Jasper smiled. "I have an idea that yours will be more sincerely meant than the new Lord Gold's. My thanks, Lord Taminy."

As he walked back to Scarcleft Hall, flanked by both guards and enforcers, he dismissed Lord Gold from his mind. The man was a small-minded bigot, and there was no way he could bring trouble to the only stormlord the Quartern had.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

White Quarter The Whiteout As Terelle and Russet continued to descend from the highlands around Fourcross Tell, they made slow progress. They had left the caravan route to Samphire City, and there was no track the way they were heading. The pede picked its way, plodding along with a stoic refusal to be hurried.

The scenery around them was strange, alien. The creeping vegetation was something Terelle had never seen before: a plant of plump stems but no leaves, or nothing she thought of as leaves. It was purple and green, a sea of it drowning all other growth.

"Samphire," Russet said. "Grows at lake edge."

"Lake?" She looked up, but all she could see beyond the samphire was a plain of white. A breeze gusting in swirls on the dazzling flats also teased against her face, leaving its residue. She touched her cheek and looked down at her fingers. "That's salt."

"A lake sometimes, every ten years or so, in Time of Random Rain. Be so again, if that obstinate Gibber boy not bring back planned storms. Use your head. How ye think it like that, if not water once?" He waved a hand. "Great inland sea… saltier than Giving Sea. Birds be coming from everywhere to nest and eat pink shrimps."

"Shrimps? Aren't they like fish?" People raised fish in the grove cisterns, but never shrimp. She had heard, though, that the very rich imported salted shrimp from the coast. She stared in disbelief at the salt. "Out there?"

"So they say."

Terelle found it hard to believe, but conceded the Whiteout's beauty. "It is almost splendid," she said, considering the hard sparkle of it, the bobbled edge of purple and green a contrast to the purity of the glittering white. She'd expected it to be dirty-colored, like the salt blocks arriving in Scarcleft always were, but this stretched as far as she could see, so bright it hurt the eyes, white without end. Only the edges were grubby, dragging in the dust of the bordering earth.

"It's so hot out there. The pede will need a lot of water. What if-"

"Worry, worry, worry! Why ye worry so much? We get safely other side! Otherwise, how my painting ever come true?"

She felt sick. His faith in his painting agitated her with its implications.

"Anyway, Whiteout salt mines have tunnels bringing water, just like Scarpen cities. The pede can be finding it for us."

Her stomach lurched in doubt. "Can you be sure of that?"

His injury had made no difference to his arrogance. He didn't bother to reply. "Harness pede. Eat bab fruit as we go."

A few minutes later, as he struggled back onto the pede, she saw the calf of his leg. Red and inflamed, the skin stretched tight over the swelling was shiny. She wanted to protest, to say something, but the look he gave her stopped the words.

"We go on, girl," he said. The salt penetrated everything. It coated everything. Sometimes the air was so still even the intake of breath was an effort. At other times the winds came: hot, salt-laden winds playing across the surface of the dried-up lake, stirring the salt crystals into white eddies, bombarding them both with tiny splinters of salt. No matter how well Terelle wrapped herself against the onslaught, the salt grains infiltrated every crevice. Her eyes were soon red and sore, her toes inflamed, her lips cracked. If she used pede fat on her skin to protect against the worst of the sun and the drying wind, then the salt stuck to her like a dusting of the powder Opal's handmaidens used.

She brushed the pede even more carefully than usual each time they stopped, but the beast was in misery. In between the segment plates, the salt irritated its skin until it bled. Pain made it trumpet its distress, turning its head this way and that, as if it sought to find its attacker. Terelle rubbed the worst places with fat, and wondered what they would do when the tub of ointment was empty.

Lit by the blue light of stars at night and sheened with a luminous glow, the saltscape had a raw beauty. It begged to be painted. Yet Terelle could think only that Russet's stubbornness was going to kill them both. True, they had not seen any Reduners, probably because no Reduner was sun-fried crazy enough to cross this vast salt pan.

At times, her thoughts drifted to Shale. To his promise of protection. She would smile softly at the memory, choosing to recall not the irony of his inability to uphold the pledge, but the nobility of his intention. When she thought of the Reduners riding south into the Scarpen, a tear trickled down her cheek, washing a track through the dusting of white.

Loneliness set her dreaming of what might have been-futile, silly visions of a world that never could be, at least not to a Gibber girl sold to traders for water tokens. She knew her thoughts were foolish, but let them wander anyway. What she wanted, she would never have: Shale's hand in hers; Shale seated behind her right now, his hands holding her by the waist, whispering promises in her ear.

She turned her face to the sky and silently sent her thoughts questing, not even sure what power it was she queried. Was it too much to want? she asked. Just to have one friend? When Terelle woke early the next morning, she lay for a moment staring at the sky. In the east, the stars were fading, then vanishing as the dawn light crept higher.

Another day. There was no way it would be a good one.

And you, my girl, have to stop whining and whingeing and feeling sorry for yourself. It's no use looking back. That life is behind you. Now you have to make the best of what's ahead.

And the first thing was to stay alive in order to have a life. When they set off once more, she gave the pede its head.

Russet roused himself enough to complain after they had been traveling an hour or two. "We've swung too far south," he protested.

"I'm letting the pede choose the route."

"Why? Don't need water yet!"

"The pede needs more than we can give it. Besides, you need help. Getting me to Khromatis will gain you nothing if you are dead."

"I be not dying!"

"You will be if you don't get help. I want to find the tunnel. We'll follow it to the nearest mining settlement."

"Don't be stupid, girl. You know we get through this. I painted you there, in mountains!"

"You didn't paint yourself, old man." His painting had portrayed her next to running water on a green hillside. His clothing had been in the painting-but not him. A painter could not paint himself to ensure his own future. He tried to argue with her, but she didn't listen and he was too weak to offer any physical resistance. The pede plodded on.

They stopped during the heat of the day, but when Terelle went to groom the animal she was shocked at how hot the black carapace was under her touch. Even the underlying skin connecting the segments felt much too warm. Alarmed, she looked across at Russet where he sat lifting a water skin to his lips. "The pede is feverish," she said.

"Pedes don't get fever. Desert creatures," he said in scorn, but she wondered if he would really know something like that.

She said slowly, "The people of the White Quarter own white pedes. White reflects heat. Number Twelve is far too hot. It's burning up, and there doesn't seem to be nearly as much water in its tissues as there should be."

"Don't bother me," he muttered. "Stop worrying. I be painting you there…" He lay down in the shade she had erected and closed his eyes.

Troubled, she patted the pede's head, but it didn't seem to have enough energy to raise its eye mantle to look at her. Its feelers lay flat to the ground, unmoving. She wondered if she should give it more water, and was torn. If the pede died, they were doomed. To continue on foot would be ridiculous; she had glimpsed the peaks of the mountains as an unevenness along the horizon, but they were still far away. She had no idea in what direction Samphire City lay, and no idea of where the salt pan's water tunnels were. They couldn't even retrace their route because the wind had teased away the footprints. Besides, Russet was hardly able to stand, let alone walk. They had to have the pede, not just to ride, but to find the water of the tunnel.

Wryly resolute, she took up one of the water skins and offered the spout to the animal, letting it sense the water through its mouth. It did not stir. She even poured a little of the precious liquid into its gullet, but it gave no sign of caring. It wasn't dead yet, though; she knew that. It still made odd snuffling noises, and occasionally clattered its segments in a shrug.

Not knowing what else she could do, she lay down to rest. Whatever happened, they couldn't move until the heat was gone from the sun. When she woke, late in the afternoon, it seemed no cooler-and the pede was dead. For a moment she couldn't absorb the enormity of that. It was impossible, surely. For that huge a beast to die so quickly, without her even being aware of it, without a struggle, without a sound. She reached out and forced up the mantle that covered its eyes, wondering if she could be mistaken. Begging that she was.

The eyes were sunken, unseeing, speaking of nothing but an absence of life. In shock, she struggled to maintain her resolution. The disaster was too huge, too fraught with dire outcomes, all of them now probably unavoidable.

After several deep breaths, she went to wake Russet, only to find him delirious. He called her Sienna, her mother's name, and shouted at her angrily, asking why she had hankered after an eel-catcher, why she had run away. "Ye could have been Pinnacle!" he cried out in anger. "Don't ye be knowing how much I wanted to be Pinnacle? But no-I be not good enough for them. I not be having Pinnacle blood in my veins…" And then the words disintegrated into meaningless syllables.

Terelle sat back on her heels, thinking. Russet could not possibly walk; yet if he didn't, they had no chance.

Unless his waterpainting had been powerful enough. If so, then it ensured she at least would reach the land of the Watergivers one day. All she had to do was wait where she was and she'd be rescued, possibly Russet along with her. But could she rely on that? She didn't know enough about waterpainting magic to be sure. Maybe if he died, and the magic of the paintings with him, then she could die as well, without ever reaching the water of Khromatis. Even if he didn't die, perhaps as he grew weaker, so would the effects of his waterpainting. She tried to assess whether her drive to go toward the mountains had lessened, but couldn't be sure.

"Blighted eyes," she growled. "I hate magic."

Nonetheless, she rummaged in her pack and took out her waterpaints to have a look at them. She had everything she needed: paints, tray, the last of their water. Russet had once said you couldn't paint the impossible and expect it to happen. But she could paint something sensible showing Russet being saved. A party of Alabasters riding up to their camp? But if she did, could she be sure she did not hurt someone else? What if one of the people who came to save them died because they came? She knew in her heart there was no way she could ever be certain. When you messed with the future, you had to be prepared to change other people's lives as well, not necessarily for the better. It was wrong.

She looked down at the old man and shook her head in exasperation. Here she was, wondering how to save Russet, when she should have been taking the opportunity to rid herself of him. Here she was, in danger of dying a slow and torturous death of thirst because of him, and yet she couldn't just walk away.

Life definitely wasn't fair, but at least she no longer expected it to be. She gave a snort of sardonic amusement and said, "I think I'm going to die because of you, old man, and I don't even like you."

One thing she did know for certain: she was never going to give up. For the rest of that day and for the entirety of the next, she worked. She used Russet's knife to strip off some of the carapace from the dead pede. It was a horrible job, difficult and messy and smelly. Fortunately, the worst of the smell dissipated after a few hours as the flesh dried out, but it was hard not to feel guilty. They had asked too much of the animal, and it had suffered a cruel death.

Trying not to think of that, she separated two segment pieces from the carcass and cleaned out all the flesh, which she cut up and laid out to dry in the sun. The legs and the thick skin of the underbelly she discarded. She set fire to the remains of the pede, using the oil from its own glands to fuel the blaze. It made a pillar of black, greasy smoke rising straight up into the air, a signal to anyone within several days' journey. She had no confidence anyone would actually respond. Why should they? If they were Alabasters, they would probably think it a Reduner trap. If they were Reduners, they wouldn't be interested in someone else's troubles.

While it burned, contaminating the air with an unpleasant acridity, she placed the two cleaned segments inner side upward, lengthways one behind the other on the salt. They were vaguely boat-shaped, flattish in the middle but then curved upward into a broad prow at either end. They dried out quickly in the heat. Using the point of the knife, she punched holes in the ends of each and linked them with twine. The result looked vaguely like a two-part insect, overturned and legless. She lined one of the segments with the two blankets they had, then made a harness out of some of their clothes so she could pull the segments along behind her, like a sled.

When she'd finished, she straightened up to look around. In the far distance white figures cavorted, coalescing and parting, shivering and stretching.

Look, Terelle, sand-dancers… No. Salt-dancers, that's what they are…

She laughed, finding her own thought hugely funny.

Then she sobered. During the day and a half of preparations, she had restricted her water intake as much as she could bear. Now that she had finished the sled, she was light-headed and finding it hard to think straight.

Russet was in a worse state. He lay unheeding, drifting in and out of delirium. His leg was still red and swollen, although it didn't seem to be worsening. He drank when she gave him water, he muttered and moaned when she touched him-but no more than that. When everything was ready, she laid him inside the padded segment. The curvature meant it could not have been comfortable, but he wasn't conscious enough to complain. Surprised to find how light he was, she had the fanciful feeling he was just a husk, that the real man had long since gone.

Blown away on the wind, maybe. No, not the wind, the salt-dancers. Maybe they took him…

She shook her head and frowned. Sunlord, her brains were frizzled. Russet wasn't dead. Concentrating, she packed into the second segment the items they needed: the remaining water, food, the shade cloth and its support poles, cloaks. She picked up her waterpaints, then put them down again. Wrong. It's wrong. That little boy who died in the earthquake… Reality faded into dream. Her resolution remained true, but the reason for it was blurring. Thirst. Sunlord help me, I am so thirsty.

She would not risk any innocent lives for either Russet or herself. That was the truth. Hold onto it. You can do this without magic.

When she set off pulling the makeshift sled, it glided along on the salt as easily as a snake slithering across the plains.

Behind her, the pile of unnecessary items was a dwindling dark patch on a white background. Behind her, the wind blew and silted salt into the paint trays, while the pede still burned.

She walked all night into the dawn of the next day, taking only the occasional short break. At night, there were the stars to help, but after the first day, the mountain peaks dropped out of sight beneath the horizon and she couldn't tell which way she was heading when the sun was high in the sky. Once that happened, she rested, dozing fitfully, only to wake and start again toward sunset.

Every step was a struggle against the drag of the sled. Every step was a struggle against the urge she still had to head toward Khromatis.

Another day. Thirst, and more thirst. And heat. The temperature-even under the shade of a makeshift cover she constructed with the bab matting and the pede segments-quickly became unbearable. Her throat scorched, her skin shriveled. Her exposed skin was red and sore, although she had done her best to protect herself. The water they carried became more than a temptation; it was a torture. She knew she had to make it last, but she also knew she needed it now. Worse as the day wore on. Burning. Skin on fire, loose over her bones like borrowed clothes that didn't fit. And Russet, so hot. Delirious.

As she lay there under the meager shade, her mind drifted, focused and drifted yet again. She shook her water skin and assessed what was left. Enough for the next day if she was careful; after that… well, neither of them would last more than a day without water. Not in this heat.

Look, the salt-dancers are back. Undulating. Like Arta Amethyst. Once I was a dancer, too.

Terelle dozed in uncomfortable snatches, sleep born of exhaustion, not normal need. In the evening, when it was cool enough to go on, she set off again, the segments dragging behind her.

Another night of walking. Salt coated her, rubbed her skin raw, gummed up her eyelashes. Her shoulders ached. The shiny surface of the pede segments wore away, and the sled no longer slid across the salt with such slickness. Her slow plod became the dragging steps of an old woman; her hopes faltered further as she began to stumble.

Thirst, waterless soul, the thirst…

She thought of Shale. He wouldn't really give himself up to Taquar because of her silly letter, would he? And Taquar. The way he had touched her hair. She must never meet him again. Not ever, because he would never let her go. She knew that look he had given her. She'd seen it before, on the faces of some of the men who came to the snuggery: looks that coveted, on men who were consumed with greed. Like Huckman, the pedeman who'd wanted to buy her first-night.

The earthquake-had she killed Vivie in the earthquake? And Amethyst, who had helped her escape the snuggery-what of her? No, she was dead. How could she have forgotten that? The knife in her chest. Taquar had knifed her… Was that my fault, too? She couldn't remember. Oh, sand hells, my mind is wandering.

The next time she stumbled, she fell. The effort it took to rise was nightmarish.

The following morning as she set up camp for the day, she staggered and fell several times, everything taking three times longer to do than it had the morning before. She looked at Russet through gummed lashes, and cursed him. "I don't care if you are my great-grandfather, old man," she shouted. "What you did was not right and I despise you for it!" But her mouth was so dry her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and the words didn't sound right.

He gave no sign he had heard her.

She knelt at his side to lift his head so he could drink. He took the water eagerly, and seemed to revive. As she went to move away, he grabbed her by the wrist. "Paint!" he admonished. "Paint for us."

"All right," she said, and hunted for her paints.

They weren't there. She sat back on her heels and remembered: she'd left them behind.

She had cut Russet off from the one hope of survival he had. Even in refusing to use her skills, she could kill. Her stomach cramped and she threw up a dribble of precious fluid. There was no more water left. None.

When Terelle could go no further, she set up the camp and lay down in the heat. Russet was quiet now. He no longer moaned or moved. He wasn't dead; she could still see the slight rise and fall of his chest, if she bothered to look. But she didn't bother too much now; her own pain consumed her. At times she seemed to float, drifting over the salt, borne on a wave of heat so intense it had physical dimension. At times she could hear voices: Madam Opal, her smile avaricious, telling her she would make a good whore; Vivie, annoyed, telling her she had to come back; Shale, upset, telling her she had to go to Breccia City; Taquar, smiling, his hand stroking her hair, telling her she had to come to his bed; Amethyst, her bodice all bloody, telling her not to dance; Jomat, fat and greasy, telling her to go back to the brothel where she belonged; Russet, gloating, telling her she had to go to the mountains. Everyone ordering her to do this or that, shouting at her, angry with her. She cried, weeping without water for tears, begging to be left alone. To have some choices. To have any choice.

Pain, so much pain. Abraded, salted fingers. Eyelids glued, having to be wrenched apart. Grit on the eyeballs, burning blistered skin, cramping stomach, urine so hot it burned-then none at all. Thoughts of Shale, trapped in another kind of cage, Taquar lusting after her. Or was that Huckman? Guilt as sharp as jabbing spears, blaming her. Russet asking why she had not used her waterpainting to save him. Deaths to be laid at her door.

Sand-dancers-salt-dancers?-gyrated at distant pools of water, to mock her. They bred along the horizon, doubling, trebling, shivering, but never allowed approach; the pools dried up when she stared at them, and re-formed the moment she looked away, to torment the edge of her vision.

White salt, glaring at her, hurting her eyes, white everything, everything white: sky, land, skin, sun, salt, eyes.

Whiteout.

And then little pinpoints of light, flashing and dancing like the glow worms of a waterhall, colors so pretty she wanted to reach up and touch them. There were red lines snaking from one glow worm to the next, runnels of blood, surely, and disembodied voices telling her to drink, drink this, sip that. And it felt so good. Water in her throat. Sweetness. Moisture on her lips, dampness on her eyelids, coolness on her forehead. Sparkles of light, dazzling in their brightness, making her blink and close her salt-sore eyes.

Salt-dancers are real, she thought. And they sparkle. So beautiful.

Water, all the water she desired. Whiteness. Voices in her head. White hands, bloodless faces. Rubbing her skin with something soft and moist. Bathing her eyes. Those red lines and sparkles: threads and mirrors. Alabasters. The white people of this white land of the White Quarter.

Something made her speak. "Scorpion. He was stung by a scorpion."

Voices replied, assuring, kindly.

A tear ran down her cheek, and she let herself slip away.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Scarcleft Hall, Level 2, and Opal's Snuggery, Level 32 "Lord Gold tells me the clouds we raised this morning went to Breakaway, not to the catchment area for Scarcleft as I ordered."

Taquar sat at his desk in his study, his long fingers playing with his knife, his thumbs rubbing up and down the carved hilt. His voice was heavy with suppressed rage; his gray eyes sharp as the blade. Laisa was sitting on the embrasure of one of the windows, neatly peeling an orange plucked from one of the potted trees on the balcony. She smiled pleasantly in Jasper's direction, as if to compensate for Taquar's abrupt words. Basalt was standing by the open shutters of the next window, his expression rigid with dislike.

Inwardly Jasper sighed. Perhaps it had been a mistake to rile the Sunpriest. But words are all I have left. "So?" he asked Taquar. "This city has enough to last for a while, if we are careful. My calculations tell me Breakaway must be dangerously low in supply, even if they have been frugal in their usage."

"I don't care about Breakaway!" Taquar's rage blazed at him.

Jasper quirked an eyebrow. "I thought that's where you were born?"

"What of it? It is an irrelevance! I want Scarcleft to have full cisterns before we start thinking about others. That's an order, Jasper."

"He is not going to obey you," Basalt said.

Jasper could glean nothing from his tone, but he nodded in agreement. "I'm the stormlord. I make the decisions with regard to the placement of our storms."

"I am not against Breakaway receiving water," Basalt said. "Indeed, it is your duty to supply all those who worship the Sunlord. But yesterday's rain went somewhere to the east. It certainly did not fall within the boundaries of the Scarpen."

"So we only water those who follow the same faith?"

"The faith which gave us the knowledge of watershifting! The Sunlord himself gives us water sensitives our power. He gave you your power, Lord Jasper. Obviously, the Sunlord wanted us to survive. Those who scorn our faith must surely be a secondary consideration. If they were of concern to the Sunlord, then he would have ensured there were many more stormlords, which would enable us to consider the needs of the heathens in the Gibber and the White Quarter."

Jasper narrowed his gaze and regarded the Sunpriest with dislike he did not try to conceal. "May I remind you, my lord, that I-your only stormlord-was Gibber born and raised? Yet you dismiss my place of birth with such easy scorn."

There was a moment of silence, so still it seemed to Jasper that everyone had stopped breathing.

Basalt took a deep breath. "I apologize, my lord. It was not my intention to insult you, of course. The Sunlord has indeed blessed you, but you have assured me that you do not scorn our faith."

"Ah. You do feel, though, that it is the Sunlord's fault the Gibber and White Quarters thirst?"

"Obviously. What other explanation is there? It lay within his power to make it otherwise, and he did not. Still does not."

Laisa interrupted. "Enough of theology, both of you. Keep it for your sermons, Lord Gold." She smiled in the Sunpriest's direction to take the sting from her words, and popped an orange quarter into her mouth.

Taquar ignored her. "Jasper, is Lord Gold correct in what he said? You sent yesterday's clouds to the Gibber?"

It hurt him to ask that, Jasper thought. He so hates having to rely on another… "Yes, it is true," he said. "Are you accusing Lord Gold of lying?"

"Of course I'm not. Although he could be mistaken."

Jasper shifted his gaze back to Basalt. "He's a little disdainful of your abilities, isn't he, my lord?"

Taquar stood up, saying, "I will not create clouds in order to have you squander them on the Gibber!"

Laisa slipped down from her seat at the window and came to stand beside him. She ate the last piece of the orange and dumped the peel in a heap on his desk. "Dear me, both of you, this is not worth an argument. Jasper, be a little conciliatory."

Jasper gave a shrug of acquiescence and addressed Taquar. "No one in Scarcleft will ever die of thirst, I promise. Other than that, you are just going to have to let me be the judge of where water goes and where it doesn't. That is my job as stormlord, and Granthon and Nealrith tutored me well."

"Lord Gold," Laisa said, at her most charming, "I think it's time we took our leave. These men have things to discuss." Without waiting for any reaction from Taquar, she took Basalt firmly by the arm and headed for the door.

After the two had left, Jasper remarked, heavily sarcastic, "Laisa, being tactful and pressing for cooperation. What did you say to her?"

"I don't like your attitude," Taquar snapped. "You need to show respect for your elders."

"Perhaps I would, if my elders respected me. Still, Laisa is right. We need to work together. She has spoken of little else since I arrived. And I am willing to make this more of a cooperative venture, if you are."

"You will follow my directives, Jasper."

"Or what? You'll keep me prisoner somewhere?"

"It's an idea."

"Not one you'd have any success with, I feel. Firstly, I could kill any guard you sent against me with my water-powers. Secondly, you need my cooperation to keep your city supplied. Thirdly, you will need my help if the Council of Rainlords makes you the administrative Cloudmaster. Without my cooperation, it won't happen. We have to work together. You know it-accept it."

There was a long silence while they stared at each other.

Taquar spoke first. "I'm guessing you have some conditions in mind."

Jasper flung himself down in the chair next to the table. "Let's start with my concessions. I am willing to tell you where I am sending the storms and why. I will listen to whatever reasons you have for disagreeing. Scarcleft will be the last to suffer real water deprivation. I shall try to be reasonable in my demands, if you do likewise. I won't go anywhere without the guards you assign. I will marry Senya eventually, if she wants. When she is more… mature. Otherwise I will marry the girl you brought back from the Gibber, the one Nealrith said was going to be a rainlord. She's being trained in Pediment, I think."

He forced down the lump in his throat. I'm sorry, Terelle. I'm so, so sorry. "Those are my concessions."

"And your conditions?" Taquar asked.

Jasper reached out, picked up a piece of orange peel and started to make patterns on it with his fingernail without looking at the highlord. "I want to meet the teachers. The men from Scarcleft Academy who sent me the lessons when I was locked in the mother cistern. I want to continue my learning."

"Very well. Anything else?"

"I want to go to a snuggery."

"What?" Taquar stared at him, astonishment jerking him out of his anger.

"I want to visit a snuggery. I'm a man, yet I've never lain with a woman. There is no way Senya is ready for marriage yet; at least not to me. She has a great deal more growing up to do. But I have needs."

"What in all the dry dust do Senya's feelings matter? We must have more stormlords! Blighted eyes, Jasper, how long do you think I can keep this up? You've been here a bare fifteen days and already I am exhausted. I have no idea how long it will be before you are able to create water vapor from the sea without my aid. I am already looking at years of this horror, and you want to add to it by postponing a marriage that might produce another stormlord?"

Hearing the man's desperation, Jasper was torn between irritation and amusement. "If Senya hates the sight of me, we are not likely to achieve the aim of having stormlord heirs. She needs time. Oh, and by the way-" He sought and held Taquar's gaze. "You have considerable gall to require me to remedy a situation you yourself are responsible for. If you hadn't killed all the other potential stormlords of your generation, we wouldn't be in this predicament."

Taquar stared at him, his gaze as hard as flint. "I do not know what you are referring to."

"Yes, you do." Jasper met the rainlord's look calmly. "You seem to think you can lie to me, Taquar. You can't. Not anymore. You killed young rainlords you thought were going to be stormlords and thus a threat to your dreams of power."

"Who told you that?"

"No one." When Taquar was silent, he added, "Sandblighted hells, you told me about those young men and women yourself-and you blamed Nealrith for their deaths! Nealrith? Once I had met the man, how could I possibly think that was true? How could I possibly believe even you thought it true? A kinder, gentler man never lived than Nealrith Almandine, and you must have known that. But I can believe you guilty of murder. Oh, I can believe it so easily."

"And on the basis of that you intend to accuse me? Just whose deaths are you accusing me of, by the way? Those who died in accidents? Or of illness? The one who committed suicide? The two friends of mine who perished in the desert at the same time I almost died?"

"Oh, I doubt you were in any danger. I reckon you killed at least four people, Taquar. Five if you include Iani's Lyneth. Iani certainly believed it once I gave him her bracelet. The one you so carelessly left in the mother cistern."

Taquar stilled, his usual bland expression swamped by one of shock. Finally he asked, "And just what is your purpose in telling me this?"

"To let you know you have very little chance of being credible outside of Scarcleft ever again unless I am at your side, supporting you. Otherwise, this is it, all the power you'll ever have. Me and Scarcleft. And without me, you will have nothing. I don't like it anymore than you do. I am assuming that at the moment you are biding your time. Waiting for Davim and the Reduners to withdraw before you move to assert your claim to be Cloudmaster."

"I could always leave instead. Live across the Giving Sea."

"If you want to risk the unknown. In the Gibber they say, 'Better the scorpion whose sting you know than the spindevil who twists in ways unknown.' " Jasper threw the orange peel back on the desk. His heart was beating uncomfortably fast, but he ignored that. "We were talking about me visiting a snuggery."

There was another pause before Taquar answered. "If you want a girl, I'll have one brought here for you."

"I prefer to choose my own."

"Then I'll have several brought here."

"Taquar, I am going to visit a snuggery. I am giving you advance warning so you can tell your sandblasted enforcers to allow me to do so. If they try to stop me, I will take action-and they will have to decide whether they want to die in your service or kill the nation's only stormlord. If they can." He frowned, as if that was an interesting puzzle. "I wonder what they would do?"

Taquar eyed him as if he had suddenly realized he had a viper by the tail. It was not a look that reassured Jasper. A shiver of fear crept up his spine.

Suddenly Taquar smiled, relaxed and said pleasantly, "All right, if you must. The guards will go with you."

The salted bastard. Damned if his charm is not scarier than his anger! Aloud, he asked, "Is that necessary?"

"That's more for your safety. The city streets are dangerous. The less water available, the more dangerous they get and any rainlord is likely to be a focus of discontent."

Jasper capitulated. "Doubtless you are right." He rose to his feet. "As long as you remember not to treat me as a prisoner, I am sure we shall deal together tolerably well. Like it or not we are stuck with each other, at least until my powers develop more. Ironic, isn't it? Never mind, I work better when I am more content, so this will work in your favor, too. There will come a time when I will be able to raise clouds by myself, and you can confine yourself to ruling."

It was a lie, and he knew it. But I dare not tell him I am not getting any better. He needed Taquar even more than Taquar needed him.

As if he sensed Jasper's fear, Taquar said, "Don't push me too far. You think you have the upper hand here. You don't. You see, you care about whether the people die of thirst. I don't."

That sick, clenching feeling in his stomach… Damn the man.

Because he couldn't trust himself to speak, Jasper left the room without excusing himself or even uttering a farewell. Outside the door, he felt his knees buckle, and had to turn it into a clumsy misstep. One of the guards caught his elbow and steadied him. "Thank you, Dibble," he said. "Clumsy of me. We can't have the nation's only stormlord breaking his neck, can we?" He patted the man on the back in a friendly fashion and then walked ahead.

He'd come to know Dibble Hornblend better since they'd been training together, and he liked the man. He was becoming a-no, not quite a friend. Not yet. A comrade, that was it. Fortunately, the man's social ineptitude was not reflected in his fighting skills. He could make a sword or a scimitar dance, he could wield and throw a pike or a lance with deadly accuracy and, in spite of his youth, he was a good teacher.

That weeping bastard Taquar, he thought as he continued on his way. He's right. He as good as has my water in his hand, to save or throw away as he chooses. If he ever realizes that I will never be any better at cloudmaking, he'll be gone across the Giving Sea… What the salted damn am I going to do? In his room, Taquar continued to sit at his desk, staring into space. He remembered a child, a boy, insecure, almost obliterated by grief. He remembered a boy who believed all he was told. A skinny child, unprepossessing, who never wanted to look him in the eye. How had that child grown up to be this man? Jasper was still slim, but he was as tall as Taquar. His brown eyes were steady, seemingly without fear. He spoke with an adult's assurance, not a prisoner's uncertainty. He treated Taquar as though he, Jasper, had the upper hand. As though Taquar amused him…

Taquar jumped to his feet and paced across the room. Watergiver damn the dirty Gibber grubber, it wasn't so long since he had been a prisoner in the mother cistern! Waterless skies above, how had the brat grown up so fast-and become so strong?

He slammed his hand down on the desk, furious with himself. He had left the lad too long in Breccia and this was the result.

"You'll hurt yourself."

He looked up to find Laisa had come back. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it, her head tilted and her eyes narrowed as she watched him. "The boy has grown," she said, echoing his thoughts. "He's clever. We need to have our wits about us. I've been chatting to him every day, trying to bring home the realization he has to cooperate, but he's not a fool. He knows I have a vested interest. He doesn't trust me."

He snorted. "You can hardly blame him. Why didn't you tell me he found out Lyneth had been a prisoner in the mother cistern and then told the Breccian rainlords?"

Her eyes narrowed. "That was true, then? It doesn't matter, Taquar. Everyone he told is dead! Nealrith, Kaneth, Ryka, Granthon, Iani, Ethelva. Your secret is safe." She came across the room toward him. "Did you kill the other students as well?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"The thought is-intriguing. A multiple murderer. That lad who supposedly threw himself off the balcony after a love affair gone wrong? Did he get some assistance from you that night?"

His impassive expression did not shift.

"How did you ever get admitted to his room?"

"A man has ways. He thought I cared about him."

She came up to him, her eyes sparkling with excitement. "You started killing very young."

"Irrelevant, surely. What you should be worried about is whether I have finished." He placed a hand over her throat and ran his thumb up to her chin.

Her lips parted and she bit her bottom lip. "Hmm," she said. "I always did like the scent of danger. And I think I know you-murder for a purpose only. Not pleasure." She ran a hand up the side of his face, to tangle it in his black hair and loosen the leather tie at the back of his neck.

"Oh? Believe me, my dear, revenge can be very sweet."

He took her on the desk, his hand clasped across her mouth to stifle her squeals when his roughness hurt her.

Afterward, as she lay next to him on the desk top and tried to draw the tattered remains of her gown over her nakedness, he asked, "Laisa, if you wanted to gain ascendancy over an enemy too strong to be defeated in battle, how would you do it?"

She turned her head to look at him. So cat-like, he thought. Bruised but sated.

"That's easy," she said. "Take hostage what he loves most in the world: his lover, his child, his land, his wealth, his power, whatever. The trick is to find out what he values most. Then you will have your enemy in the palm of your hand."

A slow smile lifted his lips as her words seeded the beginnings of an idea. "Of course. Why didn't I think of that?"

"The problem will be to find what he values."

"No, that's no problem. I already know him well enough to know exactly the sort of thing he values." He sat up, reaching for his trousers. That Gibber grubber is going to understand that trying to thwart me is distinctly unwise… "Laisa, ask Senya to join us for dinner tonight, would you? I gather she is not happy with the idea of our marriage and I think it's time I got to know her better."

Laisa blinked in surprise, obviously wondering what the connection was. "As you wish. As for our wedding on Sun Day, I thought after the normal service?"

"Perfect," he said, and hid his enjoyment of her astonishment at his abnormal amiability. The snuggery welcomed the stormlord, of course. It was an honor-unexpected, but an honor. Madam Opal, the owner, blossomed as she considered the opportunities that might arise if the lord was pleased with what he found. She soon had the establishment's most expensive imported wine, tastiest food and prettiest girls on display.

It was a pity the main recipient of all the fuss seemed unmoved. Jasper refused the wine, declined the food and looked at the women as if they were pedes going to the auction block. He asked each one her name and where she was from, but when several approached him to take his outer robe, to make him feel more comfortable, he waved them away. Seemingly at random, he pointed to one of the girls and said, "I'll take that one."

Opal gestured, the other girls, pouting, turned their attentions to his guards, and the girl he had selected led Jasper upstairs to the best room. As she shut the door behind him, she pushed the latch across to secure it. Then she stood leaning up against the door as if reluctant to move. She was dark, beautiful and frightened. Viviandra of the Gibber. Terelle had always called her Vivie.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Who are you?" she whispered. "Opal said you were a rich merchant from Level Three. But no mere merchant has enforcers among his guards…"

"I'm Jasper Bloodstone. The stormlord."

She shrank back against the door.

"Why are you so frightened?" he asked, puzzled. "Did Terelle ever tell you about me? I know she wrote to you sometimes."

She appeared confused; fear pooled in her eyes like an animal in a slaughter yard. "Did the highlord send you?" she asked, still whispering.

"No, of course not. Why would you think so? Oh-I'm sorry! You would know me as Shale Flint, of course."

Her eyes widened. "You're Shale? Shale Flint is the stormlord? Jasper Bloodstone?"

He nodded.

"Oh! You don't really want to bed me, then."

He smiled. "Is it that obvious?" he asked. "I'm sorry. That must sound rude, I suppose. I'm not looking for-" He waved vaguely at the bed on the other side of the room. "I wanted to talk about your sister."

She didn't reply and kept her eyes downcast.

"Viviandra, why are you so frightened?"

"We-we don't get rainlords and such in here. They go to the uplevel snuggeries. Except when Taquar came-and-and he chose me, too."

"Oh! I didn't know that." In shock, he assessed the implications. Perhaps he had endangered Viviandra. Like Amethyst. Nausea rose in his gullet. "What did he want? When was that?"

"He wanted to talk about Terelle. Twice. The first time was before the earthquake, maybe, oh, thirty days before. The second time was just after it. That time he had me taken up to Scarcleft Hall and-and the seneschal questioned me there. Is Terelle all right? Do you know if she's safe?"

"I don't know." He searched her face, trying to find something of Terelle there; but there was nothing. Viviandra was wholly Gibber: short and slight, brown eyes, brown skin, dark hair. A beauty, although there were tell-tale smudges around her eyes that spoke of a lifestyle taking its toll. It was easy to believe she and Terelle were not related; that Russet had been speaking the truth when he said Terelle was entirely something else. Watergiver, whatever that meant.

He said, "Tell me what Taquar wanted."

She shook her head. "He would kill me. I-I heard what he did to that dancer, up on the tenth level. And I know those are Taquar's guards and the seneschal's enforcers downstairs."

Inwardly Shale winced. Amethyst had died because he'd sought her help, just as he was seeking Viviandra's.

He undid his money belt, grateful Taquar had never bothered to take it away, perhaps because he had not realized how many tokens Highlord Nealrith had given to him before his escape from Breccia City. Sometimes, he reflected wryly, Taquar's inability to think of the mundane was an advantage. He counted out five gold water tokens, each worth a year's supply of dayjars. Viviandra's eyes widened as he gave them to her. "Take these, and leave this house. Buy your way free. Don't tell anyone where you are going. Leave the city. There are caravans going to Pediment or Portfillik."

"Stay hidden for the rest of my life? They say Lord Taquar has a long memory."

"That won't be necessary, I promise you. Trust me."

She stared at him and then at the tokens. "I've never seen so much money," she whispered.

"Let's sit down, and you can tell me what you know."

With trembling hands, she tucked the tokens into her purse and sat on the edge of the divan. He sat beside her and smiled encouragingly.

"The first time he came he just wanted to find out everything he could about Terelle. Who she was, where she was, what she was like. The second time was different. She'd just run away, and he was angry. Very, very angry. With her." With an abrupt movement, she turned her back to him and pulled her robe down. Her back was scarred in parallel lines.

Shale drew in a sharp breath; he knew those marks. He had scars of his own from beatings his father had given him. The central spike of a bab frond made a fine stick for beating once you removed all the leaves. It had serrated edges and they cut the skin if the beating was hard enough. "Taquar did that?" he asked.

"He ordered it done. Not because he was mad at me, so much. It was because he wanted information. But I couldn't tell him anything. Not really. I haven't seen Terelle since she left the snuggery. She did send me a few notes, which I kept. He took those." She kept looking at her hands, twisting her fingers.

"Go on."

"He-he's obsessed with her. I don't think it's because he thinks her beautiful or anything. It's because she escaped him, and he didn't like it. If he ever finds her…" She shook her head, distressed. "She'll be a whore after all. His whore. She always wanted something else. Something better." She looked up at him, meeting his eyes for the first time. "She wouldn't like him." She did not add a plea, but he heard it, nonetheless.

He took her hand in his. "I don't think you need to worry about Taquar getting hold of her again. I don't believe she's even in Scarcleft now. But I do think she might be in trouble. It's that old man she was staying with. The waterpainter, Russet Kermes. He has some sort of hold over her."

She looked puzzled, obviously not knowing what he meant.

"He controls her. She doesn't have enough faith in her own strength to resist. She thinks she's weak, so she doesn't try, not really. But you and I both know how strong she is."

He had Vivie's full attention now. "That doesn't sound like her. She was always as stubborn as a rock blocking a cistern pipe. She got out of Opal's when she was fourteen!"

"I know. She told me. Vivie, I believe I can get a message to her. In that message I want to say something that will make her resist. So she can be free of Russet. But I don't know what to say. I don't know what the right words are to give her faith in herself. You do. You're her sister."

She sat in silence for a long time. When she spoke it was with conviction. "That's easy. But if she comes back here, Taquar…" She trailed off, suddenly aware she might have said too much. Taquar was the highlord of the city, after all.

"I'll look after her, I promise." He clamped off the memory of his last failure to do just that. Next time he would keep her safe. He must.

She looked at him again, assessing, then made up her mind. "She wrote me a note, about you, while you were staying with Russet. It was one of the ones taken by Taquar. She said she had a friend for the first time in her life, his name was Shale, and he was quiet and prickly like a sand urchin, but she really liked him. She said she thought she'd met the only man she could ever marry." She met his eyes. "She'd come back for you."

The choking lump in Jasper's throat stopped further conversation.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Scarpen Quarter Pebblebag Pass to Qanatend As dusk deepened along the floor of Pebblebag Pass, Ryka stood on the southern edge and grieved.

Behind her, deeper inside the pass, was a Reduner tent settlement that had existed since the drovers of the dunes had besieged Qanatend. Ravard had declared they would join the camp there for the night, and the slave caravan was already settled in. From where Ryka stood, pedes and men were black silhouettes in front of the cooking fires and shadows danced on tent canvas, but she did not turn to look.

She remained at the top of the slope they had climbed that afternoon, gazing back toward the south, torn with grief. Although she stood in the fast-deepening shade of one of the highest peaks of the Warthago Range and the sun had already slid out of her sight, the plains below and the sky above were still bright with sunshine.

I must remember that, she thought. I am in darkness, but somewhere down there they can still see the sun. There was still light in the world. And life, too, like the one she had once known. Somewhere below, past the foothills and the more gentle incline of The Sweeping rising up from The Escarpment, were the four escarpment cities still free of the drover warriors-Scarcleft, Pediment, Denmasad and Breakaway-and, further away, the coastal cities of Portfillik and Portennabar.

There was freedom, but she had lost something precious the night before: the ability to say no. The grieving time she had been allotted had passed, and Ravard had come to her pallet and taken what he thought he had a right to take. She had not fought him, nor had she killed him afterward as he lay beside her sleeping. She could have taken his scimitar, carelessly discarded in its scabbard, and slit his throat. She could have used her water-powers to escape, to steal a pede and thwart pursuit. She could have been halfway to another city by now. She would have been long gone except for the deep-rooted fear-no, the knowledge-that Kaneth would refuse to escape with her.

Instead, she had lain in Ravard's arms and wept as she lost the last of her innocence.

And she would do it all again.

I will not leave without you, Kaneth. Because that's what loving is.

There was a sound behind her and she turned.

He was there, watching her, her husband who no longer knew her.

"Kaneth?" she breathed, hoping, always hoping.

"Why do I sense you in a strange way?" he asked, ignoring her use of his name as if he had never heard it before.

She wanted to rush into his arms. She wanted to say, Because you love me. Because you are a very special rainlord and you know my water. But she dared not. He no longer knew her, no longer knew his loyalties, no longer recognized his abilities. His expression was confused, his gaze lacked desire, his words betrayed his fuddled wits.

"Your memory will return," she said gently. "And you will know who you are, and what you are. Be patient."

"Sometimes there are flashes of myself as a child. Children playing, but I cannot name them. Adults teaching, but I can't remember what they said. A building, a place of learning where I was happy, yet I do not remember why."

"It will come," she whispered. "It will all come back."

She stopped, aware of water moving through the shadows, reminding her of the danger of being overheard. Someone was coming through the gloom toward them, approaching from behind Kaneth to the right, treading the loose stones without sound. His stealth made the hair on her arms stand up. She stared short-sightedly, seeking him out, but he stalked them from within the darkest shadows clinging to the boulders and bushes lining the sides of the pass. There, even the twilight did not reach.

"Have you eaten?" she asked more loudly. "I am sure the slaves will have cooked by now. You should go back."

Stones rattled down a slope behind him, this time to the left and above. Another stalker. Kaneth didn't turn. He was still looking at her. It was she who shifted her senses from the still invisible watcher to the danger on the bluff above. She tilted her face upward, straining to see. At first, nothing. Then the danger had a shape, leaping feline-shaped water. She saw its silhouette against the dying light in the sky, and screamed a warning. The yowl of the horned cat came in answer as it plunged, front paws aimed to break the neck of its chosen prey: Kaneth.

Her power flashed outward to take its water. She thought to kill it in mid-leap. And in her panic, she misjudged. The blast of power flew past the animal, too high. Kaneth started to turn. And in the final splinter of time, just before the cat's huge paws-backed by the force of its leap and its powerful shoulders-could hit him and snap his neck, the animal suddenly curled in on itself. Already falling, its force fading, it slammed Kaneth with its body, not its outstretched paws. Kaneth sprawled on the ground at Ryka's feet, the cat motionless beside him.

Her heart had stopped, then beat again as Kaneth winced and sat up. She stared at the cat, at the horns on its forehead, sharp and straight, at the thick fur richly marbled with color: brown, ochre, umber-and the scarlet splash of freshly spilled blood. It was dead, and the cause was easy enough to see. Buried deep in the side of its neck was the hilt of a knife. On its flank, a suppurating sore, remnant of an old injury.

Her rational mind made sense of that. Wounded and starving, its usual animal victims chased away or killed by guards from the camp, it had hungered more than it had feared, and its hunger had been fuel for its fury.

She raised her eyes to see who had thrown the knife, and out of the darkness stepped Ravard.

"A horned mountain cat. Beautiful animal," he said. "I have always coveted a pelt of one of these."

Ryka, still breathless and trying to still the wild beating of her heart, gathered her wits. When she spoke again, she concealed the remnants of her terror with sarcasm. "And I thought you did it to save a life."

He had no patience with her. "I gave you no permission t'come out here, let alone meet another man. Get back to the camp."

"There was no meeting," Kaneth said, rising to his feet. "Or only an accidental one. That was a fine throw and I am grateful." He casually dusted off his knees, and smiled up at Ravard.

The innocence of his smile was breathtaking and Ryka's fear returned in full measure. This man who had replaced Kaneth had no sense of self-preservation. He spoke as if the truth was all he needed.

Ravard stared at him, momentarily thrown by his simplistic sincerity. "You're a slave," he said, his tone scathing. "D'you think I need your thanks? Now carry the cat carcass back t'the fires, you witless waste of water. I want t'have it skinned." He snatched the knife out of the animal's neck, grabbed Ryka by the arm and pulled her with him toward the camp, leaving Kaneth to lift and carry the animal alone. She wanted to protest, to say he still wasn't well, but she quelled the desire. It would make no difference.

"What makes you so sure he won't escape?" she asked, both curious and trying to divert the anger she felt in him.

He laughed, his mockery clear. "Why should he? He was probably sand-witted before he was captured-a hulking laborer from one of your low-life city levels, at a guess. Such men always lead miserable lives without hope. Before this he worked for money and probably never had enough t'eat. Or drink. Now he works f'r us and he'll eat well. He's better off here and men like him know it. Folk like you, you despise slavery, think it unjust and cruel. Ask yourself if the poverty of your cities in the Scarpen or the settles of the Gibber is not far worse than any slavery. Sometimes seems t'me like freedom t'starve."

"You've been to the Gibber?"

"Oh, yes," he said grimly.

Watergiver help me, she thought, he was one of the Reduner raiders. Probably been at it since he was old enough to own a pede. One of the marauders who pillaged and razed Gibber villages and stole their youngsters for slaves and warriors. No wonder he spoke the language of the Scarpen so well.

"If this burnt man is a mere lowlife as you say, why do your men treat him as if he is somehow special? As though they are half-afraid of him? Why is he not chained like the others?"

"None of your withering business," he growled. "And let me make one thing clear, woman. You have certain privileges 'cause you're my chosen bed mate. Abuse the freedom you got, then you'll be roped like the rest of the men till we get t'Dune Watergatherer. Understand?"

So much for the goodness of slavery. "What did I do wrong?"

His grip tightened on her arm. "If men see you wander off like that, they'll think you want t'escape and they'll bring you back for punishment, and I'll have t'order your lashing. Or they'll think you're off t'meet a lover. And I'll have t'order your death. Understand?" He stopped dead, his grip swinging her into his chest. "I would have t'do it, or lose the respect of my men. I can't have you mock me."

She could feel the heat coming from him as clearly as she felt his need to hurt her. He was angry and he knew no other way to handle his ire. And side by side with the anger was a hot-blooded desire he found difficult to control. He lusted after her. He was so weeping young.

She nodded, placating, then wasn't sure he would see the movement in the dark, so she raised her hand and pressed her fingers gently to his mouth, as if she could keep his rage within. "I understand. I won't do it again. But remember this: to be a leader of men, you must first learn to lead your own passions, not to be led by them," she said.

"Gods, woman, you're lucky I don't break your bleeding neck!"

"I meant to advise-"

"You are a slave! Slaves obey, nothing else. I am no child t'be advised by a woman."

"And I am no slave. You can put me in chains, but you can't make me a slave."

"I could break you into a hundred pieces and make you come groveling t'my feet!"

"Perhaps, if you want the wreckage of a woman in your bed. But even so, my mind will always be free. You can never rope my thoughts, Kher Ravard. Or my spirit."

For a moment he stayed still and silent. Then, sounding more exasperated than furious, he asked, "You sun-fried female, have you no fear?"

"You gave your word. You said you would protect the child I carry. You may be young, but you are a man of your word." She had no idea if that was true, but something told her he was fond of the idea of honor.

He kissed her then, grabbing her and pressing her to him, his mouth roughly plundering, his hands roving over her back and buttocks. Her response was muted, poised somewhere between acquiescence and passivity.

Stung, he flung her from him. "Go get your meal," he snarled and strode off to join the other Reduners at the fires.

She sighed, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and went to join the other slave women.

The following day they rode on toward Qanatend-what was left of it. The small free-standing hill, separated from the last of the northern slopes of the Warthago Range by a mile or two of grassy plains, was covered by buildings. Qanatend: a city that tumbled down the slopes to the encircling bastion walls and its external ring of bab groves, liveries and iron works. Connecting Qanatend to its mother cistern in the Warthago, the water tunnel left its spoor of brick towers, one at each inspection shaft. The caravan trail ran parallel to the tunnel. Both plunged in straight lines into the bab groves.

Once inside the groves, the Scarpen slaves stared in horror at the sight of trees wantonly hacked to death. The ancient irrigation system was in ruins, deliberately destroyed. Patches of heaped bab charcoal scattered throughout the groves marked the remains of funeral pyres and when Ryka obtained a better look at one, it was to see charred remains of bones protruding from the ashes.

She thought of Iani, with his limp and his sagging mouth and crippled hand; of his wife Moiqa, Highlord of Qanatend, mother of the kidnapped Lyneth. She remembered other rainlords she had known who had served the city, and who had probably perished when it had fallen.

These are their bones, she thought, her stomach roiling. And they died knowing they were defeated and we Breccians had failed them. How Kaneth had hated that! He'd longed to ride to help the rainlords of Qanatend, and only direct orders from the Cloudmaster had stopped him.

"The bastards. The bastards. The sunblighted bastards," Junial muttered from behind her. "Watergiver save us, did they leave anyone alive?" Junial, the middle-aged woman chosen for her baking skills, was the plump widow of a baker from Level Fifteen of Breccia City.

As they rode through the gates they saw much of the city had been fired. House gates hung on broken hinges, shutters and doors were burned, roofs had collapsed, mud-brick walls were blackened where flames had licked upward. Occasionally they glimpsed city dwellers going about their business: a fish-farmer selling his wares; a blacksmith sharpening Reduner scimitars; street whores with haunted eyes flaunting grubby bodies; an old woman spinning bab fibre on her spindle, her gnarled fingers sliding up and down the thread in unceasing labor.

"They all look hungry," Junial muttered. "The bastards, those bleeding red bastards."

Ryka turned to whisper a warning. "Hush. The pede driver may understand you. Some speak the Quartern tongue, especially the ones who were trade caravanners before."

"Don't care if he does, the spitless wretch," the woman said, but she had lowered her voice.

Sandblast it, I too am so sick of being careful, Ryka thought as they entered the city and began to climb the steep streets.

When she looked upward, she could see that the windmills drawing the water up to the highest levels were still operating, but if she glanced back at the roof gardens of the levels they had passed, she saw most of the potted trees and plants were dying. No one had enough water, then. Small wonder, with the whole system disintegrating, no storms being sent to the gullies around their mother wells, and the Reduners carting as much water to the dunes as they could load on their packpedes.

A diseased city, she thought. Damn these Reduners to a waterless death!

Ravard led them to the Level Three Sun Temple and the slaves were herded into what had once been the forecourt for public religious services. There was not much room, and the women and men were bunched together, the men still roped. Most of the guards retreated to the curved viewing balcony overlooking the court, with the exception of the two men doling out water to the slaves. Ravard disappeared altogether.

Ryka looked around for Kaneth. With a soft smile and gentle words, he was bandaging the arm of a man who had suffered a wound earlier. She let him be and sought out Elmar Waggoner. He was at the end of his row of roped captives and had managed to ease out a bit of slack to sit back comfortably, his back to the outer wall. She came and sat as close to him as she dared, but didn't look his way. When she spoke she turned her face away and barely moved her lips.

"Is he any better, do you think?" she asked.

"A little. At least he speaks more. And he has started helping, instead of being off in a fog of his own all the time."

"Sometimes-sometimes I can't believe it's him. He has no passion anymore. Sandblast it, Elmar, where is Kaneth Carnelian?"

He shot an anxious look sideways to make sure no one had heard. "Listen, Garnet, his passivity is what keeps him alive. Look on it as a blessing. The real him would be dead several times over by now, and he'd have taken half the bloody Reduner bastards with him onto the pyre."

One of the guards up on the balcony had spotted her and was staring her way. She rested her head back against the wall as if tired and half-closed her eyes. Stealing a few drops of water from the water jar the guards were using, she brought them over to where they sat, and wrote what she wanted to say by using her power to form wet letters on the stone paving. She placed them in between their bodies, where no one but themselves would see. The air was still and dry and hot, the stones warm, so the letters vanished almost as soon as each word was written.

Who they think he is? she wrote. Why respect?

Elmar leaned forward over his bent knees to disguise the movement of his lips. "I don't really understand it. They call him lord, and they use another name when they speak of him. Uthardim. At least I think that's what it is. But I don't understand much of their cursed tongue. They do seem to mention their dune god a lot when he is around."

Ryka stilled, shocked. Uthardim? She knew the name from her studies. He was mentioned in the old myths and legends of the dune dwellers. Uthardim, one of their ancient heroes. She remembered a description of him: blue-eyed, with flowing locks of red-gold, he smote those who came upon him, his thews and sinews as strong as the trees of the rock plains… Uthar. It meant iron in the language of the dunes. And "dim" was a common suffix, meaning son of the sand or sands. Uthardim: Iron Son of the Sands. She thought, but did not write the words, Oh, Kaneth. What is it they would make of you?

She cracked open her eyes to make sure no one was taking an undue interest in her or in Elmar, before continuing to write. Why Uthardim? she asked.

"It started right after he was pulled off the pyre. There was a couple of Reduner guards there, and one of them kept saying 'Uthardim, Uthardim,' and a whole lot of other stuff I couldn't understand. And then one of the head drovers pushed his way through with his underlings to take a look. The Warrior Son, I think. 'Uthardim!' one of the guards told him, and pointed.

"And right then, the pyre went out. One moment it had been blazing away, and then-whoosh-it was gone. And at exactly that same moment Ka-he sat up, sudden like, his face all red and peeling, and said, 'Uthardim.' Startled me, I can tell you, but what it did to those Reduners was just plain freakish. The drover leader went as white as a 'Baster. Couple of the guards fell to their knees like they was praying or something.

"Me-well, I reckon he was out of his head right then. He couldn't have found the sky if you'd told him which way was up. He was just repeating a word everyone was saying, probably wanting in his befuddlement to ask what it meant. And as for the fire, well, those Breccians had been throwing buckets of water around, and I reckon they'd wet the wood. When the dry stuff burned out, the fire went out. But that's not the way they saw it."

Then?

"The Warrior Son gave orders for him to be put on a pede and brought up to Breccia Hall, for the sandmaster to take a look at. He was in a sorry state, though, so I volunteered to look after him. Didn't let on I knew him, of course. Not long after we'd been settled into the stable, Kher Ravard shows up, to see what all the fuss was about. The Warrior Son and the Master Son, the bastards. What I wouldn't have done to have had my sword right then! They had a long conversation. I stood there, as confused as a spindevil, and he was drifting in and out of dreamland, moaning. As far as I could make out, Kher Ravard didn't like what he was told one little bit, but the Warrior Son stood his ground and kept referring to Ka-him as 'Uthardim.' Ravard questioned me, too, but I said I'd never seen this Uthardim fellow before in my life and no one knew who he was. In the end, they left.

"Ravard came again when our friend there was awake, and spoke to him at length. The Kher did most of the talking, and our friend answered, smiling politely, mostly just 'I don't know' or 'I don't remember.' He was so blasted guileless, there wasn't much Ravard could do. Then on the day before we left Breccia, Davim asked to speak to him on the steps in front of the main door of the hall. I don't know what they said, but Ravard wasn't happy with it.

"After that, though, 'Uthardim' got better treatment. They even gave me a sort of lotion every night to wash his burn and his wound with. Dunno what's in it, but I reckon it works. He's healing real nice now."

Elmar stirred restlessly, and Ryka risked a glance in his direction.

He looked around to make sure no one was taking an interest in them. "Does this name Uthardim mean anything to you?" he asked.

Mythical red hero. Old story. She stopped writing, aware someone was pushing their way through the crowd of slaves. She evaporated the last of the water and raised her head to watch the guard coming toward her.

"Kher Ravard," the man said, jerking his head in a gesture that was clear enough: Ravard wanted her.

Without looking at Elmar, she stood and followed the guard. They were halfway across the courtyard when a commotion along the side wall brought the guard to a halt. Another guard had one of the female slaves pinned up against the wall, her skirts rucked high. When she screamed and struggled, he hit her with his fist in the center of her face. Blood spurted and the woman's head lolled. Half-senseless, she sagged, all the fight drained out of her.

And then, suddenly, Kaneth was there. He wrenched the guard away and held him by the neck, feet off the ground, like a sandgrouse about to be plucked. The woman crumpled to the ground, unheeded.

Ryka tensed, every muscle in her body screaming at her to go to Kaneth's aid even as her mind cautioned her against moving. She squinted around the courtyard, relying on her knowledge of water as much as on her eyesight: four Reduner warriors, including the guard who had come to fetch her. And above, on the viewing balcony, five or six others, several now grabbing up their lances. She touched her power, ready to kill the first who looked like trying to spear Kaneth.

He dropped the Reduner, who-half-choked-fell in a heap at his feet. He looked down at the man and spoke to him. In the now hushed silence of the courtyard, his voice carried to everyone. His words contained no anger, but they were implacable. "A man does not take from a woman what is not his to plunder. He shares. And gives. And asks. A man who does otherwise is no man."

A ripple of open horror crossed the faces of the slaves. They expected Kaneth to die then. So did Ryka. Yet none of the Reduners moved. They stayed poised, as if awaiting orders, but no one gave them.

I wonder if they understood? Ryka asked herself.

And then Kaneth did something she had not known was within his capability. He repeated the words in Reduner. His grammar was poor, his accent atrocious, but the meaning was clear enough.

Oh blast, she thought. Damn it all, Kaneth, you picked a wonderful time to remember what you know of the Reduner tongue.

And yet still nothing drastic happened and it was Kaneth who broke the tension. He held out a hand to the Reduner at his feet. The man, fear flaring in his eyes, refused it and scrambled up unaided. Ryka's guard stirred then and went to him. He murmured something to the man, who turned and left the courtyard without saying a word.

"What the shit's going on?" one of the chained slave lads asked Ryka, as if she could supply an answer. "They seem frightened of this Uthardim."

"I don't know," she replied. "But they are not exactly frightened, they are more… respectful."

The lad gave a half-laugh of released tension. "So am I, lady, so am I."

The older man roped next to him scowled. "We should all have his guts! Watergiver be my witness, if I get me a knife, I'll kill one of them bastards, prefer'bly that spitless bastard Ravard."

"Keep your tongue behind your teeth, Whetstone!" the lad told him in alarm. He looked up at Ryka, anguished. "He's mad. Wants to attack everyone!"

The guard came back and gestured her to follow. As she left the courtyard, she glanced back over her shoulder at Kaneth. He smiled.

There was so much fear in her chest, it hurt. Ravard had found a decent room in one of the Level Three houses next to the Temple. The bed was made up with clean linen and the bath water was warm in the adjoining water-room. A hot meal was set upon the table, a bottle of bab amber open on the table next to two glasses.

"I thought you'd like a bath after the traveling," Ravard said, having dismissed the servers, all Scarpen women. "And a little luxury. Which would you like first-t'eat or bathe?"

"Bathe, please."

He grinned at her, that flashing white smile of his turning him from a warrior to a young man of boyish charm.

I wish he wouldn't do that, she thought sourly. It makes me forget to fear him. She couldn't afford to do that. She'd end up dead.

"Shall I scrub your back?"

Under her breastbone the baby stirred, his little foot-or was it his head?-pushing up into a noticeable bump. She had been about to snap at Ravard, to refuse any concession, to continue her policy of cold disdain. To let him know that every time he would have to take, for she would never, ever, give. But the safety of her son? She placed a hand on her abdomen to feel him move beneath her palm.

He's all that matters. Not my pride. Not Kaneth's, either. And certainly not Ravard's stolen pleasures. Remember, Ryka, since the beginning of time, women have done for their children what you are about to do for yours.

"No," she said with a soft smile, and stifled the sigh rising within, in spite of her resolution. "No, thank you, I prefer to bathe alone, but I will scrub your back if you wish."

His face lit up.

Oh, blighted eyes, she thought. He's such a child!

And yet she wondered, for when she washed his back she saw what she had felt but not seen in the dark of the tent on the previous nights: the crisscrossing of the long scars of whippings too numerous to count. There was not one piece of skin free of scars or puckers. She stared in horror, unable to consider how much pain he must have endured.

A child? No one who had ever endured such pain could ever be anything but a man.

He pulled her into the bath to kiss her, swamping water everywhere, and laughed when she squealed in shock. And then, just before he covered her lips with his own, he whispered, "Love me, Garnet. Even if you do it just for your child, just this once, love me."

The youth was back, there, in his pleading. She thought of Kaneth. Of his son. She turned away from her memory of love and kissed the man who held her now.

"Teach me how to please you," he said a moment later. "Show me how."

Forgive me, she thought, and it was to Kaneth she spoke, the grief savage inside her as she made her choice. She pushed it away, yet still heard the echo in her pain: Forgive myself.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City and Pediment On the night Jasper met Viviandra, he also had a long conversation with Madam Opal. That conversation led him to visit several other snuggeries on other levels in the days that followed. Taquar would have been surprised-and worried-about just how chaste his visits were, but Jasper took care he never found out. He tried to emerge from the inner rooms looking thoroughly satisfied and always indulged in a little crude banter with his guards on the way back to Level Two.

The information he elicited from the contacts that started with Opal eventually took him to the Silvermesh Snuggery on the tenth level. He was, as usual, accompanied by heavily armed guards and enforcers, none of whom objected to the duty. The stormlord was a pleasant young man, they all agreed. Easy to talk to, never demanding, yet not standing any nonsense, either. You knew where you were with him. Treat him with respect, and he respected you. True, the Scarcleft seneschal, Tallyman, had made it quite clear they were not to lie with any of the girls while they were on duty, but lounging around downstairs in the common rooms while the stormlord enjoyed himself in one of the upstairs rooms was not onerous and it did have certain advantages. As one of the guards remarked to another, the scenery was well worth ogling, and getting to know it more intimately was not such a remote possibility once you knew the terrain.

When they entered the Silvermesh, the madam, Tourmaline, came waddling up like a pregnant pede, proud that her establishment had been chosen by the stormlord. None of the guards were at all surprised when she whisked him away from the common rooms and into her private parlor, though they would have been astonished if they had heard what happened behind that closed door.

"The Madam of the Marcasite on Level Twenty-eight sent me," Jasper said, once he had bestowed the obligatory greetings. "She said you might be able to help me because many of the caravanners visit your establishment."

"Madam Verissal. Yes, she sent me a message. Said the stormlord was interested in sending messages through caravans to the Gibber. And that he was willing to pay for discretion as well as the service."

"That's right. Actually I want messages to go to the White Quarter as well, which is why I visited her. I was told the caravanners for the White Quarter went to the Marcasite Snuggery for their relaxation."

"Well, they used to. But there's been no caravan to the White Quarter from anywhere in the Scarpen for the past cycle or so. Far too dangerous. And 'Baster caravans don't come here no more; nor do the Reduner ones." She sighed, her large breasts heaving. "We snuggeries suffer from the lack of custom, dear. Did no one tell you that?"

"Yes. Madam Verissal. She also said, though, that Scarpen caravans continue to run to the Gibber, and Gibber towns maintain contact with Samphire in the White Quarter."

"Yes. However, most of our custom came from 'Basters and Reduners. Men away from home have more use of our services than men who live here. Business is withering bad, I can tell you, dear. Folk don't have water tokens for us no more." She tossed her head in irritation and the hanging folds of fat at her neck rearranged themselves like door curtains in a breeze. "But tell me, why did you come here to me instead of going direct to the caravanners themselves? This way, m'lord has to pay me a cut, too."

"A wise woman once told me snuggery madams know more about men and women than anyone on earth, and if ever I wanted discretion, a snuggery was the place to buy it. So I thought if I went direct to a caravanner, it might be the very one who would report me to Seneschal Tallyman. A snuggery madam, on the other hand, would be able to tell me who to approach, or better still would take my message and pass it onto a reliable caravanner."

She laughed. "I know who told m'lord that-Opal down on Level Thirty-two. But a snuggery operates only because Seneschal Tallyman allows it to operate. No snuggery madam in Scarcleft wants to butt heads with Harkel Tallyman. He reports direct to the highlord. Upset those two, that's maybe treason. And they have a real nasty solution for that."

"Ah, but think: I am the stormlord of all the Quartern. The only one. What could be the future reward of having me in your debt?"

"Nice, if I was still alive, dear."

Jasper smiled. The words might not have been encouraging, but he saw the glint in her eye that betrayed her interest.

A soft knock at the door presaged the entry of a handmaiden carrying a tray of drinks and titbits. She knelt at the low table in front of Jasper with her offerings. He took a goblet, not even bothering to see what it contained. It was much easier to gaze at the handmaiden. The deep tan of her skin proclaimed a touch of Gibber ancestry, but the long hair tumbling down her back was blond and her eyes violet. The exotic combination was alluring, as was the plunging V of her neckline.

"Silver," Tourmaline said, seeing his interest. "One of our more experienced handmaidens. Excellent teaching skills. Or, of course, there are other younger handmaidens more your age."

"I'm sure Silver would suit beautifully if I wanted-"

"Ah, of course. Business first. Wait upstairs," Tourmaline said with a nod to the handmaiden. Throughout this exchange Silver had kept her head ducked, a picture of demure obedience, but in the doorway she glanced back over her shoulder to give Jasper a broad wink and a mischievous smile.

He waited until the door had closed behind her before he pulled a handful of tokens from his pocket, gold glinting among them. "There is also the matter of immediate reward for your aid in this matter, of course," he said, indicating the tokens. "However, if you are not interested, I am sure I could find someone to oblige."

She grinned at him, her lips almost lost in the plump folds of her face. "And I am sure we can come to some agreement, m'lord."

Even after saying that, it took them another half run of the sandglass to agree on the details, but finally he had what he wanted: her promise to see that a reliable member of the next Scarpen caravan leaving Scarcleft would deliver an anonymous oral message to the reeves or headmen of as many settles or wash-towns as they visited. The price was higher than he liked, but he had little choice.

"Never mind," Tourmaline said, when he protested her charge, "I shall include tonight with Silver free of charge."

When he demurred, she laughed and refused to listen. She personally delivered him to the door of Silver's room, her bulk lending force to her invitation. In the end he acquiesced, deciding it was easier to let her have her way than to argue. And in truth, the idea of gazing at Silver again was an enticement.

The handmaiden's room was luxurious to say the least, and she gave every appearance of being delighted to see him. Her enthusiasm left him unmoved; he had learned far too much from Terelle to believe anything except that Silver's smiles and coquetry were part of her job.

As Tourmaline waddled away, he gently disengaged the hand clutching his arm. "You don't have to pretend," he said.

"Pretend what?" she asked.

He flushed. "That anything about me-other than my money-is at all fascinating. I wouldn't mind listening to some music, though," he said. "Do you play the lute?"

She did, and she had a sweet singing voice, so he spent a pleasant run of the sandglass listening. Between songs they ate the delicacies Tourmaline sent up from the kitchens and, when he asked a question or two betraying his lack of even elementary knowledge of music, she was happy to explain. At the end of that time, she laid her lute aside and moved to untie his tunic.

He grabbed her wrist. "No," he said. "I do not want to bed someone who is only constrained to do so for tokens."

She looked at him in astonishment.

"Tourmaline needn't know I didn't lie with you," he added. "I just hate the idea of sharing an… um… intimate moment with someone who has no real interest in doing so."

For a moment she looked at him blankly. Then she said, "But of course I want to! You are the stormlord, my lord!"

"Oh, so you don't want to bed me for money," he asked, amused, "but because I am the stormlord?"

Her mischievous smile was back. "And why not? After all, men want to bed me for my face and figure; why should I not want to bed a man because he is both personable and important? And it's nice that you are young, too!"

Jasper couldn't think how to reply. His heart raced. Salted damn, but she was beautiful. He grabbed at the wine and took another gulp, as if that would help him control his own body.

She pushed her advantage, her expression thoughtful and her finger raised to her cheek as if she was assessing his looks. "My lord, if we were two people meeting accidentally in an inn taproom, I would be plotting how to entice you into my bed so I could revel in the idea I had lain with the land's only stormlord-who also happens to be a very innocent young man with a sweet earnestness about him and-" She made a vague all-encompassing gesture at his torso, but the look on her face flattered.

He laughed. "You," he said, "are very good at your job. But do you really like bedding strangers?"

She wrinkled her nose and shrugged. "It's a job. But, yes, sometimes I do and this is one of those times. And you will disappoint me if you leave without seeing what I have to offer. You will disappoint me if you leave before I see what you have to offer me."

He wondered whether all of that was just the patter of a handmaiden. "Not much," he said, running a hand through his hair. "I have no experience."

"You're scoffing me."

He shook his head, his embarrassment darkening his color. "Er… no, I'm not, actually."

"Merciful heavens, we shall have to do something about that! If it worries you," she added lightly, "then take pity on me. If you were to leave now, all the handmaidens would tease me, saying I have lost my touch. That I am no longer able to entice a man to stay till dawn. And Madam Tourmaline will send some old wrinkled fellow who smells to my bed instead." She reached out and slid her hand up his arm and across his chest. "But if you stay, I shall have something to remember-that I, Silver of no particular importance, once bedded the most important man in the Quartern. And maybe even taught him something useful?"

He had to laugh, and she raised her face to be kissed.

It was her job, he knew that, but he also knew he was going to stay the night and enjoy it. On returning to Scarcleft Hall next morning, he had breakfast in his room, humming while he had his tea, and then went to the library where they did most of their stormbringing. By the time Taquar arrived, he had the day's water allocations planned.

They moved to the large window with a view in the direction of the sea, and together they assembled the cloud and saturated it with water to change cloud to storm.

This weakness of mine, Jasper thought as he gathered the moisture Taquar enticed from the ocean, it's the manacles imprisoning me more securely than any bars could do. Free of Taquar's bonds, yet snared by the need for storms. How ridiculous is that?

A servant entered the room twice to invert the sandglass, but still the two men worked on in silence. Once the restless clouds over the sea were heavy with impending rain, Taquar asked, as he always did in the same half-mocking tone, "Can you manage the rest?"

Jasper nodded. Taquar inclined his head in acknowledgment and left.

It took Jasper much of the day to do exactly what he wanted with the clouds, first over the Scarpen Quarter, then the Gibber and finally to push what was left to the Border Humps so rain fell in the White Quarter. Eventually the water would feed the tunnels serving the Alabaster mines and the city of Samphire. By late afternoon, he was exhausted. And satisfied. He had finally achieved success in something he had been trying to do ever since he had spoken to Viviandra.

"The guards tell me you've been here since I left you this morning."

Jasper jumped, turning to see the highlord standing inside the doorway. He tried to sound matter-of-fact. "I've finished now."

"Why so long?"

He shrugged, hoping Taquar would not notice his guilty flush. "It was a difficult stormbringing. White Quarter-that's as far as I have to send clouds. It takes time. Then I have to be very precise about where the rain falls. Difficult when it is so far away."

Taquar scowled at the idea of precious water going to the White Quarter. "Lord Gold will be complaining to me again tomorrow about you watering the heathens, I suppose. You want to watch yourself, Jasper. It doesn't pay to upset the priesthood, especially not when a man like Basalt is Lord Gold."

Jasper shrugged.

"I came to tell you-Davim has sent a message. He informs me he is withdrawing all his men from Breccia City. In fact, from all the Scarpen on this side of the Warthago. He intends to hold onto Qanatend, I suspect until it runs out of water. He assures me he now believes I really do have you in my custody, so he is prepared to return to the terms of our original bargain, only the line of division will be the Warthago Range."

"With the nation divided like a bab pie. Tell me, Taquar, how long will an alliance last when it is made between two men who know nothing of honor and trust each other even less?"

Taquar smiled thinly. "Long enough. He is busy in the White Quarter, and I have already sent men, both bladesmen and administrators, into the Gibber. The largest of the Gibber wash-towns bow to my rule now." He chuckled. "All it takes is a handful of armsmen with ziggers in each town. Shall I tell you something amusing? I used the example of what happened to your settle as an illustration of the fate of people who don't have protection against Reduner attack. The kind of protection I can provide. What was the name of the place again?"

Jasper had to unclench his teeth to speak. "Wash Drybone Settle," he said. "One day I will have the freedom to tell Gibbermen just who arranged for my settle to be wiped from the face of Wash Drybone. What will happen to you then, I wonder?"

Taquar shrugged. "It doesn't matter what you say, or to whom. Who would fight men with ziggers and pedes when they have no rainlords or water sensitives? You just concentrate on your storms, boy, and leave the politics to me."

"Oh, I do, Taquar. I do." Taquar's look sharpened, so he added quickly, "But I wonder what the Scarpen forces will do when they realize the Reduners have retreated?"

"Scarpen forces?" Taquar snorted. "What Scarpen forces?"

"The ones the other cities are assembling."

Taquar looked amused. "Whatever makes you think that is happening?"

"No city was going to sit still and wait for the Reduners to come; not once they heard Breccia City had fallen to Sandmaster Davim. They will have been arming and training, and they will have learned a lesson from the fall of both Qanatend and Breccia. They will realize they must unite."

"I think you overestimate the good sense of the unwashed, Jasper. Even if you are right, it is to the Highlord of Scarcleft they will look for leadership. I am better armed, with better guards and more pedes. My guardsmen will take over Breccia City. My power will spread. How can it be otherwise? Besides, I have you. I am the only one who can threaten anyone with water shortages."

"You can threaten. But if ever they called your bluff, you'd be in trouble because there's no way I'd deny others water. In fact, I'd be more likely to reward them! And don't forget, many people know about your unholy pact with Davim. You don't have too many friends."

Taquar smiled. "I have Lord Gold. He controls the rainlord priests. And he doesn't like you one little bit. Don't underestimate me, Jasper. That would be unwise."

"And if I defy you, what then? Will you punish me? How? Kill me? Hardly, I think!"

Taquar did not answer.

Jasper pushed past the highlord as he left the room. The expression on Taquar's face was fleeting, but Jasper would not have missed the moment for all the water in the city. As he walked back to his room, though, his pleasure died. The taunting might be satisfying, but it was childish and probably dangerous. Taquar was right: if the man did have Basalt's support, and if the priests voted to uphold Basalt as the new Lord Gold, then Taquar could command a lot of power when it came to a vote to confirm or deny his position as Cloudmaster. Half the rainlords of the Scarpen were waterpriests.

And waterpriests were powerful among the devout.

Jasper had promised the dying Nealrith that Taquar would never rule the Quartern.

Spindevil take it, is that yet another promise I can't keep?

***

Pediment was one of the five escarpment cities trickling from the top to the bottom of the scarp like spilled bab molasses. For the past half-cycle or more, the main topics of conversation in the city, from the guards on the northern wall restlessly scanning the distance for tell-tale signs of dust in The Sweepings to the humble piss-collector on the city's lowest level, were the lack of water and storms, and the possibility of a Reduner invasion. Probably it was the same in the other four cities as well.

At the same time as Jasper and Taquar were sniping at each other, the Overman of the Guard on Pediment's northern wall was dashing away from his post with undignified speed to race into Pediment Hall on Level Two. Once admitted, he took the steps three at a time on his way to the hall's large reception room. At the top of the stairs, after a minimal knock on the door, he burst in on the highlord, who was meeting with his rainlords. As the group of startled men and women looked at him, the Overman flapped a hand at the open door to the balcony. "My lords; look! Look at the sky!"

When a staid officer of the guard behaved so erratically, it seemed a good idea to listen. The highlord rose to his feet and did as he was asked. The other rainlords crowded behind him as he stepped out onto the balcony, their faces turned skyward.

One of them wiped away the dribble of saliva escaping from the twisted corner of his mouth and said quietly, "I'll be salted."

The expression on his face might not have appeared pleasant to most people, but to those who knew the recently widowed Lord Iani best, it was clear he was smiling for the first time in a long while.

Far above them in the sky, thin white clouds had formed into recognizable shapes. Letters. Cities of the Scarpen unite, they read. Prepare for battle. Stormlord Jasper Bloodstone commands you.

"What do you make of that?" someone asked Iani.

"I think at last we have a stormlord who is man enough to lead us."

The Highlord of Pediment added, with a wry smile, "And one clever enough to find out how to tell us. Who would have thought it of a Gibber-born wash-brat? Lord Iani, I think we are prepared to give you-and all the other free Scarpen cities-the cooperation you have been asking for."

Iani smiled. His thoughts were grimmer. Jasper, Taquar has his spies everywhere. He will soon know what you've done. Be careful! Jasper decided he would not return to the Silvermesh Snuggery again, although part of him longed to do so. I have to marry Senya, he thought, but I don't have to betray what I feel for Terelle by going to see Silver again.

Yet three days after making that decision and pushing away all thoughts of Silver, he had a dream involving her. They were in Opal's Snuggery, and Laisa was there as well, telling him not to think, just to enjoy, it was better that way. So he smiled, enjoying the sensations rippling through him. There was something wrong about that enjoyment, though, he knew. It would annoy Nealrith and Terelle, that was it. In his dream he ordered Laisa to leave, then told Silver she had to go too, because he couldn't use the money Nealrith had given him from the Breccian treasury to pay her. She vanished, her place taken by Terelle. That was better.

Then the dream faded, and the substance was suddenly tangible. He woke fully, to find the pleasure racing through his body. Real, not imagined. His eyes flew open, but he didn't need to see who was touching him. He recognized the perfume.

He sat bolt upright, struggling to heave her away. "Senya-what the waterless hells are you doing?"

"I would have thought that was obvious," she said, and did something to him he would never have guessed she even knew about.

Appalled, he pushed her away. "Sandblast it! Stop that!"

She took no notice, and to his embarrassment his body continued to respond. Salted damn, but that felt good. "Senya-"

Her head came up. "Jasper, you were right, and I was wrong. We need to marry. We have to have children."

"All right," he agreed in desperation. "But later-"

She wriggled upward, her naked body squirming delightfully across him, and covered his mouth with her lips. Her hand went to where her mouth had been a moment before. He clutched at her, wanting to throw her off him, but his protest muted and then ceased as he felt himself awash with her smell and his own arousal. Thoughts tumbled, confused.

She's not new to this. Blighted eyes, her breasts are so-

Stop her.

Why? Enjoy it while it lasts. You know you have to marry her anyway.

Her nipples-

This is so stupid, I know it…

Oh, salted damn!

He let his scruples go and allowed himself just to enjoy, to be borne away on the crest of pleasure. And then he was the one taking charge, sucking her delightful breasts, twisting her over onto her back and pushing himself into her. Part of him knew he would regret it, but the rest of him? That part didn't care and refused to listen.

Afterward, she rolled out of bed, and in the dawn light entering through open shutters he caught the look on her face. She pulled on her robe and went to the door. The guard there turned to see as she emerged from the room. Only then did she pause and turn back to look at him. Only then did she smile provocatively. And then she was gone. The guards closed the door.

Jasper collapsed back onto the bed. He lay still, staring at the ceiling. Feeling sick. All memory of pleasure evaporated, replaced by self-loathing as his thoughts coalesced. He rose, lit a lamp and by its light examined the under-sheet. There was no blood. He was not sure whether that made him feel worse or better. When he considered what it meant, especially coupled with her obvious experience and lack of shyness, he didn't much like the answer.

Who would dare? Who would even have had the opportunity?

Only one name came to mind.

Taquar Sardonyx.

But why? What possible cause could Taquar have had for a relationship with Senya? To annoy Laisa? To annoy him, Jasper? No, whatever the reason was, it had to make sense. Taquar did not act on the spur of the moment, and he was not such a rampant hedonist he would seize a moment's pleasure without some design in mind. Nor would he seek such a petty revenge on Jasper.

No, what had just happened was something Taquar had plotted for a reason. He'd planned it and had tutored Senya in what to do. He and Laisa and Senya had been in Scarcleft only-what-thirty or so days now, but still, time enough for Taquar to have that silly girl, already infatuated with him, purring at his feet like a petted cat. The withering bastard. And he, Jasper, had not had the strength of character to throw her out of the door.

I wonder if this is what a whore feels like… used. You are going to regret this, Jasper. He felt it deep in his bones.

She had wanted the guard to see, of course, knowing the news of it would spread. She had bedded him at Taquar's instigation, and he had been stupid enough to let her do it.

As she'd left, she had looked so damned smug. Jasper dreaded Taquar making some comment about Senya, but at the next morning's cloudmaking session the rainlord neither said nor did anything to indicate he knew what had happened. Jasper was not naive enough to believe the man did not know. Of course he did. Senya would never have behaved like that without being told what to do. And as much as Laisa was a poor mother, Jasper didn't think she would have been instrumental in using her daughter that way. No, this was Taquar's devious fingers manipulating a girl to do his bidding and teaching her how in his own bed. All Jasper had to do was to find out why.

After the session with Taquar, he hesitated on the stairs for a moment, then made a decision. He went to visit Laisa. She had been entertaining some of her Level Three friends, but they were already on their way out when he arrived at the door to her apartment. Senya, fortunately, was nowhere to be seen. Laisa admitted him and-as gracious as she could be when she put her mind to it-she served him some wine from across the Giving Sea and asked a servant to prepare a meal for him. "You have been cloudshifting all day," she said, "and you must remember to eat. I don't think you take enough care of yourself, Jasper. You will do no one any good if you fall sick."

He nodded, knowing she was right. "I am hungry," he admitted. He took a sip of the wine and added, "But that's not why I came to see you. I wanted to talk to you about Senya."

She placed a bowl of nuts next to him. "What about her? She is rather annoyed with you, Jasper."

"Oh? Why?"

"Your behavior of late has been less than discreet."

"She found out I've been visiting snuggeries?"

"Yes. And you should not mention such things in polite company."

"Oh, I don't."

She glared. "Don't poke me, Jasper. I can bite."

"You can try, certainly. But you brought the subject up, not me. And speaking of Senya, she did not seem particularly put out by my behavior last night when she came to my room and climbed naked between my sheets while I slept."

Laisa was so startled it was a moment before she could speak. "May I assume you were not dreaming?"

"No dream, Laisa. What happened was not at my instigation and I wish it had not happened. However, it did, and it led me to another surprise: I was not the first."

This time Laisa was more shocked than startled, and the ensuing silence was long. Finally she said, "Are you trying to drive a wedge between man and wife, Jasper? Because, if so, you are wasting your time."

"Ah. Interesting we should come to the same conclusion. Laisa, I have no illusions about your marriage to Taquar. And I don't care anyway. What I do want to know is this: what is Taquar up to? I did-I think-make it clear I'll marry Senya, if she is willing, as it's in the interest of the Quartern and its people. I don't love her. The state of her virginity is of no interest to me. I find it hard to imagine he'd think I'd be annoyed by her behavior, at least not until such time as we were married. Once wed, I'll try to be the best husband possible under the circumstances, and I'll expect her to do the same."

He paused, painfully aware that he sounded like a pompous sand-brain. Hurriedly he continued, "Nor can Taquar have done this to father children on her; I understand he has always been deficient in that area and he can hardly expect things to change now. So what is all this about?"

"You can hardly think I encouraged my husband to sleep with my daughter, or that I knew of it beforehand," she said icily.

"No, but I am wondering why this occurred at all."

"Perhaps Taquar wants your wife to be loyal to him, not you, and engaging her affections before the marriage included bedding her."

It was barely possible, but her uneasiness told him she didn't believe her own words.

"You should court her," she added finally. "Teach her what you've learned from your snuggery women. Tell her the kind of thing young girls like to hear. Wean her away from Taquar. You don't want a disloyal wife in your household, do you?"

He suspected her advice was good, but something told him she was deliberately trying to lead him away from Taquar's real motives. He nodded noncommittally. "Perhaps you might have a word with her as well? I don't want a repeat of last night."

"Oh, I shall. And I suggest you marry her soon."

The meal arrived at that moment and he stayed long enough to eat. They spoke of neutral matters. The latest news-that Portennabar and Portfillik were importing vast quantities of wine and water from across the Giving Sea, mixing them together and selling the result to supplement their water supplies-was much easier to talk about than Senya.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The Scarpen to the Red Quarter Qanatend to Dune Pebblered They stayed five nights in Qanatend.

Ryka, impatient and crotchety, was locked in her rooms at Ravard's orders. Nauseated with worry, she wanted to see Kaneth so badly her body ached, yet she didn't want to risk her fragile peace with Ravard. If he trusted her, he might eventually give her enough freedom to bring him down, even to bring his whole tribe to its knees. That idea was as fragile as a sand-dancers' mirage, so she obeyed his directives and kept her expression neutral when he gave her orders. She used his title when she spoke to him. In his bed, she was compliant and meek. It went against everything she was, and if she inwardly boiled with rage, she also shut that part of herself deep within, like a coiled snake in the darkness waiting for the moment to strike.

She strove to remember all she had read about the legend of a hero called Uthardim. It wasn't much. She had never thought it important. The actual history and the tribal myths of the Reduners were inextricably mixed, until no one knew which were an approximation of the truth and which just tales.

In her twenties Ryka had made her interest in Reduner stories known to merchants in Breccia, and as a result, a steady trickle of shaman scrolls had come her way. In the Uthardim story she'd read, Uthardim had been miraculously born already an adult, sired by a dune god, birthed by the divine immortal, Fire. At his birth, however, a jealous mortal lover of Fire had appeared and distracted her at the crucial moment of Uthardim's delivery. Instead of being caught in his mother's arms, he had slipped into the flames of her conflagration. His face had been badly burned as a result, and thereafter he had been known as Uthardim Half-face.

But ponder as she might, Ryka could not remember the rest of the story, except that he had become a warrior hero. Damn it, she thought crossly, I can't even ask the guards, because that would mean speaking to them in Reduner. That ability was still better kept a secret. She toyed with the notion of asking Ravard, but shied away from that, too. She didn't want him to think she was interested in Kaneth.

And so, when they rode out of the gateway of Qanatend, she was none the wiser as to why the guards treated Uthardim with such respect.

The caravan was larger now, and the pedes stolen from Breccia were loaded with more slaves from Qanatend. Her heart grieved as she scanned them-they were so young. Girls and boys of perhaps eight to twelve or thirteen, no more. Reduners preferred children; it gave them a chance to raise them to be wives and warriors who could forget their origins. Unlike older adults enslaved for their skills, a child was always given a choice after a year or two: slavery, or become a tribal member with all its privileges and responsibilities and loyalties. Most chose the easier route, and who could blame them? By then the sands would have stained their hair and their skin until they resembled their captors.

Ryka glanced at the line of pedes making up the caravan. Every seat on a pede was taken up with people or water or baggage. Several packpedes were piled high with roped bundles of dried bab fruit stolen from the warehouses. This time she rode behind Ravard himself, and behind her were Reduner warriors. Ravard was almost light-hearted. She scowled at his back. Didn't he care what his people had done to the city? Didn't he realize what their plundering would do to the people left behind?

As they rode through the groves and once again she saw the dying trees, the parched soil and the evidence of wanton vandalism, she allowed her bitterness to spill over. "You have stolen their food and destroyed their means of replacing it. Was it necessary to kill their trees and wreck the irrigation?"

He shrugged and turned his head to reply. "You should never have built a city on this side of the range in the first place; this is ours. The Scarpen should start with the Warthago."

"Why?"

"Once we lived all the way t'the coast! Once the whole Quartern was ours. You pushed us out! So now we take back all the land north of the Warthago." He waved a hand back at the city walls. "Once we have taken all the water the city has, Qanatend will be leveled t'the ground. Obliterated. Let all you Scarpen folk go back t'where you belong-the southern side of the range."

"These people will die getting there!"

"Perhaps. We don't care, just so long as they never come back."

"Is this what you will do to Breccia?"

"Breccia you can have. We have no interest in your cities. We certainly don't want t'live in them. We went there t'kill your rainlords and stormlords, that's all. 'Specially Cloudmaster Granthon. And we thought t'capture his replacement."

"You mean Jasper?"

"Yes, him with the fancy name. Jasper Bloodstone. Is it true he's a Gibber grubber?"

"So I heard."

He snorted in amusement, but made no comment. "It's time to return to a Time of Random Rain. With him in our hands it would have been easy."

"You have no heart!"

"You Scarpen folk taught us well." The bitterness belonged to him now. She heard the acid in his voice and the grief in his tone, saw rage in the way his hands tightened on the reins. "You came t'our land and killed and plundered and destroyed. You made most of the Quartern yours. The 'Basters came and made the White Quarter theirs-well, now it's our turn again. You'll be the nomads, lookin' for water. We will be the hunters and drovers who know how t'live in this land, as you never did. All you ever had was magic"

"Are we-the people living now-guilty for what our ancestors did a thousand or more years ago?"

He twisted in the saddle to look at her. "No. You're guilty for what you did yesterday. I grew up in poverty so bleeding grim I counted meself lucky if I had water t'drink and a rough piece of bab sacking as a blanket against the cold. You-the people of the Scarpen and your rulers-you allowed people t'live like that, while you had enough water for your bleeding fancy bath houses! You could have granted us more water. Then we could have grown more bab, raised more animals."

"We didn't have sufficient stormlords. Cloudmaster Granthon did his best."

"You looked after yourselves just fine." He glanced ahead to make sure the pede was on track. "Anyhow, now we'll return to a time when we are dependent on no one-no one but ourselves-for water."

"A Time of Random Rain."

"We call it Saren Jan Kai. You people translated it as 'Time of Random Rain,' but that's not really correct." He frowned, searching for the right words. " 'Time of God-granted Rain' is closer t'the true meaning. We believe if we give the dune gods due respect, if we respect our dune, then they will see to it we get rain."

She waved a hand at one of the water-loaded pedes. "God-given random rain? You steal!"

"A temporary measure in place of having Jasper Bloodstone. 'Sides, maybe we don't have random rain 'cause Bloodstone takes whatever clouds start to form natural-like."

He was probably right at that. She fell silent and they rode on, into country she had never seen before: the dry flatlands known as the Spindlings. By midday, they had reached the border of the Red Quarter. Beyond a rough gully marking the boundary, the land was red and sandy. In the distance the first of the dunes was a long red barrier across the plains, extending east and west as far as Ryka could make out with her inadequate eyesight.

She felt the dryness of the air like a physical assault, sucking moisture from all it touched. The Scarpen was an arid, thirsty land, but the Gibber was worse, and so was this. There were no trees; just low plants, grotesque in shape and vivid in color, clinging to the red sand, creeping hither and thither in a desperate anxiety to find water. Many had leaves designed to collect dew or suck the juices out of desert insects and small creatures. A savage, killing land, baking under a devouring heat.

By evening they were camped at the foot of the first dune.

"Dune Pebblered," Ravard said, and helped Ryka down. He left her standing there and started to give orders to his men.

"Here, help me down, dear," Junial begged from her perch on another pede. "I don't have a handsome warrior waiting on me. My joints are on fire with all this sitting still and I hate being this high up. I cling onto that handle as if my life depended on it. Which it probably does, think on it."

Ryka gave a weary smile and obliged. The woman snorted as she looked about her. "So this is one of their precious dunes, eh? Just looks like a heap of red sand to me. Is this where he lives? Ouch, but my backside hurts. All the muscles is scrunched up." She rubbed her buttocks, wincing. "They'll be after me to cook in a moment, too."

Ryka envied Junial one thing: she was not molested by the Reduners, possibly because she was old enough to be unattractive to them, or perhaps because no one wanted to upset a good cook.

"There are settlements on many of the dunes, including this one," Ryka told her. "But we are going to the one Sandmaster Davim rules, Dune Watergatherer. We have to cross a number of dunes to get there, I believe."

"Thought he ruled the lot of them?"

"Sort of-except wherever the rebels are. Vara Redmane and her followers. Dune Watergatherer is where Davim started, and it's where he lives now, as far as I know. Each dune has its own sandmaster, although nowadays they all bow to Davim."

"So how do they build cities on a heap of sand?"

"They don't. They live in tents, and move the encampments from time to time. There are several tribes on each dune, all owing allegiance to the same dune sandmaster. So Kher Ravard heads his own tribe, but he lives on the same dune as Sandmaster Davim."

The older woman sighed. "Don't tell me, more lying on the ground instead of a proper bed. No tables, no chairs neither, I'll wager. I'm too old for this. And all because I cook a good loaf of bab bread. How's that for fate playing its sandblasted tricks on a widow woman?" She gazed up at the slope of the dune. The sand was patterned with lines of creeping plant life, runnels flowing forth in random designs. "Pretty enough, I suppose. But where are the tunnels bringing water? We've seen none of them shafts since we left Qanatend."

"No tunnels were ever built here. I was told once the Reduners regard each dune as sacred to a dune god, and not to be defiled by deep digging-or by any permanent building for that matter. Besides, the dune moves. Difficult to build anything permanent."

"Then however do they get their water?"

"A stormlord can make it rain on the slopes of each dune near the waterholes. The most difficult of all the cloudbreaks, I believe, and only possible because each camp is only a few hundred people, so they don't need much water."

Junial looked at her curiously. "How do you know all this stuff? There's more to you than meets the eye, seems to me!"

Ryka hedged. "I was a scholar once." She paused, then added quietly, "I suppose that has gone, along with the rest of my life."

Junial grimaced in sympathy. "I'm sorry. At least I'm not young enough for the men to want to climb under my shift. But y'know, you did get the best of the bunch, m'dear. Whose is the bread rising in the basket? His?"

"The bread-? Oh. My baby. Blighted eyes, he's not the Kher's! He's my husband's." She touched her abdomen. "It really is obvious now, isn't it?"

"It is that. How far along are you? More than halfway, by the looks."

They were interrupted by a guard yelling at Junial. "Time cook!" he told her. "Work!"

Junial shrugged and trudged off to where the guards and slaves were starting the cooking fires.

Ryka lingered a moment to watch the changing shadows as the sun slid below the horizon. Dark blood-red shadows accentuated the dips and hollows. The dying light blazed on the ridges until they glowed as if lit from within. It's not pretty, she thought. Pretty is for sweet frilly stuff. This is stark, harsh, dangerous.

But she couldn't help adding, and magnificent.

Even as she watched, the dune groaned, a deep moaning sound reverberating deep in the sand like a note plucked from the bass string of a giant lute.

"The dune god speaks," one of the Reduners said in his own tongue, and thumped his fist to his chest in reverent acknowledgment. As they were eating, six men mounted on individual myriapede hacks appeared on the horizon. Ryka felt them before she saw them. In the gloaming, they were no more than silhouettes against a deep purple sky, hard to see, but having sensed their water she knew where to look. Quickly she glanced away, not wanting Ravard, seated next to her on the matting and cushions by the fire, to realize her water sensitivity.

A few moments later he must have felt them himself because he stood hurriedly and called to his senior bladesmen, who sprang to their feet in instant obedience. They strode away from the camp, fully armed with scimitars, zigger cages and zigtubes. Ryka scrambled to her feet to see better; so did Kaneth, who had been sitting with the rest of the slaves.

Ravard doesn't trust the Pebblered folk, she thought. They bow to Davim and his heir, but once they were subject to no one. I wonder if they hate the tribes of Dune Watergatherer as much as we do.

Kaneth threaded his way through the slaves to stand at her shoulder as she watched. "Ravard sent word to the closest Pebblered tribe that we were here," he murmured in her ear. "You cannot cross an inhabited dune without the permission of one of the tribes living on it. Of course they are far too frightened to stop Kher Ravard and his men, but apparently he observes the courtesies and pauses to ask."

She did not turn to acknowledge his presence. "How do you know that?" she whispered, hoping to prompt his memories. At least he sounded more rational now.

"I don't know. I remember the oddest things, without any recollection of where I learned them."

"But you still don't remember who you are?"

"No. Why don't you tell me more about who I am?"

"No. A little knowledge is dangerous. It is better you discover it for yourself. If they find out who you are-" She made a gesture toward the waiting men. "You would die before you drew another breath. You must be careful."

"I find it hard to think I was ever so dangerous to them."

"Believe me, you were. And you had better hope no one ever recognizes you."

Kaneth gave a lopsided grin and tapped at the scabbing on his face. "I doubt I look the way I used to." In the dry air the scar was forming well, but his skin was puckering, drawing his face into a travesty of the handsome man she had known. Her breath caught, snagged on her desire to touch his cheek, to say how sorry she was. To tell him it didn't matter to her. She wanted him to assuage the ache in her heart by touching her in turn, but knew he would not. When he looked at her it was with a neutral interest, not desire, not friendship, not love.

Oh, Sunlord, how can I bear this?

"You're a slave," she said. "Doesn't that enrage you? We are all slaves, to be used as our masters see fit. Women and boys to be raped, children taken from their families. There was a time when that would have roused you to a raging passion."

He ran a hand over his head in a troubled gesture. His hair was beginning to grow back in a short fuzz. Once it had been long and golden, shining and luxuriant. She had liked to run her hand through it. She pushed the thought away.

"I-I don't know. I feel as if I'm walking within the wavering mists of a sand-dancer mirage. Nothing is real around me. There are voices speaking to me, but from so far away in the past I can barely hear the words. I catch glimpses-of people, of places-but I don't know who they are, where they are, or what they meant-mean-to me. When I try to catch hold of the images they dance away and my head throbs with pain. And inside me there is an emptiness that once was full, a hole of nothingness I don't know how to replenish."

Hope disintegrated, spilling out of her in tiny pieces, each one hurting. "Can't you-can't you remember anything?"

"Silly stuff-playing, squabbling with other children. Nothing important. And there are things I feel to be true from my adulthood. I know if I picked up a sword it would feel right in my hand, as if it belonged." He glanced away toward the dune. "I know I have been to the Red Quarter before. That I have ridden a pede across the sands. That I have a smattering of their tongue because I have mixed with them before. That there was a time when they were no enemies of mine." He looked back at her. "I know I have held a woman in my arms and loved."

Her heart pounded as if she had been running. "But you don't recall who?"

He shook his head. "I suppose I'd know her if I saw her. I have no memory of her face, or her voice. Just of the way I felt about someone. And sometimes I think there was as much grief there as happiness."

His words seared more than they comforted, reminding her of all they had lost. She swallowed away the pain.

She cast a glance about them to make sure no one was listening. Ravard and the Pebblered men were still talking, far enough away to be almost invisible in the darkness, as well as inaudible. In the camp itself, the only light was from the fire and there was not much of that. There was no one close enough to hear anything she or Kaneth said and no one even looking at them. The Reduners were passing around some skins of amber; some were singing-the noise level had risen.

"What do you remember playing with when you were little?" she asked, unable to resist the urge to prompt his memory, like a child who couldn't stop picking at a scab.

"Water," he said promptly, without apparent thought. Then repeated the word in astonishment, as if the memory had suddenly returned. "Water! Sunlord help me! I could once move water."

She hushed him with a finger to her lips.

He stared at her, shocked. "That's why you think I am in danger! I was a water sensitive!"

She smothered her joy at the fragment of returning memory. "They must not know."

"I don't remember-" He rubbed his forehead. "Withering spit. I remember moving water. I was a rainlord."

She nodded. "You are still a rainlord."

He considered that, his frown deepening. Then, "No. No. I'm not. Not anymore. There's nothing there. Nothing."

And he stumbled away into the darkness. She stared after him, appalled. It couldn't be true, surely. She wanted to follow, but it was too risky and she dared not, no matter how much her heart ached for him. The next morning, the pedes climbed the dune in single file, their pointed feet angled backward to give them purchase on the shifting sand of the incline. Once again Ryka was seated behind Ravard, his proximity a reminder of the way he came to her each night, his gaze alight with anticipation. His desire to please her with his lovemaking was oddly touching, the naivety with which he tried to achieve her pleasure was both exasperating and in different circumstances might even have been endearing-yet the joy he took from the slightest of her smiles both puzzled and alarmed her. Nonetheless, as she rode behind him, seated cross-legged on the embroidered saddle cushion, any kindness she felt toward him was overridden by an abiding hatred of his assumptions, the assumptions of a conqueror.

I'm a slave, she thought. I have no right to say no-and therefore this is rape, for all it is an agreement I entered into to keep my son safe.

She glared at his back. One day I shall kill him for it. Yet when she thought of driving a blade into him, what she felt most was not triumph, but regret that it would be necessary.

Sand hells-why does everything have to be so complicated?

When they reached the outskirts of the Pebblered encampment, they halted. Some of the tribal elders, plus a number of Scarpen and Gibber slaves, were waiting for them in the cool of the morning. Ravard had apparently promised the tribe some of the water from Qanatend.

While the slaves hoisted the large family jars out of the panniers and carried them into the camp, Ryka stayed where she was, seated on the pede. Ravard stood a couple of paces away, holding the reins and chatting with the tribemaster, an elderly man, portly and unattractive and, to Ryka's eyes, obsequiously fawning.

The fellow is terrified of upsetting the Master Son, she thought. Ravard may be young, but the men of other dunes fear him the way men fear Sandmaster Davim. I wonder if it is Ravard's reputation making them so scared, or simply because he is the sandmaster's heir?

She shot a look at Kaneth where he sat alone on the slaves' packpede. The other male slaves had been unroped so that they could help carry the water; he had simply ignored the order. Bravado? Foolhardiness? That weird innocence he seemed to have now? She didn't know. Oh, Kaneth, please get better soon. I am scared, too, and so alone…

From the back of her mount, she glanced across to where the slaves, both the ones from the caravan and those from the encampment, were working together to unload the packpedes. Each water jar was tightly sealed with bab gum to stop spillage or evaporation. Scarpen water, she thought, her bitterness so raw she could taste it on her tongue. And how many will die because it was stolen?

Elmar was there, and several others including the slave who had threatened to kill Ravard if he had the chance. What was his name? Whetstone, that was it. A Scarpen artisan with enough rage inside him to make him a poor choice for enslavement. Even now, he sent periodic scowls in the direction of Ravard and the Pebblered tribemaster.

The sand-brained fool, Ryka thought. Sooner or later someone is going to notice and decide he's more trouble than he's worth.

She watched as Elmar and another man climbed onto a pede to extract a jar from the pannier and hand it down to Whetstone. The jar caught on a piece of bab-fibre rope used to secure the pannier to the pede and they could not unhook it. Whetstone reached up to help, but the cord had pulled tight and he couldn't budge it, either. The guard, seeing their predicament, stepped forward, sliding his scimitar out of his scabbard to cut the cord.

Ryka's mouth went dry as she saw Whetstone change. His slouch tautened. His scowl dissolved into an avid hunger. Oh, blast, she thought. He wouldn't. She sent a frantic look in Kaneth's direction, more out of habit than conscious thought. She jerked her head to indicate what had caught her attention, and he turned his head to look.

The cord cut, the Reduner guard prepared to put his weapon back into its scabbard. His grip, loose and casual, was no match for Whetstone's powerful wrenching grab. Before the guard had fully realized what had happened, Whetstone had leaped away. His face was a portrait of blind rage as he raised the scimitar over his head in a double-fisted hold, his teeth bared in an animal-like snarl. He raced toward Ravard, the blade poised for a savage downward slash. Kaneth scrambled up to stand on the back of his pede.

Ryka's thoughts were lucid and fast. Whetstone wants Ravard dead. I could stop this. She could jump on the man as he passed between Kaneth's pede and hers. She could save Ravard's life.

But why should I? This was their chance. She had a pede loaded with food and water under her, Kaneth was right next to her, Elmar nearby, and none of them was tied.

In the confusion we ride out of here-Even as the thoughts tumbled through her head, she acted.

She stood up. As she straightened, she beckoned to Elmar. Her heart was beating wildly. He gave a pikeman's salute, telling her he understood, then he leaped from the packpede and raced-not toward her, but toward Kaneth's pede. Exactly as she had hoped he would.

At the same moment, the guard who had lost his weapon gave a belated screech of warning and took off after Whetstone. Ravard heard and began to turn, his hand dropping the reins to reach for the hilt of his scimitar. He would be too late to save himself, Ryka saw that much. She took a step toward the driver's seat on the first segment and bent to grab the reins where they looped across the saddle.

And the world shifted. An eerie sound throbbed into the air from beneath the dune, like the echoing beat of a drummer in an underground cavern.

The legs of Ryka's mount sank into the sand along one side. She panicked, the terror of the incomprehensible overwhelming her as the animal tilted. In startled shock the pede reared its head, its mouthparts clicking and sawing its alarm. She lost her balance and began to topple. She flung out a hand to grab the pede's segment handle and missed. As she fell, the scene she glimpsed etched itself onto her memory.

Elmar, arms pumping, raced toward them in answer to her call. In front of him, one of Whetstone's feet sank into the sand as if it was water. He went flying, to sprawl headlong a pace away from Ravard. The scimitar flew from his hand in an arc. Ravard and the Pebblered tribemaster both tumbled to their knees, the ground unstable beneath their feet.

In the background, the throbbing sound changed to a higher tremolo, hauntingly beautiful, spine-tinglingly eldritch. Through it all, Kaneth stood on the back of the packpede alongside her, his expression stark and intense, yet devoid of fear, as the reddish slanting rays of the rising sun captured him in a glowing halo of light. He looked godlike, resembling images she had seen painted on temple walls.

And then she hit the ground. The breath in her lungs exploded from her. Pain lanced through her torso. She screamed silently, The baby! She gasped for air, torturously dragged it into emptied lungs. And all the while the sand beneath her slipped and slid like unstrung beads and the strange unearthly song issued forth from the depths of the dune. When coherence returned, Kaneth was kneeling at her side, touching her face, begging her to say something. The ground beneath her still moved, gently now as trickles of sand flowed this way and that. A small fountain of sand grains inexplicably burst forth next to her shins to shower her legs.

Nearby, the Pebblered tribemaster was hauling himself upright and Ravard was struggling to rise. He was buried up to his knees. When he finally pulled himself free, he lurched across the still rippling ground to the man who had tried to kill him.

Whetstone, on his knees, had lost the scimitar, and was groping blindly around in the sand for it. Ravard drew his weapon, his intention clear. Ryka wanted to move, but pain and fear of more pain kept her immobile.

Kaneth looked up from where he crouched beside Ryka, and said, "No." The single word was commanding, spoken with an authority he did not have, not here. It stopped Ravard, that voice. It stopped the sands too, or so it appeared, for they ceased moving the moment he spoke, and the song from deep in the earth fell silent.

You're sandcrazy, Ryka told Kaneth, but her words must have only been in her head, because she didn't hear them.

Whetstone was still on his knees, his rage deflated. "Lord! Lord Uthardim," he cried. "The Kher killed my family. My parents, my brothers. I want justice. Kill him. Kill this murdering redman."

Ravard ignored him. All his attention was now focused on Kaneth. "Who are you t'command the Master Son of the Watergatherer?"

Perhaps to his men he sounded merely outraged, but Ryka knew him well. She sensed uncertainty in him.

"The man who just saved your life by moving the dune beneath our feet," Kaneth replied.

Watergiver above! He's saying he did this? Moved the sand? She tried to rise, but pain gripped her, holding her prisoner.

He added, "And now I ask you to spare this man."

His calm made her heart pound. She felt everyone present hold their breath, although many surely did not understand the Scarpen language. Ravard stared at him, shocked. No, more than that, he was outraged by Kaneth's claim. She struggled against waves of nausea, trying to make sense of what Kaneth meant. Of all that had happened.

Ravard paused. Not once did he look at the man he wanted to kill. He gave a snort of disbelief, aimed at Kaneth. "Your brains shriveled along with your hair. The sand was doubtless moved by the dune god of Pebblered to save me, not by you! Why the pickled pede would I spare a man who tried t'kill me? And doubtless will again if he has the chance?"

And with casual grace, he swung his blade in an arc that slit Whetstone's throat. Blood spurted, drenching Ravard's trousers even before the body fell. Ravard took no notice. His gaze locked on Ryka's. For the briefest of moments she glimpsed something there that was close to panicked concern. For her. Then it was gone, and his face hardened.

"That man's actions prompted the dune god to rise up to protect me and his tribemaster," he said, addressing Kaneth.

Kaneth shrugged. "Believe what you will."

"Even if that weren't so, I don't owe you nothing! I paid for it in advance with a horned cat. We'd be even, if it was you halted this man-which I don't believe."

"See to the woman of your tent. She may lose your child if she is not well-tended."

Ryka drew in a sharp breath of anguish. He thought their son was Ravard's? A shudder ran through her body. Pain wrenched her, and she wondered if she was bleeding. Sunlord, save my babe. It's too soon for him to be born. Much too soon.

Vaguely she was aware of Ravard laughing. "It's not my bastard, you fool. She's just a Breccian woman, one of the better spoils of war." He turned to the Pebblered tribemaster. "Get her a travel pallet. We'll load her onto the back of a pede when it's time t'move off."

"She's injured," Kaneth said angrily. "Can't you see she's hurting? Leave her here in the Pebblered encampment until she recovers."

Ravard looked genuinely puzzled. "She's a slave," he said, as if that explained everything. "And a woman at that. Live or die, d'you think I care? Women are plentiful." He turned back to the tribemaster. "Do as I ask."

"Kher," Elmar said respectfully as the tribemaster disappeared from Ryka's line of vision, "may I get Garnet's cloak from the pede to cover her?"

"Yes, do so. And when the pallet arrives, put her on it and strap it to the back of my pede. She can travel behind me." In the glance he gave her then, she saw concern, but he said nothing. Too damned worried about what his men would think if he asked how I was, she thought.

He moved away and Elmar climbed to the pede, leaving Ryka and Kaneth alone. "Withering hells, Garnet," he whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Did you do that?" she asked, struggling to understand. "Did you move the sand?"

His frustration at his ignorance burned deep into her senses. "Is it something I could once do?"

She shook her head. His powers had always been odd and unpredictable, but not that odd.

"Are you badly hurt?"

She wanted to answer, to say something that made sense, but no words came. She caught the muttered conversation of the two Reduner guards who had come to drag away Whetstone's body.

"The dune god obeys him," one said in awe. "Did you see? He glowed red, and the sands moved at his gesture and stopped with his spoken word."

"He is Uthardim," the other replied reverently. "He will be the savior of our people."

No, Ryka thought, muddled. That can't be right. He's Kaneth, rainlord of the Quartern. Father of my son.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Red Quarter Dune Pebblered to Dune Sandsinger They crossed two more dunes the day they left Pebblered, but Ryka knew little about the journey. Griping pains seized her gut and she turned her senses inward, not outward. The blood was already seeping out between her legs and she knew of no way to stop it.

Come evening, the caravan halted at the foot of Dune Sandsinger, another inhabited dune. When Elmar and several of the other slaves unloaded her, still strapped to the pallet, they did not take her to Ravard's tent, but laid her in the open. They put up a cover against the dewfall, and built a fire of dried pede droppings for warmth. The smell was sweet with herbs; better, she thought, than the seaweed briquettes used in the Scarpen.

The other slaves left, but Elmar stayed, sitting close and keeping his voice down as he spoke to her. "Are you comfortable?"

She hedged. "The pallet is well stuffed."

"I managed to get hold of that scimitar. The one Whetstone grabbed. I have it hidden in the supplies."

"That was good thinking."

"A risk, though. The owner was searching for it when we left. If they think one of us slaves took it they might search us all."

"They'll think it was covered up in that upheaval of sand. Elmar, what happened?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. I spoke to a couple of the slaves who were carting the jars to the encampment when the ground shook, and they never felt a thing, although they did hear the singing. The only folk who felt it were the ones around about us."

"Kaneth says he did it. Ravard thinks it was the dune god, protecting his tribemaster."

He looked uneasy. "The dunes sing and make sounds. And the Reduners say under each dune a god sleeps. Every now and then he wakes to speak to the shamans…"

"We are supposed to believe in the Sunlord, not dune gods. They don't exist."

"Don't know I believe in anything much. But something made the sand move." He shivered. "Uncanny, it was. I don't like these dunes. They move anyway, you know, swallowing everything in their path, like some kind of monster eating its way across the land. Put a pike in my hand and an enemy in front of me, and I'll enjoy a good fight. But sand that moves and sings? Gives me the shiver-shudders."

She smiled. "The dunes move very slowly, a few paces each cycle, and I suspect it is the wind sending them on their way across the plains, not any monster or dune god within. Elmar, I need to eat a lot tonight. Meat, if you can get hold of some, to bring my powers up to par. I'm losing blood."

He looked shocked. "You're bleeding?"

"Yes. I-I may be losing the baby." She tried to sound matter-of-fact, but the expression on his face told her she had failed.

"Sunlord help you. I didn't know. I'll get some food. And one of the women."

"Ask Junial. She told me she sometimes assisted the midwife on her level."

She rested, glad not to be jolting along on pedeback, but her peace did not last. Ravard came.

With sick apprehension, she wondered whether he would wonder what she had been doing standing up on the back of the pede just before she had fallen. She hoped he had not noticed. After all, Whetstone had been attacking him at the time…

He didn't appear to be angry. In fact, he looked more uneasy than anything. "Are you comfortable?" he asked.

"Not particularly."

He fidgeted awkwardly. "The baby?"

"I am bleeding."

"Ah." He scratched his ear, once again hardly more than a youth trying to cope with a situation too big for him. Sunlord damn, he looked anxious. Worried, for her.

She wondered if he ever appeared that way to his men and decided it was unlikely. They gave him a healthy respect and she'd never heard them mock him even when he wasn't around. No, this boyish, vulnerable side occurred only with her. Spitless damn.

"I'm sorry. Shall I get one of the women?" he asked.

"I've asked someone to come. Junial. The cook."

He looked blank, but nodded anyway. "Food?"

"Also coming."

"Is it, um, serious?"

"Of course it's serious."

"Oh. I-oh." He looked down and fiddled with the handle of the dagger thrust through his belt, as if he was an embarrassed lad of twelve, not the heir to all the dunes of the Red Quarter.

Then she saw the dark patch of Whetstone's dried blood on his trousers and looked away. Don't mistake the insecurities of youth for kindness, Ryka.

"I'm sorry," he said finally. "I dropped the reins and the pede panicked when the sand shifted. I feel responsible. I wish t'apologize."

Blighted eyes, she thought, there are times when I almost like him. "Kher, what happened back there? The sand, moving like that-"

He shrugged. "The sand shifts on the slopes sometimes, and sings. Perhaps it is the dune god, perhaps not. One thing for sure, it wasn't Uthardim." His voice was larded with scorn.

"What did the shaman of Pebblered say?"

He looked uncomfortable. "The man heard the singing, but admitted that he did not recognize the song." He stopped and changed the subject abruptly. "If there is anything else you need, send someone t'tell me." He walked away without waiting for her reply, and she let out the breath she had been holding.

Elmar returned shortly with a plate piled high with food and helped her to sit up so she could eat it. "What did that bastard want?" he asked.

"To apologize," she said and told him what the Master Son had said.

Elmar started laughing. "He thinks it was his fault you fell? Because he let the reins fall? That's as good as a double dayjar ration!"

She wanted to chuckle, decided it would hurt too much and dampened the urge. Instead, she forced herself to eat.

"At least he has no clue the two of us were thinking of escape. It was a brave thing you did, m'lord," he said, keeping his voice low. "Weren't your fault it didn't work."

"There will be another attempt, I promise you. Perhaps when I am more sure Kaneth will join us."

The look he gave her was troubled. "I wasn't about to give him a choice this morning. I was going to seize the pede he was on."

"I know."

There was so much pain in his eyes. And something else. Love. Not for her, though. It shook her to see the tough warrior so vulnerable. "What happened out there?" he asked. "What made him say he had saved Ravard? Why would he want to save Ravard, anyway?"

"I don't think he was trying to do so. The sand collapsed under us, who knows why. Kaneth was just trying to make Ravard think he did it. Because of being Uthardim. The other Reduners are buying it, even if Ravard doesn't."

"I hope you're right. Because that would mean the old Kaneth is returning, piece by bleeding piece. Oh, he doesn't remember much past his early boyhood yet, but his-he is coming back. The man. The cynical, sarcastic bastard we used to know and love."

Relief suffused her. Soon. Soon we'll be out of here. Ravard will die and then we can go after Davim.

He continued to kneel at her side, his large restless hands pulling at his clothing as if he was looking for the scabbard he no longer wore. He said at last, "I gather he knows now he was a rainlord, but you didn't tell him you were, too. You don't trust him yet either, do you?"

"He is so confused," she said. "Weeping hells, Elmar, he can't remember a thing that has happened over the past twenty years-none of it! Not the way the young stormlords died, not what Taquar did to us all, not our search of the Gibber for talented children, not even Nealrith's death. Sandblast it, he doesn't even remember Nealrith except as maybe a child playing skittles with him! He doesn't know Jasper exists. How could he have any loyalty to anyone?

"You were right, and I was wrong. If he doesn't remember his loyalties, how can he know where to place his honor? I am waiting for a sign that he cares about us. When I have that, I'll tell him. In the meantime, you must tell him as much as you can, but not all at once. Little by little. A reminder here, a reminder there. Start-start with things furthest away in the past."

"I don't have much opportunity now," Elmar said. "Most of the time I am tied up with the other men and there are usually guards within earshot anyway."

He paused, and when he spoke again it was to reminisce. "I met him first when I was ordered to be his sparring partner in the practice yard, did you know that? Cocky brat he was then, as full of himself as a puffed-up sandgrouse and sure he could best anyone. We knocked the stuffing out of him as fast as we knew how. But he didn't resent it. I liked that. After that, we were a team, Lord Kaneth and me. At first, I was the teacher, him the pupil. In the end, he led, I followed-because he was worth following. We protected each other's backs. I always knew which way he'd move, and he knew he could rely on me. The best years of my otherwise useless life have been with him. M'lord, it's breaking me in two to see him like this and to be so powerless to help him."

The grief in his voice was profound, confirming something she had long suspected. "You love him."

He was silent.

"Does he know?"

His laugh had a bitter edge. "Come on, I got better sense than that. Would change things, him knowing. He may have slept with every damned snuggery girl in Breccia, but he's never looked at a man. Don't let it bother you. You got his heart, and that's the way it should be."

"And lost it, it seems, because of a blow to his head. Watergiver take it, Elmar; we are a sorry pair, aren't we?"

His low laugh was devoid of bitterness this time. "That we are. He wants to see you, by the way. Asked me if I would ask you first."

"Maybe it's Kher Ravard you should be asking," she pointed out dryly. "He's the one who owns us both."

"You may be out of earshot here, but you're hardly out of sight with only this bit of canvas overhead. I don't think the Kher'll take exception. He saw me bringing you the food and he said nothing. But then, he's a touchy bastard. Watch him, m'lord. He's a powerful man on the outside, but the inside quivers."

"With what?"

"Who knows? Fear? Insecurities? Madness? Hate? Rage against the world? That young warrior is two people, not one."

She remembered the scars on Ravard's back, and wondered about his past.

"I'll tell Kaneth to come, shall I?" Elmar asked.

She nodded.

"Go easy on him. Ah, here's Junial. I'd better go and eat something myself, before they truss me up for the night like a bale of bab kernels in a burlap sack." His scarred face seamed in a smile as he left and Junial took his place at Ryka's side.

Junial's advice was to the point. "Move as little as possible. You want to water the plants, you do it right here beside your bed. Bed rest is the only thing I know that can save a babe. But then, maybe it's better to let it go. After all, what's the point of letting a child be born to slavery?" She cleaned up the blood, pronounced the amount to be small as yet, and then left, promising to sleep at Ryka's side for the night if she could, in case she needed help.

No sooner had Junial left than Kaneth came and knelt at her side. "How are you?" he asked.

She studied his face in the firelight, the concern in his eyes, but could see nothing there that spoke of love. Disappointed yet again, she said bluntly, "I'll live. The baby may not."

"I can't apologize enough."

"For what?"

"You were going to stop that man from killing Ravard. If you'd jumped on him as he passed, you might have died. He had his scimitar over his head, ready to strike! I thought you'd impale yourself. All I could think was to stop you. And instead I hurt you."

A sign. She had wanted a sign that he cared, even a little. And now that she had it, she stared at him, incredulous. "I wasn't thinking to save Ravard! I was happy enough to see him die!" The irony stabbed at her, cutting deep. She tried to explain. "I stood up to move to the driver's saddle. I was going to steal the pede and ride away with you and Elmar in the confusion of Ravard's death."

He frowned, as if he had trouble taking in all she said. Finally he remarked, "They would have killed us with ziggers."

"They would never have released them. They would have lost every single slave for a start, not to mention any Pebblered Reduners not wearing the correct perfume-which might have been all of them. You do know that, don't you? That each dune uses a particular perfume their ziggers are trained to avoid?" And I would have killed any that came after us…

He nodded. "Yes, yes, I know that." He rubbed his forehead once more, a gesture she was beginning to dread. "Facts I recall. But I don't think very well sometimes. Was I always so witheringly slow?"

"You had a sharp mind once. You will again." But what the blighted hell makes you think you can move the very sand beneath our feet? "Would you-would you have come with us?"

To her dismay, he didn't give an immediate answer, and when he did reply, she wasn't sure she wanted the answer anyway.

"I would have wanted to," he said finally. "But it seems wrong to leave folk in slavery."

"A rainlord's skills are better spent elsewhere." You hypocrite, she added beneath her breath, and it was herself she meant.

"But that's just it, Garnet. I'm not a rainlord. Although I suspect I was trying to call on my water-sense when I tried to stop you." He made a gesture of frustration. "I'm not explaining this very well. When I saw you-as I thought-preparing to jump on the slave with the scimitar, I was too far away to grab you so I reached out for something to use. Water, I guess. I suppose what I did was instinctive because I certainly didn't think about it. I just felt something deep in the dune and reached for it. I touched it. But I don't think it was water. Then everything went horribly wrong."

"You really believe you made the sand move?"

"I think I did something to start the sand moving. And once it started I didn't know how to stop it."

"I think you just said 'No,' " she said dryly, "and it ceased."

He wasn't amused. "I can't explain it. And I feel so guilty. You were hurt. Worse, now you tell me I wrecked your chance to escape."

She didn't reply. In truth, she didn't know what to say.

"Ravard said your baby wasn't his."

"Of course it isn't!" Her rage bubbled to the surface, even though she knew she was being unfair. "It's only been what-ten days?-since I had the misfortune to meet Kher Ravard! I was looking through a pile of corpses for the body of my husband at the time…"

"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry. I had no idea."

She stared at him, trying not to feel the hurt he had not meant to give her. The concern was still there in his eyes; concern for a stranger who had crossed his path. She wanted to reach out, touch his scar, cup his face with her hand. She wanted to feel his hands on her body, touching their child.

He said, "I don't remember what happened in Breccia in the days before I was flung onto the pyre."

In his confusion, his hand went to his head again and she wondered if his headaches were bothering him still. Or maybe it's just talking to me makes men fidget, she thought with a touch of hysteria. She took a deep breath and calmed herself. "The baby is my husband's. Let's just leave it at that."

Kaneth was upset, that was obvious. Her thoughts were in turmoil, but one emerged from the murk, clear and sure: he would not betray her. That danger was past.

"But there is something you should know," she added. "I didn't tell you before, because I wasn't sure I could trust you. You were so… confused."

"Go on."

"I'm also a rainlord. We've known each other since we were children attending the rainlord academy in Breccia."

He sat back on his heels, eyes wide. "Weeping shit."

She waited for him to say something else. Anything.

"Then why didn't you escape before now?" he asked finally.

"Because I wouldn't leave without you, you sand-brained idiot! We are rainlords! We-we help one another."

Another long silence, as if he was trying to puzzle something out. "Did you go to bed with that sand-tick because of me?"

She snorted. "Don't pride yourself! Why the waterless hells would I do that? I did it to get out of Breccia in one piece and save my child. My sister died in my arms in Breccia Hall because she wouldn't bed Davim, and I didn't want to end up the same way."

"Oh, sandblast it. I have to think about this. I-oh, sod the bastard. Ravard's staring at us with his hand on the hilt of his scimitar."

He stood up. "I think I had better go before I embarrass myself by uttering anymore inanities. Can I apologize again for being ten times a sand-stuffed fool? Garnet, is there anything I can do to help you now?"

"You could call me Ryka, when we are alone, at least. That's my real name."

Breathless she waited for something-some recognition, some indication that the name meant something. But there was nothing. His face was blank.

He hesitated. "I'd rather not. We knew each other once. I've known you for years, it seems. And yet… I don't know what you were to me. Family? Sister? Lover? Fellow comrade-at-arms? Friend? I don't know. And perhaps you are wise not to tell me. For now you are just Garnet Prase, and I start afresh even if you don't. The day I call you Ryka, you will know I remember you."

She watched him as he walked away, biting her lip to stop herself from calling him back. Only when he disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the cooking fires did she turn her senses inward to concentrate on saving their child. The man who thought of himself as nameless rose before the sun the following day. He walked through the outer perimeter of guards, nodding amiably to the closest of the sentries, who made no move to stop him, continuing on till he reached the top of one of the dune hills. The sky lightened as he went; the stars began to fade, then died in the shimmer of the coming dawn.

From the crest he could see in all directions. The encampment was beginning to wake. Slaves were out collecting pede droppings for burning in the camp fires, the drovers were cleaning and polishing their mounts. In the other direction, the tent settlement of the sandmaster of Dune Sandsinger was also astir. Unlike the traveling tents of Ravard and his men, the settlement tents were lavish affairs, embroidered and fringed, with a porch and several rooms each, and sides that could be rolled up or lowered. Their kitchens were communal, shared between three or four families, roofed with jute canvas and furnished with tables and benches made of bab wood or stone slabs.

Why do I know things like that? he wondered. I even know the Reduners grow jute around their waterholes and the Gibber folk grow it in their drywashes, while the Alabasters grow flax somewhere or other-and yet I don't know my own name.

He turned his thoughts to Garnet. Ryka. She puzzled him because she didn't seem to fit. He had vague memories of nebulous women-a lot of them-in his past. Women offering themselves for money, or perhaps for fun. Women taken and enjoyed and forgotten. He couldn't put faces or names to the memories, but he sensed they had not been like Garnet, nor had she been one of them. When she regarded him, the look in her eyes was unsettling in its intensity. In her presence he had a feeling of familiarity.

He thought of her, of the woman she was now, Ravard's woman. Now that he knew how recently she had been widowed and enslaved, he was staggered by both her bravery and her dignity. She had gone from wife to concubine, from free citizen to slave, all in the space of a few days, yet she stood up to Ravard and held her head high. Her courage astounded him. I am in awe of her.

And then he gave a grim smile. Perhaps she admired his courage too; if so, the admiration was misplaced. Oh, he was brave, he knew that, but his bravery came from a lack of caring. Without a past, he had no fear, because he knew of nothing he wanted to live for. Paradoxically, without a past, he knew of nothing he cared to die for either.

"What thoughts go round in that head empty of memories?"

He turned to face the speaker, who stood fifteen paces or so distant. If he really had been a rainlord, he would have sensed the man's approach, or so he supposed; instead he was taken by surprise.

"Kher Ravard," he said, inclining his head to the man, but not enough to indicate his slave status.

Ravard glowered at him.

"To answer your question-I was debating the nature of bravery. And also what makes a slave."

"Defeat makes a slave," the younger man sneered, and came several paces nearer. "A brave man fights t'the death rather than be taken by th'enemy."

"No. Defeat makes a captive, not a coward. Bravery is sometimes the decision to go on living. Tell me, who was Uthardim?"

"A hero of the past who had a burned face."

"You appear to scorn the legends of your people."

"Scorn them? No. I scorn you." Ravard approached, and his right hand fell to his scimitar hilt. He had a zigtube clipped to his shoulder, and the nameless man could hear the frenzied buzzing of the zigger within. "You're not Uthardim Half-face reborn. You're a Breccian nobody, and you were thrown onto a funeral pyre before your time, that's all."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. I asked one of your drovers who speaks a bit of the Scarpen tongue about Uthardim Half-face. Apparently the story is he was the man who gathered together the remnants of the original people of the Quartern and led them to a new life on the dunes, after the ancestors of the Scarpen folk came from across the Giving Sea and displaced them. They looked on him as a savior, the founder of their culture, because in the dunes they found the pedes and the ziggers and they became Reduner drovers and caravanners and hunters as a result, instead of the impoverished herders of goats they had once been. When Uthardim was dying, so the story goes, he said he would be reborn out of the fire, to lead your people to victory against the invaders."

Ravard, now only a pace away, dropped his voice to a low tone laden with threat and anger. "That's not you, for sure," he spat out. "Why would a reborn Uthardim come back as one of the enemy rather than a drover of the dunes? You're no hero returned! If I had my way, you'd be thrown back on that pyre, and that'd be the end of it. You keep away from my woman or that will be what happens t'you, no matter what the sandmaster wants."

The nameless man smiled. "That woman belongs to no one, and in your heart you know it."

Ravard reached out and grabbed him by the neck of his tunic, jerking him forward until his face was only a hand-span away. "Garnet made her choice. I don't force her. Ask her the truth of that, if you like."

"I can hardly ask her anything. You just told me to keep away from her."

"You're like all wilting Scarpen uplevelers! You mock us by playing with words, thinking they give you power. Well, they don't. Power comes from this-" He gripped the hilt of his scimitar. "-And this." He tapped the zigtube, then flung the other man from him.

The nameless man staggered, but kept his footing. He said, and the words were lies, "This morning, I spoke to the slave woman who is tending Garnet. She says it is unlikely she will live the day out. Not if you strap her to a pede for another day's trek. Leave her here, if you want her to live. Let the tribal women of Dune Sandsinger care for her until she has recovered."

"One day you'll make a mistake," Ravard said, "and I'll be free t'kill you."

The nameless man shook his head, upset. Had the fellow even bothered to listen?

They exchanged a stare, each taking the other's measure. The nameless man, bent on irritating the other, allowed a slight smile to play at the corner of his lips. They were both large men. He was broader in the shoulder, but the Reduner was all muscle and sinew. He was experienced, he instinctively knew that much about himself, but the Reduner had the quickness of youth on his side.

"You can try to kill me," he said. "I feel sorry for you. There's nothing you would like better than to slit my throat with that scimitar of yours. But your men look up to me and Davim has forbidden you to harm me. In fact, I suspect he has forbidden you to treat me as a slave. After all, that wouldn't be wise if I really was some sort of reincarnation of a mythical hero, would it?"

"You're no hero, let alone one from the past. You're just sand-witted dross, the leavings of a man who doesn't even remember his name. Half-face is a good name for you. Because that's all you are; half a face, half a mind and half-witted."

"Ah, but can you be sure?" He was amused, and felt an echo of the man he had once been. "Did you not see the sands obey my words? I owed you a life, Ravard. And yesterday I paid you; you are right about that. We are even now, you and I."

"The dune doesn't obey you, a non-believer! You blaspheme. It was the dune god of Pebblered who saved one of his tribemasters, and in so doing saved me!"

"Are you sure?" he asked again. Then he turned and walked back down the slope toward the camp. And you'd better see to Garnet's wellbeing, you bit of waterless shit, or I'll-

The thought, however, stopped there, because he couldn't imagine just what he would do. He was unarmed in a camp full of Reduner warriors led by a man who was fast coming to hate him. He heaved a sigh, aware that, even though he had little memory of his history, at times he wasn't the wisest of men.

Garnet. If it looked as if Ravard wouldn't leave her behind, he would do something, anything, to make sure he did. He just didn't know what yet. And he wasn't quite sure why. What was it in his past that tied him to a woman he couldn't even remember?

PART TWO

The P rice of E scape

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

White Quarter The Whiteout and Mine Silverwall Terelle awoke knowing everything was wrong. It was night, that much was certain. Overhead the Star River shone in a brilliant band across the depths of the black sky. And she couldn't move.

Panic, urgent and futile, drove out thought. She lay on her back, head higher than her feet, her body firmly bound. Turning her head was possible, but nothing else. Yet she was… shifting. At speed. She could feel the wind on her face, whipping at her hair. The swishing sound of movement filled the air around her.

In fear, her heart hammered against her ribs. She struggled, wanting to sit up, but her bonds wouldn't allow it. Tiny pricks spattered softly at her face; when she licked her lips, they were covered in fine salt.

On her left, a shape loomed, gliding, keeping pace, a ghostly silver outline against the starlit salt. She lifted her head and strained to see better. A white pede, legs moving in waves like a curtain in the wind. The driver stood on its back, holding the reins in one hand, long prod in the other, perfectly balanced. An Alabaster: white-skinned, flowing white hair, silvered now to blend in with his world. But she was not high on a pede's back. She was gliding as smoothly as a hawk on the wind, yet she was only a couple of hand-spans away from the salt of the Whiteout.

She turned her head to the other side. Another similar pede and driver, only this pede trailed a rectangular shape. A litter, that's what it looked like. Front shafts tied to the rear of the pede, the back set with small wheels.

Her fear dampened and she began to think again. Alabasters, Watergiver be thanked, not Reduners. Russet. That had to be Russet, tied just as she was. They were being drawn over the surface of salt. She remembered now. Alabasters had given her water, smeared her skin with some kind of ointment. They must have tied her to the litter so she wouldn't fall off. She lay back, tired, wondering drowsily if they had drugged her. Never mind, she'd worry about it all later. She closed her hurting eyes and drifted pleasantly away. A long time afterward Terelle awoke again, in a tent.

The sides were rolled up, and it was bright daylight outside. And hot. Stifling. Beneath her was the softness of a quilt placed on colorful carpeting. For a moment she stared, wondering why the woven patterns of that carpet seemed familiar. As soon as she stirred to take a better look, someone came to her side to offer her a water skin. A tall Alabaster woman, dressed in the white clothing of her people, she was one of the largest women Terelle had ever seen. The cloth of her robe, adorned with tiny mirrors and red embroidery on the front panels, strained to contain the abundance of her buttocks, the unusual breadth of her hips and the solid bulge of her breasts. Even her long white hair, braided in a single plait that reached her waist, was copious. Not a young woman, Terelle decided; her face was meshed with the lines of age.

"I'm Errica," she said, "the physician of our mine."

Terelle made no sense of that, but nodded anyway. "Terelle," she said. "From Scarcleft." Her lips hurt when she spoke. They had been rubbed with pede fat, but were still cracked and sore. She drank, long and deep draughts. Vaguely she remembered waking earlier to drink, several times. "Russet?"

"Pardon?"

"The old man."

"Ah. He's very ill. Scorpion sting. We're treating that, but it has poisoned his system. He may not live."

"Oh." She tried to think about that, but her thoughts kept slipping away.

Errica smiled in understanding, and did not press her to talk. Instead she helped her to drink some more, to eat some food, and showed her where she could relieve herself. Then she left her alone again. Terelle dozed.

The next time she awoke, perhaps a couple of runs of the sandglass later, she felt almost normal. Errica, sitting cross-legged on the carpet at her side, was mending a tear in an Alabaster robe. She laid that aside as soon as she saw Terelle was awake.

"Feel like getting up now?" she asked. "I have a clean robe for ye to be wearing-one of our own, if ye don't mind that. At least it isn't stiff with salt like your own clothes."

"Thank you. That'd be wonderful." Terelle struggled to her feet, wincing. All her muscles ached.

"When we get to the mine, there might be enough water to be washing clothes," Errica added. "We'll see."

"Where are we now?"

"We were traveling east from Mine Emery on our way to Mine Silverwall, when we saw your fire. We detoured a bit to be picking ye up and then camped here this morning to be giving the pedes a rest. We will start traveling again soon, once evening brings the cool air. We should be reaching Mine Silverwall by tomorrow morning."

"Mine? Oh, salt mines! You-you went out of your way to find us? Thank you. You saved my life. Maybe Russet's as well."

"Ye should never take a black pede onto the salt, you know. The black color absorbs the reflected heat from the salt as well as the direct heat of the sun. Their blood boils."

Terelle shuddered, chastened. "I didn't know that." But I did guess Russet didn't know what he was doing.

The woman indicated some clothing laid on the carpeting. "Get dressed now, while I get my husband; he wants to speak to ye."

She rolled down the sides of the tent, then left and did not return until Terelle had dressed in the heavy robe with its intricate pattern of inlaid mirror discs, each a bevel-edged circle about the size of a man's fingernail. Perhaps in the interests of comfort, the mirrors were confined to the front and sleeves of the garment. The weight of it pulled at her neck.

When Errica returned, she was not alone. She indicated the tall, serious-faced man who ducked his head to follow her into the tent. "Messenjer," she said. "Manager of Emery. My husband."

"Happy to be seeing ye awake and refreshed, child. We're gratified to be of assistance, especially to Watergiver lords." He indicated the carpet with a wave of his hand. "Shall we sit?"

Annoyed at being called a child, Terelle sat, imitating his cross-legged posture. Errica lowered herself with surprising suppleness, given her large size.

"Lords? Russet, you mean?" She considered that. "I suppose he is a lord in Khromatis."

He laughed. "Yes, indeed. Who else would dress in that fashion, all wrapped up in cloth like a colorful parcel? Who else would carry waterpaints but Watergivers? We have the things ye left near your dead pede, by the way, including the paints."

"Oh." Her heart sank. She had not left her choices behind her after all. "Thank you. That was kind." How does he know about waterpaints? And how does he know what lords wear in Khromatis? She struggled to make her sluggish mind move. And why did he sound vaguely like Russet? The way he spoke. Saying ye instead of you, the heavy accent, the slightly odd way of using words. Russet, of course, didn't speak the language of the Quartern very well, and these people did, yet there was something… similar.

"And ye. Are ye not also a lord of Khromatis? A Watergiver from across the borderland marshes?"

"No. To me a Watergiver is the emissary of the Sunlord." Then she added doubtfully, "You do worship the Sunlord as Scarpen folk do, don't you?"

"No, indeed we don't! A Scarperman fallacy, that. We believe in God, certainly; God the Only, but He is just that: God. No more, no less. We don't worship Watergivers, either. Watergivers are mortal people, for all they're much blessed by God. We're the Guardians. Don't ye know this?" He looked at her, puzzled. "But why do ye ask questions of our faith? Surely it's known to ye! And what were ye doing out on the salt with a black pede?"

She let her confusion about his beliefs slide and said, "We lived in the Scarpen, but the old man wanted to go home to the place he calls Khromatis. He's my great-grandfather and says he's one of the Watergivers."

Messenjer blinked, his face blank. "And ye are not?"

"I was born in the Gibber."

"Ah."

The silence that followed dragged on until Terelle began to feel embarrassed.

"Well," Messenjer remarked at last, "it'll be many weeks before your Russet is able to be journeying again, if he survives. Ye're welcome to be staying with us in the meantime, of course."

"That-that's very generous."

Errica smiled at her. "Your people are our responsibility. How can we not treat ye with honor?" Messenjer made an abrupt movement of his hand, as if to tell her not to say anything else.

But what she'd said made no sense to Terelle. Alabasters certainly weren't related to Watergivers; they looked nothing alike, for all the echo of similarity in their speech. And how could Alabasters be responsible for another people who lived elsewhere?

She said, selecting her words carefully, "I'd like to know more about Watergivers, if you can tell me."

They exchanged worried looks.

"I don't know my own history," she explained. "I am Gibber born and Scarpen bred. I don't even know what-who-Watergivers are. The only Watergiver I ever knew about, until I met Russet, was raised into the glory of eternal sunfire and sits at the side of the Sunlord. He once dwelt with men, and taught the rainlords and stormlords all they know about stormshifting and cloudbreaking." She was reciting words she had heard from street preachers. Once she had been confident of their truth; now the words sounded oddly hollow and pretentious.

Messenjer frowned, but all he said was, "Ah." He and Errica swapped another look, this one laden with warning, then he added, "I'll give it some thought. We don't tell our history to outsiders lightly. And it seems ye may be that."

"Perhaps if ye were to be telling us about yourself?" Errica suggested. "It may help us to be making a decision."

A decision on how much I should know. They still sounded friendly, but she'd felt a slight decrease in warmth nonetheless, replaced by a more studied formality. She repressed a sigh. If she was to cope with the danger of her future, she needed to know as much as possible. If these people could tell her something, anything, then it was worth an honest recital of her past. "Of course," she said.

It took her half the run of a sandglass, but at the end of that time, they knew her history: how she had been born to Sienna, Russet's granddaughter, how she had grown up in the Gibber and then at Opal's Snuggery in Scarcleft, how she had met Russet and been trained as a waterpainter. Fearful of being disbelieved, she said nothing of the power present in the waterpainter's art, nor how Russet had used it against her. She described her meeting with Shale, her imprisonment by Highlord Taquar Sardonyx and how she had fled. Once again she omitted to tell the whole truth, remarking merely that she had used the damage created by the earthquake to escape. Other than that, she painted Russet with words exactly as she saw him-the manipulative murderer of her father. She'd have to be sun-fried crazy before she'd make him sound like a man of integrity.

When she finished, Messenjer and Errica exchanged yet another glance. Terelle was becoming more than irritated by their silent conversation of meaningful looks.

"Thank ye for telling us," Messenjer said. "I think we need to be consulting others back in Samphire about this. In the meantime, we must start this caravan moving now, if we're to be arriving in Mine Silverwall in the cool of the morning. We'll put Russet back on the sledge, but ye can ride up behind our daughter-in-law. When we arrive in Silverwall, we'll talk about these other things some more."

It was a dismissal of a kind, and Terelle had to swallow it, along with her irritation. "Can I see Russet now?" she asked.

Errica smiled, as if relieved this question was one she could answer. "Of course, if ye want, but don't expect too much. He's an old man, and he'll not be walking anywhere for a long, long time." By the time they rode on, Terelle had met all of the party: Messenjer and Errica's two ghostly-pale sons, Cullet and Sardi; Cullet's wife Delissal, a woman of about forty, with a face like a block of salt, dirty white and angular; and two other men who were apparently servants of some kind. Terelle shared a mount with Delissal and as they rode the woman taught her some of the finer points of pede driving.

She squirmed under the Alabaster's critical regard, which manifested itself in a mixture of amazement and self-righteous tolerance. Whenever Terelle admitted her ignorance of any facet of White Quarter life, Delissal would throw her hands up in the air, utter an amazed "Oh, my!" and proceed to do her best to dispel such ignorance.

Russet, pulled behind Cullet's myriapede, slept. Offered food and water, he took it, but gave little other sign of animation and had to be cleaned like a baby. He did not recognize Terelle when she spoke to him.

She found it difficult to care.

Just at dawn, they reached the rim of Mine Silverwall. It was early morning, and the shadows were long. Her first impression was of a hole opening up in front of them, dark and deep. Vast enough to have held half of Scarcleft, it was not yet lit by the sun's rays so it took her a moment to understand what she was seeing. Not only were the salt mines dug into the ground, but so were the houses.

Three steep-sided walls descended in giant steps to the bottom of a quarry. Each of these walls was pitted with entrances; some were doorways or windows giving out onto a ledge, others were more like cavern openings. The fourth side of the quarry was a slope with a zigzag road accessing every level on its way down into the depths, far, far below.

"Why not just take the salt on the surface?" she asked Delissal, puzzled.

The woman seemed distracted as she answered. "Surface salt is just granules, bulky and difficult to transport. Further down it's compacted, so we just have to cut the blocks…"

Her voice trailed away and Terelle realized there was something wrong. Everyone was still sitting on their mounts at the top of the slope, not moving, their bloodless faces blank of expression. "What is it?" she asked.

"Where are the pedes? Where are the people?"

The unspoken horror behind the words scared Terelle.

Next to them, Cullet slid down to the ground. "Terelle," he said quietly, "get down, please."

When she obeyed he held out the reins to his pede for her to hold. "Wait here." Wordlessly she did as he asked and he mounted behind his wife. Messenjer had already jabbed his pede with his prod and the beast was flowing down the slope in fast mode. He took the first of the ledges to the right and rode halfway along to a doorway. The others followed, almost as fast. Terelle, left alone with Russet, went to his side. He was conscious, so she gave him a drink.

"Where?" he asked.

"One of their salt mines," she answered. "Silverwall."

"Not dying," he said. "Not in this waterless hell. Be going home, we two."

"Khromatis is not my home," she said, trying to be glad he recognized her now.

Leaving him, she tied the pede's antennae together and walked down the slope to the first ledge, taking the left-hand side in the opposite direction to the others. The first doorway she reached was hung with a curtain made of beads of rock salt threaded on red-dyed flax string. She pulled the curtain aside and looked in. It wasn't a cave, but a room carved out of the ground, with more rooms beyond. A house. The first room contained a fireplace and an oven, table, chairs, benches. She called out, and when no one replied she took a step inside, peering around at the rock walls.

No, she thought, not rock. Salt.

The furniture, solid and chunky, was sculpted out of the rock-hard salt. Shelves were incised into the walls, but much of what had been kept there was now broken on the floor or tossed aside, as if it had been pillaged. Picture-reliefs engraved on blank spaces glistened in the dim light, telling stories new to her. An oil lamp hung from the ceiling but it wasn't lit and felt cold to the touch of her fingers.

She shivered.

"Hello?" she called again. "Anyone here?"

There was no reply. It was eerily still. Although she had not long stepped through the bead curtain, it now hung without a shiver. Spooked, her feet leaden, she walked further in to peer into the room beyond. There was a woman there, lying on a solid divan of salt strewn with rugs. Her white robe was rucked up over her head, and her bloated, shapeless legs were sprawled apart and bloodied. There was dried blood everywhere, pale pinkish blood: on the walls, the floor, the bedding. A lingering smell, sour and unpleasant, hung in the air.

Terelle hastily clamped a hand over her mouth and backed out of the room, her heart now pumping fiercely enough for her to feel it in her throat.

She leaned against the wall next to the stove. Deep breaths, take deep breaths…

Time dragged, mired in these deaths, in what they meant. Reminding her of other deaths she had never wanted to think of again. But this wasn't an earthquake. This was murder.

She unpeeled herself from the wall and forced herself to look into the third of the rooms. Two children huddled together on the floor, plump little hands clutching each other. Their bodies ended at the neck, a coagulation of mess and bone-and then nothing.

Their heads weren't in the house. She looked. Terelle sat on the ledge with her back to the outer wall of the house, and watched the sun climb up over the rim of the mine. Messenjer and the others had dismounted and were running-running up and down the ladders that connected the different levels, calling out to one another, checking, checking, checking. Trying to find just one person alive. Just one.

It seemed a long time before they gathered together in front of one of the mine entrances and beckoned Terelle to join them. Errica had collapsed onto the rung of one of the ladders. She looked ill and her breasts heaved as she tried to catch her breath.

"We'll stay here a day or two," Messenjer told Terelle, his voice harsh and cold. "Long enough to bury the dead. Then we will ride for Mine Emery."

"There's-there's no one?" No one alive?

He shook his head. "Some missing. The best of our youth. They must have taken them for slaves. It's not unusual with Reduners. This is the first time we've seen them so deep into the Whiteout, though."

"Reduners did this? There were two children back there. Scarcely old enough to walk. One clutched a toy in his hand… but they… they didn't have any heads. Why would they do that?"

Messenjer nodded. "They want to be teaching us a lesson. This is what'll happen to us all if we resist. They want to be ruling our land, selling our salt, and giving us a few bab fruit in return. Minerals, pedes, samphire, salt, wild red flax from the marshes of the borderlands: that's all we have. The rest we buy or exchange: cloth, food, fuel, metal. We live simply, but our salt and soda, our saltpeter and gypsum, our mirrors-they're sold across the Giving Sea, as well as in the Quartern, so we survive. These Reduners would make us as poor as a Whiteout cat…"

He was rambling and seemed to realize it, so he stopped and took a deep breath. "Bring Russet down and attend to the pedes. Delissal, cook us a meal. Life must go on. The rest of us will collect the bodies… God grant them an easy crossing to the afterlife."

It was only afterward that she realized there had been tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.

Tears.

Alabasters wept water. Just as she did.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

White Quarter Mine Emery "Ye must use your waterpainting powers," Messenjer said, "to be saving us all."

Terelle, who was warming her hands by the fire that burned in Messenjer's kitchen on Mine Emery, looked up sharply.

They had arrived that morning, but Messenjer had been gone from the house all day, to return only with the setting of the sun. Terelle had grabbed some rest, but apparently he had not. Deep lines of exhaustion furrowed his face and reflected the pain of the conversations he must have had that day, telling his people what had happened at Mine Silverwall. In the distance, through the open doorway, she heard someone crying-a desperate keening of loss that had shafted into her consciousness on and off throughout the day, even though she didn't want the awareness.

"What do you know about waterpainting?" she asked sharply.

"That it writes the future in the hands of the skilled."

How does he know that much? Just who are you, you Alabasters? She curbed her aggravation and asked quietly, "Do you know what that means, Manager Messenjer?"

He was silent, so she answered for him. "The painting does what it is fated to do, not necessarily what the painter wants. The two are not always the same thing. It's therefore dangerous. I asked to get out of a prison, and it made an earthquake that brought down part of a city. People died, just so that I could be free." Maybe her waterpainting had done that; maybe Russet's. It didn't matter; the consequences were the same.

"Then it was God's will that they died, for waterpainting is surely a gift from God."

"No-it was a gift from my great-grandfather: that old man lying in the room behind you in your wife's care. He's the one who taught me. Don't give me that nonsense, manager. Who are you or I to say what's a gift from the Sunlord and what is not?" She was tired, so very tired, of people telling her what to do; she didn't want to argue about it. She was unused to the long hours of riding on the salt pan, but it wasn't physical fatigue that plagued her now; it was the weariness of never being in control of her own fate.

"A gift from God, not the Sunlord," he corrected. "There's no Sunlord."

She ignored that and gathered together the shreds of her strength. "I will not waterpaint again. You know why I ride with the man who murdered my father and hounded my mother into a situation that resulted in her death? Because he imprisoned me in his paintings and I can't free myself. Russet painted me in a place far from here-somewhere in the Watergivers' land-and I have to go there, whether I like it or not. My mother ran from Russet in terror and despair. I suspect she died because she tried to resist. And yet I have to ride with him, day after day. Tending him as if he was a child in my care. I loathe him. I loathe what he has done to me."

She stepped back from the fire and faced Messenjer across the kitchen. "You and your family saved my life. I am grateful for all your help, more than I can say. But once Russet is well again, we'll be on our way because it is what I have to do. Russet has water tokens; he can pay you for a pede and an escort to the other side of the salt."

He didn't answer that but said, "I want to show ye something." She was beginning to know him and she recognized the tone he used now: firm, soft, reasonable-with no possibility of dissent. He had not reached the level of mine manager by being weak. She already knew it was a post given by election, not inheritance.

He took her by the elbow and steered her outside to the ledge, the roadway that had no outer edge, in front of his underground house. "Look," he said. "Look around, and tell me what ye see."

She shivered slightly under the cut of the cold night air. Mine Emery was larger than Mine Silverwall, but the design was similar: tiered levels, each having houses built into the cliff sides. In the daylight, the greenish white of the quarried walls was haphazardly veined with other colors: orange and brown and umber. Now, the open doorways and windows across the mine were patches of yellow lamplight in the darkness. All of the mine must have been awake. When she looked down at the mine floor, she could see the silvery shadows of pedes in the twilight: tens of them, tethered there, feeding on piles of dried samphire fodder brought in from the edges of the Whiteout. Earlier, mounted messengers had left for other mining settlements, to Samphire itself, with the news: Mine Silverwall had been attacked and annihilated.

"It's beautiful," she said to Messenjer. The sound of children's laughter drifted up from a lower level, clear in the crisp air. The patterns of light on shadowed canyon walls were symbols of a town with a beating heart, its people. She wanted to paint it all, but she didn't tell him that.

"Compare it to Mine Silverwall. Remember the silence, the stillness, the unlit houses there. The absence of life. Children no longer play in Silverwall."

Terelle shook, either with cold or horror. She wasn't certain which. He guided her back inside to the warmth of the kitchen where she sat in one of the solid saltblock chairs and wished she could move it closer to the fire. Messenjer took the kettle off and poured her a hot drink. The whitish liquid was salty and sour, but she drank it gratefully.

"The excretion from the glands of white pedes," he told her. "Their way of disposing of excess salt."

Spluttering, she eyed the drink with less enthusiasm.

He didn't notice. "Would ye like to see the Reduners here with their tribesmen and their scimitars and their ziggers?"

She was silent.

"Ye can stop it from happening."

She looked up at him in amazement. "Me? By waterpainting? I don't think you understand the limitations of the art! I can't bring about a future unless I paint accuracies!"

"Explain."

"I know the man who leads the Reduner tribes is a sandmaster called Davim the Drover. But I've never met him. Therefore I can't paint him being killed, or dying. Nor can I paint his camp being wiped out in a-let's say, in a spindevil wind, unless I know what his camp looks like."

"Ah. Then it won't be as easy as I thought. But there is much we can do. It's just a matter of giving it some thought…"

"Easy? Easy? You think it's easy to kill people?"

"The Reduners find it easy," he said. "Remember the children ye saw, clutching each other? I don't suppose they put up much resistance."

She took a deep breath to stop her shaking. "Manager Messenjer, do we really want to be like them? Waterpainting can kill the innocent. I know, because I have done it. Besides, there is something evil about it anyway. I could paint a scene right now, and shuffle your dead image up into it-and you'd fall lifeless at my feet within a heartbeat. In fact a waterpainter could do that to you from the other side of the Quartern if they knew what you looked like! No one should have that kind of power. No one."

"It is a gift from God. How can it be an evil thing?" he said. "God forbid that either of us would say all Reduners are evil, but God gave ye waterpainting skills to be using against evil people like those who wield zigtubes and scimitars to kill children. He would never bestow His gifts without a purpose. And He would never bestow the talent on a person who would use it unwisely."

She wanted to scream at him: What about what Russet did to me? Isn't that misuse? Was that the will of God? But there was no point. He did not fully understand the horror of what Russet had done.

"Leave the girl alone, Mez." Errica entered the room from the adjoining bedroom and stood there, hands on her massive hips, shaking her head at both of them. "If God gave her the gift, then he also gave her the goodness to be using it wisely, when necessary."

Messenjer made a gesture of apology with one white hand and ducked out of the doorway through the beaded salt curtain.

"Be gentle with him, Terelle," Errica said. "He lost a younger brother and a niece and a nephew back there in Silverwall. And we never found the children's bodies. They were probably taken as slaves. The girl was a beautiful lass: but fourteen, with salt-white hair down to her waist and eyes the color of the palest skies."

"That's awful, and I'm more sorry than I can say. But I still can't do it," Terelle said, then added, her stubbornness surfacing, "and he should not ask it of me."

"It is his responsibility to help his people. He had to ask. But go and rest now. Ye have traveled long and hard and need your sleep. God is good; trust Him and all will be well." She indicated the room she had just left. "Take the pallet next to Russet. He won't wake for a while." It was surprisingly easy to settle into the routine of the mine over the next few days.

Russet spent much of his time asleep, or feverish and raving. Terelle's drive to travel east was lessening, so she thought his continued physical weakness must be diminishing the hold his waterpaintings had over her. Occasional restlessness told her the power was still there, but it was easier to resist. Every now and then she thought uncharitably how much simpler her life would be if he was dead. She dreamed up ways to kill him, but in her heart knew she would never have the… what? Courage? Nerve? Malice? Resolution?

I'm the kind of person who doesn't have the guts to put a suffering kitten out of its misery. How can I possibly kill a man? If I couldn't shuffle up Taquar dead, how can I kill my own great-grandfather?

She thrust the idea away and spent her spare time exploring Mine Emery. No one limited her movements. Errica and Messenjer's younger and more likeable and talkative son, Sardi, made a point of guiding her around, including taking her inside the mine itself. To her surprise, it was cool, dry and pleasant underground. The floors glistened and the austere, cold beauty of the walls was sometimes patterned by lines of color, pleasing to the eye.

"Our salt goes everywhere throughout the Quartern," Sardi said with pride, "and even across the Giving Sea. Or it used to. Now?" He shrugged. "We did send a large caravan off to the south four days ago. We are exploring a new route through the Gibber and then west along the Edge to Portennabar in the Scarpen, where it can be shipped to the Other Side. A difficult route, though, because of the lack of water."

Several days later, when she saw a caravan setting off, she remembered those words and was puzzled to see it head out to the east across the Whiteout. It carried salt blocks, though she knew the only settlement further to the east was Silverwall, now devoid of people. When she asked Sardi about it, he prevaricated as though he didn't know what answer to give, then muttered that the caravanners were carrying empty jars to pick up the Silverwall cistern water. It was a logical thing to do, but Terelle didn't believe it. The white packpedes had not been carrying jars. Sardi had uttered an untruth, even though her impression was that Alabasters rarely lied and felt uncomfortable when they did.

So much is strange here, she thought. They hide things.

She determined to ask Errica about the caravan, but the following day everything was turned upside down once more and she forgot.

Terelle was helping Delissal in the family kitchen, chopping up samphire for a vegetable dish, when she heard several people frantically calling her name from outside. The urgency of the call made them both drop what they were doing and race outside.

All along the ledge people gathered, their excited chatter blending into an unintelligible buzz.

"There's a message for ye!" Errica cried as she bustled up, far from her usual calm self.

Terelle's immediate reaction was that the statement didn't make sense. Who could send a message when no one knew where she was? Then she realized everyone was looking up, clutching at one another, laughing, almost choking on their excitement.

Blinking in the bright sunlight, Terelle raised her eyes.

There was a small storm cloud above, dark and compact, heading for the Border Humps. But that wasn't where people were looking. They were staring more to the east, and much lower. She turned her head. Her jaw dropped. There was indeed a message in the sky.

A white line of cloud had formed itself into shapes, into letters, as if someone had painted them there. A wave of laughter rippled around the mine as others emerged to look. Children danced and pulled at their parents' hands, begging to be told why the clouds were such a funny shape.

Then the first word leaped out at her: Terelle. Staggered, she needed a moment to make sense of the rest. You cheated at Lords and Shells. Help me, she read, I am in Scarcleft Hall. I need you. Come to Pahntuk Caravansary. Shale.

"Oh, Watergiver take me," she whispered. Joy so intense shook her that she almost fell to her knees. He was alive! But her next thought was far darker. Scarcleft Hall? He's not safe in Breccia? Oh, Sunlord save him, Taquar has him again. No. Oh, please not. Highlord Taquar, running his fingers up and down a strand of her hair while he manipulated her through her fear…

"It's a miracle!" Messenjer was clasping his hands together next to her, his face uplifted and shining. "Terelle, it's a true message from God."

"Oh pebbles 'n' sand," she snapped crossly. "That's not God, that's Shale." Several turns of the sandglass later, Terelle-feeling that her whole world had been turned on its end yet again-was deep in negotiations with Messenjer, Cullet and Sardi, while Errica bustled in and out of the kitchen carrying items to be packed, an intent expression on her face. There had been another message, not for her alone this time, and it had changed everything.

Written in large letters held together as they traveled across the sky, they had read, People of Alabaster, people of the Gibber, the stormlord bids you unite against the treason of Scarcleft and the Reduner marauders. Bring pedes, warriors to Pahntuk Caravansary, Breccian tunnel. We fight for the stormlord and our water!

"Let me see if I have this right," Terelle said, looking straight at the mine manager. Inside, her anger roiled. "Mine Emery will supply me with the means to return to the Scarpen in order to help the stormlord, but only if I undertake to use my waterpainting?"

"Yes. It's not just for us. This is bigger than Mine Emery, Terelle. Bigger than Alabaster."

"I know. But that doesn't make what you ask any easier."

Cullet snorted at that. Terelle glanced across at him. Although the older of Messenjer's sons, he lacked his brother's courtesy. A short, narrow-shouldered man a cycle or two over forty, he radiated dissatisfaction, frustration and petulance. Right then he stood with his arms folded, fingers tapping on upper arms.

Terelle said nothing, waiting to hear all Messenjer had to say before she could trust herself to speak.

He said, "If ye don't want to help, then there's no point in ye returning to the Scarpen. We'll go, though, whether ye do or not." He paused, evidently sorting out what he wanted to say and how to say it. "When the White Quarter was first raided by the Reduners, we thought we could deal with it ourselves. Back then, they raided our caravans, not our settlements. They mocked us, saying that white pedes were no use to them except to be roasting over a camp fire." He choked. "Our pedes-they are our wealth, our pride, our lifeline. Without them, we die."

He turned away to clear his throat before continuing. "We fought back, of course. The men of Alabaster are all taught to fight from pedeback. At least the theory of it. We're Guardians, after all. But we have no ziggers, and no defenses against them, and it'd been a long time since we'd fought for our lives. Generations. Skills were lost, fighters were inexperienced. Warriors and pedes died under their zigger onslaught. The Miners' Council and the Traders' Council in Samphire had a joint meeting and called upon the Bastion to be asking for help from the Scarpen-"

"The what? Bastion?"

"Our leader. Highlord, if ye like, elected for life. He rules in Samphire, with the help of the two councils."

Strange, she thought, all those years living in Scarcleft and I never had any idea of how Alabasters governed themselves. The thought made her uncomfortable. People gossiped about anything and everything in the common rooms of the snuggery, but she hadn't heard a whisper about anyone termed "the Bastion."

And these people thought of themselves as Guardians? Of what? Something important enough to be protected by armed and trained men? Yet another secret kept from the other quarters. What did they have to hide?

A possible answer popped into her head: some kind of connection to Watergivers. She looked at Messenjer. He cries tears. Like me. When Alabasters speak the Quartern tongue they sound a little like Russet. They know about waterpainting. And the patterns on their carpets-they are familiar because they remind me of Russet's tattoos, and the colors are like those of Russet's clothes. Yet they themselves don't look like us, not at all. Aargh, I hate mysteries!

Apparently unaware of her unease, Messenjer continued, "We didn't get the aid we asked for, as ye know. The situation worsened. We had to start guarding our tunnels, our samphire fields, our mines. What I haven't told ye is this: a few days before ye came, Gibber folk sent a message. They'd heard Reduners invaded the Scarpen and seized the northern city of Qanatend. Some say Breccia is next. Perhaps it has already fallen, but we just haven't heard because who's there to tell us? Traders are too frightened to be running caravans anymore."

Nausea swamped her. "We saw Reduners riding down to Breccia. Russet said he thought they were the baggage train of an armed force." The next words were hard to say. "If Shale is in Scarcleft, then Breccia has already fallen and the sandmaster has given Shale back to Taquar Sardonyx."

Cullet, frowning, said flatly, "Ye say this sky message is from him. Ye say he was being trained as a new stormlord. But the Gibbermen say the new stormlord is someone called Jasper Bloodstone."

"I've never heard of him. But it would be wonderful news-two stormlords instead of one?"

"Does it matter who it was?" It was Sardi who spoke, his face alight with hope. Cullet gave him an exasperated look, as if questioning his younger brother's rationality, but Sardi wasn't quashed. "It must be a stormlord. No one else could write in the sky."

"Only Shale knows I cheated at Lords and Shells," Terelle said.

"He needs ye, and God sent ye to us for a reason," Messenjer said.

"I don't even believe in your god! I worship the Sunlord."

"A tragic heresy."

She stirred uneasily. It was so much easier when things were straightforward and obvious. So much easier when you believed in something and didn't have to think about it.

"I think we have to be going to Samphire with this," Messenjer said finally, looking at Terelle. "The Bastion needs to hear all ye have to say. He will want to be talking about your waterpainting abilities, too. That talent of yours may be our savior. I've no doubt he will ask ye to ride with us to Scarpen if we go. Perhaps ye will listen to him."

Errica, who had just re-entered the kitchen with a pail of fresh pede secretion milk, paused. Messenjer switched his attention to her, saying, "All our fighting men must ride for Samphire."

Cullet gasped. "But that would mean we'd have to abandon the mine! We couldn't leave people here without protection."

"What purpose is a mine if we cannot use the caravan routes to be selling our salt?" his mother asked him. "We are already overstocked. We will leave."

Sardi and Cullet exchanged shocked stares. "The mine is also our home," Cullet said, dismayed.

"At least the Reduners can't burn it," Errica said with a shrug. "It will still be here when we return."

"There is something else you are not taking into consideration," Terelle said. "I am not free to travel. Russet's paintings tie me to him."

"He will come with us to Samphire."

"Each step I take toward the Scarpen and away from Khromatis will tear me in two." She shuddered, remembering how ill she had been every time she had plotted to rebel against the future he had painted for her, remembering the hours she had spent doubled up in the communal outhouse of their lodgings in Scarcleft.

The mine manager leaned toward her, his intensity intimidating, although she knew he probably didn't realize it. "Resist him. Ye are a waterpainter, like him. A Watergiver, like him. When all people have power, who prevails? Ye have your own strengths. Use them."

"Easy for you to say! My mother died, probably because she tried to resist!"

Errica gave a sigh of exasperation. "Messenjer, ye're as articulate as a newborn pede with brain rot!" She turned to Terelle, saying, "Lass, waterpainting is not evil, although abuse of power has ever been the way of some men, I agree. Bullies with muscles intimidate weaklings. The man with the stick threatens the man with none. But ye need not abuse your waterpainting power. What Messenjer is so clumsily trying to be saying is this: if ye withhold your help, then ye're no different from the bullies. Ye can misuse your power simply by not using it. Ye'll kill just as surely, by doing nothing. It's what we call the passive sin."

Terelle didn't reply. How could she? What Errica said was right.

Messenjer turned to his sons. "Prepare the mine for exodus. We leave tomorrow evening in the cool."

Sardi smiled at Terelle. "We play Lords and Shells here, too," he said. "Do you really cheat?"

Cullet gave a contemptuous snort.

Terelle's face burned hot. Blighted eyes, Shale, couldn't you have found another way to tell me the message really was from you? Just you wait till I see you again! She had to shake Russet to wake him. He lay on the raised platform of salt that was an Alabaster bed. It was strewn with colorful quilts and blankets woven and knotted of dyed linen, just like his clothes.

He opened his eyes and stared at her, frowning, as if he had trouble remembering who she was. The room had no door, so the bustle of a house in the turmoil of preparations for a journey was audible and he cocked his head to listen. Then he asked weakly, "What's happening?"

"We are going to Samphire. Everyone." She outlined what had happened. "And so," she said, "you'll stay in Samphire."

His protest was lucid. "Ye can't go back! I painted ye into a future in our land."

"Your land, not mine. Right now Shale needs me, and that's enough for me."

He was aghast. "I spent years teaching ye! Anyway, ye can't just walk away. The magic won't let ye."

"Watch me," she said calmly. "And if you want me to return to you, you had better give me some good advice. I need to know how to resist the spell of your paintings." He clamped his teeth together in an expression of stubborn silence, so she added, "Vivie told me that my mother was always weak and ill. So now I'm wondering: was it because Sienna resisted the future you'd bound her into? She died, Artisman."

He stared at her, malevolence fading into dismay. "Ye be saying I killed her?"

"It's possible."

"I not wanted to be hurting her! I needed her!"

"Nonetheless, she died."

His rheumy eyes stared at her in denial. "Be not my doing," he muttered. He struggled to sit up while she watched dispassionately, unable to bring herself to help him. When at last he was erect, he leaned back on the cushions, his face ashen.

"Tell me what I need to know, Artisman. As you get better, my drive to head toward Khromatis will grow-but I can't return if I've died, now can I? Tell me, or you may lose me, too."

"Promise me ye'll come back."

"No. No promises."

His malevolence returned. "Only death can change a future that has already been painted. A strong painting would even stave off a death…"

She was relentless. "Your art was not strong enough to override Sienna's determination. It won't be strong enough to override mine, either. Right now I'd rather die than not go back to Shale."

That's true, she thought, surprising herself. Oh, Shale…

He gave a grunt of frustration. "One day soon, ye'll stand where I painted ye, beside that river. I still had my power when I painted it."

"Perhaps. But I've got to stay alive first. Tell me how to resist without killing myself, and maybe, just maybe, I will return."

With a suddenness that shocked her, he seemed to deflate. "Ye can kill me," he admitted. "I told ye that. If artist die, magic of painting dies."

They stared at each other. She wanted him dead, but could not kill him. And he knows it, the salted bastard. But then, anything he says could be untrue…

"What if the painting is destroyed before the scene it portrays comes true?" she asked. "Do the people in it really die?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. Be in peril, definite. Painting destroyed, but future magic be trying to hold true. Like war." He gripped her arm tight, his bony fingers surprisingly strong. "Ye have those paintings?"

She didn't answer, still unable to tell if what he said was the truth. If that is true, wouldn't he have taken better care of the paintings?

"Old Ba-ba say Taquar's men took them."

"I have them. Taquar gave them back to me."

"Don't destroy them. Dangerous. Truly. If I paint true, then future win. If I weak, then ye be dying when painting die. Understand?"

She nodded sadly. Shale had destroyed her painting of Vato the waterseller by accidentally treading on it, and Vato had died under a falling building within a year. Coincidence-or was waterpainting withering dangerous? "So how can I fight the desire to return?"

Huddled into the bedding, shrunken and ill-looking, his body was small and negligible. Even his voice was weak when he finally spoke. "Decide now ye will return in less than a year. Promise me. Magic then leave ye alone. Girl in painting can wait a year. After that, too late. Ye'd be different, look older than I painted ye. Understand?"

She thought about it. "As long as I promise to return before I look older than the girl in the painting, the magic will not force me-if my honest intention is to be there."

He nodded. "Genuine intention. Understand?"

She sighed. There wasn't going to be any way out of this-unless he died. And she was no murderer. "All right. I promise. I will be back in Samphire less than a year from now."

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Scarcleft City, Level 2 The Skirtings, south of Scarcleft Seneschal Harkel Tallyman had his ways of finding out everything of importance occurring in Scarcleft Hall. He had been informed-even before Senya had left Jasper's bedroom-of her night-time visit to him. He had relayed the information to the highlord in the morning, and the slight smile with which Taquar had heard it was enough to tell Tallyman the news was pleasing. He didn't understand why, which annoyed him.

He liked to know what Taquar was up to; not knowing could jeopardize his own future. He'd spent many days locked in one of Scarcleft Hall's tower rooms for his last mistake-allowing the eighteen-year-old Jasper to escape Scarcleft for Breccia, and he didn't want to make another. He shuddered just thinking about the boredom of incarceration.

Even though he knew cloud gathering was an exhausting business for an ill-qualified rainlord, it worried him that the highlord was always irritable. Senya made no more visits to Jasper's bedroom, and Jasper appeared to be making an effort to be friendly to her, but it bothered Harkel that the young stormlord continued to make the occasional snuggery visit. It was so irritatingly difficult to find out what happened inside snuggery walls. Jasper's visits seemed too… calculated to be merely part of the amorous adventures of a young man. Frustrated, he hauled the snuggery madams in for questioning and learned nothing.

"I do not spy on my girls in the rooms," Opal told him blandly.

"Of course you do," he snapped back. "Do you think my wits are so sandblighted I would believe that?"

"All right," she conceded. "There are peepholes, of course, but I only use them if I think the girls are in danger."

He didn't believe her for a moment and contemplated locking her up in one of the underground cells and threatening her, but in the end he let her go. Snuggery madams were not without influence, and he had a nice income from the money they supplied to his office every month in exchange for a lack of harassment by his water enforcers. Besides, Jasper would not be happy with Tallyman if he found out the madams were in trouble. And he would find out. Tallyman wasn't sure how it was happening, but people spoke to Jasper. He wandered through the city at will. He chatted to everyone, from workmen to sellers in the market. Even Tallyman's own enforcers were not obeying the standing order not to talk to Lord Jasper Bloodstone.

The problem was, of course, he was a stormlord. And you didn't poke a stormlord in the balls, not if you were wise. For a start they could kill you. For a finish, well, without a stormlord, no one drank. You owed them respect. And it seemed, if everyone was to be believed, conversation.

Withering little shit, Tallyman thought, but he kept the sentiment private. Nonetheless, his opinion nearly became public knowledge when the overman of the Hall Guard came to make a report a few days later.

Tallyman heard him out, took a deep breath and said quietly, "Say that again, overman."

"The stormlord has gone, seneschal. He has left the city, and a number of guardsmen have left with him."

"How long ago was this?"

"Three runs of the sandglass since he went out through the South Gate, my lord." The overman was unnaturally pale.

As well he should be. We could both suffer for this. "You had better tell me exactly what happened."

"He walked down into the city, early. His usual guards went with him, of course. Ten men. I understand he asked another guard to take a message to the highlord that he was too weary for stormbringing this morning."

Tallyman hadn't known that, but he nodded. "Go on."

"He walked straight down Southway to the gate. He told the guards-the ones on duty there as well as those who were with him-that if they wanted to stop him, they'd have to kill him and he would try to kill them and their ziggers first. It was their choice. Then he went out."

Tallyman was incredulous. "And none of them tried to stop him?"

"Seneschal, would you, when the outcome would be your own death and possibly the death of the land's only stormshifter as well?"

Tallyman gritted his teeth. I would have thought of some way of stopping him peacefully. "Did his guards follow him?"

"Oh yes. The original ten and four others from the gate. The other fools on gate duty didn't tell me. I suppose they were hoping he'd come back before you or I or Highlord Taquar found out."

"Go on."

"He went to the livery stable outside. He asked the owner to saddle up a myriapede. He actually paid for the hire of the bleeding thing. He bought a couple of full water skins and a bag of bab fruit. The man was happy to oblige him."

Tallyman gave a grunt of outrage.

"Lord, he's the stormlord-"

"Sunlord preserve me from fools," Tallyman said through gritted teeth. "Where did he go?"

"South. Six of the guards seized a myriapede and joined him."

"Where would their loyalties lie? Are they likely to spy on him and then tell us what is going on?"

The overman looked unhappy. "Seneschal, he's been clever. He's a whole sandstorm more pleasant than Highlord Taquar, you know. He's been talking to his guards. Getting to know them. Taquar keeps changing the men to stop any of them becoming too familiar, but word got around: the young stormlord is a fine man. There's been a lot of chatter in the barracks-"

"Taquar would have your sand-stuffed head for that kind of talk, overman!"

"Yes, I know. But he's going to have it anyway. Seneschal, we've lost the stormlord."

"You have what?"

Tallyman and the overman both jumped. The pen in Tallyman's fingers spun out of his hand and the overman dug a hole in his palmubra with his fingers. Taquar stood in the doorway. His face was the color of a dust cloud rolling across the Gibber. Jasper had not often felt so happy. He was free, and in charge. The men who followed him did not question him; he was the one who told them what to do, where to go, how far to ride. They deferred to him. It was a new experience and he enjoyed it. He reveled in the feel of the pede beneath him, the leather of the reins in his hand, the touch of the wind whipping his palmubra onto his back when he urged the beast into fast mode. His experience as a driver was minimal; Nealrith had started teaching him back in Breccia, but then the war had intervened.

When he rode, memories came flooding back. The day he and Mica had saved the life of a Reduner's pede by pulling it out of the flooded wash. Its owner had been angry because it had broken the tip of its feeler. His love of pedes had been born that day. The same day Citrine had been born… Then there was the day Nealrith gave him a pede of his own. The pride he'd felt then, his wonder that anyone would do that for him.

He stroked the livery pede between its segments with the prod, as Nealrith had taught him. In answer, the animal swung one of its long feelers back to touch him with its sensitive tip, establishing rapport.

Nealrith had died on Jasper's dagger. Citrine had died on Davim's spear. The pede Nealrith had given him was long gone, doubtless stolen by Reduners. And Mica… Poor Mica. Always wanting to stick up for his younger brother and never quite having the courage. Who knew where he was now? Or even if he was still alive.

Jasper refused to accept for certain that his brother was dead. Davim might have lied to Taquar. Taquar might have lied to him. Mica might be a slave somewhere on the dunes. Although, knowing Mica, he might not have lasted long.

The thought made him sick with rage. He wanted to pound Davim into pulp with his bare hands and toss Taquar off a cliff for good measure.

I will change things, he thought. Soon.

There had been a time when he'd wondered if he could bargain with Davim. Rain in exchange for Mica-but he'd ended up dismissing the idea. If he let Davim know how much Mica meant to him, and if Mica was indeed a slave on the dunes, then Davim would have a lever to control the stormlord. He couldn't let that happen. He led the guards on their myriapede down the trail toward Portennabar. When the sun was high in the sky, he took them off the trail and into a gully nearby, where they halted. He shared his water and the bab fruit, joking with the men. His men. He didn't find it easy to chat about inconsequential things, but he always tried and hoped he was more successful than he believed. Any conversational skills he had, he knew he owed to Terelle.

Thinking of her, he grieved. Always, always there was that same thought: he had to marry Senya, or someone like her. He had to bring more stormlords into the world. If he didn't, the Quartern had no future. None.

In the mid-afternoon, he felt the water of a large body of riders passing along the track they had left-traveling far faster than a merchant or passenger caravan. After counting the number of pedes and men he smiled, knowing he had seriously worried Taquar.

When he was sure the pursuers had disappeared further down the track, he turned to Dibble, the driver of the second pede. "Let's go back," he said.

The guards exchanged looks of surprise, and he realized only then that they had not really expected to return; they had thought he was intent on separating himself from the Highlord of Scarcleft. Even though he had been endeavoring to undermine Taquar's hold over Scarcleft men, he was momentarily astonished. Every one of them had been prepared to follow him, Watergiver knew where, with no guarantees of anything. Perhaps they believed he was their salvation. Perhaps they just feared what Taquar would do if they let Jasper go while they remained behind to take the blame. Jasper wasn't sure why, but he knew they were his men now. The thought shook him more than any spoken expressions of loyalty could have done.

Oh, sandblast, who am I to deserve this?

"I will see to it that every one of you is in my personal guard from now on," he told them.

By late afternoon they were back at the gates of Scarcleft. Dibble called out in a ringing shout as they rode up, "Make way for Lord Jasper, Stormlord of the Quartern, and his men!"

Jasper flashed him a surprised smile. The men sat straighter on the saddle as they rode in-and the guards at the gate saluted them.

No sooner had they entered the forecourt of Scarcleft Hall than an enforcer overman appeared, politely but firmly informing Jasper that the highlord wanted to see him. Taquar sat behind his desk, and he was furious. "What game is this you are playing?"

"No game. I just wanted to make it clear that I will do what I want, when I want. We've already agreed there's nothing either of us can do about this unpleasant situation. I'm just taking my concept of this agreement one step further. I will have my freedom. You know I can't run away."

Taquar sneered. "We're chained to each other because you are a weak and incompetent stormlord. I have not seen any increase in your abilities as yet. Am I to be chained, for the rest of my life, by your incompetence?"

"Give me a further year of your services as a cloudmaker. At the end of that year, you will be Cloudmaster in practice, ruling the Quartern in all respects not to do with water, and I will be cloudmaking as well as cloudshifting. I've had a couple of minor successes with changing water to vapor," he lied. "Just on a small scale, and not reliably. But it is coming."

"I hope you're right," Taquar said. He was fiddling with his dagger, turning it over and over in his hands.

Ignoring the implied threat, Jasper drew up a chair to the desk and seated himself, casually lifting his right leg to rest across his left. "Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky. My weakness means you can be a powerful man. I know now that I can never rule this land and be a stormlord, too. You can be the legitimate Cloudmaster. I will support your claim before the Council of Rainlords as soon as you care to make your move. I assume you are biding your time, waiting until Davim completes his withdrawal from Breccia."

Taquar laid the dagger aside and regarded him with an unpleasant stare. "That's right."

Jasper nodded, unsurprised. "From now on, I'll choose my own personal bodyguard. And I come and go as I please."

For a long moment, Taquar held his gaze. Then he nodded. "If we do have to live with each other, it may as well be with a semblance of harmony. Let me warn you: if you betray me, I will stop at nothing. Neither you nor any friend of yours will be safe. You need me more than I need you and you have more to lose than I do, because in the long run, I do not care for the Quartern the way you do. The way Nealrith did. I am a rich man, and a rich man can build a life anywhere, even on the other side of the Giving Sea. You see, I do not really care about any of it-not even Scarcleft. It has only ever been what it can offer me. Anything else is irrelevant. If it doesn't offer me enough…" He shrugged.

Jasper glanced away. "Power, not people?" he asked, keeping his tone neutral.

"Exactly. Power-and all that comes with it. If living here becomes too arduous, I will leave. I have been making inquiries; I hear life on the other side of the Giving Sea is comfortable, especially for a man who has assets."

"Water tokens are not going to help you there."

"Jewels have value everywhere. I have ziggers and the skills of a rainlord. Be warned, I already find tedious your insistence on continual cloudmaking so you can water the whole Quartern. I do not appreciate my constant fatigue."

Jasper's mouth went dry. "Then would Scarcleft be prepared to subsidize the import of water to Portennabar and Portfillik from across the Giving Sea?"

"No. Why should I? Shale, rid yourself of the notion I have an interest in anything not bringing me a profit or benefit. And expect me not to do any cloudmaking every third day. Two days on, one day off. I need to rest."

"Benefit?" Jasper's laugh was bitter. "You almost single-handedly ruined the life of the Scarpen when you murdered the young stormlords. You mistook what would benefit you! Beware you don't do so again. What, I wonder, will the Scarpen forces being assembled do when the Reduners leave Breccia?"

"Scarpen forces? The imaginary army you once mentioned?"

"Oh, wash stones, Taquar. You can hardly expect me not to have heard. Everyone knows! Caravanners gossip. I heard the servants talking. And if it hadn't been them, it would have been someone else. If you want to keep me in ignorance about everything, you had better lock me up in the mother cistern again. The Scarpen is seething, as well you know. I understand forces are being raised in Breakaway and Denmasad and Pediment. There are even rumors that perhaps the Gibbermen will rise up in rebellion if their water falls too low."

Taquar chuckled. "An army of Gibber grubbers?"

Jasper shrugged and added, "I'll tell you another thing you probably assumed I didn't know: the Scarpen forces are led by Rainlord Iani Potch. Interesting, eh? That half-crazy old man is still alive. Now tell me, Taquar, what do you think Iani will do with all those forces he has gathered, or is in the process of gathering? Do you think he will tell them to go home if Davim leaves? Or will he, do you think, turn his attention to the man who killed his daughter?"

"I did not kill his daughter! And he can't threaten me," Taquar said. "I have you; our partnership is surety for the good behavior of Iani and everyone else."

"Exactly. You need me. And if I were you, I'd give some thought to whether any attempt by you to leave the Quartern would meet with success. I've been chatting to merchants from the coast, and they tell me that it is difficult to buy a passage without a permit from the portmaster. I'm betting neither of the portmasters would issue one for you."

"Why, you little-"

Jasper raised his hands, palms out, in denial. "No, not my doing, I assure you. But I suspect Iani is very keen to shove a blade into your heart." He smiled cheerfully. "Let's just assume for the time being that you are going to stay and we will be working together. Later, I'll see you have the choice to leave-if you still want to." He stood. "I am going to change and have something to eat. Shall we meet in the stormquest room in, say, half an hour? We have some storms to bring. Oh, and one other thing, my name is Jasper. Shale Flint died long ago." Back in his own bedroom, Jasper sighed. Not exactly a victory. And he didn't much like telling lies, either. In fact, he hated it.

He stepped out onto the balcony to look toward the ocean. The feel of the water came to him, vast and tantalizing. So much of it, all they could ever need-if only there were stormlords to deliver it. Once again he reached out to that water, attempting to drag up a portion as vapor. And once again, he failed.

I have to work in tandem with a man who despises me, whom I loathe in turn. Blighted eyes, Terelle, you would say it wasn't fair. He gave a reluctant grin at his own foolishness. As if anything ever said life had to be fair, you sandcrazy Gibber urchin.

He raised his eyes to the harsh blue of the brilliant sky. Tomorrow he would send another message to Iani, written in the clouds, to ask him to warn the portmasters not to let Taquar leave the Quartern. He was only too aware he was gambling. He had no way of knowing if his sky writing was ever read by those he intended it for, no way of knowing if they were interested in the proposals he was making to them, no way to know if the verbal messages he had tried to send through the snuggeries were ever delivered. No replies had yet reached him.

And Terelle; how could he be sure she would see his message? That she would return if she did? Everything was riding on a hunch. A nebulous feel on the wind, a whisper of a touch as insubstantial as sand-dancers shimmering on the plains in the midday heat. He'd felt her. Sensed her water on his tongue. She had been there in the White Quarter. He'd looked at Granthon's maps, laid them on the brass stormquest table with its etched compass directions, and placed her somewhere east of Samphire, probably at one of the mines.

Or was he just sandcrazed? He'd long since known stormlords could recognize individuals by their water, unlike rainlords. Nealrith had told him that; so had Taquar. He'd found it impossible at first, but not anymore. Not since that night when he'd gone to the room where Terelle had been imprisoned and felt her lingering presence in a way he never had before. She'd gone, but she had left something of her water behind. After that, he always recognized who was on the other side of a closed door.

But no stormlord should have been able to sense a person as far away as the next quarter…

Jasper lifted his face to the wind. She was not where she had been anymore. She was getting closer.

Please let that be true.

Still, he couldn't relax his guard. Any day now Taquar would hear about his messages. True, many of Taquar's agents in the other cities would have abandoned him now that they knew what he had done to bring disaster to the Scarpen, but Jasper was not so foolish as to think he could keep his cloud messages a secret. Once Taquar knew, the crack in the dayjar would open up in earnest. Trouble was coming and it would have the power of a rush down a Gibber drywash.

Jasper smiled, but without real amusement. You may be clever, Taquar, and I may be weak, but you have still underestimated me. She's coming. And when she does, things will change. I swear it.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Reduner Quarter Dune Sandsinger and Dune Watergatherer, Ravard's encampment Ryka sat on a stool outside her tent, warming herself in the early-morning sun.

Nearby, a pede lay stretched out on its side, its relaxed breathing producing a rhythmic purr as one of the mouth plates gently vibrated. The beast belonged to one of Ravard's bladesmen, one of the two men left behind to guard her, who was now whittling a picture story on a segment plate. Around the Sandsinger camp, women were cooking while men tended their pedes and goats and sandgrouse. The smell of bab-flour damper laced with goat's cheese, newly lifted from the ashes of the cooking fires, drifted through the air. There was a leisurely pace to life, a rightness about the way the people lived, as if they drew the measured nature of their existence from the orderliness of their dune's slow progress across the plains.

If she could have had her books and scrolls, if Kaneth had been safe, if the Scarpen wasn't in danger, if there were only stormlords bringing rain, Ryka might even have been content. She gave a snort, ridiculing the thought. None of those things were true. And she was bored. Apart from the few books of Nealrith's she had, there was no reading to be had, and as far as she knew Davim was still in the Scarpen, although she hadn't heard of him invading more cities. Sunlord only knew whether Kaneth had managed to keep out of trouble, or whether Jasper was even alive.

It was thirty-five days or so since Ravard had left her here, bleeding and too weak to even raise her head from her palliasse. Anything could have happened. And given her situation, how could she ever be content? The last time she remembered being anywhere near content had been-it took a moment to remember-probably at Gratitudes. However, she was better; the bleeding had stopped and she still had her baby.

When Ravard and the slave caravan rode away, he'd instructed the Sandsinger tribemaster, within her hearing, to ensure that the tribe cared for her as if she was Sandmaster Davim's daughter. If she died, Ravard added with a scowl, they could be sure of his revenge. And then he had gone, leaving two of his bladesmen behind, but without so much as another glance at her. That, she assumed, he would have considered showing weakness to his men. It had been Kaneth who had looked back, who had raised a hand in farewell. Too weak to acknowledge his gesture with a wave of her own, she managed a smile.

She had worried the tribe's fear of Ravard's threats would mean she was going to be subjected to a plethora of remedies and shaman medicine ceremonies. Instead she was handed over to the care of Arielker, the tribemaster's wife, who recommended little more than lying prone, drinking plenty and eating well. It might have been boring, but the regime appeared to have worked.

And so now, anxious to be gone, she sat and watched; learning, always learning, as the tribe went about their business. Her enforced rest meant she had done little work around the camp, but she had absorbed as much as she could and helped when not too much physical effort was involved. She had learned to weave a patterned pannier out of dune grasses and to carve needles and clasps for a cloak out of pede chitin. She knew how to make a damper and she could polish gemstones for hair beads.

At the moment she was knotting a goat-hair shawl, pausing only to watch as Arielker led her chosen group of women down to collect water from the encampment's waterhole on the plains. As was customary, they led the pack pedes; driving a pede was a privilege reserved for men, yet fetching water was a woman's business. If there was one aspect she despised in Reduner culture, it was their rigid division into men's and women's labor. Still, they seemed happy enough, in a way she never would have been.

Ryka watched them go-and planned.

"The water won't last much longer," a soft voice said at her elbow. She turned to see the aging, portly tribemaster standing by her tent, watching her. Plump-cheeked and long-nosed, with straggly hair almost too thin to bead, he was easy to ridicule, especially when she remembered his obsequious groveling to Kher Ravard. Yet she wondered, too. There was intelligence in his gray eyes. And unflinching respect in the way his tribesmen regarded him. And he spoke his language with a lyricism that sometimes touched her appreciation of the poetical.

And he had spoken to her in Reduner.

She glanced at Ravard's bladesman, but he was too far away to hear, and too intent on his carving to bother. Even as she looked at him, he moved further away to the last segment of his mount.

"Tribemaster," she said in her own tongue, inclining her head with the respect due to his position. "I'm sure you know I don't speak your language."

"I'm sure you do," he replied softly, still speaking Reduner. "I've been watching you these many days, and I've finally recalled where I've seen you before. Some fifteen cycles ago I traveled to Breccia City to sell pedes. You visited our camp outside the walls because you were learning our tongue and wished to practice it. You spoke it well, even then."

Fear grabbed her and her hand went protectively to the bulge of her abdomen. Sandblast, does he know who I am?

"Yes," he said in reply to her unspoken question. "I don't remember your name, but you are a rainlord. Does it amuse you to know we of the Sandsinger will soon thirst?"

Her heart plummeted. She might have to kill him, and the thought sickened her. Answering him in Reduner, she said, "You have the water the Master Son gave to you, stolen from Breccia and Qanatend. What of them, who now must thirst?"

He gave a snort of disgust. "I never asked for it. Besides, it's hardly enough to water the pedes for a quarter-cycle. What do we do when it's finished and the waterhole has dried up because the stormlord will not supply us any longer?"

"You should have thought of that before you marched to war on the Scarpen. The Cloudmaster who watered you died during the siege of the city. Your siege."

"It wasn't my sandblasted choice," he said. "Or the choice of anyone on this dune. We were friends to the tribes of the Scarmaker, who led the dunes well, until Davim came. The warriors of Dune Watergatherer wiped Scarmaker out, and so we grovel to Sandmaster Davim and that ill-mannered Master Son-whose bed you share."

"Not willingly."

"What else am I to believe? You're a rainlord. You could kill him with a nod."

She did not disillusion him. "And yet you speak to me of your antipathy toward him. You are a brave man."

"No. A brave man would not have groveled to Davim. A brave man would be riding side by side with Vara Redmane, wife of the man who was sandmaster of the Scarmaker." In scandalized tones, he added, "A woman leads the rebellion against Davim, not this foolish drover standing here who bowed his head in fear to a ruthless marauding sandmaster."

He shook his head sadly and looked away from her down the length of the dune to where one of his tribe's guards was outlined against the sky. "But now-now I am a saddened man who aches for the future of his tribe. An old man who listens to his shaman who says the dune god speaks of a parched people dying of thirst in the cycles to come." Then, swiftly, he turned his head to meet her gaze. "A desperate man who has seen something in another woman to stir the burnt-out ashes in his soul, and so to uncover a spark of hope. Kill me now, or give me a hint of a future that does not include our death by thirst, my lord."

Ryka considered her reply carefully before answering, "You are right. Not quite with a nod, but I could kill Ravard. A moment ago I thought of killing you to save my own life. I still could."

"I'll not betray you. I owe him nothing, least of all a rainlord's life."

"I hope not, for now I have other plans. The rainlords of Scarpen are not defeated yet, I promise you. Keep your hope, tribemaster, and await word. We will call on you when the time is right, and you will have to fight to reclaim your future."

"Water?"

"I can offer you none. I am no stormlord. Learn to live with random rain. Tell your women folk to have no more children for a while, until you know how to live in a water-poor world. The random rains will come and you must chase them as your people did in the past."

His fury surfaced. "Those shriveled sand-heads who would return us to such a time have baked their brains too long in the sun!"

"How many other dunes feel the way you do?"

"Four or five. And there are several others which are divided."

"Would you tell me who they are?"

He gave a faint smile. "We each risk much in trust of the other, do we not? Dune Stonebreaker, Dune Wrecker, Dune Widowcrest and Rarketim's Dune were all Scarmaker allies who hate this Davim. Dune Ravenbreak I am not sure about, but it is possible. Dune Sloweater and Dune Agatenob are divided. The western tribes on those two dunes are for Davim. On Dune Hungry One, the tribes themselves are divided. They say there that when he was hardly more than a lad, the Sandmaster got a son on one of their young women, but refused to wed her. Some laugh and say boys will be boys; others loathe him for the insult. Of the more northerly dunes, I know little."

"And where can I find Vara Redmane?"

He laughed. "Some call her Vara the Spindevil and say she travels the wind with the men she has gathered around her. Who knows where the wind blows? Others say she uses the sand-dancers as her warriors. All I know is she came here once, and when she left in the middle of the night, a number of my young drovers went with her, taking their pedes with them. Some say she has no home because there is no water out there where she can set up a permanent camp. Others say she found the Source."

"What's that?"

"The unending spring where water gushes into the world from the mouth of the Over-god. It is a myth. A dream. In truth, Vara begs from tribes like mine. She steals from tribes like Kher Ravard's. She robbed several of Davim's caravans full of water stolen from Qanatend. I did hear she is a water sensitive. That she can smell water. It is possible. There are such women, although they usually don't talk about it. Men don't like the idea of a woman being better than they are at something like that."

She almost laughed. She liked this man.

He shook his head in reluctant admiration. "If anyone can stay alive out there, she can. She's old and wizened and wise, that one. Killed one of Davim's warriors, you know, when she escaped. She's death to ziggers. I used to wonder what sandmaster Makdim could ever see in her. Now I know what my blind heart could once not see. Her face is as weathered as granite in the sun, but she has the heart of a sandmaster and the favor of the Scarmaker dune god watching over her. Folk say the day Makdim died, the dune god left the dune and followed her."

He regarded her solemnly, and his podgy face contained a dignity she had not noticed before that morning. "You must leave, you know," he said. "Arielker tells me you are fit enough to travel and your baby is safe. I can do one of two things. I can give you a pede and you can go where you will. I will tell Kher Ravard you escaped and stole one of our animals. Or I can send you to his dune under the escort of his two bladesmen, as he asked me to do."

"He would punish you if I disappeared. He has the power to wipe your tribe off the face of your dune."

"I put my trust in our dune god."

Ryka just managed not to roll her eyes. She had no faith in his god, which meant she held the fate of his tribe in her hands. She sighed, but knew her decision would have been the same anyway. "I will go back to Kher Ravard," she said. "I have an unfinished matter that needs completion." Ravard's encampment on Dune Watergatherer was much better guarded than any other she had seen. All the peaks of the dune tops had a sentry, and there were outposts at intervals along its foot. Pedemen rode between them on a regular beat.

To stop slaves escaping? Ryka wondered. Or to spot an attack from the elusive Vara Redmane? Neither, perhaps. More probably because Ravard-much younger than the men he ruled-believed in keeping his men busy and well disciplined.

She first saw the dune from the back of a pede, seated between the two bladesmen. They rode in past the tribe's waterhole, just ten minutes' walk from the first of the dune's red sands. The boulder-strewn waterhole was tucked into a rocky gully; wild jute plants and bab palms clad the sides, their roots intertwining and writhing across the rock face looking for patches of soil. A pulley system had been rigged to haul water up to the level of the plain.

The first dune guards were there at the winch. Without being asked, one of them drew up a bucket of water for the pede. "So the Kher's whore is back," he said as the animal drank.

He thought she wouldn't understand, of course. She schooled her expression to bland disinterest, but it was impossible to stop the flush spreading to her cheeks. Casually she looked away, shading her face from them with her palmubra and a hand to its brim. She was glad when they started off again, heading into the dune.

The sand dales twisted and turned and branched like the spreading gullies of a drywash rising toward a hilltop. Easy for a stranger to become confused and follow the wrong branch, but the driver knew his way.

On a flat valley floor, an orderly array of red tents and canvas privies spoke of discipline and system. The surrounding slopes were anchored tight by creeping vegetation buzzing with insects and ablaze with wildflowers-yellow, pink, scarlet, white, soaking the air with perfumes. Ryka blinked in surprise. It was astonishingly beautiful, even though her defective eyesight blurred the details.

She raised her head to look at the surrounding ridges of the dune. Sentries everywhere. Like a trap…

Before she had time to dwell on that, the driver halted their mount close to the open tract in front of the pede lines. A crowd of men had gathered there, a mixture of the slaves Ravard had brought in from Breccia and Qanatend, the Reduner warriors she already knew and older men of the tribe she didn't. No women. Startled, she realized something unusual was happening. No one gave her a glance. All eyes were riveted on the two men in the center of the tract. She squinted, trying to focus.

Kaneth and Ravard.

Her heart lunged against her ribs, thudding.

The two men faced each other like goats preparing to battle, motionless and tense, each waiting for the other to break. A playful skitter of wind whisked red dust into eddies across the area; neither of them even noticed. What the withering hells was happening?

She had stepped into the middle of a nightmare, and all she could do was watch.

At the other side of the open space, a boulder was half-buried in the sands. It was decorated with a body. A living body, Ryka realized. A slave tied there, trussed belly down. A Reduner stood next to him holding a dagger.

The guard mounted behind Ryka slid to the ground. "What's going on?" he asked the nearest Reduner in a mutter.

Ryka leaned down to catch the answer.

"The slave over there tried to escape," the other murmured, without even glancing around to see who asked the question. "About to be punished when Lord Uthardim stepped in. Wants to stop it."

No. This time her heart missed a beat. Several beats. Sandblast him to a waterless death… Kaneth, you fool.

Kaneth was saying, "You caught him, ended his dreams. Let it be enough." He was calm, apparently without fear. "And what you intend is not punishment; it is torture."

"You push me too far, Half-face. The rule of this tribe is mine." Ravard's voice was as rough as blown sand, his gaze steely. "The usual punishment is death. I am being merciful."

"He is weakened with thirst. Your men have already broken his ribs. He will die under the cuts of the knife."

Ryka's heart beat again, pounding a warning. She knew then what the punishment was. They called it "a small death"-the back of the victim was repeatedly cut with a dagger and coarse salt rubbed into the wounds. The salt stopped infection, but it also increased the pain and resulted in raised, ugly scars. She sat on the pede, motionless, her view of the drama unimpeded. The driver stayed where he was, too, seated in front of her.

"Take his place," Ravard said suddenly, still staring at Kaneth, "and I will untie the man unharmed."

The pinioned man began to struggle, striving to look back over his shoulder, crying out, "No, Lord Uthardim! Don't!"

Kaneth ignored the slave and answered Ravard. "As you wish." He undid the ties of his robe at the neck and, with a shrug of his shoulders, he bared his back and allowed the garment to slip to the ground. Underneath, he wore the white pantaloons of a Scarpen pede rider, now stained red by the sands of the dunes.

Ryka went cold. As yet neither of the two men had noticed her; their attention so concentrated on each other that everything peripheral had become irrelevant. Her gaze focused on Kaneth, hungry for information. He was thinner now, broad shoulders all rippling muscle and sinew with the excess flesh stripped away. The burn scars were there, mostly on his face where they puckered the skin and changed his appearance, but with patches extending down his neck to his shoulder and back. Oh, Sunlord, his back! Ravard couldn't have him cut, surely, not when the scar tissue was so fresh. She felt sick.

She didn't think. She couldn't. "No," she said, and it was Ravard she addressed, her gaze steady, her voice without quiver. "It would cost you too much, Kher."

Both men whipped around to stare at her. She was vaguely aware she had become the focus of them all-the watching Reduners and the slaves. Even the man tied to the rock twisted as best he could to see.

"The Kher is ever wise," she said, meekly dropping her gaze. She prayed he would understand what she meant: Kaneth was under Davim's protection. To scorn the sandmaster by harming a man he had favored, especially one considered a symbol of a heroic past by the tribes, was surely foolish.

When she risked lifting her head, Ravard's gaze locked on hers. She dared not glance at Kaneth. Even the sand crickets stopped their singing, as if hushed by the taut edginess of the atmosphere.

"Garnet," Ravard said at last, shattering the fragility of the silence with brittle politeness. "I trust you have recovered."

She slid from the pede and smiled, but it was an effort to speak. She had no breath. Her throat ached with fear. Each word was a separate agony as she let it slip. "I am well, Kher. Awaiting your pleasure."

They all heard it then: the deep-seated cry of the dune god, weeping beneath their feet. The pede stirred restlessly, its feelers swinging outward, scattering men as they tried to dodge the serrated edges. Ryka ducked, falling to her knees. The rock under the roped man shook, and ripples moved outward, shivering the sand as they passed. Men fell, unable to keep their footing on the shifting ground. Ravard went down on one knee. The cry changed to eerie music, twisting and keening under the ground, a sinuous serpentine thread passing beneath.

Kaneth stood, unmoved, unmoving. Around him, there was fear on men's faces.

Ravard struggled to his feet and rapped out a question to his shaman. "What says the dune god?"

The shaman rode the moving ground like a pedeman on his bounding mount, dancing his skinny shanks to shift his weight. "He says free them both; the punishment is his to make. And his is the justice to mete." There was no mistaking the hint of fear in his tone. As if in response to his words, the ground stilled.

No sooner had the last trickle of sand ceased than an ululation started on the dune crests around them. The sound was so unexpected, Ryka jumped in shock.

They all looked up, to see the sentries gesturing from their vantage points. Ryka had no idea what it portended, but the Reduners obviously did.

"To your posts!" The cry came from Ravard. The tableau around the flat space broke up into frenzied movement. Men ran toward their tents, and they had purpose. Even the slaves obeyed the call, racing to saddle pedes and ready them for their drivers.

"Get to my tent," Ravard snapped at Ryka. Then he turned to the bladesman still mounted on the pede beside her. "Get that baggage off," he ordered the man. "I'm taking your mount. You can sit behind."

"What's happening?" she asked Ravard as the bladesman scrambled to the back of the pede to untie their belongings.

"A large caravan coming," he said and hauled himself up into the driver's saddle. "Could be a raid. Could be my father. Take your things and get to my tent and stay there."

The bladesman tossed everything down at her feet. She bent to sort through the bundle as Ravard turned the pede and rode rapidly away without a second glance.

Elmar detached himself from the bustle around the pede lines. Seeing him approach, Kaneth bent to roll up a trouser leg and retrieve a dagger strapped to his calf. He gave it to the pikeman, saying, "Cut Bartles down and get him to the slave tents. He should lie as low as possible for a few days and hope everyone forgets about this."

Elmar took the dagger, then glanced over at Ryka. "Welcome back," he said morosely and headed for the pinioned man. She suspected he was battling a desire to ask Kaneth if he'd been out of his tiny shriveled mind, trying to provoke Ravard like that.

She scowled at Kaneth. "You have no more sense than a senile sand-tick."

"Sense? Sense? And what about you? You scolded the Master Son in front of his whole tribe! You risked as much to keep me safe as I did to save Bartles. More, in fact. That was madness, Garnet!"

"Can't you call me by my name yet?"

His irritation fell away. He shook his head. "I-I remember a child I used to play with. She looked a lot like a younger version of you. I struggle to remember her name, but when I open my mouth to say it, the memory slips away like curds from the spoon."

"You were the bane of that girl's life."

"She was diabolical in her revenge. I remember the honey."

"Ah." She recalled a picnic and an incident that had involved trickling the remains of the picnic honey onto his clothes while he was dozing… and Scarpen ants loved honey.

She smiled at the memory; smiled, too, because he remembered.

The encampment seethed around them, but in the bustle no one paid them any attention. Elmar helped a limping Bartles toward the camp. Warriors were already riding out; pedes bristled with their weaponry.

"Think we are under attack from one of the Scarpen cities?" Kaneth asked.

Ryka shook her head. She could sense the water in the approaching caravan, and she could feel the panniers full of looted water. "Reduner. It would be a good time to escape now if we could find a pede somewhere."

He risked reaching out to touch her face. She shivered, feeling his concern. Not love. Not yet. Kaneth, remember me… I don't know how much of this I can bear.

"I can't," he said.

"Why not?"

"The slaves. I may not remember who I am, or who I was, but you were right in what you said about the slaves and slavery. It means something to me. I don't know where I belong, but I do know that they don't belong here and the way they are treated is wrong. They look up to me, Sunlord knows why. If I leave, so do they. Every blighted one of them. I will not leave them behind. I don't quite understand why I feel that way, but I know I do."

"You are a rainlord. We were taught that all the Quartern is our responsibility."

"I am a rainlord no longer. Whatever happened to me took it all away. But it left something in its place. I cannot speak to water, but I can speak to the dunes."

She fluttered a hand at the patch of disturbed sand. "It was you who did that, just then?"

"Yes. As I did that other time and harmed you. Then, I did not know what I could do."

"No, you're not talking to the dune, Kaneth. It's your rainlord connection to the dampness deep inside the dune. You call to the water and the sand shifts. You are a rainlord still."

He shook his head. "I do not feel the water even in my own water skin. But I feel something there, beneath our feet. A soul, something living. It speaks to me, and I can make it answer."

"Are you saying there really is a dune god?" Kaneth? Kaneth the disbeliever? So utterly uninterested in Temple he refused to go to Sun Day worship? She gaped at him.

"No. All I know is that inside every dune we crossed on our way here, I felt a-a presence. Something that I connect to. A god? I don't know that I believe in gods."

"You are a shaman then, like that man who interpreted what he heard?" Ryka tried to keep the scorn out of her voice, but wasn't sure she had succeeded.

He gave a laugh, raw and sarcastic. "He's a faker, playing on the weakness of men. A clever one, though, and a frightened one now. He no longer understands the dune, so he fears there may really be a dune god. Little does he know it is only me, playing with the sand entity like a desert child chasing ant lions in the sand. I don't know what I'm doing. Or how I'm doing it. I just know I can." Something he saw in her face brought a gentler expression back to his. "Don't worry. I know I am neither the Uthardim of legend, nor a dune god nor a mythical hero returned. I'm just a man who sees something that has to be done. And someone who can feel the heart of a living dune."

"Kaneth, if there was anything alive under the sand bigger than a dune lizard, rainlords would have felt its water long ago. There's nothing there."

He shrugged. "I know what I feel. It's not an animal. It's the dune."

She abandoned the argument. "I'm worried about you," she said. "You are antagonizing Ravard. You have no fear in you, and therefore I am afraid for you. Kaneth, a man who does not fear dies because he does not know when to turn from danger."

"Is dying so bad a thing? I have nothing to live for because I have no memories, no idea of who I am or why I should live. So I weave a worthwhile aim based on a future, not a past: freedom for these slaves. A purpose for this nameless man, this possessor of a past hidden in mists. When the mists tease apart to give me a glimpse of that past, it tantalizes, but it's never enough. Sunblast it, Garnet, I'm like a flower that's been picked. I look as though I am alive, but in truth I am already dead."

His words were spikes into her heart, into her being. She wanted so much to take him in her arms, to murmur words of love. But to him, she was almost a stranger. She could do nothing.

"It is different for you," he said. "You have a reason to fear death. You have a reason to live growing within your body."

Her calm shattered, gone in an instant as his words splintered her control. "So do you!" The cry ached with her pain. "It is yours! Yours, you idiot! Your son."

The lump in her throat stopped her breath.

She turned from him to go, to run. Anywhere. Just to escape from the hurt. To be able to breathe again.

And came face to face with Ravard.

He stood close enough to have heard everything she had cried out in her final burst of unbearable emotion.

His stare, the darkness of his eyes depthless, swallowed her alive. His voice when he spoke was as toneless as mud brick, but his eyes said his tone lied. "I asked you to go my tent," he said.

She stood still, hearing his words, yet unable to say what they signified, not caring what they meant. It was the look in his eyes that stopped the breath in her throat.

Watergiver have mercy, she thought, one of us is as good as dead.

She just wasn't sure if it was Kaneth or herself.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Scarpen Quarter Scarcleft City Scarcleft Hall, Level 2 and Breccia City When the disaster came, Taquar didn't recognize it as such. How could he? Of all the things he had thought Shale-no, Jasper, but still a bastard plains-grubber for all that-might do, fleeing Scarcleft was not on the list. After all, he had been given the freedom to come and go. Yet that was exactly what he had done. Fled the city.

At first Taquar assumed he'd gone for a ride in The Sweepings or The Skirtings with his guards, as he did often enough on days they didn't shift storms. Certainly he had been accompanied by his guards. But this time none of them had come back by nightfall, nor the next morning. Laisa had searched Jasper's room and noted his warm night cloak and several outfits were missing. Taquar, the growing rage within him suffused with the cold panic of a deep-seated fear, had gone immediately to the stormquest room with its view over the city toward the distant ocean. Laisa followed him in, looking around with bright-eyed interest. He had to repress a desire to wring her neck.

Even the briefest of glances around told him many of the maps and notes Granthon had given Jasper were missing.

He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "The boy has no way of creating a storm without me yet. None. And if there is one thing I know about him, it's this: he would never let any part of the Quartern thirst. Every blighted argument we've had lately has been on that very issue."

"Firstly," Laisa said acidly, "when are you going to acknowledge he is no longer a boy? He's a man, Taquar, and the life he's led has caused him to be a surprisingly resourceful one. Besides, he must be nineteen or twenty. Why are you always so blind to that? Secondly, I find it perfectly possible he has been deceiving you about the extent of his storm-raising ability."

He shot a withering look her way.

She said, "You must have considered that he is pretending to lack skills he actually has, just to keep you physically weakened."

He hesitated before replying. "Yes," he admitted. "He also knows that if life is too unpleasant, I will leave. Money will get me a passage on a ship, no matter what Iani orders to the contrary."

"So the truth is, you don't know what he is up to." She tilted her head in question. "What do you intend doing?"

"We should soon know if he raises his own storms. We'll be able to feel them. If he can do that, then he has enough power of his own to look after the Quartern's water and he's probably gone to join Iani's army. If he has, well, we have enough water to last to the end of this cycle, even without further rationing or rain. I have the pedes and the men and the ziggers to steal more if need be. We must build up our pedes and our groves to their former numbers. We will need food and transport to wage a war."

"Rather than leave?"

"That's a last resort. I don't like people to get the best of me."

She gave a thin smile. "Some would say your present difficulties are a just punishment for murdering your peers."

"You think that's so amusing, don't you?" He made no attempt to hide the loathing in his voice. Its intensity made her take a step backward. "How was I to know there were to be no more stormlords born? Or that your Senya or Merqual Feldspar's two daughters were not going to be stormlords? My aim was merely to dispose of those around my own age-not to wipe stormlords off the face of the Quartern! I certainly never, ever intended Lyneth to die."

Just then, when he thought things could not get any worse, Senya appeared in the doorway, her mutinous expression and down-turned mouth enough to sour his stomach.

"My maid said Jasper has disappeared! Is that true?"

"It seems so," Laisa answered calmly.

"He can't do that! He has to marry me. You said so. You both said so!"

"I shall leave you to deal with this," Taquar muttered, and left the room.

***

Turning to her daughter, Laisa ignored his departure. "I spoke to Jasper only two days ago, Senya. He made it clear-yet again-that he will indeed marry you, and soon. And I must say I am glad you have come to regard the marriage as desirable."

"Well, you married the only man I wanted to marry."

Laisa suppressed a desire to snap. Senya could occupy a powerful position one day, and it would be foolish to alienate her. "Senya," she said gently, "you have no idea how easy it is to burn yourself on a man like Taquar. I hope you have been keeping out of his bed, and out of his way, because he is not renowned for his patience. Quite frankly, I cannot see what he is up to in all this, and I don't like it when I don't understand what he is doing. You would do well to wonder just why he has been pushing you from his own bed into Jasper's before a wedding."

Senya pouted. "You're just jealous."

"And you don't know just how laughable that notion is. Did Taquar ever tell you why he wanted you to seduce Jasper?"

"To make him want to marry me all the sooner, of course. Then we shall have children and they will be stormlords and Taquar won't have to make clouds all the time."

Laisa regarded her daughter with pity. "My dear, you have the critical thinking abilities of a sand-dancer in a mirage. You must learn to think things through, for your own benefit. It will be eighteen or so years before any child of yours is a trained stormlord and in a position to be of help. So I hardly think it matters to Taquar if you have a baby next week or next year. There has to be another reason."

Senya pouted and flounced out of the room, leaving her mother pondering how to benefit best from the situation. After that, matters went from bad to worse for Taquar. A few more days passed, and there was no word from or about Jasper. They did hear that Sandmaster Davim's troops had completed their evacuation of both Breccia City and its mother cistern and had withdrawn beyond the Warthago Range. Davim informed Taquar by messenger that, although the Reduners were leaving a force in the northern city of Qanatend while there was still water left there to plunder, everything south of the Warthago was Taquar's.

"Just don't trespass over the range. And remember, if we don't have regular rain, then we must have random rain, or I shall be knocking at the walls of your city," the message concluded.

The words galled him with their cheek, but also left him elated. Breccia City was within his grasp and he reveled in the thought. It should have been mine years ago. He almost forgot himself enough to rub his hands together, as gleeful as a carpet merchant about to make a sale. Two cities; Scarcleft and Breccia. It was a beginning.

The next day he left for Breccia, accompanied by a force of pede-mounted water enforcers armed with ziggers.

When he gazed at the destruction the Reduners had left behind, though, he was appalled. The devastation and looting were more extensive than he had anticipated. Fierce fighting had left the interior of many buildings burned. Much of the bab grove would have to be replanted. There were no pedes in the city, not one. The metal works and the forges outside the walls were all in ruins. There was no food or oil or fuel briquettes or weapons to be had. Other, odder items were also missing. Carpets. Metal items. Pottery. Gemstones had been pried out of the gates.

Worse, from what he could determine, the Reduners had either put many of the men of the city to the sword, or taken them as slaves. They had been particularly vicious toward the richer citizens of the upper levels. Many Level Three and Four families had been wiped out to the last child. The luckier ones had escaped only because they had taken refuge in the hidden tunnel and escaped the initial slaughter that had followed Jasper's escape from the city.

Although the fate of individuals did not interest Taquar, he was worried whether there would be enough labor to rebuild and replant. One of his first concerns was the water situation. When he checked, he found to his relief that the main cisterns were half-full and water was still trickling in from the mother wells. With the population substantially reduced, the amount was adequate.

Over the next few days he set his men to locating all the city's water sensitives, rainlords and reeves. Their reports further dismayed him. There were no more Breccian rainlords. Ryka and Kaneth, as well as Ryka's father and all the aging rainlords of his generation-they were all dead or missing, and so were all the rainlord priests. Even the priest who had hidden the people down in the tunnel had eventually been caught and killed. Taquar had half-expected that, but he had not thought to find many reeves had been dispatched with ruthless efficiency as well. A handful of lowly water sensitives did report to Breccia Hall on his request, but he knew they were pitifully few to assert control of the city's cisterns and water distribution. Theft was already rampant.

Fortunately, the talented children he and the other rainlords had found in the Gibber had been scattered throughout the Scarpen just before the invasion, not that any of them had shown signs of developing stormlord talent.

None of that angered Taquar. His ire was directed at Jasper. How could he ever replenish Breccia's water if the little wash-rat had disappeared? The men he had sent out in all directions to hunt the stormlord down and persuade him to return had not yet reported back. In growing fury, he had to admit to himself how badly he had miscalculated.

With an effort, he replaced his anger with cold dispassion, and decided he had no choice in his next move. If he dispersed his men and his water sensitives and rainlords over two cities, they would be stretched pitifully thin. Better, he decided, to make sure he could hold Scarcleft, to develop his own city as the center of Scarpen commerce and power. And hope that Jasper would never cut off the water because the people would suffer. Breccia would have to wait.

He spread the word that any man who wanted to join his armed forces would be welcome to return with him, and that artisans and skilled workers were welcome in Scarcleft. The number who answered his call was pitifully small. He knew why; he saw the fury in Breccian eyes as he passed in the street.

When he rode out of the city at the head of a disparate selection of artisans and young men, a silent crowd watched, their collective gaze spilling misery and hate.

***

Taquar had left Laisa in Scarcleft. She was content to leave the rule of the city to Harkel Tallyman, who was more than capable of ruling without any recourse to her advice. When he came to her looking both shocked and at a loss, therefore, she was taken aback; when he told her what had happened, she stared at him in consternation.

"What?" she asked, wondering if she had understood his unusually garbled account. "Did you just say your contacts in Pediment and Portfillik have been seeing messages written in the sky with clouds?"

"That's correct."

"That's impossible. No one can have that much control over clouds!"

"Jasper?" he asked, and his tone indicated the question was a genuine one; he did not know the answer.

"Especially not Jasper. He cannot even draw vapor from salt water." Or can he? No, of course he can't. We've seen no signs of storm clouds drawn from the sea since he left.

"But he can manipulate clouds," Tallyman pointed out.

"Yes, but he doesn't have access to clouds without Taquar's help!" And I wouldn't have thought it possible to have such finesse, though someone obviously does.

Tallyman was silent.

Laisa licked dry lips and felt a cold dread. It was Jasper. Of course it was Jasper. He had been deceiving them.

She had trouble forming her next words and Tallyman had to lean forward to hear them. "And these sky messages ask the cities of the Scarpen to unite under the banner of Stormlord Jasper and to march on Scarcleft and Breccia to free them from Highlord Taquar, the traitor who invited Davim to invade?"

"Yes. Not quite those words, but-yes. And they were signed 'Bloodstone.' "

How the pickled pede did Jasper know Taquar had gone to Breccia? The answer came as soon as she had framed the question. He'd felt their water, of course. The water of Taquar and his men. He must be camped somewhere close enough for his powers to sense such things but just far enough away for other rainlords to be oblivious. The little wash-rat, they had been underestimating him all the time. He was probably capable of watering the whole sandblasted Quartern if he put his mind to it. But how had he made clouds without other rainlords being aware of their formation? Could he have taken fresh water from a cistern somewhere? She had no idea, and surely Basalt would have said something had he sensed something like that.

Gathering together a semblance of her normal calm, she asked, "What's your reading of the situation in the other cities, seneschal? Will they take any notice of clouds spelling words in the sky?"

His thin face usually wore a cynical expression bordering on mockery. She saw none of that now. Harkel Tallyman was worried, worried enough to treat her with respectful seriousness.

He said slowly, "A quarter-cycle ago I would have laughed at the notion of the cities of the Scarpen achieving any sort of unity. They were each scrambling to keep their own rainlords and their own guards to protect only their own cities, in case Sandmaster Davim turned his attention to them. But things have changed since then."

One by one he enumerated the changes, raising a finger with each new point. "First, the Reduners have left Breccia. Second, people are afraid of thirsting to death and they will examine any means of preventing that, even a war. Third, all of a sudden here is proof we have a real stormlord. He can arrange the very clouds in the sky to suit his own convenience. That sends a powerful message. If he can do that, he can surely supply them with water. We might tell them differently-that Jasper needs Highlord Taquar-but who will they believe?" He raised his fourth finger. "Alas, Taquar now represents a target for them to throw stones at: the traitor who sold them to the Reduners and brought Breccia and Qanatend to their knees. Cloudmaster Granthon kept that dirty little secret while he was still alive, but too many people have heard about it since. The tale is out there now, the gossip is a wind-whisper everywhere." He waggled his thumb at her. "And what do you think the final difference is?"

"Iani," she said after a moment's consideration. "That dribbling old fool with his mad ramblings about his lost daughter."

"Iani," he agreed, showing her his five spread fingers. "A different sort of hero. Husband of a martyred heroine, driven half-mad because he lost his daughter, murdered, so he says, by Taquar. A man now gathering an army from the cities of the Scarpen. I've heard wind-whispers saying people are looking to him for leadership. Lord Laisa, I think we may be in a lot of trouble."

She regarded him thoughtfully. "Harkel, are you perhaps suggesting we, um, desert our present pede foundering in sinking sand and… somehow find another?"

"If another mount were possible, I would definitely suggest it would be a good idea."

"I think I hear a 'but' coming."

"But there isn't going to be another mount for either of us, my lord, I regret to say. You became Highlord Taquar's wife after he threw in his lot with the Reduners. You can't plead innocence." He smiled faintly. "And me? There are too many people out there ready to rend me to pieces for what I have done in the highlord's name. We ride this mount, my lord, because there will never be another for us."

He started to walk up and down as he spoke. "We were all safe enough while we had Jasper on our side. But now?" He shook his head. "Our only hope is either to hold fast here, or hold Breccia and abandon Scarcleft. I doubt we have the resources to do both. Or we could flee and take a ship across the Giving Sea. There is something to being a small, well-fed mouse in a large city, as opposed to a very dead rat elsewhere. That should be your advice to Taquar. It is certainly mine. But he is not a man to take kindly to advice going against his dreams."

Especially not his dreams of far-ranging power, Laisa thought, but she didn't say the words. "Send a message to the highlord telling him of these cloud messages. And ask Lord Gold if he would be kind enough to attend me at his earliest convenience. Make it clear his earliest convenience had better be very soon."

He bowed and let himself out of the room.

She sat very still after he had gone, regretting her past decisions. Yet… there must be a way out of this mess. There's always something one can do.

When Lord Gold arrived, she had to repress a desire to grimace. She had never liked him. The previous Quartern Sunpriest had been a good man-irritatingly so sometimes, but one could always use a good man's scruples to manipulate him. This man was bigoted and vicious and had no scruples at all. Worse, he was sure he was right and treated any criticism as an attack on his religion. Which might have been laughable, except that it wasn't wise for a rainlord or a ruler to be seen by the populace as despising the one true faith. His disapproval of her was manifest; he even whisked the fabric of his robes away if it seemed the hem would be contaminated by the touch of her skirts. Oh yes, he could do her a lot of damage if he put his mind to it.

"Lord Gold," she said sweetly, "so good of you to drop by so soon."

"I am delighted to be of service," he said, although his expression implied anything but pleasure. "The spiritual concerns of my flock are always my immediate concern."

"It's not so much a spiritual problem that concerns me as one related to water-sensing ability. I've called on you for aid as I know you're a rainlord of considerable skill. And also that you've been monitoring-at Taquar's request-the storm clouds shifted by the stormlord."

His face took on a wary cast. "Yes."

"Have you noticed anything unusual since Lord Jasper left Scarcleft? I confess, I've not been paying as much attention as I should have been."

"No, I can't say I have, my lord. I was keeping track of where he sends the rain-that's what the highlord wanted me to do-but there've been no new clouds since Jasper left. And so I told Lord Taquar before he left for Breccia."

Laisa frowned and muttered, more to herself than to him, "So what the sweet water is he up to?"

"Well, he has been shifting the old cloud around. I can't imagine why. Practicing, I suppose."

She pounced on the strangeness, "Old cloud? What old cloud?"

"Why, the one he and Lord Taquar kept over the Warthago. They used to add to it every day, to make it bigger. Lately, though, they-well, Lord Jasper, I suppose, shifts part of it to make it rain somewhere."

"Did you mention this cloud to Lord Taquar?"

"No. Why should I? Didn't he know about it?"

She was silent.

"Ah. I see. The cloud is large, or it was, and heavy with water. However, it is tucked down inside a valley. I suppose that makes it hard to detect. I knew it was there because I was following the clouds Lord Jasper moved." He made the comment sound like a reproof of her laxity.

She changed the subject abruptly, embarrassed to say she'd had no idea the cloud existed. But then, she had never bothered to look at the Warthago. "And Jasper has been accessing this cloud since he left the city?"

"Yes. In fact, he seems to have been sending bits of it all over the place, without actually making it rain. Or at least, someone has. I have no way of being sure who, of course, although my understanding is he's the only one of us who can cloudshift."

"You're saying Lord Taquar helped him to make this cloud?"

Basalt looked bewildered. "Don't they always make clouds together, my lord? I assumed-"

"But you never actually told Taquar it existed."

"Er-well, no. I assumed-"

"You never talked to him about parts of it being moved, either, did you?"

"Well, no. I mean, I assumed-"

"When he returns, I think Lord Taquar is going to be very angry about your assumptions, my lord. It seems Jasper has been saving a little every day to build up a reserve. And you never thought to mention it."

Basalt paled.

"Thank you, Lord Gold. That will be all."

He blinked at her abrupt dismissal and hesitated. In the end, he lifted his hand in blessing, then-his voice heavy with meaning-uttered a prayer to the Watergiver to accede on behalf of all sinners. When she glared at him, he bowed and left.

Spindevil take the blighted bastard of a Gibber grubber. He tricked us.

She was still considering what the consequences might be when Seneschal Tallyman was ushered in with another message. "From the highlord," he said, and handed it over. "He says he is returning to Scarcleft."

Quickly she scanned what Taquar had written. "Ah. So he has abandoned the idea of holding Breccia."

Tallyman gave a grim smile. "He has indeed. He told me to send out water enforcers and pedes to steal water from the Breccia tunnel."

Laisa stared at him. "Watergiver save them."

Tallyman gave a bark of laughter. "I doubt he will. Seems they have no rainlords to tell them if we steal their incoming water. Although I suppose rainlords in other cities might sense what we are doing."

"Too far for a rainlord. You know, seneschal, mostly we water sensitives don't sit around trying to trace the movement of water throughout the land. Mostly we try to ignore water. It is too easy to become overwhelmed by all we feel otherwise."

"Ah."

Bastard has filed that bit of information for future use. "Stealing Breccian water-well, I am hardly going to object, not if Jasper fails to return or send rain to the mother wells."

"What is he up to?" Tallyman asked. She didn't reply, so he added morosely, "One would almost think he was in league with Sandmaster Davim, intent on returning us all to a Time of Random Rain. But who can read the mind of a Gibber grubber?"

I can. He's been using the cloud stored in the Warthago to send messages, that's what he's been doing. Because he still can't make his own clouds. Damn! There is something here we are not understanding…

There was a knock at the door followed immediately by the entrance of the steward. Obviously flustered, he had not waited to be granted leave to enter.

"Yes, what is it?" Laisa asked, annoyed.

"It's Stormlord Jasper, my lord. The guards at the South Gate sent a message to say he has returned and is on his way up here."

"Us, read Jasper's mind?" Laisa murmured to Tallyman. "Not a hope."

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The Red Quarter Dune Watergatherer, Ravard's encampment Time slowed.

Or perhaps it was just that Ryka's thoughts speeded up and her heartbeat raced. But everything else seemed sluggish. And Sunlord knows, she needed the time. To save her life, to save Kaneth's, to kill Ravard-she didn't know which. Not yet, and she had that sliver of time granted her to decide.

Kaneth was staring at her, almost as if he had forgotten Ravard was there, as if he didn't care. Perhaps he didn't. His expression was all misery, a new misery burrowing deep into the man he now was. He didn't remember her, and that failure was devastating. He was father to a son he had forgotten, lover to a woman he could not remember-and the lack appalled him. His inability to change anything shook the foundations of the man he was.

She knew all that without being told. What she needed to consider was: would he leave with her now if she killed Ravard? She thought he would. No, she knew he would. They could escape. It would be difficult, though. She couldn't use her rainlord power because Ravard could hold onto his own water.

Those thoughts skittered at speed through her mind and were discarded as fast as they came. She couldn't ask it of Kaneth. If he escaped with her now, it would be a duty, and she didn't want to be anyone's duty. What he wanted to do was stay until he could free the slaves. And there were mounted men all around them not far away. Not the best time to kill the heir to the sandmaster.

Ryka concentrated on Ravard. "He has forgotten me," she raged, waggling a hand at Kaneth to make it clear he was the one who had riled her. "He said he'd love me until time ended. He seduced me away from my husband, took me to bed, got me with child-and now he doesn't know me from-from a street whore or a snuggery girl! Uthardim? Him? He's no hero! He's just a metalworker with a fine set of muscles to entice a woman from her husband and the will to cast her off like a sleeping shift discarded with the dawn." She spat on the sand at Kaneth's feet, the greatest insult a Reduner could offer.

She allowed her voice to soften, her gaze to mellow, her mouth to lift in a rueful smile as she spoke to Ravard. "We women are so foolish. We allow our glances to wander and our hearts to follow, forgetting that there is more to a real man than a fine pair of buttocks and the muscles in his arms and thighs." She gave what she hoped was a penitent shrug and lifted her hands. "I do not know where your tent is, Kher." And if fear doesn't make me puke, this conversation will…

She bent to pick up her bundle but a boy who had been standing nearby forestalled her. He was a lad of thirteen or so, old enough to have his hair braided, but not yet of an age to wear a weapon. "I'll carry it for you," he said in Reduner. She didn't dare reply for fear she'd give away her understanding of what he said, so she just smiled instead.

"Come with us," Ravard said roughly to Kaneth. He took Ryka by the hand and pulled her, without any semblance of gentleness, across the camp. He stopped in front of a large red tent, erected slightly apart from the others. At the back was a canvas privy, at the side a shade roof over the cooking area, both places standing free of the tent. The lad put the bundle down and scampered away, suddenly less a youth and more a child; Ravard pushed her under the shade of the tent's canvas front veranda and turned on Kaneth, his look filled with rage and frustration. "You will kneel before the dune god's shrine tonight," he said. "All night, from sundown to sunup, unmoving on your knees, praying for his forgiveness."

"Why, Kher? Forgiveness for what?" Kaneth asked.

Ryka winced. Sandblast you, Kaneth, can't you just keep your withering mouth shut for once?

"If you don't, I'll kill you," Ravard snarled.

He believes it, Ryka thought. He can't articulate it without sounding crazy, but he believes that Kaneth somehow manipulates the sands of the dune.

Her next thought she directed at Kaneth, as if he could hear her. Be careful, you irritating sand-tick of a man-one foot wrong and Ravard will slaughter you where you stand, his father's wishes be damned.

Kaneth did not glance her way. He bowed and departed toward the slave lines. Ravard pulled Ryka into the tent.

"Are you well?" he asked again. "Do you still bleed? Does the baby still live? Blighted eyes, I have missed you!" He blurted this last out, then looked embarrassed.

"I am recovered. And the baby moves still."

He covered the curve of her abdomen with his hand. "I claim this child," he said. "He's a son of the dunes. He'll be raised t'take his place in this tribe. As he grows he'll deny the man who seeded him."

She felt a muscle twitch in her cheek. I wonder if you will ever know how close you are to death at this moment.

Then she saw the intent way he was looking at her, the concern in his eyes, and heard the fervor in his voice. She was reminded how young he was, and her anger drained away.

You're a researcher, Ryka. Remember your training. He had been raised in a tribal society where women couldn't even drive or own a pede. He was offering her all that he knew how to offer-clumsily, born as much of jealousy and ideas of ownership as they were of friendship or love-but still far more than most Reduner men knew how to give.

She smiled at him, and touched his arm. "Thank you," she said.

He jerked his head at the open flap of the tent. "This Uthardim, was he the one you were looking for in the heap of the dead in Breccia?"

She nodded. "More fool me." She heaved a sigh. "I knew my husband was already dead."

"You have no need of such a lover now. Or a husband. I am enough for any woman."

"Mmm," she agreed vaguely.

"Stay here until I return. Out of sight. I have to speak to the sandmaster when he arrives and I do not want him reminded of you."

"It's the sandmaster's caravan that's arrived? Is this his encampment?"

"No," he said with pride. "This is mine. I have led this tribe since I defeated the tribemaster in combat when I was seventeen. I am the youngest tribemaster in living memory. Sandmaster Davim's tribe is further along the dune toward the sunset. He's just stopping here tonight t'pick up his tribe's slaves." He kissed her gently, tentatively, as if he was afraid she'd slap him, then the kiss deepened. When he released her, he tapped her gently on the nose with a forefinger. "Tonight," he said and left the tent.

Sands, she thought, he must drive some of the grey-heads in the tribe insane. Were we like that, Kaneth, when we were twenty? Balanced between maturity and inexperience? Brave, stupid, thoughtless, generous, cruel, kind, all rolled up together? She thought back. I think we were different. Although perhaps no wiser, in spite of being trained and educated…

Ravard had been forced to do his own growing up. Pity stirred deep inside her. She knew it was dangerous. She knew there might come a time when she had to kill him-when she dared not hesitate.

With a sigh she grabbed up her bundle and looked around. The tent had three, no, four rooms: the large reception space with its huge family jar of water, and three small separate sleeping rooms, each with its own wash stand and stuffed quilts for a bed. It was easy to see which was Ravard's room. It had lavish carpets, richly colored woven wall hangings and four heavy carved wooden boxes, of the kind that were imported from across the Giving Sea and sold in the marketplaces of the Scarpen. Ryka opened them one by one and looked inside: folded clothes, extra quilts and cloaks, weaponry, saddlery, onyx vials of perfume, decorative pede prods and bridles. Jewels, probably looted. Daggers, swords, scimitars. All for the taking.

You are far too trusting, Ravard…

She unstoppered one of the perfume vials, smelled the fragrance and replaced it where she'd found it. Closing the chests without touching anything else, she explored some more.

In the second of the bedrooms, she found her own clothes-or Laisa's, to be exact-neatly folded into a plain wooden chest. The idea of a wash and a change of clothes was appealing, but first she visited the privy built behind the tent. As she emerged, she caught a glimpse of Davim's battle-hardened warriors riding into the camp.

Her thoughts suddenly filled with the sharp memory of her father holding a blood-drenched sword in a bloodied hand, coming into the Breccia waterhall during a lull in the fighting to ask if she was all right. She'd kissed him, the salty taste of his cheek and the unshaven bristles on his chin biting into her cracked lips. That was the last time she had ever seen him.

Although she wanted to weep at the memory, she held back her grief. No time for it, she thought. Perhaps when this is all over. When we are free again.

There was no place for weakness, not now.

She washed in the Reduner way, using a wet cloth and a minimal amount of water, changed her clothes and went to kneel at the edge of the closed flap of the tent to peer out through the gap. Davim's men were making camp further down the small sand valley of the dune. To feed the pedes, slaves were bringing bales of vegetation harvested on the plains. Others were starting cooking fires.

Kaneth was nowhere to be seen. Directly in her line of vision on the crest of the dune to the side of Davim's temporary camp was a tall, narrow rock driven into the sand. The exposed part was as tall as a man. She'd seen the same thing on Sandsinger: a shrine stone to the dune god.

From her studies, she knew Reduners considered religious observance to be the duty of the tribe's shaman, and if the tribe was plagued by bad luck the shaman was likely to be sacrificed to the god. To find a new shaman, the men in the tribe ran one by one down the steepest slope of the dune until the dune god sang under the feet of a runner-who then was proclaimed shaman and expected to interpret the words of the god.

You know all that, don't you, Kaneth? Are you using their religion against them? You don't really believe in their dune god, do you? Oh, sand hells-what are we doing here? How long does this have to go on?

Ryka sat back on her heels and raised her hands to her face. For once, not even the thought of the child who stirred under her breastbone could make her regard the future with anything but dread. A small voice interrupted her thoughts, calling to her from outside. She thought it must have been a girl, but when she drew back the flap slightly she saw the lad who had so obligingly carried her bundle. He was panting as if he had been running.

"Kher Ravard-" he said, and then stopped as if he suddenly realized she wouldn't understand whatever message he had.

"Yes?" she prompted in Reduner.

Taking heart from her knowledge of that word at least, he burst out, "Kher Ravard said Kher Davim is coming."

She made a gesture with her hand, pointed inside the tent and raised her eyebrow in question. "Coming here?"

He nodded, looking over his shoulder nervously as if they were hard on his heels.

Blighted eyes. She went to step out on the veranda, thinking to go somewhere else, but he pushed her back inside and vanished. She took the hint and retreated to her sleeping room. Once there, she untied the canvas door and unrolled it to the floor to close off the doorway. A moment later she felt the water of two people enter the main room, and blessed the nameless boy for his warning. She sat down quietly on the clothes chest. One of the two men lifted her door to peer in. It was Ravard. He did not speak, but raised a finger to his lips, bidding her be silent. She nodded, and the heavy cloth fell back into place.

"We're alone?" Davim asked. "I've private matters to discuss."

He can't sense me, she thought suddenly in surprise. And Ravard hadn't worried that he would. Why not? She was confounded. Wasn't Davim a water sensitive after all?

"The slaves are busy elsewhere, Sandmaster," Ravard said. "I have given orders that they are to attend to the needs of your men and pedes."

She smiled and settled back to listen. Fortunately, it apparently hadn't occurred to Ravard that she might by now have picked up enough of his language to understand a conversation. They spoke first of the situation in the Scarpen. Davim's army had abandoned Breccia after stripping the groves of all the bab fruit and stealing all the water they could carry. There was still a token force in Qanatend, however, headed by the Warrior Son, Medrim.

"No point in abandoning that place," Davim remarked casually. "Not while there's still water coming in from the mother cistern. A nice supply for us to pillage without crossing the Warthago. The stormlord even made it rain up in the mother well valleys the other day." He chuckled. "That young fellow is as soft as pede milk curds."

Ryka sensed the shrug of Ravard's shoulders. "He doesn't want his water-plump city dwellers to thirst."

Davim laughed and the sound made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. "Oh," he said, the smiling tone in his voice carelessly cruel, "we killed most of the dregs on our way through. Just left the useful ones to serve the men we left behind. So in truth, the stormlord is supplying us with water in plenty. With so few folk in the city, we'll do well, I think."

"I thought the idea was for us to return to a Time of Random Rain." There was a faint edge to Ravard's voice and Ryka stirred uneasily. The last thing she wanted was the Master Son upsetting the sandmaster.

"And so we shall. So we shall," Davim said. "But it's shriveling tough while this stormlord picks up any stray water vapor along the coast to make his blasted storm clouds."

"But they draw water from the sea!"

"Jasper's weak. Seems he gathers as much natural water vapor as he can to help him out. We have little chance of sufficient random rain to meet our needs if he does that. Taquar is using it as a threat, of course. If I upset his plans too much, we get no rain at all."

"Is he bluffing? Sandmaster, we need a long-term plan."

"I don't need you to tell me that, you insolent pup." The words conveyed annoyance, but Ryka was relieved to hear his tone remained mild. Even so, she thought she felt the tension spiral tighter.

There was a moment's silence Ryka could not interpret, then Davim continued, "We have to kill Taquar and young Bloodstone. There'll be a battle to end all battles, and soon. Which is something I wanted to talk to you about: the preparation of your men. Of all our men. I've sent messages to every dune, asking all tribemasters to gather at my encampment to discuss this."

"And Vara Redmane?"

"A sand-tick biting our arse. A nuisance, an itch, but no more than that."

"Every tribe has lost slaves to her cause. Not to mention disaffected warriors-many of the experienced older men who supported her husband's leadership. And her army is behind us-somewhere in the dunes."

"Army? They're rabble! They're also thirsty. What possible danger can they be to us?"

"How can we attack Taquar and the stormlord if we leave our bare backsides hanging out so someone can shove a spear up them? And if we're thirsty because random rain is far more random than-" But whatever he was going to say was broken off short in the sounds of a scuffle from the other room. Ryka drew in a sharp breath. Her water-sense told her both men had jumped to their feet, and one-Davim, she guessed-had grabbed the other and shaken him, none too softly, either.

"They have no waterholes!" Davim shouted. "Get that into your sand-addled wits. That woman and her fellow traitors are dying now. Out there somewhere on one of the empty dunes. You're no bleeding blood son of mine, Ravard-don't make me regret choosing you as my heir. And don't ever forget that while I'm still alive, I can change my mind. I do have blood sons."

"What kind of a Master Son would I be if I didn't tell you what I think? Sandmaster, I'm not going to lie to you to make you happy! If that's the kind of Master Son you want, you chose the wrong man. And don't take me for a suncrazed fool: I know once your sons are grown one of them will replace me as Master Son. I've always known that. I even know that besides the two born in your tent and acknowledged, there is another almost grown, over on Dune Hungry One, a man who knows who his father is, even though he was born to an unpledged woman."

When Ravard spoke again his tone was quieter, yet more impassioned. "I owe you everything I am, everything I have, so I'll serve you, and I'll serve your sons when the time comes, if they don't shove a knife in my guts first. And none of you'll get anything but the unpolished truth from me."

There was a silence, then a rustle. One of them had moved to touch the other.

"You're right; I'd not want a honey-tongued Master Son. I know we've got a foe jabbing at our arses-but I also know that those forces are as weak as an old man's piddle. Sands, they're led by a woman with a shriveled womb, what do you expect! I will deal with the Redmane bitch later. Right now, we have to stop a rainlord and a stormlord from stealing our random rain. And that's my final word on the matter."

"Let's speak of other things. This Uthardim fellow."

Ryka sat up straighter, her heart thumping.

"He's no reborn hero from the past," Ravard said.

"You sure of that? One of the first things I heard when I rode into camp is that the dune gods listen to him. Protect him. Back on Pebblered, I heard their dune god rose up at Uthardim's command to save their tribemaster from an assassin."

"The dune god saved someone, certainly-but Half-face didn't ask him to do it. Not that I saw. It's just a rumor, as false as a sand-dancer's tits."

"And what happened here earlier today? Men are saying our dune god saved Uthardim from punishment."

"No. The dune god saved me from doing something foolish. I was annoyed by Half-face and his arrogance and nearly defied your orders to treat him with respect. The dune god serves our tribesmen, not that Scarperman city-groveler."

Briefly Ravard outlined what had happened, without any reference to Ryka's part. "Sandmaster, this man's appearance and his burning is no more than a coincidence. If the true Uthardim returned to us, he'd be born to one of our tribe, or at the very least a dunesman. But this fellow was birthed in the Scarpen-a street-groveler, walking on stones and sleeping without the cleansing light of stars. He champions our Scarpen slaves. Stirs up trouble among them. One of the women is bearing a child he fathered. Is this the mark of the true Lord Uthardim? He was known for adherence to our people's ways and for his love of his wife, the Mother of his tribe."

"You sure of all this?"

"I'm not the only one to notice the way the slaves turn to him. Older heads than mine have already spoken their warnings and voiced their doubts about his ancestry. Jordestid the pedeman, for example. And old Brudedim. You know him; nothing much escapes his eye, or his ear."

"No, that's true. In fact he's already said he wants to speak to me on the matter. All right-the man is not Uthardim. Kill him, but quietly. And soon. No corpse. No rumors. Understand?"

"Tonight he prays at the shrine on my orders. I can make him disappear. And my shaman'll say the dune god came for him."

"Do it. No witnesses, Ravard. I made a mistake with the man, I'll admit. I don't want anyone to have to pay for that error."

"I'll do it myself. When the camp settles into sleep at the darkest hour of night. It'll be a pleasure."

In the other room, Ryka listened and sweated.

The two men continued to chat, a hundred different topics. They boasted of their battles, laughed at the ease of their victories in the Scarpen. Spoke of the continued raids into the White Quarter, of the death of a mine because Davim had wanted it so. Ryka, her mind racing, hardly heard. It wasn't until she realized that the two men had stood again that she concentrated on them once more.

It was well she did, because Davim was saying, "I want to nap before the evening meal." And someone's water approached her door. Davim's, she assumed, although she could not differentiate one man's water from another's.

Without waiting to find out which one of them it was, she dived off the box and into the second sleeping room. Fortunately the canvas curtain was not tied open-but it swayed as she pushed past it. She bent to steady it and prayed he wouldn't notice.

It's the breeze, she thought insanely, as if she could influence him with the power of her mind. Just think it's the breeze you made when you stepped in there…

To her horror, she felt his water cross the room she had just vacated, heading for her. She spun around and leaped for the wooden chest in the room. Hauling it open with one sweeping movement, she threw the quilts it contained onto the pallet in an untidy heap. Panicked, she dived into the chest, curled up and closed the lid. She heard the rustle of the raised curtain door. She heard Ravard, further away, say something but could not make out the words.

"No, nothing," Davim said.

The body moved away from the door and then his water was supine. She let out the breath she had been holding. She was crushed into an impossibly small space. The chest was not made to hold a body, let alone a pregnant one. It was dark and airless. Every muscle screamed at her to get out of there, shrieking pain. But she dared not move. Not yet.

She waited.

Much later she edged the wooden lid upward. A crack at first, until she heard the even, heavy breathing of a man asleep in the next room. She levered the lid open and unfolded herself. Standing by the chest once more, stiff and aching, she stared at it in disbelief. She had fitted inside that? In a saner moment she would never have even tried.

For a moment she hesitated, wondering if there was some way she could kill the sandmaster, but she had no weapons, and always, always, she remembered the danger to her child. In the end, she tiptoed across the room to the back wall of the tent. Once there, she peeled back the carpeting to reveal the sand beneath. Carefully, silently, she scooped sand to one side until she'd made a hole under the wall. She bent down and peered out. There was no one around; the back of the tent faced the privy and beyond that, the back of several other tents. She slithered out, filled in the hole, and pulled the carpet flat before letting the wall fall back into place.

Outside, she sank down in the shade of the tent, panting as if she had run a race. She doubted Davim would have been forgiving of either of them had he caught her eavesdropping on his conversation with Ravard. Especially if he remembered her from Breccia.

And now what was she going to do? She had to warn Kaneth, and soon. The sun was already low in the sky, and the shadows were long. He had to leave. With or without the other slaves, he had to go. She thought about the conversation she had overheard, wondering what was bothering her about it. Something to do with Ravard. It had been niggling at the edge of her consciousness as she had listened, but she couldn't decide what it was.

The trouble is I may think I speak Reduner well, but I don't really, she thought. It's not my language. I missed something. Some nuance of something. And I don't know what it was. She tried to capture the thought, but it skittered away like an ant lion sliding through sand. She turned to wondering about Davim, and why he hadn't sensed her water.

"So this is where you got to."

She jumped. Eyes closed, she had been so busy thinking she'd forgotten to pay attention to her surroundings. Ravard was looking down at her.

"It didn't seem a good idea to stay in there."

"It wasn't. I sent Khedrim to tell you to get out."

"The lad? He did try, but we have a language problem and there wasn't time."

He grinned at her, shaking his head half in mockery, half in reluctant admiration. "Me guts shriveled, thinking the sandmaster would rip us t'pieces-and then you weren't there. I felt your water in the wooden chest, but I couldn't believe you'd fit inside!" He chuckled, pulled her to her feet and kissed her on the cheeks, then the lips. Then he sighed, exasperated. "I can think of a lot of things I'd like t'be doing right now, but you'd best be gone. Go down t'the slave lines and stay there till I call for you."

She was furious. He knew he was going to kill the father of her child that night, and he could kiss her, pretend everything was normal?

He had spoken with Davim so blithely about Kaneth's death, not caring because he thought she understood none of it. Well, I understood every word, you spitless horror, she thought. In her anger, she wanted to claw his eyes out.

Instead, she asked, "Why didn't the sandmaster sense my water? Sandmasters and tribemasters are water sensitives, aren't they?"

He hesitated and she thought he was going to brush away the question, but in the end he said quietly, "You mustn't tell anyone that, Garnet. If you do, you'll die. He has some sensitivity, enough to feel a waterhole f'r instance, but it is weak. It's why he made me the Master Son, so I could help hide his weakness. His shaman covers for him, too. We do it 'cause he is a truly great leader and warrior, a man who will return the Red Quarter-no, the whole Quartern-to its former glory. He doesn't need t'feel water t'do that. He can have water sensitives like me do it for him."

She shrugged, even as she wondered whether he was warning her or threatening her. "It's nothing to me." One thing about being around Ravard so much; she was learning to be a good liar. After she left Ravard, she found Elmar without too much trouble. He was busy grooming pedes down in Davim's camp. None of the slaves was roped anymore, or even watched. Escape was impossible without a pede, water and supplies; leaving the dune without alerting the ring of sentries would be hard and pursuit would be immediate.

But we'll do it, she thought with grim determination.

She grabbed up a polishing cloth and a bag of beeswax and worked alongside Elmar while she talked.

"Do you know where Uthardim is?" she asked quietly.

"Someone came looking for him earlier. He's supposed to be a metalworker and they needed some weaponry sharpened." He grinned at her. "I reckon he'll be doing his best to thin some blades beyond what is wise."

"I've got to see him urgently." Quickly she outlined the conversation between Ravard and Davim.

"Withering spit," he snarled. "Listen, you had best look for Ka-Uthardim yourself. Look for the forge fire, that's where he'll be. Tell him I'm assuming tonight's the night for the escape then. I'll start telling our folk."

She nodded and slipped away. By the time she'd located the camp forge fire, the sun had almost set and most of Davim's men were heading toward the cooking pots in the main encampment.

Kaneth took one look at her face and barked, "Oh good-a pair of free hands. Can you work this for me?" He thrust a set of leather bellows into her hands and indicated where he wanted the air directed. "What is it?" he asked under the cover of the noise they made. He thrust a scimitar into the glowing coals.

"Are you supposed to do that?" she asked.

He grinned at her. "No, it weakens the blade. But no one is watching and the metalworker has gone off to eat."

She glanced around. The nearest Reduner warriors were picking through a pile of mended weaponry. Quickly she told him what she had overheard. "I've already let Elmar know. He thinks we should all leave tonight. He's telling the other slaves."

He gave her a long stare then, and withdrew the scimitar. She stopped the pumping of the bellows and the coals darkened. He took the weapon over to the work table and started hammering at it with little concern for the health of the blade.

"Everyone goes," he said. "Or as many as we can take. I'll kill Ravard when he comes to kill me. Then I'll bring the slope of the dune down on Davim's camp. That will be the signal. Tell Elmar that. Your job is to organize water and food and tell the women. I have to be up at the shrine in a moment."

He glanced upward. The holy stone was a black shadow against a red sky, a finger of rock pointing upward. Closer at hand, the Reduners at the pile of weapons walked away, talking among themselves.

Kaneth turned back to her, to say something further, but changed his mind as someone else approached.

Ravard's shaman stopped by them, his face shadowed by the hood of the cloak that he had pulled over his head. He spoke in his own tongue. "It's time. The dune god awaits your prayers."

Ryka glimpsed a fleeting expression of distaste on Kaneth's face and looked away. He knows he is going to kill the man tonight.

Kaneth laid down the scimitar and walked to where he had flung his cloak over a tent guy rope. The way he moved then told her he had snatched another sword from the pile of weaponry in passing, hiding the theft within a swirl of the cloak. The shaman was too busy glaring at her to see, too busy wondering what she was doing there, pondering whether he should scold her for it. He would pay for that mistake.

She could even feel the stirrings of pity as she began to walk away.

"Lady." She halted and turned back. Kaneth was standing there, his cloak hitched over one shoulder, his head tilted in the way she knew so well, the glow of the sky illuminating one half of his face, the unscarred half. For a moment she could pretend he was the handsome man she had once known. "I am so sorry," he said, his tone formal, the words laden with deeper meaning. "I profoundly regret that I do not remember what ought to have been remembered and celebrated. I hope-I hope you will not hold it against me."

By way of answer, she moved her hand to cover the bump of their child. "Never," she said, and wondered why it sounded far too much like a goodbye.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Scarpen Quarter Caravanner route and Pahntuk Caravansary Something was sparkling up ahead. Little twinkles of light, pinpricks in the still harsh light of a desert day just coming to a close.

"Alabasters," Sardi said with certainty, shading his eyes as he stared down the track. He was older than Terelle, but his youthful enthusiasm made him seem younger, at least to her. She'd shared his mount all the way from Samphire to the Scarpen, and sometimes she tired of his overt exuberance. Still, it was hard not to like Sardi.

She looked down at her clothing, a borrowed Alabaster robe. As they rode, the mirrors flashed irritatingly. "I'm sure you're right," she agreed. "But where are they coming from?"

"The Bastion sent out spies to Pahntuk Caravansary as soon as the messages arrived. Just to check if it was a trap. They'll be coming to tell us what they found."

"Oh." She wasn't surprised; when she had met the Bastion she'd come away with the impression that he was an astute old man, not given to making impetuous decisions. Inwardly she sighed, remembering the city and the many questions she had that had never been answered. If she had formed any opinion of Alabasters, it was that they were secretive.

The Bastion had passed on the latest news Samphire had received, though, messages from the Scarpen via the Gibber. Breccia had fallen to the Reduners. Cloudmaster Granthon was dead. The new stormlord, Jasper Bloodstone, was now in Scarcleft. Other than that, they had not been able to tell her much about what was happening elsewhere, and they had been secretive about their own affairs. There is so much I need to tell Shale, so much I want to ask.

Sardi twisted in the saddle to grin at her. "Oh, good! Father has given the signal to stop for the day. There's a caravansary up ahead!"

A little later she was gratefully slipping off the pede and helping to set up camp outside the caravansary walls. There were pedes to clean and water, cooking to be done, mounts to be hobbled and set free to graze, water to be fetched. She was only halfway through her normal chores when Messenjer called her into the caravansary to meet one of the men who had ridden in from Pahntuk.

The man who rose from one of the daub benches in the public room was a tall, thin, middle-aged Alabaster with kindly eyes. "This is Feroze Khorash," Messenjer said. "A special envoy of the Bastion. He'd like to talk to you."

The name seemed familiar, although she couldn't think where she might have heard it. After they'd exchanged greetings, Messenjer left and for a moment there was an awkward silence until Terelle asked, "The stormlord who sent the cloud messages-is he in Pahntuk?"

"No. Just his army. Men and women from all over the Scarpen and some Gibber folk, too. They are being trained by some of the rainlords under Lord Iani Potch."

Her heart pitched, leaving a sick feeling behind. Oh, Shale, when do I get to see you again? She had been dreaming of it, but it wasn't going to happen any time soon after all.

"Have a seat," Feroze said. He sat down watching her, concerned. "Ye don't look well."

"Where is he?" she asked, too agitated to be polite. So sand-brained. We scarcely know each other…

"In Scarcleft with Lord Taquar. Together they are stormshifting."

She paled. "I was hoping-" But she couldn't go on.

"I wouldn't worry too much. Lord Jasper is a very resourceful young man, and he is in contact with Lord Iani on a regular-"

"Lord Jasper? I meant Shale Flint!"

Feroze blinked. "I'm sorry. Who is that?"

"The-the person who sent the sky messages." It must have been him. Only he knew I cheated at Lords and Shells…

"Ah. Then I think he and Lord Jasper must be one and the same person."

While she was still trying to take that in, he added, "I looked for ye once, ye know. Least, I assume it was ye."

"For me? When? Where?"

"A few cycles ago. A caravanner once told us he had seen a Watergiver man and a girl. In the streets of Scarcleft. Do ye remember seeing an Alabaster trader?"

The day she'd met Russet for the first time, an Alabaster man had bowed to her. Russet had said he recognized her by her tears. She had forgotten all about that. Now, as Feroze reminded her, she wondered, Recognized me as what? A Watergiver?

"Yes, I remember."

"He told me about seeing ye. The next time I was in Scarcleft, I looked for ye-but I was attacked and had to leave in a hurry. I met Jasper on that visit. At least, he said his name was Jasper. Is your Shale from the Gibber? About nineteen or twenty years old?"

She nodded. "There was an Alabaster he talked about. A salt merchant. Of course! That's where I've heard your name before! He helped you to escape Scarcleft. We were hoping you'd get word to the old Cloudmaster. When we didn't hear anything, we thought you hadn't made it. He was upset." And he is the Scarpen's only stormlord after all…

The man stared at his knees. "I failed him. I was injured and ill and suncrazy. The pede took me to Portennabar, on the coast. I was sick for a long time. A long story and some day I will tell it, but not now. In the end I did get to Breccia, arriving just in time to see the Reduners scaling the walls. I turned my pede and headed for Samphire, to take the news." He reached into his purse. "Look, I still have this. He gave it to me, but I kept it. It was far too valuable a present and I have looked forward to the day I can return it."

He was holding a gemstone in his fingers. It was the size of a sandgrouse egg, green in color and flecked through with splashes of red. Still unpolished, it was rough and dull.

Had Shale mentioned that to her? She couldn't remember.

He changed the subject. "Terelle, why don't ye join me on my pede tomorrow? I am sending my companions back to Samphire to tell the Bastion and the councils what is happening, but I am riding back to Pahntuk with ye all. Messenjer says ye are troubled about your waterpainting powers. Perhaps it would help to be talking to me about it." She accepted Feroze's invitation, and for the final two days' ride to Pahntuk Wells she mounted his pede. He used a driver, and sat with his back to the man, facing her. It made talking easy and she wondered why she'd never seen anyone do it before. Sardi grinned broadly every time he glanced their way, so he thought it was a huge joke; his brother's sour face told another story, obviously thinking such behavior was not appropriate for a man of stature. Feroze didn't care what anyone said. Terelle found herself liking him more and more.

When she told him her story, what Russet had done to her with his paintings shocked him so much there were tears in his eyes.

"I never thought I would hear of a Watergiver lord misusing his power like that. It is despicable! Are ye feeling ill now?"

"No. I followed his advice and it seems to work. I can feel the tug of my need to be in Khromatis, but it is more annoying than sickening."

"He's a wicked man. Or crazed."

"And yet you are all asking me to use my waterpainting powers to kill. How do I know if that's the right thing to do? Messenjer says the powers come from God and cannot therefore be evil."

He snorted. "Messenjer is a dear friend of mine, but he can also be a sand-brained fool. Any of God's gifts can be misused. Ye must indeed be careful and use its magic sparingly. But it can also be a sin not to use it, too."

"That's what the Bastion said, too. And Physician Errica. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that I don't believe in your God! I have always offered water to the Sunlord."

"I don't know much about the Sunlord," Feroze admitted, "but I can tell ye that Ash Gridelin was only ever a Watergiver like your mother was, or Russet is, so I doubt the Sunlord has any validity except what men have made of him for their own ends."

"That's terribly blasphemous."

"To a Scarpen waterpriest, doubtless. To an Alabaster or anyone from Khromatis, the idea of Ash Gridelin being an emissary of the sun is laughable. It all depends on where you were born, really."

Terelle frowned, thinking.

After a while he continued, "In Khromatis, everyone who can move water and anyone who can shuffle up a waterpainting is called a Watergiver. They are the Lords of Khromatis. Ash Gridelin was one of these nobles, not a Quartern man at all, as ye are taught. A restless man, an adventurer who dreamed of exploring the world. Against all laws, he strayed into the Quartern. He went to Alabaster along the way, which is why we know about him, then on to the Scarpen and Gibber. He is a historical figure to us, appearing in our histories as a real man. He met the Bastion of that time, upset several prominent families with his dalliances with their women. In fact, several Alabaster families-including my own-can trace back to him as an ancestor."

She stared at him, wide-eyed with shock, and he laughed. "He was just a man. Not a particularly good man. He stayed in the Quartern to be helping a land suffering because of its water shortages. He taught people to be rainlords and stormlords."

"That's withering spittle! You can't teach someone to be a stormlord. Even a water sensitive is born that way. Only the Sunlord can grant that gift!"

"Well, I have oversimplified things, I admit. Yes, one is born with the talent. In the Quartern, though, no one was born with any talent at all, until Ash Gridelin. The first stormlords and rainlords and reeves were all his descendants. That was the way he saved the Quartern. Until the first children grew up and he taught them how to manage their powers, he was the only stormlord."

She blinked, taken aback. "You're saying-?" She gave a bark of skeptical laughter. "He must have been prolific!"

"He was."

"That's ridiculous!" she said, exasperated.

He didn't look in the least offended, saying, "Ah, but we have proof of the origins of Ash Gridelin. Did Russet ever tell ye about the naming of people in his land?"

Terelle nodded. "He said they were-" She halted, then whispered, "Oh."

"Ah. I think ye see the connection now, right?"

"He said people there are named for colors. Ash and Gridelin. They-they are both types of gray. I never thought of that. All right, so he might have been from Khromatis. But the ancestor of all water sensitives? Sandblast it, how many children did he have ever?"

"Oh, about a hundred, I believe. His seed was known to be, um, effective. Most of those born were water talented to some degree or another."

"A hundred?" She was horrified. "That's-that's-"

He cut her short, which was probably just as well. She had been going to say disgusting.

"He saved the Quartern and its people from dying of thirst from his generation onward. Most of his children were born to Scarpen folk, but there were Gibber and Reduner and Alabaster children, too. Your friend Shale must come down through the Gibber line."

"Surely that can't be right! How could such a person be revered as holy?"

"Well, he wasn't to us. Quite the contrary. In fact, he was rather an arrogant fellow by all accounts, not worthy of reverence by your priests and their faithful congregation. He failed to instruct his extended family in our faith, which was unforgivable. He gloried in the fact that women flocked to his door. He must also have been charming, I suppose. A man who genuinely loved the company of women. There is proof of his very human existence all over the place in Alabaster. Even in my family we have journals written by family members in which he is mentioned. He seduced my many times great-grandmother, and she wrote it all down afterward in an excess of remorse. The language is archaic and the ink faded, but the scrolls are still legible. I've read them myself."

Upset, Terelle tried to reject what he was saying, but his honesty was obvious. He believed his words.

"He returned to Alabaster as an elderly man," Feroze continued, apparently oblivious to her inner turmoil, "to be dying among those of his own faith. He was quite unabashed and wrote down all his tales of life in the Scarpen and Gibber. Ye can read his stories in the Samphire library. Written in his hand. Although they are in the Khromatis script, so ye wouldn't understand them, I suppose."

"You mean-are you saying that the Alabaster faith and the Khromatis religion are identical? And that the Scarpen one true faith is all made up, probably to account for an ability that had its origins in-in-a man with the morals of a street cat?"

He nodded.

She felt a wave of dizziness, as though the pede had tipped, upsetting her balance. "I don't think you had better mention that aloud in the Scarpen."

"Believe me, I don't."

She tried to smile but felt nauseated. Have I really been believing a lie all this time? Wasting my water? Maybe there was no deity at all. Perhaps life was just as random as flinging leaves into the wind and watching while they danced and fluttered their way to the ground.

The idea was too big, too alien, for her to grasp. She wasn't sure she even wanted to know. Messenjer, driving his own pede with several warriors seated behind him, halted the mount as he topped the rise overlooking the caravansary. He shook his head in bemusement at what he saw. "Who would have thought it? Gibbermen coming to the aid of Scarpen freedom."

Terelle removed her palmubra and fanned herself. Now that they had stopped the heat was ruthlessly desiccating. She was hot, dusty and tired. She looked over her shoulder. Behind them, the whole line of white pedes was slowing to a halt. So many of them, she thought. Myriapedes, packpedes, armsmen, supplies. She couldn't even see the tail end of the Alabaster caravan. Surely enough men to rescue Shale from Taquar, even though they don't have ziggers. The other thought niggling, though, was darker: But not enough to defeat the Reduners. Not nearly enough.

She dragged her thoughts back to Messenjer's words and stared at the pedes and people milling around outside the caravansary walls. Gibbermen? How did he know? Certainly the pedes around the caravansary were black, but they could have been Scarpen beasts, couldn't they?

"Gibber pedes are not as robust as Scarpen ones," he said, answering her unspoken question. "They are lighter, narrower animals. There's a mix of both Scarpen and Gibber ones there."

"Those people behind us will catch us up at any moment," Messenjer said to Feroze. "The dust is closer." They had been watching a red cloud behind them all day, stirred up by unknown followers. At first, they had feared it could be Reduners. Now, close to the caravansary, that fear had faded.

"Whoever it is, they are pushing their mounts," Feroze remarked in answer, his tone heavy with disapproval. Like most Alabasters, he hated to see a pede abused or overworked. "How about moving on, Mez? My old bones need to get off this animal."

Messenjer, who was older than Feroze, grinned and waved a hand in acknowledgment as he urged the pede down the slope to the caravansary. Feroze winked at Terelle.

As they reached the outskirts of the crowd around the caravansary, the billow of dust finally resolved itself into twelve men on a single black packpede. Boisterous Gibbermen armed with an extraordinary selection of weapons-everything from a sledgehammer to numerous thatch-cutters and the poled knives used to harvest bab fruit. They were young, exuberant, undisciplined and noisy, causing Messenjer to stiffen with distaste, Feroze to stifle a laugh and Terelle to grin.

"Are you out to join the stormlord?" she asked them as they drew up alongside.

The driver on the first saddle flashed a smile. "'Sright! You read them sky-writin' words too?"

She nodded.

"We're all from Wash Kering Settle. Our reeve tol' us what them sky words said. There's been messages of all kinds all over the Gibber, not just written in them clouds. Comin' out of the Scarpen from some stormlord called Bloodstone. Heard tell the old Cloudmaster snuffed it and this is the new fellow."

Feroze nodded. "Have you seen many Gibbermen on the road answering the stormlord's call?"

The pede driver shrugged. "There's plenty who'd like to, y'know. But we're pissin' poor washfolk. Aren't many pedes in the Gibber, and fewer weapons… But he wrote up there on the sky he was washfolk like us, y'see. The new Cloudmaster! A Gibberman! When folk heard that, they was real eager t'help out. Everyone as could get hisself a pede's out there somewhere, on their way here. 'Strue he's a Gibberman?"

"Yes," Terelle replied. "I've met him. His name is Sh-um, Jasper Bloodstone, and he's from Wash Drybone Settle."

"Really?" one of the younger Gibbermen asked, awed. "We always thought them stormlords were gods, not Gibbermen. Even after folk tole us what them sky words said, we wondered if they was scoffin' us."

"And we heard Wash Drybone Settle was burned by them Reduners," the driver added.

"That's right, it was," Terelle said.

They pelted her with questions, which she did her best to answer. She was relieved when one of them spotted a group of Gibbermen making camp beside the track, and they rode off to join them.

Feroze halted the Alabaster caravan and he and Messenjer started to organize a camp. Terelle made herself useful by grooming Messenjer's pede, but as she worked, she gazed around. With the arrival of the Alabaster caravan, the overflow of people and pedes outside the Pahntuk Caravansary stretched half a mile beyond the walls in all directions.

Sandblast, she thought. Shale did this?

Only then did the enormity of what was going to happen become real. There was going to be a battle. And the Alabasters, maybe Shale as well, were going to be looking to her to do something. People were going to die. They wanted her waterpainting to work miracles-and she still did not have the faintest idea how to do it. Terelle's first impression of Iani Potch was not favorable. He stood up to greet her, but had to brace himself against the wall of the room, as if to give himself some stability. He looked sick and old, a Scarperman with dragging steps and sagging cheeks. His gaze found Feroze and his face lit up in a pleased smile-or so Terelle surmised. It was hard to tell when half of his face did not move at all and his mouth on that side drooped open at one corner.

His gaze shifted to her. "Would you be Arta Terelle the waterpainter?" There was a tremor in his hands, as if he had been drinking, but she could smell no amber on his breath. "In spite of your Alabaster robe?"

She nodded dumbly.

"Then I am truly delighted. I'm Lord Iani Potch. Otherwise known as Iani the Sandcrazy. You have heard of me, I believe, from Jasper." Without waiting for her acknowledgment, he turned to Feroze. "And would it be too much to hope you came back with your army?"

"Indeed I did. I met them two days out-one thousand armed men, several hundred support workers, another thousand armsmen to follow in a few days. I hope ye have water and food for them all, because we are running low."

Iani smiled, but his smile was little more than a sideways twist of his lips, and ended up more like a sneer. "Welcome. We're hunting and salting meat for everyone. As for water, the tunnel is still running. We found some of those treacherous Scarcleft enforcers trying to steal some yesterday, down a ways.

"But I am forgetting my manners. Please sit down." He waved to one of the men hovering at the door, indicating he wanted some tea brought. The room was typical of a caravansary: brown adobe walls several hand-spans thick, window holes that could be shuttered tight in a dust storm, an adobe seat running all the way around the walls, strewn with threadbare embroidered cushions and faded rugs. Low tables made of polished pede segments were the only other furnishings.

Iani sat and patted the cushions next to him. "Sit here, Arta. Jasper gave me your description. Told me all about you. What you can do. He said he thought you'd come back because he sent you a sky message. We've had people looking for you everywhere."

She was astonished. "You've seen him? I thought he was Taquar's prisoner in Scarcleft! Jasper is Shale Flint, isn't he?"

Iani nodded. "He is. And in a way he is trapped. He needs to meet you, urgently. We're to take you to see him-apparently you're very important to his plans."

She blinked, trying to absorb that. "You mean, he's free?" Annoyance fluttered, threatening to grow larger. Shale had brought her back, not because he was in Taquar's clutches, but in order to use her?

He knows how hard that is for me…

Oblivious to her growing irritation, Iani said, "Not exactly. He still lives in Scarcleft so he can make it rain with Taquar's help. But he does come and go as he pleases. He'll meet you outside the city. You'll be safe, don't worry; Taquar won't know you're there."

Agitated, she stood and went to look out one of the room's windows. Below she could see a seething mass of people, mostly men; a swarm of would-be warriors scurrying about like wingless ants from a disturbed nest. They seemed disorganized, uncoordinated, undisciplined. She remembered all Shale had told her of Davim. Of the way his men had callously wiped out the village of Wash Drybone. What chance did these people below have against a ruthless Reduner warrior?

She turned away from the window. "How-how is he?"

"Perhaps I'd better tell you the whole story. Why don't you sit down, Arta, while I explain. We can have some tea…"

She did as he asked, curbing her impatience while the tea was brought in tiny hollowed-stone cups, accompanied by honeyed bab cakes as hard as desert rock, and Iani began to explain.

"Jasper sent me a sky message-no, let me begin before that. I met Jasper when I rode to Breccia to get help for Qanatend. Cloudmaster Granthon turned me down. So I rode back. The Reduners had Pebblebag Pass blocked, of course, but I found a way through. By the time I got to the city, it'd fallen. From what I could find out from the few folk who escaped, the rainlords there were all dead. Including-including my wife. So I rode to Pediment.

"They wouldn't help, either. I tried Denmasad and Breakaway as well. They all turned me down. Then Breccia fell to Davim and I managed to get all the cities talking to one another, planning for war, training men, especially when they found out the Cloudmaster was dead."

"What happened to Shale?" She corrected herself. "Jasper. When I left Scarcleft, he was in Breccia."

"Apparently he fled when the city fell, with Nealrith's wife, Laisa, and their daughter Senya. Laisa drugged him and handed him over to Taquar. Ironically enough, it was probably just as well, because he and Taquar, working together, manage to make it rain." He paused to wipe away the spittle dribbling down his chin. "Rumors spread about what I was doing, and Jasper got to hear. He sent a sky message. We met out in The Sweepings."

"Is he-is he all right?"

Feroze's pale eyes flickered her way in interest.

"He's fine. I took him to Portfillik and Pediment, to meet the highlords there. Then he returned to Scarcleft."

"He returned? By himself? But why?"

That memory replaying in her head: Taquar standing beside her, playing with her hair, the rapaciousness of his gaze eroding her confidence and her courage, while she wrote a letter to entice Shale back into his cage…

"To make it rain, of course." Iani dabbed again at his lip and tried to sip from the cup. "He'd grown since I saw him last. Got not just taller but… older, somehow. I hardly recognized him. 'I'm glad to see you got my message,' he said, as calm as you please. As if I could have missed it! Anyway, first thing Jasper told me about was his cloudmaking. He can only do it with Taquar. That's why he can't leave." His face suddenly changed, haunted by a fleeting expression of hate and despair. "Taquar killed Lyneth, you know. He might say he didn't, but he did." The words were as stark as sun-bleached bones and Terelle had to repress a shudder.

"So I can't kill him," he added. "I want to. But if I do, we thirst and die. Jasper wants to free Qanatend from the last of Davim's claws. Did you know some Reduners are still there? Under the Warrior Son. And they control the mother cistern of the city, too."

She was silent. In the face of his despair, any words she might have uttered froze on her tongue.

"Moiqa died there; my wife, you know. One day soon, I will kill Davim. Him, I can kill."

"Where is he?" Feroze asked quietly, speaking for the first time.

"Gone back to the Red Quarter now, along with the Master Son. That's his heir, man named Ravard. Jasper will take the battle to the Red Quarter one day. You'll see."

Shale? Shale would? Terelle was reeling. He was the same age as she was. He wasn't a warrior. How could he lead men to battle? It was all too much to take in, and Iani's conversation was as undisciplined as a sand-dancer. "Why would he want to do that?" she asked at last. "If they go back to the Red Quarter, why not let them go? Leave them alone?"

"What about us Alabasters?" Feroze asked her, gently chiding. "They won't leave us alone. Should we just wait for them to kill us all?"

Iani nodded grimly. "He has to be stopped. But Jasper says we have to deal with Taquar first. And he needs your help."

Terelle felt her heart lurch to the pit of her gut. He meant her, not Feroze.

"Davim killed my wife, my Moiqa." His voice became a wistful shadow of its former strength. "I never even got to tell her about Lyneth… I never saw her again. By the time I arrived back at Qanatend, she was dead." He dabbed once more at his lip. "I am getting together an army, men from the other Scarpen cities, from the Gibber and the White Quarter. Taquar-that withering traitor: I'll make him pay." Hatred welled up and spilled over, pulling at the ravages of his damaged face, dragging his expression into the same hell-hole his soul had occupied for so long.

"I want to go back to Qanatend," he whispered.

Terelle swallowed, not knowing what to say to this man, so obviously balanced only precariously between sanity and madness. "How can we fight Taquar? We have no ziggers," she said, "and Taquar has thousands. And if we can't kill him anyway…"

"We have rainlords. Mostly very old ones, it's true, but skilled enough to kill ziggers. Moiqa's dead, you know. Did I tell you that?"

Terelle felt herself lost, so disoriented she might as well have been whirled away by a spindevil. Here was a rainlord of the Quartern talking to her as an equal, as if she was someone important. As if she could make a difference. She wanted him to sound competent and rational, but he was far from either.

She shot a despairing glance at Feroze, who then asked, "How can you fight a man whose strength is needed to bring storms?"

Iani was silent for a long time. Finally he whispered, "I want him dead so badly. They call me sandcrazy because I searched for her for so long-I never gave up hope, and all the while-" He choked. "Now I just want him dead. But I'm frightened, I'll admit that. If Jasper makes a mistake, we all die-slowly, of thirst and starvation. But he has a plan. Something to do with you, Terelle.

"He can be harsh, Jasper, when he needs to be. I told him the Highlord of Breakaway wanted guarantees before the city would help him. The next day, Jasper sent a sky message. 'Ouina,' he wrote, and he didn't bother to call her lord, 'I'll give you a guarantee: if you don't send your forces to support me, Breakaway will always be the last place to have its cisterns filled.'

"I told him that was harsh. 'It was meant to be,' he said. 'But not, I think, unreasonable. These are harsh times. Somewhere, Iani, there has to be a smooth middle road. Somewhere between weakness and abuse. It's just a matter of finding it. I don't want to be either Nealrith or Cloudmaster Granthon. It was their weaknesses, their lack of understanding of evil, that brought us to this point. But I don't want to be Laisa or Taquar, either-for they are not fit to rule.' Then he told me to train the men who came to this caravansary while I waited here for you. Which I have done. And we aren't the only ones, you know. Jasper sent sky messages to all the other cities. People are gathering in other places, waiting for his orders."

Terelle gave a snort of laughter. "And Taquar doesn't know Shale is sending messages all over the place?"

He shrugged, indifferent. "He must know by now, I would think."

She took a deep breath. "So, when do we leave for Scarcleft?"

His lips moved, a twisted travesty of a smile. Poor Iani, she thought. Crippled and heart-wounded, full of hate and aching for revenge, and Shale's asking him to wonder if his moral rights to that revenge are worth the risk to the water supply of a nation.

Waterless soul, help me. Shale thinks I can solve this problem. What do I know?

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Red Quarter Dune Watergatherer On the surface, it seemed a stupid time to plan a mass escape of slaves. There were one hundred more pedes and five hundred more seasoned warriors in camp than usual, the latter all heavily armed and outnumbering Ravard's men. In addition there were countless camp followers with them to serve the warriors, look after their pedes and care for their weapons.

However, Ryka soon realized they could not have chosen a better night. With so many extra men in camp, nothing was normal, and therefore anything unusual went unnoticed. Slaves came and went; when masters called they were busy elsewhere and no one thought much of it. When women slaves went missing, the men who usually slept with them made sour remarks about "Davim's bleeding randy drovers," but did nothing. When water skins went missing and water levels in camp jars were low, when a particular pede couldn't be found where it was supposed to be, if food seemed to vanish as soon as it was cooked, if the encampment was unusually noisy with the buzz of whispered conversations, if slaves seemed extra busy and always carrying things from one place to another, if every look exchanged seemed heavy with meaning, well-what else did you expect? There were so many extra people, all of whom were tired-you had to assume there would be a muddle.

Ryka turned to Junial for help. The baker was delighted to see her again and was happy to explain both the workings of the camp and what had already been done to prepare for the escape.

"You know," she added at the end of her explanation, "Kher Ravard doesn't have any slaves of his own, or didn't until