/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Jaran

An earthly crown

Kate Elliott


Kate Elliott

An earthly crown

"Barbaras hie ego sum, qui non intelligor illis."

— OVID (Here I am a barbarian, because men understand me not.)

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

— Peter Brook, The Empty Space Atheneum (New York, 1968)

PROLOGUE

"Nature that framed us of four elements, Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds: Our souls whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous architecture of the world: And measure every wandering planet's course, Still climbing after knowledge infinite, And always moving as the restless spheres, Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest, Until we reach the ripest fruit of all, That perfect bliss and sole felicity, The sweet fruition of an earthly crown."

— MARLOWE Tamburlaine The Great

The rider left the great sprawl of tents that marked the main camp of the nomad army just as the sun set. Dusk washed his scarlet shirt gray, and with only the gibbous moon to light him, he soon faded into the dark of night, the susurration of his horse's passage through the high grass marking his progress. Near midnight, he came to another, smaller camp, and here he changed horses and went on. By dawn, he was within sight of the low range of hills where lay the farthest outposts of the khaja, the settled people.

One hand's span after sunrise, he rode through a village. Fields spread out around the huts. Green shoots wet with dew sparkled in the soft light of morning. The khaja stopped in their tasks and stared at him, a lone jaran warrior armed with a saber and a lance, passing through their midst as if their presence was beneath his notice. None spoke, or moved against him.

A cluster of jaran tents stood in neat lines outside the leveled sod walls that had once protected the village. A single rider emerged from the encampment and rode out to meet him.

The traveler reined in his mount and waited, leaning forward over the horse's neck to whisper in its ear as it fretted at the tight rein. Then, sitting back, he lifted a hand. "Well met," he said as the young rider from the encampment pulled up beside him. "I am Aleksi Soerensen. I've come from the main camp, with a message for the Gathering of Elders. You're one of Grekov's riders, aren't you?"

"I'm Feodor Grekov. His sister's son. Soerensen?" Grekov hesitated, raising a hand to brush a lock of blond hair off of his forehead. He pronounced the name awkwardly.

"Yes," Aleksi agreed, politely but without a smile.

"You're the orphan that Bakhtiian's wife adopted," said Feodor. He examined Aleksi with what appeared to be common curiosity. ' 'It's said you have a fine hand for the saber."

Aleksi was disconcerted. He had not grown used to the respect, and the protection, his adopted sister's name granted him. "I had a fine teacher."

Feodor did not press the matter. "If you've come from the main camp, then your news must be important. I'll get you a new mount, and ride with you myself, if you need a guide."

' 'It's safe enough for the two of us from here on into the hills?"

"We have patrols running through all these hills. There are a few khaja bandits left, but nothing more. These khaja aren't real fighters. Soon they'll all be subject to us, as they should be." Feodor grinned. "And I'd like to go, anyway. It will be something to tell my children."

"Ah. You've a little one?"

Grekov flushed. "Not yet."

"But you've a woman in mind for a wife, I take it."

"I-" Feodor hesitated. "A man can't help looking," he said at last. Aleksi heard the bitterness in his voice clearly.

"I'd like to marry," Aleksi agreed, feeling suddenly and surprisingly sorry for Grekov, who ought to have had an easy life, being nephew of a tribal warleader and nephew to its headwoman. And since the unnamed young woman in question had no choice in marriage, Aleksi could only guess that the obstacles arose from Grekov's elders. "But I suppose I never will."

"Of course, as an orphan-but surely you've standing enough now, since Bakhtiian's wife has adopted you into her tent."

"Adopted me by her customs, not by ours. Or a bit by both, I suppose. Still, you may be right. I hope so."

"Gods," said Feodor, "there's enough trouble in the world without worrying about women." And that sealed their comradeship. Aleksi felt a bit overwhelmed by how easy it was, when you had a respectable name, a sister, a place in a tribe. "Come on," Feodor added, "we'll get you a new mount and something to eat, and then be on our way." He led Aleksi into camp and introduced him round as if he was just another young soldier like himself and the rest of the riders. A short time later, the two young men rode out in charity with each other.

By midday they reached the butte known to the jaran as khayan-sarmiia, Her Crown Fallen from Heaven to Earth. Once, the stories said, this range of hills was known only to the jaran tribes, but in recent generations a few khaja settlements had crept out across the plains from settled lands in the south and west to pollute the holy ground where the Sun's Crown had come to rest on the earth.

At the base of the hill, an army waited. Countless soldiers, in their tens and hundreds and thousands, gathered to acclaim the man who would lead them against their ancient enemies. Aleksi and Feodor left their horses with the army and hiked up the trail that ascended the steep hillside. The wind began to buffet them. Soon both were breathing hard, despite their youth, because they were not used to so much hard walking.

At last, the path leveled and gave out onto a plateau from whose height they could see the shifting mass of the army below, the rolling spread of hills, and a few distant wisps of smoke that marked khaja villages. Far to the south, past the flat haze of plain, a suggestion of bluer haze marked the southern mountains. To the north and east lay only the vast golden plains that blended at the horizon into the equally monotonous blue of the sky. West, though they could not see it from here, lay the sea.

They admired the view for as long as it took to get their breath back. But of far greater interest was the gathering now taking place on the plateau itself.

A single tent had been set up at the southern end of the plateau, a great tent whose sides shook in the wind that scoured the summit. Between the northern end, where the two young men stood on an escarpment of rock, and the tent lay a broad stretch of ground smoothed by generations of wind and storm. On this ground, on the earth itself, some on blankets, some on pillows, sat the assembled commanders and elders of the thousand tribes of the jaran.

At the very back sat the younger men, commanders of a hundred riders each; many now wore the scarlet shirts, brilliant with embroidery on the sleeves and collar, that had come to be the symbol of the jaran army, though a few still wore the colors of their own tribe. In front of them sat a sea of elders, some ancient and frail, some elderly but robust, female and male both.

At the very front sat the etsanas of the thousand tribes, each headwoman flanked by the dyan, the warleader, of her tribe. Most of the women were elderly, though a few were young. They wore their finest clothing, bright silk blouses beaded with gold and silver under calf-length tunics. Striped, belled trousers swelled out underneath. Jeweled headdresses and necklaces and torques and bracelets adorned them, and their hand mirrors hung free of their cases, face out in the glare so that they reflected the light of the sun. So many wore tiny bells that a faint tinkling chime could be heard, underscoring the rush of wind and the solemn proceedings.

The dyans, too, wore their finest shirts, twined animals or interlaced flora embroidered with lavish detail on the sleeves and capped with epaulets fastened on their shoulders. Each man wore sheathed at his belt a saber and most held a lance, so that the gathering resembled a sea of bright colors tipped with metal.

In a semicircle before the awning that stretched out from the tent sat ten women and eight men, the women on fine silken pillows and the men beside them on woven blankets: the etsanas and dyans of the Ten Eldest Tribes, the first tribes of the jaran. The men held their sabers, unsheathed, across their knees. Each woman gripped a staff from whose tip hung a horsetail woven with ribbons and golden harness, the symbol of their authority.

"Two dyans missing," said Feodor Grekov in a low voice to Aleksi. Aleksi glanced at him, and Grekov cocked his head toward the assembly. "Of course, Bakhtiian himself is the dyan of the Orzhekov tribe. But Sergei Veselov never arrived. I heard that he's ill."

"That's the news I brought," said Aleksi. "Sergei Veselov is dead. He died two days past."

"Who will become dyan, then? Arina Veselov's brother sits beside Bakhtiian, but everyone knows it isn't fitting for a brother and sister to act as etsana and dyan together."

"Sergei Veselov has a son, still, who could claim the position," said Aleksi slowly, not much interested in the Veselov tribe's troubles. He stared at the tent and at the small figures clustered underneath the awning.

"I don't think I've heard of him. Is he here?"

"No."

"Perhaps he doesn't know his father is dead. Perhaps he doesn't want to be dyan."

Aleksi shrugged. "I met him once, a long time ago. I don't know if he'd want the position." He added, under his breath: "Or if he did, if they would let him take it." Then he caught in his breath, because he had seen, under the awning, a woman dressed in man's clothing, the red shirt and black trousers and boots, armed with a saber.

Feodor Grekov made a tiny, strangled noise in his throat. "That's her, isn't it?" he asked. "That's Bakhtiian's niece."

Aleksi, with some disappointment, realized that the woman soldier's coloring was as dark as her uncle's. Where was Tess?

Six men and one woman, soldiers all, sat under the awning. In front of them, on a single pillow at the edge of the awning, half under the awning, half out under the open sky, sat the man on whom all attention was fixed. Ilyakoria Bakhtiian absorbed the force of their regard effortlessly. And yet, even at such a distance, Aleksi felt Bakhtiian's presence so strongly that it was as if Bakhtiian was standing right next to him.

"Come on," he said to Feodor, and he led the other man around the fringe of the assembly. No one paid them any mind. At the tent, etsanas and dyans came up in pairs to pledge their loyalty to Bakhtiian's war, and to be pledged to, his allegiance to their tribe, in return.

When they were about fifteen paces from the tent, off to the side, Aleksi stopped Feodor with a touch to the elbow, settled down on his haunches, and waited.

Ilyakoria Bakhtiian sat cross-legged on a square pillow embroidered with stylized horses intertwined, galloping, racing. His expression was composed, but intent. One open, one curled into a loose fist, his hands lay as still as if they were carved in stone, in contrast to the restless, passionate intelligence that blazed from his eyes. To his right, propped up on a little stand of wood, rested a carved wooden staff somewhat longer than a man's arm.

After an endless time, sun and wind beating down on them, only the Ten Eldest Tribes had yet to speak. There was a silence. The tinkling of bells whispered like the murmuring of the gods, watching over them. From somewhere in the middle of the assembly, Aleksi heard the soft droning chant of priests, intoning the endless cycle of the gods: Mother Sun and Father Wind, Aunt Cloud and Uncle Moon, Sister Tent and Brother Sky, Daughter Earth and Son River, Cousin Grass and Cousin Rain. Here and there in the crowd Aleksi identified the glazed stare of a man or a woman who was memorizing each word to pass on to the tribes. Even one of Bakhtiian's personal commanders, Josef Raevsky, had that vacant expression on his face, although he was a soldier and not a Singer.

Abruptly, Bakhtiian rose.

"Ah," breathed Aleksi, realizing what Bakhtiian meant to do. He glanced at Feodor, to see if his companion also appreciated the coming gesture on Bakhtiian's part. But Grekov was staring like any besotted fool straight at Bakhtiian's niece. The woman shifted slightly and glanced their way, and immediately Grekov's gaze dropped and he stared down at the ground.

Like an echo of his niece, Bakhtiian shifted his attention from the assembly and turned his head to look straight at Aleksi. Even knowing that most of the audience must have turned as well, to see what was attracting

Bakhtiian's attention, Aleksi could not feel their stares at all. Bakhtiian's overwhelmed everything else.

Aleksi stood up. He did not fear Bakhtiian, but he respected him, and he was grateful to him for never once objecting to the way in which Aleksi had become a member of his tribe. Aleksi valued Bakhtiian's protection almost as much as he valued that granted him by his new sister. Bakhtiian gestured with his left hand, and his niece jumped to her feet and walked briskly over to Aleksi. Feodor Grekov climbed hastily to his feet as well. He kept his gaze fixed on his boots.

"Aleksi," said Nadine by way of greeting, "You've come from camp."

"Sergei Veselov is dead."

"Ah," she replied. Then she grinned, and Aleksi grinned back, liking her because he knew that she had the same kind of reckless, bold heart as he did. And because she had never cared one whit that he was an orphan. "Trouble will come of that, I trust." She sounded satisfied, as if she hoped the trouble would come soon, and in an unexpected and inconvenient manner. "Well met, Feodor," she added. "I missed you."

Then she spun and strode back to the tent. She knelt beside one of the seven commanders under the awning. Anton Veselov's fair complexion flushed red first, and then he paled. Bakhtiian turned right round and considered them, but he said nothing. After a moment, Veselov rose and walked out the side of the awning and around to the semicircle. The youngest etsana shifted to let the soldier sink down beside her. He drew his saber and laid it across his knees: his authority as the new dyan of his tribe.

' 'The gods will look askance at that,'' murmured Feodor.

"There's no other man in the line to give it to," said Aleksi, but he also felt uncomfortable, seeing a sister and brother sitting together in authority over a tribe.

Bakhtiian waited for the stir to die down. Aleksi settled back into a crouch to wait, and Feodor slid his gaze back to Nadine Orzhekov. As if she felt his gaze, she looked back over her shoulder at them. A smile-or a smirk-quirked her lips up. Feodor flushed. He collapsed ungracefully beside Aleksi, looking pale and staring hard at his hands. Bakhtiian's niece sat down in her place and did not look their way again.

The wind blew. The assembly was silent. The sun's disk slid down toward the western horizon.

A flame winked. Aleksi blinked, staring at the tent, and discovered where Tess had been all along. The tent flap that covered the entrance to the interior had been tied up just enough to let an observer hidden inside watch without being seen. Now, with a lantern lit at her side, Tess Soerensen was visible to him. Her head bent, as if she was tired, or too burdened to bear up any longer. Bakhtiian's khaja wife, sitting silent in her tent as her husband declared war on all khaja people. Aleksi felt a vise grip his heart, in fear for her, and for himself. What if she left him here, to return to her brother's lands?

Then, with a grin, he relaxed. Her right arm moved, a slight movement but one he recognized. She was writing. It was a foreign word, and a khaja thing to do, recording words and events with these scrawls she called letters, as if she hadn't the memory to recall it all properly, in her heart. Which she had often, and cheerfully, admitted that she had not. She glanced up. She was staring at someone: at Ilya Bakhtiian? No.

Aleksi followed the line of her sight and he saw that she was staring at the sky, at, in fact, the only star bright enough to show yet in the twilight sky. She often stared at the heavens that way, as if they held an answer for her, as if she sought something there, like a singer who seeks the heart of a song in the gods' lands. Oh, yes, he knew she held some secret inside her, a secret that her own husband did not guess at. What it was, he had not yet divined, but Aleksi had spent most of his life watching people, interpreting their slightest action, their simplest words, because until this last four months he had only his powers of observation and his undeniable skill with the saber to keep him alive. Tess Soerensen was not like other people, not like her adopted people the jaran, certainly, but not like the khaja either. She was something altogether different, betraying herself not in obvious, grand ways, but in the subtle, tiny things that most people overlooked.

Tess's gaze fell from the star and settled on her husband. She loved him in a way that was, perhaps, a bit unseemly for a woman of the tribes. But Tess wasn't jaran; like Aleksi, she was an outsider. Suddenly she glanced to one side and spotted Aleksi, and grinned, swiftly, reassuringly. And went back to her writing.

"I will protect you," Aleksi muttered under his breath. He loved her fiercely, as only a brother can love a sister, the oldest bond between a man and a woman and the most important one. She had saved his life, had taken him into her tent, had given him the security he had not had since he was a tiny child. Perhaps her other brother, the khaja prince who lived far to the south, loved her more: Aleksi doubted it. Perhaps Bakhtiian loved her more, but it was pointless to measure oneself against Bakhtiian. Bakhtiian was not like other men. He belonged, not to himself, but to the jaran, to his people, and if his passions were greater than other men's, so, too, were his burdens and his responsibilities.

Bakhtiian moved. He walked, lithe as any predator, across the gap between his pillow and the semicircle of elders, and knelt in front of his aunt.

"With your permission, my aunt," he said. She did not speak, but simply placed her palm on his hair and withdrew it again. He rose and walked to the other end of the crescent, to kneel before the etsana of the eldest tribe, Elizaveta Sakhalin. He kept his eyes lowered, as befitted a modest man.

The elderly woman regarded him evenly.

At last, Bakhtiian spoke.

"When Mother Sun sent her daughter to the earth, she sent with her ten sisters, and gifted them each with a tent and a name. The eldest was Sakhalin, then Arkhanov, Suvorin, Velinya, Raevsky, Vershinin, Grekov, Fedoseyev, and last the twins, Veselov and Orzhekov. Each sister had ten daughters, and each daughter ten daughters in turn, and thus the tribes of the jaran were born. This summer we begin our ride against the khaja lands.'' Now he lifted his eyes to look directly at her, though she was his elder, and a woman. "Of the ten elder tribes, who will come with me?''

Sakhalin rose. She was a tiny woman, well past her childbearing years, and strength radiated from her. She examined her nephew first, then each of the other nine etsanas and their warleaders in turn. Each man went forward and laid his saber in front of Bakhtiian's pillow. Each woman unbound the horse-tail from her staff and bound it, in turn, to the staff resting beside Bakhtiian's pillow. Nine sabers, ten horse-tails. The priests' chanting droned on, a muted counterpoint. The standard atop the tent, a plain gold banner, fluttered wildly.

"Bakhtiian," Sakhalin said, which meant He-who-has-traveled-far. "All will come." She raised him up and released him, and he walked back to the pillow and sank down onto it. He took the staff into his hands and held it, weighing its strength. Then he lifted his gaze to the endless blue sky.

Sakhalin turned to survey the assembly. She stretched out her arms to the heavens. "Mother Sun and Father Wind be our witness," she said, and though she did not seem to raise her voice, it carried effortlessly across the plateau. "All will come."

A great shout rose, shattering the stillness.

"Ja-tar!" they cried. "To ride!"

Elizaveta Sakhalin sat down, and a hush fell.

Yaroslav Sakhalin rose, dyan of the eldest tribe, and he walked forward and took his saber from the ground and held it out. Its blade winked in the torchlight.

"Where will you lead us?" Sakhalin asked.

Bakhtiian did not answer. His gaze had taken on a distant cast, as if he were looking at something not there, some place, some person, some vision that only he could see.

"Leave him," said Elizaveta Sakhalin. "We must leave him here to talk to the gods." It took half the night for them all to negotiate the narrow trail down to the camp below, leaving Bakhtiian alone above.

A day passed and Bakhtiian did not come down from the height.

Neither did he the next day.

But at dawn on the third day, smoke rose from the hill, billowing up into the sky. "He's offered the tent to the gods," his aunt said approvingly. In orderly groups, elders and dyans, commanders and etsanas, gathered at the base where the path twisted up the hillside. Aleksi stuck close to Tess and so gained a vantage point right at the front.

Soon enough they saw a single figure, red shirt, black trousers, black boots, a saber swaying at his hips, walking down the path. He gripped the horse-tail staff in his left hand. Seeing the crowd, he halted. First, he sought out his wife's figure in the throng. He stared at her as if to make sure she was real and not a spirit. Aleksi could not otherwise read Bakhtiian's expression. But then, Aleksi was never entirely sure of what Bakhtiian felt about anything, as if the sheer force of the emotions welling off Bakhtiian served to hide his true feelings.

At last Bakhtiian lifted his gaze to stare at the assembly spread out, waiting for him. Here at the front, the elders, the women, the commanders, stood and watched. Farther back, many of the young men of the army had already mounted, holding their restless mounts on tight reins.

Bakhtiian's face was lit, illuminated by the gods themselves, or by some trick of the morning sunlight, Aleksi could not be sure which. He raised the horse-tail staff and, with that small gesture, brought silence. Then he drew his saber.

"West," he said. So calmly did he raise the fire that would scorch the khaja earth. "West to the sea."

ACT ONE

'He that plays the king shall be welcome."

— Shakespeare, Hamlet

CHAPTER ONE

"Look here my boys, see what a world of ground Lies westward from the midst of Cancer's line, Unto the rising of this earthly globe, Whereas the sun declining from our sight, Begins the day with our antipodes… And from th'Antartique Pole, eastward behold As much more land, which never was descried, Wherein are rocks of pearl, that shine as bright As all the lamps that beautify the sky, And shall I die and this unconquered?"

In the hush of audience and air alike, Diana moved quietly around to the back of the second balcony to watch the final minutes of the Company's final performance on Earth. Tamburlaine the Great. Who, from a Scythian Shepheard by his rare and wonderful Conquests became a most puissant and mighty Monarch, And (for his tyranny, and terror in War) was termed, The Scourge of God. Divided into two Tragical Discourses. Somehow, the two plays seemed ironically appropriate for a repertory company that was about to leave the civilized worlds and spend a year on the last planet in known space where humans still lived in ignorance of their space-faring brothers and sisters.

Next week the entire Company, together with Charles Soerensen and his party, would board a spaceliner that would take them to the Delta Pavonis system and the Interdicted world, Rhui. Owen and Ginny had founded the Bharentous Repertory Company in order to give themselves room to experiment with the theater they loved. This would be their greatest experiment fulfilled: bringing theater to unlettered savages who had not the slightest sheen of civilization to pollute their first experience of drama.

Amyras knelt before his dying father Tamburlaine. "Heavens witness me, with what a broken heart And damned spirit I ascend this seat…"

Diana sighed. Hal always overplayed this part, doubtless as revenge against his parents. But it didn't matter. Gwyn played Tamburlaine so very finely that she never tired of watching him. She leaned her arms along the wood railing that set off the back row of seats from the balcony aisle and watched as Zenocrate's transparent hearse was rolled in. Tamburlaine's final speech: she let herself fall into it.

"Now eyes, enjoy thy latest benefit… For Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God must die." He died. Tears wet Diana's cheeks. Another set of arms slid onto the railing and, startled, she glanced to that side.

The man standing there smiled at her. He looked familiar and, in any case, she recognized the kind of smile he was giving her. Men enough, and a few women, came to the Green Room to court a pretty, golden-haired ingenue.

Hal said Amyras's final lines. The play ended. The audience rose, applauding enthusiastically, as the players came forward to make their bows.

"Shouldn't you be up there?" asked the man casually.

"You're Marco Burckhardt!" exclaimed Diana. "I thought you looked familiar.''

"Wit as well as beauty." Marco placed his right hand over his heart and bowed to her. "I hope my reputation has not preceded my name."

Diana laughed. " 'Come, Sir, you're our envoy-lead the way, and we'll precede.' And it's appropriate, too, you know. You've been on Rhui. You're coming with us, aren't you?"

"With Charles," he agreed. He looked out over the house, over to one of the boxes where a sandy-haired man of middle height stood applauding with his companions and the rest of the audience. As if he were just any other playgoer. Which, of course, he emphatically was not.

Marco swung his gaze back to Diana, and he smiled, deliberately, invitingly. "But now that I have met you, golden fair, I need no other inducement to travel so far.''

Diana felt a little breathless. In his own way, Marco

Burckhardt was a legend. "Is it true that you've explored most of the planet? Rhui, that is. All alone, and without any aids whatsoever? Not even a palm slate or a fletchette rifle or any modern weaponry? And by only the primitive transportation they have on planet? That you've almost been killed?"

Marco chuckled. "I do carry an emergency transmitter, but I've never used it. And this scar-" He took her hand and lifted it to touch, like a caress, the pale line that wrapped halfway around his neck. "You have soft skin," he murmured.

Diana traced the smooth line of the scar, the sun-roughened skin on either side, and then lowered her hand back to the railing. "Is that the only one?" she asked, a little disappointed. Beyond, on the stage, Gwyn and Anahita-Tamburlaine and Zenocrate-came forward to take their final bows. A few in the audience were already filtering out of their seats. Charles Soerensen and his companions had not moved, which surprised her, since most VIPs left immediately and by a side entrance otherwise reserved for cast and crew.

"Not the only one," said Marco, "but I can't show you the others in such a public place."

Diana smiled. "I'm almost convinced, but not quite. Is that the closest you've ever come to death?"

Marco looked away from her, not into the distance, precisely, but at the stage, at Gwyn, in his armor and holding spear and sword, the Scythian shepherd turned conqueror. "No. I could run faster than the people chasing me, that time. The time I came closest to death, there was neither room nor opportunity to run. Did the Company deliberately choose this play as their final performance?"

"What do you mean?" Gwyn and Anahita retreated into the wings, and the audience broke off their applause and burst into a stream of talk and movement. A few young men had rushed down to the stage, to try to bully or plead their way into the back, to court Anahita and Quinn and Oriana-and herself, of course-and a few to court Hyacinth. In his box, Charles Soerensen was entertaining visitors, as if he had the knack of turning any space into a sort of political Green Room. Conversation flowed over and around Diana and Marco, broken into snippets and phrases and abrupt scenes.

"— there just aren't many actors who can make the change from the vids to the theater successfully, though I'll admit you're right about Gwyn Jones. He was superb. But take their Zenocrate. Just a little overdone all around. I suppose they took her on for the publicity-"

"— did you see Charles Soerensen? No, there, you fool. You didn't know he'd be at the performance tonight? It was all over the net-"

"— and Rico was in a rare fury, too, when he discovered the two of them kissing backstage. Imagine, he'd been boasting for the last year that he'd bed her, but nothing came of it. And then it turns out that his sister has been sleeping with her all along."

Diana laughed, and then clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling it. Marco raised one eyebrow and shifted his shoulder so that the two young men-dressed in the gaudy gold-threaded robes that were the most recent fashion at the universities-could not see her past his body.

"It's all right," she murmured. "They won't recognize me without my stage makeup."

"— and what do you suppose Soerensen is up to now, eh? He got the Chapalii merchant house, and what a coup that was, too. Just like laughing in the faces of those damned chameleons. And now he's going off to that primitive world-what is it? Rhui, yes, that's it. Something's going on, I tell you. A man like Soerensen has deep plans. I'd wager my own children that we'll see some kind of action soon against the Empire."

"Is it true?" asked Diana, watching Marco as he tracked this last speaker with his gaze out the balcony exit.

"Is what true?"

"That Soerensen's sister is alive, and on Rhui."

His attention snapped back to her. "Where did you hear that?"

"Oh, we all know it. In the Company. Even after the Protocol Office made the official announcement of her death, Soerensen never confirmed it or denied it. And he never adopted a new heir. Isn't that his right, by Chapalii law? And anyway, why else would Soerensen let us travel to Rhui? He took so much trouble to restrict the planet from all outside contact to begin with. And why would he come along with us? Really, you must give us some credit for intelligence."

"Infinite credit, fair one. It sits beside your infinite beauty."

"Can beauty be infinite?"

"Only in Keats. What else have you heard?"

"About the sister? Nothing. About Rhui-well, we're going to a city called Jeds, first. Soerensen styles himself Prince there, so we'll be under his protection. Not that any of the natives will know where we're really from. After some time there, then there's a chance we'll be going out into the bush, into the really primitive areas. Owen says that we might be traveling with nomads. Doesn't that sound romantic?"

Marco looked amused. "You aren't scared, going off like this to be thrown in among savages? With no modern weaponry to protect yourself?"

"Certainly not. This is the most exciting thing I've ever done. I've never had a moment's danger in my life. I auditioned for the Company because I loved the risks Owen and Ginny were taking with theater, and with the traditions of theater. And this! Well, I suppose Jeds will be much like any city, only dirtier and primitive. But taking the theater out to these barbarian nomads-that's going to be a real adventure!" She felt flushed, and she knew she was declaiming. But what did it matter? Non-actors always seemed to expect her to talk that way offstage as well as on, and it was true how she felt, and she felt it so deeply.

Marco watched her, looking, perhaps, a little wistful. "I wish I'd known you when Charles and I started all this," he said softly. "I think you would have come with me, the first of us to set foot on Rhui."

She stared, entranced by the green of his eyes. "I would have," she said, sure that at this moment it was true. Though she knew he must be as old as her biological father, he did not look ten years older than her, an attractive man made handsome as much by the suppressed air of wildness about him as by any pretensions to beauty. A man who knew adventure, who knew real danger, who had felt death close at hand and looked it in the face. Her own life had been so-safe.

"Goddess, you're young," he said, and broke the spell.

Diana blushed, but she chuckled. "That's put me in my place." She laid a hand on the railing, a self-conscious pose, and looked down from this great height onto the stage. "Oh. That's what you meant, isn't it? About choosing these plays for our farewell performance. Tamburlaine was a nomad. Do you suppose the nomads we're going to travel with have a Tamburlaine among them?''

She said it lightly, but Marco's lips pressed together, and his gaze shifted from her down to the distant figure that was Charles Soerensen. Soerensen was speaking easily with several people that even from this height Diana recognized, the Director of the Royal Academy, the prime minister of the Eurasian States, a respected vid journalist, the assistant stage manager, an usher-he was a university student majoring in xenobotany-who had once made a pass at her, and one of the clerks from the box office who had brought her two children to meet The Great Man. A sudden swirl of movement in the box steadied and stilled to reveal one of the tall, thin alien Chapalii. The creature bowed to Soerensen, offering him the delicate crystal wand in which the Chapalii conveyed important messages from one noble to another.

"I must go," said Marco. "May I escort you down?" He offered her his elbow, and Diana placed her fingers on his sleeve. The contact overwhelmed her, and she could suddenly think of nothing to say. Walking this close to him, down the carpeted stairwell that led to the lobby, she could not imagine why he should be interested in her at all, except, of course, that she was young, pretty, and blonde. This man had explored a wild and dangerous world, alone most of the time, and he was the confidant and right hand of the most important human alive.

"Shall I introduce you?" Marco asked suddenly, and too late Diana realized she was being steered to the box from which Charles Soerensen had watched the play.

How could she refuse? She calmed her suddenly erratic breathing by force of habit and let him lead her there.

A cluster of people walked toward them down the corridor. A moment later they were swept into the retinue.

"There you are, Marco," said Soerensen. He held the crystal wand in his left hand. It shimmered and glinted under the hall lights.

"Charles, I've brought one of the actors to meet you. This is Diana Brooke-Holt, of the repertory company."

"Ah." Soerensen stopped. "M. Brooke-Holt. I'm honored to meet you." He looked ordinary enough, but his stare was intense: Diana felt as if she were being recorded, measured, and filed away against future need.

However much she wanted to collapse into a gibbering heap, she knew how to present a collected exterior. She extended her right hand, and he shook it. "The honor is mine," she said, careful to give the words no earth-shattering sentiment, only simple politeness.

"You played Zabina, did you not?" he asked.

"Yes."

"She comes to a rather bloody end."

Diana chuckled. "Yes, she does, poor thing. But I suppose that I've always felt more sorry for Zenocrate."

He looked suddenly and acutely interested. "Why is that?"

"Because once Tamburlaine had marked her out as his, she didn't really have much choice but to fall in love with him, did she? Not that he coerced her as much as-" She shrugged, and was abruptly aware that both Soerensen and Marco regarded her intently, as if she were revealing some long-sought-after secret to them. She faltered, realizing that the entire retinue had stopped to listen, some with polite interest, some with no interest at all, but none with the piercing attention of the two men. With an effort, she gathered together the shredding fabric of her self-confidence and drew herself up. "A man like that would be hard to resist," she finished, with dramatic flourish.

"Bravo," said Marco, sotto voce.

Soerensen smiled. "But I particularly enjoyed your performance as Grusha in the Brecht play. I look forward to seeing what Owen and Ginny come up with for their next experiment. If you'll excuse me." He nodded, collected the attention of his retinue with unconscious ease, and went on his way.

Marco lingered. "I must go," he said again, although he made no move to follow the others.

"I must, too," she replied. "Really."

"I'll see you on the ship, perhaps."

"Oh, we'll be rehearsing the whole way out. Owen and Ginny are rather dragons about that, when they're developing new material."

"Then in Jeds."

She smiled and finally disengaged her fingers from his elbow. "If there's time."

"In Jeds? Believe me, you'll have plenty of time in Jeds."

"For what? Sight-seeing, I suppose. I'm bringing a journal with me, real paper, bound, and pen and ink, to write down what I see."

"Pen and ink?"

"Rhui is an interdicted world. What isn't there already, we aren't to bring."

"Golden fair, you astonish me." He took her hand in his and bent to kiss it, his lips lingering longer on her skin than was, perhaps, warranted by the briefness of their acquaintance.

Diana withdrew her hand from his grasp and blew him a kiss as she retreated through one of the double doors that led into the house. " 'And if thou lovest me, think no more of it.' "

Marco laughed, delighted. "Do all actors quote?" he called after her.

But she let the door swing and click shut behind her without answering him.

"Di! There you are." From the stage, Yomi called out to her. "Double time, girl. No loitering. Where've you been?"

Diana walked swiftly down the aisle and up the steps onto the stage.

"Ah hah!" said Yomi, coming to meet her. "Isn't that Marco Burckhardt standing up there in the VIP box? Watch your step, Di. He's a notorious womanizer, that one is. So they say. Don't dive into water if you can't swim."

"I can swim," retorted Diana, affronted.

"Certainly, my dear. Come on. The meeting's ready to start. Anahita is howling about the lighting for the curtain call. And she was furious that Gwyn got called out alone. As for Hal-"

Diana followed Yomi out stage right. She risked one final look back, to see Marco standing in the box that Soerensen and his party had inhabited. He leaned with his hands on the railing, watching her go.

CHAPTER TWO

Under the circumstances, any human might have forgiven Charles Soerensen for taking a private aircar rather than using public lanes like everyone else. Any human except Charles himself. On Earth, in human space-what had once been human space-Charles never took advantage of the privileges granted him by his rank as a duke in the Chapalii Empire, as the only human elevated above subject status in the convoluted hierarchy by which the alien Chapalii governed the races and stellar systems they had absorbed into their empire. They never used the word conquered.

"Chattel," said David ben Unbutu to Marco Burckhardt. They took up stations on either side of Charles on the levitated train that in three hours would take them across the Atlantic Ocean from Portsmouth to North America. David braced himself for the shift as the train jolted forward. Marco, of course, seemed not to notice the transition at all. Charles was sitting down, crystal message wand laid across his knees, still talking with the prime minister of the Eurasian states. She was headed to Quito Spaceport in South America, and Charles had taken the opportunity to ask her to travel with him for part of the journey.

"Who's chattel?" Marco asked. "Shall we sit down?"

"I'm too nervous to sit," said David, although he was not surprised when Marco sat anyway, across from Charles. Four benches ran the length of the car, arranged in two pairs facing in toward each other, split by a central aisle. David stood where the inner bench gapped to allow access to the aisle. Charles and the prime minister sat with their backs to the windows, windows which, on this side of the car, showed programming, not ocean.

"Look." Marco pointed to one of the flat screens.

"There's that interview with Owen Zerentous again." He took on an affected accent. " 'Ginny and I have been interested for some time in theater as the universal medium, in theater's use of ritual and ceremony as a way to access the common essence of humanity.' You know, I think Zerentous believes what he's talking about."

"Maybe he's even right. But you've never been interested in theater, Marco. Or at least, only in the ornamentation thereof."

Marco grinned. "A man can't help looking, especially at women who are as pretty as Diana Brooke-Holt. What did you mean by chattel?''

David glanced at the Chapalii steward standing four seats down from him, on the other side of Charles. Of course, a steward would not sit-could not-in the presence of nobility. All along the car passengers sat at their ease, watching the screens, reading from flat screens, dozing, knitting; an adolescent drew a light sculpture in the air with a pen, erased it with an exasperated wave of a hand, and began again. Human passengers. They had noted Charles's presence. How could they fail to? They all knew who he was; they all recognized him. Many had acknowledged him, with a terse word, with a nod, to which he had replied in like measure. Now they left him his privacy, except for one very young child who wandered over and sat in a seat two down from the prime minister, small chin cupped in small hands, watching their intent conversation with a concerned expression.

"I don't know what I meant," said David, "except that sometimes I think we're just chattel to them-to the Chapalii."

"I don't think they think in such economic terms. I think their hierarchy is more like a caste system than a class system, but how do we know if human theory explains it, anyway? Why are you nervous?"

David sat down. The bench shifted beneath him, molding itself to his contours. "Why should Duke Naroshi send Charles a summons wand? What authority does Naroshi have to summon Charles? He doesn't outrank him."

"As far as we know he doesn't. Maybe the length of time you've been duke matters, in which case Naroshi would outrank Charles. But Naroshi is in fealty to the princely house which has nominal control of human space. Of Earth."

"That's true. And it was Naroshi's agent who was on Rhui, with Tess."

"David."

David looked around, suddenly sure that everyone was looking at him, but, of course, no one was. He dropped his voice to a whisper. "But wouldn't that imply that Naroshi is seeking some kind of information with which to discredit Charles? Especially now that Charles has pulled off a rather major coup within the Chapalii political scene, by taking over the Keinaba merchant house?"

"Not yet finalized, I might add."

"Not yet? Lady's Tits, Marco, Charles spent long enough at the Imperial palace. Almost two standard years, he spent there. I thought it was finalized, all legal, with the emperor's approval."

"The emperor approved it, but he didn't-oh, what is that phrase? Tess translated it so neatly. 'Seal the braid of fealty.' "

David sighed and sagged back against the seat. "It's all too convoluted for me. I'm just an engineer." Marco chuckled. They had known each other for so long now, he and Marco and Charles, that they spoke as much with what they didn't say as with what they did. David levered out an armrest, tilted his head back, and shut his eyes. The conversation between Charles and the prime minister continued across from him like a murmuring counterpoint. They were talking about Rhui.

The whole thing was far too convoluted for David's taste. He liked something he could get his hands on, something concrete, malleable, something that had answers that were correct based on fixed laws. Not something that was mutable. David hated politics. He'd never liked history much, either. That's why he had gone into classical engineering-the design and construction of three-dimensional, utilitarian structures like buildings and bridges and transport facilities.

Everything he knew about the Chapalii made him anxious. They didn't follow the rules. Humanity had discovered spaceflight and then discovered cousin humans on neighboring worlds. Earth and their cousin humans on Ophiuchi-Sei-ah-nai had formed the League, a kind of parliament of space-faring humanity. Then, human exploration ships had run into Chapalii protocol agents, representatives of the Chapalii Empire; soon after, the emperor had simply co-opted League space as part of his dominion. But their rule was benign; some people even called it enlightened, and certainly the Chapalii did not begrudge sharing some-if not all-of their technological expertise with their subject races.

But were humans ever content with being ruled? Not really. Charles Soerensen led a rebellion against the Empire that failed. But instead of arresting him and executing him, the Chapalii ennobled him. They made him a duke. The emperor granted him two stellar systems as his fief, one of them the newly-discovered system Delta Pavonis-discovered, that is, to possess two habitable worlds. The planet Odys was ravaged by Chapalii modernization; Rhui was interdicted by Charles's order, an order that the emperor agreed to despite the fact that the interdiction closed off access to Rhui's abundant natural resources. Just as it closed off access to Rhui's native population.

And that was the other thing that bothered David. That's what Tess Soerensen had found out; she had discovered ancient Chapalii buildings on Rhui. The half-mythical Chapalii duke, the Tai-en Mushai, had built a palace on Rhui. He had seeded the planet with humans from Earth. It must all have happened long, long ago, millennia ago in the human span of years, or so Charles and his experts guessed, though they knew nothing for certain. Even so, how could the Chapalii have lost track of these buildings? How could they have lost track of an entire planet?

David did not like equations that didn't add up.

And now Charles was going with a small party to Rhui, to find Tess and to investigate these ancient remnants of a Chapalii presence on Rhui. David supposed he was looking forward to going to visit an interdicted world where the living conditions would be, at best, primitive. At any rate, he'd be happy to see Tess again.

The prime minister left them at Staten Island, and they transferred to a secured line in to Manhattan, which had been razed and rebuilt by the Chapalii and was now a private Chapalii enclave, barred to most humans.

David had once gone to an exhibit detailing the history of Manhattan. Certainly the Chapalii era Manhattan was by far the most impressive and beautiful architecturally, seen from across the river: a mass of monuments and parks, pierced at the center by a single tower of adamantine grace and astonishing height.

At the ducal palace of the Tai-en Naroshi Toraokii, they disembarked from the secured line into an atrium domed with tangled vines about thirty meters over their heads. Animals shrieked and called in the greenery, but they only caught glimpses of birds and long-limbed creatures rustling through the leaves. Water sheeted down in a semicircle all along the far wall; indeed, the misting waterfall was the far wall of the atrium. Charles headed out across the floor, which was a tangle of ponds, streams, parquetry decks, and marble stepping stones carved into the shape of Chapalii glyphs. Avocets and herons dotted the shorelines. A grebe swam past and dove, vanishing from their sight in one instant and popping up seconds later a meter ahead.

David saw no passage through the huge curtain of water, but Charles walked steadily toward it, picking his way along the labyrinthine paths until the three men and the Chapalii steward came to the wall of water. Charles lifted the crystal wand. The waterfall parted.

David gaped. It simply parted, by no agency he could see. Water still rained down over their heads, but an invisible barrier forced it to either side, allowing them access to whatever lay within. Charles led the way. The steward followed him, and David went next, letting Marco take the rearguard.

What lay within proved to be a hall as vast as a cathedral. Their footsteps echoed as they crossed the hall's expanse to a far door. They passed through the door into a garden lined with columns and thence into a marble-fronted basilica that transmuted, surprisingly, into an octagon, a two-storied building with a mosaic floor and somberly glowing mosaic walls portraying austere, gaunt figures. Within the greater octagon, almost floating inside it, stood an interior octagon of double arches. Within the central octagon two couches sat on the mosaic floor.

On one couch, a figure reclined. It sat up, seeing their party. Charles marched them under one of the arches-banded with three colors of stone-and sat himself down on the couch opposite their host. David and Marco placed themselves behind him. The steward crossed to stand beside Tai Naroshi.

The two dukes regarded each other in silence. Tai Naroshi looked like all other Chapalii: pale as ice with a wisp of yellow hair; tall, thin, humanlike in his symmetry, but not human at all. He wore a robe of palest orange that seemed to drape itself artistically around his form, according to his movements, by some unrelated gravitational field.

Charles placed the wand across his knees.

They waited.

Then, to David's astonishment, a mist steamed up under one of the arches and coalesced into three seated figures: Owen Zerentous, Ginny Arbha, and an interviewer. They looked so real that they could have been there in person, except that they had appeared so abruptly.

"We ought all to remember," Owen was saying, "that the line between barbarism and civilization is fluid. Ritual is a constant in all human society. Theater is simply a more refined, and perhaps even a more confined, elaboration of primitive ritual events. Certainly my use of the word 'primitive' is a subjective response based on our bias against pretechnological culture."

Naroshi raised one hand, and the figures froze. They then passed through a rapid succession of expression and angles, as if their conversation was accelerated. Naroshi lowered his hand, and the interview continued.

"To find cultures that have never seen theater before," Owen said, clearly in answer to a question. "Human cultures, that is. We haven't seen that for centuries on Earth, or in any of the human cultures in the League, for that matter. Does theater work as a ritual for any human culture? Even one grown and bred on a planet other than our own? Are these aspects of the human condition, are the emotions that theater engenders, universal to our genetic coding? And if they are, where does the real translation take place: in the words, or in the gestures? In the letter, or in the spirit? That's what we're going to Rhui to find out."

Still talking the figures imploded into mist and evaporated.

"Tai Charles," said Naroshi, acknowledging his visitor.

"Tai Naroshi," said Charles, with the exact same lack of inflection, acknowledging his host.

"You undertake a journey," said Naroshi.

"I am honored by your interest," said Charles.

"Rhui is a primitive world. Certainly it is not a planet where any civilization can be found."

"It is interdicted," agreed Charles, and David had to wonder what Charles was thinking, what message he meant Naroshi to read from this colorless conversation. It is interdicted, and I know damn well you sent agents down onto Rhui in direct defiance of that interdiction.

"Yet still you intend to travel there."

In the muted light within the interior octagon, David could still detect fleeting colors chasing themselves across the white skin of the steward, colors that reflected his emotions as he listened to this conversation between the two noblemen. But the duke, Naroshi, remained as pale as frost. No hint of color tinted his skin. Were the high nobility genetically superior or simply taught techniques from an early age with which to control the shadings of their skin? No human knew.

"Still I intend to travel there."

"With these others, some of whom are artisans."

Rather than replying, Charles simply inclined his head.

' 'May I hope that you will still consider my sister for the design of the mausoleum for your sister?"

"Tai-en, I have just returned from the palace. Indeed, from the presence of the emperor himself. I have not yet considered what I intend to do to honor my sister."

"Ah," said Naroshi, and paused. David strained to see if any color stained the duke's face, but he could discern none. On the distant walls, color shifted along the mosaics, moving subtly along the wall and lightening and darkening the images in slow waves. "The Keinaba house. I am surprised that you would take in a dishonored house.''

"Yes," agreed Charles. "I did not know that you were interested in theater.'' He extended a hand and gestured in the direction of the arch under which Owen and Ginny had, for that brief time, appeared.

"Many of us are interested in Rhui, Tai-en. I am not alone in my interest in such a rich planet."

"No," agreed Charles, "I do not suppose you are." From this angle, David could only see the back of Charles's head; he could not observe his expression, and he could not hear any emotion in his voice. Silence followed the remark. The two dukes seemed to have reached a stalemate.

Into their silence, a humming rose, soft, implacable. The air began to shimmer. The wand laid over Charles's knees shone all at once with a brilliant light, picked up a high-pitched overtone from the hum, and quite simply dematerialized.

Both dukes stood up at once.

Naroshi spoke a curt command to the steward, and the Chapalii servant turned on his heel and hurried away. But even as the steward crossed under the double arches, the arches themselves vanished. The air shimmered, melding, blending; the whole huge chamber melted away and the grand architecture was overwhelmed by another locale.

The change occurred over seconds-minutes, perhaps-but it was hard to keep track of time when you were floating in immaterial space, in a shifting void. David caught a glimpse of the mosaic wall, of a hollow-eyed man draped in robes splintered by a sudden bright light, and then it, too, was gone. They stood in a chamber so vast that David could not see walls but felt the presence of still air enclosing him. In such space there ought to be a breeze, some sense of the air being alive; there was not.

He stood on a silver floor that shaded to translucence and then became transparent, and he stared down, dizzy with vertigo, at an expanse of towers and avenues laid out so far below that this floor must have been hundreds of meters above the ground. Darkness swept over and swallowed the city below like a wave and David could only mark each tower now by the single light at its tip. Or were they now stars? Was he standing above space itself, staring down into the vast deeps? He tilted his head back, to look up, and got dizzy, felt the galaxy whirl around him. Staggered a little, steadying himself with a touch on Marco's arm.

Now he felt like the floor was moving, or that he was; he couldn't be sure which. Only the two dukes appeared stable to his eyes. He fixed on Charles.

The air shone in front of Charles, took on weight and coalesced into matter. A braid of silver fire hung in the air. David saw the shift as gravity grabbed hold of its substance. The air stilled. The braid fell. But Charles caught it before it could touch the floor. David saw how heavy it must be by the way it weighted down Charles's arm. "Seal the braid of fealty."

At that instant David understood. The braid of silver was the emperor's seal. And he had delivered it to Charles in order to seal with imperial approval Charles's act of taking the Keinaba merchant house into the Soerensen ducal house. But where had it come from? How had it reached them? There had been nothing there; Charles now held a silver braid that undeniably possessed mass and volume. The problem, the possibilities, made David's head whirl. He just stood there and let the chamber reel around him and after a moment, as he forced himself to focus on the silver braid in Charles's hand, the world stopped moving.

The stars vanished. Now they stood in a glade carpeted by perfectly manicured pale orange grass; probably not grass at all, but that was what it looked like. Twenty-one white-barked trees ringed them. Slender trunks shot up, endlessly up, to a kaleidoscopic canopy so high above that David could not measure it. Beyond, impossibly high, he saw the faint spires of towers.

Naroshi stood opposite Charles. Against the stark white trees, Naroshi's complexion bore the barest tinge of blue, so pale that in any other surroundings David would not have noticed it. Blue was the color of distress. Clearly, Naroshi was not happy to be here-wherever here was.

Charles faced Naroshi across the pale grass, and Marco and David flanked Charles. David wondered if they really had been somehow transported into the imperial presence-into the emperor's presence-or if this was just an incredible projection. If he stepped forward, would he bang into the couch? He felt it the safer option not to move at all.

"I thank you," said Charles into the silence, hefting the braid in his hand. "I ask permission for myself and some companions to visit the planet where my sister and heir has ceased to exist, so that we may suitably mourn her, without interruption."

Marco glanced sidewise at David and winked. Yes, clearly that last little qualifier was aimed at Naroshi. But Marco's ability to remain unwed in the most awe-inspiring circumstances gave David heart. He winked back. Against the purity of the white bark of the trees, Naroshi's complexion shaded in the slightest degree from blue to green, the color of disapproval.

The humming stopped. David had not really noticed it until it ceased. Then he was aware of its absence, and as abruptly as a light is switched from light to dark, they stood in the octagonal chamber again. Mosaics glowed on the far walls, seen through the double arches. The images flowed, as if the figures stirred, but David could not be sure if they really moved or if he was still recovering from the whirling of the stars.

A pink scarf lay draped over Charles's shoulders. Pink was the color of approval. For a moment, Charles simply stood there. Then he lifted his free hand to touch the scarf, to check its color. His chin shifted, just a little, but David knew him well enough to know that he was pleased. He bowed, low, to the precise degree by which a duke honors the emperor, dipping to touch one knee to the floor. Then he straightened and regarded Naroshi in silence.

In this light, David could discern no slightest tint of color in Naroshi's pallid complexion. "I will watch your progress with interest," said Naroshi.

Charles inclined his head in acknowledgment, but said nothing more.

The steward reappeared and led them out the way they had come. By unspoken consent, the three men did not talk at all until they left the secured line on Staten Island and transferred to a lev-train that would take them back to London. Charles sank into a seat. He draped the silver braid across his thighs. It was as heavy as gold, and as supple as the finest silk. David and Marco sat on either side of him. It was the old pattern from their university days: Marco on the right, David on the left.

" 'I'll be watching you,' " mused Charles as he stared out the window at the gray ocean. "But is Naroshi for me or against me?''

Marco shrugged. "Does our concept of dualism even apply to the Chapalii? Maybe he's for you and against you."

"I hate equations that don't add up," muttered David.

CHAPTER THREE

As soon as Yomi called the break, Diana fled the rehearsal space.

"And if Hyacinth keeps flinging himself all over the stage like that, I'm going to scream!" Anahita proclaimed.

"I don't think she's got more than one tone to play Titania with," muttered Quinn to Hal. "If she's going to go on like that for the whole trip shut up in this boat, then I'm going to scream."

Hal pulled a hand through his hair, tousling it, and heaved a great sigh. "What an awful day. I feel further from this scene than I ever did."

Gwyn stared at the plain wooden floor, and by the way his right hand turned up and then down, Diana could see that he was still thinking about the scene they had just rehearsed, a scene from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Phillippe was massaging Hyacinth's shoulders and Hyacinth was, of course, smirking. Owen and Yomi had lapsed into a cabal, heads together over the table that was the only furniture in the space. Ginny sat in a chair, keying furiously into a notepad.

"Di?" called Hal. "Do you want to go to dinner?"

Then the door closed behind her, and she was mercifully free of them. What a bad day it had been. The tempo ran slow and they kept clumping together in the ensemble scene. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic. That was one thing she liked about Chapalii ships: they built their passageways wide, even if they were a strikingly ugly shade of orange and heated right to the level of sticky hot. She waited outside the door while a pack of human university students swarmed by her, chattering and giggling, ignoring her except for one red-haired young woman who threw her a startled and surprisingly vindictive glance; then a trio of alien nar skittered by, flicking their secondary dwarf wings at her in polite acknowledgment. She answered with a brief bow and set off in the opposite direction, toward the dining hall.

It still surprised Diana that Charles Soerensen ate his meals in the regular dining hall, along with all the other passengers. All the non-Chapallii passengers, of course; the Chapallii themselves remained in segregated quarters. He had somewhere developed the ability to sit at a different table every meal while making it seem as if he was as much graced by his tablemates' presence as they were by his. Marco Burckhardt sat on his right. Marco looked up, saw her, and smiled.

Don't do it, she told herself fiercely as she picked up her meal. Twenty steps later she stopped beside Marco's chair.

At least he didn't stand up. "Golden fair, please, sit down.'' Marco had the ability to look at you as if you were the only object in the world of interest to him.

She sat down. Her heart pounded in an annoying yet gratifying way.

"You've met Charles, of course," said Marco. "This is David ben Unbutu, and this is Suzanne Elia Arevalo."

Soerensen greeted her with polite interest, David with evident good nature, and Suzanne with a pitying glance. Then Soerensen, Suzanne, and the two mining engineers they sat with fell back into a heated discussion about the ratio of volume to cost in the transport of metals in the Dao Cee system from the asteroid belt to the processing plants orbiting the planet Odys.

"How is rehearsal?" Marco asked.

"Slow. A little frustrating today. Owen says you've actually met the nomadic people we're going to be traveling with, once we've left Jeds. What are they like?"

He rested his chin on one hand, tilted his head to the side, and regarded her with amusement. "What do you imagine they'll be like?"

Diana laughed. "Don't think I'll fall for this trap. Gorgeous clothes, of course, and beautiful jewelry. Dashing horses. Stern men and shy women who possess honor and simple dignity in equal measure. I suppose they'll have weapons. And lots of dirty but sweet-faced children."

"Yes, I think you covered most of the cliches," he said approvingly, and she laughed again, half from relief and half because the whole scene between them was so transparent, without losing any of its intensity.

A hush fell over the hall. Marco's attention jerked away from her. A Chapalii dressed in the pale tunic and trousers of the steward class stood in the far doorway, holding a gold wand in his hands.

Soerensen rose. "Excuse me," he said to others at the table. "Suzanne." She rose as well, and together they collapsed their trays, deposited them in the sort bin, and walked over to the door. Soerensen received the gold wand from the steward, and after a brief conversation with the alien, he and Suzanne left the hall. At once conversation flooded back along the tables.

David ben Unbutu, unruffled at being abandoned, went back to his meal. The engineers begged pardon and left. Marco glanced at the strip on the back of his left hand. "Ah," he said. He returned his attention to Diana. "My heart, it grieves me to part from you, but I must go." He lifted her hand to his lips, brushed a kiss there, and hurried out of the hall.

Don't watch him go. Even as she thought it, she wrenched her gaze away from Marco's back only to find David ben Unbutu watching her with a wry smile on his face. Instantly, she blushed.

"Sorry," said David. "I noticed your necklace. Are you a Trinitarian, or is it just a family heirloom?"

She lifted a hand to touch the necklace, with its intertwined star, book, and cross. "I was brought up in the worship, yes," she replied. How kind of him to change the subject.

"Have you visited the chapel on board? It's very… quiet. I'm going there now."

Diana smiled, a softer smile than the one she had offered to Marco Burckhardt. She felt like an idiot, sitting down by Burckhardt only to be deserted; probably he had gone off on Soerensen's business. Probably David ben Unbutu understood her plight. "Oh," she said, noticing the four short, beaded braids hanging from his coarse black hair down the back of his neck to dangle over the collar of his tunic. "You're Orthodox."

"Orthodox Judaeo-animist," he agreed with a chuckle.

"Our village is one of the last pockets of Trinitarian animism left in western Africa, and, of course, there's a long history of engineers in our family because of it."

Behind them, through the other doors, a horde of actors swept into the dining hall.

Diana jumped up, collapsing her tray over the uneaten food. "I'd love to see the chapel."

Along the red curve passageway, down a slow lift to yellow core, and they came to the Three Faiths chapel. Diana expected it to be untenanted at this time of ship's cycle, but someone had arrived there before them. David tried to stop her in the door, but he was too slow.

Diana had never thought of Marco Burckhardt as a particularly religious sort of person. But there he sat on a back bench of the chapel. Diana was skilled at reading the nuances of body language. The slight sound of their entrance had alerted Marco to their presence, but his red-haired companion remained oblivious, as well she might, being locked in so tight an embrace.

"Oh, Goddess, Marco," said David emphatically, and with no little disgust. "Have you no respect?"

The companion took her time in allowing him to break off the kiss. Without turning to look, Marco said, "but David, dear David, we all choose our own ways of worship."

"Let's just go," Diana murmured.

"I will not," said David, showing an unexpected stubborn streak, "surrender this divine ground to your earthly pleasures, Marco."

Red-Hair leaned away from her conquest and rested her weight on a hand, cupping the curve of the ivory bench. She preened, and when she saw Diana, the smile that tipped her lips was positively triumphant.

Marco got a startled look on his face, and he turned to look directly at them. "Oh, hell," he said, seeing Diana. He covered his face with a hand. That he was sorry to be caught by her did not make her feel any better. She felt mortified. But Marco wasn't the sort of man who slinks away from confrontation; he lowered his hand, and Diana had to admire his nerve. He bent forward and whispered to Red-Hair. He had a loose-limbed grace, tall and big-framed, trim, but not slender, the kind of man who is comfortable in his body. Behind him, the stark white walls of the chapel set off the scene, framing the woman's red hair and Marco's purple shirt so boldly that Diana could, for a moment, only think that the two colors clashed.

"You will note," said David in a low voice, "that this is not in fact a circular room, but an oval. It's shaded so subtly with the carpet and a slight difference in hue in the white walls that it's hard to tell." He made a noise in his throat. "As if you care. But it's a marvelous room."

Red-Hair heaved a great, dramatic sigh-overdone, of course-and oozed up to her feet. She flung a scornful glance toward Diana and exited stage left, through an otherwise invisible door that whisked open just as she reached it and shut into the seamless wall behind her.

"Don't retreat," whispered David. "And never on holy ground."

They went in. The ceiling lofted into a dome, paling to a soft white glow at the crown. It made Diana think of standing inside an egg, nested and safe. Marco met them by the altar, which stood in the center of the room, ringed by benches.

"Well," he said, "that looked bad."

"Yes," said Diana, desperate to put a bold face on, "it did. Now I recognize her. She's a university student. Isn't she a little young for you?" Then cursed herself inwardly for saying it, since she and Red-Hair were probably much of an age.

David rolled his eyes and shook his head. It was so quiet in the chapel that Diana could hear the beads on his name braids as they clacked together.

But Marco only laughed. "Hoist with my own petard."

" 'For 'tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard: and it shall go hard. But I will delve one yard below their mines, and blow them at the moon.' "

He loved it, of course. She knew he would. He caught one of her hands and lifted it to his lips, which were cool and soft. "Golden fair, my heart is yours forever."

"If I were you," said David, sounding more amused than disgusted now, "I'd leave before you dig yourself in any deeper.''

Marco released her hand. "I'd better go see if Charles needs me," he said, and he winked at Diana and left, that fast. Leaving her breathless and embarrassed and warm.

David moved away from her, walking over to sit down on a bench. She felt all at once that she didn't have to make any excuses to David, that he wouldn't judge her. Marco had a reputation; he didn't apologize for it or even try to hide it. So why, when she sat down herself and closed her eyes, was his the first image that came to her mind? But after a while, the peace of the chapel seeped into her, and she let the silence wash over and envelop her, the silence through which the Divine spoke to each individual.

"David!" A sharp whisper.

Diana started. Suzanne Elia Arevalo hurried into the room, striding over to stand beside David, who lifted his head and regarded her quizzically.

"Charles needs you. You can't imagine-" She broke off and looked straight at Diana. "Oh, hell," she swore. "I need another woman anyway. Diana-that's right, isn't it?" Suzanne had a brisk, competent air about her. Diana felt impelled to stand up, like a soldier awaiting orders. "Are you free? I don't know how long it will take."

"I'm free for the evening," Diana admitted.

"Good! Then come along."

"You might explain-" protested David, but he followed meekly in her wake, and Diana was far too curious to be left behind.

As they hurried down the yellow curve, Suzanne spoke in a hushed voice. "That wand, the request, came from a Chapalii lord who is on board with his family. Well, his wife and retinue, in any case. It turns out that his firstborn child-or male child, it must be, since it's to be his heir-is about to be born. And under Chapalii law the birth of an heir must be witnessed by a noble of higher rank. Well, Charles is the only duke on board-so… Here."

They came to a pink lift, which halfway through its rise turned flat white on all its walls. It opened onto a threshold of granite columns. The scent of cloves and cinnamon hung in the air, smothering, and the heat swallowed them. Diana broke into a sweat. Four stewards waited at the threshold. Their pale skin bore tints of colors, bewildering in their variety. Under their escort, the three humans proceeded forward. Diana stared around, but here in the sacrosanct Chapalii halls she saw nothing that looked different: just the sickly-orange walls. They crossed two intersections and came to a broad white seam. One side opened. The stewards gestured to David to go through, and followed after.

Suzanne laid a hand on Diana's arm. "We don't go with him. There's a separate place for the females."

"But why-?"

"— are we here?" Now they waited alone in the corridor. Suzanne leaned back and looked down one curve, then the other, and touched the brooch at her shoulder. She swung her shoulder slowly back and forth, taking in the entire scene-scanning it, maybe-not that the scene itself was much to look at. "Charles has Marco and David attending him, and evidently they want two females to balance the two male attendants. I don't know. Parity? Harmony? Hostages? How should I know? Have you ever seen a Chapalii female?"

"Of course not! I thought they were all in seclusion, or something. Purdah."

Suzanne took her hand off the brooch. "Neither have I, and I, my dear, have seen a damn sight more of the Chapalii than most people. And no human has ever witnessed the birth of a Chapalii child. Ah."

The other side of the seam opened. A rush of cooler air swept over them, mingling with a scent like nutmeg and a charge in the air that sent prickles down Diana's back. She tried to shake it off, but it coursed down through her and made tiny sparks at her feet as she and Suzanne stepped onto the black-tiled floor of the chamber within.

A riot of color greeted them, so profuse that it made Diana dizzy. Animals and plants in garish hues intertwined like lovers clutched together in an endless embrace. A beaded curtain of plain black stone cut off one side of the chamber. Suzanne and Diana stood alone in the room. The curtain twitched, stirred in a musical rustling, and stilled. A voice spoke in what Diana assumed must be Chapalii, and was answered by a second voice that had in it the reedy musicality of a woodwind.

Diana stared around, stared at the curtain, stared at the walls. The strange scent pricked against her constantly, and a distant sound like falling water played in the background. She was numb with excitement and at the same time out of breath and yet again cold, as if one part of her brain had detached itself from her body in order to survey her surroundings without emotion. This was an adventure, and it seemed to her that, like a prologue that grabs your interest, it boded well for the play to follow.

No one came through the curtain, though. Suzanne did not touch her brooch. One wall faded to black, became translucent, and there, in a white chamber, sat an egg.

Diana gasped. Then she looked again, realizing that she merely called it an egg because it was egg-shaped and white, because humans like to label things as familiar things; it could be anything, organic, metal, plastic, an incubator, a womb, or something altogether out of her experience. At the far end of the white chamber, Soerensen appeared between two figures: one a Chapalii lord, the other so swathed in robes that Diana could not see one single millimeter of skin nor even the suggestion of eyes or a face.

Suzanne's whole body was canted toward the window, as if she wished mightily to press herself up against it in order to get a better look, but dared not move. Chills ran up Diana's spine. A seam appeared in the smooth surface of the oval. The lord ventured forward, hesitant, and Soerensen came with him, close enough that Diana could judge by his height that the egg was about a meter tall-just over half as tall as he was. The duke had a peculiar expression on his face, as if the air smelled bad in the white chamber and he had to endure it. The robed figure glided around to the other side of the egg. The curtain stirred and rustled back to silence. She saw no sign of Marco or David.

The top half of the container sheened from white into a glowing translucence. Through it, Diana caught a glimpse of a tiny object squirming. Soerensen edged closer to the egg. His eyes widened as he watched something within. The Chapalii lord moved closer to him and spoke, and Soerensen started. He extended both hands. Diana detected the slightest hesitation, and then Soerensen placed both hands, palms down, onto the glowing surface of the egg.

"Marking it," Suzanne said under her breath, evidently unable to contain herself. "He's sealing the act of witness, that the heir is alive and viable. Can you see it?" The older woman was wound so tight that Diana could feel her exhilaration, like waves roiling off her that struck and eddied with Diana's own excitement.

At the touch of Soerensen's hands, the top surface of the container dissolved into a swell of steam and then nothing. He bent at the waist, almost overbalanced, and together, as one, the three of them-the duke, the lord, and the robed figure-bent down to examine what lay within. The beaded curtain rustled and the woodwind voice spoke a long phrase, so musical that it seemed more like a melody than a sentence. Suzanne winced.

"What-?" Diana began softly, but Suzanne only waved her away impatiently.

"Damn, hell, chaib," she hissed, whispering, "but I can't understand them."

The Chapalii lord straightened. He held in his hands a small, white, wriggling thing, an exact, miniature version of himself. That brief glimpse they gained; then the robed figure fluttered forward and the child was restored to the egg. Soerensen retreated. A glow domed the empty crown of the egg, solidified, and sealed off the container again. A seam shut. The wall darkened and became the frieze of animals and plants. Another seam opened, this one leading into the passageway.

"I think we're being asked to leave," said Suzanne, and then she said something more, in Chapalii, but there was no response from behind the curtain.

Sparks flashed around Diana's feet as she crossed back into the passageway. The seam shut behind them, leaving the two women alone in the corridor. Suzanne let out a great sigh. Her face shone; she looked replete with satisfaction. Diana felt weak in the knees, but she also floated, so amazed, so elated by what she had just experienced that she hardly needed to touch the ground in order to walk.

"Which reminds me," said Suzanne suddenly, "before they get back, and because you look like a sensible girl. Let me give you some advice about Marco." The older woman might as well have slapped her, for all that the friendly tone of the words stung Diana, for all that they brought her hard down to earth. "He's not arrogant, he doesn't count coup. He just likes women. He never sets out to deliberately hurt anyone, but he lives rather at the mercy of his… appetites. It's the same urge that makes him go exploring. He just can't stand to see virgin ground go untouched. He just has to see what lies over the other side of the hill. He's charming and attractive, and he is sincere, in his own way. Just don't think that you're going to be any different than the other ones-that's the trap." Then she shrugged. "Sorry. I'm sure you didn't want to hear that. Just remember that we were all at university-that we were your age-well before you were born."

Before Diana could respond, the other seam opened and Marco and David and Soerensen emerged, escorted by four stewards. A tangible scent of sulfur wafted from the duke. Marco blinked at Diana, offered her a smile, and then walked on with the Chapalii escort, clearly preoccupied by this major turn of events. Diana followed the others meekly, endured their taut silence in the lift that shaded to pink and dumped them off in the passenger levels, and then escaped to make her own way back to the stateroom she shared with Hal and Quinn and Oriana.

"You smell funny," said Hal as she came in.

Quinn looked up from the game of Go they were playing. "Where've you been? Off assignating with the intrepid explorer? Oh, don't think we haven't noticed him nosing around."

"Oh, be quiet," snapped Diana. She flung herself down on the bunk and stared at the wall. "I just witnessed the birth of a Chapalii lord's heir.''

Oriana snorted, and Hal and Quinn laughed. "That's good," said Quinn. "Try another one."

Diana buried her head in her arms and wished that they would arrive on Rhui, and at the city of Jeds, as quickly as possible. But then she smiled to herself. What did she care if they believed her or not? She knew what she had witnessed. And this was only the beginning of the adventure.

CHAPTER FOUR

David came out to the battlements of the palace to get away from the audience room. He couldn't stand stuffy rooms, and he particularly disliked the obsequiousness with which the Jedan nobles treated Charles. Not that Charles seemed to like it, mind, but it grated on David after a while. He leaned against the sea wall, letting the spray mist his face and hair, and pulled his cloak around himself to ward off the cold. Clouds hung low over the crowded harbor of Jeds, off to his left. Beyond the harbor, the city crawled up and down the hills like a rank animal-or at least, that was how David always thought of it. They had been here two months now, and he saw no reason to change his opinion.

He slipped his sketchpad out from under his cloak and opened it to the page he had just been working on: a sketch of Charles seated in the audience hall, with Marco at his right and two Jedan guards behind him.

"Oh, hello, David."

He turned to greet Diana Brooke-Holt. She also wore a cloak, but it billowed up from her shoulders, lifted by the wind, lending her entrance a dramatic flair. "Coming out to take the air?"

But her gaze went immediately to the sketchpad. "You drew that! That's wonderful!"

David shrugged. He was always embarrassed when people admired his sketching, because he knew he had a dilettante's skill, not a true artist's. But Diana's interest was infectious.

"Is there more?" Without really asking for permission, she flipped the pages back. ' 'That's the north front of the palace. Look how wonderful the architectural details are. You're really good."

"Thank you," murmured David.

She paused too long on a study of Marco, got a self-conscious look on her face, and hastily turned to another page. "You can record the expedition this way, can't you? Out in the open."

"It's true," he agreed, and then she turned another page and there found-herself.

"Oh," she said.

"Do you like it?" asked David, feeling violently shy all of a sudden.

Diana did him the honor of studying the sketch for some moments in silence. But then she got a grin on her face, and she struck a pose and pressed a palm to her chest. " 'Oh, wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! and yet again wonderful! and after that, out of all whooping!' "

David laughed. "Which reminds me. How is the acting business in this town?"

She laughed in turn. "We're a great success. A soldout house every night. Lords and merchants showering the actresses with gifts, flowers and jewels and gowns and expensive baskets of fruit. Poor Yomi has to tag and catalog and return the nonperishable items." She rested her back against the stone and brushed her golden hair back away from her face. The sun, behind her, set into the bay, casting a golden-red echo across the waters, staining the clouds pink. Was she unconscious of the effect she caused, of the way any man might linger to watch her, to wonder? Diana had a bright face, full of warmth, and the cut of her tunic and skirt, while conservative, lent her figure a pleasing grace. David was not surprised that Marco-in the limited free time that they'd had-put himself in her way. Not that he'd had any success, that David had heard of. But there is pleasure given freely and with a whole heart between friends, and there is a subtle form of coercion that some people see fit to call romance. David did not believe in romance, but he suspected that Diana did. Diana grinned at him; was she aware of the way his thoughts were tending? She was, in some ways, quite as young as she looked, but David did not think she was a fool. "And Hyacinth fell in love with some dark-eyed, perfumed young lordling, if that's what they call them. He managed to sneak out every night for two weeks before Yomi caught him at it and slapped a curfew on him."

"And he obeyed it?"

"Only because she threatened to tell Soerensen."

"Ah," said David. "I'm sorry I haven't had time to attend any of the performances. How is the experiment going?"

She turned her shoulders just enough so she could see both him and the sunset. Light spilled out over the bay, chopped by the waves into splinters. Jeds fell into shadow, and the distant hills marking the east grew quite black. Stars began to fill the darkening sky.

"Shakespeare plays well. We've done a condensed repertory schedule: A Midsummer Night's Dream; King Lear; The Tempest; Peer Gynt; Caucasian Chalk Circle; Oedipus Rex; Berenice. Ginny's translated some; others we've done in the original. I don't know. Maybe Owen is right. Maybe some human emotions and gestures are universal. They certainly communicate to these people, and they know nothing of Earth."

At times like this, David was reminded that he was talking with a fellow professional. He wondered if Marco ever saw this side of Diana, or if he only saw that she was pretty, that she had a warm, attractive personality and the ability to listen. "How do you memorize all those lines?" he demanded.

She rolled her eyes. "I refuse to answer that question. Why doesn't Charles Soerensen ban debt-slavery in Jeds?"

"Debt-slavery?"

"Haven't you been in the city at all? Owen has already been approached by three brothel owners and two wealthy merchants to buy my debt from him, because they want to own me, you can imagine what for. It's been the same for Oriana and for Quinn and Anahita. And Hyacinth, of course. He holds the record: he's had four brothel owners, three merchants, and eight veiled gentlewomen bargaining through stewards try to buy him. Owen kept trying to tell them that we weren't slaves until Yomi finally told him just to tell them that we aren't for sale."

"Oh, my," said David, amused and horrified at the same time.

"Of course, we found it funny at first," she went on, her expression darkening. "But the native girls and boys aren't so lucky." She hesitated, and David had a sudden premonition whose name was going to come next to her lips. "Marco took me down into the town last week. It had never occurred to me that they might look them over and sell them off like furniture. Those poor girls looked so terrified, and one actually-" She choked on the next words, faltered, and lapsed into silence.

The waves beat on the rocks below. Faintly, from the audience room, David heard the sound of trumpets.

"How can he let it go on, when he could stop it?" Diana demanded suddenly.

"It is an interdicted planet." The words sounded weak. "Well," he added apologetically, "if he uses his real strength, it would rip apart the fabric of this society. What right do we have to interfere?"

"What right? It's wrong, what they do. It's wrong for those children."

David sighed. "Diana, someone is always going to be hurt. I know that Charles is well aware of the contradictions inherent in his situation."

"You're a fool for going, Charles. Let the company go, and I'll go with them. Send Cara, if you must. But don't go yourself. It can't be perceived as anything but a threat. You forget, I've met him."

Like conspirators, David and Diana both froze. David wondered if this was how an actor felt, who has forgotten to exit and so, inadvertently, is stuck out on stage for the next scene, in which he does not belong. Diana pressed herself closer against the wall, as if she could sink into the stone and thus hide herself. The voices, accompanied by footfalls, came closer.

"It is time for Tess to return," said Charles, sounding cool. "It has been four years, Marco. Four years, since she left Earth. I would have come sooner, but how was I to know it would take two years to finalize the Keinaba alliance? Damned chameleons. One needs the patience of Job to deal with them."

Marco chuckled. "Which you have. I'd much rather deal with barbarians. Quick to anger, quick to friendship. Not this years-long game playing the Chapallii love. Years? Hell. Decades-long, centuries, for all we know of them. Still, I say you're better off letting me talk to Tess first."

The footfalls ceased. The curve of the wall, and the twilight, still hid them from the two men. Alone, David would just have gone to join the others, but Diana looked utterly embarrassed. And anyway, he was curious about the tenor of their conversation.

"No."

"Charles-"

"No. In any case, the rendezvous is already arranged. We sail in two weeks. Baron Santer will act as regent until my return. I'll leave him the scepter of office, although I'll keep the signet ring and the prince's chain just in case he gets ambitions. Tess will meet us at Abala Port in about six weeks."

"And?"

"And the Company can travel on into the interior with the jaran, if that's still their wish."

"And you?"

"We'll see."

"Yes, we'll see because you have every intention of turning straight round and coming back here with Tess, don't you? Merde, Charles, don't do anything rash."

Charles laughed, short and sharp. "When was the last time you've known me to do anything rash?"

"A damned long time ago, as you well know. Let me say it this way. You're getting used to things going your way. This may not be your choice to make."

"Tess has a duty-"

"Yes, I know all about her duty, and I'm sure she does as well. In any case, it's not Tess I'm thinking of now. In the words of that ancient song, I think an irresistible force is about to meet an immovable object, and I'm sure as hell going to get out of the flash zone."

"I'll think about it," said Charles Soerensen. David was shocked to hear such coldness in his voice; this was Charles, who always listened, who could always be counted upon to be open-minded. Diana clutched a fistful of cloak in one hand. Footfalls sounded again, but moving away from them, and they were left in silence but for the sea surging below and the distant sound of carriages leaving the palace.

"Curiouser and curiouser," said a woman's voice beside them.

David gasped, starting round. Diana sagged back against the wall.

"I beg your pardon. I didn't mean to startle you." The woman smiled.

"Cara!"

"Oh, not you," said Cara Hierakis dismissively. "I meant Diana."

"Dr. Hierakis," said Diana in a small voice. She glanced guiltily toward the right and then back. "Oh. I_

"

"Yes, we were all eavesdropping, weren't we?"

"Speak for yourself," said David, affronted. "We came here by accident.''

"Oh, not on purpose, I know," said the doctor mildly. "Or at least, not on your part, Diana."

"Thank you," said David, but he laughed.

"Is she really alive?" Diana asked. "Terese Soerensen, that is? We heard rumors, but I didn't know if they were true."

"Yes, she's alive."

Whenever he heard Tess mentioned, just that simple fact set against the official announcements proclaimed by the Chapalii Protocol Office, David felt a warm glow start up inside him. Tess was alive, and he would be seeing her soon.

"But why did she come to Rhui?" Diana asked. "Oh, I know I shouldn't ask, but…" She trailed off, and David turned to look at Cara Hierakis because it was a question he had never gotten a satisfactory answer to.

Cara laughed. The breeze off the bay stirred her black hair and she squinted out at the distant islands that rimmed the western horizon like glass beads shot through with the last red fires of the sun. The barest trace of crows-feet showed at her eyes. Her face looked not young, yet not old, that mature mask that most humans between the age of forty and ninety now wore: ageless, smooth, and healthy. That David himself wore, although it was by now an ancient joke that folks with the darkest skin stayed the youngest looking for the longest time; there was not four months in chronological age between Charles and David and Marco, but people often mistook David for younger.

"But," echoed Cara, smiling at Diana. "You'll ask anyway. I must say you're looking pert, David, after that impossibly boring audience and ceremony.''

"I left."

"Of course. You could. Tess is doing linguistics research, Diana."

"Linguistics research? That seems so mundane, somehow. I thought maybe she was kidnapped by a dark warrior and swept off into a life filled with hardship and passionate lovemaking. Oh, well."

There was a pause. David chuckled.

Cara regarded Diana with an expression of amused indulgence. "And a bastard every year? Or do you suppose she was married in some primitive ceremony?"

"Oh, certainly," said Diana with conviction, pushing herself away from the wall. "Barbarians are prudes, aren't they? Of course there was a ceremony. She's probably scarred for life."

David laughed.

"How long have you been an actor?" Cara asked.

Diana smiled in a way that showed her dimples to perfection. David sighed and shook his head, feeling very old. "My first performance was at age four as the changeling in A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"That must explain it," said Cara, but David knew her well enough to see that she liked Diana. "In any case, Tess is gifted with languages, and I suspect she saw Rhui as an excellent laboratory to study human evolution in parallel to our own."

"Like Owen?"

"Perhaps. It's not a bad analogy."

"You have a laboratory here, too, don't you? A medical one."

"Yes." Cara cast a glance at David.

"She's studying aging," he said.

But Cara was only angling for an opening, since it was her favorite subject. "As grateful as we may be for the longevity treatments the Chapalii gave us, allowing us to live out our full one hundred and twenty year life spans with good health and a long period of relative youth, I suspect there's something we're missing. Something they didn't tell us, or something, perhaps, that they don't know."

"What do you mean?"

David had seen Cara's lecture mask before. It slipped firmly into place now. "Aging is a two part process. One is a breakdown of the vitality and regenerative abilities of the tissues and the metabolic system, that's what the Chapalii treatments deal with. But the other is a genetic clock that switches off the organism at a set time. We're still stuck at one hundred and twenty years. I think we can do better.'' The mask slipped off, and she suddenly looked cautious. "Perhaps. We'll see."

"It's a delicate and peculiar issue," put in David, since Cara had left him his opening. "We don't talk about it much."

"Oh," said Diana. The sea faded into darkness behind them, and the massive bulk of the palace rose against the stars. "Is that why you have your laboratory down here, on an interdicted planet? Where the Chapalii aren't allowed?"

What need to reply? The wind coursed along the parapet and the sea dashed itself into foam on the rocks below. The fecund moon lay low, bordering the hills. A shoe scraped on stone, and Marco emerged from around a curve of wall. He smiled at Diana and leaned casually against the wall beside her.

To David's surprise, it was Diana who broke the silence. "But, Dr. Hierakis, are the Rhuian humans really the same species as we are?"

David almost laughed, seeing how disconcerted Marco looked, as if he thought that once he arrived, Diana would not be able to think of anything but him.

"Oh, yes," said Cara. "By all the biological laws we know. Identical." She appeared about to say something else, but did not.

"But how?" Diana asked. "That should be impossible."

Though it was night, the moon lent enough light to the scene so David could still read their expressions. Marco gazed soulfully on Diana, and David thought she was aware of his gaze on her. Cara sighed and shifted to stare out to sea, imposing the kind of silence on the little group that betrays knowledge hard-won and dangerous to share.

"Oh," said Diana. She looked disappointed, but resigned to her fate. "It's a state secret. I understand."

Marco chuckled. "Fair one." He caught one of her hands in his. "Had you agreed to marry me yet?"

"You hadn't asked me yet," Diana retorted, extricating her hand from his. Then she lowered her eyes from his face and looked quickly away.

Oh, dear, thought David. He looked at Cara. Cara looked at him. The signs of infatuation were easy enough to read. And she was young, and susceptible.

"I hear you're doing The Tempest tonight," said Cara. "Do you suppose you could find a seat for me? I've always loved that play.''

"Goodness," said Diana, sounding a bit strained as she said it. "I really must go. I'm sure we can find you something, Doctor, if you'd like to come with me. The duke's-the prince's-box is always vacant, unless he's attending. If you think he'd like to go."

"Ah," said Cara in a dangerous voice. "I'm sure he'd love to attend tonight."

They made their good-byes. They left. Marco began to walk after them.

"Marco," said David softly, "she is an intelligent and sensitive young woman, and I stress the word, 'young.' Stop playing with her. It's cruel, above all else."

Marco spun. "Et tu, Brute? Hell, I had a lecture from Suzanne before she left to go back to Odys. Is this some kind of conspiracy? I think she's old enough to know her own mind."

"Maybe she just strikes us all as more vulnerable than the others. She's terribly romantic."

"Well, so am I," Marco snapped. "I suggest you let the subject drop." He propped his elbows up on the battlements and glared out at the bay, striped in darkness and moonlight. But then again, Marco was always short-tempered when he was in full pursuit.

"I've said everything I intend to say. For whatever good it will do. When do Maggie and Rajiv and Jo get in?"

"Tomorrow," said Marco grumpily. "And don't forget Ursula."

"Ow." David winced. "I had. Well, I've lived through worse."

"Or the next day," Marco added, evidently determined to be perverse. "It depends on the weather. They're marking time in orbit now."

"Why did you tell Charles that an irresistible force is about to meet an immovable object? What does that have to do with Tess?"

Marco fixed a brooding stare on David. "Don't say I didn't warn him."

"My goodness," said David, "you certainly make me look forward to this expedition."

Marco only grunted. Then he lapsed into a silence from which, David knew, he could not be coaxed. David decided to see if he could go wangle a chair in the prince's box, to see tonight's performance of The Tempest. Somehow, a play about being shipwrecked on a lost and primitive island seemed appropriate to the moment.

CHAPTER FIVE

Jiroannes Arthebathes was at Eberge when he received the courier from his uncle ordering him to leave three-quarters of his retinue and all of his women and their attendants at the northern villa of the Great King's fourth cousin.

His personal secretary, Syrannus, read the letter to him. Jiroannes grabbed the parchment out of Syrannus's hands and spoke the words to himself. " '…It has come to our attention that the presence of women in your party would be a hindrance to our negotiations. Therefore, nephew, I feel it wise for you to travel with only twenty guardsmen, two grooms, three slave-boys, and your personal secretary. Be so good as to obey my wishes.' "

Jiroannes had learned to swear fluently at the palace school for boys; he did so now. "This is humiliating! And well he knows it, too. He would never travel with such a paltry escort."

"Surely, eminence, your uncle would not demand such privations of you without good reason."

"How can he expect that I will be granted any respect at all, even by such barbarians as these jaran, coming to them with a mere six servants? And no women! Their Bakhtiian will think me the merest lordling. Surely my uncle understands that as the ambassador of the Great King, may his name resonate a thousand years, I must present a dignified retinue. Savages are only impressed by force, size, and gold. They will think Vidiya is some trifling princedom." He snorted and glanced around his chamber. True, he was far out in the provinces, but the Great King's fourth cousin had imported the finest carved furniture from the port of Ambray, and the cunning designs woven into the upholstery of the couch attested to the skill of his slaves. Though it was also true that the tile inlaid into the floor had flaws and inferior color, and the beads of the door curtain were painted wood, not glass. "How can the jaran respect us as the most civilized of peoples, as well as the most powerful, if the Great King's ambassador arrives with a train of servants that any concubine might own? Feh."

Syrannus said nothing, but he extricated the delicate parchment from his lord's smooth, dark hands and rolled it up with the reverence due any communication from the person of a great lord and King's Companion of Vidiya.

"And I showed laudable restraint, I would have thought," Jiroannes went on, although in a more subdued tone of voice. "I brought only three of my concubines."

"Eminence, perhaps your most honored lord uncle has obtained information that forces his hand in this?"

"I know. I know." It was too much, really, to have to endure a year in circumstances of the utmost coarseness, ambassador to these jaran, and now to have to maintain himself as a Vidiyan ought with so few servants. "I doubt if these barbarians can even recognize such markers of status."

"I think, eminence, that it would not do to underestimate them. Eight kingdoms and four principalities have already fallen to their onslaught. Why else would the Great King, may his name endure a thousand years, bother to negotiate with their prince?"

"Four kingdoms and eight principalities. Let us not exaggerate their power. Surely, if it came to war between us, you don't think these barbarians have the slightest chance to win?"

"One hears tales, eminence. The more savage the man, the less honor and the Everlasting God's tenets will stay his hand. They say this Bakhtiian violated a holy temple and its ten virgin priestesses. That he massacred an entire town out in the wilderness, five thousand men, women, and children, even the cattle, leaving only the smoking ruins of the buildings and bloodied corpses for the scavengers. They say jaran men are so proud that they won't touch any women but their own, that they call foreign women 'dogs.' They ride covered in their own blood, and they can't walk, since they sit on horseback from childhood on."

Jiroannes stroked his beard, amused. "I hope you do not believe all these superstitious tales, Syrannus. I have also heard it said that they scorn the bow and arrow because it is a woman's weapon. Can you imagine? Thinking a woman could shoot? It is nonsense, and you'd do well not to believe such stories."

"Still, eminence, your most honored uncle must have had good reason to give you this order."

"Yes. I have never doubted my uncle's judgment. And it was undoubtedly my uncle's influence that convinced His Imperial Majesty to grant me this mission."

"It is true, eminence, that five other young men of good family vied for the position. To succeed with such an important assignment will assure you higher standing at court.''

"Yes. And a hope of moving into the Companion's Circle." Jiroannes sank back onto the silken couch and snapped his fingers. His Tadesh concubine padded forward from the corner and knelt at the foot of the couch to massage his feet. "And if I fail, I will spend the rest of my life in the provinces." He considered the papered walls trimmed with gold leaf, the arched windows looking out over the gardens, sere and brown with winter, and the beaded curtain that concealed this room from the rest of the honored guest suite. Wooden beads, indeed!

"Certainly, eminence, the rewards for succeeding will be great. Your most honored uncle has already begun negotiations, I believe, for your suit for the hand and dowry of the daughter of this house."

"Yes. The daughter of the Great King's fourth cousin. That would be sweet indeed."

"With such a connection to the royal family, eminence, surely a Companion's Sash would be guaranteed you."

Jiroannes did not reply. He watched the Tadesh. Her hands, stroking his feet and ankles, were strong and assured. She was a foreign girl, from the Gray Eminence's lands across the sea. He had paid a ridiculously high price for her. She was not a beauty, certainly, but exotic as any foreigner is, and in any case she knew the five fabled arts of seduction and the five erotic dances of Tadesh. He could tell, by her lowered eyes and the set of her chin, that she knew he was studying her. She did not smile. She never did.

"Syrannus," he said abruptly. "There is a slave-boy about her size. Go get his clothing."

"Your eminence?"

"His clothing."

Syrannus looked troubled. "Your eminence, surely, if your most honored uncle said-"

"Are you questioning me?"

Syrannus bowed. "Of course not, your eminence, but in my position as a tutor for many years in the palace school, from which your eminence so graciously elevated me to become your secretary, I beg leave to remind you that while your high spirits and rebellious nature made you a favorite among the tutors at the school, it would not perhaps be wise to go against your uncle's orders."

"I can cut the girl's hair." The concubine's hands halted for a moment, then resumed their rubbing. "With short hair, and loose clothing, she will pass well enough for a boy. By my ancestors, Syrannus, surely my uncle cannot expect me to endure an entire year without female companionship? The First Prophet himself warns against such privations. It is simply too much. She will go in the slave-boy's place. My uncle will not know of it, and the barbarians will neither notice nor care."

Syrannus hesitated. At last, he bowed and left the room. The curtain parted, whispering, to let him through, and with a jangle of beads settled back into place.

Jiroannes sighed. "Something to drink, Samae." The concubine rose and padded in her slippers to the far table and brought him back a cup of melted fruit sorbet. He liked to watch her. She had an unconscious grace, and her slim hips swayed in an enticing manner. He did not think she did it on purpose. She had yet to show the least interest in him, except to perform her duties as ordered and with exacting perfection.

She knelt beside the couch and lifted the cup up to him. He took it, and drank. She wore two layers of cloth, an outer silken gown slitted cunningly to reveal the sheer silk garment beneath and the white curves of her body. The sorbet cooled his throat, but not his ardor.

"My sash," he said.

She undid the complex knot that bound his sash and unwound him from its confines. The emerald cloth studded with jewels and precious stones fell to the floor in a heap. Even as she slid his trousers and blouse off, he was thinking as much of his ambitions as of the expert ministrations of her hands: endure this one year, negotiate a successful treaty with this Bakhtiian, secure Vidiya's borders and perhaps even arrange some diplomatic marriages-the Great King had a daughter by his fifth wife he was willing to offer to the Bakhtiian, and surely this nomad prince had some female in his family to offer the Great King or his heir in turn-and then…

Samae paused in her stroking while Syrannus came in, deposited the boy's clothing in a neat pile at the foot of the couch, and left. As the beaded curtain settled back into place, she dabbed oil on her hands and began again.

Then he could marry well and gain the honor of wearing, instead of a gaudy, jeweled sash, the plain white silk granted only to the Companions. With such a prize within his reach, he could almost look forward to the coming year.

Manifest of the Soerensen Expedition

Compiled by Margaret O'Neill, Assistant to C. Soerensen

Personnel:

Charles Soerensen Dr. Cara Fel Hierakis Margaret O'Neill David ben Unbutu Ursula el Kawakami Rajiv Caer Linn Joanna Singh

The Bharentous Repertory Company:

Ginnaia Lac Arbha Seshat Onn Anahita Liel Apphia Helen Angiras Diana Brooke-Holt Madelena Quinn Oriana Vuh Catanya Yomi Applegate-Hito

Owen Zerentous Dejhuti Joldine Gwyn Jones Jean-Pierre Dasas Henry Bharentous Hyacinth

Phillippe Navarone Joseph Applegate-Hito

1

Partial Manifest of Goods:

1

22 Hou-Kohl palm slates thermal mitts

1 Ananda-Cray Modeler

2 frying pans

1 Ananda-Cray clothespins demiModeler rope

1 Grousset solar mini portable platform

1 Xi-Dela portable

4 free-standing screens cookery

10 carpets

10 two-capacity canvas scrubbing pads and towels

1 tents

1 fire extinguisher

3 ten-capacity canvas tents

3 buckets

23 canvas cots

1 portable efficiency: WC

4 folding tables and shower

23 folding chairs

7 crates belonging to Dr. Hierakis (uninspected)

23 wilderness thermal

1 blankets

5 crates of misc. props

4 dishpans and costumes: see

25 sets: knives, forks amp;

Company manifest for Interdiction allowance

25 sets: mugs, plates amp; misc. personal items, ltd. bowls to 2 carry bags

3 chopping boards person (12 kg. ea.)

3 kettles

100 gallons of water

3 ladles

emergency transmitter

1 water purifier

5 Minimax solar cells

axes and shovels

10,000 bags of tea

1 soap

CHAPTER SIX

A peremptory knock sounded on the door behind Diana. She glanced up, startled, and lost hold of the inkwell just as the ship rolled steeply. The inkwell slid off the table and fell to the floor. Diana swore and ducked under the table to grab for it. It spun in a furious circle, spewing ink, and then rolled with the tilt of the floor toward the bunk. Diana swore again, more heated words this time, bumped her head on the top of the table, and saw a booted foot catch the inkwell, stopping it neatly before it could roll under the lip of the bunk.

"Such language," admonished the owner of the foot.

She crawled out from under the table. "Hello," she said, surveying Marco Burckhardt with remarkable calm. Somehow, her anger at the mess counteracted her fluttering heart.

He grinned at her and bent to retrieve the inkwell. "It's a messy business. Writing with pen and ink. Palm slates are much more convenient."

"This is an interdicted planet." She took the inkwell from him, stoppered it, and used a rag to mop up the spilled ink. "Thank you." Out in the passageway she heard the voices of the rest of the party as they packed and readied to leave.

Marco examined the room-Hal's three duffel bags, open, with clothing and interesting odds and ends strewn over the lower bunk; Diana's two little carry bags on the upper bunk, tied and neat and ready to go. "Where's your roommate?"

"Out throwing up over the stern one final time, I think."

"Ah, he was one of the really sick ones."

"And an actor, you know. Think of it as a farewell gesture."

"If you're ready, I can get you on the first boat going in to the harbor.''

"Can you?" Diana clapped her hands together and clasped them at her throat. "That would be marvelous! Here, I'm ready to go right now." She closed the journal, laced it shut with a leather cord, and stuffed it into the side pouch of one of her bags.

"May I carry those for you?"

"No, I'm fine. Well, if you insist, you may take one." She handed him the bag without the journal in it, hoisted the other in her left hand, and followed him out of the cabin and down the passageway, dodging actors and their gear.

A brisk wind blew on deck, and though it was cold, it was clear, the sun a fine golden disk in the purpling-blue sky. A shoal of harbor boats crowded up against the ship's low-slung hull. Dr. Hierakis stood supervising the loading of her mysterious selection of crates and barrels into the forward boat. Charles Soerensen appeared from his cabin. He swung two bags-no heavier, Diana judged, than her own-over the rail and dropped them the two meters. They landed next to a meter-square crate. He climbed down the ladder, into the boat.

"Hello, Marco. Coming with us?" Margaret O'Neill, Soerensen's assistant, appeared at the railing beside them. She glanced at Diana, at Marco, grinned, and then hid her mouth behind one hand.

"But of course, my flame-haired vixen. I could not bear to be parted from you even for so short a time. Do you know Diana?"

"Of course I know Diana. We spent a companionable two days together at the beginning of the voyage, throwing up over the stern."

Diana smiled but could think of no reply. Maggie treated Marco with a casual irreverence that Diana could only marvel at, and certainly could not hope to imitate.

Without asking, Marco took Diana's second carry from her grip and slung both bags down into Charles Soerensen's waiting hands. A gaudy gold ring flashed on the duke's right forefinger. Looking up, Soerensen caught Diana's gaze on him and he nodded in greeting. Diana blushed and waited to descend into the boat until Maggie and Marco had gone before her. The boat rocked on the wind-whipped water. Dr. Hierakis secured the last of her crates and then sat. As one of the boatmen poled them free of the ship, Diana could not resist turning to wave to the handful of actors who had by now arrived on deck. Four sailors began the steady stroke of the oars, and the boat headed in to the docks, leaving the rest to follow in its wake.

A line of red rimmed the dockside. It had a shimmering, restless texture like, Diana thought, a festival decoration or some religious iconography. But as they neared the shore, she realized that it was a long line of figures-of men mounted on horses. There were many, many-perhaps a thousand-along the wharf, three deep and snaking in lines up into the town. Each and every one of the mounted men wore a similar costume: a brilliant scarlet shirt and black trousers and boots. The oars beat rhythmically as the boat scudded across the harbor, closing, and Diana saw that the riders were armed with sabers, and that most of them held long spears, some with pennants tied up near their heads, snapping in the breeze.

"They're armed!" she exclaimed. "We're rowing straight into them."

Soerensen shaded his eyes with one hand to stare. One of the rowers spoke rapidly in a foreign tongue.

Marco listened and nodded, and then translated for the others. "He says the barbarians came into town two days since, that they came to wait for the Prince of the far city, which is Charles, of course."

"Of course," Maggie echoed, glancing sharply at Soerensen. If he was paying attention to this conversation, he did not show it.

"He says," Marco continued, beginning to smile, "that it's the Bakhtiian's own private guard, his picked troops, and that Bakhtiian himself is with them."

"But isn't, he the conqueror?" Maggie demanded. "The king? Why would he be here?" But Marco fell silent as the boat slipped in among pilings and the sailors tied her up to a pier.

Soerensen disembarked without taking his packs. The others scrambled after him. The little party walked at a brisk pace up the pier to the waiting guard. This close, the riders were even more impressive-each horsed and seated magnificently, a long line of men, fair and dark, set off by the intense red of their shirts. Soerensen moved with an impatient, clipped stride.

Maggie dropped back beside Diana and whispered, "He'll see his sister Tess at last. It's all he's been speaking of." Soerensen slowed, surveying the line, and halted at the end of the pier, faced with the barbarians. Diana and Maggie stood behind him, Marco and Dr. Hierakis on either side of him.

First there was silence. Diana scanned the line for any sign of the sister, but she saw only men. Each one in turn, those close enough for her to look at, cast down his eyes, as if they had some taboo about looking on a stranger. Then, to the far right of the line, a rider appeared, flanked by two others.

"Enter, the king," said Diana under her breath.

Soerensen lifted a hand in greeting, but as the three riders neared, he lowered it. All three were men, and the one in the fore rode a splendid black horse. The trio halted in front of Soerensen, and the dark-featured man on the black horse dismounted and handed the reins to one of his companions. Then he examined his audience, making no immediate move to come forward. He wore the brilliant clothing of his people with impeccable neatness, and he had that air of utter authority that comes from having one's will obeyed instantly.

Marco made a hiss of amazement. "That's him," he said in a voice pitched low, for Soerensen's ears. "That's Bakhtiian."

"Of course it is," whispered Diana. "Only kings or actors make entrances like that."

Soerensen did not acknowledge either comment. "I don't believe it," said Maggie.

Marco glanced back over his shoulder and shook his head. "No, really. I met him once. He's not a person I would forget."

"I confess I thought a great conqueror would be taller.'' Maggie said it in a low voice, but the conqueror's gaze flashed her way for an unreadable instant.

"For God's sake," said Marco, "you're damned well taller than everyone else in this party as it is, Maggie."

Diana could not help herself, Tamburlaine was so fresh in her mind. " 'His looks do menace heaven and dare the gods, His fiery eyes are fixed upon the earth, As if he has devised some stratagem.' " She faltered, because he moved.

He walked forward with easy grace and halted in front of Soerensen. There was a pause. This close, Diana felt compelled to stare at him. He was not handsome, exactly, but rather one of those people who attracts the eye as much by force of will as by physical perfection. He was exceedingly well-proportioned and his features were precise, marked especially by a pair of dark, passionate, and impatient eyes. Of course he had a scar, a white line running diagonally from one high cheekbone almost to his chin, doubtlessly suffered in a battle, or a brawl, or perhaps in an assassination attempt. Diana realized that she was holding her breath and staring, and she let air out deliberately and breathed in again.

In Jeds, the natives bowed to Soerensen as one would to a prince. Bakhtiian inclined his head, as one equal greets another. "I am Bakhtiian," he said. In Rhuian, the language of Jeds.

Soerensen returned the nod and replied in the same language. "Charles Soerensen."

"I give you greetings."

"And blessings in return."

What their true feelings were, Diana could not guess through the mask of politeness they wore. Soerensen had always been an enigma to her, a rather pale man with sand-colored hair who showed humor readily and never gave the slightest inkling of how he felt at having been turned from a failed revolutionary leader into the only human duke in the massive and labyrinthine Chapalii Empire. Most people she could read, she could get a sense of, but Soerensen was a blank.

The two men studied each other, but what they made of that examination did not show on their faces.

At last Bakhtiian spoke. "I have arranged that we leave morning after next, for our camp some ten days ride inland. That will give your party a day to organize their goods on the wagons we've brought for the journey."

After a beat of silence, Soerensen said, "Where is my sister? I expected that she would be here to greet me." His face maintained its mask of politeness, but the air changed quality, as if charged by a net of electricity.

Bakhtiian's expression did not change, but everything else about him did, the indefinable shift of his posture utterly transforming the message his body carried. He moved his left foot slightly. His left hand strayed to his saber hilt, and he brushed the tip of the golden hilt with his thumb. "She is at the camp," he said, in a tone that meant: and that is that.

Soerensen blinked, once. When he spoke, it was without inflection. "She told me, in a letter, that she would meet me at the port."

"She may well have," replied the conqueror of half a dozen kingdoms and principalities, "but she could not come." He removed his hand from his saber hilt and began to turn away, to lead the group up into town, since the matter was now obviously settled.

Soerensen did not move. "Why is that?" he asked, as easily as if he were commenting on the weather.

Half turned away, Bakhtiian froze, paused, and swung back. The force of his stare, antagonistic and unforthcoming, would have cowed any other man. He did not reply.

"'Why could she not come?'' repeated Soerensen.

For an instant, Bakhtiian looked taken aback that a living being questioned his authority. For an instant only. "Because she could not leave camp."

For the first time, a sudden, intense energy radiated off of Soerensen. Abruptly, Diana saw in him the man who had dared to challenge humanity's alien masters. He was powerful, and frightening. His jaw tightened; his lips thinned; he took in a breath.

The storm was about to hit. The charge of emotion washed over her like fire. She burned with it, fear and exhilaration together. Marco took a step back, putting a hand out to push Diana back behind him. Maggie gasped. Without thinking, Diana reached out to grasp Maggie's hand. Maggie glanced at her, pale skin flushed with alarm, and neither let go. The scarlet-shirted riders nearest the group stirred, and horses minced under tense hands.

Dr. Hierakis stepped forward into the breach. "I am sorry to hear that she is ill," she said with astonishing smoothness. "However, we had better be sure we have accommodations for the next two nights, since the rest of our party are coming in from the ship and will need to be directed as to where they can stow their baggage."

Soerensen said nothing, but as quickly as it had shone forth, his light was buried again. Evidently he approved of the doctor's intervention. But Bakhtiian's response was more startling: she looked directly at him, as one does when addressing a person, and he immediately dropped his gaze away from hers and stepped back. "Of course," he said obediently. "I have arranged for two inns for your party. I hope they will be adequate.''

"I am sure they will be." She seemed taken aback by Bakhtiian's sudden deference.

Marco looked astounded. Maggie let go of Diana's hand and nervously straightened her tunic. Diana was not sure where she ought to look, like an actor with no lines, on stage but not given direction. She felt a wee bit disappointed.

"I am Doctor Hierakis, by the way," Hierakis added. "And may I introduce Diana Brooke-Holt and Margaret O'Neill…" With stunning aplomb, Bakhtiian gave a curt but gracious bow to each of the women in turn, like any accomplished courtier, managing to acknowledge them fully without looking either in the eye. "This is Marco Burckhardt."

But now Bakhtiian looked up, directly at Marco. A smile appeared and vanished on his lips so quickly that Diana was not sure she had actually seen it. "We have met."

Marco's smile was more ghostly than humorous. "Indeed." He inclined his head. Bakhtiian swept their group with a comprehensive gaze, looked out past them at the ship, and with a terse command to his two attendants, he turned and began the long walk up the hill into town. Soerensen did not hesitate but followed, and by some unspoken communication the two men paced their speed so that within five steps they walked together, if not in harmony. Dr. Hierakis paused only long enough to check Marco, Diana, and Maggie in turn, and then she hurried after them-doubtless, Diana thought, to make sure no blood was spilled.

"Mary Mother of God," said Maggie as soon as the two men were out of earshot. The two men who had served as Bakhtiian's escorts waited patiently, hands light on their horses's reins. "Where did you meet him, Marco?"

"It's a long story. Tupping hell, I thought we were done for.''

"He spoke perfect Rhuian." Diana glanced up at the two escorts, and when they flicked their gaze away from her, she knew that they were trying very hard not to stare at her. If in a cosmopolitan city like Jeds, where trade was commonplace to ports an ocean voyage away, the contrast between her pale and flawless complexion and Oriana's coal-black skin had been the cause of much comment, she could well imagine that this company of visitors would look doubly exotic to these northerners. "How did he learn to speak such perfect Rhuian? And that bow!"

"Very easily." Marco grinned. "He was educated at the university in Jeds."

"You're joking," said Maggie.

"No, actually, I'm not. But don't worry, Diana. From my previous experience-nothing extensive, I might add-I can make a shrewd guess that it's all surface gloss. He's as barbaric as you please underneath. At least, / wouldn't cross him.''

"Coming from you, Marco," said Maggie tartly, "and having seen the scars you have, I do not find that one bit reassuring.''

Marco shrugged, and he grinned up at the two waiting riders. Hesitantly, they grinned back at him.

Diana sighed with pleasure. Until this journey, her childhood dream of having a true adventure had seemed unattainable. Marco Burckhardt glanced back at her, and he winked. She folded her hands together, in front of herself, and smiled, feeling a delicious sense of anticipation.

CHAPTER SEVEN

News traveled like the wind. For many reasons did the khaja fear the jaran armies, and for this reason as much as any. No matter how quickly khaja princes or khaja towns sent messages or made alliances or maneuvered troops to stem the jaran tide, more quickly still did the jaran respond. It was as if the wind itself was the ally of the nomads, a silent, swift messenger on whom the horsemen alone could rely.

At midday a jaran rider came galloping out of the north into sight of a town. The sod walls here had been too high to level; they had been breached at frequent intervals instead, and by the main gate a troop of some hundred horsemen rode drills in the flat space beyond the remains of the two wooden gate doors, which had been thrown down and partially burnt.

The harness of the messenger's horse shook with bells, and the sound, as well as the lance tipped with a gold pennant borne by the rider, alerted the garrison. Within moments, a second rider emerged from the tents of the garrison leading a saddled horse. The men met at the edge of the drilling ground.

"Vanya!"

The garrison soldier pulled up and helped the messenger swing his saddlebags onto the new mount. "Feodor Grekov! What brings you here?"

"Sibirin sent me. A message for Nadine Orzhekov."

"Oho! I'll wager I know what it concerns, and I wish you luck when you deliver it.''

"What, she is here, then?"

"No, just left with her jahar for Basille. That's the khaja town where they're to collect the barbarian ambassador and bring him back to camp."

Feodor shook his head, fair hair stirring in a breeze that curled down from the heights. "Her jahar?"

"Orzhekov's jahar."

"That's not who I meant-"

"I know who you meant." Vanya grinned, an engaging smile made no less merry by the fact that his right eye was scarred shut by an old wound. "As I said, I wish you luck. She was in a foul mood."

"Nadine?"

"Oh, Nadine, is it, now? When did you leave off addressing her as tsadra?"

Feodor blushed.

Vanya laughed again. "Still that way with you? I won't tease you, then. Why don't you just mark her and be done?"

"Would you?"

"Gods, no! She's too good with that saber. No, Orzhekov has been full of mischief since she got here. She has the khaja Elders dancing this way and then that, with her clever words. It's not her who's in the foul mood." A red-shirted man appeared, on foot, at the gate, and hallooed toward them, waving. "You'd better go on," said Vanya, sobering. "You can catch them in two spans." The transfer completed, Vanya took the reins of the blown horse.

"Gods," said Feodor. His blush had faded. "Why did Sibirin send me?"

Vanya grinned again. "Oh, he knows Orzhekov has an eye for you, that's it. He thinks it will soften the blow."

"Gods," murmured Feodor.

Nadine Orzhekov called her jahar to a halt as soon as the scouts brought word that a messenger had been sighted following them. "Look," she said to Tess Soerensen as the rider came in, flanked on either side by scouts, "it's Feodor Grekov. He must have come all the way from the main camp. I wonder what he wants."

"You know damn well what he wants," said Tess irritably. "Sibirin sent him to take me back."

"You can't know that," protested Nadine, but her eyes lit with unholy glee. "You don't suppose Bakhtiian got back already?''

"I hope so." The surge of anger that coursed through Tess at the mention of his name was so strong that it shocked her. Gods, where had it all come from?

"Tess. Tess." Nadine shook her head. "For shame." But her expression belied the words, and she chuckled. "Poor Feodor. He looks terrified."

Feodor's escorts peeled away from him and galloped off from the troop, leaving him to approach Nadine and Tess alone. The other riders, all men, watched surreptitiously but with piercing interest as Feodor drew his horse up beside the two women. Tess felt sorry for him because she knew Nadine would treat him badly. Nadine possessed her own stores of hidden anger.

"Well met, Grekov," said Nadine. "What brings you here?"

He kept his eyes lowered. "Sibirin sent me. With a message."

"Ah, a message," said Nadine wisely, drawing out the pause by fiddling with the closes on the leather pouch strung in front of her saddle. She reached inside, pulled out a rolled-up bundle of yellow parchment, examined it without opening it, and then replaced it.

Tess sighed heavily beside her and said, in Rhuian, "Oh, let the poor man out of his misery, Dina."

Feodor glanced up at her words, hearing their tone but not knowing their meaning, and looked away again as her gaze settled on him.

"You're losing your sense of humor, Tess," replied Nadine in Rhuian.

"Never that!"

Nadine grinned. She turned back to Feodor. "Well enough, Grekov," she said in khush, the language of the jaran. "I can guess what your message is. I suppose you're to return to camp with Tess?"

"Yes."

"Then you'll have to stay with us."

He was surprised enough to look straight at her, eyes widening. "But Sibirin said-"

"Yetra, Niko Sibirin does not order me."

"But Bakhtiian himself ordered-"

"Bakhtiian," said Tess viciously, before she knew she meant to say it, "can go to hell."

Feodor's expression of surprise glazed over, freezing an instant from pure shock, and then he shook it off and addressed Nadine again. As if, thought Tess wryly, what she had just said was beyond response. "Forgive me, tsadra. But Sibirin said that I was to bring your cousin-" He glanced from under lashes at Tess, who knew that her brown hair and green eyes did not resemble Nadine's black hair and eyes at all. "-back to camp before Bakhtiian returned from the coast. And not to return without her.''

"I won't force her to go back now. She doesn't intend to go back until I do. There you are. Will you come with us, then?"

"I have no choice."

Nadine dismissed him with a shrug and signaled the troop to ride. Feodor turned his horse aside to fall in with the ranks as they started forward. Tess looked back to see the young man staring at Nadine. Everyone knew he was in love with her.

Were her own feelings so transparent? With one hand, she traced the curve of her mirror. It took no great skill to see that she had married into an impossible situation, that the confrontation that was bound to come was of her own making. Mostly she was angry at herself; sometimes she felt as if she was constantly holding up that mirror and staring at her own flaws, and she was getting a little tired of it.

"Brooding?" asked Nadine, mocking her, but Tess laughed in reply because she knew Nadine showed affection by being caustic.

And abruptly, the thought triggered in Tess an upwelling of the love, of the heart's warmth, she felt for her family-for Sonia and Katerina and Ivan and Kolia, for Niko and Juli, for Irena Orzhekov, for Nadine; for Aleksi, the brother she had adopted. And, God damn him to hell, for Ilya.

"I shouldn't have done it," said Tess when Nadine halted her jahar in sight of the township of Basille. "I shouldn't have come with you."

"Losing your nerve?"

Tess chuckled. "What do you think? But perhaps the dramatic gesture wasn't the wisest one."

"It will certainly get Ilya's attention, though."

"Damn it, it was just one last thing too many. Yaroslav Sakhalin himself picked me out. He told both Bakhalo and Zvertkov that he wanted me in his jahar. You know what an honor that is! And then before I was ever consulted, Ilya goes around behind my back and tells Sakhalin that I'm to be left where I am: still in training. Still in reserve. He never lets me out of camp except if I'm with him or maybe, maybe, on a safe scouting expedition with Ilya's picked thousand and Aleksi at my right hand."

Nadine looked at Tess's scarlet shirt and black trousers, and then at her own, similar except in the stiff leather shoulder pieces and the pattern of quilting and embroidery running up the sleeves. "It's true," she mused, "that Sakhalin is not the kind of dyan to pick you out in order to curry favor with Ilya. He chose you on your merits, nothing else."

"Thank you."

"Still angry? It was an honor."

"An honor I'm never to receive the fruits of."

"Do you want to fight in battle that much?"

Tess regarded her companion with a rueful smile. Behind Nadine's left ear, where her black hair pulled away into a waist-long braid, began the scar that followed parallel to the line of the braid, all the way down. Nadine's bronze helmet hung from her saddle and her lamellar cuirass was tied on behind, although most of her men wore cuirasses or scale girdles and belts. But then, Nadine preferred to keep her reputation for being reckless.

"No, not that much," Tess admitted. "But you know as well as I do that I can't just have the privileges of my position. I have to accept the dangers as well."

"Otherwise," said Nadine, slipping easily from khush into Rhuian, "you're just a player in a masquerade. All show.''

"Yes, all show. I don't care to live that way. And I'm not jaran. So I don't have to. Ilya keeps forgetting that."

"You're wrong, Tess. He's never forgotten it. That's why he wouldn't let you go to the coast with him."

Tess went pale with anger, and her fingers clenched, and unclenched, on her reins. Zhashi shied sideways, and settled. "The business with Sakhalin was inexcusable," she said in a voice made low by fury. "But to refuse me the journey to the coast to meet Charles-!" She broke off.

Nadine watched for a few moments the interesting spectacle of Tess Soerensen too angry to speak. Then she lifted a hand to signal the jahar forward at a walk. Rather than looking at Tess, Nadine examined the timbered palisade that surrounded Basille, noting its gaps and its open gates and the sudden blur of activity at the gates when the approach of two hundred horsemen was noted by its guards.

"He's afraid," she said softly. Tess did not reply. Perhaps she had not heard her. Perhaps she did not-or could not-understand what Nadine knew to be true. "Off the fields!" she shouted at two idiot stragglers, and she led them along a dirt track that wound in toward town.

Out in the fields, workers breaking the ground in preparation for the spring ploughing raised their caps to stare, while others scattered back across the furrowed earth to find safety in hovels and behind low carts. A string of watchers appeared on what still remained of the palisade of Basille.

Nadine regarded these signs pensively. "Poor things. They hadn't a chance, you know, when they brought out their pitiful army against Veselov's ten thousand with my jahar and Mirsky's jahar in reserve. After the first day they saw it was useless and negotiated a surrender. They would have done better to close their gates and try to wait out a siege. We weren't very good at sieges that first year."

Tess chuckled. "You spent one year too many in Jeds, Dina. Are you sorry for them, now?''

Nadine shrugged. "What the gods have brought them, they will have to endure. Still, it's true enough. One year too many in Jeds marks you, just like any good jaran woman is marked for marriage."

"Like you aren't." Tess touched the scar that ran diagonally from cheekbone to jaw on her left cheek.

Nadine smiled, unmarked. "Gods, it's no wonder he married you. He would never have married a jaran woman, not after the years he spent in Jeds. Sonia and Yuri-that's why they only spent a year there. They didn't want to be changed. Or couldn't be."

"Poor Yuri. It's probably just as well he died. He would have hated this. Three years of war-one battle after the next. So much killing. He would have hated it."

Nadine examined Tess reflectively-the hair and eyes no color ever seen in jaran-born; a good rider, for a khaja; and she could fight, it was true. Nadine recalled the cousin she had last seen years before, that gentle boy Yuri. It was true he had hated fighting-could do it, but hated it. Tess was good, probably better than Yuri had ever been, but she lacked the love of the art itself, she lacked the indifference to killing: and to be a truly good fighter one must have both of those traits in moderation, or one in excess. Good timing, and a fine eye for distance: those were Tess's skills.

Tess watched her, one lip quirked up in ironic salute. ' 'Judged and found wanting?''

"Your skills aren't at issue, Tess. Just remember, there are only five women I know of in Bakhtiian's army. Before you came, not one woman rode to battle. It's no dishonor to you to choose not to ride now.''

The set of Tess's mouth tightened. "It's not such a simple choice for me. It never was."

Nadine sighed. Poor Tess, always agonizing over what was the right thing to do. She changed the subject. "Would Yurinya have hated it? I never knew him that well. We weren't of an age, and anyway, he was so quiet."

"Unlike you."

"Judged and found wanting?" retorted Nadine. Tess grinned. "The entire coast subject to his uncle's authority? Half the southern kingdoms that border the plains? We ride into a town now that gives us tribute so that we'll never again attack them. One more season of campaigning and we'll either all be dead or we'll see the other half recognize us as their kind protectors, and we'll seal alliances with the Vidiyan Great King and the Habakar king, and-gods, Tess, and then we'll be free to ride north and east along the Golden Road."

"Yuri would have hated it," muttered Tess.

"Ilya is a fool," said Nadine. "He believes what he says, that it's our duty to conquer them so that all jaran will be safe from the khaja forever. Gods, what nonsense."

"Are you going to tell him?"

"Why bother? You're the only person I know of who has the slightest chance of changing his mind-even my mother couldn't have done it. We all know what happened to Vasil Veselov when he tried. But you could, Tess. Maybe. Are you going to try?"

Tess looked away. "How can I?" she asked in a low voice. "This is what makes him what he is."

Nadine had long ago made a pact with herself not to think too deeply about her uncle. She loved him; how could she not? She hated him, because it was his fault that her mother and little brother had died. And in between, tangling it all up, the harness of duty that constrained her, her duty to her family, and the memory of her mother-the most wonderful person in all the tribes-telling her that of all men, it is to your own brothers and your mother's brothers that you owe the deepest part of your affection.

"Good," she said, mocking herself more than Tess. "I wouldn't want you to change his mind about his wild sweep of conquest. Gods, I'd be bored if I didn't have this to do." And the specter of boredom, of having too much time to think, was the worst one of all. "Look. There's a party assembling at the main gate. The ambassador must have arrived before us. He'll have had time to worry." She lifted a hand to sign for the troop to spread out, leaving them room to maneuver. The horsemen shifted position with that absolute mastery of riding that each one had, having been practically bred and raised in the saddle. Feodor looked their way, and averted his gaze when he realized she had noticed him.

"He's in love with you, you know," said Tess suddenly.

"Our ambassador? He hasn't even met me, Tess. How can he be in love with me?"

"Feodor."

"Oh, him." She did not bother to look at him. "For a sweet, modest jaran man, he's a bit too obvious about it for my taste. And the gods know, after three years in Jeds I came to appreciate sweet, modest jaran men."

"Did you?"

Even the broken, pitiful walls of Basille reminded her enough of Jeds that she was stricken with a longing to return there-now, this instant. "Of course I did. I loved that city. I could easily have forsaken the plains for Jeds, except I'm too much jaran to live in a place where only one group of women can make advances to men-women who get paid to do so. Paid! It made me heartsick. They're barbarians, these khaja. I didn't want barbarians as my lovers. It's the only reason I came back." She meant the comment to be light; the force of it surprised even her. Tess, kind Tess, made no reply.

At the gates of Basille, a party had indeed gathered. As they neared, Nadine could distinguish between two styles of dress, and she saw that a certain, delicate distance separated two groups of people-a group of men dressed in plain, dull cloth, and a smaller group arrayed in golds and purples and jade greens made the more vivid by the muted garb of their neighbors.

"It appears," said Nadine in Rhuian, "that Basille's elders can scarcely wait to pass their visitors on to us." She lifted a hand and the jahar halted, a semicircle ringing the gate out of archer's range. She glanced at her riders and smiled. Solemn, austere, with an arrogance that frightened khaja everywhere. Why, jaran riders had such contempt for all khaja that they did not even bother to touch khaja women. Was that what khaja thought? She had often wondered, but never found the opportunity to ask.

"Grekov. Yermolov." Her voice carried clearly into the silence. "Will you attend?" And softer: "Tess?"

"Assuredly."

The four of them rode forward. The crowd at the gate watched, stilled either by fear or by anticipation.

"Lord," said Tess, "look there on the steps. Is that our ambassador? From the vast and fabled empire of Vidiya?"

Nadine shifted her gaze self-consciously from the blond head of Feodor Grekov, who had come up with Yermolov on her left, to the low stairway that led up to the night portal in an intact portion of the palisade. "Gods. He's young. And is that supposed to be his retinue-what, six besides himself? Only four hands of guardsmen? He can't be very important if that's the lot. Ilya won't be pleased if he thinks he's being snubbed."

They halted equidistant between the steps and the group of elderly men marked with the heavy chains and pentangles of the town's stewards. There was silence. Nadine waited.

A young man stood on the steps, utterly and obviously foreign by his purple and green striped overtunic and huge, belled trousers of cloth of gold, by the odd sculpting of his dark beard and mustache, and by the white turban that concealed his hair. He lifted one manicured hand. An older man, less flamboyantly dressed, stood one step lower; he coughed, preparing to speak. Both their gazes stopped briefly on the two women and flicked away again as quickly, dismissing them.

After a moment the older man addressed Feodor Grekov in rough, but serviceable, Rhuian. "I am Syrannus, bond servant to the Most Honorable Jiroannes Arthebathes, ambassador from His Imperial Majesty, Honor of the People, Great King of All Vidiya, may his name be sung for a thousand years. We place ourselves and the rest of our party in your hands, sir, as you are to be our escort to the court of the Bakhtiian."

Feodor looked at Nadine and shrugged. Nadine sighed and urged her mount two paces forward. "I am Nadine Orzhekov. I am the leader of the party that will escort the Most Honorable-" She let the syllables roll off her tongue. "-Jiroannes Arthebathes and his-ah-retinue to the camp of Bakhtiian."

"But-" sputtered Syrannus. For an instant he looked like a man trapped by starving wild animals. Basille's elders whispered among themselves.

"You lead my escort?" said the ambassador suddenly, curt and doubting. "A woman? Perhaps one of these men will verify this outrageous assertion." He waved toward Grekov and Yermolov.

"Since they don't speak Rhuian, they can't." Nadine grinned, enjoying his indignation.

"You are the only one in your party who speaks Rhuian?" demanded the ambassador. "That is absurd."

"Not the only one," conceded Nadine. "This woman, Terese Soerensen, speaks not only Rhuian but Taor and, I believe, a few words of Vidyan as well."

At this unfortunate juncture, especially given the appalled looks on the faces of Jiroannes Arthebathes and his servant Syrannus, Tess started to laugh.

CHAPTER EIGHT

"David," said Marco, "you will come sit through this banquet with me. I refuse to endure hours of rancid food and city elders sucking up to Charles and Bakhtiian all by myself.''

"Maggie is going," said David.

"Maggie," said Maggie tartly, "is serving an official function. I'm going to be the wine pourer for His Nibs and Attila the Hun."

David groaned. "Are you for me or against me? You're no help."

But there was nothing for it. He could see by the look on Marco's face, and by the light in Maggie's eyes as she laughed silently at him, that he was doomed to sit through the state dinner and audience that the barons and elders of the town of Abala Port were holding for the man who had conquered them, Ilyakoria Bakhtiian, and the prince who was his chosen guest.

"As long as I don't have to act as food taster," he muttered, "although with that army in this town, I don't think I'd try to poison anyone."

"You wouldn't try to poison anyone anyway," said Maggie. She rummaged through her carry bag and drew out a clean tunic and the only skirt she possessed. She went on talking as she changed, letting her old clothes drop into a heap on the slatted floor of their tiny inn room. "Owen Zerentous has asked permission to hold an impromptu performance at the end of the banquet, or after the formal audience. Evidently the city elders have some cases they need tried, some people accused of crimes, that they're going to bring before Bakhtiian."

"Trial by personal whim?" asked Marco.

"You said yourself he was educated at the university in Jeds," retorted Maggie. "He must have some concept of justice. Damn it! Where'd that brassiere go?" She upended the contents of her bag onto her cot. David, from his cot, hooked a dark toe through the brassiere strap and hoisted the garment up into the air. "Where'd you find that?" she demanded.

"On the floor, where most of your clothes eventually come to rest."

She snatched it from him with a mock growl and put it on, then a linen shirt, and then her tunic and skirt. The room was crowded in part because it was small, but mostly because neither Maggie nor David could bring themselves to sleep on the straw-filled mattress that served as the room's bed. They had set up their traveling cots instead, one on each side; a tiny aisle led to the door, where Marco stood with his arms folded, surveying the mess.

"Shall we go? It can't smell any worse there than it does here."

"Just because we're over the stables," said Maggie with a laugh. "And where are you sleeping, may I ask?"

"You may not."

"Marco! You're frightening me."

That teased the shadow of a grin from him. David sighed and rose, pulling his sketchpad out of his carry bag. He brushed two flealike bugs off his sleeve and five earwigs off the sketchpad, and ran his other hand along the ends of his hair and through his name braids. "I'm just sure they're crawling all over me. It can't be worse in the town hall."

But it was. It was rank. Marco didn't seem to notice that it was only a thin layer of fresh rushes that covered the floor; that underneath lay a mat of ancient straw and other, happily nameless substances, which had created a kind of fetid loam. It squished. Incense burned in racks along the walls, set up between the windows, and lanterns were set at intervals along the tables. Rank and cloying at the same time. Quite a feat, David thought, to produce two such opposite effects in one chamber.

Charles walked in front of them, together with Bakhtiian. David hung back with Marco, who waited in his turn for the actors. But in the end, the actors sat at a side table and David and Marco ended up on the dais, at the very end of the long beamed table-which was actually three tables shoved together-which seated the guests of honor. The actors were in fine form, being boisterous in an engaging fashion, and the city elders were disgustingly obsequious.

"Have you noticed," said Marco in a whisper, "how Bakhtiian has picked out two boys, there, to eat with him, to share the food from his plate? Honoring them, because they're both sons of important men in town. But it also ensures that no one attempts to poison him."

David hadn't noticed. There was a clump of something stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and he was trying to scrape it off. The food thrust in front of him looked unappetizing in the extreme, except for the bread. He didn't trust the water, and the wine had a vinegary-flavor. If this was the best Abala Port could do, then it must not be a very wealthy town.

"I think this is real gold leaf on this plate," said Marco, poking at it with his knife. A laugh burst up from the actors' table, and Marco looked up at once, caught Diana's eye, and smiled winningly at her.

"How has Tess managed to endure these conditions for four years?" David demanded of his plate. "This is appalling."

"Maybe she's as much of a slob as Maggie and you are. Maybe she doesn't care."

"She isn't a slob. Or at least, she wasn't."

"What? As an eleven-year-old in Jeds? But wait." Marco eased his attention back from Diana and propped his chin on one hand to regard David with interest. "You weren't in Jeds then. How could you know? Oho!"

David cursed under his breath. Trust Marco to know him well enough to read him.

"You're blushing under that attractive black complexion of yours, David my boy," said Marco in his most annoyingly superior manner. "Out with it."

"Damn it. Listen. If you breathe a word of this to Charles, I'll have your head. And then where will you be with handsome young actresses?" He leaned forward and peered down the table toward Charles, but Charles was deep in conversation with an old man in a pale blue gown trimmed with silver fur who wore a ring on each finger and a heavy bronze medallion on the end of a gold necklace. Charles's own finery paled in comparison-his signet ring and the chain of office draped down over a painted silk tunic-and the barbarian king looked positively spartan, dressed without any ornamentation at all except the embroidery that ran down the sleeves of his simple red shirt. He wore his curved sword; no one else in the room bore a weapon except his own personal guards: ten at the door and two standing behind him on the dais.

"Do you remember when I taught that seminar at the university in Prague?"

"Oh, yes." Marco's eyes narrowed. "Tess was attending the university at Prague then, wasn't she? In fact, I rather have it in mind that Charles encouraged you to take the position so that you could keep an eye on her.''

David found he could not speak the words, especially since it was the one secret he had ever kept from Charles and Marco.

"You had an affair with her!"

"Marco! Hush. And in any case, I wouldn't call it an affair. We grew fond of each other. True, we shared a bed, but we shared a friendship, too."

"What was she like? I confess I haven't seen her since the year she left for university."

David smiled. In his heart, he felt her presence as an honest and pleasing warmth. She was a good person, an amiable companion, and a fine intellect, though she suffered from insecurity; as well she might, since she was Charles Soerensen's little sister and heir, whether she liked it or not. "She was chubby."

Marco choked on a hunk of bread. "How unromantic of you! Chubby!"

"Well, it's true. She was."

"And then?"

"My seminar ended, and I left. Later I heard she got engaged to another student, but evidently it didn't work out, which I've often suspected is why she left for Rhui so suddenly." And perhaps even why she had stayed there; Tess was insecure enough that David also suspected she might nurse a wound like that for years, especially to hide it from Charles.

"David, you see me at a loss for words. You see me rendered speechless. I am astounded. Amazed."

"Oh, shut up."

Marco laughed and picked at his meat with his knife, trying in vain to find a strip that wasn't spiced to death. Liveried men lit torches and placed them in racks alongside the incense burners, adding a fine, stinging smoke to the brew. Charles laughed at something Bakhtiian said-although David could not imagine a man who looked as hard and dangerous and uncivilized as Bakhtiian did having a sense of humor-and, like a nervous echo, the city elders laughed as well. Maggie, looking serene, poured more wine for the two men. Cara, sitting down at the other end of the table with Jo and Rajiv, stifled a yawn under one hand.

"And just think," said David, "these conditions must be advanced compared to the way the nomads must live. Poor Tess. Whatever do you suppose possessed her to stay there? Sheer intellectual curiosity? Is the fieldwork too good to let go?''

Marco put down his knife. "Oh," he said, as if God itself had just granted him a revelation. "David…"

"And don't you dare tell Charles!"

Marco blanched. "But, David-"

"Give me your word!"

Marco laughed abruptly, an odd note in his voice. "Hell. I swear it. It lends one a warm feeling to think about these youthful indiscretions, doesn't it?"

Marco was definitely acting strangely all of a sudden. "You talk about it like it was in the past, and meant to stay that way.''

"It always is, David. In the words of the immortal Satchel Paige, 'Don't never look back. Something might be gaining on you.' "

"Marco, did you eat something that affected your brain? No doubt there are molds aplenty in this food. Or is that lovely young actress just addling it?''

"I'm just saying that Tess may have changed, and you should… go slowly when you see her again. And not expect too much."

"Hah! Odd sort of advice, coming from you. You sound positively auntly, Marco."

There was a sudden commotion at the far end of the hall. A woman screamed. A jaran soldier stumbled against a chair, tripping backward over it, and sprawled onto the floor. Like a wave rushing in, five men, swords drawn, plunged forward up the central aisle toward the dais. Marco jumped to his feet. David gaped.

For an instant, nothing and no one moved except for the five armed men, who ran toward the head table with death in their eyes and a sudden scrambling of guards at their backs.

Bakhtiian was on his feet before David realized he had moved. He grabbed the table and heaved it up and forward, and it crashed over onto its side. Plates and glasses and half-eaten food and the dregs of wine spilled onto the steps and clattered onto the floor. His saber was already in his hand in the span of time it took Charles to blink.

David sat there stunned with his food in front of him while an attack was waged not six paces away. Marco knocked over his own chair in his haste to get to Charles. Men shrieked.

"Aleksi!" shouted Bakhtiian as the first of the assassins leapt up the steps. A dark young man in a red shirt jumped over the upended table and cut down the first man so quickly that David did not even see the blow. Jaran soldiers closed in from the other end of the hall. A guard flung himself past David from behind and engaged the nearest assassin. The young man called Aleksi twisted his saber around another man's sword, sending it flying, and with a cut that seemed born of the first one disarmed a second man by disabling his arms with wicked-looking slices. One man left-

And then Aleksi suddenly sprang around and flung a cut back at Bakhtiian, who ducked away from it while at the same time shoving over Charles's chair. Charles landed in a heap, Bakhtiian in a crouch, and Marco tackled from behind the old baron who had sat beside Charles this whole time. From whose robes had appeared an ugly looking short sword, which Aleksi had knocked away.

David had not yet moved from his chair. All of the actors except Owen and the leading man, Gwyn Jones, were cowering under their table. Diana stood beside Jones. She gripped the edge of her chair, staring with bright eyes at Marco, who was sitting on top of the old baron, looking furious.

Now, two assassins were left. The one nearest David had been driven back into a circle whose boundaries were delineated in red: the scarlet shirts of the jaran guard. One lay quivering in a heap; one lay prostrate; one sobbed, clutching his bleeding arms against his chest. The two remaining clutched hard at their deadly-looking long swords.

Bakhtiian rose. "Aleksi, take them," he ordered with astounding calm.

Aleksi nodded without expression and stepped forward, and the others made way for him. The elders and other barons on the dais clumped into a frightened group. Cara had already run down to Charles, and she helped him to his feet. Marco stayed sitting on the old baron.

And the most horrifying thing of all was that it was beautiful to watch. Barbarian he might be, but he was an artist with the sword. Two of them, against one of him, with such different weapons, but there was no doubt what the outcome would be. The knowledge made the two assassins desperate. Aleksi looked as cool as a man out for an evening stroll. One of his comrades shouted something in a joking voice, and Aleksi actually cut down one man with a swift slice along his face and chest, paused beside his comrade long enough to grab a saber in his other hand, and turned back to face the last man.

"And you realize, of course," said Ursula el Kawakami, appearing in all her unwonted splendor beside David, "that he's already at a distinct disadvantage, using that saber on foot against long swords. That's a cavalry weapon. Amazing."

Aleksi used one of the sabers to distract the poor man and neatly hamstrung him with the other. The man screamed out in pain and collapsed to the floor. There was a moment's pause. The assassins were all disarmed.

Then everyone in the hall turned to look at Bakhtiian.

He sheathed his saber, and the scraping sound it made in the hush sent an atavistic shiver down David's back. At once, the barons and elders of Abala Port flung themselves on the floor in an obscene frenzy of groveling.

But Bakhtiian ignored the nobles of Abala Port. He delivered a stinging rebuke to his guards, in his own language. They did not grovel. They looked ashamed.

At the door, a pack of jaran soldiers appeared, and they quickly entered the room under the command of an expressive young man and moved out to take control of the hall, to drag the prisoners aside, to move the heavy tables off the dais, to thoroughly search every man in the room save those of Charles's party.

And when that was all accomplished, Bakhtiian said something more. One by one the original guards came forward, all but the two who had stood on the dais, and each man laid his saber at Bakhtiian's feet, disarming himself. The intensity of their shame was painful to watch.

"Goddess Above," whispered David, "must it be done so publicly?'' Had he remembered that Ursula was standing there, he would not have said it aloud.

"Of course it must be done publicly. It's a lesson for everyone." The dishonored guards filed from the hall. "What do you think he'll do to the prisoners?" She sounded breathlessly excited. Aroused, even, David thought with a shudder. "And to those terrified townsmen?"

Marco slipped back beside them, no longer needed at the front. "Now we're about to see what justice means to the conquered," he whispered. They waited. Bakhtiian waited. The silence stretched out until it was a visceral thing, agonizing to endure.

One of the townspeople finally found enough courage to rise to his knees. "Please believe," he stammered, "that we knew nothing of this."

Bakhtiian glanced at him as if at an afterthought. ' 'I assume, Baron," he said in a cold voice, "that you have laws by which you judge such cases here."

"Of course! Of course!" Their fear was almost as humiliating to see as their desperate attempt at appeasement. "The punishment for treason is death."

"Then by your own laws shall they be judged." He lifted his chin, and the prisoners were led away.

"The sentence shall be carried out at once," said the baron, and he snapped an order to a younger man, who hurried out of the hall on the heels of the prisoners. A richly-dressed old woman wept noisily in the corner.

Bakhtiian found his chair and sat down in it. He looked at Charles. Charles raised one eyebrow and sat down next to him. Cara remained standing behind Charles, but she did not touch him, although David could tell she wanted to. Her hand hovered over his shoulder, veered toward his sleeve, and settled, twitching, at her waist.

"Sit!" said Bakhtiian impatiently to the barons and elders. "You said you had other cases you wished to bring before me."

David realized that his rump hurt, from sitting so still, from being so tensed up. Maggie crept over to them and Marco put an arm around her. She was so white that her freckles stood out like blazons. The actors had crept out from under their table and they stood in a tableau, clutching one another. Not one eye left Bakhtiian for more than a second, except perhaps for Charles, who looked thoughtful and not at all cowed. None of them dared move as, one by one, prisoners were led in, their crimes recited aloud, and Bakhtiian begged to judge and sentence each one.

But in every case he deferred to the elders of the town, to their own laws, and placed the judgment squarely back on them according to their own customs. Despite himself, David was impressed by Bakhtiian's restraint. Especially since some of their own people had just tried to murder him.

Last of all an unremarkable young man was brought forward. He had a big nose, rheumy eyes, and he looked young and frightened. The baron sighed and relaxed, as if he knew the worst was over.

"This young man is accused by Merchant Flayne of raping his daughter, and although the usual punishment is that he must marry the girl, he's but an apprentice in a neighboring shop, and she was out walking at night by herself, and there is another merchant who has agreed to marry her despite-" He broke off because Bakhtiian stood up.

Stood up and took the three steps down to the accused with deliberate slowness. Glass rasped under his boots. Faced with Bakhtiian's devastating stare, the accused dropped to his knees, clasped his hands together, and began to plead in the local dialect.

"And is it true?" asked Bakhtiian in a voice so soft that David could barely hear him. "Did he force her?"

"He has confessed to the deed. It's the sentence that concerns us-"

Bakhtiian drew his saber and killed the young man.

Cut him through the throat so quickly that it was done before anyone realized he meant to do it.

Charles stood up, right up out of his chair. Bakhtiian stared at the corpse and took a step up to avoid the pool of blood growing, flooding broken bits of glass and plate on the floor. He flicked a glance back at the dais. Slowly, slowly, Charles sat down. One of the actresses gave a great shriek and fainted. Bile swelled in David's throat, and he clapped a hand to his mouth and fought against it, gulping, feeling it poison his tongue and burn his lips.

"David," whispered Marco, and David felt Marco's hand press into his back. "Breathe slowly. Breathe slowly."

Bakhtiian turned to regard the baron. "Is there anyone else?"

The baron could not speak for a long while. He held one hand to his breast, and his eyes bugged out, staring. "None, lord," he stuttered. "No more." No more to be judged, did he mean? Or was it a plea for no more of this harsh and merciless justice? That was no justice at all, no law, but only the tyrant's whim.

Bakhtiian turned to look at Charles. "Will you accompany me?" he asked, and David could not tell if it was a request or an order.

"I'd better wait for my own people, who are a trifle discomposed," said Charles. How could he remain so self-possessed? The calm mask he wore for an expression only added to David's dismay.

"He's cool," muttered Maggie.

"Oh, come now, what did you expect?" hissed Ursula with disgust. "Frankly, I think it was a just execution."

Bakhtiian inclined his head, to acknowledge Charles's decision. "Then if you will excuse me," he said, distinctly to Charles, not to anyone else. He swept from the hall, his guards behind him. The young man named Aleksi lingered behind, and David saw him slip a folded piece of parchment into Charles's hands. Then he, too, was gone, and they were left with the weeping actors, the shell-shocked townsfolk, and the dead man.

CHAPTER NINE

They huddled together in the common room of the inn they shared. None of them wanted to be there, but neither did they want to go up to their filthy rooms. Owen stared at the fire, and Diana just knew that he was playing the awful scene back through his mind, gleaning ideas from it that he would eventually turn around and use in the theater.

"Cold-blooded bastard," muttered Hal beside her. "Mom's no damn better. Look at her." Ginny sat next to Owen. For the journey, she had given up her slatepad and taken up a real paper notebook, but the result was the same: she jotted down notes and revised scenes in every spare second given to her.

Anahita lay prostrate on a bench, moaning softly. Hyacinth fanned her, and Phillippe massaged her feet. Se-shat and Dejhuti sat off by themselves, and Helen and Jean-Pierre argued about how best to take the wine stain out of his white linen tunic. Joseph sat with one arm around Oriana and the other around Quinn, talking quietly to them. Yomi just watched over them all.

"What do you think, Gwyn?" Hal asked Gwyn Jones.

Gwyn appeared to ponder the question, but Diana could see right away that he didn't care what Hal thought of the cavalier reaction of his parents to that horrible scene. "I think I've never seen someone handle a sword that well," he said softly. "That young man is an artist."

Hal rolled his eyes in disgust, heaved himself to his feet, and went over to sit beside Quinn.

"I think he expected sympathy," said Diana.

Gwyn shrugged. "Di, I can't change what happened. Why dwell on it?"

"What do you mean, that he's an artist? Who?"

"The young man who did most of the fighting. He was brilliant."

"How would you know? Or do you mean to say those weren't simulated, all those fight scenes from the samurai interactives you did?''

Gwyn smiled, but not too much, since laughter would have been out of place. "Not simulated at all. I got into those vids because I was a martial artist. I only got interested in acting afterward. And lo, came here."

"Are you sorry? After tonight?"

"No. Are you?"

She almost chuckled, had to stifle it. "That I'm an actor? Never. Coming here with Owen and Ginny?" She surveyed the common room: the slatted wood floors were warped from age and dampness, the smell of the stables permeated everything, and the food was pretty bad. "But look how respectfully he treated Charles Soerenson. I can't think we 're in any danger. Not really.''

"Just the rest of this world, evidently," murmured Gwyn.

"Yes," Diana mused. She stood up. "I'm going outside."

He put a hand on her sleeve. "Diana, I'm not sure I'd do that. This isn't Earth, you know. Don't forget the testimony of the baron-I don't think it's safe for people to walk around by themselves at night."

But then the door opened, and Marco came in. He looked flushed from the night air. He found her immediately with his gaze. Ten meters between them, but it might as well have been one. She could feel him as if he already had his arms around her, as if they were already alone. The rush of feeling washed over her like a swoon.

Marco laid a hand on the door latch, opened it, and went back outside. She took a step toward the door.

"Have a pleasant night," said Gwyn.

She blushed, but she didn't look back. Her hand trembled as she lifted the latch, but she knew now that the die was cast. She slipped outside, and he was waiting for her. She stood there, in the cold night air, not one meter from him, but she did not move closer, because the anticipation was sweet enough to savor.

"Diana," he said, his voice low and a little rough.

And she had the satisfaction of seeing that he shook, too; that he wanted her as much as she wanted him.

"Marco!" The voice shattered the finespun web of intimacy. It was like being slammed into a brick wall.

"Marco! Damn it!" Maggie jogged up to them. "Back to Charles, you idiot."

"Maggie, I'll thank you to stay out of my-"

"Your what? Your affairs?" Maggie looked so angry that Diana thought she might burst. "After what just happened that you can even think about-"

"Maggie, I didn't ask your opinion-"

"That's not what I meant." The narrow streets of Abala Port were empty but for two jaran horsemen riding patrol far down this street, menacing black shapes against the ramshackle angles of the buildings. "I meant that any person who thinks with their brain instead of their genitals would realize that this is not the time to-well, how can we know what the customs are among the jaran? Do you intend to take that chance? And anyway, Charles wants you back right now.''

"Marco!" That was David's voice, from down the street.

"Hell," said Marco under his breath. He cast an anguished glance at Diana. "You have my profoundest apologies, golden fair," he said, and then he left, hurrying away down the street toward the inn where Soerensen and his group were staying. He passed David without pausing to speak to him.

David stopped beside Maggie and Diana. "What was that all about?" Then he looked at Diana. Then he looked at Maggie. Diana wanted nothing more at that moment than to shrink into the ground and die. "Never mind," said David. "Listen, Mags, not Rajiv. Please. He gets up at dawn every morning. He'll say, 'But, David, should you not be putting your tools into better order?' "

"I always knew you only tented with me because I'm a slob," retorted Maggie, but there was so much anger still hanging on her that she sounded irritated, not amused. "I'm sorry, Diana. I really am. I really, really am."

"It's all right," said Diana in a small voice. Maybe the ground would open up and swallow her.

"We can't know what they consider a crime so serious that it warrants summary execution. So you see why I had to send Marco away?"

"I see why," Diana choked out. And she did, truly. They could not afford to offend their hosts, not now; probably, given the look on Bakhtiian's face as he killed that man, not ever. But every part of her that had been set spinning by Marco's entrance, by the promise of what was to come next, ached for release.

"Shall we go in?" asked Maggie, sounding impatient, or maybe she was just feeling embarrassed for Diana.

"I'd better go back to Charles," said David. "Just don't put me in with Rajiv." He ran back into the night.

"Christ!" said Maggie with disgust. "Shall we get this over with?" She led the way. The heat of the fire blasted them as they came back into the common room. Gwyn, seeing Diana, raised his eyebrows but did not comment.

"Owen, Ginny. The rest of you. Please, may I have your attention?" Maggie did not have the natural authority of, say, Suzanne Elia Arevalo, but her agitation lent her a snappish air, and, in any case, everyone in the company was desperate for some sort of distraction. They quieted and regarded her with the kind of attention that only actors-trained to listen-and lovers usually grant a speaker. "Charles Soerensen just sent me down here with a new decree. No more mixed rooming, unless you possess a legal marriage certificate. Girls with the girls. Boys with the boys. That sort of thing. I've been sent to reassign places."

"Well, I don't mind boys with the boys," said Hyacinth.

"Oh, be quiet," snapped Quinn.

"I can't believe it!" Hal threw a look at his parents that he would have done better to save for a farce. "Have we retreated to the Dark Ages? Are a man and a woman rooming together automatically having sexual relations as well? Will adulterers be stoned?"

"You may as well save your sarcasm for later, Henry," said Ginny mildly. Then a thought occurred to her, and she scribbled something down on her notepad.

"Well, obviously Ginny and I can continue to share a tent," said Owen, "as well as Yomi and Joseph, and Seshat and Dejhuti. No one would contest that, I think."

"I'm not going to share a tent with Helen just because we were married once," said Jean-Pierre.

Anahita let Hyacinth raise her up. She swept her beautiful black hair away from her face and back over her shoulder and gave a great sigh. "It's true," she said breathlessly, "that Gwyn and I aren't married, but we share a spiritual bond. Surely that should be enough."

"I'll tent with Jean-Pierre," said Gwyn.

''I don't want Hal," said Hyacinth.

"Thank the Goddess," muttered Hal. "This is so stupid. Di and I have been rooming together forever."

"Gwyn! How can you say such a thing?" Anahita sagged back into Hyacinth's arms. She even managed to wipe a tear from her eye. "How can you reject me at a time like this?"

"I told you it was a mistake to come here," Helen said to Jean-Pierre. "Savages!"

"No more than you, my darling," replied Jean-Pierre with a sneer, which sent Helen into a full flood of scathing retort. Oriana flinched, jumped up, and went over to the counter to get something to drink.

"Please," said Yomi, in her best Stage Manager voice, "I know we're all upset, and with good reason, but we must help this run smoothly." For once it didn't work. Arguments broke out all over.

Diana sat down, closed her eyes, and let the squabbling surge around her. The draft from the fireplace did not work efficiently, so smoke parched the air. Her throat was sore. But at least it all served to bring her back to earth. And they needed to squabble right now, to let off steam. After awhile Quinn sat down beside her and whispered into her ear.

"It's you and me, sweetheart. Ori and I tossed up, and she lost. She has to go room with that strange woman in Soerensen's party who's the military historian. Ursula, that's it. And Hal is going off with Rajiv Caer Linn. He's some kind of computer modeling expert, I guess. Rebel Hal is thrilled he doesn't have to room with the actors, and Maggie thought it was funny because it left David ben Unbutu as the only person without a tentmate. And Hyacinth-"

"Oh, Quinn," said Diana, opening her eyes. "I don't really care who Hyacinth rooms with. Do you?"

Quinn laughed. It was the first honest laugh Diana had heard for hours, and it heartened her immensely. "Do you think it was a mistake to come here?" Quinn asked, serious again.

"Not one bit," said Diana. "That doesn't mean I'm not a little scared, but don't you think we can learn more here than we ever would playing for the same safe crowds on Earth?"

Quinn shuddered. "I don't know. Safe sounds very attractive to me right now.''

Diana shook her head stubbornly. "Not to me."

CHAPTER TEN

"Most honored uncle," said Jiroannes Arthebathes into the clear chill of the night. He waited, after those three words, for the pen of his personal secretary, Syrannus, to complete the required list of titles and honorifics with which a nephew was obliged to address a noble and powerful uncle in the Great King's court.

After some minutes, during which the careful scritching of his pen blended with the low popping of the fire, Syrannus paused and lifted his eyes. At his right hand burned a lantern, casting light over the parchment laid on a board across his knees. The thin veins of his lined hands showed constricted and blue in the muted illumination. The lettering those elderly hands had produced was sinuously beautiful.

Jiroannes cast it a cursory glance, expecting nothing less. "Now some opening pleasantries, a synopsis of the journey since Eberge, with perhaps an anecdote or two but leave off at the difficult part."

As Syrannus began to write again, Jiroannes lifted one hand. His concubine padded forward and gave him a cup of bitter, hot tea before kneeling in silence behind his chair. When Syrannus at length finished, the younger man read the words and nodded. "Very well. Now." He sighed, twisting the ends of his mustache between thumb and forefinger. "How can I introduce this subject without offending him? 'I was shocked-' No. What impossible barbarians these jaran are. I suppose all their women go about unveiled and in men's clothing."

"Surely not, eminence," interposed Syrannus. "Do not forget that Her Most Benevolent Highness, the Princess Eriania, is allowed by Her Most Gracious Brother privileges which all other women would never desire. Perhaps these females also have an exalted position of some kind. Their boldness is indeed shameful and certainly humiliating for them, but they are discreet."

"Discreet? Not a word I would have chosen. If you mean they don't display themselves like the whores one sees at ports-that may be true, but this woman, Nadine Orzhekov, shows such a complete lack of true womanly modesty, of that humility which is proper in a female, that she disgusts me far more than any prostitute. Samae. More tea." The concubine rose and took the cup away. "But perhaps we misinterpret Bakhtiian's motives. Perhaps he meant these two women to be an offering to me. Certainly the Orzhekov woman is not at all to my taste, but the other one-I have seen her gaze on me once or twice. Should I take that as an invitation? It would be a pleasant diversion from Samae, and she is certainly attractive-"

"Your eminence," hissed Syrannus, warning.

A figure appeared at the edge of the tent. At Syrannus's nod it moved forward into the light and resolved into a dark-haired young woman. "Your eminence," she said, but the tone mocked him.

Jiroannes eyed her with vast dislike. He had quickly ceased trying to spare her womanly virtue by not looking at her directly, since he was sure she had none. "To what do I owe the honor of this late visit?" he asked, neither rising nor honoring her with a title.

Nadine Orzhekov gave the barest of smiles, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that the slight was not lost on her. "As commander of your escort, I feel it my duty to warn you-no, to inform you about some jaran customs that may seem strange to you."

"Indeed. Has some special occasion brought on this generosity?"

"Indeed," echoed Nadine. "I understand, your eminence, that you come from a society very different from ours. I even know a little about it, having read of Vidiya at the university in Jeds. Because of that knowledge, I have endured your rudeness to me, but if you persist in expecting the women of the jaran to act as Vidiyan women do, and in scorning them because they do not, I can assure you that Bakhtiian will have nothing to do with you or your mission. You had better learn to be polite, since I doubt you'll ever learn proper deference. Otherwise you will be sent home a failure." She paused. Behind her, hidden by darkness, a musician played a melancholy tune on a high-pitched pipe.

Jiroannes, lips tight, said nothing. Syrannus looked shocked.

"I will venture a more personal observation," added Nadine, noting her speechless audience with what Jiroannes knew was malicious satisfaction, "because I'm not the only one to have noticed it. If I were you, I would not watch Terese Soerensen as if I were measuring her to see if she would fit in my bed."

It was too much to bear, such insolence. "Certainly I may look at whom I please!"

"In fact," she went on, ignoring his words as if they were a child's outburst, "you would be well served to moderate the way you look at jaran women in general. It isn't becoming in a man to stare." Then, having said it, she had the effrontery to grin.

"Are you quite finished?" he demanded.

She shrugged. "We have tribute to collect, so we must return to the main camp roundabout. We'll be some days before we arrive there." She hesitated as the concubine came back to the edge of the circle of light furnished by Syrannus's lantern. Her dark eyes met Samae's almond-shaped ones for the barest instant, and then Samae placed the cup into Jiroannes's waiting hand and retreated to kneel behind his chair.

Nadine's mouth had pulled tight, and Jiroannes was gratified to see that she felt compelled for whatever reason to suppress her anger. He hoped the act caused her pain. "I thought," she said, her anger betrayed by the hoarseness of her voice, "that a message was sent that you only bring men."

Jiroannes dismissed Samae's presence with an airy wave of his free hand. "She is dressed as a boy. Surely that will suffice."

"Only a fool would take her for a boy."

Now he stood. "And for what reason am I expected to answer to you?" A mere woman! "In any case, she is nothing. Only a slave, if you know what that is."

Her voice dropped, softening with an emotion he did not recognize. "I know what a slave is. Send her back to your lands, eminence. I will provide an escort for her.''

"No." It came out petulant, but he was furious by now. "I will not."

For a moment she stared, most brazenly and contemptuously, at him. Then she turned on her heel and left, without a word or a sign or the merest polite valediction. His hands shook. He touched the tea to his lips, coughed, and threw it down so that the hot liquid spattered the rug.

"Fresh-brewed tea, girl! I do not expect this swill!" The concubine started up and, retrieving the cup, hurried away. "Syrannus. I am too tired to compose. Write what you see fit. I cannot possibly explain this to my uncle. He would never believe me. Samae!" She appeared out of the small tent pitched next to his. "Attend me." He stormed over to his tent, paused, watching her. She inclined her head, acquiescing, and lifted the veil that draped down over her shoulder up and across her face, concealing all but her coal-black eyes.

Satisfied, he went into the tent. She followed him, but at the tent flap she hesitated and looked back, out into the darkness of the jaran camp, her eyes glittering in the lantern light, her expression hidden by the veil. Syrannus had begun to write, the precise flow of his hand right to left, left to right, across the white page, filling it in with his supple calligraphy. The flap sighed down behind her as she went in. Syrannus wrote on, blowing on his hands now and again to warm them. Out in the darkness, by a far campfire, a man sang, a wistful melody that wound itself round the chill air and somehow seemed to soften it.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The first two days, heading away from the port with their escort, Diana endured the jolting of the wagons and watched, with careful interest, the landscape and the jaran riders. On the afternoon of the third day, when they halted for the night, she left Quinn to set up their tent and ventured out to patrol the outskirts of the ring of tents that marked out Soerensen's party.

Soon enough she came across a strange and remarkable sight. The great lord of the plains, conqueror of one kingdom, three princedoms, and uncounted lesser territories, sat in front of his small tent and embroidered a pattern onto the sleeve of a red shirt. At a tent pitched across from him, equally intent, sat another man, but David ben Unbutu held in his hand not a needle but a pencil. As the one stitched, the other sketched. Diana settled down beside David and observed.

Bakhtiian was a perfect subject, since he scarcely moved except for the shifting of his wrists and hands. Diana would have thought him oblivious to them, except for the one time she lifted her eyes to study him and found him staring directly at her. It was so disconcerting that she jerked back and David, startled, fudged a line on the sketch. But when Diana's eyes met Bakhtiian's, he averted his gaze immediately. Just like, she thought inconsequently, the shy heroine in a Victorian melodrama. The comparison struck her as so incongruous that she smiled.

"Are you admiring David or his drawing?" said a voice above her. "I wasn't aware that you actors had interests off the stage."

Diana did not look up for a moment, because she knew she was blushing. She waited, a beat, a second beat, for the heat to fade from her cheeks. Then she looked up over her shoulder. "Hello, Marco. In fact, I'm admiring David's subject."

Marco crouched beside Diana, and she could feel the heat, the weight, of his body next to hers. His sleeve brushed her arm. "You've caught exactly the set of his mouth, David," he said, studying the sketch from this vantage point.

David grunted, but did not otherwise reply.

"A passionate mouth," intoned Diana. "Made for kisses."

"Made for kisses?" Marco laughed abruptly, and she forced herself to look straight at him, to meet his gaze, feeling bold and breathless together. Thinking of what had almost come about between them. But Marco looked, if anything, a little annoyed. "Have you forgotten our little banquet at Abala Port? I find it hard to imagine a man responsible for so much violence and killing as kissing."

Evidently he was still angry about Soerensen's decree. "I haven't forgotten it. But it's not hard for me to imagine him, that flesh and blood person sitting there, kissing. It can be hard sometimes to separate an actor from a role offstage. Onstage it's impossible, or it should be. Do you suppose he's onstage or off right now?''

"Do you think it's a role, the great conqueror?"

"I don't know," said Diana. "I gave up a long time ago trying to decide whether we're ever ourselves or are only playing roles. And who could tell which the role was, the passionate kisser or the ruthless conqueror? Maybe they both are roles. Or maybe they're both true. Can't two contradictory things exist inside one person?"

"Are they necessarily contradictory?" Marco leaned forward again, examining the sketch. His shoulder brushed hers, and his hand caught itself, straying, on her thigh. "David, David, David. Have I ever told you how much I admire your ability to draw?'' David grinned and flashed a look toward Marco, there on the other side of Diana. As if he knew that Marco was using the entire episode as a way to cozy up to her.

Diana flushed, well aware of Marco's hand on her leg.

"Look at that," Marco continued, ignoring these undercurrents. Diana doubted he was unaware of them. "Like the pattern on the shirtsleeve. That kind of thing fascinates me. Those elements add depth to our understanding of a culture. Is this pattern symbolic? Individual? Related to a clan, if indeed these people have clans. Even the material of their tents has a pattern. Are the two related? There are so many things to record, and words can only record so much. Even Maggie's photography can't record everything. It misses that essence."

"Do I detect a note of disapproval for Maggie's photography?" David asked without looking up. "She's absurdly careful about it, and in any case, her equipment is all disguised." He examined his sketch and penciled in a few more lines of the interwoven spiral pattern embroidered on the sleeve of the shirt the great conqueror wore.

"This it an interdicted planet," Diana said.

Marco took his hand off her thigh, as if the comment made him remember prudence. "The truth is, I've never been able to risk anything covert, traveling the way I have these past years. And I've no hand for sketching, so I've missed recording much of what I've seen. Now I'm so accustomed to traveling that way that I never bothered to request any such equipment for this trip. I'm not sure I want to, anyway. What if one of the natives discovers it?"

"But, Marco," said Diana, "you traveling all that time broke the quarantine. Certainly the Bharentous Repertory Company having spent three months in Jeds and now coming out here is a contamination, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is."

"You don't approve, do you?" Diana fell silent and together they watched as David, with economy and grace, used a few simple lines to expand the pattern that flowed down the shirtsleeve in his sketch. "I think it's a road," she said suddenly. "A winding road."

"What is? The evolution of cultures?" Marco examined the sprawl of camp around them, the tidy expanse of tents losing color as the afternoon light deepened into dusk. "I suppose Charles would say so, that no culture is pure, that it is always adulterated by contact with any other culture, as it must be. That our contact with it, if we're careful and discreet, will be scarcely more contaminating than that. But I'm not sure I agree. There's a stronger force behind us. Broader knowledge. Won't that take its toll?" Sitting on his haunches, the deep tan of his skin set off by the blanched gold of his linen tunic, he appeared to Diana not much more civilized than the jaran riders themselves.

"I think she meant the pattern on his shirt," said David dryly. "Artist's fancy, I guess."

"How old do you suppose he is?" Diana asked.

"Who can tell?" said Marco. "Not too old, I'd judge."

"I never saw naturally aged people until Jeds," Diana confided.

"The commonplace made quaint," said Marco drily. He set his chin on a fist and pondered the distance.

Embarrassed, Diana turned her attention back to David and watched as he finished filling in the sleeve of the right arm. Across the camp rang a low, trembling sound, like a muffled gong being struck. The great conqueror did not even look up, but Marco rose.

"There's supper. Are you coming?"

David shook his head without looking up. "I just want to finish this while there's still light."

Diana was torn between accepting Marco's escort and her real fascination with watching David work. After all, it wouldn't do for Marco Burckhardt to think that she hung on his every word. "I'll be there in a bit. Save some for me."

He hesitated as if taken aback at her refusal. But he recovered quickly. "You have my word on it, golden fair." Marco left.

David sketched for a few minutes undisturbed. Red-shirted men moved back and forth between tents. Laughter swelled in a distant corner. A man's voice, a pleasant baritone, sang a simple song in a language she had identified as khush, the native tongue. Farther away, identifiable only because she knew the voice so well, Diana heard Henry Bharentous shouting at someone, but she could not make out his words. Prince Hal rebelling again. Beside her, David held the sketch out at arm's length to scrutinize it.

The model moved. Rose, lithe as any wild predator. Diana felt his movement. David lowered his sketch to see Bakhtiian walking straight toward them. David recoiled, nearly falling back down onto the ground, and almost dropped the sketch. Began to scramble to his feet.

"No," whispered Diana urgently. "Keep sitting, keep still. Stillness doesn't startle them."

She held her place, and David, looking ashen under his dark complexion, sat still beside her. Bakhtiian halted before them. There was a moment's uncomfortable silence. Then Bakhtiian crouched, far enough away from them that he couldn't touch either of them if he reached out. "I beg your pardon," he said in his perfect Rhuian. "We haven't been introduced. I am Ilyakoria Bakhtiian."

In the first instant, she realized that David had gotten the eyes wrong. This close, she saw the depth of the intensity, of the sheer, driven force in them. "I'm Diana Brooke-Holt," she said, and her voice spurred David on.

"David ben Unbutu." It came out in a rush. "I'm sorry. I should have asked your permission to draw you, but-" He hesitated.

"Here," said Diana, breaching the sudden silence. She took the pad out of David's hands. "It's very fine. Would you like to see it?"

Addressed by her, Bakhtiian lowered his eyes. "I was hoping I would be allowed to look at it." Crouched thus beside her, eyes cast almost bashfully to the ground, he seemed much less threatening.

She handed the pad to him. There was silence but for the distant sounds of the camp settling in to dusk and the impending night.

Diana rose, and David drew in a breath and rose as well. After a moment, Bakhtiian stood up. "You must know how good you are," he said finally, directly, to David. He gave the sketchbook back to David, holding it as if it was something he considered valuable. "You have great talent. Is this your profession?"

"No, I'm an engineer." David look taken aback by Bakhtiian's politeness.

"Ah-and you?" His gaze shifted for the briefest moment to Diana's face.

"I'm one of the actors in the repertory company." She faltered. "Do you know what that is?"

For a terrifying moment she thought she had offended him. The corner of his mouth tugged up, softening his expression. "Yes," he said gravely.

"You speak excellent Rhuian," she said impulsively.

"Thank you," he replied, still grave.

She had a brief hallucination that he was suppressing laughter, dismissed it.

He turned back to David, regarding him with obvious respect. "Perhaps you would be willing to undertake a commission."

"A commission!"

"That is the right word, isn't it?"

"Yes. I was just startled."

"Perhaps you would undertake a commission to draw my wife."

David's mouth dropped open. Diana pinched him in the leg. "I would be honored," he said in a constrained voice.

"The honor is mine," Bakhtiian replied, as formal and impeccable as if he were a noble of Jeds and not a man who had killed in cold blood. "When we've arrived at the main camp, we can discuss the arrangements further. Now, if you will excuse me." He inclined his head and left them.

David swore under his breath.

"Well," said Diana.

"In case you're wondering," said David, "the answer is no. I'm not brave. Not at all. Not one bit. And especially not after seeing him execute that man."

"But then why did you sit here and draw him? You must have known that would attract his attention."

"I know. I know. But I couldn't resist, seeing him sitting there. What an image." He examined the sketch with a frown.

" 'But, sure, he's proud; and yet his pride becomes him,' " murmured Diana.

David sighed and closed the sketchpad carefully. "Thanks for your support, by the way. Goddess, I hope his wife is a good subject. I'd hate to do anything that antagonized him. Shall we go eat?"

CHAPTER TWELVE

"He doesn't like me," said Charles Soerensen.

Cara Hierakis had knelt next to him to lace up her boots. She did not bother to look up. "What possible reason would he have not to like you?" When Charles did not reply, she answered herself. "Perhaps he considers you a threat to his power. I just don't understand why all the mystery about Tess. I feel that there is something I'm missing."

She waited expectantly. A misting rain fell, though they remained dry here under the awning. Charles merely shifted in his chair, moving one arm to rest on the padded armrest. "I just wish he weren't so cursed polite all the time," he said.

"Yes, he was well brought up, wasn't he? I like him."

Charles stood up. Cara glanced up at him, then stood as well, turning.

Bakhtiian, flanked by four of his men, approached them. The rain let up just as the sun came out, casting a glow on the cluster of monochromatic khaki-colored canvas tents that housed Charles's party and the Company. Beside the central tent, two of the actors crouched by the fire pit, rubbing their hands together to warm them over the bright lick of flame while they waited for the kettle to boil. About twenty paces away, two of Bakhtiian's riders watched this display with perplexed interest.

Bakhtiian did not give the scene a second glance. He paused outside the awning of Charles's tent, and when Charles nodded, he stepped under the awning, leaving his attendants behind. First he inclined his head to Dr. Hierakis: only then did he turn his attention to Charles.

"'We must move quickly today. My scouts have brought me word that a force of armed men, mercenaries, is marching to meet us. Some of my riders will help your party break camp and load your wagons and then guide you along the swiftest route toward our main camp while the bulk of my troop engages the enemy. I would not want you in any danger.''

Watching Bakhtiian's face, Cara wondered if he meant the comment to be sarcastic, but she could read no insincerity in his expression or his tone.

Charles studied him a moment in silence. "Obviously," he said, "your strength as an army is mobility. Will your opponent be equally mobile?"

"They're mostly foot soldiers. We've already encircled them. They should pose no threat to your people, but it would be safer for you to travel farther out onto the plains."

"I will see to it that my party understands," Charles replied, "but I wonder if it could be arranged for a member of my party to observe the battle?"

Bakhtiian blinked. "Observe the battle?" he asked, as if the idea of observing a battle was so fantastic that it had to be repeated to actually take form.

"She studies war," Charles explained.

"Ah," said Bakhtiian. "The one who walks like a man." Then he glanced swiftly at Hierakis, and said, "I beg your pardon."

"No offense taken," replied Cara, torn between amusement and apprehension. The thought of a battle worried her. How could it not? She had lived in Jeds long enough to know the sorts of ugly wounds that swords and spears and arrows produce in human flesh. But more worrisome was this constant undercurrent of sparring between the two men, as if there, too, a battle loomed, but neither general was yet willing to commit his forces.

Charles fought to suppress a smile and finally gave up. "Yes. That would be Ursula. Can it be arranged?"

"Yes." Bakhtiian glanced over his shoulder and spoke words in khush. One of his attendants jogged away. "Is there anyone else who would like to-observe?" he asked.

"I would," said Charles.

Bakhtiian did not reply for a moment, as if waiting for Hierakis to apply as well. When she did not speak, he nodded curtly. "I will arrange it. Now, if you will excuse me." He left, attendants in tow.

"Charles, why in hell do you want to watch men killing each other? Ursula will be faint for the chance to see this, and since she has as much sensibility as a grave digger, it doesn't concern me, but you-?"

"Cara, my dear, Tess has trained to fight in this man's army. I want to see what she's let herself in for."

"Lady bless us," responded Cara, suddenly enlightened. "You don't suppose she was wounded, do you? That would explain why she didn't come to meet us-"

"I'll go roust Ursula." Charles left her without waiting for her to finish.

Used to his abruptness, Cara merely knelt and laced up her other boot. Then, glancing once at the actors by the fire, whose numbers had tripled, she slipped into Charles's tent. Since he had so little baggage, it took her very little time to find the folded parchment square that the young jaran rider named Aleksi had delivered to Charles at the end of that awful banquet. She flicked the brooch at her collar so that it bled light into the dark interior. Tess's writing! She began to read.

"Dear Charles, I apologize for not coming to meet you, although why I'm apologizing I don't know, when I had every intention of riding to the port but was forestalled by Ilya, who compounded the offense by forbidding me to leave camp until he returns with you and your party. Despite the fact that I have trained for over three years, he refuses to let me fight. While this may be an act you applaud, you cannot understand how it undermines what I am, and the entire fabric of my relationship to the jaran. If he did, in fact, marry me because-"

Cara had to stop reading for ten entire ten seconds, just absorbing this astounding fact. From outside, she heard a wagon draw up, and the lowing of beasts. She forced herself to read again.

"If he did, in fact, marry me because I am different, then he is doing everything in his power now to absorb me into his world entirely, however much he does it unconsciously. But then, Ilya is such a-" Here Tess had scratched out several words with such a thick stroke that Cara could not puzzle them out. "I will not let that happen."

A sudden lance of natural light interrupted her. Charles walked in. He paused, one hand still on the tent flap, holding it open. She touched her brooch, and the slim beam of light vanished.

He regarded her quizzically. "What's that?"

"Tess's letter to you."

"You might have asked."

"If I'd asked, you would simply have hidden it better. I've known Tess almost as long as you have, Charles. You might have shared this with me. Married! To Bakhtiian!"

Charles smiled. "It gives me such pleasure to see you astonished, Cara, because it happens so rarely. Let me remind you that under Chapalii law a woman who marries loses all connection to her birth status and takes on her husband's status entirely. Given that the natives of Rhui, again under Chapalii law, qualify as wildlife-not even as intelligent life-that puts Tess's position as my heir rather in jeopardy. As it were."

"You can scarcely think I'd trumpet this marriage to Chapalii Protocol. And in any case, you never contested her death declaration, so it seems to me that it's a moot point."

He let the tent flap down, drowning them in dimness. "Tess's marrying can never be a moot point. I didn't contest the declaration, but neither did I acknowledge it. That leaves her fate open to change."

"And frees your hand to play your cards when you will. Still, there are rumors enough floating around that Tess is not dead, but in hiding."

"Yes, and that serves our purpose as well. We humans understand rumors, and Chapalii do not."

There was a silence, broken at last by Cara. "Do you know, Charles, I'm a little hurt. Marco must know."

"Of course, but only because he guessed. And he swore not to tell anyone, for the same reasons. If only I know, then it can go no farther, no matter what the persuasion." In the gloom of the tent, his voice carried with a mildness that was, Cara knew, deceptive.

But she still felt hurt. "Have I ever told you that the one thing I most dislike about you is this tendency you have to hoard information? You may smile, since you've heard it a hundred times, but you must start trusting others."

She had long since grown used to his silences. This one was rueful. He got that funny little half smile on his face and crossed the room to her. "My love, I trust you entirely.'' He embraced her, and they stood for a while that way. Finally, he eased himself away from her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "It's the Chapalii I don't trust. Please recall that they murdered my parents."

"I haven't forgotten it. Goddess, how could I? Still-"

He chuckled and released her hands. "I yield. It's now time that you know the whole of it. Read the rest."

"I appreciate your openness," she said dryly, and she flicked on her brooch light and scanned the page.

"Now I regret letting Aleksi remove the contraceptive patch in my left arm. Not entirely, because Ilya wants children so badly, but I had hoped-it sounds incredibly ridiculous to me now to say that I had hoped to have some experience, to have acquitted myself well as a fighter, before being bound to camp by pregnancy.''

"Pregnancy!" For the first time since beginning this journey, Cara felt real alarm, the pound of adrenaline, warmth flushing her skin. "But the incompatibilities! It could be lethal!"

"Now you see why I brought you, Doctor."

"But wasn't she told-?"

"How old was Tess when she lived in Jeds with us?"

She shook her head, having to count back years and calculate. "Ten? Twelve? She was a child."

"Too young to get the lecture all the adults working on Jeds have received. And neither you nor I ever expected her to return so precipitously.''

"Or so secretly. Much less marry. She's just a little girl. I never thought she would grow up." She shook herself with disgust. "How I hate it when I don't think."

Charles smiled, a quirk of the lips. "We are here now. There's no reason Tess can't come home with us, when we leave. That will put her out of danger."

"Charles. Charles. You can't possibly believe that it will be so easy. Married! There's a very good reason. You've met him."

It was too dark to read his expression, but his mouth tightened, and his lashes shadowed his eyes. "We shall see," he murmured. "I must go."

Light flashed and vanished, and she was alone. "Goddess," she swore. Still, what if it could be done? One Earth woman and three Rhuian women had gotten pregnant by men from the other planet and all of them had died, inevitably, from antigenic reactions caused by incompatibilities between Earth and Rhuian humans. But one of the babies had lived. Surely with proper monitoring, with complete studies of both parents, a pregnancy could be brought to term successfully. Think how much she could learn from it! The rate of mutation, the alterations the Chapalii had made within the DNA of the Earth population moved to Rhui, the changes, the adaptations, that had come about by themselves on Rhui which could be measured in contrast to Earth's template-indeed, the development of a fetus molded of both worlds-all of this could be measured and quantified in such a controlled experiment. Added to what she had already learned, to her studies of the fundamental process of human development and aging-

But this was Tess. She recoiled from her own thoughts, shook herself, and read on.

"By the way, don't be concerned about Aleksi's involvement. He has a peculiar, detached way of looking at things, having been orphaned at an early age and only admitted into our tribe because of my friendship and because he has quite simply the best hand for the saber that anyone in recent memory has possessed, and he guessed soon after we met that I had come from a place not only different, but different in a way that passed the understanding of most of the jaran-even of Ilya. He is truly my brother in every sense of the word (except the biological). I trust him completely, and you should, too. He will deliver this letter to you. Also, when you arrive at the main camp, if I'm not there, do not worry. I may be riding out with a group that is going to escort a southern ambassador to our camp. I will be back soon after you arrive. Bakhtiian does not know this (of course), so don't be concerned if he gets furious. He has a hard time containing his emotions and he hates having his will thwarted, but he won't let his anger at me prejudice his dealings with you. Safe journey. Love, Tess."

"Safe journey, indeed," Cara muttered. She folded the parchment and tucked it back neatly into the pocket of the shirt in which she had found it, squaring off the corners. Then she went outside.

David had weeks since been granted the unofficial post of camp leader, a position he warranted due to his previous experience of camping expeditions on Earth and to his ability to work in harmony with Yomi Applegate-Hito, whose authority over the day to day routine of the Company not even Charles dared contest. By the time Cara ventured outside, David had already begun directing the striking of camp. Most of the actors and all of the rest of Charles's immediate party rolled up tents and loaded wagons with commendable haste. Next to one of the wagons, reclining soporifically on a canvas chair, Anahita Liel Apphia sat with one hand cast up over her eyes, as if the sudden turn of events had exhausted her nerves. One of the young male actors-Cara could not recall his name, but Narcissus would have been appropriate-knelt beside her, patting her cheeks with a damp cloth. Beyond them, the big tent fluttered and sagged and with a gushing sigh collapsed. Beneath the canvas, a single figure struggled to free himself from inside. Cara hurried over and lifted the material enough to help him out; it was the leading man, Gwyn Jones.

"May I help?" she asked.

He smiled. Gwyn was a fairly young man, his features interesting rather than handsome; he had a quiet intensity that never, except when he was on stage, erupted into dramatics. "Please," he said. He glanced briefly toward Anahita and her companion. Diana had stopped next to the pair and seemed to be making a speech. "Di!" Gwyn called. She turned and, when he waved at her, jogged over to them.

"We need a hand here." Gwyn indicated Cara and himself. He bent to straighten one corner of the big tent.

"Well, I must say," said Diana to Cara, seeing that Gwyn was inclined to ignore her, "that I'm disgusted with Hyacinth that he would cater to her whims rather than do something useful." Expecting no reply, and receiving only Cara's enigmatic smile, she strode around to another corner and pulled it tight.

Hal Bharentous arrived and, with four of them, the folding went quickly. As Diana and Gwyn rolled the canvas up and tied it, and Hal collected and bound up the poles, Cara allowed herself a moment to step back and watch while she wound the guidelines up.

"Doctor," said a voice behind her. "I see you observe as well. Everything we watch, everything we do, becomes part of the work. And all work feeds the exercise that becomes the theater, the actual performance of which is only another, if more polished, exercise."

Cara turned. "M. Zerentous."

Owen Zerentous gave the briefest nod in acknowledgment, but his attention remained fixed on his actors. "There can be no separation between work and life. Like the rehearsal, the journey itself is a discovery."

"Dad," said Hal, half hidden by the bound poles, "I don't think Dr. Hierakis is interested in your theories."

"But of course she is," said Zerentous. "She is a research scientist, an act of creative performance that binds her close in spirit to every other artist. Are you not, Doctor?"

Cara was saved a reply by the sudden eruption of an altercation over by the wagons, where Madelena Quinn was attempting to physically drag Hyacinth away from his station by Anahita. Zerentous' interest, and his focus, shifted so thoroughly away from her that Cara felt as if he had left her before he took one step away.

"Well," she said to no one as Zerentous strode away to observe this newest scene.

Gwyn Jones glanced up at her. "Yes," he said, following the direction of her gaze, "but you must forgive him much. He's a genius."

"Tell that to the army that's approaching when they ride, swords drawn, into a camp we haven't broken yet," muttered Hal.

"Good Lord," said Diana, trying to hoist one end of the rolled up tent. "This thing weighs a ton."

David ran up, his skin sheened with sweat. "This is down? Good. If you can load this into the fourth wagon-there-then all we've got is the bedding and carries, and we can get started."

Hal and Gwyn and Di hoisted the rolled up tent between them and lugged it over to the wagons. Cara tarried behind. "I certainly don't understand why actors must travel with so much luggage."

David grinned. "I hadn't noticed that you travel lightly, Doctor.''

Cara picked up the bundle of poles. "Have I ever told you how much I detest impertinent young men, David?"

"Many times. Here, I'll take those, and if you'll roll up that rug, we'll be finished here."

"You seem damned cheerful. Aren't you nervous? With battles looming in the near distance."

David shrugged as they began to walk. "I've never been scared of threats I can't see. It's a form of blindness, I suppose. It's why I went into engineering. It's all there, right in front of you. Yomi!" he called, diverted by the appearance of the Company stage manager. "I'll give you five minutes. Then we're going." Yomi nodded, and then, with characteristic efficiency, she rounded on the group that had gathered by Anahita and dispersed it ruthlessly.

David proved as good as his word. In five minutes, the first wagon jolted forward, and in succession, the rest followed its lead. David sat next to the driver of the lead wagon, and Cara, as usual, began the day by walking briskly alongside. Like all the drivers, this one was an elderly but hale jaran man who spoke no language but khush. Nevertheless, he and David had formed a friendly partnership, linked by a shared even temperament and, Cara suspected, the simple fact of both being male.

Cara walked for an hour. The grass was damp from rain, and the sun slipped in and out from behind the clouds, so that the cast of light over the land brightened and dulled by turns. Finally, she swung up into the back of the wagon as it trundled along at an even and unslacking pace. She had conceived the greatest respect for the beasts that drew it, thick-shouldered, bovine animals that could walk for hours without rest. This day they did not even pause at midday, but it was only mid-afternoon when a new rider, an older man whose blond hair was bleached white with age, galloped up from behind and spoke to the lead driver. Their course altered; within half an hour the little train snaked around a low rise and came to a halt by a swampy pond ringed by scrub trees and a scatter of dense bushes.

Cara climbed down and surveyed the terrain. Already the drivers unloaded the wagons with unseemly haste despite Anahita's shrieks of anger. First one wagon, then a second and third, and more, trundled out, leaving the party stranded by the pond.

"David," said Cara, "I think you'd better get all those tents up. And get-ah, there you are, M. Applegate."

"What in heaven's name is going on?" Yomi asked. She cast a disgusted glance back toward the handful of actors clustered around Anahita, and a puzzled one toward the stream of wagons heading away from them. "Are we being abandoned?"

Now others came up to join the discussion: Joanna Singh, Rajiv, Maggie, and Marco. The actors had by now split into two groups: those milling around Anahita, and those with Diana and Gwyn, who were already unrolling the Company tent.

Cara caught Marco's glance, and nodded. "We'll need all the tents up, fires, as many open fires as you can get going, and I want to start boiling water now."

"Oh, hell," said David, as if he had just figured out what was going on. "I'll do what I can, but I can't stand the sight of blood."

"Then we'll put you in charge of preparations," said Marco. "With Jo and Rajiv and Maggie. Start by gathering brush. Cara, will you need attendants?"

"You certainly, Marco. Anyone else who can stand it. The rest will have to fetch and carry." She watched as Anahita collapsed onto a chair set up for her by Hyacinth. "Or else stay out of the way."

David and Joanna and Rajiv and Maggie left.

"I beg your pardon, Dr. Hierakis," said Yomi. "But I'm still confused. What's going on?"

"We're about to receive the wounded."

"Ah," said Yomi. "From the battle. I'll go tell the actors. I'm sure they can help out." She left.

Cara sighed. "So blithely. She hasn't an inkling, Marco, of what we're about to see."

"They chose to come here. Now they have to face the consequences of that choice. If they can't endure it, let them go home."

Cara snorted. "You're not very compassionate today, are you, Marco?"

"I save my compassion for where it will do the most good. It's all very well to spout this nonsense about the universality of theater, but it's still nothing more than a holiday for them. We'll see how they like a dose of the painful truth."

"My, you're bitter today." But she followed his gaze and saw that he was looking toward Diana Brooke-Holt, watching her as she and Hal and Gwyn extended the poles and lifted the canvas weight of the Company tent. "Ah. Test of fire for the sweet young thing?"

Marco started, glanced at her swiftly, and grunted in annoyance as he turned on his heel and stalked away in the direction of the pond.

"Well!" Cara considered his back as he strode off toward David and Maggie, who were gathering brush. "What does that mean?" But Marco's affairs did not concern her now. She went to assemble her medical kit.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

When the first riders were sighted, coming in toward the camp, Diana felt sick with fear. She hoisted two buckets of water from the pond and lugged them over to the ring of campfires. Dr. Hierakis was swearing fluently in Rhuian about the lack of containers in which to boil water. At the far end of the pond a single tent had been set aside for Anahita and anyone who wanted to languish there with her, a total of five of the actors and none of Soerensen's party.

The riders glinted in the sun as they pulled up a respectful distance outside of camp. They wore, over their scarlet shirts, segmented body armor with scaled tasses hanging down to cover their legs to the knees. A few wore helmets, although most had slung their helmets on leather straps over their saddles. Altogether, they presented a formidable picture, and there were only fifty of them.

Diana stared, realized she was staring, and picked up the two empty buckets to make a trip back to the pond.

"Diana! Can you help me over here?" It was Gwyn, setting up the Company's screens into a square.

She hurried over. "What is this?"

"The doctor wants an outdoor surgery. Tie that there-"

Diana watched the riders from her vantage point. "It doesn't look as if this group has any wounded, or as if they're even going to come into our camp-" She broke off as Dr. Hierakis and Marco strode across the grass to the group of waiting jaran. Their gestured conversation was fascinating to watch, since it was obvious that no one spoke a common language. Soon enough Owen wandered over to study them.

"Excuse me." Diana whirled, to see David and Maggie carrying a long, rectangular table. They brought it inside the screens and set it down. David stepped back to examine it. "Well, it was the best I could cobble together."

Out by the riders, the doctor and an older jaran man had reached some kind of agreement. They walked together back to the tents, and behind them, walked-or limped-a number of the riders. As they came closer, Diana could see that they were indeed wounded: one man had an arrow sticking out of his thigh, broken off; another had blood seeping from his right side; a third had a bloody strip of cloth tied around his left eye.

"Marco, get my kit. Maggie, where's Jo? I want her to stay in my tent and run sterilization on my instruments, so we'll need someone-one of the actors, say-to fetch and carry. That should be easy enough for them. David, we'll need another table, the wagons will be showing up by dusk. Can you find-yes, leave Rajiv in charge of the water; perhaps one of the actors can help you." Dr. Hierakis caught Diana staring at her.

Diana felt like she was being considered by an expert. She shifted uneasily and glanced at the elderly jaran man next to the doctor. He had a kindly face-for a savage-and, meeting her gaze, he smiled at her and nodded.

"Of course," said Dr. Hierakis abruptly. "If you think you can stand it, Diana, you can take water-boiled water, of course-to the wounded who are waiting to be treated. Goddess knows, they'll be thirsty enough, and a pretty face will likely do them as much good as the drink. Can you manage it, do you think?"

It did not sound precisely like a challenge, but Diana became aware all at once that Marco Burckhardt had paused and was looking at her. "Certainly," she said, hoping there was no betraying quaver in her voice.

"Good," said the doctor. "Tell Rajiv what you're about, and get some cups. And a spoon, perhaps, for the worst of them.''

But the cup sufficed, Diana quickly discovered. Of the fifty riders who had come in, at least three-quarters had some kind of injury that clearly kept them from fighting but not from riding. They settled in on the ground, waiting patiently as Marco and a young dark-haired rider performed triage and sent the worst-injured up to the privacy of the screens. Quinn got a cup, too, and they took water to each rider in turn. Diana soon suspected that many of these men could have gotten water for themselves but were content to wait in order to receive it from her hands.

The few older men, lined, sun-weathered, with silver in their hair, smiled directly at her and spoke a few words which she guessed to be some kind of thank you. The young ones never looked her in the eye, or if they did, not for more than an instant. But it was obvious that their apparent shyness did not stem from disgust. Quite the opposite, if anything; many times she turned only to see a young man blush and look away from her.

By the time they finished with the first group, a second group had ridden in. Things went much the same. The afternoon sun spread a layer of warmth along the ground, but it was shallow, and Diana knew that when night came, so would the cold. What if it rained again? Did these men even have blankets?

A second surgery had been set up in the Company tent, and Diana watched as Dr. Hierakis, now with two elderly jaran riders flanking her, walked into the tent. She had rolled up the sleeves of her tunic. Blood spattered the yellow fabric. Behind her, Maggie carried two unlit lanterns.

"Here." Diana knelt beside a young man with cornflower blue eyes and fair hair. One shoulder piece dangled, cut away, and underneath it his scarlet shirt was damp. "You must be thirsty. Where are you wounded?"

An instant later she realized that the red shirt was doubly red, damp with blood not water, and that he was pale as much from pain as from complexion. He smiled at her, and looked away as quickly. He lifted his good arm and took the cup from her and drank, still not looking at her. But his body was canted toward her, not quite leaning, but yearning. He was pretty, not tall, and his shyness made him seem sweet to her.

She felt a sudden rush of affection and felt foolish all at once. "Goddess, I suppose that hurts like hell," she went on, secure in the knowledge that he could not understand a word she was saying. "And you have the most beautiful eyes. Do all you jaran men have such gorgeous eyes?''

He blushed-clear to see, on his fair skin-and handed her back the cup.

"Careful, golden fair. The words may be Greek to him, but the intent is plain."

Diana flushed and rose, casting a last sympathetic glance at the young rider before she turned to confront Marco Burckhardt.

Then he smiled, disarming her. "But the good doctor was right. He looks better already." He knelt beside the young rider. ' 'Te chilost?'' The rider made a gesture with his good arm, speaking a few words. "Ah," replied Marco. "Pleches voy?" The rider replied in a stream of words, but Marco only shook his head.

"Do you know their language? Did you know it before?" Diana asked, loitering.

"No. I'm learning it bit by bit. Very useful." He glanced up at her. "Try asking nak kha tsuva. That means, 'how are you called,' more or less."

That was definitely a challenge. Diana tried the words out in her head, and then turned to the young rider. ''Nak kha tsuva?" she asked.

The rider grinned. "Anatoly Sakhalin." He repeated the question back at her.

"Diana Brooke-Holt." She hesitated, glancing at Marco. "I'm glad he's not badly hurt, at least."

Marco had his little red knife out and was trimming the shirt away from the shoulder. ' 'What makes you think that?"

Diana looked around them, at the men waiting patiently on the ground, some silent, some joking; one older man whose left arm hung limply and at an awkward angle sang a cheerful tune in a pleasant baritone. "They rode here, for one. And they aren't-"

Marco peeled away the silk of the shirt. Skin came off with it. He dropped the bloody remains beside the broken shoulder piece. The shoulder had been crushed-by what, Diana could not imagine, except that bone gleamed white under pulped tissue. She gasped. Nausea and dizziness swept over her in waves. Anatoly Sakhalin shut his eyes. He paled to white with pain.

"Because they aren't complaining?" Marco asked. "Well, they're only savages you know, they don't feel it like we do. He needs to go directly to surgery. I think the good doctor can manage something with this. Otherwise he'll die when gangrene sets in. Could you fetch someone to help him over?"

He was mocking her. Through her horror at the sight of the gaping, splintered wound and her compassion for the young rider's pain, she knew that Marco Burckhardt scorned her, that he scorned all the actors.

"I'll do it." She knelt without waiting to hear more, leaving her cups and leather canteen on the grass, and slipped her left arm around the young man's waist. His eyes snapped open and he glanced at her and then, with an immense effort, he pushed himself to his feet. Swayed a little once there, with his good arm around her shoulders, but she steadied him. Marco stood up also. He looked, well, angry more than anything.

Diana ignored Marco and started off toward the screens. After about ten steps she felt dampness on her thigh and looked down to see blood leaking out of a rent in the rider's black trousers. By the time they reached the surgery, the young man's eyes were half-shut and most of his weight hung on her, but his right arm, gripping her right shoulder, was strong. Gwyn appeared at a gap between screens.

"Goddess, Diana. Here, let me help." Together they half-carried Sakhalin in and lifted him onto the table. Blood spattered the grass around. Gwyn's tunic was dappled with red.

"What's this?" demanded Dr. Hierakis, pushing Diana away. Diana moved, only to be stopped by Anatoly himself. He clutched her wrist in his right hand. "Ah. Crushed shoulder, some splintering of the joint, dirt embedded; speared and trampled, I'd say. Thigh wound- that's superficial. Here, Klimova, you see how the tendon-" Dr. Hierakis went on, explaining in Rhuian to her jaran companion as she doctored the wound. He watched, soaking in her techniques although he did not understand her words. But Diana lost track of the diagnosis. Anatoly Sakhalin had crept his hold up from her wrist onto her hand, and he held on to her as if she was his lifeline. While the doctor probed and poked and cleaned and moved things and took a needle and thread to him, he stared at Diana, his eyes locked on hers. She did not look away, as much because he so urgently needed her to fix on as because she did not want to see what the doctor was doing. Blood leaked out from the wound to trickle along Anatoly's neck. His throat worked convulsively. His skin shaded from white to gray, and the black of pupil eclipsed the brilliant blue of his eyes. His grip crushed her fingers. A moment later, his eyes rolled up and he went limp.

She stood frozen until she realized his chest still rose and fell. She released his hand.

"Thank you, Diana," said Dr. Hierakis. "Perhaps you'd do better here in the surgery. They're stoic enough, but I must say this boy's done the best of the lot."

Diana felt like her head was attached by only a string to her neck. In an instant, she would be floating. She stared at the young rider, the blood, the pale curve of his lips, the blond mustache above his mouth and the cleanshaven line of his jaw. It stank here, of blood and wounds and pain.

"Diana," said Gwyn calmly, "you'd better sit down."

She sat down. Her vision blurred, dimmed, and focused again. Goddess, she would have fainted in another second. She took an even deeper breath, another, in and out, clearing her head. When it was safe, she looked up. Dr. Hierakis's jaran companion, the old man, bound up the shoulder wound.

"Move him off," said the doctor to Gwyn. "Who's next?" She glanced down at Diana, who sat at her feet. "Move, Diana. You're in the way."

Gwyn and, to Diana's surprise, Hal got their arms under the unconscious Anatoly and lifted him as gently as they could off of the table, carrying him away-to one of the tents, probably. Marco appeared, helping in a young man mutilated by a gash that had peeled the skin away from his cheekbone. Bone gleamed. It was horrifying.

"Where do you want me?" Diana climbed to her feet. "I'll do whatever you think is best."

Dr. Hierakis did not even glance at her. Diana felt-knew-that she had been judged and found wanting. An attendant who fainted at the least sign of pain was of no use in the surgery. "You're doing very well with the water, Diana," she said, though she certainly could not know how well Diana was doing, with all her efforts concentrated in the surgery. "Now, Klimova, you see here how the epidermis and facial muscle has-"

Diana retreated. Marco followed her, but she avoided him, gathering her canteen and cups back and starting down the line. A new group of riders had come in. She asked their names, one by one, as she gave them the precious water to drink.

Later, much later, she heard the wagons trundling in before she saw them. Belatedly, she realized that David was hanging lanterns from all the tent poles, that it was getting dark, well into twilight. The wagons rolled past: one, two… ten in all.

Diana hurried over to where they had halted, sure that these men would be parched, having fought all day and then jolted over the ground for such a distance. Out here, men had stripped off their armor and most of them clustered around the horses. A group broke off to assist with the wagons. At the head of the line, Marco and his young jaran associate leaned over the slats and peered at the wounded lying within. Diana ran up to the last wagon just as two men slung the first wounded man off.

She winced. How could they be so casual with him? Even if he was unconscious… They carried the rider past her, not a meter from her. He was dead. Fair hair hung down, trailing toward the grass. His face, so young, was unmarked. But the spark was gone. Whatever had animated him was fled, leaving only a shell.

Diana stared after him. She felt cold and hot all at once. He was dead.

"Diana?" The voice was tentative, and frightened.

Diana turned. "Quinn?"

"I… I can't do this anymore. I'm sorry. It's just… it's just too awful." Quinn caught in a sob. Her brown hair hung, tangled, loose over her shoulders, and dirt streaked her forehead. Lines of tears trailed down her cheeks. "Oh, Goddess. Look at them." Then she spun and ran.

Diana knew where Quinn was headed without having to look: to the tent at the other end of the pond, where Anahita held her court, away from the horror that the camp had become. At the second wagon, Marco Burckhardt paused to stare toward them, to stare after Madelena Quinn, retreating from the ugliness of death.

Diana was suddenly furious. What right had he to judge them? Was he better than them, for having spent so many years on this barbaric planet? Because he had seen death before, because he could shrug it off now, did that give him license to despise them for their innocence? Marco was still watching her. Waiting. Seeing if she passed the test, which was no test at all except that he wanted it to be one. A man moaned, sobbing in pain. Goddess, these were the men too injured to ride. Another man was carried past her while she stood, hesitating; another man who was dead. She took two steps, three, then four, to the side of the wagon.

A man lay there, on his back. His chest rose and fell, rasping. An arrow protruded from his eye.

If she thought about it, she would scream. She knew it. But she was damned if she would give Marco Burckhardt the satisfaction of seeing her give up. And oh, sweet Goddess, the pain they were feeling. It tore at her, it hurt, to see them suffer.

She unscrewed the canteen and poured some water into the cup. Spooning it out, she got some through the lips of the man with the arrow in his eye-he was still partially conscious-and then she moved on to the next wagon.

As long as she didn't think, she could manage her job. Each canteen went a long way, because these men were so badly hurt that mostly a spoon or two, fed through their dry lips, was all they could take. At some point she must have gone through all ten wagons, but by then two more wagons had come trundling in. About a third of the men were dead. They were carried away and set down in the grass. Some of the least injured jaran men carried brush out into the grass and laid out a circle of tinder; for what, she could not imagine. Funeral rites? She dismissed the thought as quickly as it came, knelt by a rider propped up on his saddle, and lifted the cup to his lips for him to drink.

"Nak kha tsuva?" she asked him. He managed the barest of smiles and whispered his name so softly that she couldn't make it out, but by that smile, she suddenly understood that he would probably live, although blood stained his abdomen and his right leg was sheared through to the bone.

She rose and went on to the next man. And the next.

Ran out of water and trudged across to get more from

Rajiv. The moon was up. Its light cast hazy shadows on the pale expanse of grass and the monstrous angles of the tents. A man screamed in pain. A moment later the scream cut off, abruptly. A million stars blazed in the black sky.

Crossing back to the three new wagons that had just come in, she strayed past the field of the dead. Several jaran men rifled the dead bodies, but in a reverent way that made her understand that this was part of their culture, removing the silk shirts, unbuckling belts, rolling up tassetted armor, collecting sabers.

She got to the new wagons just as Marco did. Halted opposite him, staring in at six men thrown together on the floor. One was dead. She could recognize the dead ones instantly by now. Marco leaned in and pulled aside armor and cloth, looking for wounds, gauging their seriousness. They looked mutilated, all of them.

"This one, to surgery now. Stanai." Marco's jaran associate spoke to some waiting men. They lifted the wounded man gently from the wagon and carried him off toward the tents. "He can wait. He can wait. This one, stanai." Marco paused by the sixth man, a young rider with black hair. His eyes were closed. His breathing came in liquid bursts, blood bubbling and sucking on his chest; a trickle of blood ran out of his mouth. Marco probed under armor for the wound. Then he shook his head. The young rider's eyes opened, and he looked up at the sky and then at the men surrounding him. He spoke, weak words but clear.

Marco shook his head again, but he said nothing.

"Shouldn't he go straight to surgery?" Diana demanded. All the riders started, shifting to look at her and then away.

"Lungs," said Marco. "He won't last another hour. If he's conscious at all, now, it's only because he's in shock and can't feel the wound."

"But you can't just leave him-"

Marco shrugged and went on to the next wagon. Riders carried the other wounded men away, and lifted out the dead one, leaving the black-haired boy alone in the wagon. He watched them, but he said nothing more.

He knew he was dying.

Diana started to cry. Tears trickled down her face. The worst thing she could do was to cry; it weakened all her defenses, it was idiotic. There was nothing she could do for him, nothing anyone could do.

Then he saw her. His face lit with wonder. "Elinu," he said, and he smiled.

Fiercely, Diana wiped the tears from her cheeks. She slung the canteen over her shoulder and crawled into the wagon. Getting her hands under his shoulders, she lifted him up and cradled his head in her lap. His eyes were clear, perfectly clear, as he stared up at her.

"Nak kha tsuva?" she asked.

"Arkady," he whispered. His breath rattled in his throat. "Arkady Suvorin." He said something more, words she did not know, but that one word again, elinu. She faltered. What else could she do but stare at him, and he at her. What use? She wanted to cry, but that would do neither of them any good. She grasped, and found the first leading role she had played, as an ingenue. And said it to him:

" 'Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say 'Ay;' And I will take thy word.' " He gazed at her, rapt, as she went on with the lines, every fiber of her being concentrated on him. What else could she do, but ease him in his dying? " 'Therefore pardon me, And not impute this yielding to light love, Which the dark night hath so discovered.' "

But he was dead by then, slipped silently away. He lay still. His chest neither rose nor fell, and a last drop of blood congealed on his chin. But his face was at peace.

"Bravo," said Marco softly, from so close beside her that she would have jumped if she weren't so bitterly exhausted.

She stared at the dead man, his slack face, his dark hair.

"You're braver than I thought," said Marco. He made it sound like an apology.

" 'I have no joy of this contract tonight,' " she said in a low voice. She lifted the dead boy's head off her lap and laid him down on the wagon floor. Stood up, brushing off her trousers and shaking out her knee-length tunic. Picked up the cup. Marco came around to the end of the wagon and caught her by the waist before she could clamber down, swinging her down, holding her. She felt the flush all along her neck, up into her cheeks. One of his hands rested at the small of her back, pressing her into him, against his chest and his hips. His breathing was unsteady, and he bent his head and kissed her lightly on the lips. Lightly, but he shook with some extreme emotion, desire for her, certainly, and perhaps even sorrow or rage at his night's task.

"The other wounded-" She squirmed away, but he held her.

"No more. It's quiet. They're taken care of, or they're dead."

Out here, the two of them stood alone with the dead, those left in the wagons and those laid out in neat lines in the grass.

"I love you," said Marco.

Diana wedged her hands in between them and shoved him away. "Don't patronize me, you bastard," she screamed, and then wrenched away from him and ran back to camp, not caring who stared.

Campfires ringed the cluster of tents. She slowed, coming to her senses. Or at least, coming to a sense of her dignity again. Her breathing came in short bursts, ragged, and she impatiently wiped another tear away from the corner of her mouth. Wiped at her nose with the back of one hand. The canteen sloshed against her right hip. She was gripping the cup so hard that her fingers ached, and then she realized that the fingers ached as well from the grip of the young rider, Anatoly Sakhalin.

As if the name, rising to her thoughts, was a talisman, she saw him. He sat inclined against a saddle, his face illuminated by firelight, talking to a man crouched beside him. He glanced her way, marking her movement, but his glance caught on her and his entire body tensed as he recognized her. The man next to him shifted and looked her way. Bakhtiian.

As if with a will of their own, her feet took her over to them, and she knelt beside Anatoly Sakhalin.

"We were just talking of you, my lady," said Bakhtiian in Rhuian. His face glowed in the firelight, as if the heavens, even in the dark of night, could not bear to leave him unilluminated. "I am grateful, to you and to the others, for your work here today. I think I would have lost many more riders without your help.''

Diana blushed and looked at her hands, which rested on her knees. She could feel Anatoly Sakhalin's gaze on her like a weight, pressing against her. Bakhtiian said something, short but not unkind, to the young man, and she looked up to see Anatoly avert his gaze from her.

"It's Dr. Hierakis you should thank," said Diana finally, finding her voice again.

"She is a great healer. There is much she can teach those of my people who are also healers. This young man, for instance, will keep the use of his arm, and since he is one of my promising young commanders, I am pleased."

The young man had his left arm in a sling, bound against his chest, but the fingers of his left hand played with a necklace of golden beads draped around his neck, rolling the beads around and around against his palm. Now he spoke, quiet words to Bakhtiian. Bakhtiian raised his eyebrows, looking half amused and half quizzical, and turned back to Diana.

"Anatoly asks that I tell you that he is the eldest grandchild of Elizaveta Sakhalin, who is the-" He hesitated. "-I'm not sure how this would translate. She is the etsana, the woman who speaks for her tribe, of the eldest tribe of the jaran, the Sakhalin. He rides with my jahar until he gains enough experience to be awarded a jahar of his own. Which will be soon. Anatoly acquitted himself well today, leading the left flank in on the charge that broke their ranks."

"What is a jahar?" At the sound of her voice using a familiar word, Anatoly brightened.

"A group of riders. Not my entire army, you understand, but a smaller group within it."

"I understand. But I never heard what happened at the battle." She hesitated. Was it even proper to ask such a thing? Bakhtiian seemed so mild, crouched here next to her. She knew the pose must be deceptive.

He smiled. "It seems that all khaja women are fascinated with war.''

"If I shouldn't ask-" She broke off. Goddess, what if she had violated some kind of taboo?

"It is not my part," said Bakhtiian cryptically, "to dictate to a woman what she should and should not do. As it happened, they were all on foot, a mercenary group hired by the port towns along the coast, with too few archers to do any proper damage." Diana could not repress a shudder, thinking of the wounded men she had seen. "They had spears, too, and their captain seems intelligent enough. He seems inclined to shift his loyalty. ''

"To shift his loyalty? To you?" "As I said, he seems intelligent enough." "But could you trust such a man? And his troops?" "A commander uses the tools he is given. It is up to him to use them where they will be strongest. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other riders to visit." Bakhtiian spoke a few more words to Anatoly Sakhalin and then, nodding once at Diana, rose and left them. Anatoly lifted his head to watch Bakhtiian go. His expression betrayed the fierceness of his loyalty. Then he dropped his gaze to Diana, and then away, to stare at the fire.

Diana sighed. Suddenly, she realized how achingly tired she was. The barest gleam of light tinged the horizon. Soon it would be dawn.

Anatoly said something in khush to her, softly. There was no one else at this fire. Beyond, other fires sparked and burned, but she felt wrapped in a cocoon here, she felt, strangely enough, safe. She felt so completely unthreatened, sitting beside a man she barely knew, a barbarian, above all else, who had yesterday fought in a battle that would have sickened her to see, that she could not be sure if it was exhaustion that gave her a false sense of security or if indeed he posed no threat to her. The idea seemed ludicrous. He sat there, saber lying on the ground beside him, fingers playing with his necklace.

Out in the darkness, two people strolled by, talking in Anglais. A woman's voice: "It was textbook, I tell you. The left flank charged in and just within bowshot turned tail and retreated in the most ragtag flight you've ever seen, and, of course, the damned fools took after them, thinking they'd scared them off. I saw someone-I believe it was the captain of the mercenary troop-trying to pull them back into line, but they charged after the left flank and then, of course, got slammed by a second charge from the jaran center. Beautifully done, and whoever commanded the jaran left flank had his timing and distance down to the penny. 'When opponents open a doorway, swiftly penetrate it.' That's Sun Tzu. And they use the spears effectively enough as impact when they hit the line, but I can't fathom why none of these riders use bow and arrow."

"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, Ursula." That was Maggie, sounding tired and hoarse. "We saw the uglier end of it here."

"Aha, do I detect the superior voice of civilization lurking in your tone?"

They faded off into the camp. A man moaned, and a woman spoke gentle words. Farther away, someone chopped wood. The rhythmic hacking soothed Diana's nerves. It was such an ordinary sound.

"Diana.'' She glanced up, startled, to see Anatoly looking at her. On his lips, her name sounded exotic and yet tentative. Somehow he had slipped the golden bead necklace off from around his neck and now he held it out in his right hand, offering it to her. He said words to her in khush, grimaced as if frustrated by their inability to understand each other, and then spoke again. A handful of syllables said quietly the first time, then repeated with vehemence.

The words were meaningless to her, but said with an intensity that people reserve for a heartfelt "Thank you," or "You're beautiful." Or, "I love you." The words Marco had mocked her with, that she wished she had not heard. And here sat this one, and she wished so desperately that she could understand him.

She burst into tears. Finally, after all the long hours wearing away at the wall she had constructed in order to go on this hellish day, it took only this to shatter her. She choked down her sobs and looked up at him. With the tips of his fingers, he brushed the tears off of her cheeks and touched his wet fingers to his lips, savoring their precious substance. No man had ever made as simple a gesture as this for her; layers of polished words, of fresh, expensive flowers, or sophisticated holowraps weeping of desire unfulfilled and hearts pining away; but never anything this artless and this sincere.

He said something more to her and then, to her horror, struggled up to his feet.

"Anatoly! No, you shouldn't get up." She jumped to her feet.

He wasn't listening to her. He dipped his head, to get the necklace back on.

She stopped him. "No." She took it from him and settled the gold beads around her own neck. His face lit in an astonished smile, and he recalled himself and looked away.

He waved toward the tents, pillowed his head on his hand, mimicking sleep. Motioned that way, but did not touch her. He began to walk, so she had to follow. He limped badly, but he refused help. He led her to Dr. Hierakis's tent, and here he paused beyond the awning, in the half-gloom heralding dawn. Under the awning, Charles Soerensen sat with Dr. Hierakis and David and Marco, conferring by lantern light. Marco glanced up. His gaze froze on Diana for an instant, moving to her chest, where the necklace dangled, gleaming. Darted to Anatoly Sakhalin, and then he looked away, lips tight, his expression shuttered.

Anatoly spoke to her in a low voice and motioned toward the tent and made the pillowing gesture again. Diana nodded and, as if that satisfied him, he caught her gaze for a piercing instant, and then turned and limped away.

Diana took in a deep breath and walked under the awning. "Doctor, is there somewhere I can sleep?" she asked.

Dr. Hierakis did not even look up. "Yes, dear. In my tent. Maggie and Jo are already in there. Just be careful of the equipment."

Diana did not look at Marco, kept her gaze away from him as she slipped past the little group and pushed the tent flap aside to go in.

"Diana? Here's a stretch of ground, and a thermal blanket."

"Maggie. Goddess, I'm tired. What are you doing?"

"Just trying out this new program." Maggie lay on her side. A thin slate gleamed on the tent floor, its screen lit with letters and numbers. "It's a fairly primitive translation program from an abstract of the khush language sent to us by His Nib's sister."

"Oh." Diana lay down. She stared at the dark canvas ceiling above. Perhaps she was simply too tired to sleep. "Maggie. What does elinu mean?"

"Hmm." The sound of light tapping. " 'Angel.' 'Spirit.' Wait, there's a longer description here. 'The Sun's daughters are elinu and they come down from the heavens to men and women who have died in battle or in childbirth-' That's egalitarian of them, I should say. '-to raise them up to Heaven.' There's a cross reference to-" Maggie went on.

Diana shut her eyes. "Arkady Suvorin," she whispered, so that she would not forget his name. But somehow, she doubted she ever could. Yet it was not his face she saw, drifting down into sleep, nor even Marco's, but Anatoly Sakhalin's, staring at her while he lay on the surgery table, holding on to her as if she alone secured him to the earth.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Orzhekov liked to maintain a leisurely pace, preferring to save her riders' strength for battle. Not for her the constant, restless driving pace endured by those riders favored enough-or cursed enough, some men muttered-to ride with Bakhtiian's chosen thousand, or with those commanders eager to emulate Bakhtiian. It was one reason that men sought a place in her jahar. For another, she knew how to think fast and well when trouble rode in, and her jahar had invariably taken low casualties in the past three years. She was famous for being reckless on her own behalf and conservative when it came to the riders under her command. That she was a woman, and Bakhtiian's niece, counted for less than the chance to see the plains and one's wife and children again.

So it caused no comment that Orzhekov's looping sweep of towns along the lands tributary to Bakhtiian took longer than it might have, given a hastier commander. Indeed, it took so long that word reached them when they were still a day's ride from the main camp that Bahktiian had already returned from his mysterious trip to the coast with a host of barbarians in tow.

A number of the men dug out a fire pit near the commander's small traveling tent and loitered there, hoping to glean additional information by proximity. Hobbled horses grazed on the outskirts of the little camp. Orzhekov stood outside her tent, talking with Tess Soerensen and Soerensen's brother, Aleksi, who had joined up with them in late afternoon with the news.

"That one, Aleksi, he rides with Bakhtiian's jahar, doesn't he? But I heard he hasn't even a family name. How'd he get so honored?"

"He's Soerensen's brother, you fool. She adopted him three years past."

"But he's an orphan, Leonid. I heard his whole tribe was killed, that it was a plague sent by the gods. That only he and a sister lived, and she died soon after. You'd think even a khaja woman would know better than to take in someone as cursed as all that-"

"Hush, you idiot. Have you ever seen him fight? He'd take your ears and your balls off before you even drew your saber.''

In the low round of laughter that followed this sally, Feodor Grekov strolled up to the fire and some of the men moved aside to make room for him.

"Grekov. Haven't you any news for us?"

"Why should I have any more news than you, Yermolov?"

Several of the riders chuckled. Feodor flushed. "Well," said Leonid with a grin, "you've shared her tent more than one night this trip. She must say something."

Conscious of Orzhekov's proximity, a few men offered suggestions, in low voices, of what their commander might say.

From her tent, Nadine had turned to watch Feodor Grekov settle down by the fire. She raised her voice and called over to her riders. "If you men haven't anything better to do but sit and gossip around the fire, you can give the horses some extra grain. We've a hard ride in the morning, and an early start."

The men grumbled, but they all rose.

"Just like a woman," said Leonid good-naturedly. "If they think you're giving their lover a hard time, then they work you to death." But he gave Feodor a friendly slap on the shoulder as he left.

Nadine watched the riders disperse and then turned back to Tess. "If you'll excuse me, I'd better go prepare our ambassador: We'll reach camp by mid-afternoon, and if he doesn't want to destroy his embassy completely, he has a couple of hard truths to learn about the jaran."

"Dina, if you don't mind me saying so-"

"I probably will, but you'll say it nevertheless, so go on."

Tess rubbed her hands together and blew on them, then slid her gloves out from under her belt and pulled them on. "You're just putting his back up."

"I invite you to try. You've a worse temper than I do."

"Do I, indeed?" Tess glanced at Aleksi, who winked at her. She sighed. "Only where Ilya is concerned, and it hasn't done me a damn bit of good yet. I'll speak with the ambassador.''

Nadine stared past Tess at the elaborate flagged awning that Jiroannes's servants had set up, as they did every evening, precise in their work. The tent entrance always faced southeast, toward the lands of the Great King. From this angle, they saw the back of Jiroannes's head where he sat in his carved and padded chair. One of the Vidiyan guardsman stood next to him, holding a lantern to cast light on the parchment Jiroannes read. "I wish you luck. May I watch?"

"Aleksi and I will go. You may listen, but stay in the shadows. He doesn't like you, Dina, so I'd rather he not see you."

Nadine gave a sarcastic snort. "As you command, Soerensen." But she did not wait to watch them go, rather walked out toward the horses.

"She's moody," said Aleksi.

"Dina is always moody. How did Charles seem? You got the letter to him?"

"Yes. He doesn't look like you."

"No, that's true enough." She pulled off her gloves and tucked them back into her belt.

"You're nervous, Tess."

She rubbed her hands together and started to jerk the gloves back out, then stopped herself, looking rueful. "Damn it. Yes, I am."

"He didn't seem frightening to me, though he's a great prince."

"You didn't grow up being the only heir to the prince, Aleksi. I know he's not happy that I stayed here."

"But, Tess, you're a woman, you're of age. Where you stay is surely your own choice."

If only it were. Or at least, if only it were so easy. He cocked his head to one side, waiting; Aleksi always knew when to wait and when to speak. He read her better, in many ways, than Ilya did, because Aleksi never layered any emotions on top of hers. But she was in too strange a mood tonight to nurse her anger at Ilya. She sighed finally and said nothing. Instead, she walked out onto the grass in a loop that would bring her by a roundabout way to Jiroannes's cluster of tents.

"Bakhtiian is furious that you left camp," said Aleksi.

Tess shrugged. "I'm not afraid of Ilya."

"But you are afraid of your own brother." He flicked at his chin with one finger, considering the stars. "I don't understand the khaja," he said at last. "And you even less."

"What do you mean by that?" It was his turn to shrug, and Tess chuckled. "Tell me about the battle."

"Some of the elders of the coast towns hired a mercenary force to waylay us. They did as well as they could, being khaja, but of course it was hopeless for them. Anatoly Sakhalin did a brilliant job of executing the charge and flight. He was wounded, but he says that one of the khaja women-" Aleksi switched for a moment to Rhuian, "-one of the actresses-saved him from being carried away by the angels. He gave her a necklace."

"Oh, dear. What happened to the mercenaries?"

"Bakhtiian sent the captain to occupy Barala, the principal of the towns that hired him. He's to execute the elders, collect tribute, send half to Bakhtiian and keep half for himself. Bakhtiian is going to send Suvorin's jahar out to patrol that line of coast for the summer and perhaps into the winter as well."

"Suvorin, eh? Ilya doesn't much like Suvorin, so doubtless that will keep Suvorin busy and out of trouble." Tess halted.

The square Vidiyan tents rose like blots of darkness some thirty paces before them. A Vidiyan guardsman sat on a rug to the left of the cluster of tents, polishing a silver tray and a set of silver dishes. The scent of aromatic herbs drifted to them on the breeze, swelling with the steam from a kettle perched on a fire of red-hot coals. The woman-the slave-knelt behind her master's chair. Her hands lay perfectly still on her thighs, and her gaze seemed fixed on her hands. She did not move.

What kind of a world have I chosen to live on? Tess thought. Yet it was no different from what Earth had been, with the same cruelties and the same kindnesses and the same hopes. And whatever else the jaran might be, they were her family. She took in a deep breath and let it all out in one huffing blow. "Now, Aleksi. You are to be silent and still."

"As still as that one?" He nodded toward the slave.

"Lord. I wonder what she thinks of, sitting there. Silent in any case. I'm going to be respectful, which is what this boy needs, I think. In order to be able to allow himself to hear what I'm saying."

"You're never respectful to Bakhtiian."

"Gods, if I was as respectful to Ilya as the rest of you are, he'd become insufferable. Shall we?" She walked forward around the outskirts of the camp and halted at the farthest fringe of awning. Aleksi followed two paces behind her.

Tess stood there, patient, until Syrannus rose and approached her. If Jiroannes was aware that she was there, he showed no sign of it. He kept reading.

"I thank you for recognizing me," said Tess to Syrannus, in Rhuian. "I ask for permission for myself and my companion to enter, and to speak with His Eminence." The final words, Jiroannes's title, she spoke in Vidyan, and that did make Jiroannes glance up in surprise. He lowered his gaze as swiftly, still pretending to ignore her, but the line of his mouth tightened.

"Please." Syrannus gestured for her to step onto the carpet. "If you will wait."

The old man looked nervous, and when he turned to hurry over to his master's chair, he wiped his hands on his black sash as if he were wiping sweat from his palms. The two men spoke together. Jiroannes handed Syrannus the parchment and the servant rolled it up carefully and called a second guardsman over to take it away. The first guardsman shifted position, angling the lantern light to include a patch of ground before the chair.

Syrannus hurried back to Tess and gestured her forward. She crossed the outer carpet and inclined her head respectfully to Jiroannes. "May the Great King live many years, and his affairs prosper, and your fortunes follow his," she said, still in Vidyan.

Jiroannes hesitated. From what little Tess knew of Vidyan, she had now put him in a position from which he had either to greet her respectfully in return or else insult her deliberately.

At last, he spoke. "May your name dwell a thousand years in the heart of the Great King." He did not stand. Neither did she kneel. After a moment, he signed to Syrannus, and the old man brought a stool.

Tess sat. It was parity, of a sort. "I hope, your eminence, that you will forgive my speaking in Rhuian, since I do not speak your language well enough to converse in it."

"Where did you learn it? Surely you have not visited the Great King's lands?"

"No, to my sorrow I have not. But I always seek to learn new languages."

"Ah." He appeared satisfied that some piece of a puzzle known only to himself had just fallen into place. "You are an interpreter."

Tess suppressed her grin. "Yes," she agreed, realizing just then the best tack to take with him. "But I am also a khaja-a foreigner-traveling with the jaran. In this, you and I are alike. Originally, I came from Jeds."

Now he looked interested. "Jeds is a great city. The Great King has exchanged royal gifts with his cousin the prince of Jeds, and we have sent envoys there in the past. Indeed, a Jedan merchant admitted to the palace school taught me and the other young nobles Rhuian, since the Great King deemed it an important language to learn for those of us aspiring to become envoys and ambassadors."

"Perhaps, your eminence, you will kindly allow me to tell you a few things I have learned in my years with the jaran. I have every hope that your mission will succeed. Certainly I hope to avoid war between Bakhtiian and your Great King."

He prickled, definitely, but he did not dismiss her. "How did you come to be with the jaran?" he asked at last. "Are you a slave?"

For an instant, Tess allowed herself the pleasure of imagining how Nadine would react to such a remark, directed at any jaran woman. But then, Nadine would never make a good ambassador. "Your eminence, I am married to Bakhtiian."

He blinked. In the cast of light from the lantern, his narrow face bore an almost demonic look, framed by the white cloth bound around his head and his pointed black beard.

But Jiroannes came from a polygamous culture. She could be any junior wife, of marginal importance, except perhaps that she was khaja and an interpreter.

"I beg your pardon, your eminence," Tess added. "I did not make myself clear. I am Bakhtiian's only wife. I am also the sister of the prince of Jeds."

There was silence; a long silence, as the poor boy absorbed the full meaning of her simple declaration. "Your grace," said Jiroannes at last, reluctantly but with a kind of fascinated horror. He stood up.

"Please, your eminence. Do sit down." He sat. She considered his chastened face. Doubtless the knowledge that the Jedan prince had already deemed Bakhtiian and his jaran hordes dangerous enough to offer a marriage alliance to them made a formidable impact on the Vidiyan ambassador. Not to mention insulting her by calling her a slave. Lord, he really was quite young, and probably as spoiled and self-absorbed and isolated a young noble as she herself had been, growing up as the only sibling of the great hero of humanity, Charles Soerensen.

"Your grace, I beg pardon for any rudeness you may have received on my behalf."

'' You are forgiven.''

"Certainly I would be honored to listen to your wisdom concerning these jaran barbarians."

How quickly they came to an accord, civilized cousins thrown in with the savages. Tess allowed herself a smile, and then she began, gently but firmly, to make him begin to understand how different things were with the jaran.

The slave-girl still knelt behind Jiroannes's chair. Could the girl understand Rhuian? She did not move. She might have been carved from stone, so still was she. Tess realized that she wasn't particularly angry with Jiroannes for keeping a slave. Disgusted. Resigned, knowing that the institution could not be erased with a wave of her hand. One had to work slowly. That's what Charles would say. She winced internally. Who was acting like Charles now?

At last she took her leave. Jiroannes rose and bowed to her, then escorted her personally to the edge of the carpet. She walked out onto the grass with Aleksi and just stood there, breathing in the air. The wind brushed her hair. Stars filled the night sky, brilliant with promise. Over by Nadine's tent, the fire pit had long since smoldered into coals. On a far rise, an edge of darkness against the darker sky, the tiny figure of a scout blotted out stars. Horses stood scattered beyond the camp, some staked, some hobbled. A few tents had been set up, but most of the men slept on the ground, dark lumps wrapped in blankets.

"I love the plains," said Tess in a low voice, letting the sky and the sweep of ground envelop her. "It's so open here."

"Look there."

Tess followed the line of Aleksi's gaze to see a man pause beside Nadine's tent and then duck inside. "Grekov, again? He's in love with her. She'll never have him, though."

"But women have no choice in marriage," Aleksi objected.

"Jaran women don't, it's true. But Nadine is no longer truly jaran. Jeds marked her too well." Tess's gaze flicked over the Vidiyan encampment and halted on the slender form of the ambassador, watching-what? But it was clear enough what he was watching. He, too, stared at Nadine Orzhekov's tent. A moment later his slave-girl approached him and knelt at his feet. He retreated inside his own tent. She followed.

"Sonia's not going to like this," Tess said, to no one in particular, to the stars, perhaps. And why should Sonia like it? That she would not was one of the reasons that Tess could love her so well.

"Aren't you going to sleep?" asked Aleksi.

She shook her head. "I can't sleep. I think I'll walk for a while."

"I'll walk with you, then."

And Tess was glad of his company.

The night wind came up, swelling and ebbing around them, sighing through the grass in waves. Above, stars shone. Men slept below. The deep silence that lay here was otherwise complete and, in its immensity, liberating.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The first day, Yomi told the actors to stay within their little enclave of tents and on no account to venture out into the confusion of the jaran camp. Ever the slave driver, Owen led them in a round of exercises until midday and after lunch put them to work setting up the screens and the carpets and the portable platform at the edge of the enclave. He had chosen the space carefully. The ground sloped up here, providing a natural amphitheater. He fussed over the placement of the screens, of the carpets, of the platform, until he drove all the actors crazy. Yomi finally sent them to supper.

Diana escaped to the enclave bordering the Company's cluster of tents, that of the Soerensen party. To her eye, Charles Soerensen's tent had also been set up carefully, facing the outskirts of the jaran camp as if inviting envoys to visit this acre of earth that he claimed as his by right of possession. Dr. Hierakis's large tent stood beside his, more a companion than an attendant, and behind them the smaller tents of his party formed a semicircle around the back, enclosing a patch of ground as a kind of private courtyard.

Here she found David and Maggie, crouching beside a fire pit dug into the earth.

"It's cold today," said Maggie as Diana came up, "but at least it didn't rain. Hello there, Diana. I heard you all hooting and howling over yonder. What on earth were you doing?"

"Vocal exercises. I hope we didn't spook anyone." Diana glanced past the straight edge of Soerensen's tent toward the vast camp sprawled beyond.

"Oh, they already think the good doctor is some kind of otherworldly visitor.''

"Good Lord," muttered David.

"I didn't mean it like that," added Maggie. "Not literally, that is. She's been very careful to make sure that all the medicine she does is technologically within their limits. There's an entire conclave of old men and women in the doctor's tent right now. I gather that they were tremendously impressed by her healing skills after that battle five days ago."

Diana shivered. She knelt beside the fire and gratefully accepted a mug of hot tea from David. That afternoon and night seemed surreal to her now. She could almost believe it had never happened, except that they had had to repack the wagons and convey some of their goods on horseback in order to leave room in the wagons for the wounded who could not ride. "Gwyn said that only one man died on the trip here."

"Two, I think," said David. "But one of them Cara called a courtesy death. You acquitted yourself well, Diana, that night." He shuddered. "I couldn't have done what you did. I hate blood."

"Handsome necklace." Maggie reached out and traced her fingers over the gold beads. "I'll bet these are solid gold. Do you know what this is worth for the metal alone?" Diana blushed. Maggie grinned. "Ah, going native already, are you? I hear the young man who gave this to you is one of their nobility. Or at least, of an important family. I'm not sure our concept of nobility is quite the right word."

Diana studied the steam rising out of her mug. It rose into the air and dissipated, wafted into nothingness by the cold breeze. She had not seen Anatoly Sakhalin since that night, and by now he was probably swallowed up in the jaran camp. Never to be seen again. "It seems like once Bakhtiian and his army-his soldiers-got back to us, that we weren't allowed anything to do with the wounded. Except for Dr. Hierakis, of course."

"Can you blame them? We are foreigners, after all. Perhaps they have some kind of taboo. Or perhaps they just prefer to take care of their own. Why should they trust us?"

Marco ducked out from the back entrance to Soerensen's tent and glanced up. Diana saw him register her presence, she even caught his eye, but he turned around and slipped back inside the tent. As if he was avoiding her. Which he was. Which he cursed well ought to. "Did you ever find out what the big fire was that they lit after we left?"

"Oh, you mean from the pond? A cremation pyre. They burn their dead."

David shuddered again. "Just heaped them on and burned them. Why did I come? Or did I ask that already? ''

Maggie laughed. "A thousand times. Don't repeat yourself, David, you'll get boring."

"I wonder what they think of us," Diana mused.

"They think you're an angel," said Maggie, and laughed again when Diana turned red. "Which seems ironic enough, when you think of it."

"When will we be allowed to go out into their camp?" David asked. "I'd like to do some drawing."

"I don't know," admitted Maggie, "but I imagine His Nibs is going to be cautious."

"Very cautious," echoed David. "What's going on out there?"

Diana rose with the other two and followed them out alongside Dr. Hierakis's tent. Under the awning of her tent, Dr. Hierakis sat cross-legged on a pillow surrounded by about twenty women and men of various ages, mostly elderly.

Diana stared. She had not yet seen a jaran woman. They looked, well, rather ordinary. They wore long tunics dyed in bright colors over striped trousers and soft leather boots. Some wore simple beaded headpieces draped over their braided hair; others wore a round fur cap shaped like the men's helmets. The men here wore gold or blue shirts, not red, and there was less embroidery on their shirts. A few men in the scarlet worn by the soldiers loitered in the background. One man was seated in the middle, his back to Diana and her companions, and he was clearly the object of the conversation: his shirt lay at his hips, revealing a handsome expanse of bare back. An older silver-haired jaran man was crouched beside him, drawing patterns on his shoulder that traced the line of his scars and injuries.

"Look," said Diana, nodding toward the silver-haired man. "He speaks Rhuian, too. If you listen to the interchange between him and Dr. Hierakis, you can tell he's translating for the others. I wonder where an old man like that learned Rhuian."

"Lady in Heaven," said David in a hushed voice. "It can't be." He sounded so odd that Diana turned to him in alarrn. But he was looking beyond her, beyond the gathering under the doctor's awning, beyond Soerensen's tent, toward the outskirts of the jaran camp.

Three jaran soldiers came cantering around the outer fringes of the vast encampment. An instant later, Diana realized that although they all were dressed in the red shirts and black trousers of the jaran soldier, two were female. The man was the one called Aleksi. Of the women, one had the black hair and olive complexion of those of the jaran who were dark, but the other had, not blonde hair and a fair complexion, but something in between. They pulled up thirty meters in front of Sorensen's tent and dismounted. The brown-haired woman was half a head taller than her female companion, as tall as the male, as tall as many of the jaran men; as tall as the women in Soerensen's party. She wore a saber at her belt and carried herself with the kind of unconscious authority of those who are used to an exalted position in life.

"Tess!" The exclamation came, unexpectedly, from Dr. Hierakis. She stood up abruptly, disrupting her conference.

As if on cue, the entrance to Soerensen's tent swept aside and Soerensen walked out, deep in conversation with Marco. He took two steps, glanced toward the doctor and the more distant clump that was Diana and David and Maggie, and stopped. For a beat, he did nothing. Then he looked straight up, along the converging lines of their sight, at his sister.

"Charles!" The name burst out of Terese Soerensen as if by accident. She clapped her hands over her mouth in a gesture that looked utterly spontaneous and after a moment lowered them. She had the kind of stupid grin on her face that afflicts people who are overwhelmingly nervous and excited together. A few words passed between her and her companions; then she ran forward and hugged her brother.

He, too, was smiling. They separated, and Tess turned to greet Marco. She laughed at him and slapped him with some amusement on the chest. He grinned. Diana could not hear what they were saying. Dr. Hierakis waded around the sea of healers and put out her arms.

This time, Tess Soerensen's smile looked more confident and more genuine. She embraced Dr. Hierakis firmly, and her smile as they parted was easy and cheerful. Skilled as Diana had become at reading body language, she could tell that the doctor's greeting was warmer than Charles Soerensen's; not more heartfelt, perhaps, but less constrained.

"My God, she's different," breathed David.

"Well well well," said Maggie.

"She's… she's…"

"I'd never heard she was quite that handsome as a girl. I always heard she was shy, awkward, and headstrong. But then, I've never met her, and by the time I signed on with His Nibs, she was at university and then absconded to Rhui."

"Reserved, not shy," corrected David, still gaping. Tess Soerensen glanced their way, and her eyes rounded suddenly, recognizing David. She hesitated, then waved him over.

"Invited to the presence," said Maggie.

"Damn you, Mags. Come with me. I'm not doing this alone. You, too, Diana."

"Cold feet?" Maggie asked.

"You cold-hearted bitch. Mags, please."

Maggie chuckled. "Well, come on, then, Diana. Our womanly presence will support the poor besotted fool."

'' 'What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue? I cannot speak to her, yet she urg'd conference.' "

"Lord," moaned David. But he straightened his shoulders and set off to cross the gap. Maggie followed, grabbing Diana by the wrist and tugging her along behind. The jaran healers sat quietly, patiently, and watched this little scene with interest. The silver-haired man smiled at Diana as she passed. The next instant, she realized that the young man sitting in the center, just now struggling to get back into his shirt, was Anatoly Sakhalin. As his head emerged through the collar, he glanced up, saw her, and averted his gaze from her as swiftly as if her presence stung him. Maggie dragged her to a stop behind David, and she had to wrench her attention back to the matter at hand.

"David!" Tess Soerensen was saying. "What are you doing here? Did Charles drag you along?''

It took Diana a moment to figure out what was strange about her speech: the cadences of her Anglais were slightly altered, as if she had not spoken it for some time.

"I had sufficient inducements," replied David. "I'm interested in ancient engineering, after all. Tess, you haven't met Maggie O'Neill."

"Honored," said Tess Soerensen, shaking Maggie's hand.

"Likewise," replied Maggie with her usual aplomb. "I'm Charles's assistant, recorder, and official historian. This is one of the actors, Diana Brooke-Holt."

Diana smiled at Tess Soerensen. Tess had fine green eyes and a sincere smile, but nothing of her brother's quietly formidable bearing. "Honored," Diana said, feeling all at once that she might like this woman and not feeling at all overawed by her. "I understand you're doing linguistics fieldwork here, M. Soerensen."

"Tess, please." Soerensen blinked, looking confused for a moment. She glanced at her brother and immediately an expression of comprehension flashed over her features. "Of course," she said, sounding a little simpleminded. "My linguistics research. Of course. And you're one of the-actors?"

"The Bharentous Repertory Company," put in Dr. Hierakis. "Surely you've heard of them, Tess. They've come along to do some fieldwork themselves."

"Of course I've heard of them. I saw them in Berlin, performing the Mahabharata. I don't recall if you were with them then." She considered a moment and as if by habit glanced back toward her two jaran companions, still waiting fifty paces out. "Oh, hell," she said under her breath.

Charles Soerensen was a quiet man, holding his power in reserve, hoarding it, concealing it from a power greater than his own-the power of the Chapalii Empire. Waiting for a chance to strike again, to free humanity from the yoke of the alien Empire. Even his entrances, such as the one Diana had just witnessed, were subtle, small entrances, perfectly timed but not showy, and never ostentatious.

From the camp, entering stage left, came an altogether different kind of leader. He walked with only two attendants, and yet the two could as well have been one hundred, they endowed him with so much state.

Bakhtiian looked furious. His fury radiated so far that even though Diana could barely distinguish his features, she could read anger in every line of his body.

"Excuse me," said Tess, turning to leave.

"Where are you going, Tess?" asked her brother quietly.

Tess cast a rueful grin back over her shoulder. "To head him off at the pass."

"No," said Charles.

Tess halted as if she had been pulled short by a rope. She did not move at all for a moment, then she spun back. "Charles, let me go." She sounded-angry? scared? shocked? — Diana could not tell.

"We will wait here," he replied calmly.

Tess dropped her chin and stared at the ground, for all the world like a scolded child.

Bakhtiian paused for long enough beside Aleksi and the female soldier to add them to his train. Their obedience, like Tess's to her brother, was absolute and immediate. Bakhtiian advanced on Soerensen's tent. Diana looked behind, to see the jaran healers and Anatoly Sakhalin watching also.

With curt politeness, Bakhtiian halted five paces outside the awning of the tent and inclined his head toward Charles Soerensen. "I trust you have set up your camp to your satisfaction," he said in Rhuian. He did not look at Tess Soerensen. No, it was more than that. He was forcefully not looking at her, as if the action of not looking at her was as deliberate as if he had chosen to look at her.

"Indeed, we have," replied Charles Soerensen. "It is a good stretch of ground, and suitable to our purpose here. The actors are especially pleased with the terrain, since it provides them with a natural amphitheater.''

"I hope my people will be able to enjoy their performances soon. We will have a proper celebration to honor your arrival at our camp tomorrow evening. I would be pleased to escort you and any of your party around our camp tomorrow morning, if it pleases you. Now, if you will excuse me, there are military matters which I must discuss with my generals."

He took one step back, turned, and then turned back. "Soerensen?" he said, to Tess. It meant: of course you will attend me as well. Now.

Standing with one foot on, one foot off, the carpet, at the edge of the awning, Tess stood equidistant between the two men. Everyone was watching her. They were waiting for her decision.

She lifted her chin finally, clearly aware that she was the focus of all attention. She looked angry and embarrassed and irresolute and even slightly amused. But she did not say anything. The silence stretched out until it became painful.

Soerensen waited. Bakhtiian waited. In fact, Diana realized, they were both waiting for Tess to capitulate to them, knowing that she could not capitulate to both. In a sudden rush of insight, of compassion, Diana realized that Tess could not make that decision. Not now, at any rate. What had led her to wear jaran clothing and ride with jaran soldiers Diana did not know. What led Bakhtiian to order her around as if she were one of his people was also a mystery. Even if Tess wanted to disobey her brother's deceptively mild command, Diana was not sure that she could.

Murmuring rose in the huddle of jaran healers only fifteen paces to their backs. Marco Burckhardt slipped a hand inside his belt, reaching for something. David took an impulsive step forward, blindly trying to protect-Tess? Or Charles? Anatoly Sakhalin appeared to the side, stepping into the group flanking Bakhtiian. Although his arm still rested in a sling, he wore a saber. His good hand brushed its hilt.

Things were going to get ugly very quickly. Battle lines had been drawn, and if someone didn't intervene-well, Diana now knew what the aftermath of a battle looked like. And neither Bakhtiian nor Soerensen looked ready or willing to back down.

So Diana did the first thing that came to mind. She gave a gasp, flung the back of her left hand up to her forehead, and collapsed to the carpet in a faint.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

In the confusion, Tess escaped. She backed up, spun, and sprinted for her horse, which had been left with reins dangling to wait for her return. Bracing her left foot in the stirrup, she swung on and urged the mare away. She shook with rage and self-disgust.

How dare they reduce her to a pawn? How dare they try to force her to choose between them? And, oh God, she hated herself for letting them. She had just stood there, gaping like an idiot, paralyzed. Charles had not changed, not one bit, and she was still terrified of him. And Ilya! She thought her heart might well burst with anger.

She was out of sight of camp by now, and she slowed the mare to a halt and dismounted to lean against her shoulder. Zhashi nuzzled her cheek and then nosed at her belt, trying to pry her shirt loose.

"Stop that, you miserable beast," Tess said with affection. "I don't have anything for you." She rubbed Zhashi's forehead with her knuckles and then found a tangled stretch of mane and combed it free with her fingers. Distracted, she fished in her pouch and brought out a length of ribbon, which she braided into Zhashi's mane. Zhashi submitted to this attention with the patience of the vain.

It was soothing work. The bitter truth was, she was still running away. She was still afraid to face Charles. And Ilya-

"The other bitter truth is, Zhashi, that I love him too much. He's been gone for a month, and when I saw him walking across to us, it was like seeing the sun rising. Lord, I sound like any love-sick adolescent. But he's so beautiful." Zhashi snorted in disgust and bent her head to rip up a clump of grass. "Oh, certainly not more beautiful than you, my dear. How could I ever have said such a thing?" Tess chuckled, then sobered, tying off the ribbon. "Oh, Zhash, I don't know what to do."

Zhashi resumed grazing. The indistinct gold of the plain extended without interruption to the sharp line that separated grass and sky. Thin strings of cloud laced one half of the sky, trailing down below the horizon. The wind blew-the wind always blew here-whipping the tall grass into a frenzy. At the horizon, she could see the amorphous mass of a herd of horses, out grazing. The sun hung a handsbreadth above the horizon, sinking, and the moon already shone, pale, in the deepening blue of the sky.

She had to go back, of course. She mounted and headed back toward camp, back toward Charles's encampment. An hour or two with Charles, then back to her own tent for the reunion with Ilya. That ought to satisfy both of them, as a beginning.

But as she came into sight of camp, a rider intercepted her. It was Ilya. She considered for an instant trying to avoid him, but it was undignified, for one thing, and for the other, he could outride her without thinking about it, and he was mounted on his stallion, Kriye. She pulled up instead and waited.

Kriye began to prance, showing off for Zhashi as Bakhtiian reined him in beside Tess. With a ruthless tug on the reins, Bakhtiian brought the black to an abrupt halt. "Damned horse," Bakhtiian muttered. Then he looked up at her.

More than any other feature, it was his eyes that Tess loved. They burned. They were lit, pervaded by an intensity that was perhaps, just perhaps, a little mad. Obsessed, at the very least, but no more so than Charles was obsessed. Charles just hid it better.

"Tess." His voice sounded hoarse. He reached out and took hold of her left hand, gripping it tightly.

"Oh, Ilya," she said impulsively. "I missed you."

From her hand, it was but a turn of the wrist for him to take hold of her reins and commandeer them for himself. Zhashi minced, objecting to this kidnapping. "You're coming with me," said Ilya, and started back for camp, leading Zhashi.

"Damn you." Tess went red. "Give me back my reins."

"You're coming with me."

''I won't have you leading me through camp like this.''

He did not reply. His trail led away from the distant Soerensen enclave, around the fringe of tents. But she saw quickly enough what he was doing. Vladimir and Anatoly Sakhalin stood waiting at the edge of camp to receive the horses. Tess was damned if she'd make a scene in front of them. She dismounted, handed Zhashi over to Sakhalin, and hoped like hell that the chestnut mare would kick him.

Then she relented. Seeing Anatoly's arm in a sling reminded her too bitterly of Kirill Zvertkov, who had never regained use of his injured arm. "What happened?" she asked Anatoly.

"Speared and trampled," he said cheerfully. He wiggled the fingers of his left hand. "But you see, the prince's healer says I'll be free of this sling in a hand of days."

"Ah. Dr. Hierakis looked at you. I'm glad." She smiled at the young man, whom she liked well enough, except for his doglike devotion to Bakhtiian. "But then again," she remarked aloud, walking alongside Ilya into the darkening expanse of camp, "they're all besotted with you."

He had a good grip on her wrist, but he walked so close to her that anyone passing them might not mark that he was forcing her to go along with him. "Not all of them," he replied. "I'm sending Suvorin and his jahar to the coast. His sister's son died in the battle. I'm keeping his son with my thousand, now."

"A hostage for Suvorin's good behavior."

"It's a great honor, to ride with my jahar."

' 'It's a great honor to ride in any of the first rank jahars. Like Yaroslav Sakhalin's jahar. Those that are allowed to, that is."

His fingers tightened convulsively on her wrist, but he did not rise to the bait. Fuming, Tess kept silent. They walked the rest of the way without saying one single word. At last they came to the clearing in the center of camp that housed her tent. Its colors had already gone dull in the deepening twilight. The golden banner of the army that graced its peak fluttered and sank in the dying wind. No one accosted them here, as if the camp had been emptied out before their arrival. Around the great tent in a crescent stood the other tents of the Orzhekov family, those who remained here with the army: Sonia's tent, Nadine's tent, Aleksi's little tent and those of a few female cousins. At the very edge of the crescent stood the tent of Juli Danov and her husband Nikolai Sibirin, bridging the gap between the tents of the Orzhekov family and those surrounding the center of camp who were of the Orzhekov tribe. Beyond them, in the same kind of clusters, spread the tents of the other tribes of the first rank, Sakhalin and Grekov, Suvorin and Arkhanov, Velinya and Raevsky and Vershinin and Fedoseyev. And beyond them, their daughter tribes, and their daughters' daughter tribes, the army of the jaran.

Three figures waited under the awning of Tess's tent. Ilya did not let go of her even after they crossed onto the carpet. "Out," he said to the occupants.

Sonia Orzhekov rose. Her blonde hair was braided with ribbons and beads, giving her a festive look, but her normally cheerful expression was stern. "Cousin," she said to Ilya, "I expect better manners from you."

"I beg your pardon, cousin." He bent at once and kissed her on either cheek, and for an instant his expression softened. "Where are the little ones?

"Well away," said Sonia ominously.

"Then," he said stiffly, "if you please, I would like a word alone with my wife."

Sonia crossed over to Tess and gave her adopted sister a hug. "Well," she said, "I'm glad to see you home safely, at any rate." She flashed a glance back at Bakhtiian, but did not elaborate on her statement. "Come along, Aleksi." Aleksi followed her away.

Nadine rose as well, heading after them.

"You'll stay," said Ilya abruptly. "I want your report."

Nadine halted and turned to face her uncle. "You don't really want my report. You're just exacting vengeance because I took Tess with me despite what you wanted."

"Orzhekov, you are a jahar leader because of your skill, not because you are my niece. I expect you to behave accordingly. Now, your report."

Like her uncle, Nadine had the ability to make her face go still, revealing no emotion. In a tight voice, she delivered her report of their journey.

"And the ambassador?" Ilya asked. "Where is he now?"

"I installed him in the northeastern corner with the other foreign embassies. May I make a suggestion?"

"You may."

"When you receive him, I suggest you put the fear of the gods into him.''

"Ah," said Ilya, looking for an instant thoughtful rather than angry. "I understand. You may go."

"Thank you." With a curt nod, Nadine left.

"That certainly was both comprehensive and enlightening," said Tess in Rhuian, drawling slightly. "I have nothing to add to her edifying report. Now, I'll join Nadine." She did not move, however, because he still had hold of her wrist.

In khush, without looking at her, he said: "I haven't given you permission to leave."

"Haven't you? I wasn't aware that I required your permission to leave."

Now he turned. "I expressly told you not to leave camp."

"Yes, you did, and it finally occurred to me that since you won't trust me as a soldier, then I might as well act as your wife. And by the gods, Ilya, as your wife, you have no authority over me whatsoever.'' She twisted her wrist in his hand and jerked herself free of his grip. But as she started away, he caught her arm. "People are staring," she snapped.

"Let them stare." He flung his other arm around her waist and with no warning dragged her bodily backward and into the tent. Pressed this close against him, she could feel that he was shaking. Inside, two lanterns burned, casting a glow across the interior: the table and chair, khaja work, to one side, where she wrote; an empty bronze cauldron with a smaller cauldron nested inside; a small bronze stove with two handles; a wooden chest carved with stylized horses; a standing cabinet with hinged doors, another piece of khaja work; and the tapestry that concealed the sleeping area.

"One month it has been," he said, his voice so low that Tess knew he was in a rage. "You didn't even greet me."

"My God. You're jealous."

"You disobeyed my direct orders not to leave camp."

"You refused to let me go to the coast with you, to meet Charles. Gods, Ilya, what did you expect me to do?" Standing this close to him, she felt her anger ebb. "Did you really think I'd wait meekly for you to return?" For an instant, she thought he was going to smile. But to her surprise, he let go of her and strode over to the table, sitting down in the chair. He regarded her from this uncharacteristic seat, glowering at her. Fine, then, if he didn't want a truce. Tess was more than happy to continue the argument.

"You didn't tell me that your brother holds me in such contempt," he said at last.

That took her off guard. "What are you talking about?"

"What am I to think? He is a great prince, and he comes attended with a handful of assistants, only one of whom is a soldier-and she a woman-and, by the gods, a company of actors. Is this the kind of state he keeps? Does he think my power so trivial that he fears me not at all? What if I chose to kill him, claim Jeds for myself through my marriage with you, and march south? Oh, I know it's a long journey overland, through many khaja princedoms, and I would never attempt it with the army I have now-but what is ten years to me, Tess? If I kill him now, and consolidate my power here, what is to stop me from marching on Jeds and conquering all the lands between?"

Even when she knew an ambush was coming, she was never prepared for it, because he always attacked from an entirely different position than the one she expected. Damn him. What could she say? What should she say? What he read in her silence she didn't know. In any case, he went on.

' 'Why should he put himself in my power in this way? He doesn't fear me. Does he think I am incapable of desiring to have what is his? That my awe of Jeds is so great that I fear him? That your influence with me will stop me from harming him?''

"But why should you kill him?" Tess asked at last, her voice perfectly calm because she was still too surprised by this sudden confession to know what to make of it. "What good would it do you?"

He stood up, pushing himself up with one hand on the table. It rocked slightly, and then he lifted his hand and crossed to Tess in five strides. "Unless he never meant to come out on the plains at all," he said quietly. "We have nothing to negotiate. Jeds is too far away and I am young in my power. In time, certainly, but I can just as well ride north and east along the Golden Road. What if he brought no entourage because he never meant to leave his ship? If you had come with me to the coast, he could have put you on board the ship and sailed south."

Which was perfectly true. Trust Ilya to have seen it. Trust Charles to have made the point clear without ever stating it aloud. And leaving her to deal with it. "But what about the actors, then?" she asked, knowing the question was a flanking action.

"The actors," said Ilya, with the merest quirk of a smile, "are all mad, clearly. But like all entertainers, they must know they are welcome anywhere. Like all singers-of-tales, they are given both the favor and the protection of the gods. I will do them no harm."

"And meanwhile, you have offered me a grave insult. How dare you have so little respect for my dignity that you would lead my horse as if I was a child and then drag me by main force back through camp like that?''

He looked taken aback by this direct attack. He looked a little embarrassed. "Tess." He placed his hands on her shoulders and slid them up to cup her face in his palms. He swayed toward her.

"Don't think this will work," she murmured, and then she leaned into him and kissed him, running her hands from his belt up the smooth silken line of his back. The hard knot of his belt buckle pressed against her, and she had to shift her hips slightly to keep her saber hilt from tangling with his sheathed knife.

He broke off the kiss and sighed, gathering her into him, and kissed her along the line of her jaw up to her right ear. "If he takes you away from me," he whispered, as softly as an endearment, "then I promise you that I will destroy Jeds."

Tess stiffened in his embrace and slid her hands around to his chest, bracing herself away from him. He let go of her. "What if I decide to leave of my own free will?"

So many expressions chased themselves across his features that it took her a moment to recognize the one that lay underneath all the others. He was afraid. Ilya was afraid of losing her.

He threw his arms around her, enclosing her, and yanked her tight against him. "By the gods, I will stop you."

"How?"

He did not answer in words. Words contained the least part of the language they spoke to one another. The heat of his hands burned on her skin. Tess traced the line of his beard, traced his lips, with her fingers. Her hands ranged down to the clasp of his belt, and she eased it away and let it drop onto the soft pile of carpets.

"Tess," he said again, hesitant.

Tess got her hands under his shirt and slid them up, over his chest, teasing the nipples and then, when he was breathless, steering him backward through the curtain into the sleeping alcove. By shifting her foot, she tripped him, and he tumbled down onto the heap of silken pillows, pulling her with him. Astride him, she eased off his shirt, and let him unbuckle her belt and thrust it away. She captured his hands and pressed them against her.

"Promise me," she said. "Promise me you will not threaten my brother."

"Damn you." He was angry, still, but he was also laughing. "It gains me nothing, now, to kill him, and you know it."

"Then it costs you nothing to promise me. He is your ally, Ilya, you must believe that."

He shifted his hips beneath her and used the toe of one boot to pry off the other. "He cares nothing for me, Tess, except that I married you."

"That isn't true."

"Isn't it? Then tell me he would have come here, that he would even send an embassy to the jaran, if you weren't here."

"Jeds is far away-"

"Gods, Tess," he said, exasperated. With an expert twist, he freed his hands and flipped her over, so that he lay on top of her. He found the tip of her braid and undid it, loosening her hair until it lay free, spread out on the pillows.

"You haven't promised me yet," she said stubbornly.

He sat back with a great sigh and took off his other boot. She lay still on the pillows, watching him in the soft light of the lanterns. He kept his black hair cut short, a fashion that had spread among his soldiers, and he was obsessive about keeping his beard neat and trimmed. Whether by accident or by design, the lantern light haloed him, giving him a haze of light, as if the gods had long since marked him as their own. Which they had, according to the beliefs of his own people.

"I promise you that I will not threaten your brother as long as you stay with me," he said.

"Ilya!" It was her turn to be exasperated.

"We're negotiating, my wife. Now it is your turn to make a counteroffer.''

She sat up and took off her boots, and regarded him. Oh, she was still angry with him, but right now, it didn't matter. She laughed. "I'll consider it. Now, my husband, I think it time to remind you that you have been gone for a month, and you have certain obligations to your wife that you have not yet fulfilled."

"Most willingly," he murmured. "Gods, Tess, I missed you." He sank down with her into the soft bed of pillows.

Later, lying quiet, she stroked his hair while he kissed her fingers, one by one.

"We'll make a child," he said, and because it was habitual with him, it came out more an order than a request. "Do you know, by the time Niko was my age he was a grandfather." Then, content for now, he sighed and nestled his face against her neck, tangling himself in with her and, as he often did, he fell asleep immediately.

A grandfather. The word looped over and over in her thoughts as she lay still, staring at him. Thirty-seven-not old at all. But here, if he lived another thirty years, it would be a miracle. Whereas she could expect to live another eighty or ninety years: the thought of living in a universe without him in it-she winced away from even thinking about it.

She sought out the silver in his hair, but there was not enough yet to show up in the dim light, not enough to lighten his black hair. He had sun-weathered skin, but like all the jaran, the wrinkles came late and slowly. She traced the scar on his cheek-the scar of his marriage to her-and farther down, to one on his shoulder, along his chest to the flat line of his abdomen, to his hips. Easing out from under his arm, she pulled away from him and covered him with a thick quilt of fur. He slept, undisturbed by these attentions.

But the signs were beginning to show: cuts, superficial wounds that did not heal as quickly, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He would grow old, truly old, and she would still be young.

She dressed, braided her hair, and went outside. It was dark now and most of the camp was quiet. In the direction of the Sakhalin encampment some kind of carousing was going on, doubtless in celebration of Anatoly Sakhalin's elevation to a command of his own.

Under the light of lanterns hung from the awning of her tent, Sonia sat with Nadine. She was sewing together two strips of woven cloth, with Nadine aiding her.

"Well, well," called Sonia as Tess ducked under her awning. "So you survived that, did you?"

"Damned arrogant bastard," said Tess, bending to give Sonia a kiss. "It's good to be back."

Sonia chuckled. "You should have greeted him first, Tess."

"I can't believe you say that, Sonia. Of all people."

Sonia grinned. "Oh, not for his sake, or even his dignity, Tess. You must think of the rest of us, although I trust he'll be in a better humor when he wakes."

"He ought to be. Where are the children?"

"I sent them off to the Sakhalin celebration."

"Aren't you going yourself?"

"Mother warned me that I mustn't defer to Mother Sakhalin too much."

"Oho," said Tess, "very clever, then, to send the children but not yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to return to my brother.''

"I hear that Anatoly Sakhalin has fallen in love with one of the actors," said Sonia. "Perhaps you'll look her over for me."

Tess shrugged. "I don't know who you mean."

"Yes, you do," said Nadine suddenly. "The one who fainted. Well timed, you know, from a tactical point of view.''

"Good Lord. What would Anatoly Sakhalin want with a khaja wife, anyway?"

Both Sonia and Nadine laughed. "My dearest Tess," said Sonia with a grin, "he wants to be like Ilya, of course."

"Gods." Feeling that this expressed everything that was left to express, Tess took her leave and walked back through camp to her brother's enclave.

Here it was not quiet. Coming up on the two sets of tents pitched just beyond the army, Tess recognized with a shock the life of a society that was at once familiar and distant to her, after four years on Rhui. Day and night were equal to these people. Even though here they had to rely on lantern light, still they did not put aside their activities with the sunset and begin again with sunrise. She paused in the gloom outside the ring of light, watching.

Under Charles's awning sat Charles and Cara and David-those three she knew from before. Maggie sat with them, and a handful of others she had not met. As she watched, a trio walked in from the side, laughing and talking in voices trained to carry: a few of the actors, evidently. Tess marked out Diana, the young golden-haired actress; she was pretty, of course, but more than that, she seemed to carry light with her wherever she went. Rather like Ilya, however ironic that might be, except that Diana shone with sweetness and a fine, generous spirit, not with stark power.

Tess felt a presence move at her back and she turned to see a man approaching her. He was tall and bulky-not fat, not at all, but much bigger than jaran men.

He halted beside her, crossing his arms on his chest. "The Tess I knew wouldn't have spotted me coming."

"Hello, Marco. I didn't get a chance to greet you properly, before. I wanted to thank you for your letter." She chuckled. "How long ago that seems. 'Your dear old uncle Marco,' indeed. I always thought you didn't much like children."

"I never know what to do with them," he replied curtly. She glanced at him, curious, but he was looking at the group under the awning. He was looking at Diana. "Is it true that you're married to him?" he asked without taking his eyes from the young actress.

"Yes, it's true. Didn't Charles tell you?"

"He didn't tell anyone, but I guessed, and he didn't deny it. Cara only found out five days ago, because she read the letter you wrote to Charles."

"Of course. He wouldn't want the Chapalii to know, since by their laws a female upon marriage takes her husband's status. And since Rhui has no intelligent life, by Chapalii measure, that would mean I had descended to the level of horses and wolves. That's why Charles told them the fiction that I'm out here doing linguistics research, isn't it?"

Now Marco turned to look at her. "Tess, didn't you know that according to the Chapalii Protocol Office, you're dead?"

She laughed, short and surprised, put her hand to her throat, and lowered it again. "Am I, really? But then-?"

"Then what? Charles did not protest the announcement, so in fact you're officially dead and only a few of his intimates and now, of course, the Bharentous Company, know the truth."

"But, Marco-" She felt a surge of hope and lifted her cold hands to suddenly hot cheeks. "That means he's free to adopt. He's not bound to our blood tie any longer, and he can adopt someone else as his Chapalii heir." It was like a cord bound around her heart had been cut through, freeing her. "That means he doesn't need me anymore."

"I wish it was that easy. The cylinder from the Morava site is a priceless piece of information for our side, Tess, but it's configured awkwardly and we've got to have the parameters of the system installed at Morava in order to get at its deep structure. Those damned chameleons don't have any standard programs. It's all in the interrelationship of systems. If Rajiv can't crack it, then we'll have to bring in one of the Keinaba experts.''

"Keinaba? You mean the Chapalii merchant house? How can you bring them in here, or to Morava?"

"They're Charles's now. They transferred their house pledge to him. It's all proper and affirmed by the emperor himself. It's a long story, anyway.''

"What does that have to do with his adopting a new heir?"

"He's holding you in reserve, Tess. You're the ace up his sleeve. Charles didn't make the proclamation that you were dead. Another Chapalii duke did."

"Oh, hell. Charles is jumping feet first into court intrigue, isn't he? If he needs to discredit this other duke, then he'll produce me, and-there you are-public shame. The Tai-en will have to leave court and perhaps even be stripped of his title."

Marco shook his head. "Tess, you amaze me. You speak their language better than any human I know, and you seem to understand how they work. Don't you see that Charles can't afford to lose you?"

"Lose me, or my expertise?"

"There's no difference."

She stared at the gathering under the awning, at these outlandish alien beings, large of limb and clothed in gaudy, foreign clothing. They laughed, and the pitch of their voices as they spoke was strange to her, producing exotic sounds and disorienting syllables. Then she realized that they were speaking Anglais and that she could understand them perfectly well.

"Marco," she demanded, "why are you talking to me in Rhuian?"

"I didn't want to startle you. Do you want to go in now?"

"No. But I will anyway."

"Lamb to the slaughter," said Marco in Anglais.

Tess snorted in disgust and walked in. Charles noted her immediately, of course, and stood up. Formally, he introduced her to Rajiv and Joanna and Ursula, and Maggie introduced her to the two other actors, Gwyn Jones and Hal Bharentous. A moment later, Tess realized that Marco had not followed her in. She glanced out into the darkness, but could not see him, lurking or otherwise. She sat down on a camp stool and wondered what in hell she was going to say to these people.

"You're looking well, Tess." David sat down beside her. He smiled, awkward, and Tess was so thankful for the sight of a familiar and unthreatening face that she smiled warmly back at him. "You're looking very-" He hesitated. "Very well. Very different."

"Thank you, David. It's been a long time. You're looking well yourself. Lord, it sounds strange to hear myself speaking Anglais after all this time."

"How do you like it out here?"

He was kind, really, to make this kind of small talk, to try to set her at ease. But David had always been kind, and Tess recalled his sojourn at Prague, their six-months-long love affair with fondness for what he had given her: confidence that she was attractive in and of herself. Without him, she might have spent her whole life believing that any least bit of attention paid her was only on account of Charles. He had recalled her to the self-respect she'd had as a child; for that, she would always be grateful to him.

"… and how did you get that scar?" David asked and, daringly, lifted a hand to touch her cheek. Tess had a sudden, vivid memory of the time they'd taken one of the ducal shuttles into Earth orbit and tried to make love in freefall. He met her gaze and she knew, immediately, that they were thinking the same thing. They both laughed.

"Sojourner warned us, didn't she?" Tess said. "But we refused to follow her instructions. How is she, anyway? Do you know?"

"She's doing very well. Handfasted to an aspiring young diplomat named Rene Marcus Oljaitu. After she finished her dissertation two years ago, she talked Charles into letting her and Rene apprentice to the Keinaba house."

"Well. Good for Sojourner. Firsthand xeno experience, and they'll be the first humans placed directly inside a Chapalii house, even if it is only a merchant house."

"Don't underestimate the Keinaba, Tess." Charles placed a stool beside her and sat down. "They're one of the richest merchant houses in the Empire."

"But, Tess," said David, "you never did tell me how you got that scar. In a battle?"

Others stood around them. Of course, she was the curiosity of this little gathering, the center, the focus. They'd had each other on the long journey, and now they had her. "No, it's-" She hesitated. How to tell them: it's what the men do when they marry their wives? Thrust in among her own people, she recalled her own reaction when she first found out about the mark of marriage. It was barbaric. It was mutilation.

What would they think of her, knowing that she had allowed herself to be mutilated? What did they think of her in any case, sitting here with her jaran clothes and her long hair braided in jaran style, looking quite jaran, except for her brown hair and green eyes and her unusual height, for a woman? Like an actor, desperately trying to live a role not meant for her.

"It's nothing," she said finally. Charles was looking at her approvingly. What did he think? That she knew better then to jeopardize his position, and her own, by revealing a marriage that would ruin her status within the Empire and perhaps cause him to face ridicule and shame? Shame, which was fatal. Or could he even imagine what the scar represented? That she had marked-mutilated-her own husband, quite against jaran custom, in return?

She didn't belong with these people anymore, these people from her impossibly distant past.

"May I please?" Maggie dislodged David from his seat. "Tess, look at this." She handed Tess a flat rectangle, smooth of surface, curved at its edge. "I took the abstract you wrote for Charles and applied a rather primitive translation program to it. For khush, you know."

Tess stared at the computer slate in her hand. An illegal slate, brought downside, brought with the party. Of course Charles did not fear Ilya. He must have weapons with him, just as Cha Ishii and his Chapalii party had hidden weapons with them, four years ago, when they had made their illicit journey together across the plains with Bakhtiian and his jahar.

Then a word caught her eye. "That's wrong." She tapped a few keys, and found the program structure, and recoded a few lines. "No, it's fine, Maggie, but you're right, it's a primitive program for this kind of translation work. And the abstract I sent to Charles was limited in and of itself, since I had to hand-write it. And it was a preliminary draft, in any case, and very rough."

"Here, my dear." Cara Hierakis leaned in and offered Tess a cup half-filled with some dark liquid. "I brought a good supply of Scotch with me. Will you have some?"

"Scotch?" Oh yes, Scotch.

"I suppose," said Ursula, drifting by on the edge of the conversation, "that they drink fermented mare's milk out here."

Tess blinked. "At festivals. How did you know? They call it-" She took a sip of the scotch, made a face, and huddled back over the computer slate, seduced by its promise. "Oh, if I only had a modeler, I could compile a full translation model in all media, networked through… Hell, through Rhuian, Anglais-not Chapaliian, of course, the Protocol Office doesn't let you interlink Chapaliian-Ophiuchi-Sei."

"But we do have a modeler with us," said Maggie.

"You do! This is wonderful!" At that moment, Tess glanced up to see that everyone was beaming at her in relief, as if they had only now been reassured that the poor misguided thing had been rescued from the barbarians intact.

At that moment, Tess decided to get drunk.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

That Charles seemed willing to sit by and watch his sister drink herself into oblivion appalled David. There she sat, the center of attention, tossing off the Scotch as if it were water. What drove her he did not know, but he recognized well enough the desperation the action stemmed from.

He sidled over to Diana, who was talking to Jo Singh and Rajiv on the outskirts of the group. She glanced his way, excused herself, and met him on the edge of the carpet.

"Diana, you seem skilled at creating diversions-"

She looked past his shoulder at Tess. Tess was laughing at something Cara had said even while her hand groped for her cup again. "I can see that an exit is called for."

"Bless you, Diana. Did anyone ever tell you that you're a angel?" She flushed abruptly and, to his surprise, looked embarrassed and unhappy. "I'm sorry. My stupid tongue."

"No, it's not your fault. But David, she looked so marvelous riding in on that horse, so… so competent and adventurous and confident. Did you hear the way she lit into Maggie's program? Nicely, of course, but it's clear she's brilliant with languages."

David chuckled. "The Rhuian complex we all learned from was written by her at the age of twenty-one."

Diana's eyes widened. "Is that true? I've never learned a language faster than through that matrix. It made the connections so obvious. But then why is she-" She hesitated, and David could see that she very much wanted not to say anything negative about Tess Soerensen. He glanced back to see Tess shift on her stool and almost overbalance and fall off. Cara steadied her and shot Charles a meaningful glance, but Soerensen ignored her.

"I don't know. But I remember when I won top honors from middle college and the accelerated slot to apply to the Tokyo School of Engineering-which is the most competitive, the best of the best-and they threw a big party for me at my village. I felt like a fraud, because I hadn't worked as hard as the other kids in my region and the ones at Yaounde College. All their praise sounded cheap because I knew the truth even if they didn't. So I got drunk."

"That's funny. I got admitted on my first audition at nineteen to the Royal Shakespeare Academy in London."

"That's young, isn't it?"

"Very young, these days, and I always felt guilty about it. Some people accused me of having connections, but I didn't. But then, I never wanted to do anything but theater, and lots of them had already spent time in the holos. Still." Diana considered the party under the awning. A clot of actors had invaded, and since at least three of them-Hyacinth, Anahita, and Jean-Pierre-were already drunk, Tess did not stand out so painfully.

"Oh, I don't mean to say that she feels like a fraud, or feels guilty, but that she feels something, and that it's driving her to this. If you can-"

"Pull focus off of her, that's what you want, of course."

"Yes, that sounds right. Then I'll ease her out and take her back to wherever it is she sleeps."

Diana sighed. "I wonder what her life is like, with the jaran."

David snorted. "Dirty, cold, and harsh. Don't get any wishful illusions here."

"They don't seem so barbaric to me."

"After what we've seen? The wounded? And Bakhtiian executing that man for rape?" David gazed out at the camp beyond, at the tents and the occasional fire, stretching out so far on either side that he could not see the end of it. He had good night vision and as he stared, he saw a single figure crouched in the gap between Soerensen's enclave and the jaran camp, watching them. He felt cold up and down his back and then shook his head, impatient. Of course they would watch Soerensen's camp. Why shouldn't they?

"It's all right." Diana laid a hand on his elbow, a brief warmth, and removed it again. "I'll go. Do your part, but you'll have to be quick. What I have in mind won't last long."

She eased back into the throng and before David realized what she was about, she had started a loud argument with Anahita about somebody named Grusha. Anahita at any time was a formidable presence. Drunk, she was uninhibited, and David marveled as Diana applied just the right words to manipulate Anahita into dragging Charles into the argument.

David circled around and came up to Tess from behind. Cara still stood there, hovering like a protective mother. When she saw David she looked relieved. He put his hands on Tess's shoulders.

"Come on, Tess," he said in a low voice. "Time to go home." Cara helped him lift her up and steer her out from under the awning and into the covering darkness between the two large tents. Tess stumbled on the level ground and swore in a foreign language.

"You're drunk," said David.

"I know," she said.

"Let me help you back to your-to wherever you sleep."

She shook her head violently, tripped over her own feet, and would have fallen if David hadn't caught her. "No. No. I don't want them to see me like this." She went on, sounding angry, but she had lapsed into khush, and he couldn't understand her.

"Cara, your tent?"

Cara frowned. "I have equipment out that's not in place yet. Put her in your tent, and you sleep in mine."

"Cara, we are both adults. I think we can manage to sleep together without-"

"David. May I remind you that we are in a foreign land, whose customs we do not know?"

"Lady in Heaven. She's not one of them. If it was some young jaran woman… all right. All right. I'll tuck her primly in and retire to your tent. Or Charles's, if it comes to that. Or wherever it is Marco sleeps. I suppose you're right, although I can't imagine why they would care and how they would know.'' Then he recalled the distant sentry. "Or, anyway, why they would care. She's a foreigner, too, after all."

"David."

"I'm going." He led the unprotesting Tess to his tent, going on a brief side trip to their portable toilet, which they were using until he could devise something more permanent. For an instant, listening outside the tiny square tent, he thought he was going to have to give Tess instructions on how to use the thing, but she emerged at last, staggering and catching onto him for balance.

He tried to talk to her. She did not reply. He was not entirely sure she understood him. She seemed morose more than anything, but at least she was not crying. David hated crying drunks. He helped her inside his tent, sealed her up inside the sleeping pouch, and retreated.

By the time he got back to Charles's tent, the party had moved on. He could hear its remains over in the Company enclave. Hyacinth was singing an obscene song in his grating falsetto, with one of the women-Oriana, perhaps-providing the contralto descant.

Charles and Marco sat alone under the awning, in darkness. "Well?" Charles asked when David appeared.

"I'm disgusted." David chose not to sit down.

"Yes," said Charles. "I don't remember Tess getting drunk habitually when she was at the university, and she certainly wasn't particularly happy there."

"Not with her," snapped David. "With you. You just sat by and let it happen."

Charles arched an eyebrow. "It is not my part to dictate Tess's behavior."

Marco made a noise in his throat, a short, caustic laugh. "Just her life."

"Do I scent a mutiny?" Charles asked good-naturedly.

Marco sighed and leaned back in his chair, balancing it on the back two legs. "No. You're right, of course. You can't afford to lose her."

"What the hell are you two talking about?" David demanded. "Why would you lose Tess?"

"Where is Tess?" Charles asked.

"In my tent, sleeping it off."

Marco slammed down his chair. "David, you'd better move her. Here, or into Cara's tent."

"Cara wouldn't take her. I'd hate to wake her up."

"No, it's fine," said Charles. "You can sleep here, David."

"Charles." Marco stood. "I don't think this is a good idea, unless you deliberately want to set up your authority against his."

"But I do, Marco. That's just the point. Within our encampment, we will act according to our laws. It is only once we step outside it that we acknowledge theirs. Once their laws penetrate our world, then we have lost Tess. Don't you see?"

"So you'll make a point of it now. And what about our poor David?"

"Yes," broke in David, bewildered. "What about poor David? What are you talking about? What do jaran laws have to do with losing Tess?" He paused. "And furthermore, why are you even bothering to jockey power with Bakhtiian? He's nothing. He's not even important."

Marco cast a measured glance at the jaran encampment. "Try telling that to the people whose countries he's overrunning. Or to him, for that matter."

"You know what I meant. I meant compared to the Chapalii Empire. To space. You haven't answered my question."

Marco tucked his hands into his belt and whistled softly.

Charles pulled off his gloves and stood up. "Tess is married to Bakhtiian, under jaran law. Now, I'm going to bed." He went inside. The tent flap slithered down after him.

"Sit down," said Marco congenially. "You look awful."

David sat down. He stared blankly at the night sky, at the stars. He could even trace a few constellations. Then he jumped to his feet. "She's sleeping in my tent!"

Marco laid a hand on his arm and, firmly but inexorably, sat David back down again. "Don't you see? Charles wants to make it clear that Tess is one of us, not one of them. Let her stay."

"With me as the sacrificial victim? No thank you."

"Goddess, David, do you think for a minute Charles has any intention of letting anyone in his party get hurt?

How is Bakhtiian to know it's your tent she's sleeping in, anyway? Or that she's sleeping here at all?"

"Why didn't you tell me!" David demanded.

"Sorry, I was under oath. I really am sorry, David."

Easy for him to say. "His wife." David formed the words as if they were alien, and taboo. "His wife."

"Go to bed," said Marco kindly, and left him.

David slept soundly and without dreams, but he woke at dawn. He crept out of Charles's tent into the quiet of their camp. Beyond, the jaran camp was full of life. He went to use the portable and to wash: inside the little tent, beside the commode, he had rigged up a sterilizing and recycling unit for wash water. The water was bitterly cold, and he wandered outside into the cold dawn to pace out the size block he would need to set up the solar minis. How to disguise them? What water source was the jaran camp using? How did they remain supplied? Was this a permanent camp, or did it move?

Ursula el Kawakami came up, looking revoltingly awake at such an early hour.

"What do you think, Ursula?" he asked. "Do you think this is their permanent camp? Or that they move?''

"Of course they move. 'They commonly feed many flocks of cows, mares, and sheep, for which reason they never stay in one place.' That's Marco Polo. And this can't be the entire army, although I'll get a better sense of their numbers when we tour the camp today. Foodstuffs and fodder for the animals alone would deplete any one area within weeks. Days, perhaps. This is a good site, though. Well chosen. Good grassland for the herds, and a river about half a mile to the south. Can you mock me up a map so I can get an estimate of how close we are to the settled agricultural lands to the south? My sense is that Bakhtiian has control over the western seaports and is consolidating his control over the southern borderlands now."

David chuckled. "In other words, I shouldn't build anything permanent here."

Ursula surveyed the square tent that the actors called The Necessary. "Certainly I think this is elaborate enough. It isn't as if we're on some kind of safari vacation on Tau Ceti Tierce, after all. This is-"

"— an interdicted planet." David settled his left hand on the back of his neck and contemplated the ring of canvas tents belonging to Soerensen's party. His four tiny name braids, dangling from the nape of his neck down to brush his shoulder blades, tickled his knuckles. "Yes, I know. Well, if you'll excuse me…"He escaped from Ursula's uncomfortable presence and walked over to his tent to see if Tess was awake.

She was. She was lying on her stomach with the heels of her palms cushioning her eyes.

"Hello, Tess." He crawled into the tent and knelt beside her.

"I have a headache," she said without moving her hands. But her Anglais was precise and clear. "Where am I?"

"In my tent. Oh, ah, this is David."

She made a disgusted noise in her throat. "I know it's David. What am I doing here? Never mind, I know the answer, and I would be churlish not to thank you for taking care of me. I must have made a fool of myself."

"A bit. Luckily some of the actors were drunk, so you weren't alone. And you were among friends."

"Thank you. So reassuring." Tess slid her hands away from her eyes and flinched, even though the only light in the tent came through the open flap. "Lord, how late is it?"

"It's early. Just after dawn."

She wiggled out of the bag, pausing to let him unseal it for her, and got herself up on her knees. Considered. "Well, the damage isn't too bad. My head pounds, but I don't feel sick to my stomach."

"Small favors. Tess." He hesitated, wanting to ask her if it was true, and instead sealed up the sleeping pouch and rolled it up into a neat cylinder.

"Plumbing," said Tess suddenly, not appearing to notice his unease. "Civilized plumbing. That's what I remember from last night. Where is it?" She clambered out of the tent and stood. David hurried out behind her. "That's what I miss more than anything. And hot showers. They're remarkably clean, you know, the jaran, and practical about it, but still…"

She went on, but David did not hear her next words. She had her back to her brother's tent. She could not see the little embassy that waited outside Charles's awning. But the embassy could see Tess and David.

Eight people. All jaran. Three soldiers whose faces David recalled from the journey from the coast. The silver-haired man who had been at the healer's conference yesterday. Three women, two young, one elderly. And Bakhtiian.

Who had just seen Tess and David emerge from the same tent.

"What's wrong, David?" Tess asked. She turned.

David was calculating ground. About twenty meters separated Bakhtiian from him. How quickly could a man cover that ground?

"Oh," said Tess. "That's right. The tour. Of course you don't want to miss it. Here, wait a minute." She trotted off to the necessary.

David would have stared after her. He was appalled that she would desert him. But he had to keep his eye on the group. He had to keep his eye on Bakhtiian. A man who practiced summary execution for rape… Perhaps they hadn't noticed. But they had. Of course they had. Even now, while they waited for Charles to come out, different individuals within the group glanced over at him and away. One of the women grinned. But Bakhtiian was not looking at him. Perhaps by some astounding piece of good luck, Bakhtiian had not noticed.

Tess jogged back up to him. "Are they still there? Oh, good. Come on." She dragged him over to Charles's tent.

Charles had just come outside, with Cara and Marco, and the actors had gathered in a clump, looking excited. Ursula, Jo, Maggie, and Rajiv waited as well.

"I have brought with me," Bakhtiian was saying to Charles, "as many of my people as speak Rhuian, so that we can have sufficient translators. Six in all. That includes Tess, of course. If you prefer to go as a single group, that is acceptable."

"Did you have another suggestion?" Charles asked politely.

Bakhtiian nodded. "A large group does not see as much as a small group. If you divide your party into six groups, each to go with a translator, then you can move quietly and with more ease through the camp."

And by splitting them up, David thought, he could isolate the man he thought had just slept with his wife. He began to wipe his hands on his trousers, realized that would make him look nervous, and stopped. He'd stay in camp-but then he would be isolated, and easy prey.

Next to him, Tess said under her breath: "He's showing off. He's going to let the jaran charm Charles and the rest of you. Which they'll do, given the chance to meet them as individuals. He'd never do this for any other foreign embassy. Those get full state, to cow them into submission."

"— and I would be honored to escort you personally," Bakhtiian finished, still speaking to Charles.

"The honor is mine," replied Charles smoothly. "And the others?"

As smoothly, without any fanfare, Bakhtiian transferred his gaze from Charles to David. If a look had the physical edge of a saber, if a wish, an emotion, could manifest instantaneously into an act, then David ben Unbutu would have been dead at that moment. He knew it without a doubt.

Bakhtiian looked away. "As you wish," he said graciously to Charles.

"The bastard," muttered Tess. "Still trying to keep Charles and me apart. Excuse me, David." She stalked off to stand next to Charles.

The silver-haired man appeared next to David at the same time Cara Hierakis did. "I am Nikolai Sibirin," he said, in serviceable Rhuian. "We have not been introduced."

David cast a pleading glance at Cara.

"This is David ben Unbutu," said Cara, who already seemed on casual terms with this elderly jaran man. "Niko, I don't know your customs, but I can assure you that Tess was only sleeping in David's tent because she was drunk."

Niko considered David. "Whatever mood she may have been in, I do wish you hadn't been so hasty, young man. Still, please allow me to apologize for Ilya's behavior. He thinks he doesn't show his emotions, but he can't help it. Of course he has no right to be angry, so if you humor him, he'll calm down eventually."

"No right to be angry?" David asked in a small voice.

"But Charles-er, Soerensen-the prince said they are married."

The old man smiled abruptly. "Of course. You khaja are barbarians. Sometimes I forget that. Jaran women may lie with whomever they wish. It is none of men's business."

"But-" David began, utterly confused.

"David," said Cara in Anglais, "leave well enough alone." She turned to Niko. "I had hoped that you might show me through camp, Niko. With your wife." She turned to greet the elderly woman in the group. "Hello, Juli." They kissed each other on the cheek like old friends. Juli responded with a jaran greeting. "David? Are you coming with us?"

"It is my belief," said Niko gently, "that David ought to go with Bakhtiian and the prince." David put a hand to his throat, lowered it, and swallowed. Niko looked him closely in the face and suppressed a grin. "Perhaps not. Would you like to come with us?"

With vast relief, David said yes.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Sonia Orzhekov regarded the khaja Singers with trepidation. Six of them at once! Few things daunted her, raised as an etsana's daughter, cousin to Bakhtiian; there had been death aplenty in her family, but she came from a resilient line, and, the gods knew, there was no point in dwelling on things that had already come to pass. But Singers were touched by the gods, and everyone knew that they were a little crazy-not in a bad way, mind you, but that they looked at the world differently, that the gods spoke through them. Perhaps she should have brought Raysia Grekov with her, for Raysia was a Singer, and also daughter of the etsana of the Grekov tribe. Then, perhaps, Raysia could translate for her just as Sonia would translate for these women, these actors, as they walked through camp.

But even an etsana's daughter and a cousin of Bakhtiian could not command a Singer, or even summon one. Sonia examined the six women and reminded herself that they were, after all, khaja like Tess, from the country called Erthe, across the seas. Perhaps, like Tess, their gods were distant and silent gods, not so prone to speak through them at awkward times or to give them fits and starts and odd moments of reticence. Certainly they were neither timid nor shy, unlike most khaja women she had come across, unlike the women of Jeds.

"How is it that you are called Tess's sister?" asked the golden-haired one in a friendly manner, the one to whom Anatoly Sakhalin had given a necklace. Diana, that was it.

"My mother adopted her into our tribe, as her daughter, when she first came to us. I'll take you to meet my children."

The one called Helen muttered something in their tongue to the handsome black-haired woman named Anahita.

"Oh, don't be rude, Helen," whispered Anahita in Rhuian, but with such emphasis that Sonia wondered if she had intended that the whisper be heard.

Children of other tribes tagged along behind them as they walked slowly through camp. The children stared at the women. That was one thing about these khaja; they all of them looked different from the others, with skin ranging from pale to black, with eyes every color and shape, and so tall! They were all, except for Diana, as tall as men.

"You seem very young to have children," said the one called Quinn.

Sonia chuckled. "Tess said much the same thing to me, when she first came to us. If a woman waits too many years, then how can she have children at all?"

The coal-black Oriana elbowed Quinn in the side and hissed something at her in another language. Quinn flushed; she had a light complexion, easy to see the changes in, and with her odd red-brown shade of hair, Sonia reflected, it would be difficult to find dye for cloth that would look good on her. Still, she wore a fine tunic neither blue nor green but some shade in between, and it looked well.

"It's a beautiful weave," Sonia said, nodding at the tunic. "And a lovely color. Have you weavers in your mother's tent? Your mother's house, that is. Perhaps you could show us the secret of the color, if you're willing to give it up."

The three younger women looked at each other, perplexed. Helen yawned. Anahita examined every man who came in sight and had obviously lost interest in the conversation. Sonia sighed.

Then, thank goodness, the woman with the funny eyes, Yomi, chimed in. "I weave," she said. "Perhaps you could show me your looms."

"How do you make dye for colors?" asked Diana quickly, and Sonia could not be sure whether she was truly interested or merely being polite. But then, with Singers, one never knew.

"This is all so quaint, and charming," said Anahita suddenly, with a bright, false smile.

"I'm so pleased that it entertains you," replied Sonia sarcastically, and then caught herself. But it had already been done. She had been impolite to a Singer.

Oriana snorted and clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Oh, shut up, Anahita," said Quinn. "Didn't your mother ever tell you to say something nice or nothing at all?"

"In which case she'd never speak," muttered Helen.

"I'm going back to camp," announced Anahita, and she gave them all a withering glare and stalked away.

Gods. Now she had offended a Singer. Sonia stopped walking and took in a breath to apologize to the others, though it was an unpardonable offense.

"I do apologize for her," said Diana. "I don't-we're not-I beg your pardon. That was terribly rude of her."

"Patronizing little bitch," said Quinn. "I wish she hadn't come. And the rest of you do, too, only you won't admit it."

"Girls," said Yomi reasonably, "that's enough. I beg your pardon, Sonia. We've had a long and sometimes trying journey together, and that rather puts people at odds after a while, don't you think?"

"We always travel," said Sonia gently.

Yomi chuckled. "Well, then, perhaps you can offer us some advice."

"Was it not Democritus of your own country who said, 'Well-ordered behavior consists in obedience to the law, the ruler, and the woman wiser than oneself? Although in the text I read the words were written as, 'the man wiser,' but I can only suppose the scribe wrote the word wrong or meant it to be 'Elder.' "

"Who is Democritus?" whispered Quinn.

"I think he was a Greek philosopher," muttered Diana.

"But of course," added Sonia, "it's also true that we have our own quarrels. As do any people, I suppose."

Yomi smiled and wisely guided the conversation back to weaving. In this way they came to the Orzhekov encampment, where Ilya had arrived before them.

Tess stood between her husband and her brother, and Sonia was distracted from her guests by the striking way in which Tess seemed caught between the two men, not mediating but wavering. Oh, it looked very bad, indeed.

A woman must keep peace between her husband and her brother, not make it worse by letting each man pull her in a different direction. Ilya could never accept that Tess might hold her brother first in her heart, that Charles Soerensen had every right to expect his sister to cleave to him and to her mother's tent. But if Tess, khaja that she was, truly wished to stay with her husband and her husband's people, then she damned well ought to tell her brother so straight out and not leave poor Ilya hanging there never knowing what she intended to do. As for Charles Soerensen himself, Sonia simply could not tell if he loved his sister. But he would never have journeyed so far if he did not want her back very badly. For an instant Sonia wished that her mother was here. Irena Orzhekov would know what to do. Ilya deferred to many people, because he had good manners, but there were few who could make him stop dead in his tracks and change his mind. Mama is one. And I must become another.

"Bakhtiian is your cousin?" asked Diana into the silence, pulling Sonia back to the Singers with a wrench.

"His mother and my mother are sisters, yes."

"And are they here also?" asked Yomi.

"His mother is dead." Sonia paused one second, flicking her wrist out to deflect the notice of Grandmother Night. "My mother remains out on the plains, the true plains, with the rest of our tribe." She watched as Katya and Ivan and Kolia came running with their cousins to greet Ilya and Tess with hugs and questions. Tess introduced the children to her brother, and Sonia approved of the way in which the prince acknowledged each child in turn.

"Are they all yours?" asked Diana. "What sweet-looking children!" Said with such honesty that Sonia felt at once that she liked this young Singer who had been blessed with beauty as well as song. "May we meet them?"

Ilya, seeing their party come up, guided his on. He had with him as well several others of the prince's party, including a man who stared in the most unseemly fashion at Diana as they left.

"There's Marco Burckhardt," said Quinn in an undertone, and Oriana said, "Oh, don't tease Diana."

Then Marco Burckhardt caught Sonia looking at him and he smiled at her as if to say that here was a man who could appreciate a mature and confident woman. Well! Clearly he was as impudent as Kirill Zvertkov, but then again, he was khaja, and khaja men did not have very good manners, on the whole. Still, he had a pleasant way of admiring a woman. Sonia watched him go, even as he hastily returned his attention to his party, which had gotten a ways ahead of him.

Leaving, he almost bumped into another man.

Both men halted. A glare flashed between them, like two stallions who accidentally cross paths, and then Marco hurried on after his own party. Which left the other man standing outside the awning of her tent. And just what was Anatoly Sakhalin doing in her camp?

Except she knew the answer. She watched Diana register his presence, watched the Singer's hand as it lifted to touch the golden necklace and then, self-consciously, dropped. She watched, with disgust, as Anatoly insinuated himself in with the children and thus was standing with them when she brought the Singers over to meet them.

' 'And these are the children of my family. Mitya and Galina are Kira's eldest two, and Katerina and Ivan and Kolia are my own. There are also four girls and two boys still with the tribe."

"You have more?" Quinn asked, looking astounded.

"No, just those eleven."

"You have eleven children?" asked Yomi.

"My sisters and I have eleven children, yes. Last I heard, Stassi was pregnant, so soon there will be twelve again."

"Oh my," said Yomi abruptly, "look at that loom."

Galina led her over to the loom, and at once the girl and the khaja woman became engrossed, though they could not speak any words to each other. Truly, weaving was a common language in and of itself.

Sonia looked back at the others. "Katya! Stop that! It doesn't come off. Show respect for a Singer."

"It's all right," said Oriana with a laugh, clearly not minding at all that the children were licking their fingers and rubbing at her skin. She crouched down and regarded them with a grave face. "It comes from being out in the sun too much."

"It does not!" said Katya once her mother had translated. "Does it, Mama? There are other khaja with you who have skin like this. Mama says it's because you're from a place where the sun is hotter. But if that's true, and if all of you are from the same country, then why don't you all have black skin?"

"Good question," said Oriana with another laugh. "Why do you have blonde hair and your uncle-well, I suppose he's not your uncle, but your mother's cousin, so I don't know what that makes him to you-why does he have black hair? My skin is this color because my mother and my father had skin of this color.''

Helen regarded the children with resignation. Quinn allowed Ivan to show her every knife and saber that he could find; he was showing off, but at his age, one had to expect it. Mitya, of course, strayed no farther than an arm's length from his hero, Sakhalin. Diana, crouching down, admired little Kolia's first, awkward efforts at embroidery on a torn hank of sleeve. Slowly, slowly, Anatoly sidled over to stand between Sonia and the young woman. When his shadow darkened the sleeve Kolia held, Diana glanced up. Both of them looked away from one another as quickly as a horse bolts from a loud noise.

Anatoly, at least, had enough decorum not to look back down at her. "Please, Cousin Orzhekov," he asked Sonia, keeping his eyes carefully fixed on a neutral spot between the carpet and the tent flap, "could you ask her, for me, what she thinks of the camp?"

Diana's gaze lifted to examine him more boldly now.

"Does your grandmother know where you are?" demanded Sonia in khush. "Your manners are appalling, Sakhalin, and I hope I never see this sort of behavior from you again."

Diana rose to her feet, ruffling Kolia's hair absently. But she looked at Anatoly. "What did he say?" she asked, and hearing her voice he glanced at her, and she smiled at him.

Damn it anyway. It would only encourage Anatoly, but Sonia did not dare refuse to answer a Singer's question. "Anatoly wonders what you think of the camp," she said in Rhuian. "But he really has to go now." And switched to khush. "Go on, Anatoly."

Bowing to her superior authority, he left, but reluctantly. Really, his grandmother had spoiled him; it was deplorable, and yet he was at an age when men are most likely to be brash. A boy would be overawed; an older man would know better. But at twice twelve years and just honored with a command of his own, he had come into the first flush of his power.

"Oh, dear," said Diana quietly. Tentatively, she touched Sonia on the arm and then smiled and withdrew her hand. "I hope I haven't done something that offends you. Or him."

"Of course not! I must apologize for his behavior." There are some things I will never understand about the khaja, Sonia thought, for all that I have read their books and lived with them. Singers who apologized, as if they could offend anyone but the gods! Women who acted with the modesty that was really only proper for men!

"Oh," said Diana, bewildered. "Perhaps Tess Soerensen can tell us more about your laws and ways of doing things."

"A very fine idea," agreed Sonia, and not just because Diana was a Singer. If these khaja were to travel a long way with the tribes, maybe it wasn't Raysia Grekov who needed to translate, maybe it was Tess, who had grown up in one land and embraced the other, who was the only one of all of them who truly stood halfway between. "But I had hoped to show you the herds, if you'd like, or if you'd rather, other parts of the camp."

"Oh, both, if it can be managed," said Yomi, coming back with Galina. "This is fascinating."

So they went on. Soon enough Sonia saw Anatoly Sakhalin again. Diana saw him, too, and now and again her gaze would jump away from the group to seek him out. He dogged them all the rest of the morning, like any good scout, vanishing when Sonia's attention was turned directly on him, coming closer when he could, never being so forward that she could in fairness castigate him. Still, she would definitely have to discuss his behavior with his grandmother.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Aleksi sat cross-legged on the table, watching Tess and Sonia where they knelt before the wooden chest.

"This one, then." Sonia draped a cloth-of-gold coat over her arms, displaying it for Tess to examine.

"No. Too gaudy."

"Tess, barbarians are impressed by gaudy things. Gold and riches. Surely this Vidiyan ambassador will recognize that this coat came from the Gray Eminence's lands across the sea and feel fear that such a prince sends gifts to Bakhtiian."

"But Sonia, Nadine brought that coat back from Jeds."

"He doesn't have to know that, does he? Here, what about-"

"No, those are my marriage clothes."

"Yes, and this shade of green does look particularly well on you. This, and the jade headdress. No, the golden one."

"Sonia, I-"

"Or should I go to your brother's encampment and ask if he has any of these ugly clothings the women of his people wear? Are you embarrassed of us, now that your own people have come?"

Tess hung her head and did not reply. Aleksi watched her face. Unlike her brother, Tess had an expressive face that showed emotion clearly. She was embarrassed, and this perplexed Aleksi. After all, if the gods meant for the jaran to rule all other peoples, then the jaran would do so. Why should Tess feel shame to be seen as one of the gods' chosen people?

"This is not the Tess I know," Sonia went on. "Of course Jeds is a fine city. Do you forget that I have been there? Perhaps they scorn us because we don't live in stone tents, but I will never forget how filthy everything was there. Although I admit," she added, in a placating tone of voice, "that everyone of your brother's party seems clean."

Tess clapped a hand over her mouth and her shoulders shook. She was laughing. "Oh, Sonia." She reached out and hugged the blonde woman. "I'm not ashamed of you. I just-" She hesitated, then shrugged. "I think too much."

"You worry too much," retorted Sonia. "These khaja don't teach their daughters to become women. You had no mother or aunt to give you a tent, but must live beholden to your brother and now your husband. Why do you think I stayed in Jeds only a year, though Ilya wanted me to stay longer? I know we have no university here, no books, no writing, but still, they are the barbarians, not us."

"But Sonia," said Aleksi, "the women of Soerensen's party aren't like other khaja women, any more than Tess is. They don't veil their faces when they see us and avert their eyes. They wear proper clothing, even if it is ugly, and they walk with pride and not fear.''

"That is true. But they're from another country, the country where Tess's mother was born."

"Erthe, " said Aleksi, trying the unfamiliar sound out on his tongue.

Tess leaned over the chest and lifted out the jade headpiece, weighing it in her hands. "Dr. Hierakis came from Erthe, as well as the acting company. Women are-well, women own their own tents there. But so do men."

"Yes, and from what you've told us, they don't seem nearly as barbaric as the people of Jeds." Sonia lifted out the gold headpiece and laid it down on the green tunic. "This looks better, Tess. I'd like to visit there someday.''

"It's a long voyage. A very long voyage." Tess placed the jade headdress back inside the chest and settled back on her heels. "No, you're right, Sonia. Even though I didn't precisely need my brother's consent to marry, still, I married without it."

"If you have the courage to make a decision, then you must learn to have the courage to stand by it. Perhaps Ilya's power doesn't seem so impressive to your brother now. In ten years, he will be happy to have such a brother by marriage. You must tell him you are thinking ahead. It is an advantageous alliance."

"For whom?"

"Come now, Tess. I have been to Jeds. I have ridden in the countryside and gone even as far as the city of Filis, where another prince rules. Your brother is rich and his merchants sail to the ends of the world, and he is a prince to be reckoned with, but Ilya's army is larger. Much larger. And it will grow." Sonia shook out the calf-length tunic and a pair of belled, striped trousers and then rummaged in the chest until she found a wide belt inlaid with cloissone" and gold. "Now, Aleksi. Out." Her own festival clothing lay draped over the chair, a tunic of vivid blue that matched her blue eyes and a headpiece of gold and gems. "We must dress. You might see if Galina needs a hand with the children."

Aleksi gave each woman a brotherly kiss on the cheek and retired from the fray. At Sonia's tent, her niece Galina sat with those few Orzhekov children who remained with the main army. Sonia had kept her three children with her, and Niko and Juli had two grandchildren with them. Other children, like Galina and her brother Mitya, were old enough to do adult work but not old enough yet to marry or to ride in the army.

' 'We saw the barbarians today.'' Galina greeted Aleksi with a kiss on the cheek. She looked much like her aunt and her mother, with a merry, round face, fair hair, and cerulean blue eyes. "Aunt Sonia brought five of them by. One of them had skin that was black. Really," she added, as if afraid that Aleksi wouldn't believe her. "Wasn't it, Katerina?"

"It was," agreed Katerina, Sonia's eleven-year-old daughter who, at two years younger than her cousin, was her shadow and champion. "We thought maybe she had painted it on, so we rubbed it, but it didn't come off."

"Then Aunt Sonia scolded you for being rude," finished Galina. "But the woman didn't mind. She was tall, too, taller than a man. And one of the other women had chestnut hair, like a horse has." She stifled a giggle under a hand. "And another one had funny eyes, like…" She grimaced, searching for a comparison.

"Like this," said seven-year-old Ivan, putting his index fingers on either side of his eyes and pulling the lids tight. All of the children burst into laughter.

"I liked her, though," said Katerina. "Her name was Yomi. She knows how to weave," she added, since this skill obviously placed the woman in a different, and superior, class from the others. "But they didn't have any men with them. Is it true their men act like women?"

"What do you mean?" asked Aleksi. "I escorted four of the men around the camp, and they seemed like men to me. They were very polite."

Katerina considered the question seriously, screwing her mouth up. She was a pretty girl, having inherited her looks from her grandfather, but she had as well the same vital intelligence that animated Sonia's otherwise undistinguished features. "They say khaja men use bows and arrows to fight other men with and that they haven't any manners toward women. And that they own their own tents, and they even say that the women don't own tents at all. How can that be?"

"You forgot the angel," said Mitya suddenly. He sat on a pillow at the back of the awning, too old to include himself in the younger children's activities but too young, at fifteen, to be an adult. Like most boys his age, he spent a small part of his day helping his grandmother, mother, or aunt and the rest of it with the adult men, doing chores, learning to fight, caring for the horses and the herds, and generally tagging along. Right now he was polishing one of Bakhtiian's sabers.

"What angel?" Aleksi asked. He knelt and helped four-year-old Kolia straighten his tunic and belt it with a girdle of gold plates.

"Anatoly Sakhalin's angel."

"Mitya," retorted Galina in a disdainful voice, "she is not Sakhalin's angel. And he showed bad manners, too, in following them around."

Aleksi settled down on his haunches, satisfied that he was about to get some good gossip. He loved these children, who had accepted him readily once they saw that the adults of their tribe acknowledged Tess's adoption of him. Although he had been Tess's brother for three years now, he still preferred the children's company to that of adults. They said what they thought, and they were not embarrassed by the fact that he had once been an orphan.

Like the foreign woman's coal-black skin, his peculiar status interested them more than it revolted them. "He followed Sonia and her party around camp?''

"Yes," said Galina. "That's what Aunt Sonia said. When they got here, he got Mitya to invite him in so that he could talk to her. She was very embarrassed by his behavior, as any woman would be. She flushed all red."

"Sonia did?" Aleksi asked, astounded.

"No, no," said Katerina. "The angel. Diana. But Sonia refused to translate for him so he just had to stand there. But he kept looking at her," she finished with disgust.

"He never looked at her straight," said Mitya.

"Oh," said Galina, "you're always defending him."

Mitya flushed at his little sister's superior tone of voice. "And why not? I want to ride in his jahar when I'm old enough. He's the best rider of all the young men."

"Mitya, everyone knows that Aleksi is the best rider. No one is as good with the saber as he is. Isn't that true, Aleksi?"

Aleksi grinned. "Anatoly is a good commander, and he deserves the command Bakhtiian gave him, though he's young to be granted such an honor."

"But you wouldn't ride in his jahar, would you?" asked Katerina, looking pleased with her sly question.

"Katya, I ride in Bakhtiian's own thousand. Why should I want to ride in anyone else's?" The girls laughed, and Mitya appeared mollified.

Sonia came out of Tess's tent. "Are you children still here?" she called. "Galina, Mitya, take them and go. Mother Sakhalin will have plenty for you to do before you start serving."

Galina and Katerina rounded up the little ones and marched them off. Mitya lingered. "Would you like to walk with me?" Aleksi asked the boy, and Mitya's face brightened, since this was clearly exactly what he had hoped for. The chance to stroll around camp beside the man everyone knew was the best saber fighter since the legendary Vyacheslav Mirsky, who had died of old age six years ago… Aleksi chuckled. Then he felt a pang of regret. He had never enjoyed such simple pleasures as a boy. No friends, no companions. Alone- He shut it off. No use thinking about it, no use remembering. He lived in the Orzhekov camp now. "Come on, then."

"Oh, wait," said Mitya. "Aunt Sonia," he called, "what shall I do with the saber?"

She had already gone back into Tess's tent, but came out again. "Here, give it to me." She took it, smiled at Aleksi with the warmth that she seemed to have an endless supply of, and carried the precious weapon back inside.

Aleksi walked on, and Mitya matched his pace to the older man's. Already he was Aleksi's height and would probably grow taller still. Now he was gangly and uncoordinated, coltish in an endearing way. It was a stage Aleksi had never gone through, so while he felt sympathy for the boy, he could not quite understand him. However awkward Mitya might be, he had time to grow and an enviable position to grow into. Grandson of Irena Orzhekov, who was etsana of the Orzhekov tribe, Mitya was thereby related to Ilyakoria Bakhtiian himself; his mother, Kira, and Ilya were cousins. The boy wore a golden torque around his neck and golden braces at his wrists and, like his little cousin Kolia, a belted girdle of golden plates. A heavy enough burden, Aleksi supposed, made doubly so by the fact that Mitya's father was a respected smith. It was no wonder that Mitya admired Anatoly Sakhalin, a young man with equally important relatives who had managed to gain respect on his own account and not simply because of whom he was related to.

They wandered through the late afternoon bustle of the camp. A child ran behind a wall of captured shields, hiding from her playmates. A blacksmith's forge smoked, and two soot-stained, sweating men pounded out lance heads. Their strokes beat out a rhythm to the late afternoon. Two adolescent boys repaired bridles, and they waved at Mitya as he walked by. A group of women turned carcasses on spits over four large fires. The smell of the meat was tantalizing. Fat dripped and blazed on the coals.

"He must be very powerful," Mitya said suddenly.

"Who?"

"The prince of Jeds. Tess's brother. The ambassadors that come to us have greater retinues, and they bring gifts. What is an actor, anyway?"

"I'm not sure," Aleksi admitted. "They tell stories, I think, but with their bodies, not with words and a song. Perhaps they will perform tonight."

But they did not. On the circle of ground separating the inner group of tents from the outer ring, blankets were laid and awnings set up in a great ring. At the southwest of this compass a single wagon sat upended and shorn of its wheels, covered with leather drawn tight with ropes and laden with pillows. Before it, on the ground, lay carpets under an awning of golden silk. Large square pillows embroidered with flying birds or galloping horses littered the carpets, seating for the feasters. Now, waiting, the pillows were empty, except for a single figure sitting under the center of the awning, writing painstakingly in a book. He glanced up and saw Aleksi and Mitya and beckoned them over.

'Mitya," he said, "surely Mother Sakhalin is expecting you." Mitya murmured a few unintelligible words and retreated. Bakhtiian watched the boy flee. "His father says he'll never be a blacksmith, so I hope he shows some promise for command. Here, Aleksi, sit down, if you please."

Even Bakhtiian's polite requests sounded like orders, but Aleksi was used to it. He sat down and nodded toward the book lying open on Bakhtiian's right knee. "You're writing." Aleksi could read, with effort, and he could make letters, but the gift of reading and writing with ease eluded him, though Tess encouraged him to practice every chance she got.

"Yes." Bakhtiian contemplated the open book, a page filled with neat lines in his precise script. His eyes moved over the last line, and Aleksi watched as his lips moved ever so slightly, forming the words he had written.

"That's Tess's book," said Aleksi abruptly, recognizing the pattern of marbling on the leather binding as Bakhtiian closed it.

"Yes. She began to record our campaign three years ago. I write in it as well. You see." He rifled through the pages. "It's almost filled. We'll have to start a second book." He glanced at Aleksi, looked away, out at the near ring of tents, where women and men and children prepared the feast, and then back at Aleksi again. "Is Tess still angry?" he asked.

Aleksi considered the question. Whatever else Bakhtiian might be, he was fair, and when he asked a question he wanted a straightforward answer whether or not that answer was flattering to himself. "I expect she's still angry at you. I wouldn't have advised that you try to keep her away from her brother while you showed him around camp."

Bakhtiian snorted. "And I did not, as it turned out. But perhaps it was for the best. Because she walked with us, he saw how well-loved she is and how much she has become jaran." Then he hesitated. His fingers played with the clasps on the book. "This David ben Unbutu-" He trailed off.

"She has said nothing of him."

"Ah," said Bakhtiian, meaning by that comment nothing Aleksi could fathom. Then he looked up, and his whole face changed expression. It lit, like a smoldering fire that bursts into flame. He smiled.

Aleksi glanced that way to see Tess and Sonia approaching. Sonia looked glorious, the brilliant blue of her tunic studded with beads of every color and gold plates lining the sleeves. Her headdress of gold and silver chains linked and braided over her blonde hair shifted as she walked. Golden crescent moons dangled to her shoulders; tiny bronze bells shook with her stride. The wealth gained in three summers of war adorned her, and she was by no means the vainest woman of the tribes. Beside her, Tess's wedding clothes looked subdued, although they had been rich enough at the time.

But Bakhtiian had eyes for no one but his wife. The force of his regard was both comprehensive and unnerving. A jaran man respected his wife; that went without saying. But to love her so openly, so entirely, so exclusively, that provoked criticism. It was not good manners. Except in Bakhtiian, who was beyond such criticism.

Bakhtiian rose and walked out to greet his wife. He took her hand and even, daringly, kissed her on the cheek, there in the open. Sonia raised her eyebrows, disapproving, but she said nothing.

"Aleksi." Bakhtiian released his wife's hand and turned to Aleksi as he strolled up. "If you could tell Mother Sakhalin that Tess and Sonia and I are going now to escort the prince here. Perhaps Raysia Grekov can be persuaded to sing."

Sonia chuckled. "Yes, and if any man can persuade Raysia to sing, it is you, Aleksi."

Aleksi's cheeks flamed with heat. How he hated it when anyone drew attention to him. Raysia Grekov was not just a singer, but a Singer, a shaman, a poet, touched by the gods with the gift of telling the old tales and singing new ones. That she admired his ability with the saber was a running joke: like to like, both touched by the gods. But she was the daughter of the etsana of the Grekov tribe, niece of their dyan, and while her cousin Feodor might hope to marry Bakhtiian's niece Nadine, with such relatives, she certainly could not look upon Aleksi as anything but a casual lover.

"Oh, don't tease him," said Tess, mercifully, and Aleksi escaped Sonia's scrutiny and went to find Mother Sakhalin.

He did not seek out Raysia Grekov, but by the time he returned to the feasting ground, the meal was well under way. Bakhtiian sat with Charles Soerensen to his right and Cara Hierakis to his left, honoring her, Aleksi noted, as if she were the consort of a prince as well as a great healer. Mother Sakhalin sat between Dr. Hierakis and Marco Burckhardt, and Sonia sat on the other side of Burckhardt, flirting with him outrageously. Tess sat on Charles's right, and next to her, Qures Tinjannat, the ambassador from the king of Habakar lands who also happened to be a philosopher. Next to him, Niko Sibirin, and so on, foreigner mixed in with jaran. The newest ambassador was not here, but, of course, he had not yet been formally received.

Aleksi prowled the back, sidestepping serious children bearing wooden platters mounted on broad bases that they set down in front of their elders. Young men from the army assisted. Aleksi steadied Kolia as the little boy stumbled over an uneven patch of ground; he was clutching a bronze cup filled with water, taking it to Bakhtiian.

"Yes," Bakhtiian was saying to Soerensen, "but when Sister Casiara wrote of the idea of precedence, she included the idea of legal precedence as well."

"You were establishing a legalistic precedence, then, when you wrote the letter to the coastal ports west of here and claimed that they had violated the peace by attacking a party of jaran?"

"My envoys." Bakhtiian nodded, took the cup from Kolia, and patted the little boy on his golden head before sending him away. "Envoys are sacrosanct. Is it not thus in all civilized countries?''

Soerensen smiled, received from Galina a platter heaped with steaming meats and a few precious slices of fruit, and set the platter carefully on the carpet. "This is a clever design." He unhooked the spoon that dangled from the platter's lip. "Since you have no tables. You're well-read, Bakhtiian. Whatever made you decide to travel to Jeds and study there?''

Aleksi crouched, watching the two men. They were alike, in many ways, and underneath the uneasy truce they seemed to be honoring, he thought that perhaps they actually respected one another.

Bakhtiian drew his gaze away from the other man and stared, as he often did when confronting his destiny, at the sky. Twilight lowered over them. Anatoly Sakhalin and Feodor Grekov led two lines of young men along the length of awnings, lighting lanterns at each pole. About thirty paces in front of Bakhtiian, out on the grass, Nadine supervised the building of two stacks of wood, side by side, twin bonfires.

"I desired to know the world," Bakhtiian said at last, glancing past Soerensen to Soerensen's sister, who was deep in conversation with the Habakar philosopher, "and I had heard that Jeds cradled the finest university, where one could learn."

"Know the world?" asked Soerensen, sounding curious and not at all accusatory. "Or conquer it?"

"If I know the world, then it will be mine."

Soerensen studied the other man. The prince had an ordinary face, similar to his sister's only in the high cheekbones and blunt chin, but like a well-made saber, his edge was clean and sharp. "You say that with conviction, but without avarice."

"I want only to lead my people to the destiny that the gods have granted us. Surely that is not so different from what you want for your people, for Jeds."

As the sky purpled to dusk, a single star appeared, the bright beacon of the evening star. Soerensen considered it, as if it contained some answer for him, and then regarded Bakhtiian with a steady gaze. "Not so different. I want to go to Morava. The place Tess visited when she first came here."

"It's north from here, out on the true plains. The ancient home of the khepelli. Is it true the khepelli wish to overrun these lands, to conquer them and drive we humans off them?"

"We humans? What has Tess told you of the Chapalii?" Soerensen pronounced it differently, but it was clearly the same word.

Bakhtiian's smile was tight and sardonic. "Tess has told me many things, Soerensen. Which of them I can believe, and which I cannot, I have not yet divined."

A chuckle escaped from Soerensen quite spontaneously. "My sympathies," he said, and the comment sounded sincere enough to Aleksi's ears.

"But it is true enough, is it not," continued Bakhtiian, pressing this point, "that the khepelli are zayinu. The ancient ones. I don't know the word in Rhuian. Not demons. Not spirits."

"Elves, " said Cara Hierakis from the other side, startling both men. "Of course. Ancient ones with powers unknown to humans." Then she said something in their foreign tongue to Soerensen.

"Can it be arranged?" asked Soerensen. "I must see Morava."

Bakhtiian's expression had shuttered, becoming opaque and unreadable. "Is that why you came? Are the khepelli so dangerous?"

"You know why I came," said Soerensen quietly. Neither man looked toward Tess. "But it is true that the khepelli are dangerous. To both of us."

"I will consider this," said Bakhtiian, and he turned to Dr. Hierakis and began to discuss wounds and medical procedures with her. Tess ceded her conversation with the philosopher to Niko and leaned toward her brother. They began to talk, rapidly and in their language. For a time, Aleksi listened. Tess had taught him Rhuian, but not the other tongue, the language of Erthe. He was beginning to be able to pick out words and meanings, but he could not string them together yet into meaningful sentences. But they were talking about the khepelli and the shrine of Morava, that much he could discern. Anatoly Sakhalin lit the lanterns directly in front of Bakhtiian and passed on, smiling at his grandmother, pausing before Sonia and glancing once, quickly and with dislike, toward Marco Burckhardt, then going on. Soon enough he would reach the carpets where the actors sat.

Aleksi snagged a platter of meat from Mitya and retreated to the solitude of the wagon to eat. Beyond, Raysia Grekov began to sing, accompanying herself on a bowed lute. She sang the tale of how the daughter of Mother Sun came down to the earth from Highest Heaven and how the legendary dyan Yuri Sakhalin fell in love with her and followed her into the heart of demon country.

"Where the rocks littered the earth, where the mountains touched the paths of father wind, there she bore the child. Where the heat of her mother's hands scorched the soil, where the demons swarmed at twilight, there she brought forth the child. He heard its cry on the wind, but he could not find them."

As Aleksi always did, he lost himself in her voice. She sang so sweetly, and with such power, that it was no wonder that the gods had drawn her up to Heaven once because of their desire to hear her sing. When they came to move the wagon, he jumped, startled, and kicked over the platter, spilling the scraps onto the grass.

"What are you doing there, Aleksi?" asked Nadine. "Here, give us a hand."

Standing, he saw that the world had changed. Raysia was still singing, and a knot of people clustered around her, sitting and kneeling: the actors, mostly, listening intently. Bakhtiian was standing off to one side, talking with Dr. Hierakis and Niko Sibirin. Charles Soerensen and Tess and the Habakar philosopher, together with Elizaveta Sakhalin, were off on the other side, leaving the central carpet clear.

Aleksi helped Nadine and a few of the men from her jahar hoist the wagon and carry it onto the carpet and set it down. Nadine tossed six pillows onto it and then, with reverent care, received the horse-tail standard which Mitya had brought from the camp and laid it on the pillow embroidered with birds that Bakhtiian always sat on.

"Shall I go get him, Uncle?" Nadine called to Bakhtiian.

"You're sounding cheerful," said Aleksi. "Who are you going to get?"

"Jiroannes Arthebathes," said Nadine. "May he rot in hell." She grinned.

Bakhtiian waited until Raysia Grekov had finished her song. Then he lifted a hand in assent, and Nadine hurried off, her soldiers at her heels.

Immediately the two bonfires were lit, and in their roar and glare, a sudden change transformed the scene. The older man and woman who headed the Company herded their actors off to one side, placing them behind a group of commanders who appeared from the right. Soerensen collected his party and retreated a discreet distance to the left. There they could watch but remain outside the action.

Bakhtiian helped Elizaveta Sakhalin up onto the overturned wagon and settled her onto one of the pillows. Sonia followed her, then Tess, then Niko Sibirin, and then old Mikhail Suvorin, the most senior of the dyans currently with the main army. Bakhtiian balanced the horse-tail staff across his knees. They waited. At last the ambassador and his party arrived, halting beyond the twin bonfires.

Aleksi saw the glitter of armor in the Vidiyan ambassador's retinue: his guard. There was a pause. Past the shifting height of fire he saw Nadine explaining something to an older man and a younger one. The younger one, dark and bearded and dressed in wildly colorful clothing, bore himself arrogantly, by which Aleksi deduced he was the ambassador. But his bearing melted a bit when Nadine gestured him forward. To pass between the two fires, to reach Bakhtiian.

The hesitation was checked. One of the guards transferred a small chest into the hands of the older foreigner, and thus burdened, the old man followed his master forward. The fire beat on them. Aleksi could see it by the way the ambassador leaned first away from the one fire and then away from the other, caught between both, purified by their raging heat, by the furnace pressure of their light. The old man staggered after him.

The softer glow of lanterns lit them when they halted before Bakhtiian. The old man dropped the chest more than set it down, and he knelt, head bowed, as if glad of the excuse to rest. The young one stood, looking angry and impressed together, and trying to hide it.

Bakhtiian regarded him evenly. From his seat on the wagon, he stared eye-to-eye with the ambassador. The very plainness of Bakhtiian's clothing, red shirt embroidered on the sleeves, black trousers and boots, merely added to his dignity, compared to the ambassador's gaudy costume. Some men did not need to display their power by displaying wealth. Like Soerensen, it occurred to Aleksi very suddenly. None of the prince's people wore gold, none wore weapons, and yet their bearing reeked of natural confidence.

At last, cowed by Bakhtiian's stare, as fierce a pressure as the fires through which he had passed, the ambassador dipped to one knee.

"I am Jiroannes Arthebathes," he said in queerly accented Rhuian, fluid and blurred on the consonants. "I bring you greetings from your cousin the Great King of Vidiya, and these gifts, which he hopes you will graciously accept." He gestured, and the servant struggled forward with the chest. Jiroannes's gaze flicked to Tess, and his eyes widened as he recognized her. Then he turned his attention back to his servant.

The chest was not just wooden, but cunningly carved and set with enameling and strips of gold into the wood. The servant opened the clasp and removed silver dishes, an amazingly lifelike bird made of bronze, two tiny jade horses, a collar of gold embossed with tiny human figures, a bolt of sheer white silk, and an arrow plated with gold and fletched with black feathers.

Bakhtiian looked them over impassively but did not touch them. Then he gestured, and the children, with proper solemnity, came forward and took away everything except the arrow. That Bakhtiian considered at length and in silence, and at last he lifted it up and leaned back to present the arrow to Elizaveta Sakhalin. "The Great King must be complimenting your prowess in hunting, Mother Sakhalin," he said. The old woman snorted, amused and skeptical, but she took the arrow and placed it over her knees.

Jiroannes looked outraged, and then he bowed his head to stare with seeming humility at the ground.

"You are welcome to our camp," said Bakhtiian, at last addressing the young ambassador directly. "I will send for you when it is time." He glanced around, caught Aleksi's eye, and gestured for him to escort the ambassador away. Then he turned to talk to Niko, as if the affair was of no more interest to him.

Leading Jiroannes away by a roundabout route, Aleksi had leisure to wonder what the young man was thinking. Nadine joined him, the Vidiyan guard marching obediently at her back, and they conducted the silent ambassador back through camp to the distant envoys' precinct. From here, the noise of the celebration, now in full flower, reached the dark clot of tents only as faint music and fainter laughter, like a distant roar of a mountain cataract to a man trudging through the night on a desert track. Out in the deep plains, where winter met summer like a blast of snow hitting fire, where spring existed for a week, for a scant month at most, such extremes were commonplace. To these envoys, cast out to the fringe of camp, their lives dependent very much on the whim of the jaran, such contrasts must prove unsettling.

"Ilya was too lenient," said Nadine to Aleksi as they left, walking back to the celebration. "The man was insufferable. He was angry. He showed it in his back, in the way he stood. He showed too little respect."

"Bakhtiian will make him wait. Then he'll get nervous."

"It could be." Nadine sounded peevish. "He has a slave."

"What is a slave?"

"Never mind. Look, the dancing has started."

At the celebration, they were dancing on the ground around the two bonfires. The angel was dancing with Anatoly Sakhalin. He was, shyly and modestly, showing her the steps to one of the simpler partner dances. But most of the other actors were out dancing as well, partnered with jaran men and jaran women. The dance ended and another started. Aleksi saw Tess dancing with her husband. Sonia, of all people, had somehow persuaded Soerensen out, and it appeared that Soerensen was a quick learner and adept enough to dance well. The angel was still dancing with Anatoly Sakhalin.

"Someone had better talk to him," said Nadine, voicing Aleksi's thoughts out loud.

"Surely his grandmother will speak to him," said Aleksi. "She's very pretty."

"She's beautiful," said Nadine. "She is also khaja. Look how the other man, Marco Burckhardt, look how he glares at them."

The dance ended. The angel strolled out of the ring of light with Sakhalin. She held her head cocked slightly to one side, looking at him with a provocative smile on her lips as he spoke to her. Surely she could not understand what he was saying. But perhaps the words did not matter.

A. moment later, before they could vanish into the gloom, Elizaveta Sakhalin appeared and called to her grandson. His head jerked up and he halted, hesitated visibly, and finally, reluctantly, slowly, he retreated to his grandmother's side. The angel watched him go and with an unfathomable shrug of her delicate shoulders, she walked on out into the night, alone.

"And that," said Nadine, "is that. Excuse me, Aleksi. I've a sudden urge to dance." She broke away from him and strode straight toward the distant figure of Feodor Grekov.

Aleksi sighed and wandered on. He paused to watch Raysia Grekov where she sat on the now vacant wagon, playing simple songs for the amusement of a swarm of jaran men and two of the foreigners: Margaret O'Neill and the actor Gwyn Jones. The copper-haired foreign woman had her right hand on her belt buckle, and she kept toying with it, as if she was nervous. In contrast, her left hand held the bronze medallion around her throat with deliberate steadiness, canting the medallion's onyx eye so that it faced the singer. Beside Raysia, a young man played a low accompaniment on a drum. As Aleksi listened, he caught a fainter counterpoint, a vocal one, distant, whispering on the breeze. He lifted his chin and tilted his head, sounding for direction, and drifted out into the night.

Stars blazed above. Out beyond the awnings, the angel was cursing at Marco Burckhardt. Aleksi stopped stock-still, astonished. Burckhardt had his hands on her. He held her in a tight grip, one hand on each of her shoulders, and each time she spit words at him, he replied in an equally angry voice.

They were not married. Nor were they related by blood. If anything, Marco Burckhardt was as interested in her as Anatoly Sakhalin was. But no jaran man would stand by and see a woman handled like this, by a man who was neither husband nor brother.

Before Aleksi could come forward, before he could even speak to warn them, another figure burst onto the scene, materializing from the direction of the celebration. Diana gasped. Burckhardt whirled.

Anatoly Sakhalin drew his saber.

"No!" Diana cried in Rhuian. "Don't hurt him!" She cast herself between the two men. There was silence. Diana took four steps forward. "Anatoly, please, put away your sword."

Anatoly lifted the saber to rest on her cheek. She froze, and her face went white from shock and fear. Marco shifted. In an instant, he would lunge-"

"Stop!" shouted Aleksi. He sprinted forward.

In that moment, with Marco hesitating, Anatoly marked Diana, cutting a line on her cheek diagonally from her cheekbone almost to her chin. Blood welled from the cut. Slowly, she lifted her hand to touch her skin. Lowering it, she stared at her fingers. They were covered with blood. She swayed. Then she collapsed to her knees.

Aleksi hit Marco broadside and slammed him backward before he could do something rash. A knife spun out of Marco's grip and Aleksi pounced and grabbed it before Marco could react.,

Anatoly had sheathed his saber. Now he stared at Diana with concern. He knelt beside her and put his good arm, comforting, firm, around her shoulders. At his touch, she screamed and scrambled away from him, panting.

"Damn you," said Marco from the ground.

Aleksi offered him a hand. Surprised, Marco took it and let Aleksi pull him up. Marco took a step toward Diana, but Aleksi held him back. "Don't go to her," Aleksi said.

Anatoly climbed to his feet and fixed a threatening stare on Marco, keeping himself between Marco and Diana. He rested his good hand on his saber hilt.

"What do you mean?" Marco demanded. "My God."

"He's marked her," Aleksi explained patiently.

"I can see that," said Marco caustically. "What kind of savages are you, anyway?"

"You're upset." Aleksi put a hand on his shoulder just to make sure he didn't bolt. "He's marked her for marriage. But I suppose you khaja don't do that."

Diana threw her head up. "What did you say?" she gasped. Left hand still pressed against her cheek, she rose unsteadily to her feet, flinched away from Anatoly's awkward offer of help, and circled him warily to come stand next to Marco. But when Marco reached toward her, she jerked away from him as well. "What do you mean, he marked me for marriage?" she demanded of Aleksi.

"When a man chooses a woman, he marks her. To show he means to marry her.''

"That's barbaric," said Marco.

"What about the woman's choice, then?" Diana asked.

Aleksi shook his head. "But marriage is not a woman's choice. Someday you'll hear Raysia sing the tale of Mekhala, and how horses came to the jaran. You see-" He hesitated, finding words in this foreign tongue of Rhuian and placing them together in a form that would make sense to these people. "-when Mekhala beseeched the wind spirit for the horses that would set her people, that would set the jaran, free, he agreed only on the condition that she marry him. But in those days, before the jaran had horses, women chose both lovers and husbands. And so the wind spirit said, 'I will give you horses, but you must give me the choice of your husbands, and a woman may never choose her husband again.' And the women agreed that this was a fair trade for the gift of horses. So that women may still choose their lovers, but no longer their husbands. But this was long ago, in the-" He faltered, running up against concepts he had no words for in Rhuian. "In the long ago time."

Marco looked appalled. Diana gaped, looking as if she was still in shock.

"Aleksi," said Anatoly in khush. "What are you telling her?"

What a fool. But, of course, Aleksi was not about to say that to Mother Sakhalin's grandson. "She didn't know what you were doing." He glanced at the other man, but Anatoly's expression showed only stubborn resolve. "She thought you were trying to kill her.''

Anatoly flushed, but he said nothing. He glared at Marco.

"But Tess Soerensen has a mark like this on her cheek," said Diana suddenly in a low voice. "And so does Bakhtiian. That means she is married to him." She glanced sidelong at Anatoly Sakhalin and then away. "So why can't I, if I love him?"

"God help us," Marco said. It was an oath Aleksi recognized, because Tess used it. "Diana, you can't begin to go along with this-"

"I can do what I want," said Diana emphatically. She tossed her hair out of her face and walked over to Anatoly. He started, looking at her, and she tilted his chin down and kissed him on the mouth.

Marco swore.

"What in hell is going on?" The first person to arrive from the direction of the celebration was Dr. Hierakis. "Diana, come here. Goddess help us, child, what has happened to you?" The doctor lifted a hand to trace the cut on Diana's cheek. A moment later Charles Soerensen appeared, and behind him, Tess and Bakhtiian.

"Oh, God," said Tess. Then in khush: "Anatoly, have you gone out of your mind?"

"This is your work, then?" Bakhtiian demanded.

Anatoly held his ground under that devastating stare. "Yes. I marked her."

"Gods. You will come with me, young man. We will see what your grandmother has to say about this."

Anatoly did not move. He was tense, but determined. "It is a man's choice, in marriage."

"She is not jaran, Anatoly," said Tess.

He glanced at her, and she smiled slightly, ironically, since neither was she jaran. Then he returned his gaze to Bakhtiian. "If she wishes to be rid of the marriage, she can do so, but I am content."

"Tess," said Charles in a calm voice, in Rhuian, "what is going on?"

"He wants to marry me," said Diana suddenly. "This is the way they get married."

"Ah," said Charles. He studied his sister a moment, and Tess flushed and lifted a hand to brush the scar on her cheek, then lowered it again self-consciously. "I understand this is sudden, Diana. Such an action is not binding on you."

"No," she said stubbornly. "I want to marry him."

Marco muttered something.

"Marco, really," said Dr. Hierakis in Rhuian. "There's no need for such language."

Burckhardt's hands were clenched into rigid fists, and he looked so angry that Aleksi wondered how long he could maintain his composure.

"That is your choice, of course," said Charles to Diana. If he was shocked by her pronouncement, he did not show it. "But surely, Bakhtiian, the matter can be waived for some days so that the young woman can think it over.''

"I don't need to think it over-"

"Diana," said Tess in a friendly but firm voice, "you will, by custom, have nine days to think it over. If you really want to go through with this, then you must go into seclusion for nine days, after which you will be reunited with this man and become husband and wife."

"Fine."

"What is she saying?" asked Anatoly in khush, a little desperately.

"You young fool," said Bakhtiian, also in khush. "Come along. I don't envy you the tongue-lashing you are about to receive from your grandmother. Perhaps I'll let Niko in on it as well. If your uncle Yaroslav was here…" He trailed off, letting the thought go unfinished. With a gesture, he indicated that Anatoly precede him. "Your grace," he said to Soerensen, "perhaps you would be part of this council as well."

"Of course. I'll follow in a moment." He nodded, and Bakhtiian left.

"Diana, Cara, perhaps you'll come with me," said Tess. She led the two women off on the long walk to the Soerensen enclave.

Aleksi, silent, did not move. By now the others had forgotten him. He had that gift, to stand so still, to draw so little attention to himself, that it was as if he was invisible.

"Marco," said Soerensen softly.

"Leave me alone." Marco did not even look at the other man. He was not looking at anything, exactly, but at some sight, some vision, some pain, that only he could see.

Soerensen sighed, but he honored the request, and left quietly.

Aleksi dared not move. He doesn't want me here. And Aleksi felt an odd feeling: He felt ashamed because he had intruded on another man's anguish.

Bells tinkled softly. A golden vision appeared out of the gloom: Sonia, laden with an ornamentation that lent grace to her features and a glow to her expression. A single glance she spared for Aleksi, a brief tilt of her chin in acknowledgment of his presence. Crescent moons spun and danced at her shoulders. She halted beside Marco Burckhardt and settled a hand on his sleeve.

"Come," she said. That was all. Without a word, he went with her. The bells faded.

But Aleksi still heard the bells. Distant, but growing louder. A shout came from the far ring of tents. Another shout followed, and a lantern, two lanterns, sprang to life. They bobbed and swayed, approaching over the grass. Two horses with two riders, but only the foremost rider rode upright. The second lay over his mount's neck, hugging it from exhaustion. Men on foot trailed after them, a group that swelled in size and volume.

Aleksi ran to meet them.

"Where is Bakhtiian?" shouted the lead rider. "Gods, man, there's been treachery from those khaja swine."

The man lying over the second horse looked unconscious. The horse was blown and scarcely in better condition than its rider, though it did not look wounded. A broad strip of bloodied cloth was wrapped around the rider's head, obscuring his face, and more cloth bound his ribs and his left thigh. He slipped. Aleksi grabbed him and steadied him on the horse.

Bakhtiian came running, Sibirin behind him. "Bring the horse up to the carpet," someone called, and they arrived there, a ragtag procession, at the same time Bakhtiian did.

Bakhtiian halted for one instant. A look of rage suffused his face. Then he came forward and tenderly swung the wounded man down from the horse, laying him on the pillows. The movement opened the wound in his thigh, but the blood leaking onto the fine embroidery did not seem to bother Bakhtiian.

"Josef! Niko, go get the healer. Dr. Hierakis. Grekov, see to the horse."

Now that the rider was lying on his back, Aleksi could see that it was indeed Josef Raevsky, Ilya's finest general, a man who could have been dyan of his own tribe but who gave it over into his brother's hands many years ago in order to pledge himself to Bakhtiian and Bakhtiian's cause. The worst blood stained the cloth bound over his eyes.

"Ilya." Raevsky had some life yet.

"Who did this? The rest of your party?"

"The Habakar king," Raevsky gasped. "Treachery. Honored us as envoys and then at the feast, fell on us." He panted. His face was gray. "Left me alive, to deliver this." His hand fluttered feebly. A crumpled scroll was tucked into the sheath of his saber. His saber-was gone.

Bakhtiian removed the scroll and unrolled it. Scanned it. His lips were pressed so tight that they had lost all color. His eyes burned. " 'So that you will understand that you must fear me, and set no foot on my ground, I have shown you my power. But because I am merciful as well as strong, I have left one alive to tell the tale.' "

Sibirin came up with Dr. Hierakis in tow, and Bakhtiian shifted aside to make room for her. She knelt beside Raevsky and stripped the cloth bandages away. Her face was intent, impassive.

"It looks like they burned the eyes out." She ran a finger down the bridge of Raevsky's nose. "How far did he come?"

Bakhtiian shrugged. "It's about ten days' ride to the border. Much much farther to the royal city.''

"Incredible," she said curtly. "Make me a litter to bear him to my tent. If you wish him to live, do it quickly." She rose. "I will be waiting there." And left, striding out into the darkness.

"Do as she says," said Bakhtiian. He stayed kneeling beside Raevsky until men came with a litter and bore him away. Then he rose. Glanced around, at the men waiting on his word. "You," he said to the rider who had come in with Raevsky. "What is your name?"

"Svyatoslav Zhulin, with Veselov's jahar."

"You will return south, then, with this message. I want Veselov and Yaroslav Sakhalin to drive into Habakar territory. Then the king will begin to understand that he must fear us." He glanced down at the pillow that rested against his boots, at the bright stain drying between the two birds of prey. "Then he will understand our power. Aleksi." His voice had the temper of the finest steel, decisive, cold, and sharp. "You will bring the Habakar philosopher to me. Now."

"Are you going to kill him?" someone asked, angry, wanting revenge.

"Of course not! We respect philosophers and envoys here. But I will inform him myself of this treachery. In the end, he may prove a valuable ally. Aleksi?"

Aleksi nodded and retreated, heading for the foreign envoys' enclave. Behind, he could hear Bakhtiian's crisp voice issuing more orders. The spring's campaign was beginning.

ACT TWO

"Some good I mean to do despite of mine own nature."

— Shakespeare, King Lear

CHAPTER TWENTY

From the ridge that bounded the valley on the northeast, black-shirted riders watched the battle raging below.

"They'll be routed by nightfall," said the black-haired man who sat on his horse at the fore of the group, next to its leader.

"Sooner, Yevgeni," replied the leader. "Look there. The center is breaking. And there: do you see the general's standard? It's wavering."

Yevgeni spat. "The coward. He's running."

The leader of the band watched as a clot of riders broke away from the back of the khaja army and raced for the western hills. He was fair, with golden hair and a strikingly handsome face. "Bring the woman up here, Piotr," he ordered, and a moment later Piotr returned. With him came the woman, a girl, more like, with a baby strapped to her back. She clutched the reins of a mountain pony, and she gave the battle below the briefest glance before fastening her gaze on what interested her most: the fair-haired man.

He gestured toward the retreating riders below. "Do you know where they're heading? What path they'll take?" he asked, speaking khush slowly.

She tore her gaze from his face and studied the valley and the swell of hills that marked the western boundary. Near a lake, a city lay smoking and battered, and it was past these ruins that the riders fled. "That way," she replied, pointing to a gap in the hills. Her khush was faltering, but comprehensible. "A road leading to the pass."

"Is there a good spot for an ambush?"

She looked back at the band: about one hundred horsemen in black, all with sabers, a few with lances. "With arrows, yes." She ran her left hand over the quiver that hung from her belt along her thigh. "With swords…" She shook her head. "It is narrow."

"I want that general," said the leader.

"Vasil, are you mad?" asked Yevgeni. "Let the khaja pig go, that's what I say. What does he matter? He'll be a worse burden on the khaja king alive than dead."

Vasil glanced at the riders in his group and then down at the jaran army driving through the khaja infantry in the valley below. Evidently the bulk of the army had not yet realized that its leader had deserted it. "I need a prize."

Yevgeni shook his head. "I don't understand you, Vasil. Your father was dyan of your tribe's jahar. It's a fair enough claim, if you want it back. But your cousin has been dyan now for-what? — three years? He may contest you."

"Anton is Arina Veselov's brother," said Vasil.

"That's bound to cause trouble, two so close making decisions."

"And knowing Anton and Arina as I do, because of that, they'll be glad to give the command over to me. It isn't my cousins I have to convince. Viaka." He turned to address the girl. "We must go, quickly. Can you lead us?"

"It is a bad place for swords," she insisted. "There are others of my family who will come, if we can stay in the heights and shoot down. Then perhaps you can overcome your enemy. They have fine armor.''

Grumbling arose from the men closest. "Archery… arrows in battle… it's dishonorable."

"Come now," said Vasil scornfully. "Surely you men don't believe I'd ever suggest such a thing against an honorable man of the tribes? But these are khaja. What does it matter if arrows are used against them? They have killed enough jaran men with arrows. And these khaja villagers have agreed out of their own free will to accompany us."

Yevgeni snorted. "Out of the will of their headman's daughter, who's bedding with you." The girl started around and glared at him. Then she flushed. She was an unremarkable young woman, scrubbed clean, with her brown hair tied back and bound with a net of tiny golden beads strung on a bronze wire. She wore a girdle of iron plates around her waist, and a golden embossed pectoral hung from around her neck, covering her upper chest: it was more armor than any of Veselov's riders had.

Vasil smiled. "Yevgeni, my love," he said softly, "are you jealous?"

Yevgeni flushed with anger. "You have no right to say such a thing to me," he said in a fierce undertone. "I have never asked anything of you, Veselov, except first a place in Dmitri Mikhailov's jahar and now, a place with your arenabekh."

"Forgive me," said Vasil, his voice as smooth as silk, "but I do not like to be questioned. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

Vasil surveyed his riders. He pitched his voice to carry to the back ranks. "We're going to bag a prize, boys. We will take some khaja archers with us. If there are any of you who can't stomach their presence, then you may stay behind."

No one moved. Vasil shifted his gaze to the girl. She gazed at him as much with avarice as with love. "Then we can go," he said to her. "And swiftly."

She urged the pony forward and the band set out, riding on twisting paths down off the ridge and through the steep hills. At a narrow crossroads, the party of villagers joined them. A woman took the baby from Viaka and vanished up the trail. The rest went on. The villagers were mounted on sturdy ponies, each man-and a few young women-armed with bow and arrows and a long knife. Only Viaka spoke khush well, and she used this skill and Vasil's deference to her to bully the older khaja men, who clearly objected to her authority.

She led them along a narrow road cut through the hills. They rode two abreast, with Viaka and Vasil at the fore and the bulk of the villagers at the rear. At last the road dipped down into a gully and gave out onto a wider road that led up toward the pass. Here, they found signs of the city's death: A burned out wagon and seven corpses, three of them children, littered the roadside.

Yevgeni moved up beside Vasil and sniffed the stench in the air with distaste. "Arrows. Do they kill their own children?"

"These are Farisa," said Viaka. "As are my people.

We ruled this land once, until the King's grandsire rode here with an army, in my grandfather's father's time. He killed our prince and became prince himself. It was his army attacked the city, not yours, and killed these people. Those who escaped ran to the hills. We do not love the King."

Vasil lifted a brow, questioning. "So that is why your father agreed to help us? I thought all the khaja were alike. Where is the site for the ambush?"

They rode down and came to a curve in the road that was shielded by a rocky ridge. Vasil concealed his riders behind the ridge. Viaka sent archers up the steep cliffs on either side, where they hid behind boulders and underbrush. Then they waited.

After a time, the ring of harness and the pound of hooves drifted to them on the clear air. No voices carried: it was a silent flight. Vasil's face bore a curious stillness as he listened, as if this skirmish signaled the beginning of a momentous campaign.

Sudden shrieks echoed off the cliffs. Shouts and a scream blended with the terrified neighing of horses.

"Forward!" cried Vasil. He led the charge.. The jaran riders came around the curve and smashed straight into the panicked troop. Already demoralized from the battle, they scattered under the archers' fire, half fleeing back down the road, half ahead into the jaran charge.

Next to Vasil, Piotr lowered his lance and with the weight and speed of his horse behind the thrust, he toppled a heavily armored rider from the saddle. The khaja warrior screamed as a man in the second rank cut him down. The charge drove through the khaja ranks and Vasil shouted for half the jahar to go on, after the retreating remnants. Fifty riders headed down the pass. Behind, the archers let loose a new stream of arrows into the group that had just survived the charge. Then Vasil wheeled his horse around along with his remaining fifty men and hit the disintegrating troop from the rear, trampling some, killing the rest.

Yevgeni and Piotr cornered a man in a golden surcoat, and when the man saw that he was surrounded and defeated, he dropped his weapons and began to plead in a language none of them could understand. Vasil rode up and stared at him: an older man with a grizzled beard, dark eyes and skin, and fine gilded armor.

"Yevgeni," said Vasil, "take twenty riders and help Georgi mop up the others." Yevgeni rode away.

The mountain people scrambled down from the heights and scurried among the bodies, gleefully stabbing those still alive and looting the dead.

"Is this the general?" Vasil asked when Viaka came up beside him on her pony.

She shrugged. "How should I know? All these Habakar bastards look the same to me. His armor is rich enough."

"Then you shall have it, my dear. Piotr, strip him."

The man protested, at first. Piotr grabbed his left hand and cut off his little finger, and after that, the man submitted in silence. Until Yevgeni returned with seventy riders, a few of whom were wounded, and two captives. The first of the captives was a stalwart man in a fine brocaded surcoat who endured many bleeding wounds stoically. The second was an adolescent boy without a trace of beard on his face, tall but clearly young and terrified. He, too, wore a gold surcoat and gilded armor. When the Habakar general saw him, the old man broke out in a storm of weeping and struggled away from his captors to embrace the boy.

"They force children to ride into battle, too," said Yevgeni, pulling his mount up beside Vasil. "It's barbaric. But the boy seemed important, so we let him live."

"The other man?"

"He fought courageously to defend the child."

"Bind his wounds, then, after you've stripped him of his armor. Leave the boy in his, though, or they'll never believe we found such a child fighting."

The old man, stripped down to his linen tunic and hose, broke away from the boy and threw himself at Vasil's feet, babbling in his khaja tongue. Vasil sighed and looked around for Viaka, but she was kneeling, running her hands over the golden surcoat and the fine armor with a gleam of lust in her eyes. She glanced up, and when she saw that Vasil was watching her, her face flushed with pleasure and she rose and came over to him, glancing back frequently as if to make sure her new armor was not being stolen by one of her villagers. She halted beside Vasil and listened to the old man, then spat on him.

"He says he will gladly give you anything you please, as long as you spare the boy," she said to Vasil. "He says his name is Yalik anSiyal, and he is a great nobleman and the leader of this army. The boy is his son."

Vasil smiled. Not gloated, not quite, but he felt entirely pleased with himself. "We'll ride, then. I have what I need.''

"I'm coming with you." Viaka's gaze up, at him seated splendidly on his mount, was worshipful as well as possessive.

Vasil chuckled. "My dear, you are wealthy now. You don't need me."

"My father will only take these things from me once you are gone and give them to my brothers. I would gladly become your wife. My father would not protest."

Yevgeni laughed under his breath. "He'd be glad enough to be rid of her," he said softly.

"I am married," said Vasil quietly.

She gestured impatiently. "I do not ask to be your chief wife. But surely you have a place for a secondary wife."

"Savages," muttered Yevgeni.

"Yevgeni, get the men ready. We must go." Vasil put out a hand and took Viaka's, holding it a moment. "My dear, however much I might wish it, it is impossible." Then he released her hand and reined his horse away. Piotr bundled the general onto his horse and tied him there, stringing the boy's mount on behind. Viaka simply stood, staring at them. One of the villagers, an old man who had protested the most at the girl's usurpation of authority, grinned vindictively as the riders mounted and rode away.

Vasil did not even glance back, although Yevgeni did. "You cold bastard," he said to Vasil. He laughed. "Gods, these khaja can't even keep their own tents in order. How can they expect to resist Bakhtiian's army?"

"We are not part of Bakhtiian's army yet."

"I still don't understand," said Yevgeni, "how you can expect Bakhtiian to take us in, now that we're arenabekh, and then agree to let you become dyan of the Veselov tribe, after we rode with the last dyan who tried to kill him."

"There is a great deal you don't understand, Yevgeni. There is a great deal no one understands. But I am determined to have my way, this time." He glanced back as Piotr cantered up from the rear. "What is it?"

"The girl. She's following us."

"Let her follow. I'm no longer concerned with her."

Yevgeni snorted. "Meaning you don't need her anymore."

Vasil did not answer. He picked up their pace, and they made good time down to the valley, riding past the ransacked city by late afternoon. A contingent of armored riders, hailing them, met them by an outstretched arm of ruined wall.

"Halt! I hadn't heard of arenabekh in these parts. Where's your leader?" This from their captain, a beautiful young man whose handsome face was marred by scars along the jaw and across the ridge of his nose. "Vasil! Gods, I thought you were dead! Everyone thought so."

Vasil smiled. "But I am not dead, Petya, as you see."

"But these are arenabekh, Vasil!"

"It's true that I've proven myself as a dyan by leading these men. Now I've returned. How is my sister? Have you any children yet?"

Petya flushed. "You must know that Vera is disgraced. It isn't-it isn't anything to speak of here."

"Then forgive me for speaking of it. Have you any news of my wife?"

"Karolla is well. Your cousin Arina took her in."

A gleam lit Vasil's fine blue eyes. "And my children? They are well also?"

The tight line of Petya's mouth relaxed slightly. "They are well. They are sweet children. Everybody loves them."

"Of course. You're outfitted differently-all that armor. You look like khaja soldiers."

"Things have had to change." Petya regarded the older man warily. "Why are you here, Vasil?"

"Even arenabekh may return to the tribes, if their etsana agrees to it. I heard that my father died. I have come to claim the position that is rightfully mine. Can you take me to Anton? He is here, is he not? I saw the Veselov standard."

"He is here." Petya hesitated. Then, as if he could find no excuse to refuse, he motioned to the riders under his command and they turned and escorted Vasil and his men back along the valley. Corpses speckled the grass and the fields, fleeing soldiers who had been cut down and left to die. An overturned cart blocked the road, but the riders simply rode around it, not bothering to move it. Vegetables spilled out from its bed, bruised or flattened by the impact. In a far field, a crowd had been herded together under the watchful eyes of a group of riders.

"You have prisoners," Petya studied the two men and the boy in the middle of Vasil's jahar. "We were just heading up into the hills to see if we could catch the general of this army. He fled the battle."

"I have him. That one, there, and his son."

"Ah. Sakhalin will be pleased."

"Yaroslav Sakhalin leads the army? Bakhtiian isn't here?"

Petya's brows drew down in confusion. Then he laughed. "You didn't think this was the entire army, did you? We're only the vanguard. Bakhtiian is coming soon with the main army. We are as plentiful as the birds, and as strong as the winter wind."

"Then it is true," said Vasil thoughtfully. "Bakhtiian will conquer all the khaja lands."

"Did you ever doubt it?" Petya blinked up at Vasil, looking naive and perplexed and utterly assured all at once. "Did you ever doubt that he could do it?"

Vasil did not reply. Instead, Yevgeni leaned forward. "Excuse me," he said politely to Petya. "But if you are with the Veselov tribe-do you know-I have a sister. She was with me, before, with Mikhailov, and I never heard what had happened to her. Perhaps you've heard of her. Her name is Valye Usova."

"I don't know her," Petya confessed. "I'm sorry. But Arina Veselov might, or Irena Orzhekov. After Mikhailov died, those two etsanas oversaw what became of the women and children who were left behind." He hesitated again, visibly, his open face betraying doubt. "Vasil. Are you certain you will be welcome? You followed Mikhailov, after all. You tried to kill Bakhtiian. He has no reason to forgive you."

"No reason except what lies in his heart," said Vasil, so low that only Petya heard him.

Petya's face became a flood of emotions that he suppressed with difficulty. "Then it's true, the things Vera said about you." He spoke quietly and, because it was in his nature, deferentially.

Vasil snorted. "Vera is a snake, Petya, which I think you ought to know by now, being married to her as long as you have been. She says only what she pleases, to strengthen her own position."

"She no longer has a position. The etsanas stripped her of all rank. Arina argued against it, but Orzhekov and the elders insisted. Vera does menial work for Varia Telyegin, who treats her kindly enough, though she's nothing but a servant now.''

Vasil laughed. "I am amazed. She endures such treatment?"

"What choice does she have?" Petya asked bitterly.

Vasil turned his head smoothly to stare at Petya. "And after everything, after the way she treated you, after she betrayed your trust, you still love her?"

Petya pressed his lips together and turned his face away, refusing to answer.

"Here is the main army," said Yevgeni. A scout hailed them, and Petya led them around its mass to the northwest, where they came to a ring of horses and a knot of men standing talking together.

"Ah, there you are, Petya," called a middle-aged man, dark featured and with a pleasant, open face. "What did you catch?" His gaze skipped over Vasil, wrenched back, and he blanched, as though he had seen a ghost. "Vasilley," he said hoarsely. "I thought I would never see you again." Then, transformed as if by the rising sun, his face lit with joy. "You damned bastard, where have you been?"

Vasil dismounted and strode forward. The two men embraced. "Anton." Vasil's tone was fervent. "How I've missed you, you more than anyone, for all the kindness you ever showed me. You look well. I'm glad to see it." He disengaged himself from Anton and turned to regard the other five men, who watched this reunion with interest. His gaze quickly fastened on the man who stood with quiet command to the far right. "You are Yaroslav Sakhalin?"

Sakhalin nodded, acknowledging the question. "You are Sergei Veselov's son Vasil? It would take a greater man than I not to be astonished by your sudden appearance here, and so many years after you vanished and were presumed dead." He examined Vasil with an intent, intelligent gaze. He carried himself easily, with the relaxed authority of a man who knows he is both important and competent. He was a man at the height of his maturity, older than Vasil and Anton, but not yet old-old enough to have a married daughter and a nephew just elevated to his own command, and yet young enough to be a dangerous fighter still. His gaze settled on Anton, reading the dyan's face, and then returned to Vasil. "What brings you back to us, Veselov?"

Vasil did not speak immediately. His own men stirred restlessly in their saddles. Petya looked worried, gnawing at his lower lip. In the end, in the silence, it was amazingly enough Anton Veselov who spoke.

"But, of course, if you just heard of your father's death, then you must have returned to claim the jahar. You are dyan by right, if the etsana and the elders agree to the election."

"But you are dyan, Anton," said Sakhalin without expression. "Bakhtiian himself approved your election. I am sure no one will protest if you petition to keep your position."

Anton looked surprised. "You know yourself, Yaroslav, that it isn't proper for a brother and sister to act together in authority over a tribe. They're too close. There was simply no one else to take the position. And now there is." He nodded at Vasil.

"I have led these arenabekh for three years," said Vasil quietly, "and I have brought khaja prisoners that I feel sure Bakhtiian wants."

"Arina will wish it also," added Anton, "that her cousin become dyan." Vasil flashed him a smile.

Sakhalin's lips twitched up. "Then the question becomes, will Bakhtiian wish it? Very well, Veselov. It is no business of mine. You may take your case to Bakhtiian himself." He looked beyond the two men, at Vasil's jahar. ' 'Who are these khaja you have with you?''

"The general of the army you just defeated, Sakhalin. As well as his son. The third is an honorable soldier who fought courageously in defense of the boy.''

"You do me a service, then, in bringing them to me."

"I meant them for Bakhtiian, begging your pardon."

Sakhalin chuckled. "Did you, indeed? You may take them to him, then, and save me the bother. Anton, you will have to go as well, but I can't afford to lose your riders. Have your captains report to me, until you-" Here a glance spared for Vasil. "-or your cousin returns."

"As you wish, Yaroslav," replied Anton. He gave Vasil a slap on the arm and a grin, and then mounted and rode away with Petya and his troop to give the orders.

"You seem to inspire loyalty, Veselov," said Sakhalin, whether with sarcasm or admiration it was impossible to tell. He was distracted by a scout riding in. "What news?"

"We've rounded up every khaja we could find in the valley and on the nearby slopes. There's few enough women and children-they've either fled or been slaughtered by their own army, I don't know which. What shall we do with the men?"

"Sort out those who have some skill, artisans and blacksmiths. Kill the rest." Sakhalin turned back to Vasil. "You'd best be on your way at dawn, Veselov. Bakhtiian is assembling the army, and he won't want any confusion about his commanders, not on this campaign. We'll be driving on through the pass in the morning. The heart of the kingdom lies beyond these mountains." Then he turned to the man at his right, dismissing Vasil, and began to discuss supplies and fodder for the horses on the mountain crossing.

The finest blush crept onto Vasil's cheeks, but he turned and walked with a careless stride back to his horse. "We'll set up camp here," he said to Yevgeni, "and go on in the morning."

They found a quiet spot, distant from the ruined city and the slaughter going on there. The men built a few fires, including one set aside from the rest for Vasil. He sat before the fire, brooding. Bringing out his komis cup, he poured the pungent drink out of a flask and into the cup, and drank. By the other fires, his men laughed and sang songs and gambled, relaxed now as they had not been for a long time. Still, there was no assurance that Bakhtiian would not punish them: they were arenabekh, after all, men who had left the tribes for their own reasons, or been cast out. Some had no families to return to, and others, no hope that their tribes would want them back. But with the jaran tribes united, they had no future anywhere else. Vasil licked a spot of the fermented milk off of his lips and smiled. He knew Bakhtiian's weak spots, and he knew how to exploit them. It came down to one thing in the end. It always had. What he wanted, he intended to have.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

"Diana, you don't have to go through with this."

Diana stared at her hands, refusing to look up. After nine days sequestered in the Company's camp, rehearsing every day and then staying behind when the others went out to explore the jaran encampment, she had grown used to her colleagues coming back to harangue her, to get her to change her mind, and in some cases to ridicule her for going native. But the more they tried to budge her, the more her resolve hardened.

Now it was early morning of the day she was to marry, and Yomi had appeared at her tent at dawn with Tess Soerensen in tow. And left the two women there together.

Diana stared at her pewter bracelet and heard Tess sigh. "Diana, are you even sure why you're doing this?"

Diana looked up. "You did it. You married Bakhtiian."

Tess chuckled. "Not on my second day in camp, I didn't. Although it's true enough the tribe welcomed me in as soon as I arrived, and adopted me only days after that. You must think of Anatoly as well. Have you considered what it would be like to stay here, after your Company goes back to Earth?"

Diana twined her fingers together and fastened her gaze on her knuckles.

"Or what it will be like for him if you leave?"

She pressed her lips together. She could feel the heat burning in her cheeks. "Isn't it better that we-even if I go, isn't it better that we have shared something together than nothing?"

"If by something you mean you want to have sex with him, I must tell you that you don't need to be married to him to do that.''

"But-" Diana felt all at sea, confused and hurt at once. "But why did he mark me, then? I thought all barbarians were prudes, that you had to be married or else it was-taboo or something. Bakhtiian killed a man, back at the port-"

"For rape."

"You approved of it? The execution, I mean."

"I wasn't there. You can't make assumptions about these people, Diana." She hesitated. Diana braced herself. She knew what was coming, and she was determined to resist it. But instead, Tess took her off guard. "I've asked my sister Sonia Orzhekov and Anatoly's grandmother Elizaveta Sakhalin to come to you this afternoon before the celebration. I hope you will listen closely to what they say.''

Which would be yet another attempt to talk her out of the marriage. "I've learned a little khush," said Diana defensively. "You think I'm a fool for doing this, don't you?"

Tess smiled ruefully. "That would be rather like the pot calling the kettle black, don't you think? It's easy to act on impulse, and much harder to think about what the consequences might be. But the consequences will show up sooner or later, and then you must prepare yourself to deal with them."

"I love him," said Diana stubbornly, as much to convince herself as to convince Soerensen. Then she recalled the intense blue of his eyes, the piercing sweetness of his gaze, and she flushed.

"Love is a compelling reason," said Tess quietly, "if indeed what you're feeling is love. But you don't even know him. You've never exchanged one word with him that wasn't translated through someone else."

"That doesn't mean I can't love him!" But, Goddess, what if Tess was trying to tell her that it was Anatoly who wanted free?

Tess sighed and rose. "Just remember, Diana, that love is never the only reason. I'll go now. Yomi said to tell you that rehearsal will start early this morning."

Diana flung her head up and jumped to her feet. "Oh, Goddess! If I'm late, Owen will have my head on a platter."

"Yes. I heard that the company will be doing its first performance tonight. What have they chosen to perform?"

Diana shook her head as she pulled a tunic on over her shirt. "We've been rehearsing some of Ginny's reductions of Shakespeare. Keeping the content without the verbiage and-well, reducing the story to its most basic components and mixing in some of the dell'Arte conventions of telling a story without words, or at least that the words in and of themselves don't have to be understood to understand the story. Owen has us working with gesture primarily, and tone and intonation. It will be fascinating to see how well it carries over.''

"I'm sure it will be," Tess replied tonelessly. The two women parted, and Diana ran over to the rehearsal area. Luckily she was not the last one to arrive. Hyacinth jogged up at her heels. His white-blond hair was in disarray and he held his belt in his right hand, fastening it as he halted beside her.

"Why are you late?" Diana demanded as they walked together through the screens and arrived to find the others assembled around the raised platform on which they usually rehearsed.

Hyacinth winked at her. He had delicate features and perfect lips, and eyelashes to die for.

Diana snorted. "Male or female?"

He grinned. "Both. Together."

Diana laughed, choked it off, and flushed suddenly. "I hope you know what you're doing," she said in a whisper, aware that half the company was watching them.

"Oh, Mother's Tits, Diana," said Hyacinth with disgust. "I may be gorgeous, but I'm not stupid. I've had days to watch how things go in the jaran camp. They invited me, not the other way around. I'm discreet, as were they." Then he leaned down and nibbled at her right earlobe. "And as you know," he said softly, "I'm very good."

Diana shoved him away, fighting back a smile. "I hope you're keeping track. At the rate you go, you'll sleep your way through half the camp before we leave."

"Only half? I'm wounded by your lack of faith. 'Look, here come Owen and Ginny. Phillippe and I have a bet running-I say we'll do Lear, and he says we'll do Tempest. What do you think?"

"Anything but Dream," Diana muttered.

Hyacinth giggled. "Two men in love with the same woman. Too close for comfort, eh?"

"Shut up!" she hissed, furious that she was so transparent, and especially to Hyacinth, who was not only promiscuous but a notorious gossip.

Owen mounted the platform and surveyed his troops. "We'll do our final run-through this morning and then move the stage to the performance ground. You'll have the afternoon off, but I want everyone back at-" He checked the back of his hand to read the transparency strip, but all such physical evidence of their off-world origin had been left behind on the ship that had brought them here. "Ah." He glanced around, perplexed. Ginny sat hunched over her notebook. His gaze settled on Yomi.

"Sunset is at 1900 Standard. Meet at 1800 hours."

"As Yomi says. Now." He paced from one end of the platform to the other, as if measuring it, studied the scattering of clouds in the sky, and motioned to Hyacinth. "Puck. We'll walk the awakening scene first and then go back to the beginning."

Hyacinth smiled charmingly. "But you haven't told us what we're doing yet."

Owen blinked. "A Midsummer Night's Dream, of course. Come, come. We haven't much time. I'm a little concerned about the division between our world and the faery world. But one must assume that all human cultures have some understanding of a spirit world, of a world coterminous with our own. I believe that the mythic element must touch all human cultures, that it is there that we must seek our initial contact."

At first Diana felt weak all over. Then she was furious. What would they think? What would Anatoly think? It was like a slap in the face, like making fun of something that was serious, not a lark. "You can't!" she blurted out. "Owen, you can't do it."

Owen blinked at her, looking bewildered. "Can't do what?" he asked. Anahita tittered.

"You can't make me play that part. It's… it's…" She clenched her hands into fists and found that she was too upset to go on.

"But it's perfect. Love's misunderstandings. Weddings. A comedy. It will play to the audience, and we will find a bridge across which we can communicate."

Hyacinth coughed into his hand, hiding his smug grin. "Poor Owen. I'm having no problem in communicating."

Unexpectedly, Hal spoke up. "Di's right, Dad. Considering what happened with Burckhardt, isn't it a bit inappropriate? What if the natives take it as an insult?"

Owen regarded first Diana, and then Hal, with a penetrating gaze. His usual vagueness sloughed off him like a duck shedding water from its back. "I hear your reservations. But. I am right in this. Now. Hyacinth, shall we begin?"

"I refuse," said Diana, before she realized she meant to say it. "I refuse to play Helena. You're asking me to insult my… my…" The word was hard to say, but she forced herself to say it. "My husband."

"Ooooh," said Anahita. "My, my. Aren't we the little queen today?"

"Anahita," said Gwyn in a soft voice. "Shut up."

Everyone else was watching Owen. Owen scratched at his black hair, frowning a little. Then he clambered down from the platform and walked over to stand in front of Diana. She wanted to take a step back, but she did not. He pulled at his lower lip, studying her with his dark eyes.

"Are you a member of this Company?" he asked finally.

She swallowed, but she met his gaze. "Yes."

His voice dropped. In an undertone that could not be heard five feet from them, but carried clearly to her, he said, "Then do as I say. It is your choice, Diana. You are free to go, if that is what you wish. Although I would hate to lose you, that goes without saying. Now, will you play the part?''

Her hands were still tightly fisted. She lowered her gaze away from him. Of course she was out of line, disputing with him in this way. Of course she was free to go. She had always been free to go, as were any of them. "I'm not free to go, and you know it," she said in a whisper, because it was true. She was an actor. Her whole life had led her to this. "Yes." She could not look up at him. She felt their stares like a weight on her. "I'll play."

"Good." He said it curtly but not without sympathy, and then turned and hopped back up on the platform.

"From Puck's entrance," said Yomi.

"Sorry," muttered Hal, with a lift of his chin motioning toward his father.

"Thanks," she said, and took her place. And forced everything else out of her mind, to concentrate on her part: Helena, scorned by Demetrius-Demetrius, who together with Lysander loves Hermia-until out in the enchanted wood, by the mistaken conjurings of Puck, both Demetrius and Lysander forget their love for Hermia and compete for Helena's affections.

They broke at noon, and Diana went and sat in the big Company tent while the others trooped off to assemble the stage and screens over in the jaran camp. Joseph was assembling food for the company. He had a fire going outside, with a huge kettle full of soup set on a tripod over it. Inside, he frowned at the solar-powered oven that sat disguised as a chest in one corner of the tent. "We'll need more flour soon," he said. "And I don't know how to requisition it. Otherwise we'll have to give up bread."

"And you make the most wonderful bread, Joseph." Diana propped her chin on her fists and stared at the canvas wall. The filaments that led up to the solar strips sewn into the ceiling blended into the canvas fabric, lending the barest sheen to the fabric if the light struck it right. "I hate being confined to camp like this."

"It's a good lesson," said Joseph thoughtfully.

"What is?"

"Well, marriage, a legal or spiritual partnership of whatever kind, is restrictive in that you must think of another person and not only of yourself and your desires. You are no longer as free as you once were, responsible only for yourself. Not that I think that that's necessarily the meaning these people give this custom of seclusion-I wouldn't presume to know that-but it's one lesson to be gained, nevertheless. Is there someone outside?" He ducked his head out the flap and then turned back to look at Diana, a quizzical look on his face. "I believe they've come to see you."

He disappeared outside, and Diana heard a brief exchange. She stood up. Joseph reappeared. "Go on," he said. Then he smiled. "And good luck."

"You don't think I'm a fool?" she asked, because Joseph and Yomi were the rock on which the company was laid, the solid foundation that held everything together, and she trusted their judgment.

"We're all fools sometimes," said Joseph cheerfully. "But foolishness is one of the saving graces of our lives. Go on. I can't have them in here. The bread's about to come out."

She pushed past the entrance flap and blinked to adjust to the sunlight. Sonia Orzhekov and Anatoly's grandmother waited for her outside. Elizaveta Sakhalin was a tiny woman, quite old, but Diana felt cowed by her presence nevertheless.

Sonia smiled graciously and took Diana's hands in hers. "I hope you will allow us to have a talk with you."

"Of course." Diana dared not refuse. She felt like a giant, towering over Sakhalin, and yet she felt as well at a complete disadvantage.

"Will you come with us, then?" Sonia asked, with a kind smile. "We discovered that you have no tent of your own, so we took the liberty of bringing one with us, which we set up out here."

"Out here" lay just beyond the Company's encampment and not quite within the jaran encampment. "That's very diplomatic," said Diana, seeing that the colorful tent was sited to belong to both camps, and yet to neither-the meeting of two independent tribes. "And generous, too. It's a beautiful tent." Which it was, striped in four colors on the walls. The entrance flap bore a pattern of beasts intermingled, twined together.

"You must thank Mother Sakhalin," said Sonia. "She has gifted you the tent. Here, now, come inside. We sent Anatoly out of camp for the day, knowing we would bring you here, but you really ought to be inside until sunset." Sonia pulled the tent flap aside and gestured for Diana to precede her. Diana hesitated, and then motioned to Sakhalin to go in first. That brought the first softening of the old woman's features, but the smile was brief. She ducked inside, and Diana followed her. There was room to stand up, but barely, and the walls sloped steeply down from the center. Sonia came in last. She showed Diana how to sit on the large pillows that covered half the rug that made up the floor of the tent.

"I spoke to Mother Yomi," said Sonia as she, too, sank down onto a pillow. "She agreed that you might wait out the rest of the day in seclusion here, as is fitting. She said some preparations were necessary for your performance tonight, but one of the other women of your Company will come by to help you."

"Thank you," said Diana, aware that Elizaveta Sakhalin was studying her with a frown on her face. "I… I hope that you will tell me anything I need to know, about… about…"

Sonia grinned. Her eyes lit, a trifle mischievously, perhaps, and Diana felt suddenly that here she had an ally, not an enemy. ' 'As for what to do with Anatoly, I think you need no instruction from me." Diana flushed and twisted her bracelet around her wrist. "As for the rest-well-first Mother Sakhalin wishes to ask you a few questions." She spoke a few words in khush to Sakhalin, and then the grilling began.

Elizaveta Sakhalin wished to know about Diana's family. Were they important? Wealthy? Had they any skills to pass on to her new husband's family? Did they own horses? How many tents made up the family? Only after Diana had stumbled through this inquisition, scrambling to answer the questions truthfully without revealing anything about where she really came from, did Sakhalin's questions narrow in on Diana herself. Did she have any particular skills to bring to the marriage? Any marriage goods? What was an actor? Was it like a Singer?

In fact, it was clear that Elizaveta Sakhalin thought her grandson was marrying beneath himself, that he had fallen in love with a pretty face, marked Diana on a whim, and now was going to marry a woman who had nothing but her looks and her curious status as an actor to recommend her. And she had nothing. Diana stared at her hands as silence descended, and she realized it was true. To these people, she had no knowledge and no skills that made a woman valuable, and no family except the Company, here.

"Well," said Sonia apologetically, "Tess came from an important family in her own right. You mustn't mind Mother Sakhalin's disappointment, Diana. You must understand that the Sakhalin tribe is the Eldest of all jaran tribes, and she the headwoman of that tribe, so of course-"

"So of course she expected her grandson to marry a woman of higher rank,'' said Diana bitterly. If only they knew what an honor it had been for Diana to be accepted into the Bharentous Repertory Company, or how many actors she had beaten out for the place. It was absurd; millions of people knew her name, millions had seen her perform, on stage or watching through holo links, and this old woman, this barbarian of a tribe that didn't even know the rest of the universe existed, thought she wasn't good enough to marry her grandson.

"Diana," said Sonia firmly, taking one of Diana's hands in her own, "I understand that actors are Singers, that they are gifted by the gods with their art. But Mother Sakhalin believes that jaran Singers are the only true Singers-that can't be helped. Most jaran care nothing for khaja ways, and why should they? But I can see that you are a woman who thinks well of herself and has a position she is proud of. I have been in khaja lands, and I know you are a Singer. Still, you are not in your land now, and Mother Sakhalin is worried about her grandson. Who is, I might add-" She shifted her head so that she could wink at Diana without Sakhalin seeing, "-since she can't understand me, her favorite grandchild. Make him happy, and she will come to love you."

A rush of gratitude overwhelmed Diana. Impulsively, she reached out and took Sonia's other hand in hers. "I thought you came to try to talk me out of the marriage.''

Sonia looked puzzled. "It is Anatoly's choice, and while I might think that choice was rash, I cannot now interfere. Not even his grandmother can interfere."

"I…I thought-" Now she glanced at Mother Sakhalin's stern face, and then away, because the old woman terrified her. "I thought perhaps Anatoly no longer wanted to marry me. That you came to tell me that. It isn't-as if we know one another very well. He might have had second thoughts."

Sonia laughed and squeezed Diana's hand reassuringly. "Men never have second thoughts. Anatoly, like most young men who have gotten what they want, has been infuriatingly well-mannered for the past nine days.''

If the rug had been yanked out from under her feet, Diana could not have felt more unstable. It really was going to happen. "But I don't know-that is, what is expected of a wife here? What do I do?''

Sonia sighed and released Diana's hands. "How like Tess you are. I begin to think you khaja women are hopeless. But perhaps that is because you have servants or slaves to do all the work for you."

"We don't have slaves!" Diana broke off. She could not begin to imagine what these jaran women must do, every day, to keep their families fed and sheltered and clothed and healthy. Her world and their world barely intersected, and in their world, she was as ignorant as a baby. "I hope you will help me understand what things I need to do." She hadn't the faintest inkling of what she was getting into.

Sonia shook her head. "You need a woman of the tribes to help you, to treat you as a sister. I can't offer, because I have too many responsibilities as it is. But perhaps…" She turned to Sakhalin and the two women had a rapid conversation in khush. Diana could not understand a word they were saying, could not even recognize any of the khush words she had so laboriously learned from the program on Maggie's slate. "That is settled, then," said Sonia finally, nodding her head with a satisfied look on her face. Even Sakhalin looked mollified. "The tribes are moving. The main army leaves tomorrow, and our camp moves as well. We will meet up with Arina Veselov and her tribe, and I will ask her to take you in. That will do, I think. You'll like Arina. I think you must be of an age, you two. She and her husband know Tess well, too, so they will understand about your khaja ways. But you'll have to learn khush, although I believe Kirill has learned some Rhuian these past three years. Is that acceptable to you, Diana?"

"To me, yes." Pitched into this unknown sea, Diana was not sure she could swim. "But I'll-you'll-Arina Veselov will have to speak to Owen and Ginny first. I need their permission for any drastic change in my circumstances. I have my duties to the Company."

Sonia repeated this speech to Sakhalin, and the old woman voiced her approval of Diana's deference to her elders. "Mother Sakhalin says that until we meet up with the Veselov tribe, you and Anatoly may consider the Sakhalin camp your own."

"But isn't that his family? Wouldn't he live there anyway? ''

Sonia cocked her head to one side. She wore her hair in four braids, each bright with ribbons woven in the hair, and her head was capped by a beaded net of gold that hung in strands down to frame her face. "When a man marries, he goes to his wife's kin to live. Tomorrow, if you wish, you may move your tent into your people's encampment, and Anatoly will move there as well."

Except that inside the encampment lay concealed the forbidden technology that they used every day. "But-"

"Or you may wait, if you wish, and see what agreement you and Mother Yomi reach with Arina Veselov.'' Sonia stood and shook out her skirts and helped Elizaveta Sakhalin to rise. Diana got hastily to her feet and went to hold the entrance flap aside. "If there is any wedding finery that you wish to borrow," said Sonia, pausing before she left, "let me know."

"That much I think we can manage," said Diana, and then realized how snappish she sounded. "But thank you." She smiled sincerely at the other woman. Sonia smiled back. Sakhalin did not smile. The two women took their leave.

Diana let the tent flap fall back into place, leaving her in the gloom of the tent. She sat down, then threw herself out along the pillows, and sighed. What was she doing here, anyway? What did she think she was doing? And here she was, stuck in the tent with nothing to do. Of course, she could walk out any time she wanted. She did not have to go through with the marriage. Everyone said as much; she knew as much. But when it came right down to it, she could not bring herself to hurt Anatoly by publicly repudiating the marriage in such a fashion, not when Sonia had just said that he still desired it. And she absolutely refused to give Marco Burckhardt the satisfaction of knowing that he was right.

"Diana?" It was Joseph. "I brought some of your things. And a camplight for the tent. And some food." The tent flap rustled aside and he stuck his head in. "Here you are."

"Bless you, Joseph. How kind you are."

He grinned. "I'll send Anahita by later to help you with your makeup and costume."

"Monster." She laughed, feeling suddenly heartened. "Don't you dare. Go on, you must be busy back at camp."

" 'I go, I go; look how I go; Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.' Lady knows, I've heard that line enough times." He retreated to her applause.

She ate a little and then took out her journal and wrote. "My dear Nana, I'm not sure how to explain this to you…"

Quinn interrupted some time later. "Diana." She crawled in. "What a gorgeous piece of weaving. Where did you get this? Oh, from his grandmother. My, my. Now there's a formidable woman, even though she barely comes up to my shoulder. You must have charmed her.''

"She doesn't like me."

"Surely not."

"Well, I don't know whether she likes me, but she certainly doesn't approve of me. Did you bring everything?"

"Mirror. Kit. Gown. Seshat sent baubles, for afterward-after the performance, for whatever they do for a ceremony. She thought you ought to sparkle, even though we don't have the kind of gold they do. Those women do weight themselves down with it, don't they?"

Diana fingered the gold bead necklace that Anatoly had given her. "I suppose it's a marker of status." Which she sorely lacked. "Oh, well. Let's get ready."

They were old hands at putting on makeup. That accomplished, they changed into the simple gowns that Joseph had designed to fit the greatest range of plays, using smaller accessories to give them character and place. It was dusk when they emerged from the tent and walked over to the encampment where the others had gathered.

Yomi counted them off. "In two more minutes, Hyacinth will be late," she proclaimed. One minute and fifty five seconds later, Hyacinth appeared. He had highlighted his eyes with black pencil and tied various odds and ends-scraps of material, beads, bracelets strung together-to his tunic to lend him an air of being subtly different from the rest, of being a spirit from that parallel world that intersects our own.

Owen looked them over and nodded, satisfied. "I hope you are ready, because now we see."

"Where's Ginny?"

"She's at the house already, helping the audience settle in."

They marched, a ragtag troop, through the quiet dusk of the jaran camp. The walk seemed to last forever to Diana, past the dark hulking tents, past smoldering campfires, toward the murmur of voices, toward the people gathered on the ring of empty ground in front of which their stage sat. She caught a glimpse of the audience as they came up behind the screens: a huge mass of bodies, uncountable, waiting for them rather like a predator waits for its prey. She recognized no individual faces; it was too dim for that. The stage was lit by lanterns. One screen without its fabric center had been set on stage, to form a doorway through which the players could pass from one scene, or one world, to the next. No other scenery existed, only the players and what they gave to their audience.

Yomi called the five minute warning. Gwyn and Anahita shook out their tunics, preparing to enter. Joseph stood ready at stage left with their changes of costume, since they were doubling parts. Owen vanished around the stage to go sit in the house. The play began.

Diana was aware of the audience only as an intent, listening beast, but the beast was theirs. The force of its concentration was like a pressure on them, faltering here and there when the scene passed its understanding, then snapping back, fixed and tangible.

Though the night was cool, Gwyn was sweating from the exertion of playing two major roles. But he was magnificent, as always: his Theseus was martial and strong, his Oberon utterly unlike, ethereal and just slightly spiteful. Even the audience could not confuse the two, though they were played by the same man. As for Anahita-well-Diana had always thought she played Hippolyta too stridently and Titania as a hair-brained twit, but she was powerful, nevertheless.

The lovers fled to another part of the forest. Love became confused, and then was righted at last. The audience did not laugh once, but their attention did not waver.

Puck gave his final speech and extinguished half of the lanterns. Exit.

Dead silence.

Behind the screens, Diana looked at Hal and Hal looked at Gwyn and Gwyn shrugged. A rustling noise carried to them.

"They're all standing up," said Yomi.

Gwyn chuckled suddenly. "Who ever said they'd know how to applaud?" he asked. He wiped sweat from his forehead and shook the moisture off his hand.

Owen appeared, looking intent and excited. "Di, where are you? Come on, come on.''

"Come on where?" she asked, shrinking back.

"The rest of you, too, up on the stage-this isn't a bow, they won't understand that-but don't you see? We can cement the link. We can complete the circle in their minds. The masque of a wedding followed by an actual wedding. Come, Diana."

"Owen, wait," said Joseph. With economical skill, he stripped the makeup from Di's face and then adorned her with the costume jewelry Seshat had brought. "That will do. You may go."

Owen grabbed Diana's wrist and dragged her away, back around the screens. By the time they got to the front, the other actors had filed onto the stage and formed themselves into a neat semicircle. The audience was standing, murmuring now, but Diana saw that their silence, their rise to their feet, was their way of showing respect for what had just been given them. A clot of people stood at the foot of the platform, but only one of them mattered. Her heart began to pound. He stared at her, and he looked nervous, worried even. Owen released her ten paces from Anatoly, and she halted.

Anatoly wore the brilliant red shirt of the jaran riders, embroidered in a fantastic pattern down the sleeves and along the collar. Gold-studded epaulets shone on his shoulders. Gold braid lined the rim of his black boots. He wore two necklaces at his throat and gold bands on each wrist, and his saber's hilt glinted in the lantern light. A belt of gold plates girdled his wrist. Then his grandmother stepped forward and addressed a long speech to Owen. It had the cadence of poetry.

Tess Soerensen stepped forward into the gap between the two pairs. She turned to Owen. "Elizaveta Sakhalin presents to you her grandson, who, in accordance with the traditions of the people, has come to bow to the parits and the relatives of the bride and to ask to be taken to your camp as husband to this woman. He brings with him a string of fine horses, he brings his armor and his weapons, and he brings his skill at fighting. To his bride he brings a new set of bow and arrows. His family brings these presents for the bride's family: wine and milk, dry fruit, meat, and a silk scarf to bind your camps together. They bring also blessings to this young couple, for their happiness and well-being." She paused, and then with an open hand gestured to Owen.

He smiled. Diana realized abruptly that Owen had rehearsed this all along and simply not told her, or possibly anyone else, about it. He lifted a hand and Joseph appeared, bearing gifts in his hands: foodstuffs, clothing, carved chess set. Diana felt cold and hot all at once, and because she did not know where else to look, she looked at Anatoly. His gaze, on her, was intense, and she clung to it as to a lifeline.

'More strange than true,' " Owen began, and in his pleasant baritone, he reeled off the entire speech.

Tess's lips quirked up as he finished. "How am I supposed to translate that?" she asked. "In whatever way it is most appropriate." Tess spoke at length, her phrases cadenced as Sakhalin's had been, a ritual that was generations old. Gifts were brought forward and exchanged. Tess beckoned Diana forward, and then Anatoly, and then she retired. Anatoly put out his hands. Diana took them, clutched at them. They were warm and strong. Elizaveta Sakhalin and Owen came forward and bound the silk scarf around their clasped hands. More words were spoken. Then, sparking, a huge fire burst into flame out on the flat of ground beyond. Two drums beat out a rapid rhythm, and pipes came in with a melody. Under the concealing silk, Anatoly twined his fingers in with hers and stroked her palms with his thumbs. The caress lit fires all along her, and she swayed toward him, wanting nothing more at that moment than to be alone with him.

"Anatoly," said his grandmother, scolding. He stopped what he was doing, but his entire face lit with a smile, a smile that was meant for Diana only, intimate, exultant. Daring much, Diana tilted her head up and kissed him, briefly, on the lips. He whispered words into her ear, another caress, and then pushed back and unwound the scarf from around their hands and tied it around her waist like a belt. Then he turned and left her, walked over to his family and a moment later Sonia Orzhekov had taken him out to dance. Diana gaped after them.

"Diana." Appearing abruptly beside her, Bakhtiian bowed. His presence was as powerful as the fire's. "It is traditional for a new bride to dance on her wedding night. I hope you will excuse my immodesty in asking you to dance."

"Of course," she said, wondering what on earth he meant. But it quickly became apparent to her that she was not meant to spend any time with Anatoly at all, during this celebration. She caught glimpses of him, dancing with other women, speaking with men out on the fringes of the celebration, glancing her way, once, his gaze catching on her, his smile, and then he was drawn away by someone else.

The actors emerged, pale without their makeup, to congratulate her. She danced. She felt confused and disoriented, but she went from one instant to the next and tried not to think beyond that.

"Well," said Anahita, coming up beside her much later. "I see that Marco Burckhardt isn't at the celebration. I haven't seen him all day. What do you think of that?"

"I think you're just jealous he was never interested in you," Diana snapped.

"Bravo," said Gwyn softly behind her as Anahita flounced away. "Congratulations, Diana."

"Thank you. Owen made a spectacle out of it, didn't he?"

"Owen can't help himself. But I assure you that it was impressive."

"Did he have it rehearsed all along? How did he know to bring presents? Where did he get them? Why didn't he tell me?"

Gwyn chuckled. "I think you were part of the experiment. As for the rest, Owen always does his research.

You ought to know that, Diana. If you hadn't provided this wonderful opportunity for him, he'd have had to invent it. Ah, here comes your husband. I'll leave you now." He kissed her on the cheek and retreated.

Anatoly strode toward her, looking purposeful. His grandmother and several members of his family walked at his heels. A moment later Owen and Ginny arrived, together with Yomi and Joseph.

Yomi hugged Diana. "I hope you're ready," Yomi murmured. "We've come to escort you to your tent."

All at once Diana could not move. In a few minutes, she would be alone with a man she barely knew, with a man she could scarcely even communicate with. She stood rooted to the ground. The others moved away, but she could not lift her feet, could not follow them. She had made a terrible, stupid mistake. She knew that now, knew it bitterly, and hated herself for knowing it.

Anatoly turned back. His eyes narrowed as he examined her. He put out his hand, offering it to her. Diana took in a big breath and laid her hand in his.

They walked through camp. No one spoke. The silence weighed on her, counterpointed by the music and singing coming from the celebration behind, which still played on. So she spoke:

"You that choose not by the view Chance as fair and choose as true! Since this fortune falls to you, Be content and seek no new. If you be well pleas'd with this And hold your fortune for your bliss, Turn you where your lady is And claim her with a loving kiss."

Anatoly smiled and squeezed her hand. Joseph grinned. They left the jaran camp behind and came to her tent, set out in the middle, isolated, lonely. There Owen and Ginny kissed her, Yomi and Joseph hugged her, and they left. Anatoly's family left, leaving with them two sets of saddlebags, a rolled up blanket, a leather flask and two cups. Diana stood alone with her new husband in a gloom lit only by the single lantern set on the ground beside them. He did not move, but only watched her.

She hesitated, and then bent to pick up the lantern and pushed the entrance flap aside, and ducked into the tent. A moment later, he followed her in, carrying his worldly goods in his arms. He knelt and set them carefully in one corner, then rose.

She just stood there, the lantern heavy in her hand. His pale hair seemed lighter by contrast with the shadows in the tent. His lips moved, forming soundless words. Gently, he took the lantern from her and hung it from a loop on the center pole.

"Anatoly." She dug for words, khush words, to speak to him, but they had all evaporated.

"Diana-" He said a whole sentence, but it was meaningless to her, nothing but sounds strung together.

They stood a moment in awkward silence. He lifted one hand to trace the scar on her cheek. His fingers slid to trace her lips, and she kissed them, and his other hand sought her hips, to draw her closer to him, and she slid one arm around his back and caught her other hand in his hair…

Then, as quickly as that, she discovered that in fact they did speak the same language.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

At the edge of the firelit glow cast by the roaring bonfire, Ilya Bakhtiian halted beside his wife where she stood in the gloom. Tess glanced up at him, then back out at the camp.

"They left, then?" asked Bakhtiian.

"Who, Anatoly and Diana? Yes." She turned to face him, watching him as he watched her, measuring. Her lips quirked up. "No stranger than you and I."

"Perhaps. But I doubt it. She will leave him." Once, he would have hesitated to touch her in public, since it was unseemly. Now he lifted his hands without the least self-consciousness to cup her face and stare at her, searching. "I love you," he said, and that was all, although it was a question.

"What would you do if I left?"

His lips drew out, tightening, and his face went taut. He dropped his hands from her face and grasped her hands instead. "You will not. I forbid it."

"You can't forbid it."

"No." The admission was shattering, wrung from him. "I cannot. But if I could, I would."

"The ambassador from Vidiya has a slave. A woman."

Now she had gone too far. "How dare you compare me to that pompous, overdressed boy?" he demanded. "How dare you even suggest that I have made such a thing of you?''

"To make you think, damn you."

"Then go. You are free to choose." He was so angry that he was shaking. "We ride south tomorrow. I can leave a jahar to take you to the coast with your brother, if that is what you wish. What I wish, you know well enough."

"Oh, Ilya." She embraced him suddenly. He was tense, stiff, but his anger could not sustain itself when she showed the least sign of her love for him. She felt him relax against her, and he sighed into her hair.

"Damn you," he muttered.

"Come with me."

"Where?" He drew his head back and frowned at her, suspicious.

She chuckled. "No, not to Jeds. To see my brother, now."

"Why?"

"To tell him the truth. That I don't intend to leave the jaran. Not now, at any rate. Not this year."

He was still frowning. "When, then?"

"When you die, damn you. Now stop bothering me and come with me."

He laughed, surprised, and hugged her tightly. "We have an old tale," he whispered into her ear, "about a woman who poisoned her husband because she wanted to marry another man."

Tess smiled and pressed into him, returning the embrace. "If you can find me another man to marry, then I'll consider it." She broke free of his grasp and pushed him away. "Now, you'll come with me, and you'll stay quiet while I talk with Charles."

"Yes, my wife," he said meekly, and he walked with her across camp to Soerensen's encampment. At the gap, they passed about fifty paces away from the little tent that sat on the grass between both camps. Bakhtiian fought down a smile and he stopped Tess with a hand on her shoulder, and bent and kissed her. The night shielded them. "After," he murmured, releasing her.

"Don't distract me. You don't know how hard it is for me to do this."

Under the awning of Charles's tent, Marco Burckhardt sat with a thin tablet on his lap. Charles sat next to him, staring at something on his hand. Two lanterns lit the two men, one to either side of them, and from the slightly askew flap of Dr. Hierakis's tent, a steady glow could be seen coming from the interior. Then both men looked up, saw Tess, saw Bakhtiian, and Marco collected something from Charles's hand and took it and the slate back into the tent before Tess and Ilya reached the awning.

Charles stood up. Cara emerged from her tent, glanced at the converging lines, and walked over to stand next to Charles. Marco reappeared from the tent.

"They're hiding something from me," Bakhtiian muttered, and he glanced at Tess to see what her reaction was. Tess flushed, but he could not see the color of her skin in the darkness, so she was safe.

"How long will the carousing go on?" Cara asked with a smile as she motioned them to come in under the awning.

Bakhtiian acknowledged her first, with a nod, and then Charles, and last Marco. "As long as they wish. The army rides south tomorrow. They'll earn this celebration tonight."

"The poor child won't have much of a honeymoon, then," said Cara. "But I saw that she was safely put to bed a little earlier. Where are you going, Marco?"

"Out to carouse," he said curtly. He excused himself and left.

They watched him go. Charles's expression was unreadable. Cara shook her head. Bakhtiian arched his brows, looking puzzled. "He doesn't seem like the kind of man Sonia would take to her bed." He glanced at Charles, as if to gain corroboration from the other man, and Tess was struck by how clearly he treated Charles as an equal. There were many men, men of the jaran in particular, whom he treated with respect, but there was no question of where the ultimate authority lay. No question but here: Ilya did not defer to Charles-he did to women, of course; that was so deeply engrained in him that Tess doubted he would ever lose the habit-but neither did he attempt in the slightest to command him.

"Sonia likes a challenge," said Tess.

"Is that where he's been at night?" Charles asked. "I had wondered."

"And you didn't ask?" Tess spoke the words and an instant later realized how sarcastic they sounded. "I have to talk to you," she said quickly, to cover her embarrassment and to get it over with. This was something best done quickly, before she lost her nerve. Somehow, seeing Anatoly and Diana escorted off into the night to their tent had made her determined to talk to Charles now, however much she wanted to put it off.

"Please sit," said Charles. Cara and Tess sat down next to each other, in chairs. Ilya hesitated. "I have pillows," said Charles suddenly, "and something I brought for you from Jeds." He vanished into the tent, emerging with two large pillows and a velvet bag. He tossed the pillows onto the ground so that the two men could sit side by side and on the same level.

Ilya's lips twitched, and then he smiled. "Well done," he said, and sat down. Charles sat down beside him, opened the velvet bag, and drew out two objects: a book and a clock.

He gave Ilya the clock first. It had a simple design, a white unnumbered face framed with mahogany; a spring door in the back opened to reveal the mechanical workings.

"This is different," Ilya said, "than the clocks I saw in Jeds."

"The lines and hands mark out the hours of the day."

"Like a khaja wall marks out land," said Ilya, glancing up at Tess. Then, turning back to Charles, "Its simplicity lends it beauty.''

Charles offered him the book and, of course, he took it. Ilya never could resist a book. He ran his hands along the leather binding in a way that was almost amorous, and then turned it to the title page and then to the text. He gave a short bark of laughter. " 'Being convinced that the human intellect makes its own difficulties-' " He closed the book and handed it up to Tess. "True enough words," he said to Charles.

"The New Organon. Francis Bacon," read Tess. "Charles!" Both men looked up at her expectantly. She stroked one arm of her chair, tracing the patterns in its carved wood with her fingers. "Charles," she said again, and lapsed into silence. A book and a clock-the one by a philosopher who had helped develop the scientific method, the other, well, Ilya himself had compared a device that measures time in artificial increments to the walls that interrupt the natural flow of the land. These were the worst weapons Charles could have brought; and he knew it, and she knew it.

Cara rescued them from the uncomfortable silence. The doctor leaned down to rummage in a cloth bag crumpled at the base of her chair and drew out a mass of yarn, and began to knit.

Ilya's face lit with interest. "That is like weaving. May I ask what it is you're doing?"

"It's called knitting. The women of your people don't knit? Who did the marvelous embroidery on your shirt?"

He tilted his head to one side, looking pleased and a little shy. "I did."

"You did?" Cara laughed. "Well. That ought to teach me not to make unwarranted assumptions. What were you going to say, Tess? Would you like something to drink? Some Scotch, perhaps?"

"I don't think so-"

"Certainly." Ilya cut across her refusal. "We would be honored." He shot her an admonishing glance. Sharing food and drink was one of the two fundamental courtesies that bound the jaran tribes together.

"Perhaps you'd like to come with me," said Cara, to Ilya.

"No. I want Ilya to stay here." His presence was both the spur and the anchor, forcing her to go forward, keeping her stable. She clutched the book in both hands. "And you, too, Cara. It's no long speech. It's very little, really, it's very simple. I'm not going back."

Charles rested his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. "You're not going back where?"

"To Jeds, with you, when you go back. When you leave." She burned with heat. She knew it, could feel the flush on her face, could feel her pulse pounding. "It's only fair to tell you, so you don't keep thinking… that maybe I will. That I'm going back. I know that's what you came for. But I can't go. Not now."

"Why is that?" Charles's voice was cool, neutral.

Ilya sat straight, his chin lifted in triumph, and he looked at Tess, not at his rival, as if, having won, he could now dismiss him.

Why did she have to defend herself like this? And why must she do it so damned badly? "Because I love him," she said in Anglais.

"Love is a compelling reason," said Charles in Rhuian, and Ilya shifted his gaze to Charles. "But alone it is not always sufficient. I think it isn't all that is keeping you here."

"What do you mean by that?" demanded Ilya. Whatever ease had existed between the two men at the beginning of the conversation vanished, evaporating in the heat of Ilya's question.

"Ilya," said Tess.

"I'm getting the Scotch," said Cara, "and I expect you two to behave yourselves until I get back." She rose and strode off to her tent.

Charles raised his eyebrows. His gaze caught on Bakhtiian's, and a moment later the two men smiled stiffly at each other.

"Serves you right," muttered Tess. Cara returned with the bottle of Scotch and four sturdy glass tumblers. Ilya held up the one she gave him and turned it, watching the light splinter and catch in the crystal.

"This is beautiful." He lowered the glass so that Cara could pour a splash of the liquor into it. With the others, he lifted it and drank. Tess lowered her glass and watched him, saw his eyes round at the potency of the alcohol. He choked back a cough and took another sip, cautiously this time.

Cara chuckled. "Now," she said, "you will come with me, Bakhtiian. I have a few things to show you, and some questions to ask about your army's medical logistics."

Ilya looked at Tess, and she sighed and nodded. He rose and obediently followed Dr. Hierakis.

"It's an interesting culture," said Charles, watching them go. "And rather admirable, in its way."

"Yes, well," she replied sarcastically, "Francis Bacon will soon put an end to that."

"You don't approve?"

"He'll never use the clock. They just don't think that way.''

"Doubtless," said Charles, sounding sardonic in his turn, "in the Great Chain of Philosophic Being, their culture ranks far above our own."

Stung, she tossed the book with purposeful disregard onto Ilya's pillow. It landed next to the clock. "You know it's ridiculous to compare cultures in that fashion.''

He looked serious all at once, and Tess did not know what to make of his expression. "Tess, I have faith in you that you would not have stayed with the jaran if they were savages."

But his sympathy made her feel worse. She curled her hands around the tumbler and stared at the Scotch, swirling it around in the glass. "They're killing a lot of people, Charles. Lots of people. Hordes of them."

"As will I, if I lead another rebellion against the Chapalii Empire. That's my choice, isn't it?"

Tess set the glass down on the rug. She could hear Cara talking softly behind her, and Ilya's softer replies. "Charles." She wrapped her fingers together, unwound them, and let them fall to her lap. "You made a choice to make a cause the center of your life. I can't live that way. Someday I'll come to the end of my life and when I look back, I know what measure I'll make of how well I lived. That measure is in the lives I lived beside."

"But someone must live for the cause. Or else we remain slaves. Well-treated slaves, it is true, but slaves nevertheless."

"You're right, of course. I never said I wouldn't do my part. But you've given up everything else for your work and I can't-I won't-do that. Otherwise my life is a desert-nothing." She hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, to judge him, but he merely watched her, unfathomable. "If anything of me lives on after I'm dead, it will be my linguistics work, and, I hope, children as well."

"You've thought about this a great deal."

She steepled her hands and rested her lips on her thumbs, then raised her head to look at him again. "I've torn at myself. Half of me says that I must give myself entirely to your work, that it's my duty to you, my duty to humanity, that's most important. It's a litany that runs through my head. But what use would it be for me to sacrifice myself for that? I'm not a leader. I'm not like you. Or like Ilya, for that matter. I don't want to be a leader, I'm not cut out to be one. I can contribute in other ways. I will. But I won't give up my family to do so." She said it with passion, and only a moment later realized how it must sound to him.

"As I've given up mine?" he asked, and she could not tell if he was hurt, angry, or amused.

"I don't fault you, Charles. I never said that. You're doing what you have to do. I don't think there's anything else you could do. Like Cara-her research is the heart of her life. Everything else is a hobby."

"Including me?"

Tess bent down to pick up the tumbler and drained it in one gulp. The heat of it seared her throat, but the burning gave her courage. "Including you. That knife cuts both ways. It's why the two of you are so well-matched."

Now Charles did smile, and Tess relaxed slightly. "I see my baby sister has grown up."

"I'm a little older. Not much."

"And yet, you married a man who has dedicated his life in the same way I have dedicated mine."

"Yes." Her smile was sardonic. "The prince's sister must marry a prince. There was another man I fell in love with, another man of the jaran, but I would never have married him. Once I met Ilya…" She shrugged. "In the end, I suppose it was inevitable."

"How old is he?"

"By their calendar, which runs in twelve year cycles, he's thirty-seven." She gave an ironic nod toward the clock. "However accurate their time-keeping is."

"But, nevertheless, well into the prime of his life. He'll die, Tess."

It was like being slapped. All she could do was try to hit back. "Are you willing to wait him out? Knowing he'll die soon enough and then you can get me back?"

"I meant," he said mildly, "that he'll die sooner than you will, barring any accidents. Much sooner."

She twisted her hands together and glanced back at Dr. Hierakis's tent. Cara and Ilya stood talking together outside the tent, and as if he felt her gaze, Ilya turned their way, looking at her as he always looked at her, so intently, so intimately, that her own feelings rose fiercely to meet his across the gap. With an effort, she turned back to Charles. "Don't you think I know that?" she asked bitterly. "Don't you think I remember that every damn morning? And every night, after he's fallen asleep?"

"I'm sorry," said Charles, but whether for her pain or for the specter of Ilya's premature death, by their standards, she could not be sure.

Cara and Ilya returned. "But surely you'll ride with the army," Ilya was saying. "There is so much more you can teach my healers."

"I don't know. Charles?" Cara sat down again, but Ilya remained standing.

"I need to go to the shrine of Morava," said Charles.

Ilya's gaze flicked from Charles to Tess and back to Charles. "I can send a small jahar with you, if you wish to ride north now. Then you can follow us south, if you will, or return to the coast and sail back to Jeds, if that is your desire."

"I need to take Tess with me to the shrine."

"That is impossible."

Charles stood up. "Of course it is not impossible. I need her to translate."

"I remind you that you are in my camp." Ilya's voice dropped and its very mildness was threatening.

Charles smiled.

Tess had a horrible premonition that Charles was about to say something rash-something like, / remind you that you are on my planet-and she jumped to her feet and placed herself between the two men. "Stop it. Damn you two, stop it. I'll make my own choice. Sit down."

Neither sat. No one spoke. Tess did not know what to say, so she simply stood there, feeling the force of them one on each side. Like Jiroannes through the bonfires, she felt the pressure of their attention on her, the force of their equally strong personalities brought to bear on her, and she was caught in the middle. If she had ever thought for an instant that these two men could compromise, then she had been sorely mistaken.

"Someone's coming," said Cara.

Ilya turned. A man ran toward them. He halted beyond the carpet, outside the awning's overhang. "Bakhtiian. A messenger has come in from Sakhalin."

"I'll come." Ilya nodded at Dr. Hierakis. "Doctor. If you'll excuse me."

"Of course."

"Tess?" He put out his hand.

She did not move. "I'm not done here yet. I'll come along in a while."

He froze, tensing, then jerked himself around and strode off with the soldier, vanishing into the darkness.

"Tess," said Charles, "sometimes I think I would be doing you a service simply to take you forcibly out of here."

"Don't you dare! You're no better than him, you're just a damned sight cooler about it. And if you're so damned righteous, then why are you flouting your own interdiction laws?''

"I beg your pardon?"

"Francis Bacon. Or had you forgotten so quickly? And you let the Bharentous Repertory Company come here. However much you claim to be preserving Rhuian cultures, you're already corrupting them."

Charles blinked, looking surprised at the vehemence of her attack. "Tess, inevitably Rhui's interdiction will be lifted. In a cautious way, I'm trying to prepare for that."

"Gods, you've already thought about it. You're doing it on purpose. Do you have a timetable set, too? When do the sea gates open?'' She was so angry that tears came to her eyes.

His voice cooled to a chill. "If I hadn't intervened, Rhui would have been raped. Which do you prefer? Quick and ugly, or giving them a chance to meet the change on their own terms?''

"Oh, hell," said Tess, wiping at her eyes. "I'm sorry.''

"Charles." Cara stood up. "I want to talk to Tess a bit, alone, and take a few tests. If you'll excuse us."

He muttered a word under his breath, then turned and stalked into his tent.

"That's one thing that always encourages me about humanity," said Cara, taking Tess's arm and leading her across to her tent, "that in the midst of all our nobility we can be so incredibly foolish. And petty. And otherwise damned asses."

"Thank you."

Cara snorted, amused. "The comment wasn't actually meant for you, my dear." She guided Tess into the tent and snapped her fingers. A light flicked on, hidden in the ceiling. Cara pushed through into the back compartment of the tent, where a diagnostic table stood next to a counter laid out in neat lines with a field laboratory, a lacework of metal and plastine and glass. "Now. We have some serious discussing to do, my girl, and I need to do a full diagnostic on you. Sit."

Tess sat obediently on the table. "Cara, is it too late? Can you give Ilya treatments to make him live longer?"

Cara turned from the counter and regarded Tess. Something lit in her face and was, as quickly, smothered. "Ah," she said, and turned back without replying, busying herself with the equipment.

"But can you?" Tess demanded.

"I've had to relearn a good deal about the human life span, a great deal we've forgotten these last one hundred years, now that we live out a full one hundred twenty years, all of us. Did you know, Tess, that with their year being longer than ours, Rhuians normally live longer lives than Earth humans did before the advent of decent medicine in the twenty-first century? I once thought they were some kind of amazing parallel evolution.''

"But the cylinder I got at the shrine of Morava-"

"Yes. It proved that they are descendants of Earth, brought thousands of years ago from Earth to Rhui by the Chapalii duke, the Tai-en Mushai, to populate this planet. One wonders if he killed off some developing intelligent indigenes in order to make room for our kind. But in any case, he altered the humans he brought. He made them more-efficient.''

"But they still age more rapidly than we do."

"Indeed. Bakhtiian can expect to live another thirty or forty years, all else being equal, but you can expect to live another ninety, and you won't age appreciably for a long long time. As in the old folktales of elves and humans, we would seem eternally young to them."

"Then you're saying there's nothing you can do?" Her voice caught with fear and grief.

"This planet, and whatever the Mushai's engineers did to them, has altered their chemistry from ours. The techniques given us to extend our lives might work for them, but they might not. It would be… experimental, Tess. Risks go together with experiments."

"Oh, God. But I'm so scared of losing him. Or of him getting old while I'm still young."

"There is another question. Ought I to interfere? It would clearly breach the interdiction."

"Which Charles has already breached."

"Yes. But knowledge works slowly, and Bakhtiian, my dear, may well change the face of this continent very quickly indeed. How long do we want it to go on?"

"It doesn't matter, does it?" Tess asked bitterly. "Either way, we play god. Either way, we choose for Rhui."

"That is the burden of greater knowledge. But there are two other factors, Tess. One only Charles knows of, and now you: there are clues, here on Rhui, that there may be a way to alter the human life span, to extend it past the one hundred twenty years given us by the Chapalii, to double it or more. I intend to break the code. I believe that I'm close to doing so. In fact, with your cooperation, I need some subjects from the jaran, although I've had some luck studying them since I arrived here."

"The wounded," said Tess under her breath. "God, that's cold, Cara."

"If I save them as well, why not let them benefit all of us? Lie down, I'm going to take some blood and run the scanner over you." Tess lay down. "I want Bakhtiian. Perhaps I'll make you a trade: let me examine him, take tissue and blood from him, and I'll see what I can do about some kind of basic serum to retard his aging." Her expression grew distant. "And if I can manage it," she said, more to herself than to anyone, "it will mean I possess Rhui's code."

It was an odd, unsettling experience, to see Cara wear the look that Ilya wore when he contemplated lands he did not yet control.

"But don't answer me now," added Cara, crashing back to earth. "I can't quantify the risks for you, only say that there will be risks. I can't predict how his chemistry will react. You'll feel a pinch here; that's the needle. Now breathe normally and lie still."

Tess shut her eyes. A low hum filled her ears. A breath of air puffed on her face and drifted down over her body, followed by the slight tingle of some kind of pressure and field. "I'll risk it. I have to. Though I don't know how you can study Ilya without betraying all this."

"Shhh. Don't move. Tess." Her voice lowered, becoming grave. "There's a more serious problem. Why did you remove your implant? To get pregnant, I know. But it's too risky. I have four recorded deaths, three many years ago and one recent, of women who died in childbirth from a reaction to the-well, once it was an Earth woman who got pregnant by a Rhuian male and died, in the others it was the opposite. It's an antigenic reaction to blood types and antibodies that no longer mesh well. I don't want you to get pregnant, Tess. No, one more minute."

The silence drew out.

"There, we're done."

Tess pushed herself up. "But Cara-"

"No, I have no recorded instances of women who survived cross breeding."

"What about the children?"

"In one instance the child lived, because I arrived immediately after birth."

"Then there must be-"

"Tess, as soon as a woman gets pregnant, she is inundated with hormonal changes. My research shows that the risk is immediate and acute. I suppose-" She broke off.

"What?"

"You did start puberty here, on Rhui. That might-"

"That might what? God, Cara, you must know how badly Ilya wants children."

"What about what you want?"

Tess hung her head, and her voice shook. "I want something of him, after he's dead. But that's only part of it. I never thought about children before. There was never any urgency in it. But I want children with him, Cara. Can't you understand that?"

"Since I have no children of my own?"

"I didn't mean it as an accusation."

Cara finished transferring blood from one tube to another and pressed a few buttons, and then came to sit on the table beside Tess. She put an arm around Tess, and Tess felt safe with her. Tess trusted her. "Tess, I will study the matter. When did you take the implant out?"

"Three months ago."

"That should give us time. It usually takes a year until ovulation resumes. Meanwhile, I want you to take some of this rather primitive birth control method I have with me. Goddess, child, I will take no chances with you. Do you understand that?"

"But, Cara-"

"No. No chances with you. I'll run a fuller test on you once I've gone through these preliminary results, and once I do a study of Bakhtiian, I'll see if I can make any kind of prediction based on blood type and other factors. That's as far as I'll go, Tess. If you won't promise me now to use this contraception, then I will forcibly insert an implant in you where you can't dig it out. Do you understand me?"

There was no compromise in Cara's voice, and little enough hope. Tess's throat felt all choked, and a moment later she felt the rush of tears. She buried her face in her hands to cover the tears, to hide them. She squeezed her eyes, as if that could stop them, but the devastation she felt was stronger than her self-control.

"Oh, Tess." Cara wrapped both arms around her and held her as if she were a child. "I'm sorry."

A foot scuffed at the entrance. "Cara? Tess?" It was Charles. Tess looked up in time to see him push the inner hanging aside and stand there in the gap, watching her. "Ah. You've told her about the dangers of pregnancy, haven't you?''

"You're glad of this, aren't you?" Tess broke out of Cara's embrace and jumped to her feet. "Well, it doesn't matter. I won't leave him anyway."

Charles stiffened. "I hope you think better of me than that."

Tess stared at him, smitten with the sudden and astonishing realization that he actually cared what she thought of him. That it mattered to him.

A beep sounded, low and brief, from the counter behind them.

"What the hell?" muttered Cara. She slipped off the table and hurried around to the counter.

"I'm sorry, Charles," said Tess slowly. "I didn't mean it. You aren't petty."

"Thank you." He chuckled. "But don't overestimate me, Tess. Sainthood is a heavy burden to bear. However, I don't think my pettiness extends to that." He hesitated. "Knowing what it means to you."

The words came hard to him. She could hear that and it touched her that he would open up to her like this.

"Charles," she began tentatively, "I know-we've always been far apart in years, but-"

"Oh. Shit." Cara turned. In the glare of artificial light, she looked grim, angry, and scared. "Damn you, girl. What have you done?"

Tess looked at Charles, but he simply shrugged, puzzled. "What have I done?" she asked.

"This alters things considerably," said Cara. "Clearly, whatever else may happen, I'm not leaving your side for the next nine months."

Tess went white and sank down onto the table, clutching at the edge with her hands to steady herself.

"What's going on?" asked Charles. An instant later, his face altered as the realization hit him. "But surely, if it's so dangerous-Cara!'' The expression of helplessness on his face looked totally out of place. "Perhaps a surgical abortion-"

"No!" yelled Tess, even as she realized she might have no choice.

Cara shook her head. "No. We'd still have an antigenic reaction to deal with."

"She's all I have left, Cara," he said, his voice so low that Tess barely heard him. She didn't know how to respond; Charles wasn't supposed to be so vulnerable.

"I'm well aware of that, Charles," said Cara coolly, as if she were offended. "I think it would be safer if I instead applied my skills and some testing to bring her safely to term."

The vulnerability in Charles's expression vanished, smoothing into the mask worn by a duke in the Empire. "Very well," he said, and he left the tent.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Jiroannes paced from one edge of the carpet to the other, turning with precise anger at the very fringed border, right before he would otherwise step out onto the grass, and then stalking back to the other side. Above him, the awning sighed lazily in the breeze.

"What are they doing?" he demanded of Syrannus. "Obviously they are breaking camp. Is everyone going? Only some of them?" Off in the distance, a contingent of jaran soldiers rode by, their red shirts gleaming like blood in the early morning sunlight. "Why weren't we told? This is a deliberate insult to me, and thus to the Great King, may his sons multiply to the ends of the earth. It is intolerable. Samae, I said that I wanted my green sash now." He cuffed her across the cheek. She dipped her head and vanished with ethereal grace into his tent.

His guards sat watching the upheaval in the jaran camp. Usually they sat at their ease, gambling, polishing their swords and armor, mending blouses and trousers and boots, gossiping among themselves. But now they sat uneasily. Once or twice they glanced his way, and that annoyed him. Didn't they trust him? Did they think he was unequal to this task?

He sank down into his chair and regarded the six gold and jeweled rings that studded his fingers. Anger boiled inside him, at this impossible situation, at these primitive and squalid surroundings, at these savages. And yet, at the same time, deep down inside himself, he was beginning to wonder if it wasn't true: perhaps he was unsuited for the role of an ambassador. Wouldn't a better man have been called before Bakhtiian again and not left waiting here for ten interminable days? Wouldn't an older man have made a better impression in that one brief audience he had been allowed? Had he really lost his temper? Had it showed? Had Bakhtiian scorned him? Or worse, dismissed him as an inexperienced and ridiculous boy?

Samae appeared. She knelt before him, head bowed, her arms extended with the emerald sash laid out across them for his approval. Her coarse black hair was pulled back tightly today, just long enough now to twine the ends into a short braid.

A braid? When had she ever worn a braid? Before he had made her cut it, she had worn it in many exotic styles, but never like this. Where had she gotten such a notion, to wear her hair in a braid? The innovation irritated him. He slapped the sash to the ground.

"No. Not that one. You are impossible." He stood so quickly that he clipped her leg with his stride, and she shrank away from him and then straightened as he paced out to the edge of the carpet again. Another troop of horsemen rode by, heading south. "Syrannus."

"Yes, eminence," Syrannus knelt before him.

"I must know what is going on. What they mean for us to do. Surely they don't intend to leave us here?" But even as he said it, he looked out along the row of tents that housed the other ambassadors and envoys, and he could see that they, too, were striking their camps. Knowledge had been granted them but denied him. Clearly, the snub was deliberate. One set of features leapt to mind immediately: Bakhtiian's arrogant niece was surely responsible for this, influencing her uncle to insult him despite the fact that he was the ambassador of the Great King himself. If she and her uncle only understood the power of the Great King, they would not dare to treat his ambassador in this fashion. Then, as if by thinking of her he made her flesh, he saw her ride past with a troop of about one hundred horsemen, but she neither paused nor looked his way.

"Your eminence," said Syrannus, warningly. The old man stood up. Jiroannes turned.

A boy approached them. Not yet old enough to wear soldier's clothing, still, he wore riches: a blue shirt and gold necklaces and a girdle of golden plates. He bore no trace of beard on his cheek. A child, sent as envoy. Jiroannes was furious, knowing how deep the insult ran, and he began to turn away again, to ignore the boy. But Syrannus put a hand on his elbow, daring much, and in that instant Jiroannes remembered caution, and waited.

The boy was nervous. He halted at the edge of the carpet, not quite under the awning, waiting to be invited in. He stared at Jiroannes, at his clothes, curious, and then recalled himself and straightened his back.

"I am Mitya Orzhekov," he said slowly, in labored Rhuian. "My cousin Bakhtiian sent me to…" Here he faltered, as if he had learned his message by rote and forgotten it between there and here.

Abruptly Jiroannes remembered being this age himself. It had not been so very long ago. This child was no mere messenger but a male child of Bakhtiian's own family, sent off on an errand too important to be left to any lackey. He could afford to be generous. "Please." He met the boy's gaze with a friendly smile. "Please come in."

Mitya returned the smile tremulously. "I am Mitya Orzhekov," he said, starting over. "My cousin Bakhtiian sent me to give you this letter.'' He produced a scrap of parchment from his belt and held it out,

"Eminence," said Syrannus, "he does not understand Rhuian. That was memorized. I can hear it." The old man hesitated, clearly unsure of how his master would react.

The boy's eyes skipped past Jiroannes and settled on Samae. He stared, astonished, and then wrenched his gaze back to the letter, flushing as he fixed his stare on the parchment instead of the slave. He wore his hair short, an affectation of the jaran riders that Jiroannes had yet to comprehend. Surely one test of a man's beauty was in the fineness and length and sheen of his hair. The boy coughed, jerking Jiroannes's attention back to him, and began his little speech again.

"I understand," said Jiroannes, "and I thank you." He took the parchment from the boy and unrolled it. As he read, he was aware of the boy sneaking glances at Samae, as if this child were aware that he ought not to covet another man's property and so was trying to hide his interest. The text itself was unremarkable. The army was riding south, toward the Habakar kingdom. The ambassadors were free to move along with the main camp, which would travel in the army's wake. Bakhtiian had assigned his cousin's son as an escort, and he trusted that the ambassador would treat the boy with the honor he deserved.

"A threat," said Jiroannes, handing the letter to Syrannus, "and a promise. Tell the guards to strike camp. You must learn khush, Syrannus."

"Yes, eminence. I have learned what I can these past days. I will learn more."

Jiroannes motioned the boy in to sit in one of the chairs, and watched as Mitya shifted, trying to find a comfortable seat, as if he were unaccustomed to such a structure. Then he had Samae serve them tea and cakes while they watched the guards strike the camp, everything but the awning and the carpet under which the two sat. Mitya stared, awed by his surroundings, and his gaze flashed again and again toward Samae, and away as swiftly.

When the wagons were loaded, Mitya went away and returned with a string of three horses, one laden, one saddled, and the other barebacked. Jiroannes allowed the boy to introduce him to the saddled chestnut mare, and he saw that this was a fine, elegant horse, a superior creature. At once he coveted her for himself. How fine a gift a herd of such horses would make for the Great King! The boy was proud of her; that was evident. He mounted. Jiroannes mounted his gelding, and they rode.

The entire plain seemed on the move. Troops cantered by them. Lone riders galloped back the way they had come. A belled messenger passed, heading south. Wagons trundled along in the distance. The whole* thing seemed like chaos to Jiroannes, but come late afternoon they rolled into a makeshift camp that rose up out of the grass. Jiroannes recognized the tents: this was the same ambassadors' row they had inhabited before, set up in the same order, and Mitya directed them to the far end, as if the order of tents had some meaning, some hierarchy. Mitya left them then, but only to pitch a small tent for himself about one hundred paces outside of Jiroannes's camp, and there he sat, alone, until Jiroannes took pity on him and sent Syrannus to ask him in to dine. The two dined alone, Syrannus and Samae serving them. The boy ate with surprisingly good manners, cleanly and precisely, making no mess. He flushed every time Samae paused beside him. He even rose, after he was finished, as if to help clean up, but Jiroannes motioned him to sit again. One of the guards ventured over with his flute, and he played sorrowful tunes as the light faded and darkness fell.

Mitya rose. He spoke, to Jiroannes first, then to Syrannus.

"Eminence, the boy says that he must go to bed now, as we must rise early and be on our way. He thanks you for the dinner. Or at least, some of these words I recognized, and I believe that is what he said."

Jiroannes rose and watched the boy walk away to the solitude of his tent. Beardless still, but already by his height and his walk half a man.

"Samae." She appeared, sinking to her knees before him. "You will go to the boy tonight." Her head jerked up and for an astonishing instant she stared straight at him. She shook her head roughly. He slapped her. Red burned on the fine pale parchment of her cheek. "I said you will go to him," Jiroannes repeated, offended and infuriated by her defiance.

She sat there, head bowed, for long enough that he thought he was going to have to hit her again. Then she rose and padded away across the grass. Jiroannes watched as she paused before the tent. She glanced back, once, to see him looking at her, and then she knelt and a moment later she had vanished into the small tent.

"Was that wisely done, eminence?" Syrannus asked in a soft voice.

"The boy is old enough, clearly, and if she is his first, then the honor is the greater. He admired her but was polite enough not to say so to me. It will make him grateful to me, and he will speak to his cousin of my generosity. So we begin to build a bridge on which to negotiate. Now, since Samae is not here, send Lal to undress me." He went to his tent, but he paused at the entrance to see that Syrannus was still staring out at the little tent, at the campfires glowing around them, at the night and the vivid sky, black splintered with bright stars.

"We shall see," said Syrannus quietly.

In the morning, while Jiroannes sat in his chair as the camp was struck around him, he caught Samae glancing up at the boy. She had paused beside one of the wagons, about to place into the bed the little carved chest that held his jewels and sashes and seals of office; she looked up briefly, toward Mitya saddling his horse. Mitya remained intent on his task. From this distance, Jiroannes could not see the boy's expression, but something in his carriage betrayed a new confidence. Samae seemed unaware that her master watched her. Something touched her lips, something unknown, an expression he did not recognize. For an instant he thought it was a smile, but he dismissed the idea immediately. Samae never smiled. Distaste, probably. Still, he would send her to the boy every now and then. Such generosity would seal their relationship. Content, he allowed the guards to take his chair and bring him his horse. For the first time, he felt confident that his mission would succeed.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

When Diana woke, she found Anatoly lying on his side, watching her. He smiled and reached out to trace her lips with one finger.

"Good morning, Diana," he said in Rhuian, looking pleased with himself. She repeated the greeting, haltingly, in khush, and he looked even more pleased. He said another sentence in khush, but she had to shake her head because she could not understand him. He cocked his head to one side and tried again, some words meant, perhaps, to be Rhuian. Diana laughed, because they were equally incomprehensible. And yet, she did not feel awkward with him at all. Not that there was much left for her to feel awkward about, after last night.

She smiled at him. The set of his body, his eyes, the curve of his mouth, all revealed what he thought of her. Blankets covered him to the hips; above that, he was bare. His one shoulder was a mass of fresh scars. She ran a hand up his chest and plumbed the curve of his neck and the strong line of his chin. She touched her hand to his mouth.

"Lips," she said. "Eyes. Hand."

He mirrored her. "Lips. Eyes. Hand." Then he repeated them in khush, and went on. "Ears. Nose. Hair. Neck. Shoulder. Arm."

"Ah, none of that yet. Breast, but chest, too. Elbow."

A wicked gleam lit his eyes. He grasped one of her hands and drew it down along his torso, all the way down. "Pes. "

"Anatoly!" She laughed. "That will hardly help me communicate with the rest of your people." However diffident he may have been before, out in the world, however reserved and modest, here in her bed he was not bashful at all, and anything but modest. The blankets slipped off him as he rolled with her off the pillows and on to the stiff carpet, but he only grinned and said something to her, sharp and passionate, before running his hands down to her thighs-

And then, of course, a man called to them from outside.

Anatoly jerked his head up at the sound. He swore. The voice spoke again, and its tone was clearly apologetic but firm. Anatoly made a great gesture out of a sigh, rolled to his knees, and wrapped a blanket around himself before going to the entrance. Diana scrambled to the pillows and covered herself. Anatoly twitched the entrance flap aside and directed a rude comment at their inopportune visitor. In reply, a long explanation was forthcoming, and Diana watched as Anatoly's shoulders reflected first anger, then resignation, then excitement, and then, last, turning to regard her, some emotion caught between reluctance and eagerness.

He knelt beside her and kissed her lingeringly, sighing against her face. "I love you," he said, first in Rhuian and after, more slowly, in khush. Then he rose, got dressed, strapped on his saber, and left her.

That abruptly. Diana stared at the flap as it rustled down behind him. She was alone. Not to mention that she was utterly bewildered. Listening, she heard horses riding away. She dressed quickly in a tunic, long skirt, and boots, and went outside. Anatoly was nowhere in sight, but the jaran camp was in an uproar. Loaded wagons creaked past. A troop of horsemen rode by. She could not imagine finding Anatoly in such chaos. Besides, she needed to use the necessary. And she desperately wanted to wash.

She walked over to the Company camp, only to find that it, too, was being struck. Although, thank the Goddess, the necessary was still intact: first up, last down. Quinn saw her and yelped in surprise, waving, attracting attention to her, but Diana slipped quickly inside the little tent. Although she lingered there, stripping and washing herself all over, shivering at the cold water, when she finally came out she had an audience.

"Well?" demanded Quinn. Hyacinth had an arm around Quinn, and he was smirking. "Was he any good?" he asked. "Is he circumcised?"

"You ought to know whether they're circumcised, Hyacinth," retorted Diana. "You've slept with more of them than I have. Or so you say."

He giggled.

"Oh, leave her alone," said Hal. "Come on, Diana. Can you help? We've fallen behind. We were supposed to leave an hour ago."

"Where are we going?"

"Didn't he tell you?"

"How could he? We scarcely know any words in common." Then she flushed, remembering the language they did speak.

Hyacinth laughed. "You see, Di, I told you they were easy to communicate with. You're looking satisfied. Where is your blue-eyed paramour, anyway?"

She set her lips together, not wanting to telegraph every least thing about herself to Hyacinth, of all people. "Where's Yomi?" she asked instead.

"Over at Soerensen's camp," said Hal.

"Whatever for?"

"They're working out logistics-oh." He faltered. "You wouldn't have heard. Soerensen is leaving."

"Leaving?"

"We're moving south with the army. He's going north. There's some site out there-"

"Site?"

"I don't know. Something archaeological, I think. Anyway, he's going north, and then I guess his party will meet up with us later." He lifted one hand to stop her protest. "Don't ask me any more questions. That's all I know. Are you going to load your tent in with our wagons, or is some other provision being made for it?"

"I don't know." She shook her head. "I don't know what's going on." Suddenly she missed Anatoly so acutely that it was like a physical pain.

Hal took her by both shoulders and examined her closely, then kissed her on the forehead. "Maybe you'd better go see Yomi. Go on. I'll tell Mom and Dad where you went."

Diana went. Soerensen's enclave no longer existed. All the tents were down except for Dr. Hierakis's tent, and David ben Unbutu supervised while Maggie and Joe and Rijiv and Ursula loaded the wagons. An astonishing number of crates sat beside a line of wagons next to the doctor's tent, and as Diana walked up, the doctor emerged carrying another crate, which she set down carefully beside the rest. The doctor looked up.

"Hello, Diana. I trust you had a sufficiently restless night."

Diana smiled.

"It seems a shame to have to disturb your rest like this. Where is your husband?"

"I don't know."

"Ah," said the doctor, reading something from Diana's expression. She stood up. "Here. Come with me."

Diana followed her to a knot of people standing beyond the wagons. Yomi was there, but she made good-byes and started walking away, then stopped as she caught sight of Diana. "There you are, Diana. I need you now. Will you be loading your new tent in with our wagons? Also-" She paused, seeing the doctor lift a hand.

"I'll send her in a moment," said Dr. Hierakis. "If I may."

"Certainly." Yomi strode away.

Marco was there. He had half turned to look at her, and Diana flushed and bit her lip and kept walking without missing a beat, sticking close to Dr. Hierakis. The others-Soerensen, Tess, Bakhtiian, and the silver-haired jaran man called Niko-all smiled at the same instant, seeing her.

"Ah," said Bakhtiian. He looked embarrassed. "I do apologize for taking Anatoly away like that. But I needed to send him on ahead to his uncle. He should be back soon."

"Oh," replied Diana, feeling stupid, and wondering if they all knew in what condition she and Anatoly had been interrupted this morning. "This afternoon? Or this evening, that's not so bad."

"He means a few days, Diana," said Tess softly. "I'm sorry. Ten, twenty at the most, I should think."

"Twenty days!" To her horror, Diana burst into tears. Abandoned, just like that. Not that Anatoly had had any choice, which almost made it worse. Yet she could not believe that Bakhtiian had sent him off for any ulterior motive-to get him away from her, to get her away from him. She had just begun to feel easy with him, to find a way to talk. Goddess, they would have to start all over again, after twenty days apart. She sniffed hard, trying to stop her tears. Her nose was running.

"Here, Diana." Surprisingly, it was Marco who offered her the handkerchief. She glanced up at him, grateful. He was red in the face, and he would not look at her.

"Well, then," said Soerensen, neatly throwing focus away from her, "it's settled, although I don't like it much."

"I'm sorry, Charles," said Tess. "But I know you understand why I have to travel with the army right now.''

Diana looked up, hearing a peculiar note in Tess's voice, something being communicated in the tone, not in the words. Tess was pale, and her husband frowned, resting a hand possessively on her lower back.

Charles looked past her to Dr. Hierakis. "Cara, I'd like Ursula to accompany you. I'll send a messenger if I need anything from you."

"Here is my niece," said Bakhtiian as a contingent of riders came up. "As soon as your wagons are ready, she will escort you north to the shrine of Morava."

Soerensen smiled enigmatically. "You honor me with your choice of escort."

Bakhtiian did not smile. "She is my closest relative. For you, I would do no less."

Like a trade, Diana thought, distracted for a moment from her own pain by the curious dealings going on here. Soerensen took the niece, Bakhtiian took Tess.

"Damn," muttered Marco under his breath, in Anglais, "but they're playing a delicate game, indeed. I can't believe Tess isn't coming with us."

"Do you think he's stopping her somehow?" Diana whispered.

Marco shook his head. "If Charles thought that was true, then he wouldn't stand for it. No, it's been agreed between them. That's what puzzles me." He hesitated. "Diana."

"Are you going, too?" she asked. She hadn't been this close to him since the night Anatoly marked her, since the night Marco had said such awful things to her-and she felt shy, suddenly, wondering if he still thought well of her.

"Yes, with Charles. Diana." He made a movement toward her but checked it. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry he had to leave so suddenly. I know it must be difficult. It's obvious you care for him. I'm sorry I-expressed myself so poorly, before."

"Stop it," she said under her breath. She stared at her feet. She did not want to think kindly of Marco; that was too dangerous. His booted feet rested on the ground near hers. She saw how they shifted. He murmured something unintelligible-not angry but perhaps despairing, and then he moved away. She forced herself not to look up after him. An instant later, she realized she still clutched his handkerchief.

"Tess, I leave you in the best of hands," said Soerensen. "Cara." Diana looked up to see Soerensen nod at the doctor, and the doctor nod, coolly, back. "Bakhtiian." This farewell was cooler still, reserved, almost disapproving.

Bakhtiian acknowledged Soerensen with an equally reticent nod. Diana would have thought that Bakhtiian would have looked overjoyed that Tess had chosen to go with him rather than with her brother, but he only looked troubled and perplexed. And why was Dr. Hierakis going with the army, not with Soerensen? But Diana knew well enough that she was not in the confidence of any of these people, and so as they parted, she trailed away alone, back toward her tent.

Quinn came jogging to meet her. "Di! Yomi sent me over to help you with your tent and your things. So? Well? What was he like?"

Diana stopped outside the tent. She could not help but smile. "He was sweet."

"But-how else? Come on, Di. The jaran men are so shy, so reserved. Are they that way in bed, too?"

"I'm hardly an expert. You'd have to talk to Hyacinth about that.''

"Oh, Hyacinth. You know as well as I do that you can't trust anything he says."

"Then find out for yourself."

"Not if I have to marry one! Begging your pardon."

Diana flushed. "I don't think-Tess Soerensen said that you don't. Have to marry one, that is." She brightened suddenly. "That's one thing I can do, though."

"What? Find out what the rules are for sleeping around? I thought all barbarians were prudes. That's what you say, anyway." Then Quinn laughed. "Oh-ho, Diana. You're blushing.''

Diana flung the tent flap back hastily, distracting Quinn's attention. Light streamed into the interior of the tent, dappling the scattered pillows, the blankets and fur in disarray, some clothing thrown down to one side and left in a heap.

"Well!" Quinn sounded gratified by this revealing sight.

The pounding of horses startled Diana, coming from close by. She started around. Perhaps it was Anatoly… But the troop cantered past and went on, oblivious to her. She felt helpless. Never in her life had she felt as superfluous as she did now. The jaran were off to war-War! She could not imagine it, except the glimpse she had received that one day, salving the wounded, the day she had met Anatoly. Was this the true measure of the barbarity of the jaran culture? That the men-the soldiers-rode off, leaving their women and children, their families, behind? Did the women always follow in their wake? Was there no true comradeship? She could not imagine her parents, her uncles and aunts-the little clan of a family she had grown up in-separating for such an arbitrary reason, or if they did have to separate, separating on this rigid, artificial line of sex.

"I hate it here," said Diana.

"What?" Quinn had already gone into the tent without asking permission, which offended Diana even more, as if her intimacy with Anatoly had been violated. "Oh, Di, you don't want to lose this." She lifted up the gold necklace. "And look here." She giggled, crouching. "I see he must have taken off those beautifully decorated boots rather quickly.'' She held up a gold braided tassel, one of the braids that had rimmed Anatoly's black boots.

Diana grabbed the tassel out of Quinn's hand and pressed it against her heart. "Stop it, Quinn. You can collect my things if you want, but I'll pack his. Do you understand?"

Quinn arched an expressive eyebrow. ' 'What? Do you love him that much already?''

"Would that be so strange?" murmured Diana, but Quinn had lapsed into an obscene song by whose rhythm she folded up the blankets, and she did not reply.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Vasil stood listening to his cousin Anton boring on about their family and tribe, little details of who had married whom, who had borne a child, and what girls and boys had shown unusual aptitudes for important skills. Such gossip fascinated Anton, whose eldest daughter, just married to a respectable blacksmith, was showing talent for dyeing. Vasil swallowed a yawn and smiled and nodded and Anton happily went on, assuming that Vasil must be hungry for news of the tribe he had deserted many years ago in order to ride with Ilyakoria Bakhtiian.

Anton, Vasil reflected, was the perfect etsana's brother: he could support the headwoman by keeping abreast of all the niggling day-to-day details and so help her in her task of keeping the tribe running smoothly. An etsana's husband needed the same skills and interests, and back when Vasil was still young, less than two cycles of the calendar old, back when Bakhtiian had left the tribes to travel south to that half-mythical city called Jeds, Vasil had considered finding an etsana's elder daughter to marry. Actually, he had found three, any one of whom would have been thrilled to have him. But, gods, he could not stand to hear about other people's affairs, to listen to the petty complaints, the disputes, the women and men droning on and on about their concerns. The three young women in question had gone on to find other husbands, presumably better suited for the task, and Vasil hoped they were happy, when he thought about them at all.

Relief from Anton's recital came in the form of Yevgeni riding in from scout to meet up with the main group as they took their midday rest for the horses. With him rode an entire troop of horsemen, impressively armored. They wore sleeveless, knee-length silk robes, slit for riding, over their armor. Some wore gold cloth, some red, all of it embroidered in black and gold and silver.

"Mount," said Vasil, and he and Anton mounted and rode out to greet them.

"Anton Veselov!" The greeting came from the jahar's captain, a young blond man with a handsome face, very blue eyes, and an ambitious set to his shoulders. "Well met." The young man's glance settled on Vasil a moment, questioning, and then flashed back to Anton. Clearly he thought that this was where the authority lay.

"Well met," said Vasil, forestalling Anton's greeting. "I am Vasil Veselov."

"Well met," replied the young man politely, obviously recognizing nothing special in the name. "I am Anatoly Sakhalin. Yaroslav Sakhalin's nephew and Elizaveta Sakhalin's eldest grandson. Are you one of Anton's kin?"

Vasil was so furious that for a moment he could not speak. How dare this boy not know who he was?

"Vasil is my cousin," said Anton. "Sergei Veselov's son."

"I didn't know Veselov had a son. He died some three years past, didn't he?"

"I just learned of my father's death," said Vasil, cutting in before Anton could say any more. "I decided it was time I reunited with my tribe and take on my responsibilities."

Sakhalin regarded him and his black arenabekh clothing, and suddenly comprehension bloomed in his face. "Ah. Now I recall the story. You must have been one of the men riding with Dmitri Mikhailov. Do you think Bakhtiian will welcome you back?''

Vasil smiled. "Yes. I do. Indeed, I am sure of it."

"Ah," said Sakhalin, and then, to Vasil's disgust, he shifted his attention back to Anton. "We rode past your tribe. You can reach them by sundown if you go at a good pace."

"Where is the main army?" Vasil asked.

The arrogant young pup actually hesitated before answering. "Behind us. We've orders from Bakhtiian to take ahead to my uncle." He said that proudly enough, pleased that he had been chosen for such an honor. "Do you have khaja prisoners?"

"Only a Habakar general and his son."

"No doubt Bakhtiian will be pleased. Now, we must be riding on." He made farewells and his troop rode on, south.

Vasil snorted. "A boy in on the intimate counsels of Bakhtiian? Or so he would have it sound."

"He's not much older than Ilya was when he came back from Jeds," said Anton mildly, "and he's ambitious, and he's a Sakhalin, so perhaps it's no surprise that he feels he's important. Though he is young to have a command of his own, and I don't think Bakhtiian gives out such an honor casually. Even to a Sakhalin."

"There's more," said Yevgeni, breaking in. "One of his men told me he's just married a khaja woman, a Singer-no, he had a different word for it. They tell tales, but with their entire bodies and their words… well, it was a khaja art, he said. I've never heard of anything like it. What do you think of that? A khaja wife!"

"What of Bakhtiian's khaja wife?" asked Vasil abruptly. "Is she with the tribes still?"

Anton motioned to Yevgeni with a lift of his chin, and the young rider reined his horse aside to leave the cousins some privacy. "Vasil." Anton spoke slowly, weighing his words. "Bakhtiian still has a wife. Perhaps you didn't know that. It's something you might want to keep in mind."

Dear, good Anton-so right-minded and so honest. "My dear cousin," said Vasil ingenuously, "I also have a wife. Have you forgotten that? And two children."

"That's true." Reminded of this, Anton appeared mollified. "And Sakhalin said-"

"Yes. Let us hasten our reunion."

They made good time. It was still light when they came in sight of the wagons and tents marking the Veselov tribe. A scout greeted them, an adolescent boy who flushed bright red when he saw Vasil and called to him by name before he even greeted Anton. Vasil did not remember the boy's name, or whose child he was, but he greeted him warmly nevertheless. The child was gratified to be allowed to lead them in.

"Vasil!"

"Look, it's Vasilley."

"Gods, Veselov, I thought you were dead."

"Where have you come from?"

"Let me get Arina."

Vasil slowed his horse to the barest walk, letting the exclamations, the surprise, the warmth, and, to be sure, the adulation wash over him. Here and there he saw a disapproving grimace, a finger pointed, and he noted who they were; they could be won over later. He did not want speed: he wanted his reunion with Karolla and the children to be blindingly public.

He caught sight of Karolla just before she saw him. She was so very plain-that was the first thing he noticed-and she had certainly grown no better looking in their three years apart. Then a child nudged her and pointed, and she spun around. Her hand covered her mouth, and she went dead pale. Another woman might have burst into tears, might have acted rashly or stupidly or made a scene, but not Karolla. She had far too much courage, combined with a huge portion of common sense. She set down her spindle with dignity and shook out her skirts, then called into her tent. Vasil admired her for that self-control. A moment later, two children appeared.

Vasil pulled up his horse. Gods, they were older. Little Valentin had perhaps doubled in size, and Ilyana was a stunning girl, tall, slender, and serious. Vasil dismounted and walked across the last bit of ground separating them.

"Father!" Yana launched herself at him, and he laughed and crouched down to receive her embrace. She clutched him, hugging herself against him. Not sobbing, never that, not Karolla's child. And she was strong, too, for being so young-about eight winters old. She let go of him and grabbed him by the hand, tugging him. "Come, Papa. Come see Mama. And here is Valentin, but I expect he doesn't remember you."

Vasil let her drag him forward. Karolla was staring at him as if he was a spirit, or an angel. She did not move. So he let go of Yana's hand and took his wife by the waist and, well aware that everyone was watching, embraced her and kissed her rather more intimately than was proper for so public a place. The crowd murmured appreciatively. When he released her, her face shone. A few tears slid from her eyes, but she brushed them back impatiently and turned to call the boy to her.

"Valentin, come greet your papa."

Valentin did not move. His mouth set into a sullen frown and he closed his hands into fists. He stared at his father, and then looked up beyond him. "Uncle Anton!" he exclaimed, and darted past Vasil to greet the other man.

Vasil stiffened. "Give him time," said Karolla. Her hand brushed one of his hands, tightened on it, and then let go.

Ilyana came to hang on his other arm. "Are you going to stay, father? Or are you going away again?"

"Hush, Yana," said Karolla.

"No, it's all right. I have every intention of staying." Karolla bit at her lower lip, and Vasil could see that it was only with an immense effort that she refrained from bursting into tears. "But where is my cousin Arina? She is etsana now, is she not? I must have her permission to enter camp, surely."

"Rather late to get that," said a cool voice behind him.

He spun, and was shocked to see his little cousin Arina looking very composed and at her ease, and prettier than he had ever seen her. She held herself with surprising authority, and next to her stood a man Vasil recognized instantly.

"I am happy to see you, cousin," said Arina formally, "and I am pleased to receive you back into the tribe. This is my husband, Kirill Zvertkov. But I'm sure you know each other.''

Zvertkov was a good-looking man, fair-haired, but his appearance was hopelessly marred by one lifeless arm that hung loose at his side, as if it were, like an ill-made saber, a mere dead appendage. In his other, his good, arm, he held a tiny baby, and a child somewhat younger than Valentin peeked out shyly from behind his legs.

"No longer riding with Bakhtiian?" Vasil asked, but smoothly and without glancing at the useless arm.

"No, I am an etsana's husband now," replied Zvertkov, with a touch of ironic pride. Vasil did not recall that Zvertkov's family had ever had high enough standing that Kirill could have expected to marry so well-but perhaps there was more to it than that. So often there was. "And I have other duties as well."

Arina smiled, not disguising her pride in her husband. "Many young men come here to train, to find places in the army, and Kirill is in charge of all of them. He oversees their fighting and what jahar they are assigned to. Since Kerchaniia Bakhalo died, Bakhtiian gave the entire command into Kirill's hands."

One of which was withered and curled up into a clawlike loose fist. "I see you have done well, then," said Vasil kindly, wondering how important Zvertkov was to Bakhtiian.

"If I may?" asked Kirill, looking at his wife.

She nodded. Kirill motioned to Vasil and led him aside. A moment later Anton joined them. The baby whimpered and Kirill shifted it deftly in his arm, and it quieted. Behind them, Arina ruthlessly dispersed the crowd. Karolla, with stunning aplomb, went back to her spinning. Yana trailed after the men, loitering just far enough from them that they would have no reason to shoo her away. Her face was bright with joy. A gorgeous child, she was, prettier than her brother, but only because his features were blemished by his fretful, sullen expression.

"Well, Vasil," said Zvertkov. "I'm surprised to see you."

"I heard my father died."

"It's true, but quite a while back. Don't think, Veselov, that I don't have a good idea of why you've really come back."

Vasil blinked innocently. "Why is that?"

Zvertkov smiled mockingly. "I don't think it's anything we need talk of publicly, do you?'' Vasil recalled him as a young and rather foolish man, the kind of overgrown boy who attaches himself to a powerful man out of love and loyalty without having much personality himself. He revised this estimate quickly. Kirill Zvertkov had evidently become a rather more formidable man since they'd last met, and not just because he was now an etsana's husband. "Personally, I'd as soon you were gone for good, meaning no offense to your person, of course. But Karolla has missed you bitterly." He glanced to one side. "As has little Yana there, and for their sake, I'll counsel my wife to let you stay.''

Vasil laughed. "I think Arina loves me rather more than you realize."

"I am sure she does, and if this were the times before, I would not be talking to you now. But it isn't. Bakhtiian has changed everything we are."

' 'Is that why I see khaja weapons in camp?''

"You can't take cities on horseback, Veselov. We have learned that, and other things. We're going to conquer the khaja lands, as the gods have meant us to all along, and nothing will interfere with that. Especially not you."

"What is this, Kirill? Don't forget I knew you when you were young. I always thought your infatuation with Ilya was only a boy's admiration for a stronger man-well, but perhaps I was wrong."

Kirill's lips tightened, and he shifted. The baby mewled. "I don't think you have any power over him anymore, Vasil. Perhaps you've forgotten that he is married."

"I have never forgotten it," said Vasil softly. "But what makes you think I returned because of Bakhtiian? I, too, have married. And now that my father is dead, I am dyan by right.''

Now Kirill was startled. "What? Anton-"

Anton shrugged. "What's past is past, Kirill. It's true enough that Vasil is the proper dyan."

And since it was true, Kirill did not reply.

Vasil smiled and nodded. "Excuse me," he said. "My daughter is waiting." The moment he turned away from them, Yana dashed across to grab his arm. Clearly she did not mean to let go, but the weight did not distress Vasil. He kissed her on the brow and mussed her golden hair, and let her lead him back to his wife's tent where Karolla waited, patient, solemn, and just as desperately in love with him as she had been from the very first, when he had marked her in order to make her father, Dmitri Mikhailov, take him into his jahar. He sat down beside her as if he had never been gone and helped her wind yarn.

When Vasil woke the next morning, he could hear Karolla singing softly to herself outside as she went about her work. Occasionally she broke off her song to speak to one of the children, or to someone passing by, and Vasil marveled at how sweet and pleasant her voice was, as if all the beauty had been poured into it instead of into her face.

"Mama, can I go in and wake him up?"

"Yes. Tell him that Arina said that the scouts for the main army have already ridden by.''

Vasil was half-dressed in the clothes Karolla had laid out for him by the time Yana got all the way back to the sleeping alcove. "Oh," she said, almost disappointed, ''you're already awake.''

He kissed her on each cheek. "Not truly awake until I'd seen your sweet face, little one." She beamed. "Here, hand me my saber, will you?" She shyly held it out to him. "Come, take my hand and we'll go outside."

Outside, he greeted Karolla by kissing both of her palms and then by offering to go fetch water. "No, no." She shook her head. "Yana will go with the other girls. You'd better go see Anton and Kirill. The vanguard of the army will be coming by soon. I don't know-Vasil." She hesitated.

Vasil kissed Yana on the forehead and sent her off to her chores. "Karolla, you must never hesitate to tell me what you think. I would be a poor husband if I did not listen to my wife's wisdom."

She blushed with pleasure. "Vasil, if it is your dearest wish to become dyan, then I will support you. Although I have little standing in this tribe-Arina was very generous to take me in at all, and everything I have here I owe to her. I can't go back to my mother's tribe. Not now.''

"All the more reason, then, that I become dyan. I don't intend that my wife and children live beholden to others. Once I am dyan, then you are by right a member of this tribe, and you will not be here only on Arina's sufferance."

"Arina has been kind. You must not think she has ever treated us badly."

"What about my sister? I haven't even seen her."

Karolla returned her attention to the copper pot she was scouring clean. "Vera disgraced herself. You must know that."

"Since she did what she did at my bidding, I can hardly consider her fairly treated."

Karolla looked up, angry. ' 'She betrayed her own tribe.

She violated the sanctity of the camp. It is true that I left my mother and my aunts, but I never betrayed them. What you did-trying to kill Bakhtiian-well, you did that at Mikhailov's bidding."

"Is that what people say?"

Karolla shrugged. "I have long since given up listening to what people say. But if you go to see Anton, you'll see Vera. She serves the Telyegin family now." She glanced away, looking shamed. "Valentin is there."

"Yes, I had noticed that he wasn't here."

"Don't be angry with him, Vasil. It was a shock, to have you come back so suddenly. He was so young when you left."

Vasil kissed her on her hair and straightened his saber. "How could I be angry with him, Karolla? He will come to love me."

"Of course he will," agreed Karolla, but Vasil could see that she only half believed it.

"There is one other thing, my love," he said, and he ran a hand down the sleeve of the shirt he had put on this morning. "These are my old clothes. Where did you get them?"

She paled, looking distressed. "Tess Soerensen gave them to me. And your old saber, it is here, too."

"Is it now?" he said thoughtfully. He left, pausing first to see if Arina was at her tent, which was sited to one side of his wife's tent, but Arina was out and a young woman he did not recognize told him that she was out with Uncle Marenko looking at the herds. So he strolled across camp, taking his time, greeting any person who greeted him, pausing to ask them questions about how they had been and what they were doing now and exclaiming over how very tall their children or grandchildren had grown. He discovered a few things along the way: that the Veselov tribe was inordinately proud of the fact that of all the tribes, it alone had been chosen by Bakhtiian to shelter those young men who for whatever reason were not part of any official jahar and who were training to find a place in the army. As they told it, Bakhtiian had insisted that one of his most trusted lieutenants marry their beloved etsana in order to cement the closeness between the two tribes. And they believed utterly and passionately that the jaran tribes were meant by the gods to conquer the khaja lands, and would do so, led by Bakhtiian.

Vasil had just come within sight of the cluster of tents that marked the Telyegin family when he saw Vera. She was still remarkably handsome, though she wore only a plain blue tunic with neither beading nor embroidery, over striped trousers, and she wore her golden hair in a simple braid with no ornamentation in it at all. She bent over a fire, stirring cloth in a kettle filled with green dye. Her face had flushed red from the heat. She wore only one earring, and that in her left ear, signifying that she was bonded to a family as a servant. One of the Telyegin sisters came out and called something to her, cheerfully and without any sense of nasty glee at Vera's misfortune, and a moment later spotted Vasil. The woman's eyes widened. Vera looked up. She went white.

Vasil strolled over toward her. "Hello, sister-" he began.

She spat at his feet. Then she turned back to her work.

Vasil prided himself on his self-control. He never let anger show unless it was in his interest to do so. Instead, he shrugged and turned toward the other woman-Lydia Telyegin, second daughter of Varia Telyegin and elder sister of Anton's wife Tatyana.

"My apologies," began Lydia.

"No, I should have prepared her. It was a shock to see me, I'm sure." This much he said loud enough for Vera to hear, and then he followed Lydia farther into the family encampment, toward the main tent. ' 'But her husband-is it true that he didn't repudiate her?"

"True enough. But then-" She glanced sidelong at Vasil, and he knew immediately that she was gauging how soon she might decently approach him for a more intimate encounter. "-Petya always had more looks than wit."

"You are looking handsomer than ever, Lydia. But I perceive that your wit has not suffered for it." He watched a hint of red tinge her cheeks and then fade. "Is your mother here? I must pay my respects."

"She is with the army. Bakhtiian called the finest healers to him when he started this campaign."

"So of course she would have been the first called."

Lydia laughed. "Of course. Are you trying to flatter your way back into favor, Vasil?"

"Certainly. But in this case you know as well as I that it is true, so how can it be flattery?"

"Neatly said. Well, a healer has come from the khaja lands, with skills surpassing our own, and they say she is gifting our healers with much of her knowledge. They also say that she is Tess Soerensen's foster mother-"

"Foster mother?"

"Ah." Lydia smiled abruptly, looking horribly pleased with herself. "You have not heard, then? Soerensen's brother has come. The prince of Jeds."

The rush of hope Vasil felt was so powerful that he had to stop walking for a moment. "To take her back to their own lands?''

"No one is sure. But here is Anton. And that is my youngest, Grigory, playing with Valentin."

Vasil greeted everyone, from the frail eldest aunt to the infant great-granddaughter of Varia Telyegin. Valentin slunk away and hid behind one of the tents with several of the children his age. But Vasil was not worried. The only person he had ever failed to charm was Karolla's father, Dmitri Mikhailov, and Vasil had always attributed that to Mikhailov's distrust of his motives. After all, Vasil had once been Bakhtiian's closest companion. Why should he then turn against Bakhtiian and ride with Mikhailov?

"Vasil." Anton rose and greeted him. "You've heard that the main army will ride by shortly. We'll go out to greet them. I'm waiting here for Arina-ah, there she is. Shall we go?"

Graciously, Vasil acquiesced. Arina rode a handsome gray mare, and her husband, a chestnut mare of equally fine breeding. Yevgeni brought Vasil's horse, and instantly, comparing his stolid beast to the elegant creatures the other two rode, Vasil desired one of these other horses-khuhaylan arabians, Kirill called them, a breed from over the seas, given in payment to Bakhtiian for his services by a company of foreign priests. Bakhtiian himself had given the two mares to Arina and Kirill on the occasion of his wedding.

"Although," said Arina with a smile, "I still think it was only as an apology for spoiling our wedding celebration."

Kirill cast a sidewise glance at Vasil, but said nothing.

Vasil shrugged, unsure of why they thought he would be in on the joke. "They are beautiful horses. Have you any foals of them?''

"Yes," said Arina smugly. "Little Mira was born the same day as the first colt." She smiled at the sturdy toddler who sat up in front of Kirill on his horse, already at ease in the saddle.

Vasil, who rode beside Kirill, tickled little Mira under the chin and got her to laugh, and then turned back to Yevgeni. "Have they treated you well here? Did you find any news of your sister?''

Yevgeni's expression was difficult to read, it being so full of contradictions. "I found her, Vasil," he said in an undertone. "She's here. But she's… she's training. She wants to be a rider. To be in the army."

Vasil had to think hard to remember Valye Usova, and found that although he could not recall her face, he remembered that she had been a headstrong, difficult adolescent girl who had run away from her tribe in order to be with her brother. "Is that so surprising? She left everything to follow you."

Yevgeni glanced at the group surrounding them and dropped his voice even lower. "She says there are other women in the army. She says that Bakhtiian's wife was asked by Yaroslav Sakhalin himself to join Sakhalin's jahar."

"And she did not?"

"How should I know? I'm only repeating what Valye told me. She says that Bakhtiian's niece has her own command."

Vasil snorted. "That I can believe. You never knew Nadine. Yevgeni, it's Valye's choice, not yours."

"But what if no dyan will have her? Our aunt won't have her back. Valye hated her anyway, and what is she to do without a tribe?"

Vasil laid a hand on Yevgeni's shoulder. "Then my wife will take her in. I promise you."

All at once, the tension drained out of Yevgeni's face. "Thank you," he whispered.

Vasil mounted and rode with the others along the base of a long escarpment. At last, Anton greeted a trio of riders coming from the north, and they urged the horses up the slope and came to a halt on a rise that gave them a wide view of the land to the north.

Vasil was not sure what he had expected. Yaroslav Sakhalin's army had seemed enormous to him, though he would never have admitted that. But Sakhalin's command was as nothing to the army marching south now. Rank upon rank of horsemen rode at a steady pace southward, covering half the ground that Vasil could see. Farther, only dust rising along the far horizon now, came some unimaginable mass following hard upon the riders: wagons and more horsemen and the gods knew what else.

"Are all the tribes riding south?" Vasil asked, unable to hide his astonishment.

Arina laughed. "Of course not. Many of the women have gone back out on the plains, although some have stayed with the army.''

"There are jahars along the western coast, still," added Kirill, "and every man is granted leave to go back to his tribe, to see his wife and children when he has been gone from them for two winters. This army is, perhaps, half of what Bakhtiian can call on."

"I should never have doubted you," Vasil murmured under his breath.

"I beg your pardon?" asked Arina, but Vasil merely shook his head.

A clot of about twenty riders broke away from the vanguard of the army and speared across the open ground, toward the waiting group. The army itself continued on south, like some inexorable predator bent on its prey. Before he could even make out features, Vasil knew which one was Bakhtiian. He realized that he was clenching and unclenching one of his hands convulsively, and he forced himself to stop and glanced quickly around to see if anyone had noticed. But they were all watching Bakhtiian amidst the other riders as the horses climbed up the slope.

Vasil recognized the proud black stallion that Ilya rode. And Bakhtiian himself: but how could he have changed? He had never changed, except to grow older. The arrogant, dreaming adolescent boy whom Vasil had fallen in love with, those many many years ago, was still there, and time had only honed his arrogance and made reality of his dreams, and sharpened his radiant power.

Then Bakhtiian saw him. Their eyes met, and Vasil smiled.

And Bakhtiian, all unprepared, went rigid with fury. Gods, he had fire to him. It was like a raging heat that attracted cold things to it, and the fire burned as fiercely as ever, for all that Vasil could see. He could not stop himself smiling from pure joy.

Greetings, smiles, ten different little exchanges begun and not quite brought to fruition, withered and died in the blazing heat of Bakhtiian's anger.

Ilya turned to glare at Arina Veselov. "Where did he come from?" he demanded, his voice rasping and hoarse. ' 'Who granted him peace to ride among you?''

"I did," said Arina with astounding calm. "You forget, Bakhtiian, that I am the etsana of his tribe, and it is my right to give him leave to enter it.''

He stiffened at the cool assurance of her tone. "And if I say that I want him gone?''

"How you direct your army is none of my concern." She lifted her chin slightly. That so slight a woman, and one still so young, could withstand the force of Bakhtiian's censure was impressive but not surprising. "How I oversee my tribe is none of yours."

Like a fire banked with ashes, his anger subsided from its flaring heat and settled into something less blazing but no less dangerous. "I beg your pardon, Mother Veselov," he replied, formal. Someone coughed. A general sigh passed around the assembly as its members seemed to realize that they might relax without seeing bloodshed. Vasil knew he was still smiling, but he simply could not help himself. He had forgotten the sheer, breathless elation that the sight of Ilyakoria Bakhtiian had always filled him with.

Then, ignoring the unsettled problem lingering in their midst, the riders greeted each other. Arina dismounted and went to hug a brown-haired woman-yes, it was indeed Bakhtiian's khaja wife. She, too, was one of the rare people Vasil would never forget: he was not sure whether he hated or loved her more for what she was to Ilya. Tess. She walked across to Kirill and smiled up at Zvertkov.

"She loves him," said Vasil under his breath, and he glanced over to see what Bakhtiian made of this greeting. But Ilya was sitting stock still, moving only with a twitch of his hands here, and here, to keep his restive stallion from walking forward. He was staring at the sky. Otherwise, the movement as the two parties greeted each other excluded him, although he was its center.

"Vasil," said Anton mildly, "Tess Soerensen loves many men, and women as well. She has a generous heart. If you try to stir up trouble there, I think you'll find trouble, but only for yourself."

"I'm only surprised that anyone, loving Bakhtiian, could find room in his heart to love another.''

"Ah," said Anton. "As well you might be. If you will excuse me." He reined his horse away to go greet Niko Sibirin.

Vasil cursed under his breath, aware that he had just given himself away. Beside him, Tess Soerensen reached her arms up to take little Mira Veselov down from the saddle, and she turned to look up at Vasil. Behind her, Bakhtiian had shifted his attention to his wife, and his expression, fixed on her with the child in her arms, was painfully naked: no man ought to reveal himself so, not in public, at least.

"Well, Vasil," said Tess. "How like you to come along when you're least expected."

"And least wanted?"

Tess smiled, not entirely kindly. "How is your wife?"

Vasil flushed. "Karolla is well. As are the children. Arina was very kind to them."

"Yes, Arina has indeed been kind to them. But I must say I've always thought Karolla deserving of kindness."

"I have always been kind to her," retorted Vasil, stung by this accusation.

"I am sure you have been. But I can't imagine it was kind to desert her for so long."

"I didn't-" He stopped himself, and then laughed at her expression. "You're cruel as well as clever, Tess. How I've missed you."

Tess's entire face lit up with amusement, and she laughed. "Have you, indeed?"

"Tess!" Bakhtiian had reined his stallion two lengths closer to them, and his expression lowered to fury once again. "The child." Jealous! Ilya was jealous of him for gaining Tess's attention.

Tess swallowed the last of her laughter and carried the child over to her husband. Surprisingly, Mira was not afraid of this grim-faced man in the least. The little girl reached right up to him. Ilya plucked her out of Tess's arms and settled her in the saddle before him, and shot a glance toward Vasil that was filled with such venom that Vasil was immensely heartened.

"Zvertkov." The tone was stiff, but Kirill rode over to Bakhtiian quite cheerfully. "Have you any riders ready for the army?''

"Yes. A whole troop that I recommend you fit entire into one of the commands. They've worked quite well together-boys who came to me three years past, who've grown up here, and two girls."

"Two?"

"One fights well enough." Kirill winked down at Tess. "As well as Tess, I must say."

Vasil saw how Ilya frowned at this comment, how a certain indefinable tension settled around his shoulders, yet Zvertkov seemed immune to it. "And the other?"

"Well, not every man has the gift for fighting, so why should every woman? She'll not get herself into trouble, and she wants nothing else but to ride. Has nothing else. She was with Mikhailov." Kirill glanced back at Vasil and then away. "Also, Veselov brought men with him."

Bakhtiian's gaze jerked to Vasil and then wrenched away. "How many?" He halted, seemed to inhale resolve like air, and turned to hail Arina. "I will end this now," he said. "Mother Veselov. And you. Why have you come back, Vasil?''

As if it were warmth, Vasil basked in the intensity of Ilya's regard, let it flow over him and envelop him. "My father is dead. I am dyan by right."

"'I do not approve it.''

"Whether you approve it or not," said Vasil lightly, "it is not your decision to make."

"Is it not? Anton, come here. Arina, are you determined to allow this man back into your tribe?"

Arina bowed her head. "Even though you disapprove, Bakhtiian, I will allow him back. For his wife's sake. She has suffered enough."

"Even if I ask you to forbid him?"

Her voice was even, and calm. "Even so."

"Very well. I cannot interfere in your decisions. But he will not be a dyan in my army, whether your tribe elects him or not."

"I refuse the command," said Anton. "I bow to the greater wisdom of the gods."

"And in many tribes it would be wrong. But not here. You are my choice, Anton."

Anton, too, bowed his head before Bakhtiian's wrath, but his voice remained mild. "Nevertheless, I refuse."

"As do I," said Arina.

Well, there was no argument against that. Ilya sighed and settled back, and Mira reached up to rub her fingers along his trim beard. His expression altered instantly and he smiled at the little girl. "So be it. Kirill, I leave it to you to split up the men he brought with him into other jahars. No two together."

"No!" Vasil started forward and then reined his horse back sharply, coming close to trampling his own cousins. He was furious. "They are my men. They have been loyal to me for three years now.''

Bakhtiian smiled coldly. "Exactly. Now they will learn to be loyal to me. As is the rest of this army, Veselov, a fact you had best learn quickly. Now, if you will excuse me." He gave little Mira a kiss on the cheek and handed her back to her father. "Tess. Niko." He gathered his party back together swiftly and with the single-minded purpose characteristic of him. He did not look toward Vasil again, and they rode away, back toward the army streaming past on the plains below.

Arina mounted. So did Anton. With a lift of her chin, Arina signaled something unspoken but understood to her husband, and Kirill took the rest of the party aside, leaving the cousins together.

"Vasil," Arina started, and lapsed into silence.

"You have honored me with your trust," Vasil began. "I will never betray you."

Anton sighed. "Won't you, Vasil? I almost believe you."

Arina looked out at the party of riders approaching the army beyond. "Vasil." Her expression was pained but hopeful. "I was too young, really, to know much of what went on… before… between you and Bakhtiian. But you must see that whatever power you may have had over him, whatever feelings he may once have had-well, this isn't anything that ought to be spoken of, as you well know.''

"Do go on," said Vasil softly.

"The past is gone, Vasil. You can't recapture it." Anton, too, stared out at the army. "Look at that, out there, and you can see. We have another destiny now. Don't try to interfere with it. We can only protect you so far. Beyond that-"

"Beyond that, Vasil," said Arina firmly, sounding very much the etsana, "Bakhtiian will not hesitate to kill you if you make him angry again. That he has not done so now is only because of his respect for Anton and me. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

"Good. Then come, Anton. Vasil. We have much to do."

She rode away, and Anton followed her. But Vasil lingered, watching as Bakhtiian's party mingled in with the vanguard of Bakhtiian's army. "I understand very well," he said to himself. "I understand that Ilya is afraid of me. And that gives me hope."

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

"No," said Owen. "I want more curve in the arms. Both arms. Higher. The gesture represents exultation with yet a hint of supplication. There. Hold that."

Diana thought her arms were going to drop off. She could not keep her mind on the rehearsal. Endless hours jolting along in the back of the wagons as the army moved south, and then not even the comfort of any company that she craved at the end. She was surprised, each evening, at how bitterly she missed Anatoly. She was sick of the company of the other actors, except for Gwyn, but he was