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

His conquering sword

Kate Elliott


Kate Elliott

His conquering sword

CHAPTER ONE

Aleksi could no longer look at the sky without wondering. On clear nights the vast expanse of Mother Sun's encampment could be seen, countless campfires and torches and lanterns lit against the broad black flank of Brother Sky. Uncle Moon rose and set, following his herds, and Aunt Cloud and Cousin Rain came and went on their own erratic schedule.

But what if these were only stories? What if Tess's home, Erthe, lay not across the seas but up there, in the heavens? How could land lie there at all? Who held it up? Yet who held up the very land he stood on now? It was not a question that had ever bothered him before.

He prowled the perimeter of the Orzhekov camp in the darkness of a clear, mild night. Beyond this perimeter, the jaran army existed as might any great creature, awake and unquiet when it ought to have been resting; but the army celebrated another victory over yet another khaja city. And in truth, the camp still rejoiced over the return of Bakhtiian from a terrible and dangerous journey. The journey had changed him from the dyan whom they all followed in their great war against the khaja into a gods-touched Singer through whom Mother Sun and Father Wind themselves spoke.

And yet, if it was true that Tess and Dr. Hierakis and Tess's brother the prince and all his party came from a place beyond the wind and the clouds, beyond the moon and the sun, then to what land had Bakhtiian traveled? To whom had he spoken? By whom was he touched? And how could a land as large as the plains lie up there in the sky, and Aleksi not be able to see it?

The stars winked at him, mute. They offered no answers, just as Tess had offered no answers before he had discovered that there was a question to be asked.

From here he could see the hulking shadow of Tess's tent at the very center of the camp-not just at the center of the Orzhekov tribe but at the heart of the entire army. Another, smaller shadow moved and he paused and waited for Sonia to catch up to him.

She rested a hand on his sleeve and he could tell at once-although he could not see her face clearly-that she was worried. "Aleksi," she said, whispering although they were already private. "Have you seen Veselov?" She hesitated, and he heard more than saw her wince away from continuing. But she went on. "Vasil Veselov. He came through camp earlier. He said he came to ask Niko about one of his rider's injuries, but I don't believe-" She faltered.

Aleksi was shocked at her irresolution. "No one has seen him leave," Sonia continued. "And Ilya just came back…" She trailed off and flashed a look around to make sure no one was close enough to hear, despite the fact that they both knew that they were well out of earshot, and that no one walked this way in any case. This part of camp, unlike the rest of the huge sprawl of tents extending far out into the darkness, was quiet and subdued. "The guards didn't see him, but you never miss anything, Aleksi." She waited.

A discreet distance beyond the awning of Tess's tent stood the ever-present guards, these a trio who had ridden in with Ilya, Aleksi had seen him arrive with a larger train and then dismiss most of them. Bakhtiian had gone into his tent alone.

"Oh, I saw Veselov leave camp," Aleksi lied in a casual voice. It wasn't true, of course. But Aleksi knew when to trust his instincts. Better that no one else realize where Veselov actually was.

"Thank the gods," murmured Sonia on a heartfelt sigh, and she gave Aleksi a sisterly kiss on the cheek and returned, presumably lighter in spirit, to her own tent.

It made Aleksi feel sick at heart, to lie to her like that, but he had learned long ago that orphans, outcasts, and all outsiders could not always live by the truth, though they might wish to. He trusted Tess to know what she was doing, just as she trusted him to protect her. No greater bond existed than love sealed by trust.

Aleksi touched his saber hilt and glanced up at the stars again. He wondered if Tess had not become like a weaver whose threads grow tangled: If the damage is not straightened and repaired soon enough, the cloth is ruined. Wind brushed him, sighing through camp. Songs drifted to him on the breeze, a distant campfire flared and, closer, a horse neighed, calling out a challenge. Above, in the night sky, the campfires of Mother Sun's tribe burned on, too numerous to count, too distant to smell even the faintest aroma of smoke or flame from their burning.

"We come from a world like this world," Dr. Hierakis had said, "except its sun is one of those stars." Could there possibly be another Mother Sun out there, giving her light to an altogether different tribe of children? He shook his head impatiently. How could it be true? How could it not be true? And what, by the gods, did Tess think she was doing, anyway? Did she truly understand what trouble there would be if it was discovered that Bakhtiian and Veselov had met together, secretly, even with her serving as an intermediary?

He cast one last glance at the silent tent and then began to walk the edge of camp again.

CHAPTER TWO

Ilya lay in elegant disarray beside her, breathing deeply, even in sleep marked by a harmonious attitude that drew the eye to him. A soft gloom suffused the lent. The lantern burned steadily, but its light did little more than blur the edges of every object in the chamber.

Vasil was one such object: the light burnished his hair and accentuated the planes of his handsome face. He lay on his side with his eyes shut, but Tess knew he was only pretending to be asleep. Somehow, not surprisingly, she had ended up between the two men. She traced her fingers up his bare arm to his shoulder.

"Vasil," she whispered, so as not to wake Ilya, "you have to leave."

He did not open his eyes. "If you were a jaran woman," he said, no louder than her, "you would have repudiated him, and never ever done such a thing as this. What is it like in the land where you come from?"

"In the land where I come from, there are marriages like this."

His eyes snapped open. He looked at her suspiciously. "Two men and a woman?"

"Yes, and sometimes two women and a man, sometimes two of each. It's not common, but it exists."

"Gods," said Vasil. He smiled. "Ilya must conquer this country."

"No," said Tess, musing. "It's a long way away."

"I never heard of such a thing in Jeds," said Ilya.

"I thought you were asleep! It isn't Jeds, anyway. It's Erthe."

"Ah," said Ilya. He shifted. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, but he was only moving to pull the blankets up over his chest. "Tess is right. You have to go, Vasil."

Lying between them, Tess was too warm to need blankets. Vasil reached out to draw a hand over her belly, casual with her now that they had been intimate.

"Not much here. You must be early still, like Karolla."

Tess chuckled. "Dr. Hierakis says I'm not quite halfway through. She says with my build that I carry well."

"Dokhtor Hierhakis? Ah, the healer. She came from Jeds."

"From Erthe, originally, but she lives in Jeds now."

"How can she know, Tess?" asked Ilya suddenly.

For once, there was a simple, expedient answer, and she didn't have to lie to him. "Because you got me pregnant after you came back from the coast with Charles. I know I wasn't pregnant before that. Ilya, if you think back, you know as well as I when it happened."

"I'm sorry I-" began Vasil, and then stopped. He withdrew his hand from her abdomen and sat up abruptly.

"You're sorry about what?" Tess asked.

"Nothing." He shook his head. Tess watched, curious. She had never seen Vasil at a loss for words before.

"You're sorry you weren't there," said Ilya in a low voice, "and you're sorry to think that I might have a life with my own wife that doesn't include you."

Vasil did not reply. He rose and dressed without saying anything at all. Tess could tell that he was troubled. She watched him dress, unable not to admire his body and the way he moved and stood with full awareness that someone-in this case she-was watching him. She could feel that Ilya watched him, too, but she knew it was prudent not to turn to look. Vasil did not look at either of them. He pulled on his boots and bent to kiss her. Then he stood and skirted the pillows, only to pause on the other side, beside Ilya. Tess rolled over.

The light shone full on Vasil's face. "Are you sorry I came here tonight?" he asked, his attention so wholly on Ilya that Tess wondered if Vasil had forgotten she was there.

Ilya regarded him steadily. "No." His gaze flicked toward Tess and away. His voice dropped to a whisper." No, I'm not sorry." Vasil knelt abruptly and leaned forward and kissed him. Lingered, kissing him, because Ilya made no move, neither encouraging him nor rejecting him, just accepted it.

Simple, ugly jealousy stabbed through Tess. And like salt in the wound, the brush of arousal.

Ilya shifted and suddenly he changed. All this night he had been astonishingly passive, going along with the choice Tess and Vasil had made as if he followed some long-set pattern, pursued acquiescing to his pursuer. As if that was how it had been before, between him and Vasil. Now he placed a hand on Vasil's chest and gently, with finality, pushed him away. "But it can't happen again," he said quietly. "You know that."

Startled, Vasil glared at him. "Why not? She said there were marriages like this, in that khaja land." He reached out to Ilya's face and splayed his fingers along the line of Ilya's jaw. With his thumb, he traced the diagonal scar up Ilya's cheek. "You are the only man marked for marriage in all the tribes."

"Oh, God," said Tess, recalling that moment vividly now. "And I was wearing your clothes and using your saber when I did it."

"So it is true," said Vasil triumphantly. "Can you deny it?"

Ilya closed a hand over Vasil's wrist and drew Vasil's hand away from his face, then released it. "It is also true that not twelve days ago a rider named Yevgeni Usova was banished from the army for lying with another man, with one of the actors. Shall I judge myself less severely than he was judged?"

"I was sorry to hear about Yevgeni," said Vasil carelessly. "But he was stupid enough to get caught."

"So we are to be allowed to continue as long as we are not caught? I think not, Vasil. I must be more holy than the riders I command, not less. Nothing else is just."

Vasil looked annoyed, as if he had not expected this turn of events. "So that is why after your family was killed, after the tribes agreed to follow you, you threw me out? That is why you stopped getting drunk? I remember after you came back from Jeds, how many women used to ask you to their beds and how very often you went. It is true, what I heard later, that you rarely lay with women afterward? After your family was killed? After I was banished? Were you punishing yourself? Is there a single piece of gold in this tent from any of the khaja cities your army has conquered? Once you questioned everything, you demanded to know why the jaran had to live as our grandmothers and grandfathers and their grandparents had lived, as the First Tribes had lived. Now you are the most conservative of all. Do you know who you remind me of? You remind me of the man who killed your mother and sister. You remind me of Khara Roskhel."

For an instant Ilya's anger blazed off him so strongly that he seemed to add light to the room. Then, as suddenly, he jerked his head to one side, to stare at the curtained wall that separated the inner from the outer chamber. "He was pure," he said in a low voice.

"And you are not? Because of me?" Vasil's tone was scathing.

Ilya hesitated. Tess had a sudden instinct that Ilya wanted to say "Yes, because of you," but that because he did not believe it himself, he could not bring himself to lie.

"Roskhel always supported you, Ilya," said Vasil, his voice dropping. "When we got to the great gathering of tribes, that summer eleven years ago, when we rode in to the encampment, he supported you. And then, the day you stood up in front of the elders of the tribes to tell them of your vision, he was gone. What happened there to turn him against you? Did he and your mother quarrel?"

The silence following this question became so profound that Tess heard, from outside, the bleating of startled goats. Tess realized that she was cold, and she wrapped a blanket around her torso. Vasil did not move, staring at Ilya.

"Yes," said Ilya in a clipped tone. He would not look at either of them. "Go, Vasil. You must go."

"Ilya." Vasil extended a hand toward Ilya, tentatively, like a supplicant. The gesture seemed odd in him, and yet, seeing it, Tess felt heartened. "You have always had such great visions, ever since you were a boy. What I want seems so small beside it."

"Yet what you want is impossible."

"It is because I'm dyan? I'll give it back to Anton. I never wanted it except to get close to you."

"You know that's not the reason."

"But I have children, and a wife. You have a wife, and soon you'll have children as well. What is to stop us continuing on like this?"

"You will never understand, Vasil. Only what I granted to the gods and to the jaran, that I lead us to the ends of the earth if need be, if that is our destiny. You aren't part of that vision. You can't be, by our own laws. I banished you once. I've already made that choice. Don't force me to do it again. Because I will."

"Damn you." Vasil rose abruptly, anger hot in his face. "I would have made a different choice."

Ilya's weight of authority lent him dignity and a sheer magnitude of presence that so eclipsed Vasil's beauty and charisma that Tess suddenly understood the desperate quality in Vasil's love for Ilya. "You are not me. The gods have touched me. Through my father and my mother, the gods chose to bring me here, so that I might act as their instrument. My first duty will always be to their calling."

"What about her?" Vasil asked bitterly, gesturing with a jerk of his head toward Tess.

"Tess knows the worth of my love for her."

"Yes," said Tess in a quiet voice, seeing how Ilya's shoulders trembled with emotion, and fatigue. "I do know the worth of his love for me. Vasil, you know what the answer is. You must have always known it. Why couldn't you have taken this night as a gift and let it go?"

She could not tell if Vasil heard her. But then, whenever Ilya was near him, the greatest part of his attention had always been reserved for Bakhtiian, no matter how much he might seem to be playing to others. "Let it be my curse to you, then," said Vasil, "that you always know that I have always and will always love you more than anything." He spun on his heel and strode out, thrusting the curtain aside so roughly that it tumbled back into place behind him.

"Oh, gods," said Ilya, not moving. He watched the curtain sway.

"You don't think he'll try to get caught on purpose-?"

"No. He knows I'll have to kill him. Whatever he may say, he loves his own life more than he loves me."

"Ilya." She reached for him. He flinched away from her. She stopped dead, and then pulled back her hand. He had never rejected her before, not like this. God, what if he really did love Vasil more than he loved her? What if she had misinterpreted the brief scene played out between them? But watching him as he sat there strung as tight as a bow, edged as sharp as any saber, she knew beyond anything else that he hurt. His pain distressed her more than the knowledge-which could no longer be denied- that he did in fact love Vasil and had for many years. Ilya was not rejecting her; he was rejecting himself, and thus anything that loved him and might yet scorn him for what he had revealed himself to be.

"I'm a damned hypocrite," he said in Rhuian. The curtain had ceased swaying, but he still stared at it.

Tess made a brief laugh in her throat. "Ah, Bakhtiian returns to the lands of the mortals. How unique you are. I'm sure you're the only person afflicted with hypocrisy."

He twisted around to glare at her. "You don't understand what that means!"

"What? That you're not perfect? But I've known that for a long time." She could see by his expression that she was offending him, so she continued gleefully. "Of course! Why didn't I ever see it before? Yuri always said so, that you thought you had to be the best. Kirill said it, too: that you always had to win. I didn't see then that it also meant that you had to be the purest one, the one with no flaws, no stain on your spirit, the one who never committed the slightest offense or the least impolite exchange. Do you know how boring that kind of person is? Why, I'm relieved to see that you're flawed like the rest of us. Even if it's only with so common a sin as hypocrisy."

"How dare you laugh at me!" He looked livid with anger.

"Because you won't laugh at yourself. Someone must. Since I'm your wife, I've been granted that dubious honor."

"The gods do not grant their gifts lightly, Tess," he said stiffly, "and with that gift comes a burden."

"Yes, a burden greater than that any other person has to bear. I'm well aware of it. I'm aware of it constantly, and it's beginning to weary me. It may even be true, but that still doesn't mean that you're any different than the rest of us. That you're any better."

"No," he said softly, still not looking at her, "I am worse."

"Oh, Ilya." This time when she leaned across to touch him, he sat motionless under her hands, neither responding to her nor retreating from her. As he had with Vasil. "You must know that I don't think it's wrong for you to love him. Only that I-" She hesitated. Their bed was a wild landscape of rumpled blankets, stripes and patterns muted in the lantern light, of furs thrown into topographical relief, mountains and valleys and long ridges and the far mound of her toes, of pillows, one shoved up against the far wall, two flung together at the head of the bed, more scattered beyond Ilya, and of his clothing, littering the carpet beyond. One boot listed against a stray pillow. His belt curled around the other boot, snaring it.

He said nothing, but his silence was expectant, and courageous, too; how easily he might think it would be natural for her to repudiate him, based on the morals of his culture, faced with what she now knew of him.

"He's just so damned beautiful," she said at last, afraid to say it, "that I can't help but think that-that anyone would love him more than… me…" She faltered.

"Tess!" He spun back to her, upsetting her balance. She tumbled over and landed on her back, half laughing, half shocked, in the middle of the bed. "You're jealous of him!"

"Why shouldn't I be?" she demanded, rolling up onto her side. He rested on his elbows a handbreadth from her, staring astonished at her. "You've known him a long time, much longer than you've known me. It's obvious you still love him. All that keeps you apart is that the jaran don't recognize, don't accept, that kind of love."

"That is not all that keeps us apart, my heart," he replied gravely, but humor glinted in his eyes as well. "I loved him with a boy's awkward, headlong passion. But you," his gaze had the intensity of fire on a bitter cold night. "You I love like…" He shook his head, impatient with words. When he spoke again, he spoke in his autocratic tone, one that brooked no disagreement. "You, I love." As if daring her to take issue with the statement or the nakedly clear emotion that burned off of him.

Tess was wise enough simply to warm herself in the blaze, and vain enough to be gratified by it. She had heard what she had hoped to hear, and she knew him well enough by now to know he spoke the truth. Vasil was certainly more beautiful than she was, or could hope to be, but he was also the most self-centered person she had ever met. And she suspected that Vasil's attraction to Ilya was likely not so much to Ilya as a person, as Ilya, but to Ilya as the gods-touched child, to Bakhtiian, the man with fire in his heart and a vision at the heart of his spirit.

"Still," she asked suddenly, "if it was possible, would that tempt you? A triad marriage?"

He rolled his eyes and sat up, sighing with exasperation. "All you women ever think about is lying with men." He surveyed the remains of the bed with disgust and rose and set to work straightening out the blankets and placing the pillows back in their appointed spots.

"But would it?"

His lips twitched. "I don't know," he said at last, flinging the last stray pillow at her, which she caught. He picked up his boots and his belt and folded his clothes in exactly die same order and with the same precise corners that he always folded them. She admired him from this angle, the clean lines of his body, the length of thigh, his flat belly and what lay below, the curve of his shoulders, his lips, the dark shadow of his luxuriant hair, tipped with sweat. He was a little thin yet, from the sickness, but that would pass. He sank down beside her, cross-legged, and considered her with a frown. "Does it tempt you?"

She sat up as well and shrugged. "Not really. I wonder if there's anything there, in him, past his undoubted beauty. Tell me about him."

He considered her. After a moment he slid in under the blankets and covered them both up. She lay on her right side, angling one leg up over his legs. But her belly, not yet large enough to need a pillow for support, still needed something. She shifted and grimaced; he turned by degrees until she found a comfortable position. She sighed and slid her shoulder in under his arm and rested her head on his warm shoulder. He lay on his back, with one hand tucked under his head and the other curled up around her back, fingers delicate on her skin.

"I was a singularly unattractive boy," he said at last, musing. "I was awkward. I was a dreamer, and I had strange ideas and stranger curiosities. I was also afflicted with-" He sighed. She had one hand tucked down under her belly, knuckles brushing his hip; her other hand rested on his chest, so she felt the force of the sigh under her fingers. "-very sudden and very strong desires, that winter, and no girl in any tribe we met that season had the least interest in me. Why should they? I was odd, and ugly. Then Vasil arrived. We were both passionate in our youthful desires."

"What was yours? Or was it only-"

He chuckled. "No, no, it was both. The physical craving was strong enough, but never as strong as the other I wanted to know everything."

"Then what was Vasil's?"

"I suppose I was. Vasil was radiant. He was beautiful. Girls followed him. They asked him everything they never asked me. They paid him as much attention as they paid the young men who had made a name for themselves riding with the jahar. I don't know why he chose me."

"Perhaps he saw what you would become."

Silence shuttered them. Tess felt as if she could hear the sound of the blankets settling in around them, caving in with excruciating slowness to fill the empty space left by the curves and angles of their intertwined bodies.

"He believed in me when no one else did," said Ilya, almost wonderingly, as if that moment of revelation, of the adolescent boy revealing with reckless daring his wild vision only to find that his listener did not scorn or laugh but rather embraced him, had set its mark so fast and deep upon his spirit that it had branded him forever.

"Not even your father?"

"My father rode out a lot in those days. He was a Singer. The gods called him at strange times, on strange journeys."

"Your sister?"

"Natalia's first husband had just been killed in a feud with the Boradin tribe, while she was still pregnant with her first child."

"Was that Nadine?"

"Yes. Oh, Natalia was fond enough of me, and kind to me, considering what an embarrassment I must have been to her, but she was busy and preoccupied. Riders were already beginning to come round, to see what they could see of her, to ask if she was ready to marry again."

"But, Ilya, women have no choice in marriage."

He tilted his head to look directly at her. His lips quirked up. "Nor should they," he said, and grinned. Then he yelped, because she pinched him.

"That for you, and don't think I'll ever forgive you for taking me down the avenue without me knowing what it meant, either."

"Perhaps it was rash-"

"Perhaps!"

"But, by the gods, I'd do it again. Tess." He pressed her against him, as close as he might, and kissed her long and searchingly.

There came a cough. There stood Vasil, framed in the entrance by curtain and striped wall. "If you will talk about me, then I wish you'd do so in a language I can understand. And, Ilya, my love, I don't know how you can expect me to leave here unseen if you post guards at the entrance to your tent."

Ilya swore.

"Wait," said Tess in khush. "Ilya, it's true he can't get out by the front entrance without being seen. They all saw you come in here. You'll have to go out front and distract them with something, and he can sneak out the back."

"You have a back entrance?" Vasil asked, looking interested.

"Go on," said Tess, forestalling what Ilya was about to say, which she guessed would be ill-considered and rude. Vasil stared at him as he dressed, but he dressed quickly and pushed past the other man without the slightest sign of the affection he had shown earlier. A moment later, Tess heard voices outside, engaged in some kind of lively conversation. "Here," she said, standing up with a blanket pulled around her. She went to the back wall of the tent and twitched the woven inner wall aside to reveal the felt outer wall. Here, low along the ground, the felt wall overlapped itself and, drawing the extra layer aside, Tess revealed a gap in the fabric just large enough to crawl through. She knelt and peered out.

Vasil laid a hand on her bare shoulder. His fingers caressed the line of her neck. "Here, I'll look. I've done this before."

Tess made a noise in her throat and stood up, and away. "I have no doubt of it."

He hesitated, and bent to kiss her. Then he knelt and swayed forward. Paused, surveying his ground. A moment later he slid outside. Tess knelt and looked out after him, but he had already vanished into the gloom. She twitched the fabric back, let the inner wall fall into place, and called for Ilya. After a little bit, he came back in, swearing under his breath.

"Well, you can hardly blame him," she began.

"I can do what I like," he said peevishly. "He's so damned charming that it's easy to forget how much trouble he causes."

"I think I'd better sew that back entrance shut."

He cocked his head at her. "Probably." He stripped and snuggled in beside her. And sighed. "It was a stupid thing to do."

"What? Letting him get out of here unseen?"

"No." By the constraint in his voice, she could tell he was embarrassed. "What-we did-tonight."

"No, it was the right thing to do. It never does any good to run away from what you're afraid of. I should know. I've done it often enough."

"What was I afraid of?"

"I don't know. But I don't think you're afraid of Vasil anymore."

His face rested against her hair. He stroked her along the line of her torso and down along her hips, and up again, and down, while he considered. "No," he replied, sounding surprised, "I don't think I am."

"So. Is there anything else you haven't told me?"

His hand stopped. "I've kept no more hidden from you," he said indignantly, "than you've kept hidden from me."

Shame overwhelmed Tess. Gods, he didn't know the tenth of it. Yet what could she say? There was nothing she could say.

"It wasn't Natalia they were asking, anyway," said Ilya, "it was my mother and my aunt. It's decent to observe a period of mourning before marrying again"

It took Tess a moment to recall where they had left off their other conversation: with his sister, Natalia. "But she did marry again?"

"Yes." Although she wasn't looking at him, she felt him tense. "That's when I left for Jeds. I hated him."

"Why?"

Ilya let go of a shuddering breath, and he clutched her tighter to him. "He mocked me. He scorned me. Gods, he tried to rape me once. He knew about Vasil; he caught us together, one time, and he held the knowledge of it over me like a saber. He used to fence with the boys, those of us who aspired to be riders, and he'd torment me. He'd cut me up, fine cuts all along my arms and my chest."

"But, Ilya, how could your sister ever have married someone like that?"

"Oh, no one else knew. He made sure of that. He was charming to everyone else, a good rider, a fine fighter, good with horses and the herds. No one believed me. They all thought I was just jealous. They said I was too attached to Natalia. They said-" He broke off. "Anyway, I left."

"And you went to Jeds. It's strange, now that I think of it, how much I know about your journey to Jeds, and how little I knew of the reasons you left the tribes to go there. But, Ilya." She laughed a little, into his shoulder. "Does that mean that the courtesan Mayana was the first woman you ever slept with?"

"Yes." He didn't sound amused; defensive, perhaps.

"She's so famous, though. I remember that she used to come have tea with Cara once a week. She must have been young, even though she seemed old to me. I was only-what? — ten. She'd just recently bought her freedom from the brothel she was indentured to, so it couldn't have been long after you left Jeds that I arrived there from Erthe. So it wasn't only a university education you got at Jeds."

"Are you complaining about the education I got at Jeds?"

She canted her head back to grin at him. "Not at all. Then you came back to the tribes. Was Vasil still with your tribe?"

"No. He appeared about two winters later. He'd heard that I had returned. My mother had already made me dyan, so no one wondered at first when I took him into my jahar. Josef left his tribe at about the same time, to ride with me. The Roskhel tribe traveled alongside of us many seasons during that time."

"Why did Khara Roskhel turn against you? Gods, what brought him to murder your whole family?"

But the question evoked only silence. His left hand ran a pattern, up and down, along her lower back. She felt as if the gesture, repeated obsessively, was itself the answer, but in a language she did not speak.

"Ilya?"

"No." He lay the index and middle fingers of his right hand on her lips, gently. "No more, Tess. There's been enough today, and tonight. I'm exhausted."

As well he might be. She sighed, knowing that if he would not confide in her now, as vulnerable as he was because of all that he had laid bare this night, he probably never would confess the truth of the troubling mystery of Roskhel's defection and subsequent horrible revenge.

She shifted until she was comfortable. His breathing slowed and gentled, and he slept. From outside, she heard the night guards conversing, the murmur of their words but not their meaning. Or perhaps it was just one of them, reciting an old story to keep them company on a dark night.

CHAPTER THREE

Boredom afflicted Jiroannes. He had nothing better to do than to interest himself in the goings-on in his guard-men's encampment. At dawn each day, he sent Syrannus to request an audience with Bakhtiian. Each day Syrannus returned with a polite refusal. In the mornings Jiroannes inspected the camp, ostensibly to make sure the women and children were being treated well by their keepers but in fact because the simple human contact with people other than Syrannus and the two slave-boys was as salve to him, who was otherwise alone.

There was something pathetic about how gratefully the women greeted him, eyes cast down, knowing as they did that it was on his sufferance they were allowed to be there. Sleeping with men of another race, soon to be pregnant with their children; and yet, most of them would otherwise have starved to death, or met a worse fate. They knew they were the lucky ones. The little children sucked on their fingers and stared at him. The older ones attempted to help out around the guards" camp. A few bold children even assisted Lal and Samae and the other slave-boy-whose name was Jat-in hauling water and beating carpets and collecting fuel for the benefit of Jiroannes himself. The guardsmen's camp tripled in size in ten short days. By the time Bakhtiian made his triumphal entry into camp, Jiroannes felt that he was master of an entire little tribe of his own.

When the citadel fell, his men went out searching for refugees. This time they brought back a princess. Waiting women and peasant women had been sheltering her, but the delicacy of her complexion and hands and the fine gold-braided shift she wore underneath the filthy gown her protectors had given her to camouflage herself in betrayed her high station. The captain brought her directly to Jiroannes as dusk lowered around them. Trembling, the woman knelt before him, hands crossed on her chest, head bent so that it almost touched the carpet, and begged him for mercy.

He took her to his bed. She was a virgin, which proved how great a prize she was. She wept a little afterward, silently; he was annoyed to discover that her grief made him uncomfortable. She was a handsome woman, insofar as any of the Habakar women could be called handsome, and she had a pleasingly full figure and soft, yielding flesh. A few drops of blood stained her inner thighs, but he had been gentle-as gentle as he could be, considering how long it had been since he had lain with a woman.

But now that he had satisfied his craving, he wondered if the jaran women, if Mother Sakhalin, would consider this night's work as any different from a rape. Still, the woman had begged him for mercy, and she had given herself into his hands of her own free will. This was war, after all, and in war, the conquered must expect to become servants. Yet his captain had remarked that he had yet to see jaran riders carrying off any khaja women.

Jiroannes tried to talk with her, but they spoke no language in common and she seemed either stupid or so frightened as to be stupid, so he soon grew bored with die effort. She called herself Javani, but whether that was her name, or a title, or a word describing her feelings he could not tell. He called Lal to him and had the boy lead her away to the women's tent, which now she would share with Samae.

In the morning, a rider came by to say that all ambassadors were required to attend court at midday.

"Eminence," said Syrannus as he and Lal helped Jiroannes dress in his most formal sash and blouse and turban, "what would you have me do with the woman?"

"She will remain in seclusion, as befits her station," said Jiroannes. "I will send for her again tonight. Make sure she is comfortable, Lal, and see that she is allowed to wash."

Lal accepted these orders with his usual gratitude.

Jiroannes wondered if the boy was ambitious. After all, since Lal was a eunuch, he might aspire to the honor of tending to Jiroannes" wives and the other women in the women's quarter. Not that Jiroannes had wives yet, but in time he intended to marry often and well.

"Lal, treat her as you would any woman of high station in your care, and see what you can discover about who and what she is. I would be-most-grateful for such information."

Lal dropped to his knees and touched his forehead to the carpet. "Your eminence, you honor me with this responsibility." Then he jumped to his feet and hurried off to his tasks.

Definitely ambitious. With Syrannus and four guardsmen attending him, Jiroannes walked through camp. As usual, the guardsmen stayed behind at the first circle of jaran guards while jaran men escorted Jiroannes to the flat triangle of ground where Bakhtiian sat invested in all his authority on a carpeted and silk-hung dais. His chief wife and a blinded man sat on pillows to his right. To his left sat Mother Sakhalin, an older man dressed as a rider whom Jiroannes did not recognize, and, surprisingly, Mitya.

Jiroannes was brought forward. He made his bows; he was recognized. As he backed up, he caught Mitya staring at him. The boy flushed and averted his gaze, looking ashamed and uncomfortable. His aunt Sonia came forward from her station to one side and spoke to the boy for a few moments in a low voice. Mitya straightened his shoulders and drew himself up. What was he doing up there? Was it possible that Mitya was one of Bakhtiian's heirs? Was Bakhtiian showing him off, or showing him preference? Jiroannes realized that he had not the slightest idea of who might or might not succeed Bakhtiian if Bakhtiian died, and this irritated him. But at least Bakhtiian looked hale, if a little pale about the lips. If Bakhtiian had indeed been ill, he looked no worse for the experience. Other ambassadors came forward in their turn and were recognized and dismissed to the audience.

The afternoon dragged on as one embassy after the next appeared to entreat Bakhtiian for clemency: Habakar city-elders and Habakar governors and one furtive-looking Habakar prince with two wives and nine children surrendered one by one, begging nothing more than that they and what they offered into Bakhtiian's hands be spared the destruction being visited on Habakar lands by Bakhtiian's ruthless general Yaroslav Sakhalin. They pledged undying loyalty to his person; the Habakar prince offered him his eldest daughter-who looked all of twelve years old-to wife.

The offer prompted a long exchange between Bakhtiian and his chief wife which Jiroannes was too far away to follow. Partway through it, Mitya's head jerked up as if his name had been mentioned, and the boy wrung his hands in his lap and gazed sidelong at the Habakar girl and then away.

It was hot and dusty. The sun burned through the silk of Jiroannes's emerald green blouse and baked his back. Syrannus fanned him, but the tiny breeze gave no relief. Sweat trickled down in rivulets and streams on Habakar faces, on other foreign faces, dampening backs and arms, staining the rich fabric of their clothing. Awnings shielded all of the jaran sitting or standing in attendance, except for the guards. Of the foreigners, only the four interpreters stood under cover.

The Habakar prince knelt in the dirt with his wives and children huddled behind him and the girl in question standing on display to one side with her gaze cast down. They did not veil their women here, so her face was plain for all to see. Her clothes were breathtakingly rich, and she was laden with jewelry that Jiroannes would have been proud to see his own wife wear. How had her father managed to get his family through the lines with his wealth intact? The girl kept glancing to one side, not at her father, but at the boy who knelt at his father's right hand, the eldest of the brood, who looked to be about Mitya's age.

Mother Sakhalin had joined in the discussion up on the dais, and some agreement was reached.

"To seal our promise," said Bakhtiian, addressing the Habakar prince, "we will agree to take both the girl and the eldest boy."

The prince went white, as well he might: to have one's heir and beloved eldest son wrenched from you… even Jiroannes, who had no legitimate children yet, knew how hurtful a blow that must be. But what could he do? The man had other sons, that much was evident. The girl maintained her composure; the boy took it bravely enough, rising to stand protectively next to his sister.

"May I beg of you," said the prince in a low voice, "that you treat them well?"

Bakhtiian regarded him with bemusement. "We are honoring you by this alliance. You are the cousin of the Habakar king, are you not, by your inheritance laws? Thus will your children marry into the noble families of the jaran and be exalted for this reason. For this reason as well, you will remain in our heart." Clearly, it was a promise. The prince's face cleared and he looked thoughtful more than anything, now. "You may return to your lands, which will be spared," finished Bakhtiian.

The dismissal allowed for no reply. The prince bowed deeply and led his entourage away. One of his wives wept copiously. The other looked slyly pleased. Mitya's Aunt Sonia came forward and herded the two Habakar children away into the jaran camp. Jiroannes felt a sudden and surprising sympathy for the brother and sister, abandoned among the barbarians, hardly knowing whether they might ever see their family or any familiar Habakar faces again. He had glimpsed the ruins of the Habakar cities on the march, and although certainly they did not compare in size or evident scope with Vidiyan cities, still, he could see that these Habakar were civilized people, unlike the jaran.

Another embassy came forward, elders begging clemency for their city, which Sakhalin had invested with some small part of his army before riding on. The afternoon wore on. Jiroannes began to feel faint from heat and sun and thirst. His eyes drooped. Syrannus prodded him awake. After a time, his eyes drooped again. His chin nodded down, and down.

Bells shook him awake. He started up, heart racing. He recognized the sound, the one made by jaran messengers as they raced on their way down the line. A rider appeared at the inner ring of guards. The messenger dismounted, throwing the reins of his blown horse to a guard, and strode forward, bells chiming. Except it wasn't a man.

Bakhtiian stood up out of sheer surprise. "Nadine!" He got right down off the dais to go and greet her. He embraced her, kissed her on each cheek, and then pushed her back to stare at her. A recent scar disfigured her left cheek. He brushed the line of the scar with his right hand. His eyebrows arched up. "What is this?"

She had a fulminant look about her. "I am married, Uncle. He told me you were dying, and that it was my duty."

"Is that so? I suppose it was Feodor Grekov. Are you sorry?" He regarded her with a pained expression that might have been amusement or distress.

Her eyes burned. She looked furious and yet well aware that she was the focus of everyone's attention. Jiroannes enjoyed watching her helpless rage. "That you're not dead?" Her voice rasped with anger. "If I had to sacrifice myself, then I think you might have been polite enough to die and make it worth my while." To Jiroannes's amazement, she flung her arms around her uncle and hugged him tightly.

She let go of him and stalked past him to the dais. She greeted his wife warmly, the blind man warmly, Mitya warmly, and the old crone with distinct reserve. Mother Sakhalin looked smug. Bakhtiian followed her back, not at all offended by her rudeness. Jiroannes was not sure whether to disdain her for her ill-mannered greeting or admire her for having the courage to speak so disrespectfully to her uncle.

"What news from Morava?" Bakhtiian asked of her in a perfectly friendly voice. Then he glanced up, as if recalling that the entire court watched the proceedings eagerly. He gestured. The audience ended.

Soldiers herded the ambassadors away with their usual ruthless efficiency. Jiroannes was glad to retreat to the cool shelter of his awning, to have Jat bathe his feet in lukewarm water and Syrannus recite poetry to him. Lal had done wonders making dinner with the provisions available to him, but then he always did. Just as the boy served him dinner on the three traditional silver trays, Syrannus rose and signaled to the slave to pause. Jiroannes turned.

Mitya had halted at the edge of the Vidiyan encampment, looking uncertain as to what his reception might be if he tried to venture any farther in.

"Go and ask him to share dinner with me," said Jiroannes sharply, afraid the boy would leave.

Syrannus hurried out and returned with Mitya. The boy glanced around the camp and relaxed when he saw no sign of Samae.

Jiroannes stood up. "I am honored by your presence," he said, and realized that he was smiling with pleasure. "I have missed your company." There, it was said. Let the boy scorn him if he chose.

"I'm sorry," said Mitya hesitantly. "My aunt said-" Samae came out from inside the women's tent, saw Mitya, and ducked back inside. The boy went crimson.

"I beg your pardon for whatever insult I may have unwittingly offered you," said Jiroannes hastily. "Please, sit and eat with me. Syrannus, the other chair."

Syrannus brought the otfier chair. Mitya sat. Lal retreated, only to return quickly with a full set of dishes for two diners and the food cunningly set out for both men. They ate in polite silence.

Lal cleared the dishes away and brought hot tea, spiced to perfection. Mitya sipped cautiously at the aromatic liquid. "Are you married?" he asked suddenly.

"Not yet, but I hope to marry once I return to my country."

"Whom will you marry?"

Jiroannes shrugged. "There are several women I have in mind. They must all be of good birth, of course. The Great King's fourth cousin has a daughter, and with my uncle's influence to favor my suit, I may be able to marry her."

"But she is a Vidiyan woman. Of your own kind."

Jiroannes thought now that he knew why Mitya had come to him, this evening. "Yes. But if an advantageous match with a woman of high birth from another kingdom presented itself, I would certainly accept it."

"Even if it meant you couldn't have the-the fourth cousin's daughter?"

"Why should it prevent me from marrying her as well?"

They stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Light dawned on Mitya's face. "You mean it's true, what Tess says, that you marry more than one woman? At the same time? Gods!"

"So did the Everlasting God ordain, that each man may marry as many women as he can support. Thus also may he guarantee that he has heirs to carry on after he dies."

"Gods," echoed Mitya. Then he flushed and stared down at his hands.

"You're young to think of marrying."

Mitya's hands moved restlessly in his lap, twisting and wringing and lacing his fingers together and then pulling them apart. "Ilya wants me to marry the Habakar princess. Not now, of course, but when I'm old enough. In four winters it will be the Year of the Wolf, and I'll be twenty years old and of age to ride in jahar. But then he wants me to become the dyan, the governor, of these lands, Habakar lands, with her as my-my etsana, I suppose."

"Ah," said Jiroannes, seeing that Bakhtiian had more than simple plunder on his mind. "Well, you must know, Mitya, that the Great King of Vidiya has a wife who is the daughter of the Elenti king, so it's common enough for nobles to marry women of other races."

Mitya looked skeptical. "Galina said she won't marry the boy no matter what, even if they all agree to it."

"The boy?"

"The prince. He'll have to marry an etsana, of course, or an etsana's daughter. They mean him to stay with the camp. They're going to send both the sister and the brother out to the plains for a few years and then decide. Do you think I should marry her?"

"I'm flattered that you desire my opinion, Mitya," said Jiroannes, thrilled that the boy had come to him in such a confiding mood.

"But you're not jaran. You must think about these things differently than we do."

"A prince rarely marries to suit himself. Is that not also so with the jaran?"

"My cousin married to suit himself," muttered Mitya.

"Your cousin? Oh, you mean Bakhtiian. But he married the sister of the Prince of Jeds. That was surely a wise match for him to make."

Mitya laughed. "You don't know Ilya at all. That isn't why he married her."

Well, Mitya was still young, and Jiroannes too delighted by his presence here to want to ruin the mood by disabusing the boy of his fantastical notions about Bakhtiian. Of course a king like Bakhtiian married where he found the most benefit for himself and his ambitions. Certainly for this upstart barbarian to marry the sister of the Prince of Jeds was a tactical victory of the highest order.

"Do you want to marry the girl?" Jiroannes asked instead.

Mitya shrugged, "I don't know. I want to please Ilya. I want to do my duty to the jaran. He told me that until Nadine has a child, I'm his heir." He made a face of comical relief. "Gods, I'm happy Dina got married. I don't think I want to inherit, or at least, not everything."

"You don't want to be Bakhtiian in your turn?" Jiroannes was astonished.

"Of course I will do what Ilya asks of me." Lal came by and refilled their cups with steaming hot tea, fresh-brewed and piquant. "But because my mother will become etsana in time, I never thought as a boy to dream about becoming dyan."

"Now you must think again."

"Yes," replied Mitya, seeming as struck by Jiroannes's simple comment as if it were the most profound revelation. He lapsed into a silence which Jiroannes nourished with a companionable silence of his own.

"You have many khaja women in your camp now," said Mitya finally.

"Yes. My guardsmen have-married them."

"Mitya considered this statement. "Do they have wives at home as well, then?"

"Well. Yes. Some of them do. Not all."

"Ah." Mitya lapsed into silence again. Lal brought more tea. It was dark by now. A cool breeze sprang up, rustling through the dagged fringe of the awning. The moon was up and near full, and its light spread a soft glow over the endless sprawl of tents. The boy looked up at Jiroannes and down again as swiftly. "What does it mean," he asked softly, "when they say Samae is a slave?" He pronounced the Rhuian word awkwardly.

Jiroannes flushed, glad of the covering darkness. "I don't know your language well enough to explain it. Perhaps Bakhtiian's khaja wife can."

"She did. Is what she said true?"

Jiroannes wondered if he had been cursed in a former life. "Perhaps. Probably."

"But that's barbaric," said Mitya. "Only savages would hold to such a custom."

"There are strict laws-" Jiroannes began.

"But if a woman or man of the jaran violates the gods" laws, then they are put to death. That is just."

"Don't you have other laws as well? That a man or woman might break?"

"Yes." Mitya frowned. "It's true that Vera Veselov betrayed the sanctity of her tribe and was cast down from her high position to act as a servant to the Telyegin family, for so long as she may live. Although now she's riding with the army, and is a good commander, they say. But still-"

"A slave is a servant," said Jiroannes, grasping at this explanation. He so desperately did not want Mitya to leave with a disgust of him. "Many people in my country become slaves because they have violated our laws."

Mitya appeared mollified. "That's not so different." He rose and handed the delicate cup carefully back to Lal. "I must go. Perhaps-I may visit another time?"

Jiroannes leapt to his feet and escorted Mitya out to the edge of the encampment. "Assuredly. I would welcome it." And followed with other effusions, until the boy took his leave and walked out into the night, away into the jaran camp. Jiroannes returned to his chair and sank down into it with a sigh of contentment. Perhaps there was hope for this friendship after all.

"Eminence." Lal touched his head to the carpet and waited for Jiroannes to notice him.

"You may speak."

"Eminence, I beg your pardon for this indecent request, but the girl insisted I bring it to your attention."

"The girl?" He thought for an instant the Habakar captive had importuned Lal. "Did you discover anything more about her?"

Lal was quick. "About the Javani? Nothing, eminence, except that it is a title, not her name. It is Samae who demanded I ask of you if you wish her to go to the young prince tonight."

The young prince. Jiroannes could not for an instant imagine what Samae meant by this puzzling request. Then, of course, he knew exactly what she meant. The damned whore wanted to go to Mitya. In the four years he had owned her, she had never once come to him without being commanded to. Never. And now she begged for permission-no, for an order-to go to a damned barbarian. He felt a red rage building in him. How dare she make her first request of him now, she who had refused her freedom in order to stay his slave, and make it this? She mocked him. She preferred a half-grown boy to him, who had proven his manhood many times over, with her, with all his concubines, with the quickness of his intellect in the palace school, with his prowess on the hunt and even, once, in battle.

"Tell Samae that the women who run this camp have decreed that she may do what she wishes," he snarled. He got to his feet in one sharp movement and stalked over to the entrance to his tent. "Send the Javani to me."

Lal bowed with his hands crossed over his chest and scurried away. Jiroannes thrust the curtained entrance aside and strode into the seclusion of his tent. There he paced up and down, up and down, along the thick carpets that cushioned the interior. When the Javani came at last, she was still afraid of him, but her fear only whetted his appetite.

CHAPTER FOUR

Depression hung over the Company's camp like a miasmal fog. Each day they traveled with the wagon train farther on through the devastated Habakar lands. Each evening Owen drove them through rehearsals, rearranging parts to cover for Hyacinth's absence, doubling lines, changing bits of stage direction, but there was no spark. Each day took them that much farther from the place where Hyacinth had left them and that much farther from any hope of seeing Hyacinth alive again.

Gwyn flung a tangle of ropes and stakes down onto the ground in disgust. "Who packed these?" he demanded of Diana as she unrolled the Company tent.

She glanced incuriously at the shapeless mass. "Phillippe."

Gwyn shook his head, frowning. "At least he remains a professional with his music."

"Oh, he'd never be that sloppy with music, Gwyn. You know that. There is a point beyond which one can't go, as an artist." She managed to draw a smile from him, which was astonishing, considering the mood everyone had been in since Hyacinth had fled over twenty days ago.

"Anahita is sick again." He crouched and began the laborious task of unraveling the tangled skein. "She spent all day throwing up over the side of the wagon. Yomi took her to see Dr. Hierakis. Diana." Hearing an odd note in his voice, she looked up at him. His gaze measured her. "You ought to ask Owen if you can take over the leading roles."

"But-"

"Don't protest that you don't want them."

"Of course I want them! But-"

"But-?"

"I'm too young. I'm not experienced enough."

"You're still young to the craft, it's true, but you're good enough, and you have more than enough room to grow. You have to make the leap. Otherwise you'll never be anything but a supporting player. Is that what you want?"

She dropped her eyes away from his gaze, unwilling to let him see the extent of the sheer driven ambition in them. "No. You know it isn't."

"That's why you must take advantage when the opportunity presents itself."

"But it just seems-unethical, somehow."

"This isn't politics, Diana, it's art."

"Does that mean that simple standards of human decency don't count for us, because we're artists? That we're beyond ethical considerations because art is a higher form of discourse? I don't think so. Quite the reverse, I'd say."

He laughed. "That's not what I meant. I meant that in politics there may be times when it's expedient to leave someone in power who's become incompetent, because in a web like that, there are ways to circumvent the damage that person might do. But not on stage. Her work is suffering."

It was true. Anahita's work was suffering. Diana felt it impolite, as a junior member, to agree with Gwyn.

Gwyn added, "And that impacts on all of our work."

"But to be fair, Gwyn, it's not just her. We're all suffering. I never imagined what a catastrophe it would be to lose an actor like this. Not to mention what a catastrophe it must be for Hyacinth, if he's even still alive."

"I can't imagine anyone less suited to wilderness survival than Hyacinth. But he made the choice. Here, I've got this all in order now."

While they raised the tent, Owen came by. "Diana." He blinked owlishly at her as she struggled to lift the canvas up over the pole. "You'll be taking over the leading roles starting tonight. We'll have our first performance with you in that capacity as soon as the army halts for longer than a single night."

If Diana had not been so well-trained, she would have let the entire edifice, balanced precariously between her and Gwyn, collapse on top of her. "Of course, Owen," she said, her voice muffled by fabric. She wanted to ask about Anahita, but felt it impolite to do so. It might seem too much like crowing.

"How is Anahita?" Gwyn asked.

"Doctor says she has an ulcer, and some other unspecified complaints. She's agreed to take supporting roles until her health is better."

"She agreed to it?" Gwyn asked.

Owen wore his vague look. "She understands professional necessity. Rehearsal in thirty minutes, then, and I'll need extra time with you afterward, Diana." He left.

"I wish I'd been able to eavesdrop on that conversation," said Gwyn. "I wonder what he threatened her with? Hyacinth's fate?"

"Owen wouldn't threaten anyone-" Diana trailed off, seeing that Gwyn was laughing at her.

"Di, the man is as ruthless as Bakhtiian when it comes to his domain. You're being sentimental."

"Goddess," she swore. "The leading roles." She fell silent. He honored her silence, and they finished setting up the tent without another word.

That evening, at their rehearsal on the flat square of ground in between the company tents-there not being time enough to set up the platform and screens-they walked through King Lear, which necessitated few changes except those Ginny wrote in as they worked. Ginny had already recast the play so that Seshat played Lear as an etsana, rather than Dejhuti playing him as the old king. Ginny had as well conflated the parts of the half brothers Edgar and Edmund with those of Goneril's and Regan's husbands. Diana played both Cordelia and the Fool. For whatever reason, rehearsal went well; Owen was pleased. For the first time since Hyacinth's disappearance, the mood in camp felt optimistic.

Thirty days after Hyacinth's disappearance, which was also twenty days after Bakhtiian's return to the army, they came to a great river that wound through the land. There, like a vision on the other side of the river, Diana saw a city with gleaming white walls and silver towers and goats grazing peaceably outside the walls amid the sprawl of huts and hovels where, presumably, the poorest people lived. The city astonished her, all marble and colored tile, a romantic's dream. Beyond the city, grain ripened in the sun, and farther still, orchards blanketed the gentle slopes of surrounding hills. This was a beautiful countryside, rich, fertile, and handsome. And yet, on this side of the river, the army arranged its camp on fields long since trampled and withered by the summer's heat. She felt a sudden, sharp sympathy for the Habakar people and for their lands. What a horrible thing it was, to destroy such beauty. How had this piece survived? Had the jaran army been unable to cross the river?

But even as she thought it, she saw a troop of red-shirted, armored horsemen riding out from around the city: jaran riders. What if one of them was Anatoly? She had an hour before her call for rehearsal, so she ran to the Veselov camp, hoping to get news from Anna.

The Veselov camp was settling in for what Diana could now recognize was a long stay-at least two days. Girls beat carpets and laid them out to air in the sun. Three boys dug out a huge fire pit in the center of the camp, in front of Anna's great tent. Mira, running around with a pack of children, caught sight of Diana and ran over to greet her with a kiss. Diana hoisted her up and went in search of her mother. She found Anna at the other edge of camp, saying good-bye to her husband. Kirill rode off with a handful of other men, including the gorgeous cousin Vasil, and Arina turned and saw Diana.

"I'm so pleased to see you." Arina kissed her on each cheek and regarded her with pleasure. They exchanged more commonplaces as they walked back into camp.

"Will the camp be staying here for long?" Diana asked.

"Yes. There's forage and supplies to be had here. Yaroslav Sakhalin has returned."

"With his whole army?"

"Oh, no. Evidently they've laid in a siege at the king's royal city, but Sakhalin returned to see if it was true that Bakhtiian did not die. Then he'll return. Kirill went to attend Bakhtiian." She said it proudly. Diana thought it sweet how proud Arina was of her husband, who had done so well despite his debilitating injury. "He can use his hand again, although it's very weak."

"He can? How did that happen?"

"The gods graced him, I suppose. I think he's suffered enough." Arina paused to survey her domain and to direct some girls in the placement of an awning, two tents, and a bronze stove. "Do you think," Arina added in a lower voice, "that I'm selfish to hope that, even if his arm does heal, Kirill won't be able to ride with the army again?"

Which, like all of these men, was probably his greatest desire. "No," said Diana softly, touching Anna's hand, "I don't think so. Is there any news of Anatoly? Did he come back with his uncle?" A surge of hope shook through her.

"I don't know. But Kirill will know, surely, when he returns."

Diana lingered there until it was time for rehearsal, but Kirill did not return. That night, Anatoly did not come to her tent. In the morning Owen appeared in high good humor, having managed a coup of sorts. He had convinced Bakhtiian to let the troupe ride with a jaran escort into the Habakar city and there put on a performance. He chose The Caucasian Chalk Circle in its untranslated, unexpurgated form, since these Habakar people could not understand them anyway and would presumably have no problem accepting a male as judge. Diana already played the leading role, and Owen and Ginny, as understudies, could cover Hyacinth's parts.

They rode out in the wagons about noon. Members of the Veselov jahar had been assigned as their escort. Arina agreed to come along, and the excursion along a winding road past a bend in the river and to the long pontoon bridge laid out over the waters proved marvelous. It was hot, but not too hot. Trees lined the riverside, shading the road. Rushes carpeted the shore. Out on the water, with the huge inflated skins and wooden road rocking beneath them, a breeze sprang up and curled in Diana's hair and cooled her cheeks. The muddy water flowed on, oblivious to their passing. If only Anatoly were here, this day would be perfect, but Arina had not seen Kirill since he went to council with Bakhtiian. Vasil had come back to lead the little expedition, but he had no news. However, Anna had heard from Mother Sakhalin that Anatoly was not with his uncle and that, indeed, Yaroslav Sakhalin had already ridden out at dawn, to go back to his army.

On the other side of the river, Diana felt like she had come to some fairy country. Farmers stared at them from fields turning gold in the stark, clean light of the summer sun. The people looked cautious and frightened, but their clothes were sturdy and their faces hale. Grain trembled in the wind, flowing in waves across lush acreage, bordered by dry ditches out of which green shoots and scarlet lilies poked ragged heads. The city loomed before them. With their escort around them, the company passed through the open gates without the least trouble and trundled into a city for the first time in what seemed years.

Diana stared, enchanted by the scene. Gardens flowered between orderly groups of stone and mudbrick houses. Trees overhung the streets. A marble fountain graced a courtyard, glimpsed through a latticework doorway. A white citadel rose in the center of the city; off to one side soared the delicate minarets of what she presumed was either a palace or a temple. Down side streets she saw Habakar natives dressed in bright clothing, hurrying about their business. This main thoroughfare along which they rode sat deserted, as if the populace had been warned to stay out of their way. Pale brick paved the avenue, so smooth and cunningly fitted together that the wagons did not jolt at all as they made their way in to the central marketplace. Would it, too, be deserted?

But the market colonnade bustled with activity, even when they reached it with their escort of dread jaran riders. Streamers of variegated silk hung from the sexpartite vaults that made up the colonnade, which were otherwise open to the air on all sides. Diana could see that it was gloomy underneath the vaulted colonnades, but all around on the outskirts old women in embroidered black shawls sold fruit and vegetables from the backs of painted carts and men with frogged, knee-length brocaded jackets and dyed leather shoes hawked bolts of silk and utensils of bronze and iron. The intense bustle of the marketplace slowed to a halt as Habakar merchants and buyers froze and stared. Many melted away. Others, more brazen or perhaps simply resigned, returned to their business. Veselov fanned his riders out, and they sat with their horses on a tight rein and watched this activity with perplexed expressions. Owen herded the actors out of the wagons and, in record time, they set up the platform and placed the screens for their makeshift stage.

They drew an odd sort of audience while they set up. People stared but did not linger, as if they did not want to draw attention to themselves. Children edged close to watch and were dragged away by their elders.

Owen strode up to Diana as she adjusted a screen to Joseph's precise specifications: a 38-degree angle exactly, no more, no less. "Diana. Who is that?" He gestured. She turned.

He was looking straight at Vasil Veselov, who sat astride his horse not fifty paces from them, watching the stage assembly with interest. With that absolute instinct for an audience that he possessed, Vasil shifted his gaze to look toward Owen and Diana.

"That's Vasil Veselov. He's Anna Veselov's cousin, and he's also dyan-warleader-of their tribe."

"Perfect." Owen examined Veselov. "Look at the angle of the shoulders, and the tilt of the chin. He's canted just off center, too, in his seat on the horse, which draws attention without seeming to and without imperiling his stability in the saddle. And that face. Goddess, if I'd had that face, I would have stayed an actor."

"A good thing you didn't have it, then," retorted Diana, stung by his praise. It wasn't as if Veselov was acting; he was just being himself. She had never heard Owen praise anyone so extravagantly, not even Gwyn. "Everyone says your genius is for directing."

"So it is," agreed Owen without a trace of arrogance. "He's acting without knowing he's doing it, and he's doing it right, by and large. I've been watching him for the whole ride over here. He's taught himself the art of listening and the art of connecting. Do you know how many competent actors I've worked with who took years to get where he is now?"

Diana wondered ungraciously if Owen counted her among their number, but then Yomi came over to chase her back to the tent set up as a dressing room behind the platform.

The performance was a disaster and yet absolutely wonderful. The setting itself could not be improved upon. Coming onstage for her first entrance, Diana felt transported to some ancient scene. They could have been any group of itinerant actors out making their way along the Silk Road, the famous Earth trade route that ran across the mountains and deserts and steppes of Asia, stopping in this medieval oriental city made glorious by its marble colonnades and gentle silk banners. Even the play, in its own way, seemed ironically appropriate: During a revolt in feudal Georgia, Grusha, a servant girl, flees to the mountains with the Governor's small son, who has been abandoned in the panic by his mother; in the second act, a drunken village clerk named Azdak is made a judge by the rebel soldiers and tries the case to determine which of the women is the child's true mother.

From the beginning, they attracted a hard-core audience off to the left who stayed in place for the entire play. But other than that group, and the jaran riders who patrolled the square with half an eye on the Habakar natives and half on the play, the audience shifted and grew and shrank according to some tidal schedule that Diana could not interpret. It was frustrating, and yet, it was in part for this experiment that she had come, to see what would play, what could communicate, across such a gulf of space and culture, to touch those who were open to being touched. And, inspired by the setting, by the city, by the bright colored silks or the clear blue of the afternoon sky, the acting fell into place and they worked off each other in that seamless fiction that can never be achieved except by grace, fortune, and sheer, hard repetitious work brought by a fortuitous combination of events to its fruition in transcendent art.

It worked. Diana knew it worked. They all knew it had worked. At the end, sweating and exhausted and for once sated, she took Gwyn's hand-he had played the soldier and lover Simon-and, with the lifelike doll that represented the child tucked in the crook of her other arm, she, and he, and the others, took a single bow, which was all that they needed to take, or that the audience understood. Straightening, she flashed a grin at Gwyn and he smiled back, wiping sweat from his forehead. She turned to look toward Arina, who had watched it all from a wagon over to one side, and discovered that Vasil had dismounted to stand next to his cousin and was regarding Diana, and the stage, with uncomfortably intent interest.

"You've made a conquest, Di," said Gwyn in an undertone as he turned to go back to the dressing room and strip his makeup off.

"I hope not. Wait for me." Veselov bothered her. One of the things she so liked about Gwyn was that when he was offstage, he was off; he did not drag the one world into the other. She knew she emoted offstage, at times, but it wasn't a habit she wanted to foster in herself, and she usually only did it when the person she was with seemed to expect it of her. A professional knew how to separate work and life. But Veselov was always on, always aware, always projecting. The Goddess knew, it ought to be tiring, going on like that all day and presumably all night. She went with Gwyn back to the awning and wiped her face clean. They took down the stage. By the time they got the wagons loaded, the afternoon had mostly passed, and the marketplace lay quiet and almost empty. They started back.

"I liked that story," said Arina. "It was true, what the judge did, knowing which woman was the true mother. But I can tell it's a khaja story."

"How?"

"Well, it isn't a man's part to make such a judgment. That is women's business."

"But we changed it," protested Diana, "when we did it at the camp. We made Azdak into an etsana."

"I didn't see that." Arina smiled, looking ahead, and lifted a hand to greet a rider. "Here is Vasil."

Vasil reined his horse in beside them, on Diana's side of the wagon. "Why is it I've seen none of these songs of yours before?" he asked.

"I don't know. We've-sung-them many times, and we-practice-every night, in our encampment." She could think of no words for "perform" and "rehearse" in khush.

Veselov did not look at her directly, and yet Diana felt his attention on her as much as if he had been staring soulfully into her eyes like a besotted lover. She shifted on the hard wooden seat. He sat a horse well, and his hands were light and casual and yet masterful on the reins. For an instant, she wondered what he would be like in bed. His lips twitched up into a bare, confiding smile, as if he had read her thoughts and promised as much as she could wish for, and more.

"I would like to see more," he said, but did he mean more plays or more of her? "You become the woman in the song, yet you remain yourself."

"Yes," said Diana, surprised, because Anatoly had yet to grasp the concept of acting.

A rider called to Vasil from farther down the line, and Veselov excused himself and rode away.

Arina coughed into one hand. "Although he is my cousin," she said, "and I love him dearly, I would recommend to you, Diana, that you be wary of him."

"I'm married, after all!"

"What has that to do with anything?"

Diana changed the subject, and they discussed other things until they got back to camp at dusk. Where Kirill waited. He came up to them immediately, Lavrenti nestled on his good arm, his other arm hanging free for once. Diana could see the fingers on his withered hand twitching and curling, but without much force or coordination.

"I beg your pardon," said Diana to Kirill as Arina climbed down, "I must return to our camp and I just wanted to know… is there any word of my husband?"

"He wasn't with his uncle," Kirill assured her.

"Oh, then he's at the besieged city?" Karkand, it was called, the seat of the Habakar kings.

Kirill shook his head. "No. Bakhtiian sent him to capture the Habakar king, who fled on beyond his city."

"I don't understand. Anatoly went after him?"

"Yes, with a picked troop of five thousand riders."

"But where did the king flee to?"

Kirill shrugged. He glanced at his wife, as if for help. "To the lands beyond, I suppose."

"Out ahead of his uncle's army?" Diana demanded. "All by himself?"

"Well," replied Kirill apologetically, "he did promise Bakhtiian to bring back the king's crown, coat, and head, for the offense the king gave to Bakhtiian's personal envoys."

"Thank you." Diana stuttered over the words and started the oxen up as quickly as she could, to get away. She felt sick. The wagon jolted over the uneven ground toward the Company's encampment, and all she wanted to do was to throw up. The day's triumph turned to ashes in her mouth. Anatoly had ridden out into hostile enemy territory in pursuit of a king. Was he mad? Was he suicidal? Had he had the slightest thought for her before driving forward into unknown lands without his uncle and his uncle's army in order to avenge Bakhtiian's honor? Already she pictured Hyacinth lying twisted and dead on the ground, slain by arrows or knives, lying alone, left to rot. Now a second image rose unbidden to meld with Hyacinth's, that of Anatoly tumbled from his horse, lying half-dead with a spear through his left breast, swarmed by rank upon rank of enemy soldiers rabid for jaran blood.

Would she ever see him again? She would have cried, but she had already wept enough tears to bring life to the trampled, parched fields over which she now drove her wagon. She had a horrible, wrenching premonition that she had done crying for him. Like a little shield, the first layer of bricks had gone up, sheltering her. She couldn't go on, hurting and hurting, never knowing, always wondering: would he come back? when? would he still love her? and when would he leave her again?

The Company encampment loomed before her, sturdy, plain, with its practical square tents and the little canvas cubicle that housed the necessary off to one side. Entrance flaps lay askew, revealing the friendly beacons of lights burning inside the tents. A single fire smoldered into ashes between the tents, but the actors had left it and gone inside to spend their time with the comforts of the technological luxuries they had smuggled along on this barbarian year.

CHAPTER FIVE

After Yaroslav Sakhalin left at dawn, to return to his siege of the royal city of Karkand, the council dragged on for the rest of the day. In the morning, they all sat out under the open sky. By noon, with the sun overhead, they moved onto carpets rolled out under a vast awning. Bakhtiian sat on a pillow at one end, and the council fanned out in a rough semicircle in front of him.

Aleksi swallowed a yawn. The talk had been going on since yesterday and, as usual, the discussion had reached that point where the councellors were talking at each other, not to Bakhtiian. Ilya often ran his councils this way: The councillors talked for so long over the greatest and least choice at issue that in the end they reached a consensus without him having to demand obedience.

The longest council Aleksi recalled was the one soon after the assembly on the khayan-sarmiia, which had lasted six days and included three days of vicious argument between Yaroslav Sakhalin and Mikhail Suvorin and their respective supporters. In the end, Bakhtiian's patience had worn them all down. Now that he had what he wanted-the loyalty of the jaran-he no longer had to be so impulsive. Before that long council had begun, Tess had told Aleksi in confidence what Ilya's hopes were for the council; and so it had fallen out-with a few changes wrought by good advice or prudent compromise-exactly as he wished, and it was the councillors themselves who agreed upon the issue, among themselves and not as a mere passive instrument to Bakhtiian's voice.

So Bakhtiian sat now, listening more than he spoke.

Tess sat at Bakhtiian's right hand, and Aleksi sat to Tess's right and back a bit, close to Josef Raevsky, whose lips moved soundlessly as he memorized the proceedings. The blind man canted his head from one side to the other, to catch a sentence here, a tone there, as the women and men seated in attendance on Bakhtiian spoke in their turn.

Now and again during the exhausting session, Tess rose and walked away-sometimes to relieve herself, sometimes just to stretch her legs, once to sleep for several hours-and returned to sink back down beside her husband. No one minded; she was half gone in pregnancy. The children of the Orzhekov tribe brought drink and food at intervals. Sonia sat in on the council, as her mother's representative.

Aleksi leaned forward and found an angle at which he could peer between Tess and Ilya and catch a good glimpse of the two parchment maps spread out flat in front of Nadine, who sat on her uncle's left. Mitya sat next to her, stifling a yawn with a hand. The poor boy had fallen asleep three times now, and Aleksi supposed he would probably be allowed to nap this time. Since the shock of Ilya's illness had forced everyone to realize that it was remotely possible that Bakhtiian might actually someday die, poor Mitya had been displayed prominently at every gathering and forced into a passive role, listening and learning about the duties and burdens of adulthood. Not that he hadn't been involved in such things before, but now it seemed he was at Ilya's side at every council, every assembly, and riding out with him to inspect jahars each morning. Often Galina went with them, since she would most likely become etsana of the Orzhekov tribe in time. Today Sonia had left Galina in charge of making sure that drink and food flowed freely.

"Twenty days ride to the south," Nadine was saying, shifting the maps she had so laboriously drawn over the last fifteen days, "according to the merchants and caravan masters Tess and I interviewed, there lies a great trading city called Salkh. From there the road leads to two more great cities, Targana and Khoyan, Targana about fifty days ride southeast and Khoyan about sixty days ride southwest. The caravan masters say that if you go along past Targana in the summer, there is a high narrow pass over the Heaven Mountains beyond which lies Vidiya, although there is another safer route to Vidiya lying much farther to the east. I imagine, Uncle, that Khoyan lies along the road that would eventually lead all the way down through southern lands to Jeds and the cities of the Rhuian peninsula. But I don't know."

Bakhtiian's tent lay pitched on a grassy knoll overlooking the river and the gleaming city beyond, called Hamrat by the Habakar and sarrod-nikaiia, Her Voice Is Merciful, by the jaran. Sakhalin had spared the city because it was here that he and his army had been encamped when the first messenger had ridden in with the news that Bakhtiian had woken from his sorcery-induced trance.

"Karkand lies about fifteen days ride to the west, and there is a city ten days ride to the northwest called Belgana which Sakhalin took before he rode on to Karkand. North beyond Belgana on the edge of a great forest stands another city, Niryan, which has already surrendered to us. West of Karkand lie two more cities, neither as great as Karkand, and a range of mountains, a forest, a great lake, and a river, and on that river a city called Margana by the Habakar merchants but Parkilnous by the people who live there."

Aleksi admired Nadine's maps. She admired them as well; she had worked diligently enough on them since her unexpected arrival about fifteen days ago. She said that one of the Prince of Jeds's men had taught her a great deal about maps and mapmaking. David ben Unbutu, that was it; the one who had been so hasty with Tess the day the prince and his entourage arrived at the jaran camp in the spring. Aleksi suspected that Nadine had taken him as a lover, but, of course, she never said as much.

Bakhtiian leaned forward and touched the map nearest him reverently. "And beyond this city called both Margana and Parkilnous?"

"They don't know. That's as far as they trade. At Parkilnous, other merchants take the goods and travel on with them, and trade goods from the south in return."

"So." Bakhtiian removed his hand from the map.

The discussion erupted again. Send the entire army to Karkand. No, that's stupid; the broader the net, the more game could be drawn in. Send ten thousand men to each city, then. That's doubly idiotic; if you only knew a tenth again as much as Yarosiav Sakhalin about strategy; many small forces are weak against a single large army, and it isn't impossible that the Habakar king might be drawing together an army for a final strike. The Habakar king is running like any damned coward into the west, with Anatoly Sakhalin at his heels-no longer a threat. How can the honored dyan possibly know that? Why, because only a beaten coward would abandon his own tent and family, of course. How else explain that he had deserted his own royal city? All this talk of fighting is all very well, but what about the camp? What are the water sources between here and the southern cities? How much forage? How bad are the winters here, and farther south? When do the caravans stop running? Can a large detachment winter off forage from the countryside, in the south? Will there be food enough for the wagon train? And so on.

Nadine had made many cunning little marks on her maps, each indicating information about water sources and forage and towns-insofar as the caravan masters and merchants knew or were willing to part with such information, insofar as any of it could be trusted. Of course, it was all hearsay. Still, Aleksi did not doubt that in the short time Nadine had been back with them, she and Tess between them had tripled jaran intelligence of the lay of the land. Aleksi wondered about Tess's sources of information, too, because now and again, during the interminable translation sessions between Tess and the interpreters and the Habakar merchants, Tess would make a sudden correction to something Nadine mapped in. Had Tess had access to maps in Jeds that were more accurate than the merchants" recollections? But why would they have such maps in Jeds? Jedan merchants never came here, as far as Aleksi knew.

Or perhaps, perhaps if that had not been Bakhtiian's actual spirit that Aleksi had seen hovering in the air, the night Bakhtiian had been witched away to the gods" lands-or to the heavens from which Dr. Hierakis claimed she and Tess had come-if it really had been an image of his spirit, of his body, then perhaps Tess knew how to make an image of the land that was equally accurate. Everyone knew that the land remained constant, that seen once, and remembered, you could ride that way again twelve years later and find your way. That was how the jaran navigated the endless plains. That, and by the stars and the winds. Along the Golden Road that ran east to the riches of Empire of Yarial there was said to be a country where the land did shift, where no traveler might walk without becoming lost, where mountains moved at night and rivers changed their course between the seasons. But Aleksi knew that such a place could only exist because every khaja in it, child, woman, and man, was a sorcerer born and bred, or else because the gods had put a curse on it.

The afternoon wore on. Fifty disagreements dwindled to ten, and ten to two. "But if we are agreed," said Venedikt Grekov, dyan of the Grekov tribe, "that Bakhtiian must direct the siege of Karkand personally, because of the insult given him by the king, then wouldn't it be wisest to send Sakhalin south to Saikh? If that city is so valuable?"

Heads nodded all around. Fifteen days ago, Venedikt Grekov would never had been so bold as to speak with this much authority this late in the council. Now, however, his nephew was going to be the father of Bakhtiian's heirs. The Grekov tribe, important as one of the Ten Elder Tribes, had just taken a sudden and impressive leap in status-though with Mother Sakhalin's blessing, of course. Nadine had a frown on her face. She did not look up at the speaker, which was impolite. Everyone knew she wasn't happy about the marriage.

"Surely," added Kirill Zvertkov, "we should secure the two cities west of Karkand, so no Habakar army can march from their protection on Karkand."

"Will it take so long for Karkand to surrender to us?" asked another dyan.

Mother Sakhalin cleared her throat. All fell silent. "My nephew assures me," she said, "that the stone tents of Karkand are built in such a fashion that simple force, even using the archers, cannot overcome the walls."

"Had we been forced to storm the walls of Qurat," said Kirill, "we would have suffered severe losses. Sakhalin said that Karkand is better placed."

"Then, as Zvertkov says," replied Grekov, "we had better ride a ring around Karkand and cut it off from the rest of the country. Then the khaja can starve or surrender."

Everyone nodded.

"If we take prisoners," said Vershinin, "then when we do attack, we can drive them before us as we did at Tashmar-you weren't there, Bakhtiian-up to the walls as the first wave."

"There are other ways," said Nadine suddenly, "to break a siege. The Prince of Jeds has an engineer with him who knows many tricks. I expect the prince's woman soldier Ursula el Kawakami does as well."

"What kind of tricks?" asked Bakhtiian.

"Well, if we can make the walls collapse, then they can't protect the khaja army, can they?"

"I will think on this," said Ilya. "Meanwhile," he glanced up to survey the council, "as you say, Sakhalin ought to ride south to Salkh, once I arrive at Karkand, and Grekov, Vershinin, you will double your jahars in numbers and ride on west, to the cities beyond Karkand. Nadine." He tapped a finger on her maps, but northward, now, at the edge where the Farisa city lay, the one the Habakar general had himself burned, at the northeastern boundary of Habakar lands where they bordered the plains. "You will return to Morava, to escort the Prince of Jeds back to me."

"Uncle!" Ah, but she looked angry.

"That would be best," said Mother Sakhalin smoothly, "since her husband is there." Everyone knew what she meant: that it was long past time for Nadine to start having babies.

Nadine rarely sat still. She did so now, but it was a stillness brought on by fury, not by peace. "Uncle, what if the prince has already left Morava?"

"You rode the same route, there and back, both you and Feodor Grekov. You will go." He set his hands, palms down and open, on his knees, and surveyed the council. "So will it be."

Rather than reply, Nadine made a great business of rolling up her maps. She was angry, but what could she do? Bakhtiian had spoken. She rose, excused herself, and left. Bakhtiian rose to follow her. The council, dismissed, broke up into a dozen disparate groups to gossip and stretch their legs. Kirill came by to speak for a few moments in a low voice to Tess; then he strode away into the lowering twilight.

Tess leaned back. "Aleksi, Cara wanted to see you."

"To see me?"

"About-don't you remember?" She dropped her voice to a whisper. "As you watched her do with me. She wants to look into your body with her machines. To-to map it."

Aleksi remembered. He wasn't sure whether to feel honored or nervous, but Tess wished him to do this, so he would. "I'll go," he said, not one to hesitate once he had made a decision. He kissed her on the cheek, bade farewell to Josef Raevsky, and went on his way. Passing between his tent and Tess's on his way to the hospital encampment, he heard Bakhtiian and Nadine arguing in Rhuian just out of sight behind Tess's great tent. He paused to listen.

"What right has she to interfere?" Nadine demanded, sounding quite intemperate. "I know she convinced Feodor to mark me. He would never have done it otherwise. He would never have had the nerve."

"Yes, and faced with the prospect of being married to you in this temper, Dina, can you blame him? In any case, you know very well what right she has to interfere. She is Mother of all the tribes."

"Yes, but we've been to Jeds. We're not bound by useless jaran customs. You and I should know better-"

"Listen to me, young woman. I know better, and I know that for all that I learned in Jeds, for all the knowledge that lies in these khaja universities, we jaran are stronger because of what we are and because of how we live. The khaja can't stand against us. They will never be able to. So the gods have gifted us. Would you like to have married in Jeds, instead?"

A fulminating silence. "You know very well how they treat women in khaja lands."

"Yes, I do."

"I don't want to marry at all. I want to ride."

"Then ride. You are already married, Dina. The nine days have passed."

"I wasn't in seclusion."

"That's true. If you wish to go through the ceremony-"

"I don't!"

"Then accept what you must. And you must have children. You know it as well as I do." There was another silence, but this one had more of a despairing edge to it. "Dina,! have already been advised to remove you from command of your jahar."

"Who-!"

"None of your business. Listen to me, damn you. You're worse than I was at your age." That brought a reluctant chuckle from her. "I won't do it. You're a good commander, and even if you weren't my niece, you would deserve such a command. You will remain a dyan. But there will be times when you can't ride."

"When I'm pregnant."

"Yes. Don't you see, Dina? The gods never give out unmixed blessings. They gifted women with the knowledge that is also a mystery, that of bringing children into the world, but knowledge is also a burden."

"A heavy one, in this case."

"If you only had a sister to bear children while you rode, then that would be well. But you have none."

"I want to explore, like the prince's man, Marco Burckhardt, does." Said stubbornly.

Bakhtiian sighed. "You have no choice, my niece. You will have children. I order you to. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

"During such time as you can't leave camp, you will work with Tess. Her work is every bit as important as Yaroslav Sakhalin's." His voice dropped into a coaxing tone. "Those maps you made together are very fine."

"Thank you." Was there a slightly warmer edge to her voice? Was she melting. "Praise from Bakhtiian is as a blessing from the gods themselves-"

"Stop that! Don't mock me!"

"Uncle… I didn't mean… I only meant…" She faltered. Aleksi was amazed to hear her sound chastened.

"Never show such disrespect for the gods. You should know better, you who only by the gods" grace are alive today, when everyone else in our family died."

"My father didn't die. You didn't die."

"Go," said Bakhtiian.

Aleksi heard Nadine take in a breath to say something. Instead, she said nothing, and a moment later he saw her emerge from behind the tent and stride away out into camp, which he thought showed great wisdom on her part.

"Aleksi," said Bakhtiian, sounding no less curt. Aleksi started, and then walked around the corner to face Bakhtiian. Ilya turned from looking out after his niece to glare at Aleksi, and Aleksi wondered abruptly how many times he had been saved from a lecture-or worse-from Bakhtiian because of Tess's implicit protection. "I don't like it," Ilya said, and Aleksi knew that he meant Aleksi's habit of listening in. "Do it to others if you will. Don't do — it to me."

"I beg your pardon," said Aleksi. "An incurable habit from my youth. It saved my life more than once."

"No doubt," replied Bakhtiian. Aleksi could not tell whether he meant the comment to express sympathy or censure. "Nevertheless, not to me."

"I understand and obey, Bakhtiian." He bowed, as they did in Jeds; Tess had taught him how to do it.

"Go," said Bakhtiian, but the word wasn't as terse as it had been when he had ordered Nadine to leave. He might even have been amused.

Aleksi escaped and, whistling under his breath, he considered the world while he made his way to the doctor's tent. He decided that the world was a strange place, stranger than any one person ever might suspect, knowing only what she knew from the narrow path she rode through it. Aleksi felt sometimes that he himself rode more than one path, that there were two, or three or four of him, each scouting a different path, each in constant communication, as though belled messengers raced between the routes carrying intelligence from one to the next. And once you saw the world from three, or five, different roads, the view was never the same. The map changed and altered, and its details became more accurate. The landmarks receded or grew, depending on the angle from which you observed them, and at once, there might be an escarpment from which the astonished traveler would rendezvous with her selves and could suddenly comprehend the land as it truly was.

"Ah, Aleksi." Dr. Hierakis emerged from her tent, wiping her hands on a rag. "Come in. Come in." He followed her back inside. She had sewn tiny bells all along the entrance flap, and they tinkled as the flap fell down behind them. Aleksi understood the bells, now; just as the messengers wore bells to alert the next garrison or tribe to their coming, the doctor positioned bells around her tent so that no person might enter unannounced and surprise her at her machines. A lantern sat placed in the center of a table, but Aleksi knew this trick. Tentatively, he put out a hand toward it, touched it, and his finger passed right through it. It was only an image of a lantern, not a lantern at all, although it looked so true that he would never have known if Tess had not told him.

"Sit down." The doctor indicated first a chair and then a pillow, so that he might choose whatever was most comfortable. "Will you have some tea?"

Aleksi didn't like tea, but he was far too polite to refuse any drink offered him in a woman's tent. He sank down onto the pillow and received the hot tea from Dr. Hierakis. He sipped at the spicy drink cautiously and regarded the doctor from under lowered lids. She reached under the table with one hand and did something there with her fingers. The lantern grew a little brighter; otherwise he saw no change.

"Recording," she said into the air. Then to him: "Do you have a second name, Aleksi?"

"Soerensen," he said promptly.

"I meant, a jaran name, or a tribal name."

"Not one I remember."

"How old are you?" She stared at him with that gaze he recognized as impartial, measuring him against some pattern only she knew, not for any personal reason.

"I don't know."

"I mean, in which year were you born? Eagle? Rat? Lion? Horse, perhaps?"

"I don't know."

"But everyone knows that, here."

"I beg your pardon. I don't know. My tribe was massacred by khaja raiders when I was very young."

"Tess mentioned that. How did you escape?"

Aleksi shut his eyes and struggled to recall anything from that time. He shrugged. "All I remember is the dew on the grass, and lying half sunk in water in a little hollow of swamp. I lay there so still for so long that a frog crawled right up onto my right hand. It was a blessing, you see. The gods took pity on me, because the khaja had taken my family, so they sent the frog to gift me with speed for fighting."

"Why a frog?"

"Haven't you ever seen how fast a frog jumps? He sits perfectly still, and then he's gone."

She chuckled. "Yes, I suppose that's a fair analogy. But Aleksi, were they all killed?"

"Yes," he repeated patiently, "all but myself and-" Here he faltered. Always he faltered. "-my sister Anastasia." Her name came out hoarsely.

"No, I meant, is it possible that it was a slave raid? Or was everyone killed?"

Her question, like a blessing, allowed him to recover. His memories of the rest of his tribe were so dim that they had long since ceased to trouble him. "What is a slave raid? Oh, that they would take the people away to sell in other lands, to serve a khaja master. I don't know. I don't remember seeing any bodies except that of my father."

"Oh, Goddess. I'm sorry, Aleksi."

Aleksi found her sympathy interesting. He never told jaran as much as this; any respectable jaran listener would have been appalled that a child could lose his entire tribe and still go on living. The gods had cursed people for less. "It was a long time ago," he said, to reassure her.

"Then what happened?"

This was harder. He managed it by breaking each word off from the next. "Then Anastasia took us away from there. She took care of me for as long as she could. Three or four years, I think."

"What happened to her?"

Aleksi set the cup down and bowed his head. This one memory, he could not bear to look upon, but it flooded over him nevertheless. Anastasia had grown steadily weaker over that third-or was it fourth? — winter and then, with spring, she became feverish and unable to eat. The gods had spoken strange words through her mouth, and she had seen visions of creatures terrible to behold and creatures as sweet as flowers, and she had wept for fear of leaving him when he was still too young to take care of himself. Not that she had been so much older than he was, but her first course of woman's blood had come on her mat past autumn, so she was no longer a girl, although of course she had never received any of the rites investing her with her womanhood.

The doctor waited patiently. Aleksi's throat was thick with emotion, too choked to speak. Hands shaking, he lifted the cup to his lips and sipped at the tea. The gesture soothed him enough that he could force out a sentence. "The gods took her on a spirit journey, but she never came back."

"Ah," said the doctor. She poured more hot tea into his cup, and by that gesture Aleksi knew he had her friendship. "You love Tess very much, don't you?"

He glanced up at her, astonished. She smiled warmly at him; he did not need to reply, because she already knew the answer and the reason for it. With her, he was safe. How strange to know that. How strange to be safe at all. He felt dizzy.

"Goddess," she said, "you must have been-what? — eight or ten years old? Well, what did you do then?"

"I wandered. I got by. Eventually I came to the Mirsky tribe late one summer. Old Vyacheslav Mirsky's wife was very ill, but they had no children or grandchildren to help them. It was a terrible disgrace, how the tribe treated him. Everyone knew what a great rider he was, but they thought Stalia Mirksy ought to know that her time was through and simply remain behind on the grass so that she wouldn't slow the tribe down. Stalia kept telling Vyacheslav she ought to, but she was all he had, and he wouldn't let her do it. So I saw-well-I saw that if a small orphan boy helped bring in fuel and water and beat carpets and built fires and gathered food and went to get their share of the meat at slaughtering time, they might let that boy sleep on the ground next to their tent without driving him away."

"And did they?"

But while the memory of Anastasia always filled him with a horrible dread, a painful, dizzying fear that his heart had been torn out and dropped into a black abyss from which he could never retrieve it, the memory of Vyacheslav and Stalia always brought tears to his eyes. "No, they took me into their tent and treated me as their own grandchild. Stalia got better. They said I was their luck. Eight years I lived with them. Vyacheslav trained me in the saber. You've heard of him, of course." By her expression, he saw that she hadn't heard of Vyacheslav Mirsky. "You haven't! Well, everyone knows he had the finest hand for the saber in all the tribes, before he grew too old to ride in jahar. The Mirskys still brag about him, though they treated him badly once they had no more use for him."

"And then?"

"Then one winter they both died of lung fever. They were ancient by then. Stalia told me they both would have died far sooner if it wasn't for me. Perhaps it's true. But as soon as they died the Mirskys drove me out."

"Isn't there something about horse-stealing in here?"

Aleksi considered his cup. It was metal, but the heat of the tea did not burn his hands where he cupped the round surface between his palms. An etching of fronds edged the rim and the base. Steam rose from the tea, caressing his face. But he had already trusted her with so much, and Tess, with everything. "Stalia and Vyacheslav had given me things: his saber, a beautiful blanket she had woven, the tent that belonged to her only daughter, who had long since died, their komis cups and flask, some other things. I overheard the etsana-their own cousin's daughter! — speaking to her sons and daughters, saying that if they didn't throw me out of camp immediately I'd try to steal everything in the tent and run off with it. So that night I took what I could carry, and stole a horse, and rode away. Oh," here he glanced up at her, "I knew it was wrong. The penalty for stealing a horse is death, of course. But I couldn't bear to lose every little thing they'd given me, because everyone else in the Mirsky tribe was so petty and small-minded."

"Where did you ride to, then?"

"There was one jahar that would take men who didn't belong anywhere else. The arenabekh."

"The arenabekh. They were outlaws, weren't they?"

"Men who had left their tribes for one reason or another-for some crime, because they loved men more than women, because they no longer wanted to live with the tribes."

"Did you like it there?"

"Not at all. How can any person love a tribe where there are no children?"

"Wouldn't someone like that boy who was exiled- with the actor-wouldn't he seek out the arenabekh?"

"He would, if he could find them. Keregin, their last dyan, led the arenabekh into a hopeless battle in order to save Bakhtiian's life. But Tess would know about that. She was there."

"Was she, now? I haven't heard this story yet."

"Well, but with the arenabekh gone, Yevgeni Usova has nowhere to go, if he's even still alive."

"So there you were with the arenabekh."

"I stayed with them for almost two years, because there was nowhere else to go. Keregin was hard but fair, and he never treated me any differently from the others because I was an orphan-or a horse stealer. Then I heard about these training schools, where young men might go to train for jahar, and I thought I'd go and see if Kerchaniia Bakhalo, the man who ran one, would accept orphans. He did. When he discovered that Vyacheslav

Mirsky himself had trained me-well-he never said as much, but I knew I was his favorite pupil. But then, I was a better fighter than the rest. It was the frog, you know. And after that, Bakhalo brought us to the great camp that was growing up around Bakhtiian."

"Where you met Tess."

At the mention of Tess's name, he could not help but smile. "Yes. She trained with us. Although she was Bakhtiian's wife, she never treated those of us who were orphans any different from the rest. Of course, she is khaja, which accounts for it."

"How did she come to adopt you as her brother?"

"Every woman needs a brother, and hers had died- that was Yuri Orzhekov, Sonia's younger brother. She and I always got along well, and we liked each other right away. We felt-" He thought about it, two outsiders working and training together, both with quick minds and ready laughter, detached and yet involved in the jaran camp. "-linked, somehow. But then the Mirskys rode into camp. They were well within their rights to kill me, of course. In fact, they were in the process of doing just that-"

"How, in the Lady's Name, were they doing that?"

"Well, there were five of them, and they caught me in the dark coming out of a woman's tent, and then they beat me with sticks. But Tess happened to walk by and she stopped them."

"You're casual about it."

Aleksi laughed, recalling what Bakhtiian had said to his niece. "The gods never give out unmixed blessings. So who am I to complain about bruises and a broken arm and collarbone when it brought me Tess as a sister?"

One of the things Aleksi liked about Dr. Hierakis was that she could laugh compassionately. "Who, indeed?"

"You see, they demanded to know what right she had to stop them meting out the justice I did, after all, deserve, for stealing one of their horses, and she said, "the right of a sister." And so she adopted me."

"Did she consult Bakhtiian?"

"Why would she consult Bakhtiian? She brought me back to her tent and nursed me back to health and I became her brother and have been ever since, and always will be. Bakhtiian did take me into his jahar, then, but he might well have done so anyway-although, if Tess hadn't adopted me the Mirskys would have killed me sooner or later, so I suppose I'll never know if Bakhtiian took me into his jahar to give me his protection or because he admired my fighting."

"Perhaps both."

"Perhaps."

"Well, you've led a harrowing life, Aleksi."

He sipped at his tea. "I'm content." And he was.

"End recording," said the doctor to the air. "Will you come with me?" she asked. She passed through into the inner chamber. Respectfully, he followed after her.

In this miraculous den, many strange and wondrous machines cluttered the long narrow table and crowded into each other on the carpets. An image shimmered in the air. Aleksi recognized it immediately: the shrine of Morava, with its great shining dome and its twin towers framing the curved expanse of roof.

"That's where the prince is," he said in surprise.

Cara glanced at the shrine. The image was so lifelike that Aleksi could not believe that he himself was not standing some distance from the actual shrine, seeing it with his own eyes. Had she witched it and brought it here, making it small enough to fit in her tent? But no, Tess said that the machines called modelers made images of things, not the things themselves.

"Lie down there." The doctor patted a low couch with one hand. On this couch, Bakhtiian had slept through his coma. "I'm going to scan you. You saw when I did the same thing to Tess. Take off your saber first, and any gold or metal-yes, your belt buckle."

Aleksi did as he was told and gingerly lay down on the pallet. Tess had lain here without the slightest sign of nervousness. Now, the doctor spoke a few Anglais words he did not recognize and he felt the air hum around him. Then she took a little box, lit with jewels of light, into her right hand and, starting at his head, passed it down over his body. The humming air moved as well, like an invisible ring of pressure, down along his torso and his hips, down his legs, dissipating at last by his feet. It took a long time. Torn between awe and fear and curiosity, he watched his spirit drawn into the air at the foot of the couch. His spirit shone as brightly as Bakhtiian's and Tess's did, which surprised him a little, and yet, hadn't the gods gifted him with many blessings?

"Lady in Heaven. This is astonishing. You're a perfect specimen, Aleksi. No wonder you survived your hell of a childhood. I think you may well be one of the keys I need to crack the code. I think whatever tinkering those damned chameleons did to the humans they transplanted here bred true in you. Have you ever been sick, a day in your life?

Aleksi thought about this, since it was the only thing in her entire speech that he understood. "No, not that I remember."

"And your reflexes-I must find a way to test them. I'll just bet that they're part of the package. Aleksi, have you ever thought about having children?"

There were definitely times when Aleksi thought the doctor was a little mad. "Every man thinks of it at some time. But if I marry, I'll have to leave Tess, and I don't want to do that."

"Of course. The jaran are matrifocal. Still, I'd love to try a little selective breeding-" She broke off and coughed into one hand. "In any case, this is a needle. I'm going to take blood. You saw me do that to Tess as well."

"Yes." He watched with interest as she pricked his skin with the tiny blade. The viscous scarlet of his blood filled a tiny chamber of glass, a red as rich as the red of his silk shirt. She removed me needle and gave him a piece of fluff to press onto his skin, though the point of entry scarcely qualified as an injury. At the long table, she busied herself with some of the machines, but he could not see what she was doing because her back covered his view of the table. Instead, he regarded his spirit, turning in the air before him.

"Oh, you can sit up now," she said over her shoulder.

He sat up. His spirit still turned. He rose and walked closer to examine it. It seemed to emanate from the very base of the couch, like a rainbow emerging from the ground and arching up into the heavens to scatter its color across the rain-drenched sky. But it was him, clearly so. He reached to touch it, but just as his fingers met its surface, it sparked and vanished into a thousand flickering lights and then to nothing. He jumped back. The image appeared again: there, his narrow chin and thin face, in gold and white and blue; the curve of his throat a glittering, soft green; the relaxed slope of his shoulders in green and blue, with a hint of violet; his chest and hips, his legs, his feet fading into a cloud of deepest violet at their base, the exact curve of his kneecap, the knob in his left little finger, gold with a tracery of red, where it had never healed straight when it was broken many many years ago. He was crowned by a bright silver formless light, just as Bakhtiian's spirit had been, just as Tess's had been.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" asked the doctor from her table. He felt her move, without seeing her. He caught a movement in his peripheral vision; an instant later he shot his left hand up and caught a little ball she'd thrown at him. "Good reflexes," she said. "Squeeze that as hard as you can." He complied, then transferred it to his other hand and squeezed it again. The ball was made of some strange substance he did not recognize: not wood or metal, not ceramic or cloth. Little bumps nobbled its surface, and when he squeezed hard enough it gave slightly beneath his hand, and he felt warmth from inside of it.

The doctor came over to him and squinted at his eyes. She held up a black stick with a tight nestled in its tip. "Look at me. Straight at me. Don't mind this. They say the actor Gwyn Jones is a martial artist."

"What is that? Martial artist?"

"Someone who has studied the art of fighting, not just the craft of it. I'd like to see the two of you spar together. He won a number of tournaments, of-well-contests, say when you race a horse. Surely you fence together and see who comes out the winner?"

"I always did," Aleksi admitted humbly. "Come out the winner. That's what Vyacheslav often said to me, that most men are blind to the saber, that they only use it to cut with and kill with, but that the saber is like a Singer's lute, that it could itself sing. He said I was a Singer, that

I had made a long journey, but that my instrument wasn't tales and song but the saber itself, just as the saber had been his instrument in his time. So he taught me."

"You are a Singer? A shaman?"

He shrugged. "I never went to the gods" lands, if that is what you mean. But I learned from him as much as there was time to learn, about the-art-of saber." He grinned. "I like this word, martial artist. You khaja are always surprising me. I thought you weren't civilized."

Dr. Hierakis laughed and withdrew her light from his face. "That's all. What news from the council?"

Aleksi also liked her brusqueness and the way she came straight to the point and never hemmed and hawed about the least detail. "The main army, with Bakhtiian, rides to Karkand. Sakhalin rides south. Grekov and Vershinin ride west past Karkand. Nadine will ride north to escort the prince back here."

"Oh," said the doctor.

"Will he know this before she arrives?" Aleksi asked.

Dr. Hierakis laughed. "Yes. We have a way of talking that can send a message faster than the fastest horseman can ride. You see the image of Morava, there?" He nodded. "That isn't an image modeled out of the memory, but a real image, sent to us by Marco Burckhardt from half a kilometer away from the palace. He sent it this morning."

Aleksi regarded the image of Morava. The view looked down the long avenue that led to the front of the shrine. He could just make out the sweep of white stairs framed by thin black pillars that led to the huge doors embroidered with tracery and fine patterns. "But, Doctor," he said, "if you can send messages so quickly, why not show Bakhtiian how to do this thing as well? If his generals could speak together like this, then imagine what they could do."

"Oh, I can imagine it," said the doctor. "But we've done too much already. Casualties are high, of course, but deaths are low. We're saving and healing a much higher percentage of the wounded than would have survived without my training. And yet, and yet, I can't just stand by and watch them die, knowing that with a little knowledge they could be saved. What of the khaja living in the army's path? But I can't reach them. I can't reach everyone. Not yet."

The doctor often talked to herself like this, to him and yet to herself and to some unnamed audience which Aleksi supposed was both her conscience and the absent prince, with whom she shared more than simple friendship and loyalty. He knew some vital issue troubled her, but he had not yet puzzled out what it was. And if she and the prince did not want to share this swift messenger they hoarded between them, after all, why should they? They owed Bakhtiian nothing. Aleksi did not think they were Bakhtiian's enemies, but neither did he think they were Bakhtiian's friends. Allies, perhaps, because of Tess, but it was an uneasy truce. They were only here because Tess was here. Even Bakhtiian knew mat. They needed no alliance with Bakhtiian, and certainly with such machines, they had nothing to fear from him, however powerful and vast his army might be. Jeds was a long ride away, according to both Tess and Nadine, according to Bakhtiian himself.

But if Tess left, if the prince and Dr. Hierakis convinced her to go, Aleksi had long since promised himself that by one means or another, whatever he must do, he would go with her.

CHAPTER SIX

At first the color gray, like a fog, sank in around them. Fog lifted to become mist, and through the mist towers appeared, rising up toward the sky in such profusion that they might have been the uplifted lances of the jaran army, one hundred thousand strong.

But to call them towers did them no justice. Not one tower looked like any other tower. Each possessed such striking individuality that even from this distance-from this relative distance, seated on the floor and staring into the three-dimensional field of Hon Echido's Jke's representation of the palace of the Chapalii Emperor-David could distinguish some characteristic in each tower his eye had time to light on that set it apart from the others. Why had they chosen to do that? So many and yet each unique? David thought of the Chapalii as so bound by the hierarchy of their social order that he would never have guessed that they valued diversity.

"The Yaochalii reigns forever."

Was that Echido talking, or a voice encoded through the image building in front of them? David couldn't tell. The image itself wore such depth and reality that he could easily imagine himself actually transported there, staring at the city from high above. He recalled the emperor's visit to Charles and Tai Naroshi-or their visit to the emperor. Maybe he was there. The thought made him giddy.

"For time uncounted, years beyond years, has the Yaochalii reigned, and so will he reign, for time uncounted, years beyond years."

It was hard for David to judge distance because of the scale and the slowly turning field of the image, but in any case, the city was huge. Of course, it wasn't actually a city; it was the palace of the emperor, a megalopolis by human standards and yet devoted entirely to the emperor and his business. Had it once been a real city? As the Chapalii Empire had expanded out into space, had it been abandoned bit by bit, or had the emperor decreed it so and forced the evacuation? The Chapalii home world of Chapal was the emperor's world alone now. Or at least, so the Protocol Office said. No other cities existed there, although this one was itself the size of a small continent.

"The Yaochalii holds his gentle hand over vast territories. The docks of Paladia Minor flow with ships. Merchants spin the heavens with their web of commerce. Lords preside with wisdom over their houses. Dukes administer justly. The princes are at peace. Each lord, each duke, each prince, sends a woman of his house to build a tower for the Yaochalii's pleasure, so that the emperor may rise in the evening and see a thousand thousand lights set upon his earth to rival the thousand thousand lights that are the markers of his domain in the heavens."

Beside him, Maggie covered her mouth with a hand and muffled a cough. Night descended on the field. The towers burned in brilliance, each one a star, reflecting the stars above. Great tiers of darkness blanketed the interstices between the blazing towers, and as the field lightened into day again, David recognized these as concourses and avenues and colonnades and gardens and labyrinths and ornamental terraces and every kind of engineering marvel, laid out in breathtaking extravagance and detail, more than he had modeled or imitated or- perhaps, just perhaps-dreamt of in his extensive studies.

"In these days comes the Tai-en Mushai to Sorrowing Tower. Thus does he choose to walk on his own feet into Reckless Tower, and so by his actions does he bring himself to Shame Tower. Thus does his name pass through the rite of extinction, and his house is obliterated forever."

"Under which emperor did this happen?" asked Charles out of the darkness on the other side of the brightening field.

"All things happen under the eye of the Yaochalii, Tai-en," replied Echido.

"What was the emperor's name? Was he related to the Yaochalii-en who now graces the throne? What princely house did the emperor of that time come from?"

"I beg your pardon, Tai-en. Once a prince becomes emperor, then he becomes the Yaochalii-en. He has no other name. What he was before is lost to him. All he had before is lost to him. He brings nothing with him, nor does he leave the throne with anything but his shroud. Thus is each emperor the same, and thus is the line of the Yaochalii unbroken."

"What about his family?" Maggie asked.

"The Yaochalii has no family. He is the Empire. All of us are his house."

"But-what if he was married? Had children? Siblings? A favored steward?"

"All that he had before," repeated Echido, as if it were catechism, "is lost to him."

Marco whistled under his breath. "That'll teach you to have ambition," he said softly. "There's not much advantage in it, is there, if you have to give up everything to become emperor?"

Maggie gestured with her right hand toward the glorious city shifting before them in the field, although the movement was lost to everyone but David and Marco, who sat on either side of her. "Everything but that."

"Still," said David, much struck by this revelation, "I'll bet it's a lonely life, Mags."

"Very human of you, David, but how do you know they have the same motivations and emotions that we do?"

"Sorry. My stock in trade is anthropomorphism. What about the names for the towers? Sorrowing. Reckless."

"It's a translation. Who knows what they really mean in Chapalii?"

"Spoilsport. Though it would be nice to have Tess-" But he broke off.

The scene changed. The city melted away into spinning fractals which then formed themselves into the heartachingly beautiful blue and white and muddied continental brown of a carbon-oxygen-nitrogen world: Rhui, rotating in the heavens.

"Though no male may know," contined Echido, "still, some say that it is here on this planet that the Tai-en Mushai meets his fate, dying before his years unroll into their fullness, holding to himself his secrets, and his shame, and his reckless heart."

"So we can't get a date?" asked Charles.

"A date. I beg pardon, Tai-en, but this term date is one whose meaning I am unfamiliar with. Perhaps you mean the sweet, oblong, edible fruit of the date palm, a tree named phoenix dactylifera in your scientific lexicon. It grows in tropical regions and bears clusters of dates as its fruit."

"Never mind. Ke, perhaps you understand my question."

The female had a peculiarly reedy voice with distinct tones whose cadences David found difficult to follow. "Tai-en, this low one does perceive the meaning you grasp for. This low one has assisted the craftsman Rajiv Caer Linn in reconstructing the data banks of the Tai-en Mushai's network, but as you are both males, this low one can proceed no further in the particular matter you explore now." On a whistling breath, her voice ceased. After a moment, it started up again. "If one of the females of your party wishes to discuss this particular matter with this low one, then this low one will broach with her subjects fit only for a female's constitution."

"What in hell is she talking about?" murmured Marco.

"Maggie?" said Charles.

"Yes." Maggie jumped to her feet and slipped away into the darkness. A breath of air brushed by David's face. Evidently Maggie and the ke had gone beyond the long chamber they all sat in now, back between the pillars into the white room that concealed the entrance to the control room. Above and around them hovered the field, projected out above and surrounding the two rectangular countertops that none of the humans had understood until now. They were field generators for the huge imaging three-dimensional field at which humans and Chapalii stared, watching Rhui turn and implode and reemerge as the palace of Morava, the Tai-en Mushai's secret retreat.

As if they walked themselves, they came up the avenue bounded on the sides by precise gardens of translucent statues and flowering vines and above by four jeweled arches. The great doors glided open-David ached to know the mechanism by which their massive bulk swung so smoothly outward-to reveal the grand concourse. Along the upper half of the walls, a procession of creatures tangled with plants drew the eye along with it to the distant end. These reliefs seemed grown of some living crystal; they grew and changed as David walked down the concourse. A lion grew wings and a snake's tail and transmuted into a gryphon. A sinuous, tentacular alien Spai-lin curled in on itself and became a multifaceted snail wreathed in vervain. Through grand corridors and intimate salons they passed. All was alive as it must surely have been during the Mushai's residence. The dome lit when they entered, drowning them in the depths of a nameless sea populated with grotesque amphibious creatures. In a vast hall, a stellar map spread out along the floor in a mosaic of intricate tiling, and the map rose as light into the empty air. It was as if he walked as a god into the vast depths of space, as into an ocean as black, splintered with light and chasms of shadow, as the other had been sea-green. He strode through the spinning universe, and the music of the spheres hummed like a chorus of drowned bells in his ears.

With great relief, David came to a room where he could sit down and rest. Except, of course, he already sat cross-legged on the floor, next to Marco. Dizziness swept him as the movement and the stillness collided and merged. He let out all his breath and felt Marco slump at the same time, two sighs in concert. Glorious.

"Thank you," said Charles. His voice shook with emotion. Charles showed emotion so rarely in his voice, these days, that each time it startled David anew, to recall that Charles still lived in there; he had simply given up most of himself in order to assume the role he had to play.

"Rather like the emperor," said David softly.

"What?" whispered Marco.

David shook his head. The field shrank in until it encompassed only the boundaries of the innermost ring of counter. Rajiv spoke, and a bewildering array of charts and graphs and figures emerged in three dimensions and multiple blocks in the field.

"He keeps coming back to this," said Marco in a low voice, "all these figures, timetables. I think the Mushai must have stolen the contents of every data bank in the empire and compressed them into here. Why?"

"Knowledge is power."

"Easy answer. Why does Charles keep coming back to this?"

"Easy question. Same answer."

"It's time," said Rajiv suddenly.

"End program," said Charles. The field broke into a thousand bright pinpricks and sparkled and faded and vanished. Charles rose. Echido hurried over to stand beside him, the Keinaba house steward at his heels. A moment later, the door between the two black megaliths that led into the buffer room opened to admit Maggie and the ke.

"Hon Echido." Charles acknowledged the Chapalii merchant with a nod of his head. "Marco Burckhardt will escort you and your party back to your ship. Tonight is the new moon. It will be necessary for you to leave the planet during this window."

"Tai-en." Echido bowed, hands folded at his chest. "May I be allowed to inquire about the other errand we spoke of?"

"Oh, yes. Indeed, I shall require your services in this other matter. You will retrieve the equipment Dr. Hierakis has requested and stay in touch. We will arrange a rendezvous at some point along our journey south."

"Keinaba House would be honored, Tai-en, to transport you to these southern latitudes on our shuttle, thus sparing you the arduous physical journey."

"I hear your offer, Hon Echido, but you know that as this planet is interdicted, by my own order, we must travel in as unobtrusive a manner as possible."

"As you command, Tai-en. I await your word." He bowed, precise and low. His steward bowed. The ke was not of sufficient rank to be allowed to bow to a member of the nobility, but Charles glanced her way and acknowledged her with a nod. Marco led them away to the stables, where their horses waited.

"Well?" Charles asked, turning to look at Maggie in the now quiet room.

"I think I've just discovered something amazing," said Maggie. "Rajiv, can you call up that image of the Imperial palace? Not that big. Yes, mat's a manageable size." The field remained within the confines of the inner counter, and the five people loitering in the chamber walked forward to stand leaning at the outer counter, staring in. The sight was less overwhelming, confined in a-sphere of pale blue light.

"Li an sai," said Maggie, the code that instructed the banks to respond to her voice commands. "Show the Imperial palace as it existed in the days of the Tai-en Mushai." The image did not change. "Show the Imperial palace as it exists in the days of Tai-en Charles Soerensen."

The image did not change.

"Is this a trick question?" demanded David. "Is there some time paradox here? Jo says that her dating indicates that the Mushai must have lived a good ten thousand years ago, Earth standard."

"No time paradox." Maggie looked smug. "There's an essential point missing. The Chapalii always say, "time uncounted, years beyond years." "

"A phrase Tess once told me applies equally to past, present, and future," said Charles suddenly. "She said that the Chapalii live in the present. That they have no concept of past or future, in the sense that we do. No strong concept of history. The Mushai's revolt is more of a legend than a historical event."

"The Imperial city is the same as it always has been," agreed Maggie. "As it is now, so must it have always been. The same with the emperor. He's the same emperor now as he was ten thousand years ago, even though he's a different individual. But we thought that was the Chapalii psyche, or mind-set."

"Based on the language study Tess did, yes." Charles nodded. "Did Tess ever have access to Chapalii females?"

"Not that I know of. We never see Chapalii females on Earth. Or on Odys, for that matter."

"We never see them anywhere."

"I thought," said Rajiv, "that they were inferior citizens. Put in seclusion, purdah. You know. It's one of those primitive ancient Earth customs that human culture Finally outgrew. You still see it in places here on Rhui. That's one thing I'll grant the jaran, however barbaric they might otherwise be. There's a kind of shared authority between the women and the men. But anyway-"

"Damn it, Mags!" David laughed out of impatience and amusement at Maggie stringing them all along. "What did the ke tell you?"

"I think it's just the males. The Chapalii males. That live in the present. They don't deal with the concept of history, or past, or future. Because they're the face we see, the face we've always seen, of the Chapalii, we assumed it was the only one they had. The ke gave me a date for the Mushai. An imperial date. Rajiv, you'll have to run it through the computer, I can't calculate these things. I'm just a damned journalist. I deal in image and word, not in mathematics." She shut her eyes, concentrated, and then reeled off a string of numbers and strange sounding words.

Rajiv pulled out his slate and began some feverish work.

"Why not do it through the field?" Charles asked.

Rajiv glanced up. "If what Maggie says is true, then perhaps this field won't even acknowledge this kind of data. Anyway, I'd prefer to do the initial calcs on my own equipment."

Charles began to pace, looking thoughtful. "So there might be a whole strata of Chapalii life that we've missed? You know, I made Tess my heir because I thought with her language skills that she would then be allowed access to all levels of their culture, and thus she could penetrate deeper than we had yet managed into an understanding of their psyche. But now I wonder if by doing so, if by making her an honorary male, as it were, I limited her instead. History!" He lapsed into silence. "A whole other strata?" Maggie asked. "I don't know.

All I got were the dates of the Mushai's rise and fall. The rest-" She shrugged.

David leaned on his elbows on the counter and stared into the tiny image of the palace. The image shifted and rotated, highlighting first this cluster of slender pagodalike towers, then that tiered garden, then that ten-kilometer-long concourse of seamless diamond roadway. "But they keep referring to the women who build the towers. And the Tai-en Naroshi offered his sister to design and oversee a mausoleum for Tess."

"Artists and craftsmen," said Jo suddenly. "There is a difference."

They all contemplated the difference for long minutes of silence while Rajiv's fingers brushed the keys of his hemi-slate and he muttered under his breath in a singsong voice.

Charles tapped his ear suddenly. "Incoming from Cara," he said. "Who has a-?"

David drew his slate out of its loop on his belt, unfolded it, and set it on the floor. He stepped back. "Receive," he said into the air.

Cara's face materialized above the slate. Her image looked gritty and flat after the Chapalii display. "Charles," she said. She smiled. He smiled back. "You're well?"

"I'm well," he acknowledged.

"Any news?"

He lifted both hands. "Much news. You'll hear about it when I get there."

"Ah. I'll look forward to it. Bakhtiian is sending his niece back to escort you. She's leaving tomorrow."

"As are we. We'll look for her on our way."

"Goddess," muttered Maggie, "how are we supposed to meet without any tracking equipment, over such a distance?"

"We'll have to trust that they know their way around," said David softly. "Anyway, I've been teaching her to make decent maps."

Maggie snorted, but said nothing more.

"I'll pay no mind to the peanut gallery," said Cara's image, but she looked amused. "Have you ordered my shipment?"

"Yes. Suzanne requisitioned it. Delivery downside is being arranged. I still think that given the potential for serious complications, Tess must at least return to Jeds for the remainder of her pregnancy."

"Charles, leaving aside questions of transport at this late date, I remind you that to remove her forcibly at this point would probably alienate her from you completely. You must trust to my judgment. With the additional equipment, with the antigen solution, and with the studies I've done on Bakhtiian's chemistry and blood, I feel certain of a positive outcome even with complications."

David knew well what Cara's promises were worth. She had never been a person to offer what she could not deliver.

Charles frowned. "Perhaps if the experience is difficult and painful, then she won't be so sanguine about remaining in these conditions."

"Charles!" David was appalled.

Cara snorted. "I can't imagine why you keep underestimating her stubbornness, Charles, since she inherited it from the same two people you did."

"You don't understand, Cara. Maggie's overturned the boulder and we've found a whole new ecology lurking underneath. I need Tess."

"You're talking in riddles, my love. I'll wait for the report. Have you gotten that fix on Hyacinth yet? Is it possible he's still alive?"

"Yes, in fact, Rajiv has the fix. It's moving steadily, if slowly, northeast. They'll make the plains soon."

A silence. "Well," said Cara at last, her expression a mask of relief, "bless the Goddess for that, at least. May I tell the actors?"

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

"You're rather close with information sometimes."

"Only when it's vital. I'll do my best to swing our route south so that we can pick him up. Anything else?"

"Tess is fine. We're heading west tomorrow toward the royal city of Karkand. If we have to besiege it, then doubtless that's where you'll find us when you get here in-what-I don't know how fast you can travel."

"Not as fast as the messengers, but I'll encourage our escorts to push the pace. Out, here, then." "Out, here." The image flickered and dissipated. "I wonder why Bakhtiian decided to send his niece back?" asked David.

"She's married now," said Maggie. "And her husband is with us. That sounds like a reason. Doubtless he trusts her in a way he doesn't necessarily trust a captain not of his own family. You're a valuable hostage, Charles. Too valuable to lose."

"Am I a hostage?" Charles looked amused. "Don't you think so? A hostage to force Tess's cooperation."

Charles quirked a smile at her and paced back to stand next to Rajiv. "I rather thought it was the other way around. That Tess was a hostage for my cooperation."

"Are we really going to pick up the actor?" asked David.

"If we can."

They all fell silent, waiting for Rajiv to finish. "Wow!" exclaimed Rajiv suddenly, Rajiv, who was not wont to indulge in vulgar or antiquated expressions of astonishment. "According to this, he flourished for five hundred years. Do you suppose they live that long?"

"How should we know?" asked Jo. "We don't know a damned thing about their physiology. They are clearly built for efficiency, though, or perhaps have engineered themselves to be so. Cara's studies of the Rhuian population indicate that the humans transported here were engineered as well, to make them disease resistant and to adapt them to the planet. So why shouldn't they live that long?"

"It might explain," said Charles slowly, "why their social structure is so static. Longevity might encourage stability, or even stagnation."

"Like the old folk stories of elves and the fairy kingdom?" asked Maggie. "Isn't that the analogy Cara used? Their world is static because it can't change." "Yes," said David, breaking in, "but we don't know if five hundred years is a short life span or a long one, then, even if it's true. What if it refers to the amount of time the Mushai dukedom flourished? Not the individual?"

"No," said Rajiv. "I'm certain it's the individual. The famous. Our rebel Mushai. Hold on." He mumbled under his breath, talking to himself as he manipulated a three-dimensional matrix that floated above the surface of his slate.

David stared at the Imperial palace and wondered what it had really looked like in the Tai-en Mushai's time. Or had it looked the same? Was the empire so old and so unchanging? They did not know. And indeed, why should they, humanity, minor subjects of powerful alien masters, be granted access to such information?

Rajiv sighed. "All right. As far as I can calculate, the transportations from Earth to Rhui of human populations took place over a two hundred year period approximately fourteen thousand four hundred years ago. I've got three calendrical dates. Chapalii yaotiwaganishi-chichanpa-oten-li. Before League Concordance 14,185 to approximately 13,985. Let me see, or, archaeologically speaking, you could use the old Common Era dates of approximately 12,135 B.C.E. to 11,935 B.C.E. I'll get exact figures in a moment,"

"It jibes with Jo's dating." Charles nodded. "Remarkable, and that's from a Chapalii source."

"If she was telling the truth," said Maggie.

"If." Charles walked over to stand next to David, examining the glories of the imperial palace. "But I have no evidence to suggest that she is lying. Rajiv. Bring up the tables again. Everything."

Rajiv had ordered the sequence in some wildly confusing web, with spheres and cubes and flat tables displaying scrolling data bases. David found the spray of color and shifting symbols nauseating.

"Rajiv, what is your analysis of the material contained here?" asked Charles, seemingly unaffected by this dynamic.

Rajiv considered before he answered the question, because he preferred accuracy to speed. "The easiest analogy would be to imagine we had contained here all economic, political, transportation, and commercial schedules and statistics and timetables and-we!! you get the idea-for all the planets contained within the League. Except it's far more complex than that, and not only because it contains this vast amount of information on the inner workings and structure of the Chapalii Empire. Timetables, calendrical dates within the year although not of the years themselves, economic indices, shipping charts and cargo information, freight schedules, census of house affiliations and house wealth, an atlas of all inhabited and uninhabited regions with reference to population, movement, available resources and potential resource exploitation-" He paused only to take in a breath.

"Complete and extensive."

"Encyclopedic and precise. Cross-referenced. Triple cross-referenced. Their referencing system is nothing like ours. It's neither linear nor hyper, but both, and something else as well. But extremely efficient."

"Of course. What do the Chapalii prize above everything else? Efficiency. Peace. Those two things. So, what if we put a spoke into the smooth turning of their wheel? What if we disrupt their efficiency? What if we disturb their peace? As the Tai-en Mushai did, fourteen thousand years ago."

"I record his death as 10,382 B.C.E," said Rajiv.

David felt a shudder of misgiving-no, more a premonition, a feeling that they stood on the edge of a momentous step, that once the word was spoken, once that first step was taken, once the reckless hand turned over the first card, that there was no going back. That their road would be chosen, for good or for ill. To the death, or to freedom.

"Sabotage," said Charles. "It's an old Earth strategy. Constant, unending, unexpected, disruptive. A campaign of sabotage."

"You mean terrorism," said David.

"No, I think that's a later accretion to the term. But use terrorism if you want to. These timetables, these charts, these merchant houses-have they changed significantly since the Mushai's time? Do we have reason to think the Empire is static enough, the Chapalii so addicted to stability, that they might still be-" Charles paused and abruptly grinned. "Still good?"

David and Maggie and Jo all laughed. "Does the eight twenty-nine still leave Rigel for Betelgeuse?" said Maggie.

"That could take years to research," objected Rajiv. "We don't know enough about the Empire. But certainly many of the structural systems could have remained parallel, even pertinent to our situation now."

"We have years. We have eternity, if our heirs keep the torch burning. But I'm convinced of it. I'm convinced that this is why the Mushai accumulated this knowledge here. I'm convinced that this is how he broke the empire that he lived in. There is proof here that the borders of the Chapalii Empire were once larger than they are now. Rhui is proof. Before they absorbed the League, before they absorbed human space, Rhui and this system were not part of the Empire just as human space was not part of the Empire. But the Mushai's movements prove that they were once part of the Empire, long ago. How could they lose track of them? Of what they once had?"

"What if they had no history?" asked Maggie. "Or no access to historical records, at least. Or-I don't know. Given this lead to go on, and time to work, Tess could probably make some sense of it."

Charles bore that fixed expression on his face that meant he was absorbed in the genesis of a new idea. David was not even sure that he had heard Maggie. "For the sake of argument, let's say that those who administered did so as if every day was the present day. So they lost track, somehow. If we fix in our minds that they don't operate like we operate, that they don't think like we think, then it's possible. If all is in the present, and they are otherwise stable, why shouldn't the information in these banks be reliable? Why shouldn't we be able to use it in the same way he did?"

"You want to bring down the Empire?"

"I want to free humanity. I sincerely doubt we have a chance against them, main force against main force. But if we're persistent enough gadflies, perhaps they'll consider us too much trouble and let us go."

"Or crush us entire."

"There's always that chance. Every risk we take in life risks, as one of its consequences, oblivion. But the hand of the Yaochalii is gentle. I've never seen the least sign that they're as ruthless in war as, say, Bakhtiian is."

"Well," said David, encouraged by Charles responding to Maggie's comments, "and we've certainly seen more of the Chapalii in war than any other humans have. I don't know."

Charles shook his head impatiently. "We don't need to know, yet. We've got a lot of work to do, just to see if it's even feasible. We'll have to use the Keinaba house to spread out a gathering net. We'll need to apprentice more humans into that house, to give them wider access to Chapalii space. And to get the Chapalii used to humans running around Chapalii space. We'll need excuses for humans to travel extensively. Merchants. I doubt if they'll let linguists and xenospecialists move so freely-"

Maggie laughed. "Repertory companies."

"What!" David rolled his eyes, but he could not help but laugh with her. "Can't you just see Anahita playing Mata Hari?"

A light sparked in Charles's eyes. "Yes! Repertory companies. Musicians. Artists and craftsmen. They can gather information and have a perfectly legitimate excuse to be wandering around the Chapalii Empire."

"But, Charles," said Rajiv in his usual cautious manner, "all of this would have to proceed in utter secrecy. Where can we possibly find a secure base of operations?"

"Rhui," Charles said casually, and the dizzying array of the data banks hazed and melded to become the blue globe of Rhui, dazzling against the black veil surrounding her. For a moment, David thought that Charles had simply wanted to see the planet. It was a beautiful enough sight.

"What better base than Rhui?" Charles continued. His face was quiet, but David still knew him well enough to know that Charles was concealing a perfectly violent sense of triumph. "Rhui is interdicted already. It's off-limits to casual Chapalii observation, and any official delegations must come through me."

"What about covert operations?" David asked. "Like the one that brought Tess here in the first place?"

Rajiv lifted a hand from his slate. "We covered that. There won't be any more of those."

"Yes," Charles murmured, watching the rich globe turn. His globe, by the emperor's decree, to do with as he willed. "All the more reason to maintain the interdiction, to keep it in force for years, for decades, for as long as it takes us. Cara's been doing her research in Jeds all along for that reason. Why not this as well?"

Rhui. It made sense. It made perfect sense. The Mushai had planned and implemented his rebellion from here. Why not the Tai-en Charles Soerensen as well? Would the Chapalii expect it? And yet, how could they predict what the Chapalii would or would not expect? What other planet did humans control so completely? No other planet. There was no other choice, not really. And there was a certain pleasing symmetry to this resolution as well. As it was, so will it be.

Rhui spun in her halo of space, unaware of the destiny being visited upon her.

ACT FOUR

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up…"

— Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry V

CHAPTER SEVEN

Hyacinth was soggy, cold, and miserable. He shivered while he hammered a tent stake into the damnably hard ground with the butt of his knife. How stupid could he possibly be? he wondered for the thousandth time. He had neglected to take a mallet, or a hammer, or even a hatchet, so every night this farce had to be played out, and it took five times as long to set up his tent as it should have. At first they hadn't set up the tents at all, but with this awful rain, he couldn't endure sleeping out in the open in just a blanket, no matter what Yevgeni and Valye might say, no matter how tough they might be.

Rain fell. He was already soaked to the skin, although by now the precipitation had slackened enough that it didn't really qualify as rain. More of a mizzle, perhaps, a pathetic reminder of the storm that had blown through yesterday. Yevgeni sneezed and coughed, off to the left where he desperately tried to get a fire started with dry twigs and some dung he had scavenged. Valye was out hunting.

Four days ago they had eaten meat; since then, they had subsisted on berries and the tasteless tubers that they gathered when they paused to rest the horses. They saw no game, and certainly, in the ruined land they rode through, no stray livestock. It was as if the jaran army, sweeping through, had obliterated every living creature in its path: humans, livestock, wild animals, and all the grain that had once grown in the fields. Orchards still surrounded the occasional wreck of a village or town they passed, but Yevgeni refused point-blank to ride close in to khaja habitations, even the ones that looked deserted. It was hard enough avoiding the jaran patrols.

Hyacinth sighed and rested his forehead on a palm. He stared at the knife in his right hand. The single jewel buried in the hilt was not, as Yevgeni and Valye thought, a true jewel; it was a laser crystal, gleaming red to show that the emergency transmitter and stun pack disguised within the knife's shell was still powered. It would be so easy to trigger the transmitter and bring-something- some kind of help. He still ached from the constant riding, but the intense pain of the first ten days had passed. Blisters covered his fingers and his palms, some worn at last to calluses. They had bled at first, and Yevgeni had bound them with a tenderness incongruous in a young man who could slaughter khaja with no sign of remorse.

He felt Yevgeni behind him a moment before the rider touched him on the neck. Yevgeni knelt beside him and leaned his dark head against Hyacinth's fair one. They just crouched there awhile, saying nothing. Hyacinth took comfort in Yevgeni's closeness and in his silence. A bird warbled in the twilit gloom, but otherwise only the rain sounded, muted, dying, and an occasional drip or shower of water from leaf-burdened branches.

"I'm sorry," said Yevgeni finally, in a soft voice, "that I have nothing better to give you, in return for what you gave up for me."

Hyacinth stared at the sodden ground. A trail of cold rain seeped under the collar of his tunic and raced down his spine. He shuddered. Yevgeni started back, and Hyacinth grabbed for him, staggering to his feet. "No. No, it's just the rain. Please." His heel turned in a sink of mud and he slipped on the slick ground.

Yevgeni had better footing. Catching Hyacinth, he pulled the actor close and buried his face in Hyacinth's neck. He was perfectly still.

Hyacinth held him. Yevgeni was shorter, and seemed slight, but he had broad shoulders and was, in fact, quite strong. Neither he nor his sister was particularly striking, but they were handsome in a proud way, resembling each other in their broad cheekbones and brown eyes and coarse, dark hair. They never complained, and they good-naturedly put up with Hyacinth's complaining in a way that made him ashamed of himself. He could, after all, be rescued at any time. They had nothing now but each other, and him, and he was an embarrassment to them. He was a constant reminder of why Yevgeni had been banished, and Hyacinth knew damn well that it was his own fault that he had been caught in Yevgeni's tent to begin with. If he hadn't been so careless, because, of course, he found nothing wrong with what he and Yevgeni shared together, and it was so easy to forget that for Yevgeni, with the jaran, it was an entirely different matter.

"It's I who should be sorry," said Hyacinth. Yevgeni's hair smelled of smoke. Behind, the fire smoked more than burned. "It's my fault. I should have left sooner. I-"

Yevgeni laid a finger over Hyacinth's lips. "It's done. We were outlaws anyway and only there on sufferance. If we can make it back to the plains…"

"Then?"

Yevgeni sighed and embraced Hyacinth more tightly. Out here, quit of the tribe-and when his sister wasn't around-he had become freer with signs of affection. Then we'll find my aunt's tribe and throw ourselves on her mercy, and perhaps she'll take us in. Or at least Valye. We must convince Valye to go with her." He cocked his head back suddenly. "If you married Valye, then it might be perfectly respectable."

"If I married Valye!"

Yevgeni chuckled. That he could still find humor in anything, out in this rain, in this horrible situation, amazed Hyacinth. "I thought you didn't mind women."

"I don't, but-" Faced with the prospect of living out his days among these savages, married to one of their women, carrying on discreetly with her brother, and enduring, year after year after year, the rain and die dirt and the filthy tasks they engaged in-none of which he was suited for-Hyacinth found himself appalled. And trapped. He felt trapped. He had a pretty good idea that if they left him, he would die. Even in the time it would take for the transmitter to recall help, he could die. He was a drag on them; he knew it, and they knew it, and yet they had never once taxed him for it, and Yevgeni apologized to him for what he, Hyacinth, had given up for Yevgeni. Their generosity so eclipsed his that it shamed him.

"I love you," said Hyacinth, because in its own way it was true. Yevgeni made a strangled noise in his throat and no other response, only stood there, holding on. One of his hands clenched and relaxed. The rain ceased, finally. A wind came up.

"Oh, gods," said Yevgeni at last in a muffled voice, talking into the collar of Hyacinth's tunic, "I want to go there so badly, to this place where you come from, this Erthe, where there's no shame for a man to tell another man that he loves him."

"Of course there's no shame! Why should there be?" Hyacinth stroked Yevgeni's hair.

The sound of a horse crashing through brush stirred them. Yevgeni spun away and drew his saber. But it was only Valye, returning empty-handed from her hunt. She swung down and kissed her brother on the cheek and nodded to Hyacinth. Yevgeni went back to the fire, to try to spark it to life, but it smoldered and refused to give either flame or heat. Valye unsaddled her horse and rubbed it down and hobbled it with the others, under the shelter of a grove of scrub trees that ringed a little pond. Birds skittered across the water on the far side. Birds. But perhaps Valye wasn't a good enough shot to kill birds for dinner.

Valye cast a practiced eye up at the lowering sky. Darkness swept down on them. "I think it's going to rain again tonight," she said to her brother. "I'd better set up my tent."

Again. She kept setting up her tent, and Yevgeni always had to sleep there. Yevgeni didn't want to offend her sensibilities, even though she knew damn well what he had been banished for. "It's stupid," said Hyacinth suddenly, surprising even himself, "for you to set up your tent. Mine is warmer."

Valye flushed and drew up her chin. "It isn't proper."

"Hyacinth," said Yevgeni softly, "she's right, of course."

Of course he did anything his sister said. They went to bed that night on empty stomachs. Valye had first watch.

Hyacinth crawled alone into his own tent and set the perimeter alert. He took off his clothes and slid them into the drying pouch slung at the base of the tent. Then he dozed, until Valye woke him for his half of the watch.

At dawn, while the others still slept, Hyacinth walked down to the water. In the quiet, he watched birds swarming over the pond and along the shore. Such abundance, and he was so hungry. Yevgeni and Valye weren't around to see. He circled around to the far side of the pond, staying out at a safe distance, and then aimed his knife and fired.

It was like fishing for trout in a barrel-that was an old phrase his great-grandmother Nguyen always used. Within moments two dozen birds lay dead or stunned, some on the ground, some along the shore in and out of the reeds, most floating in the lake. He left the ones in the water and, with a great sense of pride and a fair measure of squeamishness, hoisted the others by their feet and carried them back to camp.

At camp, Valye and Yevgeni had woken up. Valye tended to the fire while Yevgeni tied Valye's rolled-up tent onto a packhorse. Yevgeni flung up his head and saw Hyacinth. A look of such overwhelming relief passed over his features that Hyacinth was embarrassed.

"Look what I got!" he said instead, displaying the half-dozen birds he had salvaged from the massacre. "Now we can eat for the next day or two."

Valye flung herself down on the damp ground and began to wail. Yevgeni simply stared. He looked as if he were in shock. He looked horrified.

Hyacinth actually turned around to see if some loathsome monster followed in his wake, but there was nothing there. A flight of birds erupted from the pond, driving up into the cloud-laden sky. A single hawk circled above, and abruptly, it folded its wings and dropped like a stone toward the ground.

"Build the fire," said Yevgeni suddenly in a hoarse voice. "Valye, build the fire, quickly. We'll give them back to her and beg her forgiveness. We'll release them into her hands."

"What about him?" Valye wailed. "Who will kill him?"

What, in the Lady's Name, were they talking about?

"No one, damn it!" snapped Yevgeni. "It's obvious he doesn't know. Go on."

"But she'll demand retribution!" Valye cried.

"Just do as I say!"

"What's going on?" demanded Hyacinth.

Yevgeni took in a deep breath, as if by main force of will he controlled himself, and strode over to Hyacinth. "Birds are sacred to us. Perhaps they aren't to you khaja." He put out his hand. "Give them to me."

Relieved to be free of the limp birds, Hyacinth handed them over. Only to watch in shock as Yevgeni carried them across to the fire and, once its flames had gathered force and heat, simply laid them over the pit.

"Aren't you supposed to pull the feathers off first, and maybe get rid of the heads and the feet?" Hyacinth asked, utterly confused.

"Take down your tent unless you want us to leave it here," said Yevgeni in a voice so cold that Hyacinth abruptly knew that if he didn't obey, he would be left behind as well. He obeyed. As he worked, Yevgeni and Valye stoked the fire, feeding it, nursing it, encouraging it to consume the birds. They chanted in singsong voices, sometimes together, sometimes separately, sometimes overlapping.

"Grandmother Night, forgive us for drawing ourselves to your attention. We beg your pardon. We draw back. It was a child's error, that your messengers, your holy ones, were taken from life this day. Even you yourself did not blame your children when, all ignorant, they transgressed your laws. Spare us from your just retribution. Allow us to beg for your mercy. Look not upon us with your dreadful sight. We are not strong enough to endure the terrible glance of your eye. We send these messengers back to you, in the old way, to grace your lands once more. Grant us mercy for our transgression."

They were praying. They were just going to burn the birds and leave them.

"How can you waste them like that?" demanded Hyacinth, stopping in the middle of his task and staring. "I'm hungry!"

"Valye." Yevgeni dropped out of the singsong chant and motioned with a turn of his head toward the horses. "Saddle and pack up. Go. Quickly." She glanced toward Hyacinth, but she obeyed her brother. Yevgeni looked back over his shoulder at Hyacinth and then away. Hyacinth felt that he himself had somehow taken on the aspect of a loathsome monster, but he didn't understand what had happened. Drawing a knife, Yevgeni opened his palm out flat over the fire and before Hyacinth realized what he meant to do, he cut his own skin. Blood welled up. Yevgeni turned over his hand and let the blood drip into the fire.

"Take this offering, Grandmother Night, whose name is terrible to hear, whose glance is terrible to suffer, and grant us mercy, grant us forgiveness, for the death of these, your holy messengers."

Blood scattered into the fire. Singed feathers poured an acrid odor into the air. Yevgeni rocked back on his heels and stood, clenching his hand tight to stop the bleeding.

"Get your tent down," Yevgeni said to Hyacinth, so harshly that Hyacinth felt his courage and his heart melt within him. But he obeyed.

They packed up and rode on. The clouds scudded away. It did not rain. A low range of mountains loomed before them, the next obstacle.

Valye would not talk to him. Yevgeni answered his comments, his questions, in curt monosyllables, and finally Hyacinth gave up talking. He had never felt more alone in his life.

They climbed by winding paths up into the hills. A packhorse went lame around midday, picking up a stone in its hoof. They halted in the lee of a copse of trees that straggled along the steep slope that bounded the north wall of the valley up which they rode. Hills loomed around them. The sun burned bright overhead. Here between the rocks, it grew warm. It was a gloomy countryside. A few green shoots sprouted up, encouraged by die recent rains, but otherwise the land lay rocky and barren. Their trail wound up into the heights, and Yevgeni seemed sure that it would lead them over the hills and into Farisa country, past which lay the plains and freedom.

Hyacinth stood beside the horses under the shade of a clump of trees. Yevgeni and Valye argued over whether to kill the injured horse for food or to nurse it along.

"We have little enough now to carry," said Valye.

"But if we get more, we'll need it. We need remounts, in any case." Yevgeni knelt and ran his hand along the horse's leg. The animal was a kind, patient beast and submitted to this care equably enough. Yevgeni found the stone and drew it out, but the cut bled. He shook his head. "I've nothing to put on it for a compress."

"I've got a medical kit," said Hyacinth, tentatively, "but I don't know if it works for horses. I don't know-" He faltered, because Valye had turned her back on him. Yevgeni hung his head. "Oh, Goddess! You won't even tell me what I've done, and it's just plain stupid not to see if what I've got can help!"

Yevgeni had one pretension to beauty. He had a mobile, prettily-shaped mouth. His lips twitched now, and Hyacinth could tell he was struggling inwardly. Finally he flung his head back. "Let me see."

Hyacinth rummaged in his saddlebags and brought out the med kit He fingered through its riches and brought out the things that he thought would be most recognizable to Yevgeni; and in the end, they worked out a rough compress and some salve and decided to nurse the horse along.

Valye watched with disapproval. "Do you think you should accept his khaja medicine? It was his khaja ways that brought down her enmity on us."

"We don't know if she's angry, yet," retorted Yevgeni.

"You're a fool if you think we won't pay for it, Yevgeni."

"I'm a fool four times over, then," he snapped, "once for leaving the tribe to ride with Dmitri Mikhailov, once for agreeing to bring you with me, once for riding away with Vasil Veselov when I should have stayed and begged for mercy."

"What about him?" Valye jerked her chin toward Hyacinth. "Five times, then, for taking up with him."

"No," said Yevgeni in a low voice, not looking toward Hyacinth though he must know that Hyacinth could hear every word they were saying. "Not for him. You don't understand what it's like to feel shame every time you look at a man with desire, to know you can never speak of your feelings to him. Oh, I thought for a while that Vasil might-but he needed a second in command, he needed men for a jahar, he used his beauty to make me think he might love me, but he never did, and then I felt ashamed for being a fool, for not knowing better. But he never made me feel ashamed. Because he never felt ashamed. That was a gift, Valye, but perhaps you can't understand that."

Her throat worked. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She had pulled back her hair into a long braid, but the sunlight betrayed how dirty it was. Dirt encrusted the cuffs and hem of her tunic and caked the knees of her trousers and the palms of her hands. Not that Hyacinth was any cleaner. "I'm sorry," she said in a low voice. She offered a hand to Yevgeni and he accepted it, and she lifted him up and hugged him. "You're all that I have, Yevgeni. I won't judge you."

He smiled tremulously. "You're the best sister any man ever had, even if you are wild, and won't listen when you ought to." He kissed her on the cheek. A pang gripped Hyacinth's heart, seeing their true feeling for each other, seeing their bond. Like the one he had once had with the actors in the Company. Was this how Yevgeni felt, riding in the army, as if he was always on the outside looking in?

Yevgeni pushed her away. "We'd better go. It's never wise to stay in any place too long."

Except that they already had stayed too long. Or perhaps their fate had been tracking them all along and simply chosen this moment to strike.

One moment, the scene was all silence. It was bleak, true enough, but there was hope in the way the path wound up into the heights, suggesting freedom in the distance, and hope in the way Yevgeni turned and with a shy smile glanced toward Hyacinth and away, as if he flirted with him. Then he stopped in mid-stride. His expression shifted abruptly. He canted his head to one side, listening. Hyacinth heard something, a gentle ring, the echo of a sound like a voice's echo. Yevgeni drew his saber. Valye pulled her bow from its quiver. It was already strung; it was always strung. Hyacinth stared.

"Mount." Yevgeni sprinted toward him.

Hyacinth heard a whoof, like air being expelled; heard the ring of bridle; heard the shout. Yevgeni called a warning. It all took place in a vast sink of time, drawn out so excruciatingly slowly that to experience it was painful. Valye staggered forward in the act of fitting an arrow to her bowstring. She half turned to raise and aim at the sudden clot of khaja riders on the ridge above them, but a strange shadow cut across her.

Two arrows stuck out of her back. She shot anyway. She shot again as the riders charged down toward them, and a man toppled from his horse. Yevgeni scrambled onto his horse and swung round to go back to her. His horse stumbled and staggered and crumpled to the ground, pierced through the neck with a mass of arrows. Thrown, Yevgeni tumbled down, landing at Valye's feet. She shot again. An arrow skewered her in the thigh. Still she did not go down. A trio of arrows pinned Yevgeni to the ground, but he tore free of them and struggled up to stand next to her.

They were going to die.

Then Hyacinth remembered his knife. What did he care what prohibitions he broke? He drew it and raised it and fired. He saw nothing but a shimmering in the air. But the effect was stunning, and immediate. Twelve riders closed in on them, a thirteenth left back on the ground with an arrow in his chest. Twelve khaja men fell like stones from their saddles. That fast. The horses faltered. One went down. The other horses pulled up short not six paces in front of Yevgeni, riderless, confused, and probably half stunned themselves by the concussion.

"Gods!" cried Valye, whether from her wounds or from astonishment Hyacinth could not know. She collapsed to the ground at Yevgeni's feet.

"Hyacinth, look after her!" Yevgeni cried. He ran forward, drawing his knife in his other hand, and knelt by the foremost khaja bandit. "Gods, he's still breathing. So is he!" He glanced back toward Hyacinth, looking suspicious, looking apprehensive. Then, methodically, gruesomely, he slit each man's throat.

Hyacinth roused himself out of his stupor and dropped the reins and ran over to Valye. Mercifully, she was unconscious. Blood bubbled out of her mouth, welling in and out in time to her labored breathing. Hyacinth fumbled in the med kit and brought out the scanner and ran it over her. Then he flipped over his slate and read the results into it. They flashed RED RED RED: condition critical; advise moving subject to urgent care facility immediately; wounds to deep tissue in thigh; damage to internal organs; right lung has been pierced; do you wish a more detailed diagnosis?

"No," said Hyacinth.

"She's going to die, isn't she?" said Yevgeni. Hyacinth jumped, startled, and turned. Yevgeni limped up to him. He bled from his leg, from his arm, and from a gash to his head. "What is that?" He pointed with his bloodstained knife to the open slate.

"It's a hemi-modeler. Maybe you'd know it as a computer. Never mind. It doesn't matter what it is. Do you know how to get those arrows out?"

Yevgeni shrugged, staring at his young sister. "Yes, but it doesn't matter. I've seen wounds. She's breathing blood. It's got her in the lungs. She won't live."

"She can, if I can get help."

Yevgeni gave him a look of complete incomprehension and then knelt beside Valye and began the slow process of turning the arrows out of her wounds. Blood gushed. Hyacinth had to turn away before he threw up. He grabbed his slate and went and crouched beside the horses. He lifted the knife, and held it up so that it could read his retinal print, and then he released its code. For five minutes, he knew, it would pulse silently, broadcasting the distress signal. He tried to gauge how long it would take for them to get a ship here. Could they get one here soon enough to save Valye?

"The horses," said Yevgeni.

Hyacinth hobbled their horses, caught the strays and as many of the others as he could, and hobbled them as well.

Yevgeni's horse-well, it was suffering, that much was apparent.

"Kill it," said Yevgeni.

What choice did he have? Force Yevgeni to leave his sister? The rider had two of the arrows out, by now, but the third came slowly, spiraling out along its tracks on the silk undershirt she wore, driven into the wound. Hyacinth hadn't a clue how to kill a horse. He used his knife to stun it into oblivion and hoped it would bleed to death before it woke up. Then he went back to Yevgeni and ran the scan over him. He set the med kit out and queried the modeler about first aid, and the slate began a stream of directions to him in clear Anglais.

Yevgeni started so badly that he almost twitched the arrow still lodged in Valye's side. He swore, and then again, seeing that Hyacinth wasn't speaking. He went white. "What is that?" He was terrified. "Who is that speaking?"

"Trust me," said Hyacinth. "Just trust me. Take that arrow out." Listening to the directions, Hyacinth did as well as he could with the equipment in the med kit. He used a sonic cleaner to sterilize the various wounds and an antibiotic spray to prevent infection. The seamer stitched up Yevgeni's head wound, sealing it, and his leg wound as well, and Valye's thigh wound, but there was nothing he could do about the internal damage. He ran the emergency pulse again, or so he hoped; he could not hear anything. Yevgeni was in shock by this time. He stumbled away from Hyacinth and began to gather wood for a fire, refusing to be deflected from this task, so Hyacinth set up his tent by himself. They carried Valye into it and laid her on the floor. She did not regain consciousness. Her breath bubbled and subsided. Night fell. No one came.

All that long night Yevgeni sat beside her. Hyacinth set up the lantern, not caring now if its constant, fireless glow amazed Yevgeni, but Yevgeni sat so sunk in grief that he did not seem to care. Valye breathed. Night passed. No one came.

She died at dawn, slipping peacefully out of herself and away. Yevgeni readied the fire, evidently not caring that it would provide a beacon for any other khaja bandits passing by. He dressed her carefully and folded her hands over her chest; he laid her on the fire, and lit it. It blazed up. Soon smoke and flames concealed her from their view. Yevgeni flung himself on the ground and keened. He threw off his shirt and slashed himself with his knife, over and over, along his arms and on his chest. Blood, like tears, washed him.

Hyacinth stared at his transmitter. No one had come. They had abandoned him.

Morning passed. The pyre burned. The sun rose to its zenith, reminding Hyacinth bitterly that exactly one day had passed since they had halted here before. The bodies of the dead khaja still lay on the ground, ravaged by night stalkers. Insects swarmed them. A bird circled down and settled with lazy grace on the corpse farthest from the horses. It began to feed. Soon another bird joined it.

Hyacinth walked forward and touched Yevgeni on the neck. "Yevgeni," he said softly, not trusting the other man not to jump up and threaten him with that knife. At least Yevgeni had stopped mutilating himself, though blood still seeped from the cuts scored all over his skin. "Shouldn't we move on? What if they come back? If someone else comes?"

"Ah, gods," said Yevgeni, his voice hoarse with rage and sorrow, "she trusted me. When did I bring her anything but grief?"

Hyacinth winced. Yevgeni's desolation was a palpable thing, like a blow. Yevgeni stared at the fire that consumed his sister's body. If he even noticed Hyacinth's hand on his neck, he gave no sign of it. "Yevgeni, we should ride on. What if there are others around here?"

"What does it matter? Grandmother Night will have her revenge on us in the end." His voice sounded hollow and lifeless. "We killed her holy messengers, and the only punishment for that crime is death. It has already begun. Valye is dead. What does it matter if we die, too?"

Yevgeni had given up. Hyacinth shut his eyes. "Yevgeni, listen to me. I don't believe in grandmother night. I'm not going to die, not for grandmother night, not for you, and not for them!" He opened his eyes, shocked at his own vehemence. But it was true; now that they had lost everything, now that he had been abandoned by his own people, now he refused to give up.

Yevgeni lifted his head. His eyes were glazed, but a sudden gleam of fear lit them. "You mustn't speak of her with such disrespect," he said, but with no force behind the comment.

"And risk what? Valye is already dead. What else is there but our own lives? I'm going on, and you're coming with me." Hyacinth did not know what else to do, except to keep moving. Yevgeni rose, stiff with pain and drying cuts, but he would not let Hyacinth clean his wounds. Face drawn, he pulled his shirt on over the raw cuts. He hesitated. The pyre burned steadily now, but Hyacinth was not sure how much of Valye's body would actually be consumed by the time it went out. He didn't intend to wait around to see what khaja locals the fire attracted.

"Yevgeni, come on."

Yevgeni obeyed numbly. They strung the khaja horses on with the rest and set off northeast, up the valley.

That night, Hyacinth downed two birds with his knife and brought them back to camp. Yevgeni sat slumped over his knees, apathetic now in his grief. Hyacinth sighed and stared at the two birds. He steeled himself, going off a few paces away from the safety of the hobbled horses, and he began the disgusting, messy work of preparing them for supper. He hadn't a clue what to do with them. He plucked at the feathers, but they wouldn't come out cleanly. He had to hack and tear at the skin and peel it off entirely. It was horrible. He cut off their heads and feet, swore copiously, gutted them, and threw up once at the smell and sticky texture of the fluids that gushed out of them. But he did it.

Yevgeni just sat there. Hyacinth got out the little solar powered oven he had stolen from the Company's camp and roasted the two birds in it. That wasn't so bad, since the oven had all kinds of timing devices built into it according to weight and type of meat. He also heated water to boiling and while the meat cooked, he took a cloth and dabbed the cuts on Yevgeni's back with hot water. Yevgeni let him do it. He was otherwise listless. He shivered, and Hyacinth hoped that he wasn't going to get some kind of infection. He brought out the scanner again and ran it over Yevgeni, and the med program on his slate advised him to use the antiseptic mist.

"What are you doing?" Yevgeni asked at last, roused out of his stupor by the stinging of the mist.

"Keeping you well. Roasting some meat."

But Yevgeni wouldn't eat when Hyacinth brought him the roasted fowl.

Hyacinth crouched beside him and took Yevgeni's chin in his hand. "They've all abandoned you, Yevgeni, don't you see that? So what does it matter what you do?"

"It matters to the gods."

"Well, I don't believe in your gods. How did those twelve men fall off their horses?"

For the first time since Valye's death, Yevgeni lifted his gaze to look directly at Hyacinth. "I don't know," he whispered.

"I did that, and you know I'm no fighter."

"You're a Singer. A shaman. Perhaps you know sorcery."

"It's not sorcery either. Listen, Yevgeni. Maybe we have a way out of this. Do you know where the shrine of Morava is? Maybe Soerensen is still there."

The glaze of dullness that stiffened Yevgeni's expression lightened slightly. "Who is Soerensen?"

"The Prince of Jeds. If we can find him-"

"He would help us?" Yevgeni shook his head. "He can't help us. No woman or man can, now that Grandmother Night has settled her terrible gaze on us."

"Yes, he can. He's more powerful than grandmother night."

"Don't say that!" Yevgeni shrank away from him.

"But it's true. I made those men fall down, with this knife. I can heal your wounds with these simple instruments. That box is an oven that baked this meat without fire. I'm more powerful than grandmother night. Let me show you something."

He brought out his slate and unfolded it, so that it lay flat on the ground. In silence, Yevgeni watched. "Do you remember the jaran tale we sang? The one about Mekhala, the woman who brought horses to the jaran?"

Yevgeni lowered his eyes. "Yes." He said it as if something shamed him about the memory. "I was with Valye. She liked to see your people's singing."

"Run Mekhala folktale, scene two. Meter field."

In scene two, Hyacinth played the khaja prince who had come to demand tribute from the rhan, as the jaran tribes had called themselves before they had gotten horses and become ja-rhan, the people of the wind. Above the slate, about a meter cubed, the play unfolded: Anahita as Mekhala and Diana as her sister, Hyacinth entering as the prince with his retinue of Quinn and Oriana.

Yevgeni stared openmouthed at the image, moving, playing out. He reached out and snatched his hand back before he touched it. "Sorcery," he murmured.

"No, it's not sorcery. It's a-oh, hell, there's no way to explain it to you. Run image of Morava."

The image melted away and re-formed into the gorgeous dome and towers of the Chapalii palace the jaran called Morava. Hyacinth had not seen Morava except through this program, and he was delighted to be able to pace around it and see the complex from all angles. He envied the duke's party for experiencing it firsthand.

"But how did it get so small?" Yevgeni demanded. "How did you capture it and bring it here?"

"It's just an image, Yevgeni, not the shrine itself. Look, do you know what a map is? Let me see. Maybe I can reconstruct where we left the army, and where we are now. It's been thirty-five days since we left camp and if we've ridden northeast… Goddess. I should have paid more attention in cartography tutorial."

"But no one is more powerful than Grandmother Night," said Yevgeni suddenly. "Even seeing these things and what you did to those khaja bandits, still… She attends us at our birth and grants us a measure of days in which to live. She is the One with whom we may bargain for gifts, if we're willing to risk the bargaining, if we're desperate enough. She is death, Hyacinth. No person can escape death."

"How old do you think the Prince of Jeds is?"

Yevgeni shrugged. "Of an age with Bakhtiian, I suppose."

"He isn't. He's older than Mother Sakhalin."

"He can't be."

"He is. Why would I lie to you? Dr. Hierakis is older than he is. Owen is in his seventies, too, and Ginny is at least as old as that. Yet they are still young. My great-grandmother Nguyen is one hundred and sixteen years old, and I can expect to live at least as long as she has and stay young until I'm ninety or so. Grandmother night doesn't scare us. You've got to believe me, Yevgeni. You've got to want to believe me, you've got to want to live. If we can make it to the shrine, if we can find the duke-"

Yevgeni reached up abruptly and touched Hyacinth's cheek. "That's when I fell in love with you," he said in a low voice. "When I saw that song, the song you did about Mekhala. Valye said you were really the khaja prince and that it was a wind demon truly drawn down to walk among us, but I knew you were just a person singing two different songs. You were so beautiful."

Hyacinth shut his eyes. How Owen would have loved this scene: Yevgeni's voice blended grief and wonder and a shy yearning so perfectly, and the way he held his body reflected his longing and his sorrow and his actual physical pain. But this was real. Hyacinth knelt and put his arms around the other man. Yevgeni gasped, from the pain of the embrace, but he did not draw away.

"Oh, damn," murmured Hyacinth, "it must hurt."

"No, no," said Yevgeni into his hair, "never mind it. I gave it for her, who followed me to her death."

"We won't die. That way you can remember her. That way part of her will always live, with you."

Yevgeni sighed against him but said nothing. There was nothing he needed to say, not at that moment. Hyacinth stroked his hair and held him carefully, tenderly.

After a little while, Hyacinth warmed up the meat in the oven and Yevgeni ate a sliver of it, though it was the flesh of the gods" sacred messengers. Not much, but by that small gesture, Hyacinth knew that Yevgeni had cast his lot with his khaja lover and abandoned his own people once and for all.

CHAPTER EIGHT

In the middle of the night, Tess woke to the sound of footsteps in the outer chamber. She heaved herself up and slipped on a silk robe, tying it closed just under her breasts and above her pregnant belly. She pushed the curtain aside and walked into her husband.

He had been pacing. She could tell by the way his shoulders were drawn forward and one hand clenched up by his beard. He opened the hand and splayed it over one side of her belly. "The child is growing," he said. "And all of a sudden, it seems. I think you're twice the size you were at Hamrat, and it's only been sixteen days since we left there."

"Oh, gods, and it's all pressing on my bladder."

"Do you want me to walk with you?"

"No." She slipped on a pair of sandals, threw a cloak over her silk robe, and walked out to the freshly-dug pits sited at the edge of the Orzhekov encampment. At night, it was quiet and peaceful here, but she knew that about a kilometer away lay the royal city of Karkand, settled in for a long siege. She greeted guards, and they greeted her in return. They were used to her nightly peregrinations. The guards looked a little chilled, but she was never cold now, even in the middle of the night.

When she got back to the tent, Ilya was pacing again. "Here," she said, "stop that. It's moving again. Sit down." She settled down cross-legged beside him and opened her robe. He rested both of his hands on her belly. "What's bothering you?"

He did not reply. He concentrated on her, on her belly, on his hands.

"There, did you feel that?" she asked. He shook his head. "It's mostly like a fluttering, now, like butterflies. When I get bigger, you'll feel it."

He sighed and withdrew his hands, and stood, and walked to the entrance of the tent and then back to her. "How does Ursula know so much?" he demanded. "Although she is always respectful, she speaks with the authority of Sakhalin himself. We rode a circuit of the city today and she pointed out where siege engines might be used to the greatest effect, and how the river might be dammed so that it could flood the walls and the citadel. She speaks as if she has seen and done all these things before, as if she has already ridden with an army like ours."

"She's read many books." Tess rose and poured two cups of water, and offered one to him. He ignored her. He went to the table and unrolled two pieces of parchment on the tabletop. One was Nadine's map of Habakar lands and beyond. The other was a rough map of Karkand and the surrounding countryside.

Karkand, like Jeds, was a walled city, but here the resemblance ended. Hovels and houses and palaces, poor and rich alike, lay crammed within the protecting walls of Jeds, and only the prince's palace and the university lay outside within their own ring of walls. Huts and shanties had sprouted up immediately outside the walls and along the road that led to the palace, but only the poorest people who could find no foothold inside the city lived out there.

In Karkand, the rich lived outside the inner city. They lived in a vast sprawl of villas along avenues spread out on the fertile plain that surrounded the two hills on which lay the citadel and the king's palace and the innermost city, which was itself as large as Jeds. The outer city was also protected by a wall, not as formidable as the walls ringing the twin hills but impressive for its sheer vast circumference. It took half a day to ride around the suburbs of Karkand.

"Sakhalin has ridden south," said Ilya, staring at the maps. "Reports have come in that the king's nephew has raised an army there. He is said to be courageous and an able leader."

"What news from Anatoly Sakhalin?"

"None. Grekov and Vershinin have reached the two cities west of here, by forced march-"

"Gods, that was fast."

"— and a courier just came in to say that one of the cities, Gangana, has already surrendered. Should I take the main army south?"

"What do your commanders advise? Has Sakhalin asked for your help?"

"Sakhalin has not asked. Yet. The council is divided. If it's true, and the main threat lies in the south… The nephew could easily drive north and east and cut off our supply route back to the plains. We're losing forage here. And yet, and yet, Karkand is the king's city, and it is the king I must be seen to punish."

"Unless it is the nephew who has the people's hearts, and not the king."

Ilya turned and folded his arms over his chest, examining her with a frown on his face. "That's just what Ursula said. I thought-for an instant I thought it was as if she knew what was going to happen next. As if she'd heard this tale before." He shook the thought away with an impatient shrug of his shoulders. "No. I must stay here until the city is taken. I intend to sit in the king's throne, so that the Habakar people will know who rules here now."

He bent back over the table, poring over the two maps. Tess watched him. She could see that he was too agitated to sleep. His lips moved, sounding out names, but he did not speak aloud. With a finger, he traced lines of advance: Grekov's command driving west; Sakhalin riding south, and the army led by Tadheus Yensky swinging in a wide loop south and east. His hand found the cup she had set beside him. He raised it to his lips and took a deep draught, then made a face, as if he had been expecting something else, not plain water.

"Ilya, come lie down with me."

He shrugged, as if to say: not now, I'm too busy.

Tess loved to just watch him. She thought he looked, if anything, a little younger these days. He glowed with health, or perhaps it was only the restless energy radiating off him. She had finally come to an understanding of how different he and Vasil were. They were both selfabsorbed, but Vasil was absorbed in knowing how he appeared to others while Ilya was absorbed in the vision that led him. Vasil always knew where he stood in relation to others. Ilya simply was, and he drew his thousand thousand followers along with him as does any juggernaut. And she, one of them. She smiled wryly and settled her hands on the curve of her abdomen.

"I know it's none of my business, but have you lain with any other women since we got married?"

His fingers halted midway down the map. His chin lifted. She could tell by the angle of his shoulders and the way his mouth twitched once, and then was still, that he was embarrassed. "It's none of your business."

Tess laughed and pushed up to stand. She went over and slid an arm around him. "You haven't, have you?"

"I've been busy. Very busy. And preoccupied."

"Yes, my love. Come lie down with me." He followed her in to their bed meekly enough. He might even have slept, but she woke later to find him gone,

In the morning, she woke to find him sleeping in his clothes next to her. She rose quietly and dressed and went outside. Konstans greeted her with a yawn.

"You look tired," she said.

"Gods. In the middle of the night, Bakhtiian made us ride out along the northwest prospect, to look over the walls, not that we could see them, but he was more interested in the orchards, anyway. Doesn't he ever sleep?"

Tess grinned. "As I hear it, he sleeps more now than he ever used to."

"That's true enough," agreed Konstans. "It's a good thing he married, for the rest of us, at least." He smiled at her, remembered that she was Bakhtiian's wife and not his old comrade-in-arms, and looked away.

"Oh, don't be shy with me, Konstans. We've known each other too long. Is there any word about the embassy from Parkilnous yet? Hello, Aleksi. Can you ride down to the ambassadors" camp and see if they've arrived?" Aleski nodded and left. Tess went over to greet Sonia and to send Kolia with hot tea to wake Ilya.

Karkand lay beyond, its vast sprawl of suburbs fortified by walls and its inner city grown up in rings around a hill that rose out of the flat land. On a second hill, a twin to the first, lay the acres of white and gleaming stone, festooned with pennants and banners, of the royal palace. Here on the flat, they saw the city mostly as two distant heights thrusting into the sky, the gray citadel crowning the first hill and a shining pair of towers crowning the second. The citizens of Karkand had not elected to defend the outer city, but Ilya had decreed that the fields and orchards and suburbs remain untouched except to feed the camp, and what farmers had not fled within the inner walls or away into the countryside were ordered to work their lands on pain of death. Sonia offered Tess some fresh melon, and Tess ate the sweet fruit gratefully.

"I rode through the outskirts of the city yesterday," said Sonia. "It's very handsome, and it's certainly bigger than any city I've ever seen. Why, there must be as many people living there as there are riders in Ilya's army. No, there must be far more."

Josef Raevsky came around the side of the tent, his left hand touching Vania's shoulder so that the boy could lead him in under the awning. Ivan led him to a pillow next to Tess and Katerina brought him a tray laden with meat and melon and sweet cakes.

"Do you think the embassy from Parkilnous has arrived yet?" Tess asked him.

Josef shook his head. "We've met only the merchant, who says one was sent. They won't understand yet what a threat we are to them. Like all the khaja, they believe that mountains and rivers can protect them,"

"And desert. There's a desert called the Al Dinn Kun, the Wailing Death, to the south. That's the one Tasha is riding through."

"No one will expect him on the other side. Well," Josef ate a bit of cake and considered, "I don't think the khaja princes are trustworthy in any case. If they'll cast off their loyalty to their own king, then who says they won't do the same to Bakhtiian?"

"Are you suggesting that there's no use in us receiving an embassy from Parkilnous, if one comes?"

"No, simply that I trust the word of a merchant better. Their first wish is for safe roads, so that they can continue to trade. They will serve us out of expediency, but serve us nevertheless."

"Here is Ilya," said Tess, but Josef only smiled. He already knew. Ilya ducked under the awning.

Ilya greeted Sonia, greeted Tess, greeted Josef and the children. He ate sparingly and paced off with Konstans and Vladimir and Mitya in attendance to oversee the first line of earthworks being built along the river. Cara stopped by to assure herself that Tess was well, and then she left. A while later Mitya returned.

"Aunt Tess," he said, "Bakhtiian is riding out, and he wishes to know if you'd like to ride with him."

Tess laughed. "No, certainly I'd prefer to sit in camp all day. I'm sure the countryside is very pretty." Eventually, they left Katerina in charge of camp, and Sonia rode out with Tess and Mitya and Aleksi. When they met up with Ilya's party, they found Anna Veselov in attendance with her husband, as well.

Kirill chuckled when he greeted Tess. "That's very handy, how you've slung your saber over your back. Don't you trust us?"

"Kirill, I learned long ago never to ride out without being armed. Let me see your hand."

With a grin, he lifted his left arm up as high as his shoulder and then lowered it again. He opened the hand, stretching it wide. Sweat broke on his brow, and he let the hand relax back into a loose curl. "It aches," he said. "It aches constantly. I never thought that pain could feel so sweet."

Tess glanced toward Arina, to share Kirill's triumph with her, but Arina had clenched her hands tightly on her reins and her mouth drew into a thin line.

"Do you think I'll be able to ride in the army again?" Kirill asked, and Tess saw Arina whiten about the mouth.

"You are riding with the army, Kirill. I notice that Ilya keeps you as one of his closest advisers."

"Many of whom are too old to ride to battle. I'm still young, Tess. I could have led the army down through the Al Dinn Kun with Tasha."

He could have, had he possessed two good arms. "You must be patient, Kirill, and remember, there are other ways to serve Bakhtiian besides fighting. Look at what Dr. Hierakis has done."

He studied his hand. It had color, and he could open and close it at will now. "It's true that she by herself serves Bakthiian as well as any general. But she's a healer, Tess. That's how she serves the gods. All I've ever been was a rider."

"And a teacher." He shrugged, acknowledging the title but not embracing it, not now, when he could dream again of riding with the army. It was strange to see him shrug with both shoulders after growing used to the way he had moved before, one side lifeless and stiff. She sighed and did not know what else to say. Arina cast her a grateful glance and moved forward along the line to ride beside Sonia. The two women talked easily together. Tess trailed behind, falling back with Aleksi.

The party broke away from the fringe of camp and rode beside acres of lush fields. It was warm, and the air smelled fragrant and rich. Peace lay on the scene. A score of farmers toiled out in a field, harvesting. They started up, staring at the hundred riders picking their way along the edge of the field, and froze. After a bit one, then a second, then four more, then the rest, bent back to their task.

Farther out, the city growing pale against the sky behind them, another group of laborers sowed seeds, some kind of winter grain, Tess supposed. Ilya lifted a hand and the entire party came to a halt while he watched the farmers. His face was still. The sunlight cast its bright glow on his face, illuminating him. Tess wondered what he was thinking as he watched the khaja farmers scattering their seed.

But stillness never lasted long, with him. All at once riders appeared, coming toward them at a breakneck pace. Immediately every rider drew his saber, and the guards shifted to form a ring around Bakhtiian. Aleksi drove Tess into the center and stationed himself beside her. Arina and Sonia drew their bows and nocked arrows to the strings. Behind them, Mitya calmed his restive mare.

"It's Veselov," said KiriH. But no man sheathed his saber. Neither did Tess.

The laborers had rushed together into a clump in the center of their field, but the troop of horsemen rode past without noticing them and drew up before Bakhtiian. Vasil rode forward. The guards parted to let him through. His hair was windblown and his face flushed with sun and air.

"There's been a sortie," he called, pulling his mount around next to Ilya. "At least two thousand men. Heading southeast."

"This way?"

"Possibly. We can't tell if it's an attack or if they're trying to escape south. They carry the colors of the governor of the city, blue and white."

"If they're simply trying to escape, then why not ride out at night?" asked Ilya. "Well, we'll go back to camp." He addressed Vasil calmly, as if the blond man was just any of his commanders: loyal, trusted, true.

Vasil obeyed-how should he not? — but Tess thought he looked a little puzzled, as if expecting liya to be angry that he had come with this message. They started back at a fast clip.

A cloud of dust alerted them to the battle headed their way. Ilya reined his horse back beside Tess, so that she rode with him on her left and Aleksi on her right. Arina and Sonia rode behind them, and at their back, Kirill and Mitya. Ahead, she saw the blur of arrows. A troop of jaran archers rode parallel to the khaja fighters, firing into their ranks, but like an arrow sped forward from a strong bow, the blue and white governor's banner flew high and the army of men it heralded pressed south with determination.

Ilya swore under his breath. A rider broke away from the jaran unit harrying the khaja left flank and raced over to Bakhtiian's party. It was Anton Veselov.

"We left the one gate unguarded, as you ordered, Bakhtiian," he shouted as he pulled up beside them, flashing a glance back at his sister Arina and then returning his attention to Bakhtiian. "Sakhalin faced sorties before, by that gate, and a troop of one thousand horsemen escaped out of it one night, but this-! We never expected an attack like this."

"Do you think they knew I rode out today?"

"How could they have known?" asked Anton.

How, indeed? What drove the governor to take flight in the afternoon? As the khaja troop closed, Tess could see that they were all heavily armored, presumably the pick of the garrison. Ilya spurred his horse to a gallop and the entire party raced to one side, to avoid the fray.

Somehow, a column of heavy horse coiled free of the khaja ranks and smashed into them. As if she stood at the eye of the storm, Tess watched the chaos from her still eddy in the very center. There rode Vladimir, parrying, cutting. A khaja horseman fell, dragging down a jaran rider with him. Vasil pressed forward into a gap with his riders ranged alongside him. Then, like a whip's snap, the trailing end of the column hit the center. At once, Tess knocked a thrown spear aside with her saber and saw it spin harmlessly to the ground. Three armored riders bore down on her and Ilya, and she set herself in the saddle, bracing for the impact; Ilya swore. All at once Aleksi drove through the riders; he forced one off his horse and grappled with the second from the saddle and then knifed him through the faceplate, and then Vladimir appeared and stuck the third through from behind before he could cut down Aleksi. Grim-faced and silent again, Ilya stuck next to Tess, shielding her, though twice at least the tide of the battle tried to tear him off to the left, and once he took a cut meant for her.

Then, as abruptly as it had struck them, the column was shorn off by the combined weight of the Veselov jahar and a reinforcement of men from the Raevsky command. The governor's flag receded southward, fighting its way away from the city.

Ilya wore a mask of fury. His hands shook. He looked at Tess. She nodded curtly, so he would know she was unhurt. Blood seeped from his left arm, but she could tell by the way he moved the arm that it wasn't a serious wound. She turned to look behind her. Sonia swore and ripped a swath of fabric from her fine tunic to bind Arina's ribs while Mitya held Arina upright on her horse. Kirill, white with anguish, could only watch. His lips moved, but whether he cursed the khaja or his own helplessness, Tess. could not be sure.

Aleksi pulled in beside her. "Thank you," Tess said to him. "That was very impressive." She felt like a fool, saying it, but her heart was pumping and her breath was ragged and she had to say something, no matter how foolish.

Vasil cantered up, flushed, looking terrified. "You're wounded!" he exclaimed, gaping at Ilya.

"Collect your men, Veselov, and go after them!" ordered Ilya. "Bring me their heads. If one man from that troop of riders escapes, I'll demote every commander of these units back into the ranks. How dare they threaten my wife!" He was pale with rage.

Without another word, Vasil rode away.

There were wounded in plenty. Tess took Vladi up behind her; others walked. Anna fainted halfway back to camp, and they had to stop. Ilya took her himself, on his horse; she was so slight a thing that she was no burden to him. Kirill looked not just afraid for her life but ashamed of having to watch while another man cared for his wife.

Cara came out to meet them, having already heard of the engagement. She took Arina immediately. Niko tended to Ilya's arm. Tess sat in the shade of Cara's tent and sipped at juice brought to her by Galina and watched Kirill pace.

It took two days before Vasil came in at last, bearing the governor's head on his spear, The rest of the heads the jahar riders carried in, in baskets and bags. The jaran riders had taken heavy casualties, women and men both, and in the end it was the archers under Vera Veselov's command who had brought down the final two hundred fleeing soldiers. The collected commanders swore that not one khaja from the governor's party had escaped, and they begged for Bakhtiian's pardon that the entire episode had happened at all.

Working with captured engineers, Ursula had already made up a catapult as a model to demonstrate siege techniques to the commanders. Bakhtiian gave her all the heads to fling back into Karkand. Ursula was enchanted.

For only the second time in her pregnancy, Tess threw up. But she could see by the set expression on Ilya's face that this was one of those times when it was useless to argue with him.

CHAPTER NINE

Nadine loved the breakneck pace of a courier's life. Through Habakar lands she raced, stopping at the staging posts set up along the northeast road that led back to the plains. Some nights she rode straight through, dozing in the saddle, her way lit by men bearing lanterns on either side. Some nights she slept in the comfort of a tent and went on at dawn. She loved the music of the bells that accompanied her at every instant, whether riding or walking, that chimed her awake in the morning and serenaded her to sleep at night with each slight movement of her shoulders or her chest.

In eight days, she crossed out of Habakar lands and onto the farthest southern edge of the plains. Five days later, she rode into a tribe at midday to receive the information that the Prince of Jeds and his party had passed by the morning before, headed south. Out here, on the grass, the wind raked over the tents and already the people wore heavy outer tunics against the chill. Women and children greeted her cheerfully; there were a few young men, so few that the old men seemed numerous in proportion. But Nadine enjoyed just walking through camp. She felt at home, at her ease, here in a tribe going about its life out on the plains. The etsana hurried up, advised of her arrival, and led her to the great tent at the center of camp. The elderly woman sat her down and fed her and offered her milk while the etsana's own grandson saddled a new horse for her.

"Ah, you are Bakhtiian's niece," said Mother Kireyevsky. "Natalia Orzhekov's daughter."

"I am." Nadine accepted a second cup of fermented milk from a dark-haired boy about Katerina's age.

"Your mother was a fine weaver. She had few rivals among all the tribes, although she was young to be so accomplished."

"Thank you," said Nadine politely but coolly. She didn't like to talk about her mother because the memory of her death was still too painful, and the ache of her loss had never dulled.

"We have sixty-eight men riding under Vershinin's command," continued Mother Kireyevsky, sliding easily off the subject of Nadine's mother. "Perhaps you have news of them."

Nadine was happy to indulge Mother Kireyevsky with such news of Vershinin's movements as she had. The Kireyevsky tribe was a granddaughter tribe and thus neither particularly important nor very large, but Nadine remembered them from her childhood, back from the golden days when her mother had still been alive. In any case, it was only common courtesy, and wise strategy, to give her a firsthand account of Bakhtiian and the army. Relatives filtered in and settled down to hear the news. The grandson brought a new horse, but Nadine felt she could spare a little time, since she was only turning to go back the way she came. Since Feodor Grekov was less than a day's ride away from her, now. She had no desire to hasten their meeting and what must inevitably come of their marriage.

"So, Vershinin and Grekov were sent to the khaja cities off to the west, to pull a circle all around the royal tent."

Mother Kireyevsky nodded. "Very wise of them. Like a birbas, where we circle the game and drive it in to the center. Vasha, bring more sweet cakes."

The boy shot a glance at Nadine before he trotted off. He had dark hair, as dark as her own, and deep brown eyes, and there was something familiar about him that nagged at her. "Is he also one of your grandchildren?" she asked. "He's a nice looking boy."

There was a silence. Mother Kireyevsky gestured, and the knot of relatives hurried away, leaving the etsana alone with Nadine. "You don't know who that is?" she asked.

"Should I?"

"That is Inessa Kireyevsky's only child." Nadine shook her head. "I don't know her." "Oh, but you do. Although I suppose you were only about Vasha's age the year that we rode beside your tribe for many months, so you might not recall. Certainly Bakhtiian would recall her."

"Would he?" Nadine felt suddenly that she was on the verge of an important discovery, rather like a mapmaker cresting a ridge to see virgin country beyond.

"Inessa Kireyevsky was my grandmother's sister's great-granddaughter. Inessa's mother was etsana before me, but when she died three years past, the elders refused to elect Inessa etsana and the position passed into our line of the family."

"Was she too young? Was there some other problem?" "She was young, it is true, but youth alone will not necessarily bar a woman from becoming etsana."

"No, Anna Veselov was very young when she became etsana. There was never any question with her."

The boy appeared, bearing a golden tray laden with sweet cakes. "Was Arina Veselov married?" asked Mother Kireyevsky. "Ah, well, married soon after; it comes to the same thing. Vasha, set those there. Then you will sit beside me." The boy obeyed. He sank down beside the etsana and folded his hands in his lap. He had a quiet, muted air about him, which he utterly spoiled an instant later by looking up at Nadine. His gaze was scorching in its intensity. "Vasha." He dropped his gaze and stared at his hands. "Inessa Kireyevsky was not married when her mother died, although by this time she had an eight-year-old child." "Ah. Her first husband had died, then." "She had no first husband. She never married." "But then how-" Nadine faltered. The boy's cheeks burned red, but he kept his gaze fastened on his hands. Well, she knew how; it was just astonishing for a jaran woman to bear a child without being married. The unmarried girls were so careful with the herbs that stopped them from conceiving, because, of course, it was shameful for a child not to have a father and a child's father was the man who was married to its mother.

"Yes," agreed Mother Kireyevsky. "You can see that Inessa was too stubborn and too impulsive to be given the authority of etsana. The man she wanted to marry did not marry her. The rest, she avoided or insulted or drove off in one fashion or the other until in the end they all shunned her. Luckily, she died the winter after her mother died."

The boy sat perfectly still through this recital, but his hands betrayed his distress, one clenched in a fist, one wrapped around it, like a shield.

"Leaving her son." Nadine pitied the boy, his mother torn from him, leaving him among relatives who clearly thought him a shameful reminder of his mother's disgraceful behavior.

"Leaving a boy with no father, dead or otherwise, and no closer relatives than distant cousins. That line was not strong."

"Why are you telling me this?" asked Nadine suddenly.

"Will you have another sweet cake?" Mother Kireyevsky asked. Nadine accepted, and the etsana placed the tray back on the carpet beside her pillow. "Inessa claimed to know who the child's father was. It was her last wish, as she lay dying of a fever, that the boy be sent to his father. The truth is, if it is at all possible that the child would be accepted as a servant, as a cousin, even, we would prefer to send him away. We would never have presumed… but when you came, today, I can only believe that it is a sign from the gods, that what Inessa wished ought indeed to happen."

Nadine knew what was coming. Now, when she looked at the boy, she understood why he seemed familiar to her, why his features struck such a deep chord.

Mother Kireyevsky cleared her throat, coughed, and spoke. "She claimed that his father was Ilyakoria Orzhekov."

"My uncle. Bakhtiian." The resemblance was striking, once you looked for it. The boy had Ilya's eyes and forehead and stubborn mouth, and the same sharp chin that she-his cousin! — had. Nadine stifled an urge to laugh. Gods, not just laugh, but crow. After what Ilya had done to her, forcing her to accept the marriage to Feodor

Grekov, ordering her to have children, well, by the gods, she would bring this little bit of mischief home for him to face. What a scandal! Nadine was delighted. "Of course he must return with me. I'm riding back to the army now, as you know. I will take responsibility for his well-being myself."

The boy's head jerked up and he stared at her. Nadine saw light spark in his eyes. Evidently he wished to be rid of his relatives as much as they wished to be rid of him.

Mother Kireyevsky eyed Nadine's clothing and her saber, and then her keen gaze came to rest on Nadine's cheek. "You are recently married yourself."

"Yes. I also command a jahar. You may be assured that the child is safe with me. What is his name? Vasha is short for-?"

"Vassily."

"Vassily!" Nadine was shocked right down to the core of her being. "How did he come by that name?"

To her surprise, the boy spoke in a gruff little voice. "My mama told me that that is the name he said to give me."

At once, Mother Kireyevsky cuffed Vasha across the cheek. "Don't mind him," she said hastily. "It's a story Inessa told the boy, that she told Bakhtiian that she was pregnant with a child by him, and he said that if it was a boy, to name it Vasil. As if any woman, even her, would do something so unseemly, and any man-especially not your uncle, of course-speak of such things so casually, even in jest. She told the boy many things, I'm afraid, and he's always been full of himself, thinking that he's the son of a great man. You needn't mind it. Of course Bakhtiian can't recognize him as his son-it's all quite ridiculous, of course, that an unmarried woman-of course he has no father, but we're grateful to you for taking him-"

"He looks like him," said Nadine, cutting across Mother Kireyevsky's comments, "as I'm sure you must know." She was beginning to dislike the woman. She was beginning to dislike Inessa Kireyevsky, too, and wondered if she would dislike the boy just as much. Although it was rather late for that, now that she had already agreed to take him. "But in any case, I must go. I'll need a horse for him and whatever things are his, or that he got from his mother."

Mother Kireyevsky stood and shook out her skirts briskly. "Oh, he'll travel very light. He's got nothing, really, just her tent and a few trinkets."

"He gave my mother a necklace," said the boy. "It's gold with round white stones. He brought it from over the seas. From a khaja city called Jeds." He said the word as if it was a talisman, a mark identifying him as the true prince, the heir, because what common boy of the tribes, of a granddaughter tribe like this one, would have any reason to know of Jeds?

"Go get your things, Vasha," said Mother Kireyevsky curtly. Now that she had what she wanted, she sped Nadine's leave-taking along as swiftly as if she feared that Nadine would change her mind and leave her with the unwanted child.

They rode out in silence. After a while, seeing that his seat on his horse was sturdy and that he was minded to be quiet and obedient, Nadine spoke to him.

"How old are you, Vasha?"

"I was born in the Year of the Hawk."

"Oh, gods," she murmured under her breath. The Year of the Hawk. The year her mother died; the year her brother and her grandparents died; the year Bakhtiian killed the man who had murdered them. The year Bakhtiian stood up before the assembled elders of the tribes-most of the tribes, in any case-and persuaded them that the vision the gods had given him was the vision the tribes ought to follow. Eleven years ago all this had taken place. In eleven years, much had changed. Everything had changed. Nadine felt a sudden misgiving, wondering how Ilya might treat a child who reminded him so bitterly of those days. Eleven years ago Ilya had banished Vasil from his jahar; he had seen his mother's younger sister invested as etsana of the Orzhekov tribe and had himself become the most powerful dyan in the jaran. Perhaps he didn't want to be reminded of what he had paid to bring his dreams to fruition.

"Is it true?" asked the boy suddenly. Nadine looked at him and saw the aching vulnerability of his expression. "Is he really my father? My mama always said so, but…" His face twisted with pain. "… but she lied, sometimes, when it suited her. She said it was true. She said he would have married her, but she never said why he didn't, so I don't think he ever would have. Only that she wanted him to. And then she always told me that he was going to come back for her. Every tribe we came to, she asked if they'd news, if he'd married. He never had, so she said he still meant to come back for her. Then after my grandmother died, the next summer we heard that he'd married a khaja princess. Mama fell sick and died. Both the healer and a Singer said she'd poisoned herself in her heart and the gods had been angry and made her die of it. No one wanted me after that."

Nadine stared amazed at him, until she realized that the stoic expression on his face as he recited this confession was his way of bracing to receive her disgust. Either he wanted it, or he was so used to being rejected that he wanted to get it out of the way early and go on from there.

"I think you're his son." Gods, what if she got his hopes up, only to have Ilya deny the connection? And yet, how could he deny it?

"How can I be?" demanded Vasha. "He wasn't married to my mother."

Nadine sighed. "I'll let him explain that," she said, calling herself coward as she did so. Gods, what was Tess going to say? Well, who knew with the khaja; they had different notions of propriety than the jaran did. Maybe Tess would want to have the boy strangled; maybe she would welcome him. Who could tell? But Nadine had promised that he would be safe, and she'd hold to that promise, no matter what. She rather liked his brusque cynicism, although it was sad to see it in a child. And anyway, Vassily Kireyevsky's presence made no difference to her problems. Bakhtiian still needed an heir, and he still expected Nadine to provide him with one.

So it was with a troubled heart that she and the boy rode into the prince's camp at dusk the next day. A scout from her jahar greeted her enthusiastically and directed her to a copse of trees around a spring, where the prince and his party had pitched their tents.

She saw David first. His face lit up. He had a charming smile, made more so by the interesting contrast of white teeth against his odd black skin. He lifted a hand and called a greeting to her. Others turned, the other members of the party. David strode over toward her, grinning with undisguised happiness-and then stopped. Pulled up like a horse brought up tight against the end of its rope. His smile vanished.

Feodor appeared from around the screen of trees, mounted. He reined his horse aside and waited for her. Once he would have flushed to see her; he would have turned his gaze away and cast sidelong glances at her in a way she found provocative and enchanting. Now he stared straight at her in a way that annoyed her, knowing that he had a perfect right to look her straight in the eye in so public a place, now that he was her husband.

She dismounted and walked first to greet the prince. Soerensen came to meet her, looking pleased to see her. She gave him the news of Bakhtiian's recovery, and he took it calmly enough. Nadine found him impossible to read. She would almost have thought that he already knew, though she couldn't imagine how he would have found out so quickly. Perhaps he'd had the news at the Kireyevsky tribe.

"Oh, and this is Vassily Kireyevsky," she said. "Vasha, please, you can dismount now. Come to me." The boy obeyed meekly enough. He stared at David's skin, recalled his manners, looked away only to glance at David again, and then turned his attention to the khaja prince. "This is the Prince of Jeds, Vasha. Make your greetings."

The boy made a creditable bow. "Well met," he said shyly. "I've heard of Jeds. It's a great khaja city, and it has a-" He faltered over the foreign word. "-a uyniversite. And craftsmen who make fine jewelry." The boy had good manners, Nadine was relieved to see. Ilya did not tolerate bad manners, so perhaps there was hope.

"Well met," replied the prince, looking amused. Nadine watched, impressed, as he asked the boy a few neutral questions about his age and the horse he'd ridden in on and managed not to ask anything the least controversial- like who his parents were, or why a child his age was riding with Nadine. Then, as neatly, the prince dismissed him into the care of his assistant, Maggie O'Neill. Vasha stared openmouthed at her red hair and followed her away as if mesmerized by her height and strange freckled coloring.

The prince regarded Nadine with interest and said not one more word on the matter. "You came back to us," he said instead, and mercifully did not glance toward her husband, who had dismounted and given his horse to one of her men to take away.

"Bakhtiian sent me to escort you back to the army," she said. "Tess is fine. She looked quite healthy when I left her." She shot a glance at David, who had inched forward next to Marco Burckhardt to listen in. "We've been making maps together."

Marco coughed into a hand. Nadine could tell he was hiding a smile, but she wasn't sure what he found amusing in the statement. David looked troubled.

"I'm pleased to hear about Tess, of course," said the prince without a flicker of emotion. "I hope you will let us offer you some tea and some supper."

Before she could reply, she felt Feodor come up beside her, right up next to her. "That would be most gracious of you," Feodor replied, "especially since we haven't had our wedding feast yet."

Every now and then, Nadine got so mad that she went blind with fury. Usually she had a strong enough rein on her self-control. Not now.

The shock of her anger, the sheer force of it, froze her for an instant. The world had gone dark, though a moment before she could see trees in the twilight and clouds roiling above, covering and uncovering stars. She felt the cool wind pull at her hair. She heard the prince murmur words and she felt more than knew that they had all retreated, leaving her atone with Feodor out beyond the trees. She heard a man ask a question, and a voice answering, but these were distant, distant from her.

Feodor's hand closed on her elbow.

She jerked away from the touch and swung wildly. Her palm connected with his cheek, the blow so hard across the cheek that he gasped with pain. He grabbed her arms. "Not out here in the open, by the gods," he hissed under his breath. "You won't shame our marriage by acting like this in public."

"How dare you speak for me!"

"I am your husband."

"Not by my choice."

"You have no choice in the matter, or did you think your journey to khaja lands made you different?"

Like light poured into a pitch-black room, her vision came back. She staggered, overwhelmed by the sudden shift, and he steadied her. This close, she saw the cleft in his chin, and the scar at the comer of his mouth, and the slight bump in his nose where it had been broken in a battle three years ago. She pulled back from him, but like all jaran men, his slightness disguised his true strength.

"Dina," he said more softly, "why are you fighting me? I never tried to mark you before, not as long as I thought you meant to stay in the army."

"I do mean to stay in the army. Bakhtiian promised me that he wouldn't take my command away from me." She could not keep the triumph from her voice. "And you know what Bakhtiian's promises are worth."

Feodor looked stunned by this information. Nadine rocked back, forward, broke out of his grip and took five swift steps away from him. Then halted. She was panting with anger, and her head pounded. Stars flashed in her eyes and she was afraid that she was going to go blind again.

"But Mother Sakhalin said-" he began.

"Mother Sakhalin does not rule me!"

Gods, he had a mulish streak in him. She recognized it now for what it was, masked under that sweet, modest exterior she had mistaken for his true self. His mouth turned down. His fine eyes glinted with anger. "Perhaps she doesn't," he said softly, "but I am now your husband. Keep your command if you will. I'd be a fool twice over to contest Bakhtiian if he's already given his word. But nevertheless, I remain your husband. You may wish to be rid of me, Dina, but even if I die, you won't be free. You must have a child. You know it's true. If not with me, then with another man."

"Is that what Mother Sakhalin told you?" she asked scathingly.

"You may think as little of me as you wish," he replied, still speaking in a low voice, "you may think me a fool, as it pleases you. Mother Sakhalin came to my uncle and my aunt and pointed out that Bakhtiian must have an heir, more than one, to be safe, and that you are his sister's daughter and thus by right the woman who should be mother to his heirs. That much she said, within my hearing. The rest I managed to work out for myself."

Nadine had never suspected that Feodor Grekov, quiet, mild, shy Feodor Grekov, was capable of sarcasm. The revelation so amazed her that the shadow growing over her sight receded, and she watched him straighten his shirtsleeve self-consciously and wipe a bead of moisture from the corner of his right eye. She shivered in the wind. She wasn't dressed for the plains, for the night and the chill wind that tore across the endless horizon. In Habakar lands, heat still smothered the day and lingered far into the night.

"I beg pardon for insulting you," she said, though it pained her to say it.

"That was hard won," he said, with a toss of his fair hair. "Does your head hurt you?"

The reversal confused her, not least because her head did indeed pound furiously. She pressed fingers against her left eye, wondering if it was possible that an invisible knife was being driven into the flesh there.

"You need to rest." He did not move any closer to her, but the tone with which he addressed her irritated her. "You know very well," he added before she could respond, "that I've seen this happen to you before. I've already set up your tent. You should go lie down."

"You set up my tent!"

He shrugged. "Well, you left it with me."

"I left it with the jahar. That's not the same."

"But it's our tent now, or at least, I have every right to share it with you. Say what you will, Dina, but I know what obligations you have toward me, now that you're my wife."

"I had no idea that you were such an officious, stubborn, stiff-necked bastard, Feodor Grekov. I'd never have taken you for a lover if I'd known." He smiled. He usually had a surprisingly winsome smile; this wasn't it. This smile was smug and cocksure, and Nadine didn't like it one bit. "The boy needs a place to sleep tonight. I'll have to take him into my tent. I'm the only one he knows here."

"I'll make sure he has a place to sleep, but it won't be in your tent. Who is he, anyway?"

"None of your business."

He shrugged, not deigning to argue with her over so trivial a matter. "Do you want to eat first, or go straight to bed?"

The throbbing in her head had subsided to a steady, agonizing pulse. She did not want to go straight to her tent, but she knew she could not manage conversation with so illustrious a personage as the Prince of Jeds, and she did not want to face David and the others in this condition. She was ashamed.

"I'll take you to the tent," he said when she did not reply. What choice did she have? He knew what his rights were, and her obligations. But to her surprise, he left her outside the tent. She crawled in and flung herself down on the floor and just lay there in the darkness. After a while, the pounding in her head diminished to a dull, roaring throb. After a while, Feodor returned with hot tea, and Vasha, and a lantern to light them. The boy thanked her and begged leave to spend the night in the tent of the khaja lady with hair the color of fire. The entire speech had a rehearsed sound to it. Nadine didn't know the child well enough to know whether he was happy with the arrangement or resigned to his fate.

"You'll ride with me tomorrow," she insisted. Vasha agreed. Feodor sent him away. After a moment, Feodor crawled into the tent, hooked the lantern along the center pole, and took off his boots.

"Drink your tea," he said. He turned. He had long, pale eyelashes that never showed unless the light struck him just right, and lantern light usually struck him so as to bring out his most attractive features. "Gods, Dina, don't refuse it just to spite me. It ought to make you feel better." He began to pull off his shirt, hesitated, and then shifted to pull off her boots instead. She let him. Then she sipped at her tea and he watched her, just watched her, until she had emptied the cup. She was not used to him watching her so closely, so openly. The sensation made her skin crawl. He moved, and she tensed, but he reached away from her and extinguished the lantern.

Darkness. She sighed and shut her eyes. "You will have children. I order you to." She could still hear Ilya's voice. Ilya was all that was left to her of her mother. Nataliia Orzhekov would have had many more children, and gladly, to help her beloved younger brother. Was her daughter going to do any less than she would have? Nadine knew her duty.

Feeder's hand came to rest on her brow. He stroked her forehead and the circle of bone around her left eye, and the pounding in her head faded to an ache. He was gentle, and patient, and tender. She ought to have guessed long ago, though, about that other side of his personality, the determined, brash side. He was bold enough once he got between her blankets. She would never have kept him for a lover for as long as she had if he hadn't been.

She sighed and her right hand strayed onto his thigh. He made a noise in his throat and all at once-well, all at once. The change was so sudden that she only realized then how firmly he had clamped down on his feelings before. He shook with emotion, and she could not get him to take his hands off of her for even a moment, so she had a damned hard time getting him out of his clothes and he was a little rough with hers.

She was still angry, afterward, but much calmer. "Feodor," she began in a low voice, and then: "Oh, here, move over, will you? My back is up against the tent wall."

He shifted, and she shifted, and he traced her earlobe and the line of her jaw and her lips. "Hmm?"

"Feodor, you can't speak like that to me, like you did out there, before. It just makes me furious. And it isn't right."

"I can speak to you however I wish. I'm your husband."

"Yes, as you're forever reminding me."

There was silence. "No," he said finally, so low that she had to strain to hear, "perhaps it's myself I'm reminding. Gods, I dreamed, but I never thought-" He broke off. He turned his face into her cheek and just breathed. She felt like she didn't know him at all. "Anyway," he said, his lips moving against her skin, "I'll bet your head doesn't hurt anymore."

"Oh, gods," said Nadine to the air. She settled in against him. He began to hum under his breath: He was happy. Nadine sighed and resigned herself to her fate.

CHAPTER TEN

Anna had died once already by the time Diana got to Dr. Hierakis's tent. A boy from the Veselov tribe brought Diana the news-garbled, she prayed-at the Company encampment, and she ran all the way to the hospital grounds and into the doctor's tent, pitched in the center. She stopped at the edge of the carpet. Her ribs were in agony; she gulped air.

Tess sat cross-legged on a pillow, mending the torn hem of a tunic. Her eyes lifted once to watch Kirill, pacing in the distance, and then shifted to Diana. Her face lit. "Ah, thank goodness," she said in Anglais.

"What happened?" Diana fairly shrieked the words. Beyond the tent, Kirill opened and closed his good hand to the rhythm of his pacing. His face was white. Once a man paused to speak to him, but the exchange was brief and the man shook his head sadly and walked away.

"We got caught in a skirmish. Anna was wounded."

"But-she's dead-?"

Tess pinned the needle into the fabric, bound up the loose thread, and set down the torn tunic. "Her heart stopped. At that point, Cara threw every jaran out of the surgery and began-well, she's operating now."

"Operating!"

Kirill halted stock-still and looked their way, caught by the sound of Diana's voice. He strode over to them and flung himself down on the carpet, next to Tess. Tess embraced him. He accepted it. More than that-he buried himself against her as if he sought his comfort from her. Diana knew body language. When acquaintances embrace, one can read the gap between them. When friends, when siblings embrace, no matter how close, there is still an infinitesimal distance, like a layer of molecules, separating them. When a mother hugs her child, they meet. But when lovers embrace, they don't just meet but join. Tess held Kirill against her as if he was her lover.

At this inopportune moment, Bakhtiian appeared. A bandage swathed his left arm. Tess's gaze lifted and met his. Diana watched an entire conversation pass between them, wordless and within seconds. A lifted eyebrow. A grimace. Eyes slanting toward the tent. The movement of a chin, signifying a nod. To Diana's astonishment, Bakhtiian grabbed a pillow, threw it down on the other side of Kirill, and settled down beside the other man. At once, Kirill broke away from Tess and sat up. He flushed.

"Here is something to drink." Bakhtiian offered the other man a cup of komis. Trapped between Tess and Bakhtiian, Kirill had to accept. He sipped once, twice, and then gulped the rest down like a man who has only just discovered that he is desperately thirsty. Then he sat, breathing hard, gaze fixed on his withered hand. He closed it into a fist, and opened it again. Closed it. Opened it.

"Do you want a command?" asked Bakhtiian, refilling Kirill's cup.

"Ilya-" began Tess.

Kirill flung his head back. "A command!"

"A general doesn't have to fight in every engagement. He only has to lead. I know your worth, Kirill. And I know the worth of your loyalty to me. You and Josef and Niko are the three men I trust most in the whole world. You'll never be the fighter you were, but you've some use in that arm now. Enough to lead your own command, I think."

Diana was appalled. Was this how Bakhtiian consoled him for the death of his wife?

Kirill's expression underwent so many swift changes from one emotion to another that Diana could not read them all: anguish, exhilaration, hope, fear, ambition- Goddess! He was going to accept.

"You honor me, Bakhtiian," he said softly.

Bakhtiian snorted. "It's only to keep you away from my wife."

Kirill grinned. Yes, he was a distinctly attractive man, and he knew it. "I suppose it's unlikely that she won't succumb to my greater charms sooner or later."

"Perhaps," said Bakhtiian. His lips quirked.

"I find this conversation offensive, considering the circumstances." said Tess in a voice thick with emotion. "If you can't talk about something decent, then stop talking."

Immediately both men looked chastened. Into their silence, bells sang softly and Ursula emerged from the doctor's tent. Kirill jumped to his feet.

"Anna?"

"She'll live," said Ursula curtly. "Tess, Cara needs you-Ah, Diana. You'd be much better. Can you come in?"

"Can I-?" Kirill faltered. "May I see her?"

"No. Diana?"

"Yes," said Diana hurriedly. "I'll come." She nodded at the others and escaped inside.

In the inner chamber, Dr. Hierakis leaned over the foot of the scan-bed and stared at a pulsing graph configured on a flat screen. "Tess," she said without looking up, "I want to look over the other wounded. Can you sit by-?" She glanced up. "Oh, hello, Diana. If you can spare the time, I'd be pleased to have you sit here and monitor her."

"Of course I can spare the time!" Diana hesitated, not sure how awful a scene she would discover. She edged closer, but Anna simply appeared to be deeply asleep. A stick transparent cap covered her hair, and her mouth gaped slightly open. A sheet draped her; warmth emanated from the bed on which she lay.

"Oh, there're no gaping wounds to see." Dr. Hierakis's attention had snapped back to the screen, but as usual she seemed able to read unvoiced thoughts. "All right and tight, and no scars except the ones they'd expect to see."

"What happened to her?"

"Spear or sword thrust shattered her rib cage and she got a bone chip in her heart. For one. Died twice on me, she did, but she'll be fine."

Diana crept forward and covered Anna's limp hand with her own. "Why did you bring her in here? If she'd been a man, you'd have let her die, wouldn't you?"

The doctor glanced up, surprised. She blinked. Without its frame of black curls, her face showed stark and strong in the soft light. "Why I suppose I would have. Probably ten men less badly wounded than her have died already, while I've been in here."

"Not to mention the Habakar soldiers."

The doctor snorted. "Don't mention them, please. I have enough on my conscience as it is. Though the jaran healers are saving ten times the number of wounded they would have before I came. Still." She pushed off from the bed and pulled off her surgery cap. Though her hair was bound back in a twist at the nape of her neck, stray wisps had escaped here and there, giving her an untidy appearance. "Goddess. Maybe I'm biased. It just tore at me, though, when they brought her in that way. That, and Kirill's face."

"Doctor! You'd let a man's looks sway you?"

The doctor laughed. "I meant his fear and grief. But, yes, frankly, I would. Why not? There's little enough joy, and far too much pain, in a world like this not to appreciate the beauty that comes your way. He has a kind heart, and kind hearts count for a great deal in my book." She peeled off gloves so sheer that Diana hadn't known she was wearing them. "She'll be out for eight more hours at least. I've got her under deep recovery. I'd like to keep her with me for another two days, and then I think she can be moved back to her camp. How long can you stay here?"

Diana hesitated. "I don't know. Rehearsals… Can Kirill come in and just look at her, at least?"

"Not today." The doctor ran a cool towel over her face and then scrubbed her hands under the sonic decontaminant shelf. "I don't have time to disguise the equipment, and I understand there're mobs of wounded and more expected. I'll tell Kirill to see to his children." She swept out.

Diana stood in silence, holding onto Anna's cool hand. At the foot of the couch, projecting up, a faint three-dimensional image of Arina's body rotated slowly in the air. Angry red pulsed around the heart and scored a half-dozen other places around her midsection. She did not stir, only breathed. Diana found a stool and sat down to watch over her.

After a long while, bells chimed and Tess entered. "Do you want anything?" Tess asked, regarding Arina pensively. "I can send Aleksi to keep watch-oh, hell-no, I can't. It wouldn't be proper. There's no one but the actors, you, and Ursula, and myself."

"Can you send Owen a message?"

"Better yet, I'll go myself and ask him to release you for two days. Will that be-?"

"No." Diana winced, thinking of rehearsals, thinking of the parts she had yet to master. Quinn and Oriana had divided her old parts between them, leaving an odd combination of secondary roles for Anahita to fill in, but Anahita had collapsed once onstage already so she could no longer be relied on. But this was Arina. "Yes. But could you bring my slate back, so I can study my parts? And a change of clothes?"

"Yes."

"What happened?"

Tess explained about a sortie and how the trailing edge of the battle had slammed against their surveying party and then charged on.

"Dr. Hierakis said there were lots of casualties."

"Many," said Tess grimly. "And many more to come." She left.

Diana did not understand what Tess had meant by that final comment until three days later, when the hospital was full of jaran injured, many of them from the Veselov tribe. The Veselov jahar had been hit hard by the battle and the pursuit. The doctor designated a stretcher for Arina that morning, and Kirill arrived breathless to walk beside his wife as they carried her back to her own camp. Arina was conscious but pale and weak. Diana walked on Anna's other side.

They walked in silence for awhile. At last, Kirill spoke. "Arina, Bakhtiian is going to give me my own command."

Diana winced. Arina had already expressed her fear that Kirill would want to ride in the army; this wasn't going to help her get better.

But Arina got a sudden spark of light in her eyes. Her voice, when she spoke, was faint but clear. "Your own command? Not just to ride in the army?

"My own command. My own army. We talked about it. There's much reconnaissance yet to be done. There's the Golden Road that runs east to be scouted, and the lands southwest from here, past the city the khaja call Parkilnous." He had warmed to his topic, but now he faltered and looked down at his wife in concern.

In the distance, Diana heard a rhythmic thump and whistle, thump and whistle, over and over and over and going on endlessly.

"What is that noise?" Diana asked when it became apparent to her that Arina had nothing to say about Kirill's good fortune-which, of course, must seem the worst of fortunes to Arina.

Kirill answered without looking up from his wife's face. He held her hand in his withered one, but Diana could see that the hand looked fleshier and the arm actually had some substance to it now, as if by constant exercise he meant to restore it to its former strength. "It's a catapult."

"Oh. What are they doing? Lobbing stones into the city for practice?"

"No. Heads. For a lesson."

It took Diana a full thirty strides to realize that he wasn't joking. She turned her face away and shuddered. Of course, she thought of Anatoly, sent out to bring the king's head to Bakhtiian. How did you separate a head from its shoulders? How difficult was it? Did it cause a terrible mess? Was there a lot of blood, or only if the victim was still alive? Or if the blade wasn't sharp enough?

"Diana, are you well? You're looking pale."

She started. "No, Kirill, I'm fine. Just worried about Arina."

Arina, on her pallet, smiled weakly. "I'll be well," she said. Her voice was breathless and wheezy, but determined. "Bakhtiian has honored you, Kirill," she said finally.

"You're content?"

"Your own command? Yes, I'm content."

She lapsed into silence. But her words shocked Diana. It hadn't been fear for Kirill's life that had caused Anna to speak so before, but only fear that he'd be just another rider. But make him a general in his own right, and then all was well. Goddess, she would never understand these people.

The whole tribe came out to meet them as the little party entered the Veselov encampment. They kept a respectful distance, but they wanted a glimpse of their etsana. At times like this, Diana was wrenched away from her view of Anna as a sweet girlfriend about her own age and forced to realize that Anna had considerable authority and extremely high status. It reminded her of Mother Sakhalin's disappointment in the common woman-a mere entertainer with a pretty face-whom her grandson had married. Anatoly should have married someone important, someone like Galina Orzhekov or a foreign princess, someone who wanted him to ride in the army, who was proud that he commanded his own jahar and was sent by Bakhtiian to perform important and dangerous deeds. She put a hand to her face, touching the scar that branded her left cheek. What was it Sonia had said, that a woman and a man are married as long as the scar marks the woman's face, or the man lives? And yet, on Earth, it would be a simple procedure to erase the scar forever.

At Arina's tent, Anna's young sister and Karolla Arkhanov waited to place her on pillows inside the great tent. They settled her in. Diana felt superfluous. Mira shrieked, to see her mother, but knelt a handbreadth away from her as she had evidently been instructed not to disturb her. Lavrenti bawled and arched his back in anger because his uncle Anton wouldn't put him down on his mother. At last Kirill took Lavrenti and the boy calmed, his thin face caught in a baby's sullen pout.

Vasil came to pay his respects. He looked battered and bruised, and he limped, but the injuries merely gave him an interesting air of nobility in the face of dangers seen and conquered. Diana edged away and backed out through the throng. It was time to go home.

At the outskirts of the Veselov encampment, Vasil appeared suddenly, mounted, leading a saddled horse. "Oh, I beg your pardon," he said, greeting her with a sidelong glance. He smiled that brilliant smile of his. "It's a long walk back across camp, and I have to deliver these horses… Would you prefer to ride?"

"Oh, I…" His presence flustered her. He was so intensely good-looking and so determined to make an impression on her. And it was a long walk. "That's very kind of you. I'd be honored."

"Not at all. The honor is mine." He waited while she mounted. He did not once look at her straight on, and yet she felt that he looked at her constantly. They rode, and she knew that this was all somehow improper, but she wasn't sure she cared. "Five nights ago you sang the story of the etsana who judged her daughters poorly. Who has written this story? Or did you write it yourselves? Is it an old story of your people? And how-well, when a Singer of the jaran sings, she tells a story in music and with her words. How did it happen that with your people you tell these stories by-by becoming the stories?"

All the rest of the way to the Company encampment Diana explained to Vasil, as well as she could, about acting and theater. Vasil drank in every word. He asked a hundred more questions.

At the camp, she thanked him and dismounted. He turned the horses away and paused. "You have only to ask," he murmured, looking down at her from under lowered lids, demure and yet completely assured. He hesitated one instant longer. When she only gaped at him and did not reply, he rode away.

Quinn jogged out. "Well. Well, well. He's a stunner. That your latest lover, Di?"

"No." Diana stared at his retreating back. And a fine back it was, too, straight and even, with his golden hair lapping the collar of his scarlet shirt. "But I think he just told me that he was available to audition for the part. And

I don't think he was delivering those horses anywhere but here."

"What?"

"Never mind." She shook her head impatiently, as if sloughing off the last three days. "I'm back. What did I miss?"

Quinn launched into a long explication of how Ginny and Owen were disputing over whether translation hurt the text more than it helped the process of understanding, and what progress Ginny had made on crafting a telling of the jaran story about the Daughter of the Sun who came from the heavens to visit the earth and ended up falling in love with a dyan of the tribes.

"They're going to risk that?"

"Oh, Di, the jaran will never suspect. How should they? It's a wonderful story. Yomi said that Dr. Hierakis thinks that it's Bakhthan's favorite story. Now they're talking about actually doing Tamburlaine."

"Oh, I hope not," said Diana with feeling. "I've had enough of war. What about The Tempest? Aren't we going to do that? And the folktale about Mekhala. What about Ginny's Cyclopean Walls?"

"Ah, absence does make the heart grow fonder. We've had to listen to Anahita complain on and on about how sick she is. We've been working like dogs while you've been away."

"I didn't enjoy it!"

"I'm sorry." Quinn backed down immediately.

"No, I'm sorry. I just-I don't know. Never mind. I'm glad to be back. "I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it." Is there anything interesting to eat? Something-not what I could get in the camp?"

"You are out of sorts," said Quinn thoughtfully.

" "How weary are my spirits." "

Quinn rested a hand on Diana's arm. "Poor Di. Come home."

"Gladly," said Diana, and went with her into camp. Gladly she fell back into the routine. She went once a day to see Arina, who slowly grew stronger, but Arina's own people took care of her. As the days wore on, Diana noticed Vasil frequently, here and there, running across her path now and again as if by accident, usually at the Veselov camp. And often, now, she saw him loitering in the background, at the outskirts of the audience that always gathered to watch them practice, watching their rehearsals with a look of hungry intensity on his face.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Despite himself, Jiroannes found the city of Karkand impressive. In its own foreign way, the city rivaled the Great King's capital of Flowering Mountain in southern Vidiya. Two walls enclosed Karkand. The outermost wall ringed a huge expanse of land, fields, gardens, orchards, and suburbs watered by canals, but the Habakar had given these flats up for lost and most of the population had retreated inside the massive inner walls that fortified the twin hills of the main city.

Eight days after the army had besieged the city, Jiroannes rode with Mitya through these environs. Peasants from the lands surrounding Hamrat and from farther south had filtered in behind the army and taken the fields and the houses and now worked them for their jaran masters. Still, the place was half deserted, and the season was turning.

The triple arched gateway through the outer wall opened onto a broad square paved with stone. Beyond the square three tree-lined avenues thrust into the suburbs. To the right, a marketplace sprawled along the inner wall, fanners and merchants selling vegetables and grain. They stared at the fifty jaran riders, Mitya's escort, but went about their business nonetheless. Traffic passed through the smaller of the three gateways, men trundling carts or leading donkeys laden with goods.

To the left, a marble fountain spilled water down a series of ledges. To Jiroannes's surprise, a woman dressed in white sat alone and unveiled and unmolested by the pool at the foot of the fountain. She sat with her hands in her lap and a ceramic beaker at her right hand. Now and again a man halted before her, and she dipped the beaker into the pool and offered him water to drink. When the jaran riders paced by, she watched them apprehensively, but she did not move from her station beside the splashing fountain. Jiroannes noted that the skin of her hands was very fine, the mark of a woman who has not been forced to engage in any heavier labor than dipping water from a font. Her complexion was not as fine, sitting out in the sun as she was, but she looked far less sun-coarsened than did the jaran women, who without exception of rank or age worked at tasks fit only for a slave.

"She might as well be a jaran woman," said Jiroannes. "I had not noticed that Habakar women were so immodest. But perhaps she is a prostitute."

Bakhtiian had elevated the Habakar general's son up from his status as prisoner and allowed him freedom as Mitya's interpreter, because the boy had learned khush, and because the boy was about Mitya's age. Qushid hid a look of horror behind one hand and after a moment uncovered his face again. He was tall, taller than Mitya, dark-complexioned with close-cropped black hair, but reserved to the point of seeming stupid. Bakhtiian's chief wife conducted a school for those so favored by her husband, and this boy attended it by Bakhtiian's order, learning khush and the ways of the jaran.

Mitya threw a glance back at Jiroannes. "You must learn not to speak so disrespectfully of women, Jiroannes," he said mildly. "My Aunt Sonia still counsels Bakhtiian that you ought to be sent home in disgrace. He listens to her as closely as he would to my grandmother, who is Mother Orzhekov of our tribe."

"I beg your pardon," replied Jiroannes, not wanting to offend his friend. Mitya was too much a savage to understand how civilized women behaved. The Habakar boy doubtless possessed a finer education.

"She is a holy woman," said Qushid haltingly. "The priests choose girls each year to serve as the Almighty God's handmaidens. They are God's brides and are not meant for men."

"Ah." Jiroannes nodded. "I see. Such holy women may not be touched by men."

"Nor would any man touch one. To violate a holy woman is the worst crime any man might commit, except to forswear Almighty God Himself. They are sworn to serve Him, not man."

Mitya looked mystified. "Do you mean to say those poor women aren't allowed to get married? Or even to-?" He broke off, flushing. "That's barbaric!"

"Don't you have priests?" Qushid asked.

"Of course we have priests, a few, and Singers. Both women and men. But just as the gods granted death to us, so did they also grant us love. It's not just foolish but dangerous to turn away from that with which the gods have gifted us."

"It is true," said Jiroannes thoughtfully, thinking of the captain of his guards and how he had pleaded with his master for permission to bring women into the camp, "that the Everlasting God enjoins a man not to go without a woman for more than ten days. But, of course, it is different for women."

"It is?" Mitya looked dumbfounded. "How can it be different for women?"

Jiroannes felt unable to answer this question. Instead, he glanced at Qushid and had the pleasure of seeing that the Habakar boy bore a sympathetic look on his face- one sympathetic to Jiroannes. It was, quite simply, impossible to explain some things to the jaran, because they were too uncivilized to understand such sophisticated philosophical and spiritual concepts.

Mitya pulled his horse aside to admire a cart stacked with ripe melons that gleamed a pale rich green in the noonday sun. At once, the old man tending the cart leapt to his feet and presented the boy with the pick of the melons.

"Here," said Mitya, turning to Qushid, "pay the man whatever is a fair price for these melons and tell him to deliver them to the Orzhekov camp. Aunt Tess loves melons. These look very fine."

"Surely, your highness," said Qushid, "you don't need to pay for the melons. If you wish them, they are yours."

Mitya blinked. The harsh summer sun of this climate had bleached his fair hair out to a coarse pale blond and tanned his skin until he was almost as dark as the

Habakar natives. Over the summer, he had begun to grow a light down of hair along his chin, the first sign of his manhood. Unlike the young riders in the army, he did not follow the fashion and shave off this suggestion of a beard; doubtless, thought Jiroannes, he was hoping enough would grow that it would become noticeable from more than an arm's length away.

"But if we mean to rule this country fairly, and if this man has already paid his tribute-his taxes-to our army, then we must act according to the law. By that law, it is robbery to take goods without paying for them. So you will pay him."

At times like these, Jiroannes recalled quite clearly that Mitya was not his friend but a prince, and heir to the most powerful man in this kingdom. He was a sweet boy, charming and unspoiled, especially compared to the princes at the palace school in Vidiya, who had been uniformly conceited, hedonistic, and cruel. But he was also arrogant, as all the jaran were, and well aware of the extent of his power.

Qushid obeyed. How could he not? Jiroannes knew that the Habakar boy held a rank equal to Jiroannes's own and that it was only cruel fate-or the Hand of the Everlasting God Himself-that had thrown him into the hands of the enemy and forced him to act as Mitya's servant and chamberlain. It must gall him, to handle money like any steward; to translate words as Syrannus-Jiroannes's own bond servant-had once done for Jiroannes before the Vidiyan ambassador had learned to speak khush himself. Jiroannes suspected that Mitya knew the rudiments of the Habakar language, but he would never stoop to using it in public. Why should the jaran speak the language of their subjects? It was fitting that their subjects learn to speak the language of their masters.

The transaction completed, their party rode on. Marble columns alternated with poplars and almond trees along the broad avenue they followed into the northwestern district. Here, villas sprawled, airy houses ringed with trees and manicured gardens, fronted by statues and elaborate fountains. Jiroannes noted that about half of the houses lay empty, stripped of their movable wealth. A few brave merchants had remained, casting (heir lot in with the jaran. Squatters had invaded some of the other houses, men dressed in homespun, rough clothing who looked quite out of place in these elegant homes. Or perhaps they were only slaves, left to tend their master's possessions until such time as it was safe to return.

Jiroannes doubted it would ever be safe for them to return if they thought that safety consisted of the absence of the jaran. He believed firmly, by now, that Bakhtiian would succeed in conquering the Habakar kingdom utterly. Clearly Bakhtiian intended Mitya to rule the Habakar lands once Mitya came of age. Why else give the boy a general's son as his interpreter? Why else betroth him to a Habakar princess?

Mitya pulled up his horse at a crossroads and stared down a broad avenue lined with great columns that led like an arrow's shot to the far distant gate to the heart of the city. Behind those inner walls, Karkand's population waited out the siege. Did they think their king was coming to relieve them? Or was it rumors of the king's nephew riding north that comforted them as they waited, day by day, gazing from their highest towers out over the suburbs to the surrounding plain, where the jaran army invested their city?

"Do you like this country?" Jiroannes asked, watching Mitya as the boy rode up next to a column and traced its carved surface with his right hand.

Mitya did not answer immediately. He regarded the avenue and the distant city with a musing expression on his face. Then he reined his mount around and pulled in beside Jiroannes. "When I become king here, will you ask your king to send you as the ambassador to my court?"

Jiroannes didn't know what to think. At first, he felt a thrill of elation, that he should be invited to serve as an ambassador, and not just as a common ambassador but as a personal one to a powerful king. But it might mean years and years spent in exile from his own land, and even if his success as an ambassador here won him the white Companion's Sash, and admittance to the Companion's Circle, what use was such influence if he did not live at court in order to exercise it?

"Well," said Mitya, turning his horse around and starting back the way they had come, "it was just a thought. It'll be four years yet before I'm of age. Bakhtiian won't let any man, not even me, ride in the army before the age of twenty. It doesn't seem fair, though, that girls can ride with the archers at sixteen. Anatoly Sakhalin's sister Shura is only seventeen, and she's fought in three skirmishes and one battle already. Then again, she'll be married soon and having babies, so perhaps this is the only chance she'll have to fight." He considered this in silence.

Jiroannes considered the suburbs of Karkand. What if he did return to Mitya's court? He would receive preference, certainly. Jiroannes reflected on the struggles his own uncle went through, balancing the cutthroat politics of the imperial court with his efforts to live in a comfortable style. Living in Habakar lands, Jiroannes would be well placed to benefit from opening up greater trade between Habakar and Vidiya. These rich villas had ample space and amenities for a man to live in style. Even a Vidiyan noblewoman might live here without disgust, and the homes seemed spacious enough that the women would have ample quarters for their seclusion. Perhaps he could even benefit by several advantageous marriages.

They passed out of the suburbs by a different gate, double-arched. The marketplace along the square here was dedicated to ironworks and blacksmiths, repairing wagons, shoeing horses. A white-clad woman sat in silence, head bowed, in the shade on a wooden bench next to a terraced fountain. A ceramic beaker painted with fantastic birds along the base and lip rested next to her.

"She is another holy woman?" Jiroannes asked. "If I ask for water, then must she give me a drink?"

Qushid nodded. "The Almighty God is served by these handmaidens, the Vani, who by offering each and every man water, remind us that God alone can slake our thirst."

"Did you say they are called Vani?" Hadn't his concubine been wearing fine white silk when she was brought to him? A sudden foreboding seized Jiroannes. His throat grew thick with dread. "Are any of these women called Javani?"

Qushid's eyes widened, giving him the look of a startled hare. He sketched a warding sign in the air with his left hand. "It is ill luck to speak so of the Javani, she who is now dead and not yet at rest in our Lord's bosom."

"Dead?" Jiroannes managed to choke out the word.

"When the citadel in Hazjan burned, thrown down by Bakhtiian, who does not honor the Almighty God and his Holy Book, so did the holy temple burn. Just as common women are marked by the priests to serve the Almighty God, so is one woman of the royal house honored as the Javani, the holiest of these maidens. Usually she is a distant cousin of the king. He sanctifies her and gives her into God's Hands, to serve Him all her days at the heart of the holy temple." He paused. "And, of course, a princess of the royal house also then can serve as the king's ear and mouthpiece to the priests. But it is God she serves first."

They crossed under the arch and came out between fields of hay drying in the sun. Beyond lay the first tents of the jaran army. Jiroannes was relieved to be free of the oppression of the walls and of Habakar habitations. In there, within the walls, in one offhand moment, he had been transformed from a common ambassador into the worst sort of criminal. He had raped the holiest woman in Habakar lands. He had offended their God mightily, and by their laws deserved to be executed.

"Look," said Mitya, pointing, "there is Bakhtiian out riding. Do you see his gold banner?"

Out here, beyond the walls, he reminded himself that he was a Vidiyan nobleman, answerable only to the laws of his own Great King. Still, to his horror, remorse and fear clawed at him.

"Qushid," he asked slowly, sure that if he did not choose his words carefully, the whole world would know at once of his crime, "what if such a woman did not die? What if she was taken captive by the army?"

When presented with questions that demanded thought rather than a rote answer, Qushid gained a rather slack-jawed look. Perhaps he really was a little stupid. Certainly he did not suspect a thing. "I don't know. The Almighty God wishes no bride who is not a virgin. I suppose she might kill herself, out of shame. That would be merciful."

"What if she didn't kill herself? Might she marry?"

"What man would wish to marry a stained woman?"

"If she is the king's cousin-? Might there not be some advantage to such an alliance?"

"What is a stained woman?" asked Mitya. "And anyway, I'm to marry the king's cousin, the princess, the one they sent out to my grandmother to foster until we're of age to marry. Bakhtiian says that if we mean to hold these lands for our children and our children's children, then we must weave ourselves into their hearts and into their laws and into their royal families as kin."

"Mitya," said Jiroannes suddenly, "I would be honored above all things to be asked by you to attend your court as ambassador."

Mitya smiled, looking heartened and pleased all at once. "I'd like that," he said, with the casual arrogance that characterized his people. Of course they expected the world to bow down to them; hadn't the gods granted them a heavenly sword with which to conquer foreign lands? Weren't the khaja falling before them like the wheat trampled beneath their horses" hooves?

They separated at the outskirts of camp, and Jiroannes rode with his two escorting guards to his own encampment. Once there, he called Lal to him.

"Bring me the woman," he said, and he went inside his tent to conduct the interview.

Lal brought her. She now wore Vidiyan silks, bright-hued, brocaded with peacocks intertwined with flowering vines. She cowered in front of him, kneeling, head bent. Her hands lay folded, trembling, in her lap. Her complexion was pale and spotless. The skin of her hands was so soft that Jiroannes felt that just by rubbing it vigorously between his own hands he could chafe it and redden it. Under the silks, he knew that her body, shaved clean of all hair, was as silkily smooth as that of the finest concubine in Vidiya, where such women were raised from childhood and pampered and scented and oiled and bathed to a fine perfection fitting for a nobleman's use. But now he knew that this woman-the Javani-bore these marks not because she was a slave bred to concubinage but because she was of noble rank.

She did not look up at him. Stillness masked her expression. He could not read her at all, but he knew she cried a little, every night, and then wiped her tears away.

"Syrannus," he called, "bring ink and paper. I wish you to take a letter to my uncle." Syrannus entered and sat on a stool, parchment laid over a board balanced on his knees. "Syrannus, how much of the Habakar tongue can you speak?"

"A little, eminence. Perhaps Lal speaks more."

"Umm. Lal, ask this woman who she is."

"The Javani," she answered in a stifled voice when Lal put the question to her in halting words.

"Ask her if she escaped the burning of Hazjan."

At the name of the city, the Javani burst into tears, a sudden and copious weeping that surprised Jiroannes. She cast herself facedown on the carpets and blurted out a long string of sentences, groveling at Jiroannes's feet.

"What is she saying?" he asked Lal and Syrannus.

The boy and the old man regarded each other. In low voices, they debated, and at last Syrannus nodded and turned to his master. The Javani lapsed into silence. Her hands lay gripped in fists and her eyes were leaden with tears. Her black hair had slipped free of its veil and now spilled onto the carpet in disarray. Jiroannes loved her hair, and he found that the sight of it here, unbound, naked, aroused him.

"Eminence," said Syrannus, "we cannot be sure, but we are agreed that she is lamenting that she did not die, or could not die, or was afraid to die. Perhaps that she is ashamed that she preferred to live in shame rather than die honorably. But it is difficult to understand and unlikely in any case that a woman could entertain such masculine sentiments."

"Yet most men would have chosen to die, rather than live in disgrace," said Jiroannes thoughtfully, staring at die curve of her body under the soft silken fabric of her robes. "A woman might easily be weak enough to fear death more than shame. Still, I wish you to take a letter to my uncle, asking him for his permission to marry."

"His permission to marry?"

"Yes. I wish to marry this woman. Once I have ascertained that she is indeed who I believe her to be: a Habakar noblewoman of the royal line. With such an alliance, Syrannus, I can bind myself both to the Habakar royalty and to the advantages we can find there through trade with Vidiya, and to the young prince, who is going to marry into their family as well. If it is true that she was once a holy woman, then I can't in good conscience keep her as my concubine. And no one else will have her, whether as slave or concubine or wife. I think we can find both profit and blessing in this transaction. Lal, see if you can make her understand what I mean to do. Then take her away and see to her. And-" He hesitated.

"Certainly, eminence," said Lal, "if she is to be your wife, she cannot be expected to share a tent with a slave."

"Of course. Just what I was about to say. See that Samae is lodged somewhere else. Samae can act as her handmaiden for now, but I think-" He bit at his lower lip.

"Perhaps, eminence, I can find a woman in the guards" camp to act as her body servant. That way she may have a woman of her own people as her companion."

"Ah, a fine idea, Lal. But not a peasant woman. Indeed, perhaps one of the merchants left in the suburbs has a niece or daughter he would be willing to sell into our service."

Lal knelt beside the woman and, like a handler coaxing a spooked horse, spoke to her gently and soon enough led her out of the tent. Syrannus's pen scratched across the parchment. Jiroannes leaned back in his chair and sipped contentedly at the cool sweet tea Lal had brought him earlier.

"When you are done, Syrannus, we will go ask for an audience with Bakhtiian. No, with Mother Sakhalin, I think."

"With Mother Sakhalin, eminence?"

"You don't think I'm fool enough to marry her without getting permission from the jaran, do you? Or at least without advising them of the situation? Not while we live in their power. If they come to think well of me, then there will be fewer obstacles in my path four years from now."

"Four years from now, eminence?"

Jiroannes felt a surge of pleasure, seeing Syrannus at a loss for once. Always, before, he had felt that Syrannus knew better than he did what was going on; now, at last, Jiroannes felt that he was beginning to control his own life, to build his own destiny. There was more to life than a Companion's Sash. There was a greater world than that contained in Vidiya. Jiroannes intended to rise as high as he could, no matter how far it meant he had to travel. He had grown up in the Great King's court. And now he had seen the jaran. He was no fool. He could see to whom Heaven had granted her favor.

And what if the jaran collapsed and their conquests were scattered to the winds? What if the Habakar king or his nephew regained his lands? Well, then, Jiroannes still had possession of the Javani, "the king's ear and mouthpiece." Either way, he would benefit.

"Syrannus," he added, rising and pacing the length of the tent and back again, "we will go first to the Habakar priests. I know there are some in camp, hostages, guests, whatever they are called. They must identify her and give their blessing, and then, armed with that knowledge, we can present our petition to the old woman. Yes. Yes. This will do very well."

Syrannus's pen marked the parchment with his flowing script. Jiroannes sat back down and drank his tea.

CHAPTER TWELVE

"Now what?" asked David of the little council gathered in Charles's tent. "By Rajiv's calculations, the actor is 24.7 kilometers away from us, up in the hills."

"And," added Maggie, "we've got a shuttle available for rendezvous anytime in the next three days. It might have been possible to distract Grekov, but Nadine doesn't miss anything. I don't see how we're going to manage bringing down the shuttle and picking up Hyacinth, especially with her eagle eye upon us."

Inside the tent, there was room enough for them all to sit in the wood and canvas folding chairs that Charles favored, although Marco stood and Jo lounged on the floor. Rajiv sat hunched over the table, manipulating data on the modeler sunk within the table's surface.

"I've plotted their course," said Rajiv, "and it's not unreasonable to predict that they'll move another five to ten kilometers northeast tomorrow, which, depending on our course, could put them within ten to fifteen K range of us. But our paths will begin to diverge in another two days."

"Landing sites?" asked Charles.

Rajiv brought up a flat geological map that took over the entire smooth surface of the table. It was detailed to the ten-meter range, shaded to show elevation and vegetation and water patterns. "I've marked them here. But given that it's a Chapalii shuttle, we've got a fair amount of leeway. They can land with relative silence and minimal damage in most terrain."

"Why is the actor staying up in the hills?" asked Jo. "Wouldn't he be safer traveling north down through this valley?"

"Not if he'll get executed if he's caught," said Marco. "What about the people with him, Charles?"

Charles steepled his fingers together and rested his chin on his fingertips. "Difficult to know. Hyacinth and his stolen gear will have to come with us, of course. His companions can either travel on, on their own, or- No." He shook his head.

"We can't give them our protection?" asked David. "It's ridiculous that they were punished so severely for homosexuality. It isn't even a crime. But I suppose it's all of a piece, when you consider how primitive this planet is."

"Why, David," said Marco, "you're singing a different tune these days."

David shrugged.

"If we give them our protection," said Charles softly, "then what becomes of them once we leave? As we inevitably will. I've thought of that, David, but I don't see how we can manage it. Still, they're the least part of our problem. We need to bring in that shuttle and transfer the medical equipment for Cara onto the pack animals. Without alerting our escort." Charles grinned suddenly. David had long since realized that Charles enjoyed himself most when he confronted a seemingly insolvable problem. "Any suggestions?"

"Kill them all," said Marco facetiously. "That solves the problem."

"Except we have to explain it to Bakhtiian once we arrive at the army. Anyone else?"

"Well," said Jo, "that's not so far from the mark, though, Charles. We have to render them unconscious somehow. Drug them. I don't know. So we can send out an expedition to bring in the actor and pick up the supplies."

"But how do we explain how we found Hyacinth?" demanded Maggie.

"As you see," said Charles, "this kind of masquerade gets more and more difficult to bring off. Jo, can you drug them?"

"Probably. But how do we explain it to them when it wears off? They'd wonder, surely."

"Wait a minute," said David. "You know these people drink like fish. Get them drunk, add just enough of a dose of-whatever-to make them sleep late and wake up with terrible hangovers. If we can get within ten K range of Hyacinth, that should give us enough time to pick him up and rendezvous with the shuttle, and get back by mid-morning. If we leave before dawn. Don't you think?"

They all regarded him openmouthed, all except Charles. Charles rose and paced over to the table, placing his hands palm open, flat, on the surface, examining the topographical model laid out before him. "That's perfect, David. Perfect."

"I admit it might work," began Maggie.

"Mags, your praise overwhelms me."

"Quiet, you. But what possible reason do they have to get drunk in the middle of a long trip south? And at the pace we're riding, too?"

Charles straightened up. He smiled. "A perfect reason. We haven't celebrated Nadine Orzhekov's marriage yet. Remiss of me, as her host. We've made good enough time that I can excuse an early stop tomorrow, and a late morning start the day after."

All of David's triumph in thinking up a brilliant idea burned away to ashes. Charles was right, of course: celebrating Nadine's marriage provided the perfect excuse. It didn't mean he had to like it. "Well, if that's settled," he said brusquely, "I've some things to attend to. Are we done?"

Charles glanced once, sharply, at him, but mercifully only nodded. David escaped out into the camp. He strode out to the fringe of camp, to the screen of straggling trees that hid the pack train. The animals grazed peacefully, some hobbled, some on lines. Packs stretched in neat rows along the ground. About one hundred meters away, a mob of horses milled beside a pond, jostling for drinking space. Three jaran riders supervised this chaos. David recognized two of them instantly. One was the quiet boy, Vasha. The other was Feodor Grekov.

He sighed. Was this what it meant to be in love? Purely, simply, David was jealous of Feodor Grekov. In the ten days since Nadine had rejoined their party, David had found it impossible to address the young man with any semblance of politeness, so he avoided him instead. Only Marco twitted him about it; perhaps only Marco noticed. No, Charles must know. Charles knew everything. But by and large, Charles respected privacy to an almost extravagant degree since he valued it so keenly for himself. Now David had leisure to reflect on Bakhtiian. No wonder Bakhtiian had looked daggers at him, all those months ago, thinking that David had slept with his wife. Then, David had feared that he had violated some taboo. Now he understood that Bakhtiian's anger stemmed from jealousy, from possessiveness, perhaps even from fear. And why shouldn't Bakhtiian be afraid? Tess belonged to David's kind, she belonged to Earth-to Erthe-not to the jaran.

Only, maybe she didn't. Maybe she did belong to the jaran now. Or at least, for now, for a time. Nadine didn't belong to the jaran; that was one thing that angered David. Nadine deserved better, deserved more than to be a brood mare for her uncle's convenience. She wanted more.

"David!" The voice made him wince. He spun, to see that he had not been paying attention well enough. If he had seen her coming, he would have fled. She grinned down at him from her seat on her horse. Dusk shadowed her, but she seemed cheerful enough. "Walking sentry duty tonight?" she asked. If she knew that her husband rode herd on the horses close by, she gave no sign of it. "I just spoke with the prince. I don't suppose, since he insisted, that I can refuse the honor of a celebration given by him."

"You don't want a celebration for your marriage?" David asked.

She shrugged and turned her face to one side. She had a fine profile, sharp and distinctive. He watched as her mouth twitched down into a frown, watched her rein herself in, watched her lips straighten and assume a smile again. "It's fitting," she said at last, in a toneless voice, "that a marriage should be celebrated with a feast and dancing and drink. I don't suppose we can have dancing; there aren't enough women. And there's scarcely enough interesting food for a feast. But the prince promises a rare wine, that he wishes to share in honor of the marriage. That's generous of him."

"Well," said David awkwardly, "we all like you, Dina."

Her gaze flashed to him, and away. She wasn't usually so coy. "You all like me," she said softly, "and pity me for what has happened." Abruptly, she reined her horse aside and rode away, out toward the sentry line.

David watched her go. He swore under his breath and walked back to camp.

The next day they camped in the late afternoon on the outskirts of a burned-out village that huddled up against the low hills. The vast gap of land-more than a valley, less than a plateau-through which they rode on their way south to the Habakar heartlands spread out around them, bounded by steep hills to the east and west and mountains to the south. Rajiv calculated that the actor had made his camp 9.4 kilometers away from them, up in the western foothills. He mapped out a path from the village to the signal emitted by the actor's transmitter.

Charles poured the wine himself, pressing the jaran riders to drink from the bottles Jo had spiked. David managed to swallow his ill-feeling long enough to participate in one toast to the happy couple. Then he left the party and went out to the horse lines.

"Go on," he said to the young man standing guard. "I'll watch tonight." The rider hesitated. They could both hear the distant sound of lusty singing. "I can't stomach the celebration," added David, appealing to the other man's sympathies, "since I-well, you know. Now she's married to another man."

The rider's expression softened. "Well, and you being khaja and all, I don't suppose you'd any hope to marry her, since she's Bakhtiian's niece. If you don't mind… Just a sip, and then I'll come back."

David waved at him to go on. Then he waited. He set me perimeter alert on his knife and paced up and down the lines. The singing grew louder and less tuneful, then quieted, and finally ceased altogether. Eventually, about two hours after midnight, Marco and Charles appeared. They saddled up four horses and slung packs on two of the pack animals; at Morava, they had loaded two of the animals with packs filled with extra odds and ends, so that once they made the pickup there wouldn't seem to be any change in the amount of gear they carried. Then they set off.

Once out of sight of camp, leading the horses, they switched on lanterns to light their way. The steady glare lent a gray color to the landscape as they wound their way up into the hills. Rajiv had coded a pathfinder into Charles's slate, and it guided them up dried-out streambeds and along the curve of the hills, gradually working up into the wilderness. A few wild animals tripped their perimeter alerts. Otherwise, nothing stirred. The isolation mirrored David's mood.

Just before dawn, with a faint glow rising in the east, they led their train down a defile and halted in the shadow of a copse of trees. With a word, Marco shut off their lamps, shuttering them in the half light of dawn. Beyond the trees, set out on a rocky slope, stood a tent. An off-world tent, that much was obvious by its cut and weave and by the tracery of filaments woven into the canvas, shining like dew-laden spiderwebs against the khaki fabric.

Marco cast a glance down at his slate, hanging open from his belt. "There'a perimeter alert activated inside the tent. We've already triggered it."

"Let's wait a moment," said Charles. "We've no guarantee that some bandit hasn't murdered Hyacinth and stolen his gear."

David winced. No matter how stupid the actor had been, David could not believe that he deserved such an awful fate. He glanced at Charles, but in the dim light could not read Charles's expression-if indeed Charles let any emotion show at all on his face, anymore. "It's true we ignored the emergency signal that came- what? — weeks ago," he muttered. "We don't know what happened to him after that, or if he even survived."

"You know very well, David, that we couldn't send a shuttle down cold, without marking the ground first. He chose his exile. He knows what it means, that Rhui is interdicted. Marco. Alert the shuttle. I think this is an isolated enough spot for a safe landing." Charles surveyed the sky, lightening ever more in the east, and then looked directly at David. "You were going to say something?"

"You're a damned hypocrite, Charles."

Charles nodded, looking thoughtful. "It's true. So often people in my position are. I wonder if there's any remedy for it? I condemn that poor boy for a crime that I then turn around and commit myself."

"Doesn't it bother you?"

"I do what I must."

"Shhh," hissed Marco. "Someone's coming out of the tent."

They watched as a man dressed in jaran clothing emerged from the tent, wary, holding his saber in front of him. He glanced all round and then stared straight at the copse of trees, although surely he couldn't see them. Perhaps he could hear or smell the horses. A moment later another man ducked out of the tent, holding a knife in his left hand.

"I don't recognize either of them," said David in an undertone. The second man wore a dirty tunic over dirty trousers. What color the clothes had once been was impossible to tell. The man's hair was a coarse muddy blond.

"Look at those eyes," said Marco in an undertone. "I think that's Hyacinth. None of the natives in these parts have the epicanthic folds."

David stared, trying desperately to match his memory of Hyacinth with this filthy, coarse-looking man. He looked altered beyond imagining from the glamorous, golden-haired actor who had played Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream with such athletic and sensual flair. Then the man flipped open his slate and keyed into it. Lights flashed, and a sudden image projected out from the screen, suspended in midair. It was a heat projection of the surrounding area, betraying their presence. The man's jaran companion did not even start at this sorcerous apparition.

"What the hell?" muttered Marco. "It looks like he's already broken the interdiction."

"Call down the shuttle," said Charles to Marco. He took five steps forward, out into the open, and raised his voice. "I'm looking for the actor known as Hyacinth, legal name, Sven Rajput Nguyen."

The man with the slate jerked his head around at the sound of Charles's voice. He staggered forward three steps and then collapsed onto his knees, signing himself with the Goddess's circle of grace. "Oh, Goddess," he wept. "Oh, Goddess. I thought we would never find you."

Charles gestured to David and Marco, and they came out onto the slope, the horses and pack animals behind them. Light rose in the defile. The sun had come up, although it had not yet breached the high walls to glare down on them directly. Hyacinth struggled to his feet, ran forward, and threw himself prostrate on the gravel in front of Charles.

The first thing David noticed, even from two meters away, was the smell. Hyacinth stank like he hadn't had a bath in months, or even changed his clothes.

Charles knelt and raised the young man up gently. Behind, by the tent, the jaran rider stood and watched, his expression guarded. He did not sheathe his saber.

"I knew that if we kept riding north, we'd come to you. I knew you wouldn't abandon us. I told Yevgeni that you'd rescue us. Oh, Goddess, why couldn't you have heard the transmitter? Maybe you could have saved Valye." Hyacinth babbled on, one grimy hand gripping the sleeve of Charles's shirt as if he never meant to let it go-

Marco walked up beside them and pried Hyacinth loose. "You look the worse for the wear," he said mildly, letting go of the other man as soon as he had freed Charles.

"I hate this planet," said Hyacinth with a hatred so implacable that his tone sent a shiver down David's back. "I want to go home."

"I think," said Charles, "that we can grant your wish. What about your friend? What's his name? Yevgeni?"

"Yevgeni Usova." Hyacinth turned. "Yevgeni! Come here. You must meet the duke."

The other man obeyed, but he approached cautiously, though he sheathed his saber. "The duke?" Yevgeni halted six paces from Charles and regarded him measuringly. He was of the dark-haired strain of the jaran, David noted, with a blunt nose and brown eyes. He appeared marginally cleaner than Hyacinth, and he certainly didn't smell as rank.

"I mean the Prince of Jeds."

"How did you find us?" Yevgeni asked, evidently still suspicious of Charles and his little party. "Is this your entire party? Are you truly a sorcerer?"

"Yevgeni!" said Hyacinth impatiently. "I told you that we're not sorcerers."

"Then it is true that you come from a land that rests in the heavens? I know that Singers tell many strange stories, and have often visited the gods" lands, but I didn't know that you were also a Singer."

"A shaman?" Charles allowed himself a brief smile. "I'm not a shaman." He turned his bland gaze on Hyacinth. "So. What have you told him? What does he know?"

Hyacinth's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "How did you find us? You must have traced my signal. But that means-" He caught in his breath and David tensed, waiting for the explosion. When Hyacinth spoke again, he spoke in Anglais, hard and fast. "That means you must have picked up my emergency transmission. How could you not have responded? Yevgeni's sister died because no one responded."

Charles sighed. "May I remind you that you chose exile? You knew you were putting yourself at risk. You knew-"

"That Rhui is interdicted? Yes, I knew that. But you're here. The Company is here. That's breaking the interdiction. But I suppose that since you own this planet you can do what you damned well please!"

"Quite true. Now, how much does he know?" The timbre of Charles's voice had altered, and though he did not raise his voice at all, the words cracked over Hyacinth and reduced the young man to silence. "You're responsible for him, now, you know," added Charles. "If he knows too much, he can't go back."

"Goddess! Don't you know anything? He can't go back anyway. His exile is permanent. Without me, he'll die."

Charles glanced at Marco. "Time?"

"Twenty-three minutes."

"Well, then," said Charles. "Take him with you."

Yevgeni edged closer to Hyacinth. David could not tell whether the young rider's proximity was meant to protect Hyacinth or to seek shelter for himself. Startled, Hyacinth gaped at Charles and then turned his head in a smooth motion to stare al Yevgeni. Yevgeni arched an eyebrow, questioning. David admired his stoic silence, his patience, his ability to stand there and hear an argument in a language he couldn't understand and simply wait it out. Or perhaps he had long since grown resigned to death, to his fate, whatever it might prove to be. But David recognized the gleam in his eyes, underlying his composure. He was in love with Hyacinth, and he trusted him.

What a fate lay in store for him.

"I could take him with me?" Hyacinth asked haltingly.

"Indeed," said Charles, "I begin to think you're going to have to take him with you. That would be the easiest solution."

"Wait. You're not taking me back to the Company?"

"How do I explain to the jaran how I found you? No. The shuttle lands in twenty-two minutes. Take down your tent. You're going with them."

"Off planet." Hyacinth shut his eyes. A look of peace smoothed his expression. "Thank you. Thank you."

"I'll help you take down the tent," said Marco. "We don't have much time."

"Hyacinth," said Yevgeni in khush, "what is happening?"

Hyacinth turned, took hold of Yevgeni's hands, and kissed him on the mouth. "We're going home. We're leaving. You're coming with me."

Yevgeni disengaged his hands and glanced at once, sidelong, at Charles and David, as if to gauge their reaction to Hyacinth's show of affection. Marco had already walked over to the tent.

"I hope you understand," said Charles softly, to Hyacinth, "that the transition will be particularly difficult for him. He'll have no one but you. I'll arrange for a stipend for him, that much I can do, but you'll be the only person he knows. And life will seem-very strange-out there. Do you understand the burden I'm laying on you? Can you manage it?"

Hyacinth drew himself up. "I chose exile because of the burden I had already laid on him. They stripped him of his saber, of his horse, of his name, of his connection to the tribe. It's my fault he got exiled, and exile is tantamount to death in this world."

"In any world," said Charles softly. "When you come right down to it."

"Well, so I already accepted the burden. I'll promise to marry him, if that will make you trust me more."

"Do what you must. Remember, perhaps, once in a while, that the burden I carry with me always is something like the one you now bear. I'm sorry about his sister. I had no choice."

" 'll deliver all," " murmured Hyacinth.

"Ah, that's a line from The Tempest. So says Prospero, when he promises to tell the story of how he came to the island and into his powers."

Hyacinth colored, easy to see even with the dirt caking his skin. "You know the play? We were working on it when I-left."

"It's been brought to my attention."

David stifled a grin, knowing that the poor actor couldn't possibly understand Charles's convoluted sense of humor, his always clear sense of the ugly ambivalence of his situation.

"Seventeen minutes," called Marco from the tent. "What do we do with the horses?"

"The problem with meddling," said Charles under his breath, "is that for every problem you solve, you create two more."

"Rather like the Hydra in Greek mythology," offered David, realizing that it was true, that the two refugees had a dozen horses with them. "Where did you get all of them?"

"We stole some from the army," said Hyacinth. "The rest we-we took in payment for Valye's life." He seemed about to say more. Instead, he spun and hurried away to help Marco with the tent. Yevgeni hesitated and then turned to follow him.

"Yevgeni," said Charles. The young rider turned back. "You're content to stay with him? You can return with us, to the army. Or we can leave you here."

"I can't return to the army," said Yevgeni. "I've nowhere else to go. I'm content." But the look he cast toward Hyacinth betrayed the depth of his feeling, however offhandedly he might have replied.

"Do you have any suggestions about what we might do with the horses?"

Yevgeni looked puzzled. "But surely we'll need the horses to ride?"

"No. You'll be leaving here by other means than horses."

"Not with you?"

"Not with me. I can't take the horses with me. But if I leave them here, free them-"

"I don't understand." Yevgeni shook his head. "Horses are valuable. Why would you want to loose them? And anyway, they need us to care for them. Even if we-why can't you-?" He stumbled to a halt, looking confused.

"So it begins," said Charles in Anglais. "Do you have any suggestions, David?"

David raised his hands, palms out. "Don't ask me. I'm only an engineer. I know how to saddle one, and I can ride, in a manner of speaking. Can they survive on their own in the wild? I don't know."

"You're no damned help," muttered Charles, sounding both amused and irritated. "Well, I see no choice but to let them go and hope whatever refugees live in these hills find them."

"We can't tell Nadine that we found them running loose in the hills?"

Charles gave a curt nod, and Yevgeni, dismissed, hurried away to help Hyacinth and Marco. Charles regarded David, his lips quirking up. "Do you really think she'd accept that story? She's no fool."

"She's too damned smart," murmured David, "to get stuck here on this planet. She's the one who should be leaving, not him."

"What makes you think she'd be happier out in space?"

"There's so much to know, to learn, to discover…"

"There's so much to know, learn, and discover on Rhui, too. This is a rich planet, David." He shrugged. "Well, in any case, whether in her lifetime or later, they'll begin to leave, more and more of them."

David heard an odd note in Charles's voice. "What do you mean? I thought you were going to keep the interdiction in place, so that we can maintain a protected safe house for growing and shielding the next rebellion."

"It's only a matter of time. We're already breaking the interdiction. We're already affecting their development. "Their understanding begins to swell, and the approaching tide/Will shortly fill the reasonable shores/That now lie foul and muddy." "

"It sounds so awful, put like that. Is that another line from The Tempest?"

Charles nodded. The wind came up, and a low moaning rode in on it, the dawn wind.

Only it wasn't the wind. David caught the silver glint of the shuttle, circling in. Yevgeni leapt back, his hand on his saber. Marco ran to calm the horses. Charles lifted a hand, in sign, and instead, Marco cut them all free. They scattered in fright. David ran back and pulled down the heads of the animals they'd brought, holding them in place, trying to calm them with soft words. From this distance, he watched the shuttle brake in the air and begin its descent.

Marco and Hyacinth backed up, lugging Hyacinth's gear. Yevgeni froze, unable to move as he stared at the hulk above him. What did he think? That it was a dragon? A metal bird? A sorcerer's tame devil? A demon of the air? Hyacinth flung his rolled up tent on the ground and sprinted forward. By main force he dragged Yevgeni backward, out of the flash range. The poor man looked in shock, as well he might be.

The shuttle landed, spraying gravel and dirt. Its engines whined high, canted sharply, and then cut off. The silence was deafening. With a pop, a hatch opened and a ramp extruded. A Chapalii male appeared. By his mauve robes, David guessed it was the merchant Hon Echido Keinaba. He descended and came forward to bow before Charles.

Hyacinth had a hold on Yevgeni's elbow. Only by that grip did the jaran rider stay upright. His face had gone dead pale. A deep, abiding pity filled David for the young man about to be thrown into a world he had not the slightest comprehension of.

Behind Hon Echido, two stewards emerged carrying perfect replicas of the packs already on the pack animals in Soerensen's train. David was too far away to follow the conversation that ensued, but the transaction was swift. The stewards deposited the packs at Charles's feet and, at his direction, hurried back on board with Hyacinth's gear. Hon Echido bowed to Charles and retreated back up the ramp.

Hyacinth spoke rapidly and earnestly to Yevgeni. Haltingly, one stow footstep followed by another, Yevgeni allowed himself to be led. He faltered at the foot of the ramp and stared, back stiff and ramrod straight, up into the maw of the ship. He put a hand on his saber hilt. Hyacinth gestured, spoke. What a vast reservoir of trust it must take for Yevgeni to go up there-that or simple fatalism. David shook his head. Perhaps he was overestimating Nadine; not her intelligence, not her courage, not her curiosity, but her ability to absorb something so utterly outside of her experience.

Yevgeni tested the ramp with one booted foot. He threw his head back and stared up at the blue dome of the sky, seeded with clouds, tinted by the rising sun, that arched above them. Then he turned right round and looked at Charles. He said something to Hyacinth. Hyacinth started, taken aback, and then abruptly grinned and replied. To David's astonishment, the young jaran rider dropped to his knees and bowed his head toward Charles in obeisance. After a moment, he rose and without further hesitation walked with Hyacinth up the ramp and into the ship.

The hatch closed. The engines sang to life. Flame singed the earth and the shuttle rose like light into the air. It yawed, steadied, turned, and circled up. David watched as it sped on its way, winking out at last just as the sun topped the far ridge and streamed bright light into the shadowed depths of the defile.

Charles and Marco arrived, each man lugging one of the saddle packs. They threw the old ones off the pack animals and cinched on the new.

"Shall we go?" asked Charles.

"But what did he ask Hyacinth?" David demanded. "That's what decided him in the end to get on the ship."

Charles grinned, looking like the old Charles, the Charles David had gone to university with. "He asked if I was one of the ten lords attendant on Father Wind, who rules Heaven." He gathered reins into his hand and mounted.

"Well, what did Hyacinth say?"

Charles shrugged.

Marco coughed into a hand, looking sly, enjoying himself. David felt a sudden camaraderie with these two men, the simple pleasure of their company, out on this secret adventure. Charles had a spark in his eyes, of mischief, of suppressed laughter. A horse neighed in the distance.

"He said, "I and my fellows are ministers of fate." "

Which was true enough. Marco and Charles were still chuckling, but David found the quote disturbing. They rode away. Behind them, gravel and dirt lay scorched and scattered, but the first rains would obliterate all traces of the ship. Had Yevgeni truly understood that he was leaving forever? It was no less a sundering than death would have been; but Hyacinth was right, exile was death for a tribeless man like Yevgeni. He had chosen a new tribe. He had chosen to go with the ministers of fate, with the lords of heaven; he had thrown in his lot with Hyacinth's people. He was no longer jaran.

The next day, Nadine's scouts picked up seven horses and brought them into camp that night when they swung in from their rounds. Three of the animals bore the clip in their right ear that marked them as jaran horses. If Nadine thought their sudden appearance strange, if she had any theories about them at all, she did not honor David with her confidence.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Vasil discovered that he could watch as many rehearsals as he wished, as long as he stood quietiy to one side. Sometimes Ilyana came with him, but the hours wore on her, and she fled back to camp, to her mother, to her chores, to the other children. The Company usually attracted an audience, but it shifted as the day passed; no one stayed as long as he did.

He watched. There, the tall, coal-black woman paced out a recurring movement, the same action over and over again. The young man with mud-colored skin tapped at his drums, finding a pulse, working it in with the scene being rehearsed in front of him. On the platform, five of the actors sang, with their bodies, a part of the old jaran tale of the Daughter of the Sun and the first dyan. The man, Owen Zerentous-Vasil thought of him as the dyan of the Company-measured their singing from the side, where he stood with his arms folded over his chest, squinting at the actors on the platform. Now and again he spoke, or they spoke or asked a question; after that the actors would pause, shift their stances, and go back through the same part again. But always, how they spoke, how they gestured, altered subtly at these times.

Diana shone. She had the art of shining. Of the other four, Vasil could only recall the name of the man called Gwyn Jones, because Gwyn Jones was the best singer of them all. They were all fine singers. Vasil could see that; he had seen it. Diana was particularly good. But Gwyn Jones thought so completely with his body that impulse and action became one gesture. And all trained to a pulse that the musician heard and transmitted back to them.

Owen Zerentous cocked his head to one side and abruptly turned to look at Vasil. Some thirty paces separated them, but Vasil felt that gaze beckon him. Zerentous lifted a hand. Clearly, he meant Vasil to come speak with him. Vasil walked over.

"I beg your pardon," said Zerentous politely but with a kind of detached presumption that Vasil would bow to his word, "you're Veselov, aren't you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "You've been interested in our work, I see. Perhaps you'd agree to help us for a moment."

"I'm not a Singer-" Vasil began, but Zerentous had already pulled his attention away from him.

"Diana, call him up to you as if to an audience."

Diana did not need to speak. She lifted a hand imperiously, as the Daughter of the Sun would do, should Vasil ever have the misfortune to meet her. The dyan who had fallen in love with the Sun's daughter had died an untimely death, of course; it was always dangerous to attract the attention of the gods. And yet, although the Daughter of the Sun beckoned him, she was also Diana. She was both. By such skill, by her ability to be both herself and the Sun's daughter, did she show her mastery of her art.

Vasil clambered up on to the platform and approached her, eyes lowered. Three paces from her he stopped. He gave her a glance sidelong, knowing he appeared to advantage with his eyes cast down, and then bent his head slightly, just slightly enough to show that he knew the respect due to a woman but without demeaning himself in any way, knowing his own power. They watched him, the actors and Zerentous, and whatever jaran audience lingered beyond. He enjoyed that they watched him.

"There," said Zerentous from the ground. "Did you get that, Gwyn? That's what you're missing. It's the modesty without losing the strength. Thank you, Veselov." Dismissed, Vasil retreated back down off the platform. "So, is it because she's a goddess that you approach her so humbly, or because she's a foreign woman?"

"She's a woman," replied Vasil, puzzled by the question. "Whether she's the Sun's daughter or a mortal woman makes no difference."

"Ah." Zerentous nodded, but the reaction mystified Vasil. "Run it again."

As Vasil watched, the actors sang again-no, they didn't actually sing, they played their parts. They acted. This time, Gwyn Jones imitated Vasil's own language of the body, his gestures, his stance, his lowered eyes, so expertly that Vasil was amazed.

"Better," said Zerentous. "But now make it your own, Gwyn."

They went on. After a bit, even standing so close, Vasil realized that they had forgotten him. Perhaps Zerentous was more like an etsana, truly, since an etsana often only noticed those of her people whom she had a special use for or those who shirked their duties. A dyan must know where each of his men rode, and where and how strongly they wielded their weapons that day. They called Zerentous a khaja word; director, that was it. Beyond, at the fringe of the Company camp, Ilyana appeared. She hopped impatiently, balancing first on one foot, then on the other, and when she saw that she had her father's attention, she beckoned to him. A summons.

He sighed and retreated. To one side of the platform, the tall woman paused and acknowledged his leaving with a nod of her head. Her notice heartened him. They had felt his presence. That was something.

"What is it, Yana?" He bent to kiss her.

"Mother Veselov wants to see you. Mama sent me to fetch you." She tilted her head back and examined him with that clear-eyed sight that characterized her. Vasil suspected that she knew very well the kind of man he was, but that she loved him anyway. "They're not pleased with you," she added by way of warning him.

"Oh?" That would have to be mended. It wouldn't take much time. He took her hand in his and they set off together, back toward the Veselov camp.

Yana shrugged. "You spend too much time here."

"Do you think so?"

She had a bright face, unscarred by sulkiness. Like her mother, she had learned to accept what life brought her; unlike her mother, she never seemed resigned to her fate, and she did not let the jars and jolting of life bother her. Where her little brother Valentin saw only the clouds, she saw the sun waiting to break through. Everyone liked her; she was, as she ought to be, a charming, brilliant child. "Well, it isn't so much what I think that matters, Papa, it's what Mother Veselov thinks."

"But / care what you think, little one."

They walked ten steps in silence. "Is it true that, a long time ago, that you and Bakhtiian-?" She faltered and gave him a sidewise glance, gauging his reaction.

Anger blazed up. How dare anyone disturb her with such rumors? But he did not let his anger show. "Who has said this?"

She shrugged again. "Sometimes I hear things. Once, someone teased Valentin with it, and Valentin just got angry and cried, so I had to protect him."

"What did you do?"

"I told him-the boy, not Valentin-that his mother was as ugly as an old cow, mat his father was as stupid as a khaja soldier, and then I gave him a bloody lip."

Amused, Vasil allowed himself a brief smile. "Well, I suppose that served the purpose, but really, Yana, outright insult is never as effective as more subtle methods. Who was the boy?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to tell you that! I can take care of myself. I always have, you know."

The words stung him. "Of course you can take care of yourself, but I'm here now, little one."

"Yes. But you might leave again."

He flinched. It hurt, the matter-of-fact way she spoke. He stopped her. "I won't leave you or your mother or Valentin. Ever again. I promise." He gripped her by the shoulders to make sure she understood. He could not bear for her not to believe in him. She had to.

For an instant he thought she looked skeptical, but it wasn't so. Like her mother, she must love him more than anyone else. She smiled her loyal little smile and stretched up to kiss him. "Yes, Father," she said.

At Arina's tent, he had to wait outside for a time, cooling his heels, before Arina's young sister admitted him. Karolla sat beside Anna, as she had for ten days now; Karolla had practically lived in Arina's great tent ever since Anna had been carried back to camp on a litter, after being wounded in that skirmish. These days she paid more attention to Anna than she did to her own husband, and every now and then, when he thought about it, he resented it.

Vasil knelt beside the etsana. Anna gestured with her right hand. Ilyana and Karolla left the tent, leaving Vasil alone with his cousin. She was as pale as the moon and scarcely more substantial than the high clouds that streak the sky on a summer's day. But he recognized the set of her mouth and settled down for a good scolding.

"Vasil, I am minded as etsana of this tribe to ask the Elders to reconsider your election as dyan. I have never heard any complaint about your actions as dyan, but in truth, these days, Anton is dyan in everything but name, and I refuse to allow you to continue to hold the honor if you don't also accept the responsibility."

He bowed his head. Gods, how he hated these discussions.

"Have you nothing to say?"

He stared at his hands, which lay clasped on his thighs. Then he wondered if, by turning his right hand palm up, underneath the shield of his left hand, the arrangement might express a different emotion. Except the fingers of his right hand stuck out then, from under the left. Perhaps if he curled the right hand into a fist, hidden under the looser curl of his left hand-

"You seem distracted, Vasil." Though soft, her voice was sharp.

"I beg your pardon." He lifted his gaze. She lay propped on pillows with her braided hair snaking down along the curve of her tunic almost to her waist. His dear cousin. She had always supported him. He was glad she had not died.

"I'll permit you a few days to consider," Anna added. "Come speak to me once you've made up your mind."

This was the time to insinuate himself into her good graces again; he knew it with every fiber of his being. But he wanted to go back and watch the acting. He nodded, allowed himself to be dismissed, and left the tent.

Karolla waited for him outside. "Well?" she demanded. Then she took hold of his arm and led him aside. "Vasil!

You've been infected by some madness. She's going to make Anton dyan again."

"What of it? I never wanted to be dyan."

"You did once. When you came back to the army."

"Oh, that-" He broke off. When he came back to the army, he had been sure that Hya would give in to him eventually, just as he always had before.

"Oh, that!" echoed Karolla scathingly. "She'll install her own brother as dyan instead of you. That's how far you've fallen. What will you do then? Become a common rider again?"

"A common rider? I think not."

"If not ride, then what? Why should Anna keep you in camp if you do nothing? Where will you go? Where will we go? You have no place here, Vasil, if you're not dyan. Or perhaps she'll take pity on you and allow you to ride in Kirill's new jahar, the one Bakhtiian is granting him. They say he's to ride south past the mountains and the great river, or east on the Golden Road, to discover which lands offer their submission freely to Bakhtiian and which must face his wrath."

He recoiled. "Ride under Kirill's command? Never."

"Then what? What, Vasil? Gods, you're of no use to anyone but yourself. You never think of anyone but yourself!"

"Karolla!" This was too much. Karolla could not doubt him. He grasped her hands and drew them up to his lips. "Never say so, my heart. You are-"

She wrenched herself away. "Don't embarrass me further by acting this way in public. What do you intend to do?" Quite suddenly, her eyes filled with tears, but she smothered them by wiping at her skin ruthlessly, so hard that it surely must hurt her. "Or do you still think Bakhtiian will take you in?11

Tess, pregnant, had a glow about her that made her look almost beautiful, and Vasil admired the way she moved with a rotund grace unimpaired by her swelling belly. Karolla, pregnant, simply developed blotchy skin, and she waddled already, often with one hand on her back.

Vasil folded his hands together and regarded his wife with what he hoped was a measured expression. "I won't do anything rash, Karolla. I promise you that. If I must speak with Bakhtiian, then I'll do so."

Immediately he saw that he had said the wrong thing. Her mouth puckered up. She bit at her knuckles. Then she spun and walked away from him. She rolled more, a rocking, ungainly gait. Valentin darted out from behind the screen of a tent and, throwing a single hostile glance back at his father, grabbed a handful of her skirt into a hand and clung to his mother, walking along beside her. Vasil knew he should go after them. Karolla always gave in to his coaxing. But right now he felt-empty more than anything.

He turned and walked back out to the edge of camp. A jahar riding in blocked his path. He stopped to let them by, and there, riding at her ease at the front of the line, sat his newly-widowed sister. She caught sight of him and as quickly, dismissively, her gaze flicked away again. Her fine, handsome face was disfigured forever by the mark of a marriage that no longer fettered her. Petya had died twelve days ago, of wounds suffered in the battle to halt the Karkand governor's flight. Vasil himself had supervised the burning of Petya's body, two days ride out from the besieged city, in marshland, his spirit sent back to the gods along with those of twenty other riders from the Veselov jahar. His saber and his clothes-those not ruined by blood-Vasil returned to the one of Petya's three sisters who traveled with the Orzhekov camp; she had wept copiously. Vera had not mourned with one single tear, not even beside the pyre. Without the least sign of grief, she had watched her husband's body burn. The next day, it was her arrow shot that had brought Karkand's governor down at last, mired as he was by that time in boggy ground, his horse blown, his last loyal followers dead or straggling behind him. But even then, she had shown no emotion except perhaps disappointment that the chase was over.

The jahar passed him, and he hurried away back across camp. But by the time he came to the Company's camp, they had finished for the day. Already the sun sank below the far rim of hills. A sudden, restless discontent seized

Vasil. Its grip, like a strong hand, clutched hard at his chest. He did not want to go back to his tribe. Nothing held him here. He had, indeed, no place, no place to go, no place where he truly belonged.

In time, his wandering led him on a spiraling path in to the heart of the camp, to the Orzhekov encampment. Guards challenged him. He used Tess's name like a talisman, and none barred his way.

By now it was dark. He hesitated, past the innermost ring of guards, and instead traced a route that led by discreet shadows and hidden lines of sight around to the back of Tess's tent. Out beyond, at Sonia Orzhekov's tent, laughter and talking and singing swelled out on the night air. Back here, silence reigned. He took his chance, and snuck in, ducking down, crawling, by the little back entrance that Tess had not sewn shut, despite her threat, past the tent wall, sliding out beyond the inner wall of heavy tapestries into the inner chamber of Tess's tent.

A lantern burned. By its light, Vasil saw Ilya seated beside his bed. Ilya twisted around to stare. Vasil settled into a crouch, waiting, waiting for the reaction, for the burning anger, for the sharp sweetness of Ilya's glance, on him.

Instead, Ilya rose gracefully to his feet and touched two fingers to his lips: silence. There, at his feet, lay Tess, deep asleep on her side, her hair spilled out on the pillows, her shoulders bare above the blankets. Ilya walked quietly around her and paused by the entrance flap that led to the outer chamber, then vanished behind it. Vasil had no choice but to follow him.

"What do you want?" asked Ilya in a reasonable tone when Vasil emerged into the outer chamber. He stood at his ease with one hand brushing the khaja table that crowded the far end of the space.

Vasil prowled the chamber, and Ilya let him, watching him as he touched each item: the carved chest, the cabinet, the table and chair, the nested bronze cauldrons and the bronze stove, a knife, the lush tapestries lining the walls, the two ceramic cups and bronze beaker set on the table. All of it, an odd intermingling of jaran and khaja; not one piece of it out of place by a fingerbreadth.

"You've nothing rich here." Vasil lifted one of the ceramic cups. In the dim light, he traced the simple floral pattern that twined around the cup.

"I don't need riches. Heaven has granted me its favor. The gold I leave for the tribes under my command."

Vasil pressed the cup against his own cheek, as if its ribboned surface, held so often by Ilya or by Tess, could whisper secrets to him. "I don't understand you." He said it softly, provocatively.

Standing mostly in shadow, still Ilya burned. Unlike the actors, who channeled light through them and shone with its reflected glow, Ilya was the light.

He regarded Vasil gravely, by no sign betraying the least dismay at Vasil's presence. "No. Years ago I thought you did, but now I wonder."

Vasil set down the cup. It made a hollow tap as it met the surface of the table. "You never doubted me before."

"I loved you once, Vasil, and never doubted you then because I never saw you clearly. I love you still, in that memory. But it is ended."

"Ended! For you, perhaps, or so you say now, when it's convenient for you to do so."

"We've had this discussion a hundred times. I see no point in continuing it now. It is ended."

"Then what was it you gave me, that night in this tent? That wasn't love?"

Ilya moved, coming around the table. He stopped not even a full arm's length from Vasil, and his closeness was like balm. He lifted a hand and brushed his fingers down Vasil's cheek. His touch was painfully sweet. Then, on an exhalation of breath, he leaned forward and kissed Vasil once, briefly, on the mouth. And pulled away, and stepped back.

"That is all it was, the memory of love. Eleven years ago, I gave you up because I thought I had to. I-" He broke off. "You don't understand what I did. If you knew- No, never mind that now. The gods have their own way of punishing our arrogance. Only you must understand, that I deliberately sacrificed you, Vasil, in the Year of the Hawk. That year."

The ceremony of exile. Ilya had spared him one thing alone, that day those many years ago, and that was the audience of the entire tribe. He and his aunt had performed the ceremony of exile in front of the men of the jahar. Vasil had always thought it the mark of Ilya's love, that Ilya had shielded him from the greater humiliation. Now he did not know what to think. He could not bear that Ilya could stand here and speak to him so evenly, so calmly. Gods, was it true? Did Ilya no longer love him? He discovered that his hands shook, and he closed them over the back of the chair to steady himself.

"I'm not sure you ever truly loved me, anyway," Ilya added, grinding dirt into the fresh wound. "Not as love is true, caring more for the other person, for who she is, in and of herself, than for what she brings you."

"By what right do you stand there and judge me? How can you know? Or is this by way of convincing yourself that you never truly loved me either?"

"No, I loved you. That memory at least is true."

"And by such scraps I must feed myself now? That is generous of you, Ilyakoria."

"Keep your voice down. I don't want to wake up Tess."

"Because you don't want her to find us here together?"

"No, because she's tired. Gods, Vasil, Tess would be the last person to condemn us for being here together. As you must know." Outside, a bell rang three times, softly. Ilya wrenched his gaze away from Vasil and listened for a moment, head cocked to one side. "Send them in," he said in a clear, cool voice.

Vasil knew an instant of such utter despair that he thought his legs would give out beneath him. Only his grip on the chair held him upright. It could be anyone, coming in to speak to Bakhtiian. Had Vasil been just another visitor-a dyan, a rider, any man from the tribes- Ilya would feel no embarrassment in being found with him in the privacy of his wife's tent. Another man might sit in conversation with Bakhtiian to all hours of the night, without it being the least bit improper. And if Ilya was now as willing to be found here alone with Vasil as he would be if his companion was Yaroslav Sakhalin or

Kirill Zvertkov or Niko Sibirin or Anton Veselov-gods, what if it was true? What if Ilya no longer loved him?

The entrance flap swept aside and two figures came in.

"Dina!" Ilya started forward, amazed, and embraced his niece. "Have you just ridden in? Where is the prince?"

"About two days behind us, with the pack train. I rode ahead. Uncle." She hesitated. She broke away from him and turned to look directly at Vasil. Her eyebrows lifted.

Under her scathing, skeptical gaze, Vasil flushed.

"Who is this?" demanded Bakhtiian.

"I see I've come at just the right time. Where is Tess?"

"Sleeping. Come here. What's your name?"

Out from behind Nadine emerged a boy. He looked to be a few years older than Ilyana. With his black hair and dark eyes and narrow chin, he bore a striking resemblance to Nadine Orzhekov. Except that Nadine was not old enough to have a child that age. And her mother and younger brother had both been killed the same year Ilya had exiled Vasil.

"Vasha, this is Bakhtiian. Pay your respects."

The boy's chin trembled, but he drew himself up bravely enough. "I'm Vassily Kireyevsky. My mother was Inessa Kireyevsky."

"Inessa Kireyevsky! Gods." For a moment, Ilya simply stared at the boy.

As well he might. It was hardly an auspicious introduction. Vasil remembered Inessa as a nasty, selfish little beast who had foolishly believed she could make Ilya love her more than he loved Vasil. For an instant, Ilya's gaze met Vasil's. Oh, yes, they both recalled those days well enough.

Ilya turned a piercing gaze on his niece. "Perhaps you can explain, Dina. Why are you traveling with Inessa Kireyevsky's son?"

"His mother is dead. Mother Kireyevsky gave the boy into my hands, and I promised-I promised to bring him to you, and to see that he was safe."

"Why?"

Vasil watched the boy, who watched Bakhtiian. More than watched. The boy stared greedily at Ilya from under lowered lashes, just as a man weak with thirst stares at a cup of water being borne up to him.

Nadine smiled, looking wickedly pleased with herself. She reminded Vasil much more of her grandmother than of her mother, her mother Nataliia had taken after Petre Sokolov, who was a mild-tempered, even-going man, rather than Alyona Orzhekov. Vasil had never liked Ilya's mother, and he didn't much like the look in Nadine's eyes now.

"They didn't want him. His mother never married."

"But how could she have a child, then?" asked Vasil, surprised. A moment later, he felt the movement behind him.

"Isn't Inessa Kireyevsky the one you lay with out on the grass, under the stars?"

Without turning, Ilya replied. "You've a good memory, my wife."

"For some things." Tess came forward. Her calves and feet were bare, but a silken robe of gold covered the rest of her. The fine sheen of the fabric caught the light, shimmering as she moved forward through the chamber. With her unbound brown hair falling over her shoulders and the high curve of her belly under the glistening silk, she looked doubly exotic and nothing at all like a jaran woman.

"You're the khaja princess," said the boy abruptly, jerking his gaze from Bakhtiian to her.

"Yes. What's your name again? Vasha?"

"Vassily Kireyevsky."

"Well met, Nadine." Nadine hurried forward, and the two women kissed.

"You look as big as a tent," said Nadine.

"Thank you. You look sly. If Inessa Kireyevsky never married, then whose child is he? How old are you, Vasha?"

"I was born in the Year of the Hawk."

"And you've no father? Did your mother never marry?"

He hung his head in shame. "My mother never married. That's why my cousins wished to be rid of me."

No wonder, reflected Vasil, a little disgusted. What place was there in a tribe for a child who had no father? The boy watched Ilya from under lowered eyelids, gauging his reaction.

"Inessa never married?" asked Ilya. "I find that hard to believe."

"Evidently it's true," said Nadine. She laid a hand on the boy's shoulder, a surprisingly protective gesture. "They didn't want him, Ilya, and they treated him poorly enough. I thought he'd be better off here. Especially since Inessa Kireyevsky claimed up until the day she died that you were the boy's father."

"How can I be his father? I never married her."

"Oh, my God," said Tess, sounding astonished and yet also enlightened. "Vasha, come here." Like a child used to obeying, the boy slid out from under Nadine's hand and walked over to Tess. Tess examined him in silence. And it was silent, ail of a sudden. Not one of them spoke. They scarcely seemed to breathe. After a bit, she tilted his chin back with one finger and frowned down at his slender face. "It could be. There's a strong enough resemblance, once you look for it."

"But, Tess-"

"Don't be stupid, Ilya. How many times must I tell you? If you lie with a woman, there's a chance you'll get her pregnant whether you're her husband or not." She lifted her hand to touch the boy's dark hair. "Vasha, do you know why your mother never married?"

He looked back over his shoulder, at Ilya. "Because she thought that Bakhtiian was coming back to marry her. But he never did. And she never wanted anyone else." Then he flushed, as if he expected a scolding for his presumption. Ilya wore no expression at all. Nadine smirked.

Tess sighed. "Well, it's possible. I'm beginning to think it's true. And anyway, I've been waiting for this."

"Waiting for this?" demanded Nadine. "What do you mean?"

"Surely this was inevitable?" Tess regarded the others, puzzled. "You don't think so?" Her hand traced a path down the boy's neck and came to rest on his shoulder. He seemed to melt into the shelter she offered him.

Vasil struggled to make sense of what Tess had said.

Certainly, a man might get his lover pregnant-it was possible, but it went against every custom of the jaran to consider that man the child's father; a woman's husband was the father of her children. So it was; so had it always been; so had the gods decreed at the beginning of the world.

Ilya made a sudden, choked noise in his throat. "Gods, I didn't think she meant it when she told me she was pregnant. What woman would want to get pregnant without a husband?"

"A woman who wanted you very badly. Is it just a coincidence that he's named Vassily?"

Ilya flushed. The dim light covered the stain to his skin, but his body, the sudden stiffness in his shoulders, the way his right hand curled around the edge of the table and then let go, transmitted the emotion in the gesture. "I thought she was joking," he said roughly. "How was I to know she meant it?"

Vasil let go of the chair, only to find that his hands ached, he had gripped it so hard for so long. "Do you mean to say that you told her to name the child after me?" he asked in a hoarse voice.

The boy flashed an astonished glance toward Vasil and then sidled farther into the shelter of Tess's arm.

"Be that as it may," said Tess, "I think you did the right thing, Dina. Vasha. Is that what you wish? To be our son?"

The boy gaped at her. Vasil scarcely knew what to think.

"Tess!" Ilya looked astounded. "We can't take him in. That's absurd. I'll raise no objection if Nadine wishes to foster him, but-"

"This isn't your choice to make, Ilya. Or perhaps I should say, you already made the choice. You lay with her. She bore a child."

"But, Tess-"

"Why should she lie? For all those years, why should she lie? Look at him. Gods, Ilya, just look at him. He's your son."

"But-"

"Not by jaran law, it's true. But by the laws of Jeds, whether bastard or not, this boy would be recognized as your son."

"This isn't Jeds, and neither are the laws of Jeds my laws."

"That may be, but by the laws of Jeds, and by the laws of Erthe, I acknowledge him as your son, and by that connection, as my son as well. And by the law of the jaran, by my stating it in front of witnesses, it becomes true."

As though felled by a bolt from heaven, the boy dropped to his knees in front of Tess and began to cry. Dya took a halting step toward them, stopped, took another step, and froze.

"You think it's true, don't you?" Vasil murmured, absorbing this knowledge from Ilya's face, which, the gods knew, he could read well enough. Yet how could it be true? And how could they take in a shamed child and yet reject him? A hand touched his elbow. He jumped, startled.

"I think we should go, don't you?" asked Nadine with a falsely sweet smile on her face. She took him with a firm grip on the elbow and gave him no choice but to go with her.

Outside, the two guards looked amazed to see him emerge with her, as well they might, since they hadn't seen him go in. She led Vasil past them without a word, on into the night.

"How can it be true?" he demanded of her.

"Veselov, just because the jaran have one set of laws doesn't mean that the khaja hold to the same set of laws. Gods, though, I didn't know what Tess would do. For all I knew, she'd want Vasha strangled."

"Then you believe it, that the boy is Ilya's son? Ilya never had any intention of marrying Inessa Kireyevsky."

"I suppose you'd know. What were you doing in there tonight, anyway?"

"That's none of your concern!"

Nadine snorted. "I could make it my concern, if I wanted to, but I don't. Well, go on, Veselov. Get. Go home. I don't think you need my escort."

Yes, definitely, Nadine Orzhekov reminded him of Ilya's mother, except that Nadine didn't seem to have the same ruthless ambition. Vasil hadn't been sorry when Alyona Orzhekov had been murdered; neither had he been surprised. Only, of course, the result of that awful massacre had been his own exile. Sometimes, when you wished too hard for something, you paid a bitter price.

Nadine left him standing there, just strode away, leaving him in the darkness. Stars blazed above, the lanterns of heaven. The moon hung low, as sharp as a saber's curve against the night sky. Far in the distance a scattering of lights marked the twin hills of the khaja city, torches raised on the battlements. For a long time, Vasil simply waited.

After a long while, the stars wheeling on their blind path above him, he realized that he might wait out here all night and through the day and on into night again, and the one person he most wished for would make no rendezvous with him, here or anywhere. Like a weight, the knowledge dragged at him. Like a sundering force, it severed forever the dream from the truth. Ilya would not ever again meet him as anything or anyone, except as Bakhtiian, Vasil thought that he might just as well die as live without hope.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Out on the plains, the jaran army had not seemed so threatening to David. But now he had ridden along its wake; he had seen the Habakar countryside devastated by its passing. Here on a ridge looking far down at the broad fertile valley that harbored the city of Karkand, the tents of the jaran camp covered the lands surrounding the city like some ominous stain. Like an amoeba engulfing its prey. Like a gloved hand crushing a delicate flower within its fist.

"Pretty impressive," said Maggie, sitting astride her horse next to him. "You look philosophical."

"I'm waxing poetic. What in hell are we doing here anyway, Mags? This is insane."

"David." She hesitated. "Are you sure you're-coping well with Nadine's marriage? You've seemed rather moody since it happened, and you're usually pretty even-tempered. It's one of your wonderful qualities."

"Thank you." Luckily, Charles called the party forward at that moment, and the distraction served to get Maggie off his back. They rode down into the valley, under lowering clouds, only to find a welcoming committee. A group of about one hundred riders waited for them beyond the outskirts of the camp. A gold banner danced in the rising wind. Bakhtiian rode out to greet Charles, Tess on his left, Cara and Ursula on his right. Charles took it all coolly enough. He smiled at Tess. He nodded at Ursula. He met Cara's gaze, and whatever they read of each other satisfied them both.

Then Charles allowed Bakhtiian to escort him to a site suitable to a prince of his eminence. Bakhtiian had evidently set aside a prime bit of land for this purpose just outside the main camp but close to both the hospital encampment and the Bharentous Repertory Company. An awning awaited them, as well as children from the Orzhekov tribe bearing food and drink. Bakhtiian dismounted and went at once to assist Tess from her horse. Charles dismounted. David and the rest of his party followed his lead.

Out of the swirl of activity, Tess created order. Pillows appeared. Riders took command of the pack train, unloading the animals. The change in Tess amazed David. Her entire shape had altered, of course, though she didn't look awkward with it but really rather beautiful. She approached Charles and hugged him, and then stepped back. Charles actually broke; he actually grinned and rested his right hand, tentatively, on her abdomen. He shook his head, still smiling, and removed his hand.

"Oh, thank you," retorted Tess, although Charles had not spoken a word. "Laugh at me." She slid a hand over her pregnant belly, stroking it. The gesture looked habitual.

"No, no," said Charles, "you look very-"

"Very rotund? Very fecund? Very abundant? I feel like a ship. No, a ship is too agile. I feel like a barge. Cara assures me that with two months to go, I'm nowhere close to being big yet." She kissed Charles on either cheek, in the jaran style, her hands on his shoulders. "But I'm glad to see you."

She looked glad to see him. Charles looked pleased. Pleased! Charles, who rarely showed any emotion anymore. David had never seen the two of them look so at ease with each other, not since Tess was a child and their parents were still alive. Evidently, pregnancy agreed with Tess.

Evidently, it agreed with Bakhtiian as well. He chatted easily with Cara and Marco, letting Tess and Charles have their little reunion in what privacy such a public place could afford. Perhaps he believed that now that his wife was pregnant with his child, there was no risk that she would ever leave him.

In Anglais, Charles gave Tess a brief account of Hyacinth. Then he turned away from Tess to address

Bakhtiian. "I'm pleased to see you as well, Bakhtiian. There are matters I think you and I need to discuss."

What the hell? What game was Charles playing now?

Tess blinked. Cara arched her eyebrows. Marco frowned. Bakhtiian took it coolly enough. "I trust," he replied, "that you had a fruitful expedition to Morava. My niece tells me that a party of khepelli traders traveled all the way in from the coast to meet you there."

"Yes. I've managed to take one of their trading houses under my protection. With their help, I learned a few things that might be of interest to you as well, and might prove to be of benefit to both of us."

"Charles," began Tess. She looked white. She looked terrified.

"But," said Charles, "I'd like to have a few words with Owen and Ginny first, and perhaps the rest of the afternoon with Cara. We'll need some time to set up our camp as well. And tonight, a small celebration of our reunion."

"Of course," said Bakhtiian smoothly. "Children." He rounded them up ruthlessly. David noticed for the first time the boy, Vasha, among their numbers. The child stuck next to Sonia Orzhekov's daughter, Katerina, and he looked nervous. As well he might. What was he doing with the Orzhekov tribe? They trooped off, Bakhtiian herding them. A rider took his horse.

Tess lingered. "Charles!"

"I know what I'm doing."

"Well, you'd better fill me in."

"I will, Tess. I have quite a bit to say to you, in fact, and I'll need you in on the council as well. Now go on."

She hesitated. Then she looked at Cara, who had waited patiently through all this. Jo and Rajiv and Maggie had already retreated to the gear, sorting it out.

"It's true," said Cara quietly, not without humor, "that we might like a few moments to ourselves, little one."

Tess threw up her hands in exasperation. "You aren't going to do anything rash, are you?"

Charles blinked. "Do I ever?"

"You're impossible. Hello, David." Tess turned her back on her brother and came over to David, and kissed him.

"You're looking well."

"Thank you. I'm feeling well. You're not looking bad yourself. Is it true mat you and Dina-oh, never mind. I'm sorry I mentioned it. I don't think Feodor Grekov is a good match for her, either. She doesn't respect him." "Tess, I'd realty prefer not to speak about it." "I'm sorry. Truly, I'm sorry, if you feel so strongly." She rested a hand on his shoulder, companionably. "And I have a rather urgent request for you." "For me?"

"Is it remotely possible that you can design-I don't know-within the limits of the interdiction, some kind of decent plumbing? Something you can teach the army engineers to build at every campsite? Something better than a ditch? Something not too difficult to build, not too time-consuming, but, God, I want something like the Company's necessary. I go over there every chance I get. And showers. Hot showers. Is there any chance you can devise-? It's not that they're dirty, the jaran. They're not. They're scrupulously clean in most ways. But still, the conditions…" "And you pregnant." "Oh, tell me you understand." "Not about being pregnant, but I can sympathize," "Oh, David." She hugged him, as well as she could given her girth. "You're an angel."

"I haven't promised to do anything yet." "But you will. You have to. You're an engineer, after all."

At that inopportune moment, Cara paused beside them. "And that reminds me, David, I need a better sanitation system for the hospital. Surely between that brain of yours and your modeler you can design-"

"Oy vey." David flung up his hands palm out as if they could ward him, "Let me breathe a moment. Let me set up the camp. Then I'll see. Cara, why don't you and Charles just go? I'll supervise the camp setup."

"Will you? Thank you, David. It is good to see you, you know. Charles and Marco are going over to the Company later, to give them the news about Hyacinth. I'll see you tonight, then." She and Charles left. Tess left. David got to work with the others, and with practiced ease, and the addition of Ursula, they set up the camp before nightfall.

After weeks journeying at an inhuman pace on horseback across the endless, changing landscape of Rhui, David found himself relieved to come to a temporary halt, even in the primitive conditions of a siege. Karkand rose before them, made tiny by distance, but real, there to be touched. The palace of Morava loomed in the back of his mind like an illusion, seen on the horizon, coming no closer.

"Here, you old slug," said Maggie, jostling David where he sat, sore, tired, and grateful, in a chair, "help me hang lanterns all around here. Don't forget that we're having a party tonight."

"Goddess in Heaven." David dragged himself up. Maggie paused to rub his shoulders, and he sighed and drooped.

"Now don't you sit down again, or I'll stop." "Don't stop. Why the actors? All that noise." "Who knows what lurks in the heart of Charles? You, better than I. He has a position as prince to maintain, you know. Aren't princes meant to give parties? I don't know."

"It's true Charles is often at his best in a crowd. Better than me, certainly."

"You shy thing." She removed her hands from his back. "Here, now, give me a hand."

"Mags, you're an angel. Remind me never to ride that far that fast again. In fact, remind me never to travel any distance in anything other than a skimmer or a shuttle, would you?"

She snorted. "What, you didn't think it was romantic?"

"Not to my thighs and my rump it wasn't." They lit and hung lanterns at the four corners of the awning that thrust out in front of Charles's tent. Rajiv emerged from his tent and helped them. Jo and Ursula had gone to the hospital camp with the new equipment for Cara. As evening fell, Charles returned from his peregrinations, alone.

"Well?" asked David. "Did you give Owen and Ginny the news? How did they take it?"

"They were relieved. Owen said, "perhaps he'll be a better actor for the experience." "

"No! He would. The man's a lunatic."

"Oh, I don't know. He's not unlike me."

"Or Cara, or any of you obsessive types. Where's Marco?"

Charles shrugged. "Marco seemed distracted. I'm not sure whether we'll see him again tonight or not."

"What, already off tomming it?"

"David, this time I'm beginning to wonder if there's more to it than that."

"What? You're not serious?"

But David could see that Charles was, indeed, serious. David followed him inside his tent, where he removed two bottles of whiskey from his precious horde. Only one bottle remained. "I don't know. Help me keep an eye on him, will you?"

David simply grunted in reply, too astonished by the thought of Marco seriously distracted by a woman to think of any words to express himself with. The tent flap swept aside behind them, and Tess and Cara walked in.

"So it's true?" Tess was saying to Cara in Anglais. "I'm not surprised, I suppose, but still, to have it confirmed by your tests…"

"To have what confirmed?" asked Charles, turning around.

Cara glanced at Tess, as if for her permission to speak, but Tess went on. "The boy, Vasha. He's Ilya's illegitimate son by a woman he knew years ago. Cara has confirmed it by comparing VNTR regions."

"Vasha!" David gaped. "So that's why he looked like Dina. But, Tess, I saw him with the other Orzhekov children-"

"Well, of course, I took him in! Poor child. His mother is dead and his relatives didn't want him, which is no surprise, considering what a disgrace it is to have no father."

"But he has a-"

"Not by their laws. But because I adopted him as my son, then Ilya, who's his biological father, becomes his accepted father because Ilya is my husband." Then she hesitated. "Wasn't it the right thing to do?"

"I think so," said Cara firmly.

Charles thought about it for a while. "For the boy, certainly, I should think. Can he inherit?"

"Only through my line."

"Ah. Of course."

"But you know, Charles, the jaran have changed already, in little ways, since I've come to them. Who knows where it will stop? He's a very intense boy. Quiet, but that may just be the way he learned to survive. Time will tell how ambitious he is."

"But what about your child, Tess?" David asked.

She blinked at him. A moment later understanding flooded her features, and she chuckled. "What? I need to protect my children's inheritance rights by murdering him? How very Byzantine of you, David." She hesitated, appeared about to say something more, then did not.

But, of course, Tess's children had three inheritances to choose from: Rhui, Earth, and the Empire. Although their ability to inherit Charles's position was problematic, to say the least. Tess caught his eye and for that instant they spoke without words. David did not envy her her dilemma and yet he could not feel sorry for her either, not really, since she had not only chosen her own fate but seemed content with it.

She turned to Charles. "What happened at Morava?"

Charles unfolded a canvas chair. "Sit down. David, can you go outside and head off any inquiries for-what? — ten minutes? I want Tess and Cara to hear the basics now, so they can think about it before our council. Which I'd like to hold-oh, not tomorrow. The day after."

David nodded and retreated. He paused by the entrance to listen.

"… and we do have the resources. We have Rhui entire."

"But the interdiction?"

"Will hold. It could take decades for us to process the information and to put a plan into place. The underlying structure, the foundation, has to be as strong as-as bedrock. It has to be invulnerable. So in a sense, Rhui is safer this way-"

"For now."

"How long do you really think the interdiction can stay in place? I can only hold off the inevitable for so long."

"No, you're right. I'm just being selfish. What about the dates on the Mushai, again? My God, Charles, I realize now that I must have learned simply one line of their language, that I was learning-what? — the male language, or something. It's like turning a corner in a hallway only to find that you've stepped into a whole "nother world. Don't you realize that I'm perfectly placed to learn both the male and the female side, if that is in fact how their culture is structured?"

"Oh, yes," said Charles in his cool voice. "I realize it."

David slipped outside. Almost ran into Bakhtiian, who stood a meter from the entrance, listening. David choked back an exclamation.

"I beg your pardon," said Bakhtiian in a tone so colorless that a Chapalii lord would have been envious of it. "Is Tess-?" Then he hesitated, because if one listened, one could hear her voice as she spoke with Charles. But, of course, she spoke in a language Bakhtiian did not understand. "I hope," he added, looking David straight in the face, "that you will find time to attend me in the morning. I have some requests to make of you."

"Of course. If you'll excuse me." David retreated as quickly as he could. Goddess, what did Bakhtiian want of him? Was he still holding a grudge against him because he thought David had slept with his wife? And yet, faced with such an order-even though it was phrased as a request-David dared not disobey.

The actors arrived in a flurry of sound and movement. David retreated into the safety of their company, but he was sorry to note that Diana had not come over for the party. The evening passed in a blur of conversation, and he went to bed early.

In the morning, a young jaran rider waited at the edge of the encampment. Bakhtiian had, quite kindly, sent an escort.

"Mags, you will come with me."

"I will?"

"Yes, you will. I need a witness. I'm not going over alone."

"Oh, here," said Ursula, coming up. "I'll come with you, David. You're looking a little ashen about the gills. What's wrong?"

"Nothing!" David cast a last, hopeless glance at Maggie and allowed himself to be escorted away by Ursula and the jaran soldier. The soldier remained respectfully quiet on the long walk, but his presence allowed them to pass right through the rings of guards, straight to the awning under which Bakhtiian sat. David found himself ushered to the front immediately and was, for once, glad of Ursula's companionship.

"Ah." Bakhtiian beckoned David forward. Reluctantly, David went, keeping one eye on Ursula to see what she did and the other on Bakhtiian's sheathed saber. Tess was nowhere in sight. "Please. Sit down. You're an engineer, Tess tells me."

David cleared his throat. "Ah. Yes. I am." Ursula settled down beside David as if she were used to sitting in on Bakhtiian's councils.

"We have a need for engineers. Siege engineers. Perhaps you'll agree to ride out with me and survey the city. Any suggestions you have would be welcomed." Without more invitation than that, he rose and beckoned to his guard. Horses arrived, led by soldiers. David saw some khaja prisoners-or at least he assumed they were prisoners-mounted as well; presumably these were other engineers, culled from the ranks of the conquered. David felt compelled by events and by Bakhtiian's proximity to go along. Ursula did not hesitate.

"This is a wonderful opportunity," she said in a low voice to David as they mounted. "You have an entire city to experiment on. Von Clausewitz says that "critical examination is not merely the appreciation of those means which have been actually employed, but also of all possible means, which therefore must be suggested in the first place."

"Ursula!" He was appalled. "There are people in that city. I don't think Charles meant his interdiction to hold only for them and not for the jaran as well."

"Oh, David, be reasonable. The city is besieged anyway. The war is already here."

"That doesn't make it right."

"Well, then, your contribution might save lives on both sides. If the jaran attack is effective enough, and swift enough, perhaps the khaja will surrender to save themselves."

"If that will indeed save them."

"You forget that I've been traveling with the army. Overall, the jaran are merciful to those who surrender."

"Are they now? I wonder what your conception of mercy is. I saw how devastated the lands were, behind us."

"That was Yaroslav Sakhalin's doing. Most of it, anyway."

"It's still against the interdiction."

"I beg your pardon," said Bakhtiian, riding up beside them. "I hope," he said, nodding toward David, "that you'll ride with me."

As they rode out, all David could think of was how stupid he had been to come here at all. He could have pled illness. He could even have asked Charles to make excuses for him, but then again, maybe Charles would not have done it. Maybe Charles wanted this-not the breaking of the interdiction, but the attempt, the act, the place where the line had to be drawn and his authority thrown up against Bakhtiian's, to prove once and for all who was really in charge. Was this how Tess felt, that she was a pawn tossed about from one side to the other in someone else's game?

They rode out of camp and alongside harvested fields striped with rows of fruit still ripening. Khaja peasants plowed a fallow field under, turning up the soil.

"I was remembering," said Bakhtiian suddenly, startling David, "when we first met."

Goddess, here it came. David recalled all too clearly that awful first meeting, when he and Tess had crawled out of his tent into the full sight of her husband.

"Do you recall that I asked you if you could do a portrait of my wife?"

A series of images flashed through David's mind: the port and the thousand jaran horsemen arrayed along the shore to meet them; the horrible execution; he and Diana sitting in the quiet of camp, Diana watching while he sketched… Bakhtiian.

"Why, yes," he replied, remembering now how incongruous it had seemed at the time. "I did a sketch of you."

"Yes. You're a fine artist. I hope, now that you're with the army again, that you might find time to do the portrait."

David could not respond immediately. The quiet respect in Bakhtiian's voice for David's ability, the diffident request, the nature of the request itself, all combined with Bakhtiian's formidable presence and the all-too-evident wreckage that his army had left in its wake to confuse David as to the kind of man he was dealing with.

"My niece speaks highly of you," Bakhtiian added, as if this inducement might convince David to agree. "You've taught her a great deal about mapmaking."

Which he had. Thus breaking the interdiction. But that was different, wasn't it? Because she was different. David felt impelled to smile at his own hypocrisy. "I'd be pleased to do a portrait of your wife."

Bakhtiian nodded. He gestured to the khaja prisoners. "These four khaja soldiers are engineers. This woman is our interpreter. Ursula you know, of course. I hope you will be able to contribute to our discussion."

"I… You understand, of course, that I'm subject to the prince. I must first have his permission to… to contribute anything." There, it was said.

Bakhtiian measured him, not without sympathy. "I understand." No doubt he did, on one level. After all, his army didn't share its secrets with its enemies either. "But today should give you ample time to observe."

They rode on, out to survey the walls of Karkand.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Sitting on the edge of the platform as day slid into evening, Diana unplaited her hair and combed her fingers through it. The Evening Star-which of the planets was it? she never could remember-pierced the darkening blue of the sky, and one by one other stars appeared. Rehearsal had tired her today, but she never minded that; it was a satisfying sort of fatigue.

"Di!" Quinn jogged up, breathless with excitement, and grabbed her hand. "Come with me!" Quinn yanked her forward, and Diana laughed and went with her to the Company tent.

"Look!" Quinn pointed. At first Diana only saw Owen, speaking quietly with Dejhuti and Seshat and Yomi. Joseph wandered up. Ginny arrived, notebook in one hand, pen in the other. Phillippe helped Anahita to a chair. Helen and Jean-Pierre gossiped with Gwyn over on the other side. Oriana stood in the entrance to the huge tent, half-hidden in its shadow.

"Am I missing something?" asked Hal, walking up beside Diana and Quinn. "Everyone's here."

"Except Hyacinth," murmured Diana. Then she spotted two figures crossing toward them from the main camp. At first the dusk disguised them, but then they emerged into the glow of the lanterns fixed at intervals around the camp.

Quinn squeezed Diana's hand. "Look, here comes the duke."

" "With his eyes full of anger," replied Diana automatically.

Quinn rolled her eyes. "Are you quoting again?"

"That's As You Like It, you idiot."

"It may be, but unlike you, I don't retain entire plays in my memory for years at a time."

"Charles!" exclaimed Ginny. "How good to see you again. Hello, Marco. Did you just ride in? This afternoon? You made good time. Though I must say, you look none the worse for the wear."

With one thought, Diana and Quinn and Hal sidled closer toward the center of the scene.

"I don't suppose," said Yomi quietly, "that you have any news of Hyacinth, poor lad."

"In fact, I do."

He told them. The entire Company listened intently. Diana found her attention straying to Marco, who stood silently beside Soerensen. He glanced once at her and away as quickly, an exchange that reminded her incongruously of jaran men. Except that he looked nothing like jaran men. By League standards he was not a particularly tall man, but here his height and the breadth of his shoulders marked him as big.

"Thank goodness Hyacinth is safe," said Ginny at last. "I suppose that under the circumstances you couldn't have brought him back."

"No. I thought it best to simply remove him and his companion from Rhui altogether."

Owen sighed. "Which still leaves us one actor short. Well, we've managed so far, by the skin of our teeth."

"Remember, too," added Soerensen in his mild voice, "that we'll be leaving soon."

"Leaving soon!" Anahita roused herself, straightening up in her chair. "Thank goodness. I wish I'd gone with Hyacinth. I'd be quit of here now."

There was a short, embarrassed silence which Soerensen covered by going on. "Autumn's coming on. In order to maintain the charade, we must return to a port before ships stop sailing for the winter. Or else winter here, which I've no leisure to do."

"What about your sister?" asked Ginny.

"In any case," added Soerensen, "we might be leaving anytime within the next two or ten weeks, and possibly abruptly. Just so you can be prepared."

"Excuse me," said Diana in a low voice to Quinn and

Hal, and she escaped the assembly. She wandered back to her own tent and simply stood there, outside, staring at nothing. Two weeks, or ten weeks. What if they left before Anatoly returned? What if she never saw Anatoly again? She shivered. After the long hot nights of the summer, she had forgotten that it could get cold at night. But the season did turn, eventually; eventually, the year turned, and what had been young grew old, and what had sprouted fresh and green in the spring withered and died to make way for winter.

"Diana?"

Somehow, it didn't surprise her that Marco had followed her here. "Hello." She managed to say it without her voice shaking.

"I beg your pardon, if I'm disturbing you."

"No. No. I'm just- No, you're not."

He stood three paces from her. "I thought- You're well? You look well."

"Thank you. I'm well. I hope you are, too? I mean, we got a few reports, not much, but- Everything went as you hoped it would?"

"Better. It's nothing I can speak of, right now, but, yes, it went well."

"No, I understand. Of course, I understand. Was Hyacinth all right?"

"He was traumatized. I think he'll recover."

"Thank the Goddess for that. He took his jaran lover with him? Well, I don't envy him for that. Neither of them, really."

A sudden, awkward silence fell. "You don't-you don't mean to take Anatoly with you, when you go back?" He jerked a hand up, warding off any comment. "No, I beg your pardon. It's none of my concern."

"No, don't apologize. Please! Thank you for asking. You don't know what it's like. No one in the Company speaks of him anymore, not to me, at least. It's as if they think I'm embarrassed of him, or that I don't want him mentioned anymore, now that he's gone. And in the jaran camp, why, it's hardly worth mentioning, it's nothing unusual to them."

"He's gone?" Marco faltered on the question. "He didn't-"

"Oh, no, he's not dead. At least, I don't think he is. How can a person know, with the communications they have here? He went off months ago-months ago! — and he hasn't come back yet. I don't know when he'll come back. For all I know, we'll leave before he comes back."

He took a single step toward her, and halted.

"It just doesn't seem fair. And it makes me so damned angry. Why can't I know? How can the women stand to live this way? They could be separated for months, for years! There are tribes out on the plains that haven't seen their riders for years. Although in all fairness, I mink there's some kind of a leave system, that after two or three years serving in the army, a man gets to go back to his tribe for a year. Or something, I'm not sure about the details." She broke off and felt a flush rise in her cheeks. "Goddess, I'm sorry. I'm babbling. It just seems like no one else cares. I don't want to bore you."

"You don't bore me, Diana."

Diana shut her eyes, wilting under the heat of that simple utterance. He could have said any words, those words, other words, nonsense words, and she would have known what he meant by them. What a stupid little infatuation she had had for him, before. Then he had seemed wild and strong and half a barbarian himself. Oh, the attraction remained. It had never eased. But she desired him as much now because he seemed familiar and safe to her, standing here on die outskirts of a truly barbarian encampment, as because of what he had once represented to her, an adventurer who had wandered in wild landscapes and faced death and fear with equal self-possession. And she was lonely, and she felt alone. She opened her eyes when she felt him take another step. He loomed before her.

"Diana? I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all the stupid things I said to you. I'm sorry you hurt now."

It took only a half step to move into his embrace, because his momentum still carried him forward into hers. They kissed.

Diana ceased feeling the cold, or the night breeze, or anything except his hands on her back, and her thigh and hip pressed up against his, and the unsteady catch of his breathing against her chest. She was warm everywhere.

A dull ache prodded her ankle. After a moment, she identified it. One of the guide ropes of her tent cut across the skin. She shifted and, shifting, Marco sighing and gathering her back into him, she heard the distant echo of bells. Messenger bells. What if they brought news of Anatoly?

"Marco," she murmured into his lips. He drew his head back and lifted a hand to cup her chin.

"Golden fair," he whispered.

"I can't." It hurt, not the movement, because she moved gently, but the cold and the emptiness. "I can't, Marco. You must know that I want to, but I can't."

"Because you love him?" His voice cracked on the word "love."

She could not reply.

"Do you?" he demanded.

She could not say yes. She could not say no. She said nothing.

"If you don't know by now- Goddess, Diana, any fool could see that you only married him to get back at me or at best because you were infatuated with the idea of marrying a romantic native prince."

She flared, angry and embarrassed together. "Whatever it was," she said, stumbling over the words, "I just feel that I have to stay loyal to Anatoly until I know what's going to happen to him, and to me."

"Well, then," he pressed on stubbornly, "jaran women take lovers. It's accepted-it's even expected-in their culture."

"I know that now. And it's no wonder, if the men are always off riding for months at a time. I'm not surprised that they take lovers when they're always left behind. But I'm not jaran. I don't want to be jaran. I have to do what's true to me. It isn't you I'm rejecting, Marco. Please tell me you see that."

"Then if you don't want to be jaran, why in hell did you marry him?" He flinched away from her suddenly. "Oh, hell. I'm sorry," It hurt her worse to see him in pain than it had to feel herself alone again, not knowing if Anatoly would even return before she left. He dipped his chin down, like he was containing words he wished to say but refused to say. "I will respect your decision. I'll stay away from you."

"I didn't mean- Don't feel you have to stay away from me. At least come to see me. We can talk."

"Don't you understand, Diana? I love you. I can't pretend to be your friend. I can hardly stand to be this close to you as it is."

Diana had never imagined that Marco Burckhardt might be vulnerable. He had always seemed so self-contained, so confident. It shook her horribly to see him wounded.

"Good-bye," he said, and he walked away.

"Marco! Wait. I-do you remember, that handkerchief you loaned me? When you left for Morava? I never returned it to you. I still have it."

"Keep it," he said without turning around, and he vanished into the darkness that ringed the camp.

She hurt.

She just stood there and let it wash over her, as if that alone would do justice to his feelings, to what she'd done to him. Or had she done anything to him at all? They'd done nothing to each other that they hadn't done to themselves; made mistakes, behaved stupidly, acted without thinking through the consequences of the action. Maybe Marco had made an image of her, mat first meeting, that proved just as false as the one she had made of him. She had let herself fall in love-or into an infatuation, at least-with Marco before she had the slightest knowledge of who he really was. And if mat was true about Marco, how much more true it was about Anatoly. She couldn't even talk to Anatoly when she married him. She hadn't known him at all. The choice had seemed not rash but adventurous and brave at the time. Now, with clearer sight, it just seemed reckless. A true explorer treads cautiously and with a deep respect for the unknown land. She had charged blithely in, all unconscious of danger. Well, and had she suffered so much? Only in her heart. She tried to imagine Hyacinth, straying through the wilderness, seeing one of his companions die, and could not compare her suffering to his.

"Di? Di!" There came Quinn, of course. "You left so quickly. Soerensen invited us to his camp. They're having a little party, a reunion party, I suppose. Are you coming?"

"No, sorry, I'm not in the mood."

For once, Quinn gave up immediately and went away.

Diana ducked into her tent and stripped and lay down. She was tired, realty tired now, in the heart as well as the body. But every time she shut her eyes she saw, not Anatoly, not Marco, but Vasil Veselov coming up to her on the stage, dropping his eyes, waiting there-acting- and it suddenly came to her die one element Gwyn hadn't caught yet, the one that would allow him to subsume completely the character of the dyan who loved the Sun's daughter. She threw on her clothes and scrambled out of the tent and ran.

The others had already left camp, but by the single lantern left lit for their return, she saw a shadow blurring the deeper shadows on the stage, and she knew it was him, practicing, still practicing.

"Gwyn! Gwyn, I've got it." She hopped up on the platform and he paused to listen to her. "It's not just what Owen said, about showing the modesty without losing the strength. It's about power contained. It's about the promise of power unleashed. It's as if, through her, you can reach your true power, just as somehow she can reach her true power through you, and the exchange is as much about that recognition of each other…" She lapsed into silence, puffing, out of breath, she was so excited. "Do you see what I'm trying to say?"

Gwyn considered. He never did rash things, not Gwyn. That remained one of his strengths, that he tread cautiously, that he considered, and when he did move, he placed his feet on the firmest ground. But he wasn't afraid to take chances.

"Let's try it," he said.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"Husband!"

Jiroannes flinched at the sound of his bride's voice. Samae jerked her hand away from his feet, which she had been massaging, and sank back to kneel at the foot of the couch. Jiroannes rose from his cushions and signaled to Lal to bring him a robe. As the boy tied the robe closed with a sash, she who had once been Javani entered through the enclosed walkway that now linked her tent with his. She wore the emerald silk peacock gown and a tiered gold headdress, like a conical cap, with an embroidered shawl draped from it down over her shoulders and a veil of silk covering her lower face. The silk was so sheer that he could see her expression through it; she wanted something. Again.

"Wife."

Her interpreter hovered anxiously three steps behind her.

"Husband, it is impossible that I continue to live in these vulgar conditions. I have sent my steward to find a suitable house within the suburbs, near the vegetable and fruit market. Meanwhile, my handmaiden has gone to purchase silks for my wardrobe. These peacocks are very pretty, I'm sure, but the quality of the weave is mediocre."

"Those silks were woven and embroidered in the women's quarters of my father's house!"

"Then I see that we will have to import Habakar weavers as well as the perfumer and the three cooks I have been forced to engage in order to afford a decent quality of living in this household."

"And how are we to travel with this city of retainers?

And pay for them? Lal, go tell Syrannus to send guards after the steward and the girl. None of these orders can go through."

Lal nodded and slipped out, leaving Jiroannes alone with his wife. He braced himself.

"The orders must go through! I demand it. It is insupportable that I live out here among these barbarians. There are decent houses lying empty within the outer walls, not what one of my birth expects, but they will do until better arrangements can be made."

"We're not leaving the camp. To do so would insult the jaran. I would think you, of all people, would see the Idiocy in such a course. Or would you prefer I had not married you and merely cast you off to the tender mercies of your conquerors?"

What frightened Jiroannes about Laissa was how swiftly her personality had changed once the Habakar priests had sprinkled perfume and holy water over them and proclaimed them betrothed and married by the laws of their Almighty God. At his threat, she merely drew up her chin and stared scornfully at him.

"You would have been a fool to do so, and you're a fool to threaten me with it now. No merchant of my people would dare refuse to do business with me or with my husband's ministers. You will keep that in mind, I hope, if you wish to prosper in these lands. I think you're being unnecessarily sanguine about the possibility that these barbarians will hold on to their conquests. As Javani, it was one of my duties to study the records of my people, and let me assure you that barbarians have ridden through these lands before only to be chased out by our armies or by their own troubles back in the lands where they come from."

He had thought the Habakar a civilized people. Marriage to Laissa had disabused him of this notion. Their noblewomen learned to read and write and were encouraged to study arts such as mathematics and philosophy and poetry that only men were suited to engage in, and any woman might conduct business in her own name, although it was true that she must be under a husband's or father's or brother's protection.

"Furthermore," she continued relentlessly, "whatever may become of these barbarians, you certainly won't impress them with the paltry retinue that attends you now. If you wish for respect, then you must show that you deserve it. Your guards" camp was a disgrace when I toured it five days ago, children running everywhere, sluttish women unsupervised and unkempt, and no priest to watch over them. I hope it is in better condition now because of my efforts, but do I receive thanks for that? Certainly not. You complain that I brought in a priest of my people to hold the hand of the Almighty God over those of us in this camp. You refuse me sufficient quarters, and then complain when I act to improve them. If you wish me to entertain jaran noblewomen, I certainly cannot do so in that cramped, colorless little tent that I had to share with my handmaiden. I have managed to enlarge the tent-"

She had, at that. Her tent, attached to his by a covered walkway so that she needn't leave its seclusion, was twice the size of his own, now, and warrened with little rooms for sleeping and primping and administering and one with a cot for her handmaiden.

"— but I need more tapestries for the walls and more carpets. There is a certain kind of carpet from the south, near Salkh, which I should like four of, if they can be got. And some couches for visitors, and I refuse to serve anyone, even a barbarian woman, that swill you call tea. Furthermore-"

"Enough!"

"It is not enough! Furthermore-"

He cuffed her across the cheek. She gasped, and that quickly raised her right hand and slapped him. The blow didn't hurt-she wasn't strong enough for that-but it stung. "You dare strike me!"

Despite his anger, she didn't shrink back from him. "The Almighty God teaches us that a woman must bow to her husband as the angels bow to God, but if he strikes her without justification, then she may strike back."

"Without justification! A woman ought never to raise her voice to a man! Never! So has the Everlasting God proclaimed."

"Then you are barbarians, as I thought. I encourage you to see how well you will prosper in Habakar lands without my assistance. I lived better than this before the jaran came, and had your guards not discovered my hiding place, I would have escaped and been treated among my own people as a woman of my station ought to be treated.

"Yet you were discovered, and if I judge rightly, you ought to have killed yourself rather than let yourself be dishonored."

Her chin quivered. Silk trembled over the bridge of her nose, and her eyes flashed. "So speaks the man who dishonored me. That is for the Almighty God to forgive, if He judges that I did not do my duty toward Him. Not for an unbeliever such as yourself."

"I hope you realize what forbearance I am showing in allowing you to bring a priest into my camp at all. It is only my respect for Bakhtiian's proclamation that all priests must be tolerated."

"It is only your respect for the power of Bakhtiian's army. It was, in any case, part of the marriage contract that you signed."

A contract witnessed by the Habakar priests and signed by him and by Laissa. As if a woman's word was worth anything, although evidently it was to these people. Still, by birth as reckoned by Habakar standards she ranked far above him; in Vidiya, he could never have hoped for so advantageous a match: She was cousin to the reigning king and to the king's nephew who, rumor said, was now raising an army in the southlands, and also to the princess whom Mitya expected to marry. The bitter truth was, she treated him like the commoner she considered him to be; although his family was an old and honorable house, they were not nobility. That he had been allowed to study in the palace school for boys was due to his uncle's high standing as a Companion to the Great King, and the fact that his uncle had once saved the Great King's father's fife in a battle. And imagine, if Mitya became king here, then the king's wife and his own wife would be cousins!

"Well," he said, quashing an urge to touch his cheek, where she had slapped him, "I forbid any expedition to look for a villa within the walls, but if you need rugs and carpets, and silks for your wardrobe, you have my permission to send your steward out to the market." Her steward. She had a regular army of attendants, more than he had brought, certainly. Yet it was true that in some ways she made his life easier. She had taken over much of the day-to-day administering of the camp, which was by rights a servant's job. Evidently she thought it a woman's duty, and indeed, the Everlasting God proclaimed that women were the servants of men, so perhaps it was fitting.

The tent flap stirred and Lal appeared. "I beg your pardon, eminence. I thought to inquire if you had further orders for me before I left?"

Probably the boy had been listening outside. Jiroannes glanced at Laissa.

She bowed her head, but the show of humility did not fool him. "I abide by your command, husband."

"Lal, the mistress will direct you. Also, I mean to attend the performance this afternoon. Wife, you will accompany me. Although I'm sure you feel reluctant to leave your seclusion, I think it best that the jaran noblewomen see you with me again, out in the camp, so that they can be assured that we are fixed as man and wife."

"As you wish." She retreated to the door and glanced back-not at him, but at the still, silent form that was Samae, kneeling motionlessly, head bent submissively, at the foot of the couch. Then she was gone, Lal scurrying after her, into the women's quarters, a place that no man might follow Laissa into except her husband.

That sudden, lightning interest puzzled Jiroannes. Why should Laissa notice Samae? The girl now slept in the same tent as the two eunuchs, and now that he was married, Jiroannes had felt able to endure her touch again. He remained leery of bedding her so far, but he allowed her to massage him every day.

"Jat! Where is the boy, damn it? Samae, dress me."

She did so without word or sign of what she thought of her new favor in his eyes. Perhaps Samae's exotic beauty interested Laissa. Vidiyan women had their own diversions within the women's quarters, and what they did to keep themselves occupied did not merit a man's concern, as long as they did their duty by bearing him sons of his own seed.

In the afternoon he walked beside Laissa's covered litter, borne by two guardsmen and two servants of her own people, to the ground where the Company performed. Lal and Samae and Syrannus walked in attendance on him, and four handmaidens as well as the interpreter accompanied Laissa, so that when they came to settle themselves in front of the platform, they made quite an unwieldy little group.

After so long with the jaran, Jiroannes had learned to recognize the various ranks within the jaran; today many of their nobles gathered to attend the performance. Evidently, this dance was being danced for the first time, and Bakhtiian himself, accompanied by the Prince of Jeds, meant to attend as well. Mother Sakhalin hurried up, and Laissa, no fool, eased herself out of the litter to greet the old woman. Except, to his horror, she did not offer greetings at all. Instead, she and the old woman began haggling over right of place.

"Wife," he began, "naturally we will move to a different-"

Two heads turned. Both women stared at him, most brazenly, and he realized that they were enjoying themselves and that his opinion was not wanted. Fuming, he retreated to stand beside Syrannus.

"They're all barbarians," he muttered.

"Look, eminence, there is Bakhtiian. With his wife and the prince."

Mother Sakhalin and Laissa finished their argument, and Mother Sakhalin moved away to intercept Bakhtiian.

"Husband, we will sit here, as I said."

"But-"

"We are displacing one of the Ten Tribes, but the queen mother wishes them to learn a little humility on this occasion, so she has assented to our presence here. She also sees the expediency in honoring me as an ally in high favor. I hope you understand that this benefits your position as well."

Jiroannes only grunted in reply. They settled down, Laissa within the litter, one flap thrown askew so that she could view the dancing platform as well as her husband. Her handmaidens knelt around her. Lal laid pillows on the ground for Jiroannes, and he settled there, Syrannus to his right and the two slaves seated between him and the litter. At the front of the audience, Bakhtiian sat down between his wife and the Prince of Jeds. Two girls helped Mother Sakhalin sit on a pillow to the right of the prince.

A man entered onto the platform, three small drums slung around his waist. He tapped on them, drawing out a rhythm by whose beat a woman entered. But not just any woman: this was Mother Sun, who sent her daughter to the earth. Mitya had told Jiroannes this story. Now, the actors danced it. It was as if they brought it to life: the daughter's exile and the ten sisters she brought with her to be her companions, who bore the first tribes of the jaran; how she met the first dyan of the Sakhalin tribe; how they loved, how they parted. The Daughter of the Sun traveled away into dark lands, where she bore his child, and he followed her, but in the end, as is the fate of all mortal men, he died. And in the end, as must any child of the heavens, she returned to her home in the gods" lands.

They danced well. Their audience sat with deep respect, in rapt silence. Syrannus sat with hands folded in his lap. Laissa, by her profile, was as busy surveying the ranks of the jaran as watching the performance. A tear trailed down Samae's face.

A tear! Jiroannes stared at the slave-girl. A girl still, perhaps; she had been so young when his uncle had offered her to him at the marketplace that she had not yet begun her woman's courses, although of course the merchant selling her had assured Jiroannes that she was a virgin. In five years, Jiroannes had never seen her cry. He had never seen her show any feelings at all, except once that flash of rebellion, as quickly stifled. Except once when he had thought she had smiled at Mitya. Except now, when a tear lined her cheek as she watched the performance.

What did he know about her? He knew more about Lal, who was a common boy, son of a tavernkeeper and a whore, sold into the palace service and lucky enough to gain a place in Jiroannes's household, and who by dint of hard work and ambition had risen fast. Already Laissa considered him indispensable, and the boy was certainly clever and industrious. But Samae-she had come from Tadesh, the Gray Eminence's lands across the sea. She had been taught the concubine's arts there, while still a child-or she must have been, because she knew them, and where else could she have learned them? She danced finely. Perhaps she had once lived with such a company of dancers-of actors, that was their proper name-when she was a child; perhaps she remembered them; perhaps she mourned what she had lost.

Stirred by a feeling he did not entirely understand, Jiroannes reached out and patted her hand. She flinched and jerked away from him, startled, her eyes wide. As quickly, she pulled her hands in against her chest and bowed her head and sat as still as stone. Jiroannes drew away his hand and glanced up. Laissa watched him, watched Samae, through her sheer veil, and a moment later looked away.

Jiroannes grunted under his breath and returned his attention to the performance. Well, that would teach him to try to understand women. The Everlasting God enjoined men to rule women, not to understand them. Still, he could not help but wonder what Samae saw in the dance-in the play-to make her cry.

After the performance, Mitya trotted up, all flushed and cheerful. "That was very fine, wasn't it!" he exclaimed. Then he recalled his manners and bowed his head before Laissa's presence. She acknowledged him coolly and sent her interpreter to invite Mother Sakhalin to her tent for refreshments. The handmaidens closed up the litter and the guards bore her away.

Mitya watched her go, bemused. "It's a curious way to travel. She can't see out, can she?"

"There are a few cunningly concealed slits in the fabric, but otherwise, no. In this fashion a woman can travel from one place to another, when she must, without exposing herself to the eyes of strangers."

"Oh." Mitya nodded, staring after the litter with a look of incomprehension on his face. "Well. It was very fine, what they did though, telling the tale like that." He glanced at Samae, glanced away, and fixed his attention on Jiroannes.

"Perhaps you would like to return with me to my tent for refreshments."

"Oh, certainly!"

In such charity they went, Syrannus behind them and the two slaves behind the old man. Under his own awning, Jiroannes seated Mitya on a pillow and excused himself to go inside for a moment so that Samae could re-bind his turban, which had loosened at the back. He sat on the couch and she unwound the cloth from his head. His hair fell down around his shoulders and down to his waist, and Samae lifted the ribboned strands and wound them back up in fresh linen. The quiet lent a kind of intimacy to their endeavor, contrasted to the bustle outside as Laissa's servants prepared for the arrival of Mother Sakhalin.

"Samae," he said, surprising himself more than her, perhaps, "what did you do as a child? Who were your parents?"

Her hands stilled. She tensed, not so much in fear but in astonishment, or anticipation, or anger. How could he tell? He knew so little of her. He felt the tiny movements of her fingers, caught half in his hair and half in the complex folds of cloth wound around his hair.

"Husband!" Laissa swept in. "Move aside, girl!" She cuffed Samae hard on the right cheek, carelessly, but her eyes glinted as she surveyed the slave's retreat to the foot of the couch. "Come, come. I want you to greet Mother Sakhalin, and then you may retire to entertain the boy, the young prince. He is Bakhtiian's nephew? No, his cousin's son. How curious their customs are, but evidently he has no children by his own wives yet."

Jiroannes rose, the cloth tumbled in his hands. "It is a grave insult to interrupt a man with his hair unbound. Apologize instantly."

She took a step back, retreating from his anger. It reminded him of those first days, when she had been in his power entirely, when she had groveled before him. "I beg your pardon, husband. I was not aware-"

"Then you will learn. The Everlasting God commands us never to cut our hair and to conceal it from the eyes of strangers, just as we conceal the beauty and worth of our wives from those who might covet them. Do you understand?"

She bowed her head submissively. He clenched one hand into a fist and opened it. Her fear lent her a sudden attraction, and he felt the immediate, full force of desire. But he had a guest outside. "You may go." She turned to retreat, for once not answering back. "Wife." At his clipped tone, she froze and looked back over her shoulder. "I will punish my own slaves, when they deserve it. It is not your place to lay hands on them. Do you understand?"

Her gaze shifted past him, seeking Samae, and then darted back. "I understand," she replied in a low voice.

"I will entertain my own guest. How you choose to entertain women is no concern of mine. Be sure that they are gone by full dark, however, as I mean to come to your bed tonight, and I expect you to be waiting for me."

She dropped her gaze to stare at the carpet, and he saw that the prospect frightened her. This power he still held over her, who had been virgin and protected by her God from the appetites of men for so many years. Invested as Javani in the year she began her woman's courses, by the reckoning of her people she had reigned as priestess for over sixteen years before the jaran had burned the holy temple. Another woman would have borne many children in the intervening span and been aged and withered by the burdens of womanhood, but Laissa had remained young, her flesh unmarked by God's punishing Hand. So had the Everlasting God decreed, that women bear children as a punishment for their weak natures. Jiroannes intended to get many children on her.

She ducked her head and padded away into the safety of her own chambers.

"Samae." He said it softly. "Let me see your face." She did not move. He walked over to her and lifted her chin. Red stained her pale skin, where Laissa had hit her. Jiroannes smoothed his fingers over her cheek. "Never mind it. It will fade. Here, now, bind my turban back up, and then you may attend me and the prince. And you may go to him tonight, if you wish it."

Her gaze lifted to his face. She stared, eyes wide, and then recalled herself and averted her gaze. Her astonishment pleased him, and it fed his desire as well. Tomorrow night he would not go to Laissa's bed. Tomorrow night, perhaps, he would call for Samae to attend him once again. He sat down on the couch and let her minister to him. Was it his imagination, or did she perform her duties eagerly now, with a certain tenderness? He would find out more about her, who her parents were, why she had been sold into slavery, how she had come to learn the mysterious arts of the Tadeshi concubines, why she cried to see the actors perform their play. Quickly she performed her task and followed him outside, where she knelt in silence three paces behind him, eyes lowered, while Lal served tea and cakes to Jiroannes and Mitya. The two men chatted together, about the return of the Prince of Jeds, about the marriage of Bakhtiian's niece, about the siege of Karkand, about the relative merits of the weave of cloth from Habakar looms and how much the merchants trading this fine cloth to countries north and south ought to be taxed by the jaran on their profits.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"I'm not welcome at this council, am I?"

Tess squatted down in front of the chest, lifted the lid, and rummaged inside. "Ilya, in all fairness, why should you be?" She found the length of gold cloth she was looking for and drew it out. "Charles wouldn't be welcome at your councils, either."

"There might be a time when it was appropriate for him to attend."

"There might be, it's true. I think I'll use this gold cloth to make a shirt for Vasha."

"A shirt for who?"

"You remember him. Your son."

"Tess, he is not-"

"Ilya."

In the silence, he paced while she heaved herself to her feet and went to the table, to unroll the bolt there, smoothing her hand over the fabric. "He's a good-looking boy," Ilya conceded at last, "and he seems well-mannered. Katya likes him."

"Katerina has befriended him, yes. But then, she's a generous girl, like her mother."

"Unlike me?"

Tess grinned suddenly and walked across to him. She took his hand. "I know it was abrupt of me to adopt him like that. But he looked so bedraggled and so pathetic. He's so young. Was his mother dark-featured as well?"

Ilya nodded absently, attention on the entrance flap, not on her. Outside, they heard Katerina calling out: "Vasha! Vasha! Come here!"

"But what are we going to do with him?" he asked at last.

"Raise him as our child."

"Our child? But it goes against all our traditions… by no custom of the jaran would he ever come to me. Even so, we can never know if he is truly my child."

"Do you doubt that he is? I don't. Oh, it's moving."

He spread both hands over her belly and they just stood there. A smile caught on his lips and he closed his eyes. "Yes, I feel it. Our child, Tess." He sighed, content, and drew his hands up to enclose both her hands between his. "Tess." He hesitated, glanced toward the entrance, and then back at her. When he spoke, she could barely hear him. "We traveled alongside their tribe for five months, and every night I slept in her tent. It was stupid of me, to show any woman such exclusive attention, but-"

"But?"

"Roskhel's tribe rode alongside ours for those same months, and I wanted away from my mother's tent. I hadn't a tent of my own, and anyway, Inessa was very pretty, so it was no hardship for me to lie with her every night. By the time we left them, she knew she was pregnant. Vasha is my child by the laws of Jeds, where such lines are followed through the man whose seed makes a woman pregnant. But we are not in Jeds. Nor do I rule there. By the laws of the jaran he is not my child, nor am I his father, except that I'm married to you, and that you adopted him as a foster-son."

He released her abruptly. A moment later Katerina burst into the tent. "Aunt Tess! Vasha, come here!"

The boy pushed through the opening hesitantly and halted right on the threshold as if he did not want to intrude, the heavy flap caught on his shoulders. Katerina grabbed his wrist and jerked him forward.

"Look. Vasha, show them!"

"Little one," said Ilya sternly, "he needn't show us anything he doesn't want to." He turned a steady gaze on Vasha, and the boy stared up at him,

Oh, yes, the resemblance was strong enough that anyone might guess just by looking at them together that they were father and son. And Vasha had the eyes, the same fire there, burning. He stared at his father as much with awe as with apprehension. Ilya looked vexed. Finally,

Vasha uncurled his right hand to display a finely-carved bone clasp, the kind one would use to close a saddlebag or a pouch.

"By the gods," Ilya murmured. He lifted it up and examined it. It was long and narrow, like a finger, curved, with a small hole at one end for a leather strip to lace through. He laughed out of sheer surprise. "My father gave me this. He carved it for me, as a present, when my first cycle of years had passed. Do you see the eagle, here? How his wings curl and drape around the clasp, as if he's embracing the winds?" Katya hung on her uncle's arm, staring. Vasha did not move, did not even close his hand or withdraw it. "Where did you get it?"

Vasha shrugged, dipping his chin down, staring at the carpet.

"Vasha! When I ask a question, I expect an answer."

The boy mumbled something.

"Gods, boy! I'm not going to punish you for it. I thought I'd lost this years ago, but I see that your mother merely stole it from me."

His gaze leapt up to Ilya. He glared. "She did not! She said you gave it to her!"

"I never gave it to her! And it happened more than once, that she'd take things from me and tell people I'd given them to her-" His voice dropped suddenly, in the face of Vasha's humiliated anger. "But perhaps I merely dropped it somewhere, and she found it and kept it to give to me again."

"Only you never came back," said the boy in a muted tone, looking down again.

"No, I never did. Well, here. I give it back to you, then."

"To me!" His gaze flashed up to Ilya and down again.

"As my father gifted me with it, so do I gift it to you."

"Oh," said Katerina.

Vasha did not move. liya placed the clasp on the boy's palm and closed his fingers over it. "Vasha, you are with us now. Let this be the seal between you and me, then, that… that we'll raise you as we would any son of ours." Still Vasha did not speak. Ilya glanced at Tess. "Well?" he demanded, as if she could help him.

"I have to go. Katya, I'm going to make a shirt for Vasha out of this cloth. Take it over to your mother and show it to her, please."

"Of course, Aunt Tess." Katya rolled up the cloth and hurried away.

Tess straightened her clothes over her belly. "Give me a kiss, little one," she said to Vasha. He started and came to kiss her, once on each cheek, in the formal way. She kissed him on the forehead as well, kissed Ilya on the cheek, and went to the entrance. There she paused on the threshold.

Ilya examined the boy as if he hadn't the least idea what to do with him. He coughed, glanced at Tess, and frowned. "Well. Do you know how to ride, Vasha?"

"Of course I know how to ride! How do you think I got here? Oh, I beg your pardon, I'm sorry. That was ill-mannered of me. Yes, I know how to ride."

Ilya sighed. He put out a hand as if to pat the boy on the shoulder, withdrew it, and then reached out again and awkwardly touched Vasha on the arm. "You'll ride out with me today, then. We'll go find you a mount."

Satisfied, Tess left them. She stopped to consult with Sonia about the shirt and then went on to Charles's encampment. She enjoyed the walk; she much preferred walking to riding these days, although she sometimes had to stop when her belly tightened up, all the muscles tensing, practicing for the event scheduled to occur in about seventy days. She was seven months pregnant now, with two months to go, more or less, Earth-time, although the year and month were longer here on Rhui.

Sometimes, especially late at night, she really thought the best thing would be to return to Jeds. But Cara could care for her as well here as at Jeds, really, especially with the new equipment Charles had brought with him, and it was too late by now to get her off-planet. What if she died?

But there was no point in worrying. She couldn't turn back now. What would come, would come. And she did have Cara, after all. Somehow, with Cara here, she couldn't imagine anything going wrong.

So what would happen after the baby came? These days it seemed like a veil lay drawn between her here, now, and what lay after the baby's arrival. What did she want out of life anyway? Mostly she wanted to be finished with the pregnancy, which weighed on her like a kind of mental torpor, as if all the activity in her body, mental or otherwise, had been channeled into her womb. Yet for two days now the thought of the female Chapalii had nagged at her. All this time humanity had read old human patterns onto Chapalii culture: males who possessed all the status and did everything important and females who lived in seclusion, as second-class citizens. Now it appeared that they had been wrong; now it appeared that the Chapalii possessed two cultures. Yet surely the two cultures intertwined somehow. Surely the pattern was readable, if only the right person, with the right skills, could investigate. Jess knew quite well who the right person was.

Yet she did not want to leave Rhui. She did not want to leave the jaran. Charles lived in a world made cold by his obsession; by joining with him, her world, her surroundings, would be cold as well. She would have to leave the warmth of her family behind. Because the jaran were her family, now. Somehow, she had to find a way to work with Charles and yet remain on Rhui.

"Tess!"

"Oh, hello, Aleksi. Where did you come from?"

He ran up to her and settled into a walk. Pink flushed his cheeks. "Sonia told me where you'd gone. I thought-" He broke off.

"You thought what? What's wrong?"

"Nothing." But his expression belied the comment. He hesitated, and then words came out in a rash. "Tess, don't leave me behind when you go. When you leave. I've got no place here, except with you. Whatever there might be, out there, in the heavens, I'll gladly risk it, as long as I can stay with you."

"Aleksi!" She stopped. "I'm not leaving. Not yet, anyway."

"But someday-?"

"Yes." She said it reluctantly. "Yes, someday I'll leave the jaran."

"Then?"

She smiled sadly, thinking of Yuri, who had refused her offer to go with her to Jeds. Gods, it seemed long ago that he had died. "Aleksi, I promise that when I leave, I'll take you with me if that's what you truly want." His flush faded. His expression cleared. "You may as well come with me now. You already know too much as it is." He assented with a nod and walked beside her the rest of the way to Charles's tent.

Charles waited outside. He rose when he caught sight of her, and came to greet her. "You're looking well."

"Thank you."

He looked at Aleksi and then back at Tess.

"He knows already, Charles. I don't see the harm in letting Aleksi sit in on the council."

"You don't?"

"Believe me, Aleksi has no standing whatsoever in the tribes except what I've given him. He knows it. I know it. We can trust him." Beside her, Aleksi stood perfectly still, effacing himself in that way he'd learned over the years to avoid notice.

Charles studied the young man, and then Tess; he drew two fingers down the curve of his short beard, stroking it to a point at his chin. "What benefit?" he asked finally.

"Benefit! You would ask that. All right. This one. He — has his own tent. When you leave, you can leave a modeler and communicator with him which he can keep in his tent, which I can then use without fear of it being discovered by Ilya or anyone else."

"This assumes that when I leave, you don't come with me."

"I'm not coming with you."

"Come inside. Everyone else is here." He turned to go in, turned back. "And you as well, Aleksi."

Aleksi glanced once, swiftly, at Tess. Tess knew well enough what the invitation meant: Aleksi had just stepped outside the boundaries of his old life and been accepted into a new one. He knew it, too. AH of them knew that this was an invitation that would never be extended to Bakhtiian.

They ducked inside the tent. Tess sank gratefully into the chair Cara offered her. She greeted everyone: Marco, David, Maggie, Jo, Rajiv, and Ursula. Aleksi crouched beside her, one hand on the back of her chair. Better that he be here, to mark that although she was part of this world, this council, she also had inseparable links to Rhui. She rested a hand on her abdomen. The fetus moved, rolling under her hand, under the cloth of her tunic, under the skin and the flesh. That link alone marked her forever, mother to a child half of one world, half of another.

"I think," said Charles into the silence, "that we need to consider the interdiction. We need to consider putting into place a matrix within which the plan of sabotage can develop and from which it can be launched at the appropriate time. Also, I'm running out of time. Now mat I've proclaimed myself a player in court politics, I can't be absent for too long without losing-what? face? — without losing position, certainly, and without causing so much suspicion that the emperor might feel called upon to act, to investigate what I'm actually doing here on my interdicted world. Comments?"

"No doubt that you must go back soon," said Cara,

"I think we should pull everyone off Rhui," said Rajiv, "except those vital to the matrix."

"But if we pull everyone off," said Marco, "then won't the Chapalii be suspicious? We ought to let it go on as it always has, more or less."

"Marco, you only say that because you still have continents you want to explore."

"Selfishness is the root of human success in evolution, don't you think?"

Cara snorted.

"Quite the contrary," answered Rajiv, "cooperation has sustained human development."

"But groups can be selfish as well."

"Now, now," said Maggie, "let's keep to the subject at hand, if you please. For the sake of argument, let's say we keep the interdiction in place without any obvious changes. Where do we install our base of operations? Where do we channel all the information? Where do we build the matrix? Jeds? Morava? Both at once? Somewhere else?"

"A single fixed base of operations is always dangerous," said Ursula. "Easy to discover, easy to root out. I'd suggest two or three bases."

"But when we increase the number," objected Rajiv, "we increase the necessity for communicating between them, and that poses its own problems and its own dangers.

Maggie shook her head. "Rajiv, communication on Rhui is going to be a problem nevertheless. The interdiction works both for and against us in that way. But you'd know better than I how likely the Chapalii are to be monitoring all planetary communications and how thorough their coverage can be."

David coughed. "And while Morava might seem best because of its size and its banks, we don't know if there are other forms of monitoring going on there that we aren't-can't be-aware of. Yet we must stay in contact with Morava. It's vital to the plan, isn't it?"

Cara nodded. "Jeds provides a good landing point still, and an already established base of power on Rhui. Not to mention a good port, with trade routes spreading out all over the planet."

"Jo?" Charles asked.

She shrugged. "Nothing to offer yet. I've finished my report on the samples I took from Morava. I'm studying the samples Cara has taken from the jaran population now. We'll need Jeds in the link just for the laboratory facilities, for one thing. Even Morava doesn't have facilities we humans can use."

"Unless we bring Chapalii down onto Rhui."

"Marco!" David threw up his hands. "That's absurd. That would be breaking the interdiction all over again."

"David, they've already been at Morava. We've established now that Charles has a merchant house allied with him, established on Rhuian terms, I mean. Why shouldn't they visit Morava?"

"Which still hasn't answered the question of where to centralize operations," said Maggie.

"less," said Charles quietly, "you look like you have something to say."

The answer stared her in the face. It answered both her problems. Neatly. Perfectly. Almost too perfectly. She already knew how to build matrices, and what Charles wanted built here was not that different from any language. She already led a jahar of envoys. A steady stream of visitors, envoys, ambassadors, merchants, and philosophers came and went from the camp of the jaran army. Tess could authorize their movement within the camp; she had the authority to receive them, or to send mem away, or to conduct her own missions, to send her own people to Jeds, to Morava, to anywhere she wanted. And the jaran moved, always. They never stayed in one place for long. She had allies within the jaran, and allies outside the jaran.

"Base it with me," she said softly, surprising everyone but Charles. Tess doubted she could ever surprise Charles. "Base it with the jaran."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Sonia regarded the gold cloth with some misgiving. Certainly Tess had every right to adopt the boy into her tent; indeed, Tess herself had gained a place with the jaran by the same means. But the truth was that this was not a simple adoption. Vassily Kireyevsky ought to have stayed with his mother's relatives. She faulted the Kireyevsky tribe for casting him off, but it wasn't unheard of that a family would rid itself of an unwanted child by giving it to a family who had need of a servant or even a child to adopt. But a child who had no father could not then be sent to the man who had, perhaps, sired him-as if it could ever be proven.

Sonia made a face and rolled the cloth up again. She disliked that Rhuian word, "sired." Oh, she did not doubt that Vasha was Ilya's son-by Jedan law-but this was not Jeds. Mother Sakhalin's warnings seemed apt now. If the jaran took one step too many off the path the gods had given them to ride, then they would no longer be jaran. And why should Tess care what happened to this child, anyway? In Jeds, Sonia had read of noblewomen who murdered their husband's or father's bastards. What did Tess expect to come of taking in this child?

She signed and set the cloth aside. Looking up, she saw two riders and their escort halt at the edge of camp. A strange sense-not quite of foreboding but of dislocation-swept her, seeing her cousin and the boy together. There was something very alike about them. She got to her feet and went to greet them.

"Hello, Ilya. Vasha."

The boy stammered a greeting. He looked deeply embarrassed at having the luxury of handing over his reins to another man, who would tend to the horse for him; indeed, he looked embarrassed at having ridden such a handsome horse at all, since they had, of course, gone out on two of the khuhaylan Arabians.

"Go on, then," said Sonia, taking pity on him, "Katya is waiting for you. They're over there-" She waved toward her left, where Katya and Galina and a handful of other girls were practicing archery on the empty stretch of ground lying between the Orzhekov tents and the next tribe.

Vasha looked up at-Sonia could not quite bring herself to think, his father-Ilya, and Hya gave the slightest lift of his chin, which the boy took for permission. He ran off.

"Well," said Sonia.

"It was not my choice!" Ilya exclaimed.

Sonia chuckled, resting a hand on his sleeve. "Ilyakoria, I would never tax you with something that so obviously has Tess's mark about it."

"I will never understand her," muttered Ilya, sounding vastly irritated.

"You do hate that," she agreed mildly. "And you would never have married her if you did understand her. Come. You look thirsty."

He also looked as if he wanted to talk. He walked with her and sat down under the awning of her tent. She brought komis for them both, and while they drank they watched the girls shoot.

"Vera Veselov wants every girl to ride for at least one season with the archers in the army," said Sonia. "I think she thinks of it as some kind of birbas, hunting the khaja as we hunt animals. Good training. But I and Mother Sakhalin and several other etsanas have argued against it. The experience will do some girls no good; others will prefer to ride for two years before it's time for them to marry. And there are women who have lost their husbands who have asked to join as well, but others who wish only to return to the plains. Right now we have enough volunteers, and we haven't even begun to draw young women from the tribes still out on the plains."

"Right now," said Ilya. "But eventually the novelty will wear off, and then it will no longer be enough to have volunteers and a casual place alongside the rest of the army." His eyes narrowed. "Look."

Galina had given Vasha her bow. He obviously had handled a bow before, although he did not have the skill of the girls.

"Will you stop him?" Sonia asked quietly.

Ilya glanced at her. "How can I?"

The sun baked down on the children, but they appeared not to mind it. Their game interested them more.

"What will happen to him, Ilya?"

"I don't know. I scarcely know what to think of him." He hesitated. His lips quirked up into a half-smile. "I scarcely know what to think of myself. Am I a father or not? What do I do with such a child? What does Tess want me to do with him? Gods." He grimaced. "What does the child himself want? Or can he even know?"

The air lay still today, hot, oppressive, and crowding, as if it waited on some larger storm to break. But the sky remained blue, unsullied by clouds, and distant Karkand shimmered in the heat.

"Autumn will come soon enough," commented Sonia, "though I don't think it ever grows as cold here as it does on the plains."

Ilya watched the boy out beyond as he shot another round and then gave the bow back to Galina. "Sonia," he said. Faltered. Began again. "Sonia, don't you suppose that Aleksi should marry?"

The change of subject surprised her. "Ilya! It would break Tess's heart if he left camp." She regarded her cousin questioningly. Surely he understood his wife by now. "And in any case, Tess rules him with an iron hand, however light it may seem to others. He wouldn't go."

He shook his head. "I didn't mean that he should leave. Surely some woman can be found who might come to us."

"Ah," she said, understanding him now. "You think that if you bind Aleksi to camp as well, it will be yet another reason for Tess to stay."

He flashed her a look so filled with indignation that she laughed. How he hated it when people saw past his words and his authority to his feelings. He knew better, however, than to snap at her. "I don't-" he began, and stopped, because what she had said was true. He subsided into an offended silence that reminded her all at once of Nadine.

"liya," she added, taking pity on him, "be assured that for my own reasons I am keeping an eye out for a wife for Aleksi."

He did not deign to reply, but she saw that her answer mollified him.

Shadows lengthened around them, and the children ended their game. Katya and Galina and Vasha ran over to the tent and swamped the silence with their laughter. The two girls threw themselves down, unconscious of any need for dignity around their formidable cousin. But Vasha moved cautiously, like a foal testing its legs, and with a touching, stiff gravity that made Sonia actually feel a little sorry for whatever he had endured before. Clearly he was proud. As clearly, his Kireyevsky relatives had punished him for his pride, for him to be so eery of it now.

Katya gave a great sigh and rolled over onto her back. "You have to learn to read and write, Vasha. Doesn't he?" And she rolled her gaze over toward Ilya. Sonia sighed. Katya rode moods the way she rode horses; right now, she was on a racing tear.

"Oh," said Vasha, flashing a glance toward Ilya, and bit off a question.

"Katya! He doesn't have to!" retorted Galina. "You're being a bully."

"Does so," said Katya, and she sprang up and darted into Sonia's tent, emerging moments later with two books. "Shall we start with Aristoteles? Or Sister Casiara?" She set the books down in front of Vasha and opened them both.

Vasha stared down at the pages filled with tiny words, all of which were certainly incomprehensible to him. He was flushed. Sonia doubted if he even knew what reading and writing were, but he could never admit that here, now.

"Katerina, my dear," said Sonia, "Sister Casiara is a little dry and dense as something to start off with, don't you think? I don't recall that even you have managed to read farther than the first chapter."

Katya scowled at her mother, but it was impossible to make her ashamed enough to blush. The little beast. How like her to generously befriend the boy and then embarrass him like this in front of the person he most wanted to impress.

"You all have far too much energy," said Ilya suddenly. "I think all three of you must be old enough now to attend the envoy's school along with Mitya. Afternoons." He looked at Sonia. "There aren't so many chores to do then." Sonia nodded, pleased that he understood how much she needed the children in the mornings, especially since Galina still spent many mornings with Dr. Hierakis. "Any fool can see that Vasha can't read Aristoteles or Sister Casiara," he added directly to Katya, "since he doesn't know Rhuian. Yet."

Vasha's shoulders had remained hunched all through this recital, but they lifted slightly now.

"Meanwhile, he must learn his letters. You two girls may teach him the letters Tess and Niko devised for khush, since I'm sure you know them all quite well now."

"Oh!" said Galina, looking disgusted. "You idiot!" she hissed at her cousin.

"As for you, my young scholar," Ilya added to Katerina, "you will write me a little book in the style of Aristoteles on the nature and kind of horses in this army."

Katya looked dumbfounded. Sonia was pretty sure that Katya had not a clue what Ilya was talking about. The girl set her hands on her hips. "What if I won't?"

"I don't suggest," said Ilya quietly, "that you disobey me, little one."

Beaten by superior horsemanship, Katya gave up the race. She made a horrible face and flopped down on her stomach. Galina giggled. Katya kicked her.

"Do you mean it?" Vasha asked in a small voice. "That I'm to learn to-" He hesitated, touching the paper with one finger. "So that I can learn to hear what these marks say?"

"Gods! Of course I mean it!"

Vasha flinched back. Ilya let out an exasperated sigh. Katya had one eye open and one shut, as if she was trying to decide whether to venture any more mischief.

"Oh, Vasha," Sonia interceded smoothly. "Since you're here, let me measure you against this cloth."

"What's it for?" he asked sulkily, and then his eyes widened as she unrolled the golden silk.

"May I help, Aunt Sonia?" asked Galina at once. "I recognize that piece. Isn't the weave fine?"

"Is Aunt Tess back yet?" asked Katya suddenly, evidently determined to make one last gallop or even, perhaps, to provoke a stampede. Sonia had a very good idea of how much Ilya disliked being kept out of any business Tess was involved in, especially when that business, that council, involved the Prince of Jeds. Sonia did not doubt that the council might last well into the night, and that Ilya might never learn the least scrap of information about what had gone on there. Sonia did not precisely distrust Tess's brother; on the whole, she guessed he was their ally more than their enemy, but he had yet to impress her as a person who cared much at all what the jaran thought of him. As if he does not need us.

Ilya stiffened. Here it came.

"But I don't understand," said Vasha tremulously, "how these little marks can speak?"

Sonia had to bite her tongue to stop from laughing out loud. Outmaneuvered and outraced.

"Oh, here," said Ilya, rising at once. "Come with me, Vasha. I've got a stylus and tablet. It's the only way to learn letters. I'll teach you."

Vasha leapt up, his face bright. Katya stuck her tongue out at him, looking sour.

"That will teach you," said Sonia to her daughter as soon as Ilya and the boy were out of earshot.

Katya ignored her mother. She had a stubborn set to her mouth now, and she pulled the Aristoteles over and opened it up and began the laborious process of sounding out the words. Sonia smiled.

"May I help you with the shirt?" Galina asked.

"Of course you may, my love."

Together they worked to make a shirt for Vasha. Beyond Karkand the sun set, staining red a trailing growth of clouds that had begun to gather on the horizon.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Diana watched Marco surreptitiously. Outside, rain fell. Here in the Company tent, they all sat listening while Charles Soerensen and Owen and Ginny discussed the possibility of the Company breaking new ground.

"With my patronage, I think it's quite possible you could actually tour outside of League space."

"Think of it!" Diana recognized the gleam that lit Owen's eyes. She had seen it before. She had seen it that winter morning three and a half years ago when Ginny first broached the idea that they travel to Rhui. "Does theater even translate to nonhuman species? Are there links between all intelligent species, or are we simply myopic in thinking that all other forms of life must have some discernible relationship to our own?"

Soerensen sat between Owen and Ginny. Marco sat next to Owen. Marco glanced up at Diana and they looked away together.

"Would this be an exclusive contract?" Ginny asked.

Soerensen smiled. "No, not exactly. I want to encourage arts of all kinds to spread. I want to encourage humanity to move out into the Empire, now that-" He paused. They all waited for him, the entire Company-all but Hyacinth, who was gone, and Anahita, who had stayed in her tent. Anahita rarely met with the others now, except at rehearsal or a performance. Gwyn said that she had succumbed to her own spiritual hollowness.

"— now that we have the means to do so."

A "Hmm," said Owen, and Diana wondered what he was thinking.

"Hmm," said Ginny, echoing her husband. She cocked her head to one side, and she and Soerensen exchanged what Diana always called A Significant Glance. Diana had it in the back of her mind that Ginny had known Soerensen for quite a while, maybe even from before she had met Owen. Then Ginny surveyed her troupe, one by one: Oriana with her willowy, dark beauty; quiet Phillippe; Dejhuti, who looked half asleep but never was; Seshat, born into the profession, who had lived it and breathed it all her life; Helen and Jean-Pierre, who were snappish but good-hearted; sweet, silly Quinn. Yomi and Joseph sat patiently; everyone knew that they provided the foundation on which Owen and Ginny built. Ginny hesitated, looking at her son, but Hal for once met her gaze with curiosity not antagonism. Next to Diana, Gwyn sat, leaning forward over his knees, chin perched on his intertwined ringers; he looked alert, brimming with controlled energy, and he examined Ginny and Soerensen in turn, as if he read something from them, something that met with his approval. Last, Ginny met Diana's gaze. She nodded, once, with finality.

"They'll do," she said. "We'll see about Hyacinth, and we'll have to do new auditions as well. Given that we'll have fewer physical constraints, I'd like to add a few actors, and definitely we'll need more crew."

"Definitely," echoed Yomi with a sigh of relief.

"Good," said Soerensen briskly. He rose. "Once we're off planet, we'll deal with the particulars."

The meeting broke up.

Diana leaned toward Gwyn. "Am I missing something?" she whispered. "This is all very exciting, but somehow I feel we're not being told everything."

"Think about it." The others got to their feet around them. A few braved the elements, following Soerensen out into the sodden outdoors. Others lingered inside, chatting, while Joseph brewed tea. Gwyn kept his voice low. "Soerensen doesn't do anything without a reason-that is, without a deeper reason. Humans have never been allowed to travel much outside of League space. Those of us who are allowed to might be able to find out things."

"Oooh. Spies!"

"Sssh. This isn't a game, Di."

"Sorry. But we're actors, not soldiers or diplomats."

"Exactly." Then he grinned. "What better cover? And what better people to play roles?"

"No! You don't really think-?"

He shrugged. "Maybe I'm wrong. One's thinking becomes a little warped after an extended stay in prison. Excuse me." He rose and caught Ginny's arm before she walked outside, and they went out together, Gwyn shrugging his cloak on. A finger of cool, damp breeze brushed Diana's face and dissolved in the heat of the tent. An eddy of movement had trapped Marco between Oriana and Hal. He sidled past them toward the entrance. Diana jumped to her feet and pulled the flap aside for him, and followed him out.

"Thank you," he said without looking at her. They stood under the awning. She slung on her cloak and hitched the hood up over her head. Rain drenched the ground. A wind threw mist under the awning, and out beyond the muddy canvas groundcloth on which they stood, the earth was soaked and weeping rivulets of water. "The soil doesn't absorb the rain very well, does it?" asked Marco. Whether the rain beyond or her presence made him reluctant to leave the shelter of the awning, she did not know. He still didn't look at her. The clouds lowered dull and gray over them. The sheeting rain blurred the distant shapes of tents. Gwyn and Ginny stood talking under the awning of her and Owen's tent, stamping the mud off their boots and shaking water from their cloaks. Farther away, they saw Soerensen trudging through the rain into camp, his shoulders hunched, his pale hair slicked down against his head.

"It must be the rainy season," said Diana, and then she laughed, because it was such a stupid comment.

"I must go." He did not move.

"Marco. Are we going to become spies?"

He flung his head back, startled, and then he chuckled. He reached out and with one finger tilted her chin back and smoothed his finger over her lips. His skin was surprisingly warm. "Only if you wish it, golden fair." He traced her cheek and jaw with his hand and as abruptly closed the hand into a fist and drew it away from her face. "Forgive me."

"No." She captured the hand in one of hers. "There's nothing to forgive. It's true, you know, that I have a right here to take a lover if I wish to." His eyes flared slightly as he watched her. "How soon are we leaving?"

"I can't say. We could leave anytime. Two days. Ten. Twenty. But it will be soon."

"And the Company will go with Soerensen?"

"Yes. What will you do, Diana?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well-" He did not try to free his hand, but she felt his fingers move within her grasp. "Anatoly-"

"The Company is my life, Marco. If they go, I go with them. Or did you think I was like Tess Soerensen? That I meant to stay with the jaran?"

"I didn't think-I mean, I didn't know-it's not my business to ask, is it?"

She heard Hal and Ori at the entrance, and she dropped Marco's hand, but neither of them came out. "Di!" called Hal from inside. "Did you want some tea? Goddess, this weather is disgusting."

"Come to my tent tonight," said Diana quickly, in an undertone.

"Di! Where are you?" The tent flap rustled aside. Hal stuck his head out. "Oh," he said, and ducked inside again.

They stood in silence, serenaded by the incessant pounding of rain. One corner of the awning sagged down under an accumulating pool, and with a rush the balance tipped and a waterfall began a slow trickle out of the poof, flooded with a tearing splash, and emptied.

Diana sneezed. "I beg your pardon! As if I would want to live like this for the rest of my life anyway!"

"Diana." His voice was taut. "Do you mean it?"

"I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it!"

"I beg your pardon. I only-"

"I know what I said before. I know it was only six days ago. But it's over, Marco. I mean, what are we talking about now? We're talking about touring into Chapalii space! We're leaving Rhui. I can't hang on to here forever. I'll have to let go, I'll have to let him go."

"You might be able to get a dispensation from Charles to let him come with you." He said it reluctantly.

"Come with me? Do you think he'd want to?"

"I don't know. Diana, I'm not the best person to ask that of. I'm not exactly a disinterested party."

"No, I'm sorry. That was cruel of me."

"Not cruel." He took in a breath and let it out. "I would-" He broke off, shook his head, and started again. "I would like to- Of course, I- Oh, Goddess, I'm making a hash of this. The answer is yes. Excuse me." He jerked the thong of his hat up tight and strode out abruptly into the rain.

Diana stared after him. But it was just as well. Her chest had gone tight with a sudden pounding. She had asked him; he had said yes. And he was just as flustered as she was. She watched him slog away through the mud. A smaller figure, a child, ran toward them through the pelting rain, fair head bent under the onslaught. Marco paused as the child raced by him and then he trudged on in the direction Soerensen had disappeared. The child began a detour toward Diana's tent, but when Diana raised her hand, the figure halted, slipping in the mud, and jogged toward her.

It was one of the girls from the Veselov tribe. She halted outside the awning.

"Oh, here," said Diana. "Come underneath."

The girl did so gratefully. "Mother Veselov sent me," she said after she'd caught her breath. Her hair was soaked through, but the rain slid off her long felt coat and dripped onto the ground. "A messenger came in. From Anatoly Sakhalin's jahar. They'll be here today."

Today.

Wind whipped a sheet of rain in under the cover of the awning, spraying Diana's face. She tugged her cloak around her. "Haven't you anything to wear on your head?" she demanded.

"Oh, of course I do, but it was all so fast, Mother Veselov calling me in, and so I just ran. It'll dry. I don't mind."

/ don't mind. They none of them complained about the hardships. It was one thing to live under these conditions for a short time; that was endurable. But to live under them always. Diana could not imagine how Tess Soerensen could choose to live here, year after year. Or how she could even want to have a child under these conditions. But then, she wasn't Tess Soerensen, and Anatoly, for all his undoubted charms, was nothing like flyakoria Bakhtiian.

"I don't know what to do," said Diana in Anglais.

The girl smiled up at her, blinking drops of water off her pale eyelashes.

But it was worse just to stand here undecided. "I'll go with you," Diana said abruptly. They forged out into the rain. It hammered on her head, and soon enough she regretted that she hadn't thought to get the girl a hat. Mud slathered her boots. Few people moved about; wisely, they had chosen to stay in their tents.

"Mother Veselov said to take you to the Sakhalin encampment," said the girl as they slogged along. "Anyway, the jahar will have to report in to Bakhtiian before anything else."

"And Anatoly will have to report in to his grandmother."

"Well, of course!"

Halfway through camp, they found themselves caught in a swirl of movement along the avenue that led from the outskirts of the camp straight in to the central encampments. A troop of horsemen rode by. They were spattered with mud and drenched by the rain, windblown and yet impressive, unbowed by the weather. In better weather. Diana thought they would have formed a triumphal procession, but as it was, only a handful of jaran ventured out to watch them go by. Where had they come from?

She saw the prisoners all at once, three cloaked women and a small child riding on caparisoned horses. Riders surrounded them, but the prisoners paid no heed to their presence or even, seemingly, to the camp through which they rode. They looked thoroughly dispirited. The eldest woman's nose ran with mucus, streaking her face, and she coughed deep from her lungs as they passed where Diana stood. Mud sucked and squelched under the hooves of the horses.

Then Diana saw the king. He could be nothing else. Even brown with mud, his surcoat glinted with gold where the rain washed the mud away in patches. He wore a crown, too, fixed somehow to his head so that when he fell, stumbling, sliding in the mud, struggling up again, it did not fall off. It was more like a mockery of a crown, because of that. A belt of ropes at his waist tied him to the harness of two horses, which were ridden at a taut rope's length on either side of him. Just in front of Diana he slipped and fell to his hands and knees, and the riders kept moving, so that the ropes dragged him on through the mud. He wept, scrabbling to gain purchase, but he could not get up.

She could not stand to watch him. Whatever else he might be, he did not deserve this kind of treatment; it was inhuman. She dashed forward and yelled at the riders to stop. They obeyed immediately, unthinkingly. They stared, astonished, as she bent down beside the man and laid a hand on his arm. He flinched away from her.

"Here, let me help you up," she said in khush, though she doubted he could understand her. Perhaps her tone reassured him; perhaps her woman's voice amazed him. Perhaps he had long since given up hope. In any case, he did not resist as she helped him to his feet.

Lines etched his face. White streaks ran through his hair and his beard, where it wasn't splashed with mud. Tears and rain melded together on his face, so that it was impossible to tell one from the other. His nose was red. His mouth quivered. He stared at her. A strangled noise came from his throat, and more sound, like choked words, and when his lips parted to reveal red-stained teeth, she realized that his tongue had been cut out.

Like a wave, revulsion washed over her, revulsion for the act and pity for the man. The rain poured down. Water seeped into her boots. She felt chilled to the bone.

"What is going on? Who gave you permission to stop?"

The king cowered, ducking his head and lifting an arm to ward off a blow. Diana turned.

Standing, Anatoly was no taller than she was. On a horse, he loomed above her. The horse itself invested him with power. His saber, his spear, the weight of his armor, invested him with authority. Flanked by his captains, he glared down at her, and she knew, in that instant, what it felt like to be a woman-any person, indeed-trapped and cornered by the conquering nomads. Like savages, like devils, ruthless and driven, they stood ready to strike down anything or anyone that blocked their path.

"Diana!" Without looking away from her, he spoke to one of his captains. "Mirtsov, get a horse for my wife."

It was done. Given no choice, she let go of the king and mounted up on a gray mare, next to Anatoly. "The girl-" she said, and faltered.

"Mirtsov, take the girl up behind you and escort her to her family. The rest of you- Go on!" His men started forward again. The king stumbled along between them. Anatoly waited, reining in his horse, until the others had splashed past them, and then he started forward as well. Diana rode beside him. He said nothing. He looked angry. She studied him, noting how he had grown a straggling beard, how his fair hair was caught back in a short braid to keep it out of his face. Of the leather segments hanging from his cuirass to protect his thighs, three looked new, as if his armor had been repaired recently; as if he had been in a battle not too long ago. His red silk surcoat was frayed at the hem and mended all down the left side. She saw no trace of the cheerful young man who had left her more than three months ago; this man looked like Anatoly Sakhalin, proud and handsome, but he looked aloof and heartless and hard as well, as if out there in the hostile territory he and his men had ridden through, hunting down the king, he had become a predator in truth.

They rode together in silence until they came to the ring of guards that surrounded Bakhtiian's encampment. With an escort of ten riders, plus the prisoners and the king still bound by ropes, Anatoly passed through with Diana and they came to a halt on the muddy stretch of ground that fronted the awning of Tess Soerensen's tent. Bakhtiian emerged from the tent.

"Bakhtiian, I have brought to you the coat, the crown, and the head of the Habakar king," said Anatoly.

"Still attached, I see," said Bakhtiian mildly. The king simply stood there, looking stupefied. "Who are these others?"

"They attended the king. Wife and sister and daughter, perhaps. The child belongs to the young woman. There were two other children, but they died along the way. They were already sick when we found them. He ran like a coward, Bakhtiian, and in the end, he tried to barter the life of every woman and man in his jahar in order to save his own. He wasn't worth the trouble."

Diana saw how Bakhtiian looked up from the king with a sharp glance to examine Anatoly. "That may be so, but he killed my envoys and blinded Josef. Thus must he and his city serve as an example to the rest. It was well done, Anatoly. You may hand him over to my riders. Send your captains to my niece immediately. She'll want intelligence, all your observations, on the lands you passed through. You yourself may attend me tomorrow." With that, Bakhtiian retreated back inside his tent.

Thus dismissed, Anatoly handed the prisoners over to Bakhtiian's guards and dismissed his own men in their turn, to return to their camps and families.

"I must go pay my respects to my grandmother," he said, only now turning to regard Diana. His steely expression made her nervous. The rain had slackened finally, and drops glistened in the exposed fur lining of his hat. His helmet hung on a strap from his belt. The armor made him look burly and thuggish. What on Earth had possessed her to marry him in the first place? Well, nothing on Earth, of course. The picture had seemed much more romantic at first. Now it merely seemed primitive and brutal.

He guided his horse around and they rode back through the ring of guards and crossed a narrow strip of field and came into the Sakhalin encampment. Clearly, someone had alerted Mother Sakhalin to their coming. She waited under the awning of her great tent. Anatoly dismounted, handed the reins over to an adolescent boy, and went to greet her with the formal kiss to each cheek. Diana swung down and followed, hesitating at the edge of the awning.

"Grandson. You are welcome back into camp. I'm not sure what your wife has arranged…"

Diana felt like an idiot, as she was sure Mother Sakhalin intended her to. "I didn't know-I just found out that Anatoly had returned."

"Ah. Well, then, Anatoly, I have water and a tub for you to bathe in. You look filthy. Your cousins will help you remove your armor, and they'll see that it's cleaned." Several boys hovered anxiously off to one side; at her words, they hurried forward, evidently eager to help their famous cousin, the youngest man in the army to have a command of his own. Diana wrung her hands. Anatoly glanced at her once, twice, and all the while kept up an easy flow of small talk with his grandmother.

"… and the water is still hot, so you must beware. Mother Hierakis has shown our healers how if we boil all the water we'll have fewer fevers in camp."

"Have there been fewer fevers in camp?" he asked.

"The khaja die in greater numbers than we do, it is true, but they are weak in any case. Still, Mother Hierakis is a great healer, and one must not discount her words."

Stripped down to his red silk shirt and black trousers and boots, Anatoly looked suddenly much more-human. He handed his saber and sheath away to one of the boys, and he looked suddenly much more-gentle. His clothes smelled of sweat and of grime, but the sodden scent of rain dampened even that, although Diana imagined that he hadn't bathed in weeks. Not on such a journey as he had ridden.

"Boris and Piotr will help you with the bath, if you wish," said Mother Sakhalin. Two boys waited, each bearing a saddle pack.

Anatoly's gaze flashed to Diana and away. "If that is your command, Grandmother, of course, but I had hoped that you might allow Diana to attend me."

"Your wife has her own tent, and if it was not ready for you-" She sighed.

"Grandmother." The dread conqueror softened, settling a dirty hand on the old woman's sleeve. "Please."

She gave way at once, before his blue eyes and pleading expression. "For you, Anatoly, but for no one else would I allow it!"

"Of course, Grandmother. You're too good to me." He kissed her again on either cheek.

"Hmmph." She stood aside and gestured for them to go past, into the tent. Anatoly grabbed the saddlebags from the boys and went inside. Diana had no choice but to go with him.

Mother Sakhalin's tent was huge, twice the size of any other tent in camp. To the right of the entrance a rust-red curtain embroidered with three leaping stags screened off a spacious alcove. A metal tub sat on a pile of carpets within, and a weary-looking old man poured a last pitcher of streaming water into the tub. Seeing Anatoly, he ducked his head and limped hurriedly out of the alcove.

"He's not jaran," said Diana, staring after him. The curtain fell into place behind him, shielding them from the rest of the tent. On this side, a herd of horses raced over a golden field toward the rising sun.

"He was a Habakar general," said Anatoly, glancing that way as well. "Now he is Grandmother's servant. She is kind to him, considering that he deserted his army on the field."

"Oh," murmured Diana, not knowing what else to say. She clasped her hands at her waist and stood there.

Anatoly tossed down the saddlebags and stripped. Diana just watched him. He paused, between pulling off his shirt and unbuckling his belt, and glanced at her, and grinned,

"Send one of the boys in to take these things away, if you can't stand to touch them. Did you bring anything for me to wear?"

"No, I–I'm sorry. I didn't think."

"Oh, never mind it. Grandmother will have thought of it."

"Yes," said Diana bitterly, "she always does think of everything."

"There's much you could learn from her, Diana. No etsana runs her camp as well as my grandmother runs hers." He stripped out of his trousers and tested the water with a foot. "Ah," he said, in a way that made her suddenly, achingly aware that he was naked, and close by her. He slid into the tub, which was barely large enough for him to stretch out his legs. Diana took a step toward him without realizing it, halted, and then walked over and knelt beside the tub.

"Where's the-" he began. Diana found the stuff they used for soap and started to hand it to him, then set it down, threw off her cloak, and rolled up the sleeves of her tunic. "Here, could you unbraid my hair? Gods, it's gotten long. I used to wear it that way when I was younger, but not since I joined the army."

"You all wear it like Bakhtiian, now."

Even with his hair as filthy as it was, she could not help but tangle her fingers in it as she unwound the braid. He sighed and lay back against her hands. She dipped a hand in the hot water and started to wash him, his neck, his back, his arms.

"How far did you ride?" she asked in a low voice, aware of his skin under her hands, of the gritty scrape of soap against dirt and sweat, of water sloughing off him. "Where did you find the king?"

"A long way. It would take the army-oh-one hundred and twenty days perhaps to travel as far as we rode southwest. In the end, the khaja bastard tried to row out across a lake. I think there was an island out there, and maybe his gods." He chuckled. "But I was damned if I would let him get away after all that. I threw off my armor and rode after the boat"

"Do you know how to swim?"

"Swim? Oh, in the water, you mean? No. My horse did."

"But you might have drowned!" One hand, slick with soap, lay open on his chest. He caught the other in a now-clean hand and rubbed it against his beard. He smiled and shut his eyes.

"But I can't die. When I saw you, after that battle, I thought you were an angel sent down by the gods from the heavens to take me up to their lands. The gods know my wounds were bad enough that they might have killed me, but they didn't, because you were there. As long as you're with me, I can't die. So why should I fear?"

Diana buried her face in his neck. Tears burned at the back of her eyes. Absently, he stroked her arm with his other hand. "When the king's men saw we were coming after them, even into the water, they threw him overboard, hoping to gain mercy for themselves. I'm surprised they rode with him that far. He'd abandoned his children and family already. So we caught him and brought him back. There were plenty of riches, too, with his family, but those will go to Bakhtiian."

"You sent me some things, the necklace, the earrings, by a messenger."

"Well, those were fairly won. Do you see the scar on my left thigh?"

She saw it, white and jagged but cleanly healed. She sank her hand into the water and ran it down his leg. He shivered all over and said something meaningless, and she drew her hand back up to his chest and kept washing him. "Did it gain them mercy?"

"Who?"

"The men who were with the king, giving him up like that."

"Of course not. If they'd break allegiance to their own king, their dyan, then how are we to be expected to trust them? Diana, why did you lift him up off the ground?"

She pulled her hands away from him. As he shifted in the tub, arching back to look at her, the water slipped about him, lapping against his legs and the side of the tub. "I felt pity for him."

"But he brought the gods" wrath down on himself three times! First by killing our envoys, second by running away from battle, and third by abandoning his children. These khaja eat birds, you know." He shuddered. "Savages. I only left him alive because I knew Bakhtiian wanted him. Here, can you find my razor? I'd like to shave."

She rummaged in the bags and found the razor. He reclined and watched her through half-closed lids, the barest smile on his face. He looked content enough, having done his duty to Bakhtiian, gained glory in the doing of it, and come home to his beautiful wife. But he didn't look smug, just at ease. Goddess help her, the truth was there for her to see, as bitter as it was. Even knowing how casually he had killed, how simple and pitiless his judgments were, how appalling, compared to what compassion and mercy she believed was due any human soul, still she cared for him.

"You look sad," he said, puzzled.

Still, she would leave here, Rhui, the jaran, him. She had to. Her work lay elsewhere. "What would you do, if you weren't a rider?"

"What would I do? But I am a rider, Diana. What would you do if you weren't an actor?"

But I am an actor. She brought the razor back to him and watched him as he shaved. Then, because it gave her pleasure, because it gave him pleasure, she washed his hair. After that, she found the ceramic pitchers of warm water that the servant had left by the tub. "Stand up so I can rinse you. Look how filthy that water is." But she did not look at the water, only at him.

Clean, he stepped out of the tub. "Now," he said.

"Anatoly! Your grandmother-"

"— will not send us out into the rain this night, you can be sure. It's a long walk from here to your tent, my heart. Shhh." Rain drummed softly on the roof of the tent. "You see, she left pillows and a blanket along the wall, there. It's raining again."

Only much later, when he lay sleeping beside her, did she remember Marco. Had he come by her tent that night, only to find her gone? Anatoly stirred and shifted, opened his eyes, and smiled to find her there.

"Elinu," he said. My angel.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Their tour of the engineering works led them under the ground, down to where the sappers worked. The khaja laborers pressed back against the damp earth walls of the gallery as Aleksi and his escort ducked by them.

"Once we're under the wall," said David, "we'll burn the props and the fall of the mine will cause the wall to collapse."

Aleksi did not like being underground, nor in such a closed space. The other jaran men liked it less. Only Ursula seemed more excited than nervous, peering around in the wavering lantern light, breathing in the dank, stuffy air, lifting one hand to touch the earth a hand's-span above her head, but then, everyone knew that she was a little mad.

David wore a loose cotton shirt pulled up to expose his arms. Dirt stained the cloth, and sweat darkened it all down his back. He glanced at the others and bent to whisper to Aleksi. "We've twenty feet to go to the wall. But ten feet out and four to the side there's another tunnel coming. They're countermining. We're going to need to post some kind of guard down here. Those sabers aren't going to work down here, or your lances, or bows."

"Short swords and short spears," said Ursula. "Thrusting weapons, mostly. You won't be doing much cutting in these close quarters. The best use of the companion sword is in a confined space." "

"David," murmured Aleksi, "how do you know there's another tunnel? Is it from your box, your machine?"

"Yes. We can measure it-oh, I can't explain it now. We've seen everything we can down here. Let's go back up."

They edged back past the laborers. Aleksi noted how David said a few words, here and there, to the khaja men stuck down here. All of the people in Charles's party were like that: they spoke to everyone, even to the khaja, however briefly. Only Ursula behaved like a normal person, interested only in the task at hand. After all, when the attack began, most of these laborers would die in the front lines, taking the brunt of the assault.

They wound back through the mines and climbed up until they came out into a trench covered by thick hides, and thence out along a rampart built to screen the mine entrance from arrows. From here, Aleksi looked out over the grassy sward that separated the outlying district from the massive walls of the inner city of Karkand. Once, he supposed, animals had grazed here. Now nothing stirred. Pennants fluttered on the walls above. A few figures moved, patrolling the heights.

With a sharp thud, a siege engine fired, casting a missile into the city. Up until yesterday, they had thrown rocks and dead animals and corpses in. Now, with the Habakar king in Bakhtiian's hands, they had stepped up the assault. Aleksi himself had watched at dawn when the first pot of burning naphtha had been launched. The sun sank in the west, lighting the walls with red fire. In the district where the palace towers gleamed, a thread of smoke flared up. By the southern curve of the walls another column of smoke rose.

"Down," said David abruptly, shoving on Aleksi's shoulder. As Aleksi ducked, he heard the distant echo of a thunk, and he rose to see a cloud of dirt and splintered wood rise in the air behind them, in the suburbs, and dissipate, falling back to earth. The defenders of Karkand had their own siege engines, but unfortunately for them, the jaran camp lay far out of then- reach. The defenders could only attack the well-defended siege engines brought up to fire on them, or those portions of their own suburbs that lay within range of their catapults. Still, as the preparations for the assault grew up, ringing the inner city, the defenders stepped up their fire as well.

"Shall we go?" Aleksi asked. "This khaja warfare leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I'd rather fight out in the open."

"It's true that, as Sun Tzu says, "Attacking a Fortified Area is an Art of last resort," " said Ursula, "but you have to adapt yourself to the conditions that present themselves. Are you coming, David?"

The engineer drew a hand across his brow, wiping off sweat. "No. I've a few more things to supervise here. We need more guards here, too. Some equipped for the tunnels, and another jahar. There was a sortie out from the eastern portal last night, according to the laborers. The auxiliaries posted here had a hard time of it. I don't want any more of my workmen killed."

"Your workmen?" Ursula asked, with a grin that Aleksi could not interpret.

"Charles gave me a free hand. Indeed, he urged me to do what I could." David glanced at Aleksi and then away. "Let's not discuss this here, Ursula."

She saluted him mockingly and followed Aleksi out to where riders waited with their horses. That was another thing that puzzled Aleksi about these people from the heavens: He could not tell where each one stood according to the others. One might defer to another and then be deferred to by that same person. The prince was clearly in charge, yet he deferred in his turn, at times, and the members of his party usually treated him as casually as they treated each other. Was this how the gods behaved in the heavens, among their own kind? But they weren't gods- Tess assured him of that, and he could see it for himself.

They rode out through the suburbs. Here, beyond reach of the Karkand catapults, siege towers rose, built by conscripted laborers marched in from the countryside and from as far away as Gangana and guarded by the Farisa auxiliaries who hated their former Habakar masters and who had been overjoyed to throw in their lot with the jaran. The wheels of the towers rose almost twice Aleksi's height and were as thick as the length of his arm. Farther back, they built the scaffolding for the Habakar king.

At the gate of the outer wall, the grain marketplace did a brisk business, heavily guarded by jaran riders. Passing through the gate, they came to the huge churned-up field where once a portion of the jaran camp had lain. Much of the camp had moved a morning's ride out from the city, having used up the forage and muddied the water beyond repair. Also, there were rumors that the King's nephew had gathered an army and was even now marching north, to lift the siege. Aleksi knew that Bakhtiian fretted over Tess's safety. Still, Sakhalin ought to stop the king's nephew. And the governor of Karkand had not escaped to join the royal prince. Now and again riders slipped out from Karkand and eluded the jaran net, but such small parties could at best bring intelligence to the Habakar prince and none of them rode as fast as the jaran couriers.

At camp, Ursula left Aleksi to go to Soerensen's encampment. Aleksi rode on past ambassador's row and up to Tess's tent. A council had gathered before the awning. Yesterday the clouds had cleared away, but the air still smelled of rain and the ground had only just begun to dry out. It was a bad time to mount a siege. Aleksi left his horse with his escort and walked around to listen in on the council.

"— despite Mother Hierakis's directions, we're seeing more fevers."

"This rain makes fighting difficult."

"Nevertheless," said Bakhtiian, "it is time to take the city. We have the king, and I don't want to winter here." He glanced at Tess, and Aleksi felt sure that Bakhtiian also did not want his wife to bear their child here. Tess looked a little pale. Sonia sat next to her, and Mitya beyond Sonia. Josef sat next to Ilya, and next to Josef sat Kirill Zvertkov, who had been elevated rather quickly to such a place of honor.

Aleksi sank onto his haunches at the far edge of the awning and settled in to watch. A little later Ursula arrived, with David in tow, and the council shifted to accommodate them. They began to discuss how best to launch and sustain the assault on Karkand's walls, and what to do with the Habakar king. Tess got to her feet and retreated back into her tent. Aleksi rose and circled around and slipped in the back entrance.

"Are you all right?" he asked, seeing that she was already resting on the pillows. Her paleness frightened him.

"Yes. Just tired. I'm just so tired today."

"Shall I get the doctor?"

Tess shook her head. "You could get me something to drink. Cara's at the hospital. She had a horrible argument with Ilya this morning over how many resources she ought to put into tending to the khaja laborers. Ilya wanted nothing done with them, but Cara told him that if he wanted to rule all people then he had to treat them all as his people. Gods, he was furious-spitting furious." She smiled fleetingly at her memory of the scene. "But what could he do? She's right."

"She is?"

"Aleksi!" She sighed. "I hate it here. I just want to get away from here. I want to go back to the plains." He brought her water and sat beside her. They listened as the council droned on outside. He felt comfortable with her, and he could tell that his presence, quiet and steady, comforted her. She shut her eyes and after a while she slept.

Aleksi ducked outside. Bakhtiian glanced back at him, and Aleksi nodded, to show that Tess was safe. Bakhtiian turned back to the discussion of scaling ladders and the assault on the towers, of shields and infantry, of mining and the vulnerability of mudbrick walls.

"As at Hazjan, we must bring the archers into firing range behind cover, and much of the early assault will be done on foot with some of our troops mixed in with the Farisa auxiliary behind the cover provided by the laborers. If we can get the gates open, then we can send squads in, but otherwise, as we've done before, we'll use khaja warcraft to take the city. I see no point in further discussion. How soon will the mines be ready?"

"Oh, ah…" David glanced around and then, reluctantly, spoke. "Certainly in two days I can-"

"One day. Tomorrow we will roll the king out on the scaffolding onto the ground before the main gates of the city. He'll be left there until we kill him or he dies by other means. They'll have one day to consider him. We'll start the assault at dawn, day after next." Bakhtiian rose. "Excuse me, Josef. Kirill, Mitya, attend me." He strode off, Kirill at his side, Mitya two steps behind, leaving the council sitting in silence for a moment before they all burst into talk and rose themselves, hurrying off, some after Bakhtiian, some to their own commands.

Sonia paused beside Aleksi. "He's moody," she observed.

"Bakhtiian?"

"Yes. He's worried about the reports from the south. He doesn't like sitting here in one place. He knows the army is better off in the field. Anyway, they're going to wheel the khaja king out on a cart in front of the walls and offer to kill him quickly if Karkand will surrender."

"And if the city won't surrender?"

She shrugged. "He doesn't deserve a merciful death for what he did to our envoys and to Josef." She looked past Aleksi toward Josef Raevsky, who sat patiently, waiting for Ivan to come help him away. "Do you think I should marry him?"

"Marry who? The Habakar king? That wouldn't be very merciful for him, would it?"

"Aleksi!" She laughed. "No, Josef."

"Josef!"

"It would mean less work for us, if he slept in my tent, since he's with us most of the time anyway. And a fair reward, for all he's given, to marry into Ilya's family."

"Do you love him, Sonia?"

"No, but I like him very well, and the children do, too. When are you going to mark Raysia Grekov, Aleksi?"

His heart skipped a beat. "Never. I'm not going to marry." He paused to catch his breath and had a sudden intuition that he ought to be honest with her. "You must know I don't want to leave the Orzhekov tribe."

Sonia considered him. "True enough. And we already have one of the Grekovs in our camp now. Two would be too many."

He grabbed hold of this distraction. "Don't you like the Grekovs?"

"They've gotten a little above themselves since Feodor married Nadine. Haven't you noticed it?" Aleksi shrugged. "Well, I'll look and see if I can find a young woman who might come to our tribe. Maybe one who's lost her husband."

It took him a moment to understand what she meant. "Sonia!" Why should she do this for him? Not just to make him happy, surely. "Is there some other reason you want me to marry?" he asked suspiciously.

"Yes. I need more help. Another woman in camp would be welcome."

Stung by her honesty, he snapped at her. "Get servants!"

"Tess won't have them," she said reasonably.

"But you have authority over camp, through your mother."

"That is true, but all the same, if Tess doesn't want a thing to happen, it does not happen. She told me once she finds them too much like slaves to be comfortable with having any about. Aleksi, you might trust me that I do this for you as well as for the tribe."

It was hard to stay angry at Sonia. And it was true that she had always treated him well. "You could use more help," he agreed, placated by her even tone. He hesitated. "And it's true I wouldn't mind being married." She accepted his confession equably. "If you can find someone, and I like her, then I'll mark her."

"Thank you." Sonia kissed him on the cheek and, seeing Ivan crouch beside Josef, went over to them.

An unfamiliar emotion settled on him as he watched Sonia kneel beside Josef and solicitously help the blind man to his feet. Josef did not need her help to stand, of course, but what man would refuse it? It took Aleksi a moment to name the feeling: Envy. He envied Josef the simple kindness Sonia showed him now. Gods, it hurt, like his heart had cracked. He fought to seal it up. He forced himself to watch them dispassionately.

Sonia guided Josef around to the square tent, set back behind the two great tents, where Josef and Tess conducted their jahar of envoys and accepted petitions from khaja supplicants. Josef was a good man, still dignified, and only a few years older than Bakhtiian, and he had been a brilliant general, every bit Yaroslav Sakhalin's equal, until the expedition to Habakar. Sonia was right.

The Habakar king didn't deserve a merciful death. Ursula had suggested that they pour molten silver down his throat until he died. In fact, Tess had left the council right after Ursula had made that suggestion. Would Tess try to talk Bakhtiian out of killing the king? And yet, Bakhtiian had to show the khaja that they could not kill his envoys, and he had to show the jaran that such an insult would not go unpunished. Even if Tess urged him to show mercy, even if he wanted to, he could not.

If Tess was appalled enough by the sight, would she leave with her brother and go back to Jeds? No, not to Jeds; to Erthe. Jeds was a khaja place. Erthe-Earth-was in the heavens. Soerensen meant to leave soon; how soon, Aleksi did not know. Perhaps no one knew but Soerensen himself. Certainly, Bakhtiian did not know. Aleksi supposed that Soerensen could not really leave until Karkand had fallen, since Bakhtiian had no troops to spare him for an escort. Except, if Earth lay in the heavens, then maybe the prince did not travel mere by horse or by ship. Maybe he did not want an escort.

Aleksi ducked back inside the tent and checked on Tess, but she still slept. He lingered there, reaching out to touch her hair the way Anastasia had touched his hair all those years ago, soothing him to sleep. Tears stung his eyes. He blinked them back and wrenched himself away. And went to see the doctor.

The tall woman with skin the color of riverbank mud greeted him. "Oh. Aleksi. I'll see if Dr. Hierakis can come out." She returned a moment later and showed him all the way in to the inner chamber.

Dr. Hierakis glanced up from the counter. She smiled, and her smile warmed him. "Hello, Aleksi." The machine that made pictures was on. It showed a strange spiraling pattern, doubled, like the spirals embroidered onto pillows and woven into tent walls. "Jo, can you finish these measurements? We'll do the correlation later, but I think we've reached an endpoint here. I'm not getting any results I haven't gotten before. We need something altogether new, and I don't think we're going to get it from this pool. Aleksi, how is Tess?"

He started, jerking his gaze away from the spirals. "Tired."

"Hmm. In a bad way, or do you judge her just tired?"

"I think she didn't like to hear the talk about how the king will be killed."

"Ah. No doubt." She stepped away from the counter, leaving room for Joanna Singh to take her place, "Why did you come by?"

He hesitated. She felt his hesitation and, kindly, she placed a hand on his sleeve. Embarrassed, he eased his arm away and yet he stood as close to her as he dared. And in any case, she held the answers to his questions. "Doctor. I know you're leaving soon-"

"I'm leaving when less is safely delivered of a healthy child."

"But the prince-"

"May leave sooner if he has to, it's true."

"But how will he go? How do you travel, in the heavens?"

Dr. Hierakis chuckled, and Jo Singh cast a glance back over her shoulder, looking surprised at his question. Then she turned back to her work. "Here, come with me, Aleksi." They went into the outer chamber, and she gestured to the table. He sat, though he still did not like sitting in chairs. "If you traveled from Karkand to Jeds, you could travel by horse, or you could travel by horse to a port and then travel by sea. If you traveled to, say, the Gray Eminence's lands, that they call Tadesh, you would have to sail in a ship because there's a great ocean between his lands and these lands."

Aleksi nodded. "Yes. I've seen a map that Tess drew. It showed a great sea as broad as the land itself. But Earth is in the heavens."

"Well, think of the stars as lands. Well, no. Think of the stars as lanterns, and around some of these bright lanterns worlds like this one orbit. Earth is such a world, like Rhui, with lands and seas on it. We sail in ships from world to world."

"Is there water out there? Vast seas? Is that what the ships sail on?"

"Think of it as an ocean of night. If I had time, I'd show you some programs, a stellar map. But I don't. I'm due at the hospital. Do you know how soon Bakhtiian intends to start the main assault?"

"Oh, yes. It was just decided this afternoon. Day after next, at dawn."

"Ah. Then we've much to prepare for. Well, Aleksi, keep an eye on Tess for me. Keep well." She hesitated and then, to his astonishment, she kissed him on either cheek, in the formal way, and left. He sat for a moment, just staring. She had left some of her warmth with him. Surely Dr. Hierakis had no reason to be nice to him except simple kindness. Unless by winning him to her side she hoped to win Tess back to the prince. He sighed, gazing at the lantern that wasn't a lantern-was that how the sun looked? — and wished mightily that he knew how to see these maps for himself, to understand what kind of ship might sail the ocean between the worlds.

Outside, twilight had lowered down over camp. At last, he strolled back to the Orzhekov encampment, wondering what kind of a woman Sonia would find for him to marry.

The assault began as the first hint of light paled the eastern horizon. Aleksi stood beside Tess on the ramparts of the outer wall and watched as, far away along the inner walls, flaming arrows arched into Karkand. He watched as the artillery flung trails of fire and sparks over the walls. As the sun breached the horizon, the siege towers rumbled forward and battering rams rolled into place, their crews sheltered by stiff screens of hide.

"Oh, God." Tess sank into the chair that Mitya, who now stood up to the left in the height of a watchtower, had carried up onto the wall for her. Since the parapets on the outer walls faced outward, to protect the suburbs from an outside attack, these walls served as a good vantage point from which to observe the jaran attack on the inner city.

"Tess, you don't need to watch," said Aleksi. "You can go back to camp."

"No." She looked grim. "I need to watch. I won't turn my eyes away from this." She folded her hands over her abdomen, laced her fingers together, and an instant later unlaced them and stood up again. "Why couldn't you people just have stayed out on the plains where you belong? Why did I have to fall in love with Him, damn it? Why couldn't I have married a nice sweet jaran man like Kirill?"

"Couldn't you have married Kirill?"

"I'm not talking to you!" She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Aleksi. I just don't understand why we must always be blessed and cursed together."

"But if the gods only cursed us, then we would hate them. And if they only blessed us, then-well, then we'd care nothing for their laws because we'd respect nothing but our own pleasure."

She sank back into the chair. "Oof. Oh, I hate this." She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, rubbing her belly. "It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but I suppose that answers it as well as anything does."

"And that is why you are blessed and cursed? Are there no wars on Earth?"

"There are no longer wars like this. That's something we learned at long last to stop. But Charles-well, in the end, what he's planning may well lead to the same kind of thing. Who am I to judge what I see here? "More nor less to others paying/Than by self offenses weighing." So I watch, though it hurts. But I refuse just to look the other way, knowing what I married into."

"Hurts?"

"All I can think of is all the people who are going to die, and the pain they'll suffer."

"Oh." Aleksi crouched down beside her chair. She rested a hand on his hair, and he leaned against her, melting into this sign of her affection.

In the distance, the first line of siege towers jolted into the walls. They sat too far away to see anything but a tiny blur of movement; dust rose-or was that the blur of arrows? — and smoke streamed up into the clear morning sky. To Aleksi's ears, the attack sounded like the distant roar of a cataract. Above, on the battlements, Mitya stared toward the conflagration. A small gold banner whipped in the wind above his head, snapping rhythmically. Next to him, his dark shadow, stood Vasha, the boy's gold shirt like an echo of the banner. Katerina and Galina had also come to watch, but the rest of the children had stayed with the camp.

"Well," added Aleksi after a while, "the gods send us to our fate. They sent you to Bakhtiian, after all."

She blanched and removed her hand.

"Tess? Are you well?" he demanded, alarmed.

"It's not that. It's true, what you say. We might as well have been sent by the gods to aid Bakhtiian in his victories. Look at the modifications David made to the catapults, changing them from the lever to the counterpoise system. Look at Cara's hospital. Gods, look at Ursula, advising him with all of her textbook knowledge."

"What is textbook? Has she fought in such wars before? Certainly she knows a great deal, and Bakhtiian listens to her advice."

"She's only studied war before now, but still, the breadth of her knowledge… it's inevitable that her knowledge, given to him, alters the balance of power."

"But then if it's true that the gods favor Bakhtiian, why should we be surprised that the jaran are always victorious?"

She only shook her head, but as much as if she agreed with his comment as disagreed. She stood up again and paced down the length of the wall toward the tower, turned, and returned to Aleksi. Their escort ranged out around the base of the tower: Anatoly Sakhalin's jahar, resplendent in their armor and red silk surcoats, lances gleaming in the first light of the sun. Behind the jahar lay fields and the jaran camp; between them and the inner walls stretched the now deserted suburbs, emptied out by the army.

"Aleksi, go ride to see him."

"To see who?"

"Ilya. I'm just restless. I just-feel strange; I'm afraid that something bad might happen to him today. Just go and make sure that he's well and then come back to me."

She needed him. Heartened, and yet disturbed by her mood, Aleksi examined her. Finally he rested a hand on her shoulder. "Very well. I'll go. Shall I send someone up to sit with you?"

"Mitya and the girls are close by. Go on." She smiled at him, grateful, and he felt content.

He left. Below, he mounted, reported to Sakhalin, and rode out. He circled the outermost walls, crossing a stretch of fields and bypassing a straggle of refugees thrown out of the suburbs, passed back into the outer city, and came at last to a rise overlooking the great main gates of the inner city. Here, Bakhtiian had stationed himself and his jahar. His gold banner lifted in the wind, stirring gently, and every rider's spear bore a pennon of gold silk. No one spoke here; they only watched, and the pennants fluttered and snapped in the breeze. These ranks of riders wore gold and red surcoats, richly embroidered; their burnished helmets bore a tuft of horsetail, and the harness of their gray horses was ornamented with tassels and gold braid.

At the height of the rise, two riders sat side by side looking out of place in the midst of such panoply because they were so plainly outfitted. Bakhtiian wore lamellar armor covered with a plain red surcoat, and his stallion was distinguished only by the fact that it was the only black in the troop. He sat with his helmet tucked under one arm and turned his head to address a comment to Charles Soerensen, who wore a heavy quilted coat, belted at the waist, and no other armor. They might have been any two kings, allied in conquest, watching over their latest victory.

As Aleksi rode up to them, he considered what Tess had said. Perhaps they were. Although Charles Soerensen had no army here, and apparently no great army in his city of Jeds, perhaps he commanded stronger forces than soldiers.

"Aleksi!" Bakhtiian beckoned him over as soon as he saw him. "What are you doing here?" Soerensen turned his head to regard Aleksi as well.

"Tess was restless."

"She can't come in this close. I forbid it." Bakhtiian looked out toward the great gate. From this vantage point, the figures fighting up against the wall appeared to be the height of Aleksi's hand. Two troops of horsemen armored only in heavy coats and brocaded robes waited between

Bakhtiian's jahar and the troops besieging the wall- The arrow fire itself obscured the walls. The siege tower burned. Men swarmed up ladders, only to fall, stricken, or be drenched with steaming liquid. The constant pounding of the siege engines sent stones falling like rain into the city. Columns of smoke rose from inside the walls, and Aleksi saw, for the first time, the lick of flames on the roof of a minaret that stood within the walls. To the far right, missiles hurled from the siege engines crumbled the ramparts of a long stretch of wall. Like a still eddy in the midst, the scaffolding on which they had trussed up the Habakar king sat about two hundred paces away from the main gate. Aleksi could not see the king from this angle, to know whether the monarch was dead or alive. Certainly the heat of arrow fire around the gates was withering.

All at once, far to the right, to the north and west, a roar went up from the jaran army. In seeming concert, a rumble shook through the ground and to the left a portion of the wall sagged and gave way. Clouds of dust streamed into the sky. Bakhtiian drew his saber. Flags rose, passing the order down the line. A distant mass of Farisa auxiliaries, their wicker shields held angled in front of their bodies, charged forward toward the collapsed wall.

A small gate within the main gate opened. Khaja soldiers poured out, racing toward their king. Foot soldiers fanned out in a line and then men on horseback raced out, charging for the scaffolding. At once, the jaran troop below started forward, and a line of archers fired into the khaja ranks.

Bakhtiian turned. "Konstans. Go." About a third of the jahar detached itself from the group and drove forward, heading for the sortie.

"You send your own men?" Soerensen asked.

"The other jahar is lightly armored. They can't sustain under the fire from the walls. In any case, the insult remains against me."

"Ah."

Jaran fire peppered the ranks of the khaja riders and foot soldiers alike, from the women shielded by the front line of the troop. "That's the Veselov jahar," said Aleksi.

"So it is," said Bakhtiian. "No doubt their dyan will choose caution and pul! them back."

Already Konstans's unit pressed forward past the back ranks of the Veselov jahar, which split to either side to give them room to pass. But the foremost of the khaja horsemen had already reached the scaffolding, and four men flung themselves down off their horses and climbed to free their king.

A single rider broke away from the front rank of the Veselov jahar, spearing straight for the khaja ranks. They spun to face him, but he made it somehow through a barrage of arrows and leapt off of his horse onto the scaffolding, saber drawn, fighting. As two khaja warriors dragged the limp body of their king toward the horses, two more khaja arrived to confront the lone jaran man.

The pounding of hooves threw up dust, obscuring the scene below as Konstans and his riders charged into the enemy ranks beyond the scaffolding. Out of the cloud, figures appeared, running for the gate. A riderless horse caparisoned in the Habakar manner bolted free of the melee, followed by another. A man weighted down in armor stumbled wildly toward the small gate, but it closed before him.

The jaran unit emerged from the dust, wheeled, and drove back through. Arrows rained down from the walls, like a second cloud, like a storm of rain.

Out of the chaos the gold pennons appeared again, riding away from the walls. In their midst, they dragged along on the ground a figure dressed all in gold, gold surcoat, gold crown, tumbling in their wake-dead already or killed in the sortie, who could tell? Out of arrow's range one of the riders turned back in his saddle and cut the rope free, leaving the corpse all forlorn out on the churned-up field. By the time the unit rejoined Bakhtiian, enough dust had settled that Aleksi could see the scatter of bodies strewn haphazardly between the gates and the scaffolding. Veselov's jahar had pulled back out of catapult range. One of the archers set an arrow alight and fired; the arrow lodged at the top of the scaffolding, and flames licked at the pitch-covered wood. Three bodies lay at the base, two in khaja armor, one jaran.

"Konstans!"

Layered with dust and spattered with blood, Konstans rode up beside Bakhtiian. His face bore a cheerful grin. "That got the bastards."

"Casualties?"

"A few, but we got everyone back except for him." He nodded toward the lone jaran corpse.

"Who is it? It was foolhardy, but bravely done."

"Veselov."

"Anton Veselov!"

"No." Konstans glanced at Soerensen, at Aleksi, at the scaffolding that was smoking and really taking fire now, and then back at Bakhtiian. "Vasil Veselov."

Perhaps Tess could have read the expression that crossed Bakhtiian's face at that moment. Aleksi could not. Rage? Agony? Relief?

"Aleksi." Bakhtiian's voice was as cold as the winter wind. "Ride forward and tell Anton Veselov that he is dyan now."

Then, below, the jaran man moved, raising himself up on his elbows, and struggled away from the scaffolding back toward the jaran lines. His legs dragged behind him in the dust.

At once, four riders broke free from the Veselov jahar and rode for him. Arrows rained down from the walls. Bakhtiian swore, and his stallion shifted, reading his mood. He clapped on his helmet. And stopped.

"Konstans! Aleksi!"

Aleksi and Konstans exchanged a lightning-swift glance. As one, they rode forward, breaking into a gallop.

"Here," shouted Aleksi, detouring for the back of the troop. "Give me a shield. Konstans!"

They grabbed the great rectangular wicker shields used to protect the archers and rode on. Of the four riders racing for Veselov, one had fallen and another was hit. Konstans cursed, almost overbalanced by the awkward shield. Aleksi raced forward, gaining speed, gaining on the others. There, in the lead, that was Anton Veselov; he reached his cousin and bent down, hanging from his saddle to grab Vasil's outstretched arm. An arrow pierced his mount's shoulder, and the animal screamed and spun, almost trampling Vasil.

Then Aleksi and Konstans arrived. "Go ahead!" Aleksi shouted. "We'll cover your backs." He swung his horse around and balanced the wicker shield on his back. Konstans did likewise. The fourth rider swung down and hoisted Vasil up over his mount, got back on, and in this wise they sprinted out of arrow range. A rock thudded to the ground, spewing dirt, and another, and then they were out of catapult range.

Up on the rise, neither Bakhtiian nor his jahar moved but only watched as the riders straggled in with the two injured men thrown over the horses like sacks, and half of the horses limping and squealing. Vasil's eyes had rolled back. He looked dead.

"I need a new mount," said Anton Veselov. "Take them back to the hospital." He glanced up toward the rise, toward Bakhtiian, and then down at his cousin. Vasil's legs were a mass of wounds, scored with blood. Two arrows stuck out at an awful angle from his left thigh. His right shoulder weeped blood. His face was pale and his left cheek torn by a ragged, ugly cut.

"You're in command now, Veselov," said Aleksi, tossing the wicker shield to the ground. He counted seven arrows stuck in its fiber, and two shallow wounds in his mount's rump. Konstans's shield had ten arrows lodged in it. "I'll escort them partway, if you wish."

Anton stared at him a moment. A roar rose up from the left. The Farisa auxiliaries wavered, driven back from the breach in the wall by a scathing round of archery and catapult fire. Flags signaled. Anton started. "Archers, reinforce left," he shouted. He urged his new mount up to the horse across which Vasil lay and jerked the staff of command from Vasil's belt. "Damned fool," he said to his cousin's lifeless form. "But maybe you're better off dead. Go on, then," he said to Aleksi.

Konstans nodded at Aleksi and rode off, returning to Bakhtiian. Aleksi guided the others forward, and the lines parted to let them through. Up on the rise, Bakhtiian watched them go and then turned away as a rider bearing the green pennant of Raevsky's jahar galloped up to him. They fell into conference.

Aleksi rode beside Vasil, but the wounded man did not stir except as the movements of the horse jostled him. But he still breathed. Blood dripped from him onto the ground, leaving a trail. Aleksi parted from the wounded soldiers at the river and, alone, he made his way back to Tess's position.

He gave the reins of his horse to one of Sakhalin's men and took the stairs two at a time up to the walkway. There Tess sat in the chair, staring fixedly toward the battle. Mitya knelt at her feet, holding her hand. Smoke and dust obscured the city. Fires flared up in four different places within the walls.

"Tess?" All at once, fear seized his heart. "Tess!"

Slowly, slowly, she turned to look at him. He heard voices behind him, Katerina calling, "This way! This way! Hurry!" less was deadly pale, as pale as Vasil had been. Mitya jumped to his feet. "Thank the gods," he said.

"Tess!" Aleksi sprinted up to her and flung himself at her feet. He went hot and cold together in sheer, stark terror. "What's wrong?"

"Aleksi." Her voice was hoarse and unsteady. "I'm bleeding."

Up on the tower battlements, Vasha stood alone, gazing raptly at the battle. Katerina appeared on the ramparts, leading four soldiers carrying a litter.

Tess shut her eyes and opened them again. "Damn it," she muttered. She rubbed a hand over her lower belly. "Damn it." She started to get to her feet.

"No!" said Mitya. "No, Aunt Tess. We'll carry you. Don't move."

"He's right," said Aleksi, standing up as Tess rose. His hands, on her arm, shook. "We'll carry you to the hospital."

"No. To Cara's tent." A strange expression crossed her face. Her shoulders curled in and her left hand clenched up by her chin. "Breathe slow," she said to herself, but her breath came ragged. "Let it pass."

Then, without warning, she swore, a single word. Water gushed down her legs, staining her boots and the loose belled ends of her women's trousers.

Aleksi stared in horror. His fear for her paralyzed him. He could only stand and shake, clutching Tess by the arm. Mitya gasped. Katerina ran up beside them.

"Quick!" she exclaimed, surveying the situation with a comprehensive glance. "Quick, you idiots! Get her on the litter. The baby's coming!"

ACT FIVE

"These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve…"

— Shakespeare, The Tempest

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Beyond, the battle raged. Charles Soerensen watched it without any pleasure, but he watched it nevertheless. "If I were to die," he said to his companion, "and Tess inherit Jeds, then you would gain Jeds by more peaceful means than this."

Ilyakoria Bakhtiian glanced at him, then back at the battle. The fighting was fierce over the ruins of the wail, but neither side gained ground. "You would not have put yourself in my power if you thought I coveted Jeds, by whatever means I meant to use to get it. And I can't marry every princess. Nor would I want to."

"There are other means than marriage."

"There are, but with what power should I enforce them? The Great King of Vidiya will not grant me his throne simply because I ask him for it."

"Do you want his throne?"

Bakhtiian still wore his helmet. He had not taken it off since the death of the Habakar king and the removal of the injured jaran soldiers. Out on the field before the gates, bodies littered the ground surrounding the smoldering remains of the scaffolding. "I want an alliance with him."

"For now. Who is to say what you will want later?"

Now Bakhtiian turned his head to look directly at Charles. "Jeds is a rich city, with ships that sail to ports across the seas, and it boasts a fine university, but my army could ride across the extent of the lands Jeds calls her own in two days. How can you understand what I might want?"

"Because trade is as powerful as land. What makes these cities rich, here in Habakar? Not just fanning. Not just the metals and the crafts. Merchants caravan through here, and the governor of each city demands a toll, a tax, from each merchant. Jedan ships sail to more ports than you know of, and the more of that trade, the more of the seas, they control, the richer we become."

"So it was to negotiate trading rights that you sent less over the seas. She was spying on the khepellis."

"Is that what she told you?"

"I'm asking you."

A messenger rode up, blue pennant snapping from his upraised lance. He reported to Kirill Zvertkov, who was stationed at the far left of the jahar. The two men spoke together, and then Zvertkov sent him away. Over the distance, the blond rider and Bakhtiian looked toward each other; Zvertkov lifted his spear once, twice, and a third time. A hundred riders split off from Bakhtiian's jahar and rode away after the messenger. Bakhtiian watched them go and then turned back to Soerensen.

"The Chapalii control the seas," said Charles.

"They built Morava."

"They built it, yes."

"Do they want it back?"

"I don't know what lies in the mind of their emperor."

"They are zayinu. It's true that they might not think like we do. I often didn't understand them, when I escorted their priests to the shrine. And if they want these lands-my lands?"

"If they want these lands back, they will take them."

"They are so strong?"

Charles glanced up into the sky, but the clear blue was roiled by smoke and dust from the battle. He looked back down to regard Bakhtiian with an even gaze. "They are stronger than you with your army and I with my ships."

"Stronger than I with my army and you with your ships, if we had an alliance?"

"Ah," said Charles. His lips quirked up, not quite into a smile. "If we had an alliance. Don't we already?"

"Because of Tess? Quite the reverse, I thought."

"But don't you see, Bakhtiian, that Tess links us. In the jaran, she is your wife and also the adopted daughter of your aunt who is, as I understand it, a powerful ruler in her own right. In.Jeds, she is my heir."

"But in Jeds, if you had a child, that child would be your heir."

"I won't have a child."

"How can you know? You're still young-no older than me, I'd wager."

"I cannot have a child."

"I beg your pardon."

"No pardon necessary. It's a simple fact. I can't have a child, because any child that I have would be killed."

"Killed!" Bakhtiian looked astounded. Inside the city, a wooden tower built up against the walls collapsed in flames, and like an echo, a siege tower far to the right buckled and splintered and sagged into ruin. Men fell from its heights, or scrambled, screaming, from the wreckage. Smoke billowed up into the sky, obscuring the entire stretch of wall. The catapults kept up their fire, a constant, numbing harmony to the roar of battle.

"The children Tess has will be my heirs."

Bakhtiian took off his helmet and shook out his hair in the breeze. The acrid scent of burning, the pall of dust, tinged the air. "My children."

"Exactly. So you see, Bakhtiian, that we are already allied by many forces, by our own ambitions, by the threat of the Chapalii, by the children Tess will bear, by your education at the university my father founded and I built."

Bakhtiian considered in silence, and at last he spoke. "There is one thing I've never understood. Tess said that when you're not in Jeds, you sail to Erthe. Your mother came from that country, and so do many of the people in your party. Tess went there to study. Do you rule there? Was your mother the queen? Is that why she-married your father, the Prince of Jeds?"

Charles shook his head. "They do not govern on Earth as they do in Jeds or in Habakar lands. They rule, well, more like the jaran in the tribes: there is a council, and one woman or man who administers."

"And you are that man."

"Yes."

"But also Prince of Jeds."

"Yes."

"How can you be both? Why visit Erthe at all when you rule entire in Jeds?"

"Why live with your aunt's tribe?"

Bakhtiian grinned. "Any man must respect his mother's and his aunt's wishes."

"So it is with us as well. I am a child of two countries, just as the child less is carrying will be a child of two countries. But there is one other thing that Tess did not, perhaps, explain to you."

Bakhtiian lifted one expressive eyebrow. "No doubt."

Charles chuckled. "I beg your pardon. It was in deference to my orders that she kept her secrets. If I may?"

"Soerensen, I have learned more from you today than I have in three years from Tess. Why now?"

"Because of what I learned at the palace-the shrine-of Morava. Bakhtiian, Earth does not rule itself. It is part of the Chapalii Empire, where it lies, far across the seas. We rule within our lands, by their favor, but they rule us completely,"

"But Jeds-"

"They are not yet concerned with Jeds."

"Tess said that the khepellis had only recently learned about the shrine itself." Bakhtiian stared, musing, at the city, at the figures struggling on the walls, at the archers below and above firing sheets of arrows, at the flames inside the city, at the trampled corpse of the Habakar king. The thud of artillery serenaded them. Yet Bakhtiian did not really seem to be watching the battle but rather something beyond it. "Gods. Then why-?" He broke off. "You mean to free yourselves, to free Erthe, from their rule."

"Of course."

"Of course," Bakhtiian echoed. "Of course. And you want my help."

"We of Earth can't war with the Chapalii outright. They're too strong."

"Though they rule you, you aren't part of their empire, not in truth. Not in your hearts."

"Not at all."

Bakhtiian considered Karkand. For a while his gaze rested on the Farisa auxiliaries, taking the brunt of the attack over the mined wall. "It's true that a land may be won by war, but to hold on to it takes subtler skills. To hold on to what you've won, and to unite it. Since the khepelli are zayinu, there is even less reason to love them or to accept their rule. What profit for me in this alliance?"

"What do you want?"

"I want Jeds."

Charles laughed. "I thought you didn't covet Jeds."

"I only said that you must not think I did, to put yourself in my power. If I said the word, my men would kill you."

"True," said Charles coolly. "But you'd still be no closer to having Jeds."

Bakhtiian's lips twitched up into a smile. "It's true that Tess would repudiate me in an instant if I killed you. Well, then, if I can't have Jeds, then I want all the lands that lie between."

"I can't promise you them. And I didn't say that I wasn't willing to bargain with Jeds."

Stones lobbed out from the city fell harmlessly onto the ground a hundred paces in front of them, spewing clots of dirt into the air. A clay pot filled with water struck earth and broke into shards; the water spattered and steamed over the churned-up soil.

Bakhtiian stared at Charles, eyes wide and questioning. "But then-" He broke off and twisted around in his saddle.

"Bakhtiian!" A rider hailed him. The next instant, two other riders appeared, galloping, driving their mounts hard. They resolved into two of the Orzhekov children, the brother and sister, Mitya and Galina.

Bakhtiian muttered a word under his breath. His stallion shifted restlessly beneath him, sidestepping.

As they rode closer, the children could be seen to have pale faces and a drawn look about their mouths. Still, Bakhtiian held his place, waiting for them to attend him.

Mitya held back so that his sister could take right of place before Bakhtiian. She reined her mare in beside him.

"Cousin! It's less!" She broke off and cast a glance back at her brother. He nodded.

"Go on," said Bakhtiian sharply.

Galina gulped and went on. "The baby's coming early."

Charles swore. "I must go back. Are you coming?"

Bakhtiian did not reply. A huge stone flung from Karkand struck the ground about eighty paces in front of them. The impact shuddered through the soil. Dirt sprayed out.

Konstans rode up beside Bakhtiian. "They're getting better range. Perhaps we'd better move back."

Bakhtiian flashed a furious glance toward Konstans. "I do not move back! We hold our position." He was taut with suppressed emotion. "Mitya, you will stay with me. Galina, go with the prince."

"You're not coming with me?" Charles demanded.

Bakhtiian turned his dark stare toward Soerensen. "Don't you think I want to go? But I have a duty to my army. I must remain here, to be seen, until nightfall."

"Ah," said Charles. "I understand."

"Yes," said Bakhtiian softly, "I think you do. Go. I will come when I can." He was pale, and his horse minced under him. "Konstans, get Mitya some armor and take him back behind the lines until he's suitably outfitted to sit up here with me."

"Of course." Konstans rode away with the boy.

"Well, then," said Charles.

"Keep her well," said Bakhtiian. His voice slipped and broke on hoarseness.

"Cara will be with her. Nightfall, then." He reined his horse aside and followed Galina toward camp. Behind, Bakhtiian fastened on his helmet, clenched his hands on the reins, and stared out at the assault. Inside the walls a minaret burned, flames leaping up its delicate neck to scorch and engulf the ornamented tower. A din rose from the city like the distant clamor of the ocean: the blare of trumpets, the roar of flames, the constant arrhythmic thunk of catapult fire, the bellowing of animals, a multitude of sobs and cries all blended with the clash of the armies and the screams of the wounded and the pounding of stone against stone as artillery battered down the walls of Karkand. The sun sank toward the west, and as sunset came, the light ran like blood along the western hills.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

David could not bear to go anywhere near the siege, now that he'd done his work so well. He could not bring himself to observe the fruits of his labors, since it had cost him nothing, and others-jaran soldiers, khaja civilians-so much. He condemned himself as a coward and a hypocrite. As penance, he worked triage in the hospital with Marco and Gwyn Jones. The wounded came in in a steady stream. Three times David almost fainted from the sight of blood and gaping flesh. After the third time, a numbness settled over him and he could follow Marco about, helping him hold down the screaming wounded, refilling the three leather flasks he carried- one with water, one with alcohol, and one with a jaran concoction, a blend of herbs in tea that dulled pain. At the water jars, he met Diana Brooke-Holt. Blood spattered her tunic, and she gave him a pained smile, filled her flasks, and went back out to the ranks of wounded.

Now and again David lugged some poor soul into the surgery where Cara and the best of the jaran healers worked. Jo Singh had set up several huge copper pots of water to boil, to sterilize instruments. After depositing his unconscious patient on a table, David took a break from the wounded for a while and cleaned the crude instruments and boiled them and lifted them out to dry with a set of metal tongs.

He was standing there, sweating from the steam and the heat of the coals, when Gwyn Jones and a jaran woman brought in a stretcher. A blond man lay on it, looking more dead than alive.

Cara glanced up. Her eyes widened. "Vasil! Here, Gwyn, I'm done here. Bring him to me."

The transfer was made. "He's badly wounded," said Gwyn. "Do you think he'll make it?"

"You know him?" Cara's tone was sharp.

A ghostly smile passed over Gwyn's lips. "Not in that way, if that's what you mean. He comes to watch the acting. He has-what should I call it? — charisma, I suppose. And he's a handsome man." He paused, wiping his hands down his stained trousers. David could see the jaran man's face where he lay, unconscious, on his back on the table: a huge gash had ripped one cheek open, and his forehead was bloody and torn. His other wounds looked worse. "Or he was, at any rate. Will he live?"

"I don't know." She turned to examine him, and her two young jaran assistants huddled around her, aiding her, observing her.

David steeled himself and went back outside. In truth, the noise bothered him more than the blood. Some of them moaned, a reedy, grating sound. Some of them screamed as if they meant to rub their throats raw. Others lay there in stoic silence, suffering their agonies without a word. A few whispered, begging for water. Under a huge canopy lay those Marco deemed would not survive or were too badly wounded to benefit from the crude surgery available. Jaran attendants moved among them, relatives, perhaps, providing succor. David saw Diana there as well, carrying two flasks, soothing the dying with her gentle hands and voice. Oh, Goddess, he was tired. He found a corner of ground and shut his eyes. Mercifully, he slept at once.

The thunder of hooves woke him. A rider dismounted, saw David, and ran over to him. It was Tess's adopted brother, Aleksi.

"Where is the doctor?" he demanded. He looked wild-eyed, not at all composed as he usually was.

"She's-what's wrong?"

"Tess. The child is coming early."

"Oh, hell! I'll go tell Cara. Where is Tess?"

"I took her to the doctor's tent."

David sprinted for the surgery tent and burst inside. "Cara!"

She did not look up, "What is it, David?"

"Aleksi just rode in," he said in Anglais. "He says that Tess has gone into premature labor."

Cara's head jerked up. Blood trickled over her fingers where they rested on her patient's hips. "Let me finish here. Jo, you'll be in charge of equipment, Sibirin of the healers, until I can return. David, go with Aleksi."

David ran back outside. Aleksi had already commandeered another horse. "Where is the doctor?" Aleksi snapped.

"Coming in five minutes."

"She has to come now!"

"I'll come now. She's finishing with a patient. Come on."

They rode off together, across the hospital grounds and on through into the center of camp, where Cara's tent lay close by Tess's. They gave their horses to Vasha and went inside. In the inner chamber, Tess lay on her left side on the examination table, breathing evenly. She looked pale but otherwise composed. Maggie stood beside her, holding her hand.

"Tess!"

She twisted her head to look behind her. "David. Where did you come from?"

"Goddess! Let we wash myself first. What happened?"

"My water broke." The color leached from her face suddenly, and when she spoke, her voice was tiny. "Is Cara coming?"

"Yes. Let me wash. Aleksi, come with me."

"David, I'm scared."

"I know." He felt a great sinking gap in his chest at her words. Her fear terrified him. "Cara will be here soon."

"We sent Mitya and Galina to tell Bakhtiian and Charles," said Maggie. She rubbed Tess's hands between hers. "Katerina went to get her mother."

David went over to the counter, where the sterilizing unit lay. "Here, Aleksi, help me move this to the outer chamber." They lugged it out. Tess watched them go. David set it down and triggered it. "Now, do what I do. Listen, Aleksi, you're going to have to run interference."

"Interference?" Aleksi kept glancing back toward the inner chamber.

"I don't know what Cara intends. I suppose it depends on how the delivery goes, but Tess is so early… You're going to have to keep your people out of there."

"Ah." Having a job to do seemed to steady Aleksi's nerves. "Dr. Hierakis will use her machines to help Tess and the baby."

"If she has to. Charles is going to be furious."

"Why?"

David looked up in surprise. "Well, Charles wanted Tess in Jeds. It's dangerous…"

"I know childbirth is difficult for women, and that they die at times, and early babies usually die at once, of course, but Tess-" Aleksi's expression pinched in, and David saw how frightened the young rider was. "The doctor doesn't think Tess is going to die, does she?" His voice broke.

"Aleksi." He hesitated. He didn't know what to say.

"Is it because she isn't in the heavens? Was she never meant to have a child down here? Oh, gods." He lapsed into silence. David finished the sterilization procedure, and Aleksi mimicked him stiffly, jerkily. His whole body betrayed his agony.

David took in a deep breath. "Now. You go in and sit with Tess, and send Maggie out to sterilize. I'll have to do some arranging here-"

Aleksi went in at once. Maggie emerged. "Oh, Mags, this is awful. Let me see. We'll move some things aside, here, and get out this cloth. Oh, can you go outside and set several pots to boiling? We'll need lots of hot water, more as a cover than anything." Maggie nodded and hurried outside. In the inner chamber, Tess and Aleksi spoke to each other quietly. David could not make out their words.

At last, at last, Cara strode in. She stopped, surveyed the chamber, nodded once briskly, and then ran her hands and outer clothes through the sterilizer. She ran a damp cloth over her face and pulled a cap over her hair. "David, I'll want you to attend and Aleksi will have to keep everyone out." David followed her inside, and Aleksi retreated. "Well, Tess, what happened? I see. No, stay on your side. Let me attach this monitor here. Don't move, I'm running a scan,"

David watched as Cara ran the scan down over Tess's body. Tess faced away from them, lying quietly, working hard on breathing slowly. Cara's hand stopped dead over Tess's abdomen. An expression of horror passed over Cara's face. She made a tiny sound in her throat and fiddled with her fingers on the scanner, and ran it again.

"Cara, what is it?" Tess began to crane her neck back to look.

"Don't move!" Cara snapped. She sidestepped over to the counter, slotted the scanner into the flat modeler, and read the screen.

"Is the baby all right?"

"Fine. Listen, Tess, there's no telling how long this will take, but I'm afraid it'll be fast. Ah, here comes a contraction. Does it hurt?"

Tess took in seven tense breaths and let them out before she spoke. "Not much. And they're short."

"But damned effective. That's often the case with premature labor. Goddess, you're only twenty-nine weeks. Tess, if we were on Earth, I’d have few worries about saving the baby. But you realize-"

Tess shut her eyes. "Are you telling me it's going to die?"

"The conditions-"

"It's my fault for refusing to leave!"

"No, Tess! We're not throwing around blame here. You seem to forget there is another person involved in this transaction: yourself. Tess." She came over and took a tight hold on Tess's hands. "Tess." She bent and kissed her. David admired Cara's calmness, her ability to bury her emotions in order to act professionally. It was what made her so effective. "There's no guarantee that you'll react, or when it will hit if you do, or how badly, but I want you to promise me that you'll believe that I'll pull you through, that you'll trust me to do that."

Another contraction came. David could recognize them now by the look of concentration Tess got on her face, a kind of dropping away from everyone and everything else. It faded.

Tess lay her face on Cara's hand. Her own hands gripped tight onto Cara's fingers. "I trust you, Cara," she said in a whisper.

"Oh, my little girl," murmured Cara. A single tear slid down her cheek. "Why are you so damned stubborn?"

Tess did not reply.

Voices outside. A moment later, thrusting the flap aside, Charles strode in.

"Have you washed?" Cara demanded.

He halted, turned, and went back out.

"Did Ilya come with him?" Tess asked in a small voice-The flap stirred again, and Maggie pushed through. She raised her hands up. "Sealed and approved. What can I do, Cara?"

"Sit here with Tess while I go argue with Charles." Cara bent and kissed Tess again, and eased her hands away. "David, come with me."

"What are you going to argue about?" Tess asked, managing a tenuous smile.

"The Soerensen family stubbornness. I don't want him to do anything rash."

"Oh, gods, Cara. Don't let him intervene now."

"We'll do what we have to, Tess. Don't argue with me. David?"

In the outer chamber, Charles had thrown off his quilted coat and stood leaning over the table, keying in to a slate laid out on the flat surface.

"What are you doing?" asked Cara.

"Calling in a shuttle."

"Charles!"

He looked up at them, and David saw how drawn, how tense, his expression was. "This is Tess, Cara."

"This planet is interdicted, Charles. Do you intend to call a shuttle down in the middle of camp?"

"If I have to."

"Against Tess's express wishes?"

"If I judge that she's incompetent to decide, yes."

"Charles!" exclaimed David.

"I meant at this moment, under these conditions, dammit. Don't argue with me." He continued keying in.

"All right," said Cara. "Let's compromise. Call one in but keep it circling at a high enough altitude that it won't be spotted, unless they think it's some kind of a bird. There's no guarantee you can even get it here before she delivers in any case. She's already over halfway to full dilation."

"There's still the baby to consider. Surely this early it'll need special care that you can't provide. Most of your provisions were made for Tess's care, not for this premature a child."

"The point is moot, Charles." Her voice cracked.

He straightened. "What do you mean?" His eyes narrowed.

Even this far from the siege, David could smell smoke on the air, the perfume of distant burning, a hint of dust tickling his nose. He sneezed.

Impatiently, Cara wiped another tear from her cheek. When she spoke, she spoke in a whisper. "No heartbeat. She went into labor because the fetus died."

David felt sick with anger and shock. His throat tensed, choked, and he couldn't swallow.

"Sometime in the last twenty-four hours," Cara went on, her voice still soft, slipping into a cool, clinical mode although a third tear, and a fourth, trailed down her face. "There's preliminary evidence that the placenta ripped away from the uterine lining, but I don't know yet. Charles."

He sat down. He said-nothing.

"Is Bakhtiian here?"

Still he said nothing. He covered his face with his hands and rested there, not moving.

David felt impelled to do something, anything. He walked to the entrance and peeked outside. Aleksi attended the great pots of water warming over two fires. He glanced back, saw David, and lifted a hand in acknowledgment. Already a crowd of children had gathered, and beyond them, a line of guards ringed the camp, Anatoly Sakhalin's jahar, guarding Bakhtiian's wife. A woman broke through the line and jogged toward them. David let the curtain fall and turned back. "Incoming," he said. "It's Sonia. I know she's going to want to see Tess."

"Here, Charles," said Cara briskly. "Go in and pull the curtains over the countertop, and disguise the table. Let me see. David, what can I do with her? I need to start an IV, so I'll need some excuse to get Sonia outside after she's seen Tess."

Charles lowered his hands. "Does Tess know? About the baby?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because she's got enough ahead of her as it is. I didn't think-"

"I'll tell her." He rose.

"Charles! You will not!"

He was angry now. "She has a right to know now. Or do you think it's better for her to go through it and then find out? That we make that decision for her?"

Cara rounded on him. "Why, Charles, this is new. That's your usual mode of operation, isn't it? Hoard all the vital information to yourself. Make the decisions for others."

"You're very protective and self-righteous all of a sudden."

"I'll thank you," said David curtly, "not to argue. Don't be stupid. Now, what do we do about Sonia? Where is Bakhtiian?"

Charles moved abruptly. He crossed the chamber and embraced Cara, and they stood together for a long moment, silent.

"I'm sorry," murmured Cara.

He just shook his head. David thought his heart would break, to see their sorrow. Then Charles kissed her and they separated. Charles sighed, crossed back to the table, and slid the slate into its slot underneath the wood grain surface. "Bakhtiian has to stay with the army until nightfall. Listen. Give me a few moments alone with Tess. Then send Sonia in to me, and I'll let her talk to her. I'll find some way that the two of us, Sonia and I, can go outside. There's no point in me attending Tess, Cara. I can't contribute anything except grief and anxiety and that won't do you any good."

Cara nodded. Charles went inside, and a moment later

Maggie emerged from the inner chamber. The bells tinkled on the entrance flap, and Sonia swept in.

"I beg your pardon," she said to Cara, "for charging in. But less-" She was pale, her lips set with worry.

From the inner chamber, they heard Tess start to cry, soft, despairing sobs. Sonia went white. "Go on," said Cara gently. Sonia rushed in.

David and Maggie and Cara looked at each other. Tess sobbed. Sonia spoke soothing words to her, and once Charles spoke, softly.

"Well," said Cara suddenly. "We've work to do. Maggie, I'm going to need Jo. There's one thing I have to do, and it's going to take all of our skill to pull it off." "What do you mean?" Maggie asked. "You'll switch with Jo at the surgery," Cara continued, so preoccupied now that David wondered if she'd even heard Maggie's question. "You know the routine in the surgery well enough. If you can't stomach it, then-well, Sibirin can order things perfectly well."

"I can handle it," said Maggie. She looked at David, asking a question with her eyes, but he could only stare back. He had no answer either, for anything. He heaved his shoulders in a sigh and drew a hand back over his hair. His fingers tangled in his name braids, and as they smacked together and stilled, he mouthed a prayer. "I'll go, then," said Maggie, and she left. "What about me?" David asked quietly. "We build what we can out of tragedy," said Cara in a soft voice. "I can't let this opportunity go by."

"What opportunity? Cara, you sound like you're trying to talk yourself into something."

Charles pushed the curtain aside and poked his head through. "Cara, are you coming back? The contractions are picking up. Sonia and are I going out to get some things for the baby." Behind him, David saw Sonia bend down and kiss Tess, and embrace her, holding her. Then she straightened and came over to Charles.

"Yes, we'll need one of our stoves, and a cradle, and a scarf and blankets to wrap it in. If it can live at all, if it's as early as it seems, then we'll need to keep it warm.

Some goat's milk, perhaps." She met Cara's gaze. "I'll arrange all this."

"That would be wonderful," said Cara. "I'll attend to Tess."

There was a pause. Then Sonia took hold of Cara's hand, briefly, and let it go. "There is no healer in this camp I would trust as I trust you," she said. Charles waved her forward and she preceded him out.

Cara crossed through into the inner chamber. The room lay swathed in cloth, which draped the counters and shielded the table readouts. Two holographic lanterns lit the space, suspended from the corners. "Increase illumination," said Cara, and the light brightened.

Tess lay on the table with her eyes closed. Tears streaked her face. "Oh, God," she said. "All for nothing."

"Hush, child," said Cara. She smoothed Tess's hair down tenderly and let her hand linger on Tess's cheek. "Let's get these clothes off you."

"One's coming," said Tess. "Shouldn't it hurt more than this? It doesn't really hurt at all."

"Except in the heart, my child. David, can you help me with her trousers? We'll need to prop you up, Tess, here at the end of the table, for the delivery. Maybe David can just sit behind you."

"What about Jo?" David asked.

Cara shook her head. "At the rate Tess is dilating, Jo may not get here in time. Gloves. Stool."

"Another one," said Tess.

"David, go get Aleksi." David dashed into the other chamber, called outside, and ran back in. "I'll need a second covering, here at the end of the bed," Cara continued as if he hadn't moved.

"It's changing. It's going lower. Cara, is this what's supposed to happen?"

"Yes. Breathe evenly. Lay back, I've got to examine you. This will be uncomfortable. David, uncover the counter and start the procedure that's listed on the monitor." Bells tinkled. Aleksi and Jo came in together. "Sterilize," said Cara, and they went out and came back in. "Jo, thank goodness." Jo nodded and went over to the counter. "Aleksi, sit with Tess."

David moved aside to make room for Jo and looked back to see Aleksi staring at them in amazement.

"Where's Ilya?" Tess asked. "Another one."

"He'll be here," said Cara. "He'll be here."

"But the men are supposed to leave camp," said Aleksi. "It's bad luck for a man to watch a child's birthing."

"Aleksi, you may leave if you wish. I need your help, and jaran customs aren't our customs. Which will it be?"

"Oh, stay, Aleksi," said Tess, and Aleksi went to her at once. She let out her breath all at once, and her voice took on a sudden intensity. "Cara, I have to push."

David watched, feeling useless. Jo worked on with efficient fury, linking equipment, setting up the IV. Aleksi helped Tess sit up, leaning into her, linking his arms under her arms and over her chest, so that she could prop herself up on him. Cara waited.

It didn't take very long for the baby to come, and it was no wonder. In two pushes the head crowned, and on the third the body eased out into Cara's waiting hands. Its skin had a strange bluish-gray color, smeared with some whitish substance, and the body was perfectly formed: miniature fingers and toes, testicles, button nose, and perfect rosebud lips, crowned by a shockingly black crop of hair. It was a tiny little thing, so tiny.

So still.

Aleksi buried his face against Tess's hair.

Cara cut the cord.

Tess stared. "Cara," she said. "It's so hot in here. Could you get me a blanket, I'm freezing." She shuddered, all through her frame. Her eyes rolled up, and she sagged back against Aleksi.

"David! Take the baby. I've got to deliver the placenta."

"I can't!" Still and dead, the baby barely stretched longer than Cara's cupped hands. It was bloody, too, streaks of it that echoed the streaks of blood along Tess's thighs.

"You must, David." Cara's voice cracked over him, and he obeyed blindly, through tears, taking the tiny thing from her and wrapping it in a white square of cloth that

Jo handed him without looking at him. The body was warm and soft, cooling as he held it. One little hand peeped out of the cloth, each minute finger tipped with a white nail. He covered it hastily, binding it in under the cloth.

He felt dazed. A numbing roar descended on him, and he watched as through a haze while Cara and Jo fussed over Tess, hooked her up to this and that, flicked on the modeler, cut off her tunic, set into a glass dish the strange veined blood-red creature that was the placenta. Tess's image appeared, floating in the air at the foot of the bed, turning, pulsing critical red all along its length.

Voices sounded outside. Cara did not even look up. David shook with exhaustion and realized that he was squeezing the bundle in his arms. He was filled suddenly with such revulsion that he thought he might well be sick.

"Think, you idiot," he said under his breath. Bells chimed.

"I don't think-" someone said, protesting.

"I will see Tess!" said Bakhtiian.

Without thinking, David stepped to the curtain and eased himself through so that the curtain sealed shut behind him. "Don't go in!" he said. And came up short, facing Bakhtiian.

Rajiv stood wringing his hands a pace behind the other man. "Oh, thank goodness, David!" he exclaimed. Then, like a coward, he turned and hurried back outside.

David made himself look at Bakhtiian, but Bakhtiian only stared at the bundle in David's arms. He smelled of smoke and dust, and his clothes still bore the impression of his armor. His face was ashen. Slowly, he held out his hands. David gave him the child.

He cradled it against his chest. Easy enough, that was, since the bundle did not reach from his elbow to his hand. With the other hand, carefully, he unwrapped the cloth. The hair showed first, all course and black, and then the impossibly perfect face, still and shuttered. The tiny arms, the fingers, the chest, the legs, and the tiny tiny little toes. He said nothing; he did nothing but breathe. Then, more carefully than David had, he wrapped the little body back up and hugged it closer against him. He raised haunted eyes to David's face.

"Tess?"

"I don't know," said David. "I don't know. Dr. Hierakis is with her. We can't disturb her." He braced himself for a torrent of protest, but Bakhtiian said nothing. David glanced back toward the curtain. He heard Cara and Jo, speaking terse, quiet phrases that David himself barely understood and Bakhtiian certainly could not understand: IV, anesthesia, transfusion, systolic pressure, basal temperature, placenta abruptio, antibody sensitization.

In the middle of the room, Ilya Bakhtiian stood silent, crying, holding his dead son.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Jiroannes sat under the shelter of his awning, a blanket over his legs, his torso and arms encased in a fine brocade coat, and watched the glow in the west where the sun sank down over the hills and blended its light with smoke and fire from distant Karkand. He sipped at hot tea. Steam rose from the porcelain cup; this cup alone, of all that Syrannus had so carefully packed back at his uncle's villa, still remained fit for him to drink from. All the others had been chipped or broken or stained. Vines and peacocks circled the rim, a delicate round of painting. The aroma of the tea soothed him. Around him, the camp was quiet. At last.

He shuddered. He had not known that a woman could shriek that loudly, or that a woman who so clearly feared his attentions in the bed would show such anger when he informed her that he intended to visit elsewhere that night. As if it was any right of hers to dictate where he found his pleasure. But perhaps Syrannus had been right all along. The old man had, in his mild way, cautioned against the marriage. And yet, Laissa's audience with Mother Sakhalin had proved successful, or at least, so Laissa had reported. With the Habakar king in the hands of Bakhtiian, Habakar merchants streamed to Jiroannes's camp to beg for an audience with the princess Jiroannes had married. No, Syrannus had been wrong: The alliance would serve him well.

"Eminence?" Lal scurried toward him, bearing a thin-necked porcelain pitcher glazed white and etched with flowers. "May I pour you more tea?"

Jiroannes nodded. As Lal bent, Jiroannes saw a mottling on the boy's dark skin. "What is this?" he asked, reaching up to touch the bruise with one finger.

"It is nothing, eminence."

"It is a bruise. Where did you get it?"

Lal kept his eyes cast down. "It is nothing, eminence."

"I command you to tell me."

Lal finished pouring and backed away two steps. "The mistress struck me, eminence, when I entered her chambers after…" He faltered.

"After we argued." Wind stirred the awning. Beyond, smoke obscured much of the western curve of the sky, but above, stars began to show in the high bank of the heavens. It was frustrating enough never to know what was going on in camp, except that the jaran had at last assaulted Karkand. Jiroannes felt strongly that Mitya noticed and cared for him, but he doubted if Bakhtiian even remembered that a Vidiyan ambassador abided in his train. In order to complete his mission, he needed Bakhtiian's notice. And now-now Laissa had the audacity to strike his servants. It was all too much.

"Lal, you will cease waiting on my wife. It is insufferable that she treat you in such a fashion. Henceforth, you will serve me alone and cease going into the women's quarters. I'm sure that will be a relief to you, in any case."

Lal sank to his knees, balancing the pitcher in trembling hands. "I beg of you, eminence, it was nothing."

"You want to continue to serve her?" Jiroannes was astounded. "After she, a mere woman, treated you in such a way?"

"Eminence." Lal bent his head and shoulders, curving over the pitcher. From the guards" camp, Jiroannes heard a hacking cough and a baby's whimper. Darkness shielded the hills. The smoldering haze of the besieged city illuminated the western horizon. "I am not a man. My mother sold me into the palace service when I was still a boy, and after they cut me, I knew that only in the women's quarters could I rise to a position of importance. Eunuchs are not allowed to hold any office higher than that of attendant of the sash in a lord's household, and never any administrative office." In the lantern light,

Jiroannes studied the boy's beardless cheeks. "You have treated me well, eminence. You have been generous and kind, but you know it's true that while I can't become an offical in the Great King's court, I am welcome within the women's quarters."

Jiroannes tilted his head back. The underside of the awning lay dark above him, but he knew the scene well enough, having seen it created in the slave workshop abutting the women's quarters in his uncle's house: fine Vidiyan lords in their Companion's sashes riding to battle flanked by flags and standards and the Great King seated under a parasol, observing the march. A moment's reflection assured him that Lal was right: a eunuch was not considered a fit servant in a man's household, except as a body servant, and certainly not in the household of a Companion of the Great King. A eunuch might tie a lord's sash, but neither eunuch nor woman was allowed to hold the parasol over the Great King's head. Eunuchs belonged in the women's quarters, as go-betweens, as guards, as master of the gate and master of the treasury, as ministers seeing to the administration within the cloistered walls.

"Very well," he said at last. "But you remain under my protection."

"You are all that is magnanimous, eminence."

Jiroannes drained his tea, and Lal poured more into the cup. The warm liquid soothed him, and he felt the truth of Lal's words. He had been kind and generous to his slaves, and yet, one still eluded him. "Lal, send Samae to me."

Lal bowed his head and retreated. Soon enough, Samae appeared, dressed in striped trousers and a quilted damask robe, and knelt before Jiroannes, head bent in submission. Her hair had grown long enough to twine into a braid at the ends, fastened off with a silk ribbon. She folded her fine-boned hands in her lap and sat so still that the only movement he could see, on her, was the stirring of the ends of her hair on her collar. The carpet sank under her knees, forming a dark hollow.

"Samae, why did you refuse your freedom, when Bakhtiian himself granted it to you?"

At first she said nothing. Wind rustled through the tasseled fringe of the awning and shuddered the walls of his tent. He smelled smoke from the guards" camp; or was that a taint on the wind, blown in from Karkand?

"I am a slave, master," she said at last. Her voice was scarcely louder than the wind's rustle. Her voice. It was deeper than he had imagined it would be.

"But I command you to accept your freedom."

"Only the gods command me, master." She doubled over and touched her forehead to the carpet and lay there for the space of twelve heartbeats before lifting her head up again. "I am a slave by their law."

"By their law? What gods? What law is this?"

Under her lashes, she lifted her gaze to look at him. She had liquid brown eyes, dark and slanted against the pale ivory of her skin. "It is death to speak their name. Their laws are cruel, and they hate us for our ugliness."

"Samae, surely I do not understand you correctly," he said, exasperated. "The Everlasting God has given man laws in order that we may live as befits His Word. He shepherds us, in our ignorance, for we are His creation."

"We are clay," murmured Samae, as if she had not heard him, "clay and unclean water, and nothing else."

Jiroannes was too appalled to speak. Here he had thought that the great Tadesh Empire was a civilized country; certainly their concubines and dancers and metalwork and pottery were of the finest quality.

"When my grandfather's grandmother begged for their pity, because she was barren, they granted her wish but with this price: that one child from each generation be sold into slavery. I am the child the gods chose."

"But-" He took a sip of tea and choked on it. "Even a slave has certain rights, as we read in the words of the Everlasting God and his three prophets. Among those rights, the right to be freed."

"I am a slave," said Samae in her stubborn, soft, deep voice, "so that my family will remain free of the curse of barrenness. I will not bring this curse back on them. I cannot. Freedom is forbidden us, who are slaves by the gods" will."

"So if I command you to be free, you will not accept?"

She bent double again, brushing her forehead on the stiff carpet. "You are my master on this earth of clay, but the gods rule me."

Jiroannes realized that she was not bowing to him, but to her gods. A sudden compulsion seized him: to know her, to know of her, to make her speak her thoughts aloud, to fathom what lay behind her blank expression. "Then you serve the gods as your master?"

She remained bent over. Her voice emerged, muffled, out of the collar of her damask coat. "We cannot serve the gods, since they despise us."

"But if you're so much beneath their notice, then why bother to obey their laws at all?"

"They punish those who rebel against them."

Jiroannes let out a great sigh. He lifted his cup up, and Jat padded out of the shadows and took it away. Without knowing why, he extended a hand and brushed his fingers back along her hair and toyed with the ribbon holding her braid fast. "Why did you cry, when we saw the play-the dancers who speak with both words and hands?"

"Because the jaran believe their gods are kind."

"I don't understand."

The radiance along the western horizon swelled and brightened and then faded back down to a luminescent glow. "The woman came from the heavens, did she not? And the man loved her, and he got her with child. So she gave him a sword that she had stolen from her mother, die sun. But a sword brought from heaven bears two edges. For each blessing, it brings you also a curse."

Her voice had a hollow unearthliness that made him nervous. He jerked his hand away from her hair. The wind picked up. Golden tassels danced and fluttered, spinning, along the awning. His sleeve quivered, like an animal shifting in sleep and then settling. "Why should you care, in any case," he asked, "that the jaran believe their gods are kind?"

She did not speak for a long while. At last, she lifted her head enough that he could see her pale cheeks and the dark slash of her mouth. The lantern light caught the glistening of tears on her cheeks, and tears welling in her eyes gave those eyes the brilliance of jewels. "Because they will learn otherwise," she whispered.

"But why-?" But he knew, to see her face, why she cared. She had lived long enough in Tadesh, perhaps even with her family, to learn their dances, the secret of which passed down only within their own race. Then, sold into slavery, she had sailed alone over the wide seas and come into a foreign country and been sold again, into the hands of a foreign master. Alone, at the mercy of her gods, it was no wonder he had never seen her smile. The only wonder was that he had never seen her cry before now. But she had never cared about him. He was only her master on this earth of clay. Probably she had never cared about anyone or anything in Vidiya; had not cared until she came to the jaran. Until she saw their women walking free. Until she was sent to the tent of a boy newly come to manhood,

"I will undertake to treat you more kindly," he said, wanting suddenly for her to think well of him. "It's too bad the jaran don't allow slaves in their camps, or I'd give you to Prince Mitya as a gift."

She gasped, harsh, as if he had hit her. Her hands moved frantically in a sign, warding him off. Or not him, perhaps, but the notice of her gods. She struck her forehead to the carpet once, twice, a third time, keening in a thin, muted voice, and then fell silent, and stilled.

Jiroannes stared at her, taken aback. "Go in to my tent," he said brusquely. "You'll attend me when I'm ready for bed."

With no expression on her face, she rose, bowed, and retreated into his tent. Jiroannes swore under his breath, flung the blanket off his legs, and stood up. Jat padded forward and eased it off the carpet, and briskly folded it up, and vanished back into the shadows. Jiroannes strode to the edge of the carpet. The tassels spun over his head, gold thread glinting and sparking in the lantern light. Beyond, the camp of the jaran army stretched on endlessly into the night. A few campfires burned, in his guards" encampment, along ambassador's row, and farther on, into the main camp. Stars glistened above, as unobtainable as Samae. He saw now that he would never be anything to her but her temporary master, to be suffered while she served out her penance, which could only end, for her, when she died. Perhaps he would give her to Mitya, or into Mitya's household. Perhaps he could explain the situation to Mother Sakhalin and ask her to advise him. Mitya would marry the Habakar princess, of course, but surely a man was allowed a secondary wife or a concubine. Surely some provision could be made for her. Yes, that was the right choice.

Determined, he spun and walked back across the carpet. The plush gave beneath his boots, and he had to step up, a little, inside his tent, where the carpets were piled five deep. A gauzy silk curtain screened off his bedchamber from the front portion of his tent, and as he crossed past his writing table, he saw a lantern shining through the fine silk, and movements silhouetted like the dancing of actors against the translucent fabric.

Like a play, he watched it unfold before him, at first in surprise and then in horror.

Samae knelt at the foot of his bed. Laissa, standing, extended her arm and offered the slave girl a cup. She said: "Drink this." Samae took the cup and drank it down without hesitation.

Jiroannes lunged forward and pushed past the beaded entrance into his bedchamber in time to see Samae drop the cup and clutch her throat, clawing at her neck. She gagged and gasped and choked, and her pale complexion faded to an obscene gray color. One hand groped out. She grasped at the drapery ringing the bed, but the fine silk fabric slipped through her fingers and she fell, retching, but all that emerged from her mouth was a hoarse, rattling sound.

She gasped and choked out three words. "He is safe." As she doubled over, the embroidered quilt caught on her bronze slave's bracelet and slid down off the bed, half over, half under her. She lay still. Her head lay cushioned on crumpled quilt. Against the fine white silk embroidered with red leopards and blue peacocks outlined in gold, her black hair made a stark line, like coarse, unraveled thread.

"She was stupid as well as ugly," said Laissa impassively. "You're better off without her."

Jiroannes could not make himself move. "What have you done?"

"Just so we understand each other, husband, I have poisoned her. I will supply you with concubines from now on, girls who are more suitable to our household. You will have to marry again, of course, but I expect mat you will include me in the negotiation for your secondary wives."

Samae's damask coat was the same peacock blue as the draperies that shrouded the bed. A lantern hung from each carved bed post, each one a cunningly wrought bronze bowl girdled with an elaborate screen through which the light shone.

"I could have you kilted for this!"

"This is commoner's behavior, these histrionics." Her voice was dispassionate. "I sought to provide you with a lesson. You will treat me with the respect I deserve. I ma this household now, and with my influence, you and I can attain eminence at court. I warned the jaran queen that you might prove difficult. Be assured that without my goodwill you won't leave this camp with the alliance your Great King so sorely desires. Why else would he send you so far?"

The truth was, Jiroannes was beginning to have doubts about Vidiya's army and its ability to hold off the jaran army, if things came to war. He suspected mat his future lay with the jaran, not with the Great King's court. But he wasn't going to let Laissa know that. "You're a fool, Laissa. I meant to give her-" He jerked his chin toward Samae's body. "-to the young prince."

"Find him another slave-girl, then. There's little enough to choose between mem."

The shadows stirred, down in the tunnel that linked his tent to hers. Jiroannes caught a glimpse, sliding away, of an observer: It was Lal. Maybe Lal had been trying to warn him all along. Maybe Lal had already thrown his lot in with her camp. She had stuffed the household full of retainers loyal to her; she controlled the kitchens; the guards" camp was by now probably riddled with her informants. She was a princess.

"I'll await you in my chambers," she said. "If you cared for the girl, and she for you, then I'm sorry for it. Had you gotten her with child, I'd have had to kill her anyway."

She eased her robes away from the corpse and turned and marched away down her tunnel, into her domain. She had sewn tiny bells around the hem of her veil and hood, perhaps in imitation of the jaran women, and they tinkled merrily as she vanished into the dark billowing hall. Lal hesitated, there in the shadows, and then followed her.

Jiroannes stared at the body. Samae had fallen on the cup-his last porcelain cup, shattered into bits under her shoulder. A hand lay limp on silk, stretched out as if tracing the golden line of a peacock's feathered glory.

Laissa was wrong, of course. Samae hadn't cared for him at all.

"He is safe." Samae had known it was poison. She had taken it willingly. The blessing for her, to go to Mitya, whom she cared for, would then become a curse to the prince; she had taken the poison to spare him.

It had been a long time since Jiroannes felt called upon to pray. He sank to his knees now and bent his chin to his chest and spread his hands on his thighs, palms open to God, and prayed a long reverent prayer of thanks to the Everlasting God, who judged His servants with more mercy than Samae's gods had judged her.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

From nothing, she could suddenly hear.

"Signs are stable. We pulled her through, Jo, at least through the worst of it."

"Should I go tell-"

"No. Remember, to Bakhtiian, we'd have no way of telling until she woke up."

"Ah. Not that I want to go out there anyway. Cara, he won't let go of the child. He's been holding on to it for over four hours. Don't you find that a little macabre?"

"Let him sit, Jo. Charles is sitting with him. He needs to mourn it before he can let it go."

"David went out to-"

Their voices faded.

"I went through this once before," said Ilya into the shuttered silence.

"You lost a child?"

Ilya glanced at Charles, startled. "Yes, that, too-a child. Not my own. My sister's." He did not look down at the still bundle cradled in his left arm. "I meant with Tess. Forty-five days I went not knowing whether she had lived or died. She was wounded in a skirmish-"

"The scar on her abdomen."

"Yes, that's right. I had to take the khepellis to the coast, to the port, so I had to leave her before I knew if she would live. Forty-five days." He lapsed into silence again.

The lantern on the tabletop burned. Cara had in her tent one luxury: three pillows with soft satin coverings that could be tied together to form a hedonistic reading cushion. The light caught the fabric at such an angle that the satin gleamed. A single leather-bound book, Shakespeare: The Complete Works lettered in gold on its spine, lay on one of the pillows, tossed casually down. Otherwise, the chamber was spartan: a chest for clothes, a table, two wooden folding chairs, and a small cabinet for cooking utensils and odds and ends. Silence hung over them, dense. An occasional word or phrase drifted through from the inner chamber and once the sound of a short laugh being swallowed into a cough. What transpired in there might otherwise have been a thousand kilometers away, it remained so distant from the two waiting men.

"I lost my parents," said Charles suddenly. "Do you ever wonder-" He broke off.

"I wonder a great deal," said Ilya softly. "Most of it is fruitless, though."

"Your wondering?" Charles asked. Bakhtiian did not answer, but the silence seemed as much of a reply as any words he could have spoken.

A slow, erratic drip sounded from outside, along one corner of the tent.

"Why did you allow her to marry me?" Bakhtiian asked suddenly.

"I didn't. I'd have stopped it if I'd been able to. If I'd known. Not because of you, you understand. But because of who she is, and why I need her."

"And if she dies?"

"She won't die. Cara is taking care of her." Charles turned his head to stare at the curtain, the veil that closed them off from Tess. "She won't die. She can't."

"You don't want her to." Ilya bent his head and touched his face to the cloth that shrouded his child.

Charles did not move, but he shifted in his chair, restless, uneasy. "No, I don't want her to," he admitted.

"Well," said Ilya, raising his head, "neither do I. Why is it that you and I suppose that if we want something, it must come to pass?"

Charles's lips quirked up into a smile so colored by grief that it felt almost as if other people had been brought by that tiny expression into the hushed solitude of the chamber. "There's an old saying: "be careful what you wish for; you might get it." "

"Oh, gods." A quaver shook Ilya's voice. "The bargains we make with the gods never fall out as we think they will."

Charles stood up abruptly and went over to the chest. Rummaging within, he drew out a bottle and two glass tumblers. "Here." He returned to the table and poured out a round. "Have a drink."

This time, when she woke, she saw the blurred edges of the lantern in the corner, illuminating an oval of plain canvas fabric. She saw a figure move, recognized it as Cara, and fell back under.

"… and then after the rebellion failed, I thought I would be executed. But they made me a duke-it's a nobleman's title within their imperial hierarchy-instead."

"Is that so strange? If you want to unite an empire, and you only enslave the people you conquer, doesn't it make sense that in time they'll rebel against you? But if you make them part of your court, then in time they'll become loyal to you. That's why Mitya must marry the Habakar princess. Then her father will support us, to protect her, and her children will rule and yet be both jaran and khaja."

"As your children will be- Oh, God, I beg your pardon. I'm so incredibly sorry."

Ilya stared at the haze of lantern light. He felt lightheaded, with exhaustion, with alcohol, with grief, and the sensation gave the lantern a blurred, magical substance-less look to his eyes, as if it didn't really exist at all. He tried to speak, once, but nothing came out. He tried again. "The gods will judge whether I may ever have a child, or whether I already bargained my children away."

Charles shut his eyes. "I gave up the chance to have children before I knew I had done it. Only I didn't know it until the day my parents were killed. They weren't killed, I mean. They were murdered. It was made to look like an accident-a crash-they were traveling in a… carriage-but their agents left just enough evidence that I would know who was responsible. That I would know the emperor himself had ordered it, as a lesson. The only reason I didn't lose Tess that day is that she happened to get the flu and stayed home with our aunt. How could I dare have a child under those conditions? I couldn't protect a child, not against them. Maybe Tess is better off here. She's safe here."

"Safe," said Ilya under his breath. He cupped his free hand over the round arc of the baby's shrouded head.

"She will live," said Charles. "You must believe me."

"I want to believe you. The gods alone know how much I want to believe you. I'm sorry, about your parents."

"Here. Have another drink. Do you ever wonder-? God, I don't know what possessed me to tell you that. I must be getting drunk."

"Because the khepellis killed your parents, because of you?"

"I killed them. Cause and effect. The blame lies nowhere else. I made the choice, knowing it would put them in danger. I risked them, and I lost them. They were wonderful people. They always supported me. They loved me." He hesitated and went on haltingly. "I loved them. But I had to make the choice. I had to choose the rebellion, I had to choose the dukedom, I had to choose Jeds, and I have to choose to continue, now."

"You told me because I understand," said Ilya so softly that his words evaporated on the still air as a whisper of warmth vanishes in the cold of deep winter, out on the plains. "Eleven years ago, I bargained with the gods. I knew that my vision for the tribes was the right one, but I was young, and I wasn't sure I could convince the Elders to follow me. Why should they listen to a dyan as young and inexperienced as I was? I was afraid-afraid they would reject me, and afraid of losing my vision. But I knew I was right. So I committed sacrilege."

A scrape of shoe sounded from the inner chamber.

Both men tensed, expectant, but nothing happened, no one emerged.

"I killed a bird." His hands shielded his dead son's body, although by now it was, of course, too late to shield the child from the fate he had brought on it. "I offered a hawk on the altar of Grandmother Night, She Who Will Bargain if you are desperate enough to call on her. I killed it, and I poured its blood on the soil. I offered her my dearest one, if she would make my vision succeed. But you see, I meant to offer Vasil, because I was willing to give him up. Not to kill him; I didn't mean that, or maybe I did, but I told myself I meant only to send him away. To exile him."

The lantern burned, constant, with only the barest flickering on the wick within its globe. "She agreed to the bargain. Grandmother Night never refuses a bargain. And then she took them all, one by one, everyone I loved best. My parents, my sister, my nephew. She only spared Nadine that day to mock me. She took my cousin, Yuri. And now my son. And She'll take Tess, if She can get her. She'll take her back to the gods" lands, and we'll have to burn her, and I'll never-I'll lose her forever. Do you ever wonder if the price was worth paying?"

Charles shook his head, just a little, eyes half closed. A sound caught in his throat. "I kept trying to ask you that. We're so certain of our vision. But it is right. It is right. And yet, how many people will die? Some because they follow us, because they believe in us, and some on the other side of the conflagration we've started."

"But what else can we do? The gods have called us to our path."

They considered the path in silence. Nothing stirred. It was so quiet outside that they might as well have been camped in the middle of a wilderness, they two alone, fixed at some point no other woman or man had yet explored out to. Or in a clearing that some other, like them, had sat in, equally alone, and then turned back or forged on.

The urge to speak, to establish herself in the time-line, was so powerful that once she saw the lantern light again she opened her mouth and spoke. She spoke, she heard the words in her head, but her ears registered nothing. Her body existed, but nothing moved. She was aware but paralyzed.

"How long has it been?" she said. "How long was I out?"

Cara moved past her line of sight. Jo bent over a burnished counter, tapping her fingers on the modeler. Neither of them heard her. She couldn't hear herself.

Everything faded out again.

"I don't understand, though," said Charles, pouring them out another tumbler of whiskey. "I thought your parents and family were killed by another dyan, a rival. Isn't that-common? When there's a war going on? How did the gods come into it?"

"We don't harm women and children in the sanctity of camp! Gods, you khaja are savages! I beg your pardon."

"No. No offense taken. I apologize if I offended you. It was poorly said, on my part."

"No, I'm sorry. How could you understand? No one knows what happened that night. My aunt suspects, she alone, but we've never spoken of it. My mother discovered me, out there in the darkness, and she had Khara Roskhel with her. She often had him with her. They were lovers for as long as I could remember. And they found me, with the bird still struggling in its death throes, with its blood pooling on the ground.

"Well, Roskhel was outraged. Up until that moment, he had supported me. Then he saw what I was, what I was willing to give, that I had committed sacrilege, and all for my vision. Some already called me gods-touched, then. That night he called me cursed. He said to my mother, "Now you must repudiate him, because you see what he is." I knew at that moment that everything was in vain. I thought that Grandmother Night was laughing at me, by making me sacrifice myself and lose my vision, all at once, all together. Gods, we so foolishly think we understand the gods. Her price was much subtler and more cruel.

"You see, my mother smiled. She thought it was exciting that I was willing to break our holiest law in order to achieve my ambition. All the years of my childhood I had been a disappointment to her. Now, she was happy. She saw herself, her ambition, in me. And Roskhel said that he saw now that the taint spread through the entire family. He left. A few months later he rode into camp with his jahar and killed them, killed the corruption: my mother, who was the only woman he had ever loved; my father, whom the gods themselves had called to make a marriage that was never peaceful; my sister, who was the sweetest, most generous soul, and her little boy, who was far too young to be blamed for the rest of us. But he was my heir.

"So I tricked Roskhel down and I killed him myself, with my own hands.

"But my family was still dead. And yet, Grandmother Night kept her side of the bargain. The Elders listened to me. I united the jaran." His voice dropped so low that Charles had to lean forward, straining, in order to hear him. "I have never lost a battle. My riders have taken terrible casualties; I've been wounded myself, and once we were forced to retreat, but even then, in losing, we won." He stopped speaking abruptly and stared at nothing; at the past, perhaps, whose hand still worked in the present.

"It's strange, how it works," murmured Charles. "In leading a rebellion that failed, I gained a stronger position within the Empire. One that now might allow me to win Earth's freedom. What we think is failure sometimes leads to success."

"Perhaps. The gods aren't yet done with us." Ilya's hand sought out the tumbler and he raised it to his lips and downed it. He shuddered. "Gods, this is strong." He blinked. "But I don't understand how both your parents could have been killed by the khepellis. You said they don't yet know about Jeds-and wasn't your father-? Your father was the Prince of Jeds, the nephew of the old Prince Casimund. How could he have been in Erthe?

Wait." He set down the glass and brushed his free hand impatiently through his hair. "Your father, the first Charles, was killed in Jeds. I know the story. They were laying the foundation for the university, and some quarried stones fell and killed him. But you said your parents were killed in a carriage accident in Erthe."

"My mother was killed-" Charles broke off. He covered his eyes with a hand and swore under his breath. "I've forgotten what I told you. My mother was killed in that accident."

"Tess said the same thing once, that her parents were killed-her mother and her father. And she didn't mean the Prince of Jeds, only I just realized that now." Ilya stood up suddenly, swaying a little, and took considered steps to the entrance. He pushed the flap aside with his free hand. Bells chimed softly. He stared out at the night. Two fires burned out beyond the tent, low now, almost coals, and the single figure tending them turned expectantly at the sound of the bells. It was Aleksi. The young rider waited patiently and then heaved his shoulders with resignation and turned away again, back to the kettles and the water simmering over the flames.

Ilya stepped out under the awning. The night wind hit him, a cold swell. The cloth in his arms stirred. Charles appeared.

"Well," said Charles. "You've discovered our secret." He staggered, just a step, and halted beside Bakhtiian.

"The Prince of Jeds wasn't your father. But he was married to your mother. He acknowledged you as his children, you and Tess. Because he loved her, because he needed heirs-well, after all, a woman's husband is the rightful father of her children."

Charles was silent.

"But by Jedan law," Ilya finished, "that means you're not the rightful heir to the princedom. And neither is Tess."

"No," said Charles. "By right of birth, no, we're not. But we needed Jeds, so we took it, when the opportunity came. That's the plain truth. Old Prince Casimund had no heirs but his nephews. It had to go to someone. I've no excuses for what we did, except to say that we've been good stewards."

For the first time, Ilya smiled, but it was a wry expression, filled with pain. "What, you don't think I'm going to judge you, do you?"

"How did you guess?"

"It always pays to listen. Do you hear that? It's very distant-a horse neighing. They don't like being separated from the herd."

The vista granted them from under Cara's awning was of the sky, half clouded over now, and a dull red illumination along the western horizon. Darkness blotted out the camp, except for what few fires burned through the night, among the tents. "There's an old story, an old legend," said Ilya, "that the Singers tell, about why there are so many fair-haired jaran and so few dark ones. The Orzhekovs are a fair-haired family. All my cousins are fair-haired, and their children, their husbands, my aunt. My mother was fair-haired, and she married a fair-haired man-my father, Petre Sokolov, the Singer. My sister Natalia was fair-haired. She married a dark-haired man, her first husband, and their first child was dark-that is, Nadine. And I am dark. And this child has dark hair. Do you know who was a dark-featured man?"

"Oh," said Charles in a low voice. "The boy, Vasha. He's dark-haired. Tess told me that you acknowledged him as your son, even though by jaran law he isn't-he can't be."

"Inessa-his mother-was also dark. But, yes, by the laws of Jeds, Vasha is my son." He stroked the cloth bundle, stroked it, and said nothing for a long long while. They watched the clouds drift along the heavens. Aleksi sat as still as stone out by the fires. The awning sagged down and sighed up, and sagged down again, as the wind breathed on it.

"From the days before she married, and for all the years she was married, my mother and Khara Roskhel were lovers. He was dark-haired, like me."

Through the flap, thrown askew, the lantern gave dim illumination to the chamber and dimmer light yet to the two men standing just outside. Like a beacon, it marked them, throwing vague shadows out from them into the night.

"By the laws of Jeds," said Ilya slowly, "Khara Roskhel might have been my father."

"How long have I been under?" Tess asked, and was relieved to hear her own voice both inside and outside of her head.

At once, Cara appeared beside her. "Aha! We've got you back. Jo, drape all the counters, cover everything, and then go get Charles and Bakhtiian."

"But how long?" Tess insisted.

"About seven hours. I'm so pleased to see you, my dear. Just lie quiet. You're stable. Everything is fine, Tess. Everything is fine."

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Night enveloped the city of Karkand. The hellish noise of the day's fighting had evaporated into the darkness, though echoes of it remained. Within the walls, a minaret still burned. Outside the walls, four siege towers smoldered, three of them collapsed into ruins. Beyond the range of catapults and arrows, Nadine heard knocking and pounding: the laborers built anew for the next day's assault.

Smoke obscured the stars, here close to the city, and on the eastern horizon clouds streaked the sky, blotting out the moon. Otherwise, silence lay like a blanket over them. Nadine gave command of her jahar over to Yermolov, took three auxiliaries to bear torches to light her way, and went in search of her uncle.

Her jahar had been stationed halfway round the inner city walls, almost opposite the main gates, and she rode back through the abandoned outlying districts. In these suburbs, quiet reigned. Many of the trees and houses nearest the inner city walls had been demolished, either by catapult fire or by laborers or soldiers scrounging for materials to build, for food, for shelter, or for firewood. A line of men stood patiently in a dark plaza, waiting for their turn at a public well. The two jaran guards lifted their hands, acknowledging Nadine as she passed by.

Farther along, she skirted a flat field on which a new set of siege towers and artillery rose or were repaired. She paused to watch, and there, escorted by four men bearing torches, she saw David ben Unbutu on his rounds. She rode over to him.

"David! Well met." She smiled and lifted a hand in greeting as she pulled up beside him. His torchbearers edged away from her. David spun around, startled. "Your engines did good work today."

"Dina! I didn't see you."

The wavering torchlight gave him an ashen appearance, but then she realized mat a fine white powder covered his hands and that streaks of it lightened his black skin. "You're out late," she said. She felt inordinately pleased to see him; his pleasant open face was such a relief to look at after watching the siege all day, after arguing with Feodor yet again at dawn over her decision to ride out with her jahar.

"Most of my work is done at night." said David. He glanced to either side. The torchbearers-khaja laborers all-had averted their faces from the exchange. "Preparing for-" He shuddered, cutting off his words. "You didn't see any righting, Dina? You look no worse for the wear. I'm glad of that."

"Saw plenty of it. We're too heavily armored, my jahar, to be of any use in these conditions, except what archers we now have with us. But we can protect against sorties that come out beyond the gates, and if those khaja bastards look over the walls, they see how many of us there are. That ought to encourage them to surrender."

A smile came and went on David's face, and he looked uncomfortable.

"If you'll excuse me. I'm off to report to my uncle."

"Dina."

"What is it? What's wrong?" she demanded. He waved his torchbearers away impatiently and looked meaningfully at hers. "Go on," she said, and they moved a few steps away. Her horse shifted restlessly, disliking the dark, and Nadine dismounted and stood at its head.

"Tess had the baby. It's-there's no way to say this gently, except to say I'm sorry. It's dead."

"Oh, gods." She was shocked and saddened, mostly, but a second voice nagged at hen If the baby had lived, there might have been less pressure on her to contribute heirs. No matter what Ilya said, Nadine suspected mat his children could inherit over any she bore, especially if they showed promise for command. "Where is she?"

"In Dr. Hierakis's tent. You ought to go…"

"I'll go. Thank you, David."

"For what?" he asked bleakly. She took a step toward him, reached up, and kissed him lightly on the lips. "Nadine!" he whispered fiercely, and pulled back from her.

She sighed and mounted again. Her torchbearers hurried back to her, and she rode on. She did not ride directly to camp. Instead, she detoured along her original route and came to the main gates near midnight. Torches ringed the fallen stretch of wall, and now and again arrows sped out and thudded dully against the shields, but there was otherwise no movement along the collapsed wall except for an occasional slide of loose bricks.

"Zvertkov! Well met!" She hailed the rider, and he turned his horse aside and came to meet her.

"Orzhekov. Your position?"

"Quiet, for now."

"You heard about Tess?"

"I heard."

They said nothing for a while, ruminating in silence over the ways of the gods.

"We've a courier in from Vershinin," said Zvertkov at last. "He's turned south. Grekov's jahar will ride to Karkand to replace him."

"Garrisons?"

"They left Izursky's jahar to patrol the area, but we can't afford the men. There isn't much resistance left there in any case."

"Zvertkov!" This from a rider at the far end of the line. "Messenger riding in!"

Torchlight bobbed along the uneven ground, heading for their position. Nadine heard the bells before she could make out the figures. Soon enough the sound resolved into three men running with torches in their hands and a single mounted rider. He pulled up before them. His horse was lathered, and he himself look exhausted.

"Gennady Besselov. Sakhalin's command."

"Sakhalin!"

"There's a khaja force marching north to relieve Karkand, under the command of the king's nephew."

"The Habakar king is dead," said Zvertkov. "The nephew may well be the king, now."

The courier shrugged. "Whatever he is, he's good enough on the field, for a khaja, and he's got twenty thousand well-trained men with him. Sakhalin could only spare two thousand of his army to harry him as he marched north; it was that, or lose the ground we've gained so far in the southern lands, which was hard enough won to begin with."

"I'll take you to my uncle," said Nadine, and she looked at Kirill for confirmation. Zvertkov nodded. She led the messenger away.

The man regaled her with stories of Sakhalin's advance southward and how stubborn the southern Habakar inhabitants were-except they called themselves Xiriki-khai, and some of them spoke a different language. The Habakar prince's mother was a Xiriki-khai princess, and the merchants they had captured said that she had herself as a girl led an army and thus gained the title "Lion Queen," and that it was her heart and courage the boy had inherited. The torchbearers trudged on beside them.

Once in camp Nadine found riders to send the message out that a council would meet immediately. They found Anatoly Sakhalin's jahar ringing the tent of the doctor at a discreet distance. Nadine left the horses and the torch-bearers with them. Closer in, Aleksi sat alone beside twin fires. Nadine led the courier between the fires, for their purifying heat to sear away any untoward contamination she or the man might bring with them, and Aleksi motioned at her to go on. It was late, past midnight and turning toward morning. A woman emerged from the tent, holding a swaddled bundle in one arm.

"Aleksi! Oh, I beg your pardon." It was Joanna Singh, one of Soerensen's assistants. She nodded at Nadine and eyed the courier, who stared at her in astonishment-at her height and her brown skin-before remembering his manners and looking away. "Would you like to go in? Your uncle is inside. Aleksi, can you get some of the riders out there to help? We need a bonfire. Cara wants to cremate the child as soon as possible. You'll need to get Sonia Orzhekov back here, too."

Nadine regarded the tiny bundle with curiosity. Was that the baby? Besselov waited patiently. Since they spoke in Rhuian, he couldn't understand them. "Besselov," said Nadine, "you'll have to wait out here. I'll go get Bakhtiian." She left the courier by the fires and ducked inside. The bells sewn onto the entrance flap sang, warning those inside that she was coming in. "Jo?" That was Dr. Hierakis. "Can you send for-? Oh, Nadine."

Nadine examined the chamber with interest, but it did not look that different from the outer chamber of Tess's tent: some khaja furniture and little else. A glass bottle sat, almost empty, on the table, with a crystal tumbler on either side. A book lay on a cushion, and a second book peeped out from the carved cabinet that stood against the far wall; the polished wood grain looked elegant compared to the plain fabric that made up the walls of this tent. Not a rich tent, by any means, but it was practical, and Nadine supposed that Dr. Hierakis prized practicality above luxury.

Light shone from farther in, from the private inner chamber into which no person but blood family or lover was ever admitted. The curtain between the two rooms had been thrown back. By the glow of two lanterns hanging from the corners of the chamber, Nadine saw a striking tableau.

For some reason, the doctor had shrouded her sleeping chamber with cloth, heaps of it, piled up and spread out everywhere, muting the edges in the room. Within all this fabric, almost seeming to float on it, Tess lay. Her entire left side was covered by gleaming silver silk. Nadine could not see Tess's left hand, but her right hand grasped Ilya's hands where he knelt beside her. He gazed up at her. Dried tears streaked his face. The prince stood down toward Tess's feet with one hand resting on her legs, which were also concealed by a silklike fabric that gleamed white under lantern light. At Tess's head hovered the doctor. Nadine could not see her left hand, but the doctor's right hand lay open on the silvery silk, the contrast making her hand seem almost as dark as David's.

Somehow, with Tess and Bakhtiian framed between the doctor and the prince, the picture held an ominous quality for Nadine, as if they-Tess and Ilya-acted out their pa