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

Jaran

Kate Elliott


Kate Elliott

Jaran

“Bodies attract each other with a force that varies directly as the product of their masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them."

— Isaac Newton

Earth, Nairobi Port A.L.C. 261 month 5 day 3

Terese Soerensen to Charles Soerensen

Dear Charles,

Please don't think I'm running away. I really did mean, when I decided to go to Dao Cee system, to visit you on Odys-but I need to be by myself right now, without you trying to give me well-meant advice or telling me that being your heir is just a technicality and that it doesn't mean that much. Because it's not true.

Charles, I didn't tell you that I got engaged six months ago. He insisted that we keep it a secret, and now I know why. Obviously he figured you would see through his "love" for me to his real motives. I made the mistake of telling him that under Chapaliian law a sister loses all right to her brother's [INSERT: or her father's] goods and titles upon marriage-that she assumes, totally, her husband's position. That was one month ago.

One month ago I was still engaged, and I didn't know that humiliation could help a person do six month's work in five weeks. I feel sick. I hate myself for being so stupid. And I can't even tell you his name, because he's studying Xenodiplomacy at the Sorbonne, and I'm afraid he'll think I sabotaged his career. He's one of those men who think women have no honor. Can you understand how I fell in love with him? Because I can't.

I thought that I had the courage to tell you to your face that I don't want to be your heir, that I'm sick and tired of people implying that my success at Univerzita Karlova is due to your position and not to my talent, that I'm never seen as myself but only as an extension of you. Can't I just abdicate being your sister and let you adopt? Or is it only death or marriage that will remove me from your title? Not, of course, that I'm likely to find either situation appealing. God, Charles, I feel like I have no direction, that I can't trust my own judgment, that I've been abandoned in the middle of nowhere. And I hate being melodramatic.

[ERASE DOCUMENT]

Earth, Nairobi Port

A.L.C. 261.5.3

Terese Soerensen to Charles Soerensen

Dear Charles,

I finished my thesis early (with honors, by the way) and Univerzita Karlova agreed to give me a leave of absence. I've let out my flat in Prague and I'm going to visit Dr. Hierakis at the palace in Jeds. I know I don't have an official clearance for Rhui, but I do have a copy of the preserve regulations, and you know how well I speak Rhuian. I'm going to appropriate a place on the Rhuian cargo shuttle of the next ship headed to the Dao Cee system. I'm thinking of doing my dissertation on one of the Rhuian languages, so I'll be researching as well. I'm not sure how soon I'll get to Odys. Your loving sister, Tess

CHAPTER ONE

"I wept and I wailed when I saw the unfamiliar land."

— Empedocles of Agragas

Two young women sat on a padded bench by the huge overlook. One, black-skinned and black-haired, watched the work below. The second, looking pale and light-haired mostly in contrast to her companion, studied the words she had just typed into her hand-held computer slate. She frowned.

"What are you writing, Tess?" asked the first, turning back to her friend. Then she grinned. "Sweet Goddess, what language is that in?"

Tess tapped save and clear and the words vanished. "Just practicing." She shrugged. "That was late American English. It's only about 300 years old, so you could probably puzzle it out given time. I built in a translation program. Here's how the same thing would look in classical Latin." Words appeared again. "Ophiuchi-Sei." The letters shifted to a fluid script. "And here's court Chapalii. Formal Chapalii. And colloquial enscribed Chapalii. You'll notice how the glyphs differ in written form only in the tails and in the angling of the curve-"

"You are nervous, aren't you? What if the captain refuses you passage?"

"He won't refuse," muttered Tess. She brushed her hand across the screen, clearing it. "And steward class Chapalii of course has no enscribed counterpart at all, so I've transcribed it into Anglais characters. What do you think, Soje? It's an act of rebellion, you know, for stewards to write."

Sojourner lifted her brows questioningly and glanced out at the new port building rising behind them along alien lines. Along Chapalii lines. "Is that why the chameleons think we humans are barbarians? Because we allow everyone to write?''

Tess laughed. "That doesn't help. No, because our spoken tongue and written tongue are the same, and a standard. Because we're too egalitarian. Because we're so young, as a species, as a culture, compared to them."

"Because our physiological system is so inefficient, compared to theirs?'' Sojourner waved toward the building behind them. "Just like our technology is primitive? I hate them." She glanced around the waiting chamber. The walls, a muted orange in the fading daylight, curved in at the top; their dullness diminished the thirty meters between the ends of the room. The air smelled of heat and spices: cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. It was an alien room, designed for the taste of Chapalii, not humans. "No. I don't hate them. They've proven neither cruel nor harsh as our masters."

"Their grip is soft," said Tess in an undertone.

Sojourner gave her a sharp glance. "But it chafes," she replied, quieter still. "Tess, are you sure you really want to go see your brother? Jacques isn't worth this. He was a spoiled, pretty rich kid who wanted to get ahead without working for it. He's not worth your running away-"

Tess winced. "I'm not running away. I finished my thesis. I've got obligations to Charles now."

"What about your research? I know you don't want to follow in Charles's footsteps. Why go now?"

"Soje, leave be. " The force of her comment silenced both of them. "As if I could follow in his footsteps anyway," Tess murmured finally.

Sojourner lifted up her hands in defeat. "Goddess, you're stubborn. Go. Be miserable. Just remember I told you so. You've always hated Odys. You always say so, and that one time I went there with you, I can't say as I blame you. Ugly planet."

"It wasn't before the Chapalii got through with it," said Tess so softly that Sojourner did not hear her.

A chime rang through the room. A seam opened out of orange wall to reveal a nondescript man in police blues. His shoulders shrugged in an exaggerated sigh when he saw them.

"Office is closed," he said, obviously used to saying that phrase frequently. "And it's off limits to humans at all times, except for the midday hour if you've got a dispensation." He regarded them, measuring. What he saw, Tess could well imagine: two young women, only a single valise between them, dressed without any particular style that might mark them out as rich enough or important enough to rate a dispensation or otherwise be allowed entrance into the private corridors of humanity's alien masters.

"If you'll allow me to escort you out," he said, firmly but kindly.

Sojourner looked at Tess expectantly. Tess felt frozen. Again it came down to this: retreat with meek dignity, as any other human on Earth would have to, or use her brother's name like a weapon. How she hated that, having a name that meant something in four languages. Having a name that, through no work of her own, had become so identified with humanity's one great rebellion against the Chapaliian Empire that the name was now synonymous with that rebellion. Charles had come so early to a realization of what he had to do in his life that surely he could never comprehend her struggle. But she had backed herself into a corner and had no choice but to go forward.

"You must leave," he said, coming briskly toward them.

"My name is Terese Soerensen," she said, despising herself as she said it. "My companion is Sojourner King Bakundi."

The second name did not even register. He stopped stock-still. His face changed. "The Soerensen? You're his sister?" He hesitated. Then, of course, he looked both abashed and eager. "It is an honor. An honor, to meet you." She extended her hand and he flushed, pleased, and shook it. "I have a cousin. She fought at Sirin Wild, with the last fleet, on the Jerusalem. She was lucky enough to escape the decompression.''

"I'm glad," said Tess sincerely. "Where is she now?"

He grinned. "She's a netcaster now. Ferreting information. For the long haul."

"For the long haul," echoed Tess fiercely.

Sojourner murmured, "Amandla."

A hum signaled a new parting of the wall. The guard, startled, spun to look. One of the ubiquitous Chapalii stewards entered the room. Like all the Chapalii serving class, he wore long, thick pants and a heavy tunic belted at his narrow waist. A hint of green colored the pale skin of his face-a sign of disapproval.

"What is this intrusion?" he demanded. He spoke in the clean, clipped Anglais that those few stewards assigned to direct intercourse with humans used. "I insist these offices be cleared." His gaze skipped from the guard to Sojourner. "Of these females. "

Tess stood up. The Chapalii steward looked at her. Like an indrawn breath, the pause that followed was full of anticipated release.

The green cast to his white skin shaded into blue distress. His thin, alien frame bent in the stiff bow Chapalii accorded only and always to the members of their highest aristocracy.

"Lady Terese," the steward said in the proper formal Chapalii. "I beg you will forgive my rash entrance and my rasher words."

Unable to trust her voice for a moment, Tess simply folded her hands together in her human approximation of that arrangement of hands called Imperial Clemency. The steward's complexion faded from distress to blessed neutrality again, white and even. Sojourner rose to stand next to Tess.

"I am here," said Tess in strict formal Chapalii, high rank to low, "to advise the captain of the Oshaki that I will board his vessel and depart with it so far as my brother's fief of Dao Cee."

He bowed again, obedient. "You would honor me, Lady Terese, if you granted me the privilege of showing you in to see Hao Yakii Tarimin."

"Await me beyond." Tess waved toward the still open seam in the wall. The steward bowed to the exact degree proper and retreated. The wall shut behind him.

"God, but it gives me pleasure to see them ordered around for a change," muttered the guard. Tess flushed, and the man looked uncomfortable, as if he was afraid he had offended her.

"Are they difficult to work for?" asked Sojourner quickly.

"Nay. Not if you do the work you're hired to do. They're the best employers I've had, really." He lifted his hands, palms up. "Which is ironic. Say, did you say Sojourner King?"

Sojourner chuckled, and Tess watched, envying her friend's easy geniality. "Yes. I was named after my great-grandmother, that Captain Sojourner King of the first L.S. Jerusalem. " She intoned the words with relish, able to laugh at her inherited fame in a way Tess had never managed. Then she sobered and turned to Tess. "I guess we part here, Tess. Take this, for luck." She took an ankh necklace from around her neck and handed it to Tess. "Keep well."

"Oh, Soje. I'll miss you." Tess hugged her, hard and quickly, to get it over with, shook the hand of the guard, picked up her valise, and walked across the room. The wall opened before her, admitting her to forbidden precincts.

"And don't you dare forget to send me a message from Odys," Sojourner called after her.

Tess lifted a hand in final farewell as the wall seamed shut, sealing her in to the corridor with the silent, patient steward. He bowed again, took her valise, and turned to lead her through the branching corridors. His lank hair and achromatic clothing lent the monotonous bleached-orange walls color in contrast, or at least to Tess's sight they did. She did not know what the walls looked like to his vision: like so much else, that was information not granted to humans.

It was hot, so hot that she immediately broke out in a sweat. Her hand clenched the computer slate. She felt like a traitor. Because she had no intention of going to Odys. She was afraid to go there, afraid to tell her own and only sibling that she could not carry on in his place, that she did not want the honor or the responsibility-that she did not know what she wanted, not at all. She did not even have the courage to tell a good friend. And Sojourner had been a good friend to her, these past years.

In the suite reserved for the captain, three Chapalii stood as she entered, bowed in by the steward. He hung back, retraining his hold on her exalted valise, as the wall closed between them. Tess surveyed her audience with dismay. To interview the captain was bad enough. To face three of them…

She refused to give in to this kind of fear. The captain, thank God, was easy to recognize, because he wore the alloy elbow clip that marked his authority as a ship's master.

She drew in her breath, lifted her chin, and inclined her head with the exact degree of condescension that a duke's heir might grant a mere ship's captain.

Before the captain could bow, one of the other Chapalii stepped forward. "Who has allowed this interruption?" he demanded in formal Chapalii. "Our business here is private, Hao Yakii." The Chapalii turned his gaze on Tess, but she knew her ground here; indeed, conduct was so strictly regulated in Chapalii culture that she usually had a limited number of responses. It made life much easier. Knowing he was at fault, she could regard him evenly in return. As he realized that the captain, and, belatedly, the other Chapalii, were bowing deeply to her, his skin hazed from white to blue.

"I am honored," said the captain, straightening, "to be the recipient of your attention, Lady Terese. May I be given permission to hope that your brother the duke is in good health and that his endeavors are all flourishing and productive?"

"You may."

The slightest reddish tinge of satisfaction flushed the captain's face. He bowed in acknowledgment and gestured to his companions, introducing them in the formal, long-winded Chapalii style, not only their names but their house and affiliation and title and station and level of affluence: Cha Ishii Hokokul, younger son of the younger son of a great lord, no longer well off, traveling back to the home world; Hon Echido Keinaba, a fabulously wealthy merchant traveling to Odys to negotiate several deals with the merchants of the esteemed Tai-en Soerensen's household. Hon Echido bowed a second time, skin white, secure in his quick recognition of the duke's sister and doubtless hoping that his acumen here would stand him in good stead in the haggling to come. Cha Ishii bowed as well, but it was not nearly as deep a bow as a duke's heir merited.

Tess acknowledged them and nodded again at the captain. "Hao Yakii. I desire passage on your ship, to the Dao Cee system."

He did not hesitate. Of course, he could not. "It is yours, Lady Terese. You honor me and my family with your presence."

Before she could reply, Cha Ishii compounded his first offense by addressing the captain in court Chapalii. "Hao

Yakii, this is impossible that a Mushai's relative should be allowed on this run. You must prevent it."

Hao Yakii went violet with mortification, whether at Ishii's effrontery or at some mistake he had just realized. Hon Echido watched, neutral, unreadable, and doubtless unsure whether any human could actually understand the intricacies of court Chapalii.

But Tess's dismay had evaporated, drawn off by her irritation at Ishii's assumption that she could not understand him, and by sheer human curiosity at the mention of that name, Mushai. "You refer, I believe," she said directly to Ishii in court Chapalii, thus indirectly insulting him, "to the Tai-en Mushai. Was he not a duke who rebelled against one of your ancient emperors?''

Ishii blushed violet.

Violet and pink warred in the captain's face. Approval won. "Lady Terese, it is, as you would call it-" A long pause. "A fable. A legend. Do you not have legends of ages past when your lands ran with precious metals and all people of proper rank had sufficient wealth to maintain their position, and then a traitor who would not adhere to right conduct brought ruin to everyone by his selfish actions?''

Tess almost laughed. How often as a child had she and her classmates been told of that time a mere two centuries ago when a consortium of five solar systems bound by inexplicably close genetic ties and the enthusiasm of newly-discovered interstellar flight had invested their League Concordance as law? A brief golden age, they called it, before the Chapaliian Empire, in its relentless expansion, had absorbed the League within its imperial confines.

"Yes. Yes, we do," she replied. She felt a fierce exultation in confronting these Chapaliians whom she now outranked, thinking of her brother's failed rebellion against the Empire, ten years before her birth, because he was not a traitor to his kind, to humankind, but a hero. Even now, when the Chapalii, for reasons only Chapalii understood, had ennobled him. Even now, made a duke-the only human granted any real status within their intricate hierarchy of power, given a solar system as his fief, endowed with fabulous wealth-Charles Soerensen simply bided his time, and the Chapalii seemed not to suspect.

"The honored duke will be pleased to see his heir on Odys," said Hon Echido.

His colorless words shattered her thoughts, exposing her to her own bitter judgment: that she was afraid, that her life lay in chaos around her, and that even what little her brother asked of her she could not grant. She wanted only to retreat to the quiet, isolated haven of the palace in Jeds and be left alone, with no one expecting anything of her. Suddenly she felt oppressed by these Chapalii watching and measurin| her. She felt short and grossly heavy next to the gaunt delicacy that swathes of fabric and flowing robes could not disguise. Ishii's skin bore a blended shade that she could not recognize nor interpret. Yakii seemed torn between ad dressing a duke's heir and Ishii's demands.

"Lady Terese," said Hon Echido, either sensitive to these currents or else simply pressing his advantage, as a canny merchant must, "it would be a great compliment to my house if you would allow me to escort you personally to the Oshaki. With Hao Yakii's permission, of course." He bowed to her and acknowledged the captain with that arrangement of hands known as Merchant's Favor.

With mutual consent, the parting went swiftly. Tess left Yakii and Ishii to their debate, and walked to the shuttle with Hon Echido in attendance, the steward carrying her valise five paces behind. There would be time enough to arrange with Hao Yakii that she was going to Rhui, not to Odys. Both planets, being neighbors in the Dao Cee system were on the Oshaki's scheduled run.

Hon Echido proved a pleasant and undemanding companion. His concerns were material, his conversation pragmatic, and he seemed determined to treat her as he would any duke's heir, despite the fact that she was both human and female.

"May we be given to understand, Lady Terese," he asked as the shuttle lifted away from Earth and out toward the Oshaki's orbit, "that the more frequent cargo runs to Rhui indicate that the duke will soon be opening that planet up to exploitation as he has the planet Odys?"

"No. Its designation as a natural preserve under the Interdiction Code protects it for at least a century. My brother desires to preserve the native cultures for as long as possible."

"Lady Terese, certainly the natives are quite primitive. Not equal to the worth to our societies of Rhui's magnificent natural resources."

"Ah, Hon Echido, but is it not here that our valuations of worth differ? While to you they are merely a less important part of Rhui's other natural resources, to us they are cousins."

Echido stroked his mauve robes. "More than cousins, surely. Are you not, in virtually every particular, identical species?"

If it was meant to be an insult, it was smooth. Tess could not refrain from smiling, but the expression was completely lost on the Chapalii. "Yes, we are both Homo sapiens. That is why you Chapalii cannot be allowed on the planet. However primitive the Rhuian natives might be, some of them are intelligent enough to question those characteristics by which the Chapalii differ from humans."

"Are they truly so intelligent?" he asked without a trace of irony. "How can you know, Lady Terese?"

"Because I lived on Rhui for three years, in a city called Jeds. That was about ten years ago, when I was a child. My brother allows limited contact between humans in his employ and the natives, for research purposes."

Echido settled his hands into that arrangement known as Merchant's Accord. "Certainly the duke is wise to ascertain the extent and disposition of Rhui's resources before exploiting them. It is a rich planet. My family can only hope that we will be allowed the privilege of bidding on any expedition once the interdict is lifted from the planet.''

"I assure you, Hon Echido, that should it come to that, I will put in a good word for you with my brother."

He was delighted. It struck Tess that the mauve of his robes and the reddish tint of satisfaction that flushed his skin did not remotely match. God, but she was tired.

Stewards met them at the Oshakvs lock and vied for the honor of showing her to a suite of rooms suitable for a passenger of her eminence. The original steward kept his grip on her valise. It was a relief to be left alone in the suite. The solitude was palpable. It was also hot.

She developed a routine quickly as the Oshaki left Earth orbit and began its run to Dao Cee and thence to the home worlds. She slept and washed, and ate her meals alone in her rooms. She wanted to wallow in depression. All the anger and frustration and the caustic wound of Jacques's rejection of her had room to swell up and fill her until she mostly just lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She could not manage tears: she wanted them too badly.

But when, one half day out from Rhui, yet another begging invitation from Hao Yakii that she dine at his table came in, she felt guilty. She owed it to Charles. He would expect her to dine, to converse, to glean any slightest bit of information that might be valuable to the cause. And she needed to tell Hao Yakii that she was going to Rhui, not to Odys.

The ship was large, and a steward appeared to escort her to the captain's dining hall. The dining hall itself was as big as her flat in Prague. Hao Yakii rose at her entrance. Five other Chapalii rose, bowing. She acknowledged, in formal Chapalii, the two she recognized: Cha Ishii Hokokul and Hon Echido Keinaba. The others were introduced: minor lords and merchants. Somehow, Echido managed to sit beside her, and his presence acted as a buffer because he was so good at keeping the conversation on a technical, commonplace level. To her relief, the dinner went smoothly.

She rose finally. Echido begged leave to escort her to her suite. At the door, she paused: She had not told Hao Yakii about her true destination. It was so hard, in front of these strangers. She hesitated, struggling with herself. She could simply send him a message through the comm, but God, she was damned if she'd be that cowardly.

Behind her, in court Chapalii, one of the merchants said to the captain: "Will the Tai-endi be confined to her suite until you leave Rhui orbit?"

The captain flushed green, glancing toward the door. Cha Ishii flushed blue, though he did not look toward her, and a moment later, the merchant flushed violet, mortified.

"Hon Echido," said Tess in clear, formal Chapalii, "you did not tell me if Keinaba has already opened negotiations with the Tai-en?" A quick glance back as they left showed her that the captain's flush had faded to white.

Echido was tinged blue along the jawline, a faint line of distress. "We have not, Lady Terese. Unforeseen events have brought us to Dao Cee." Then, smoothly, he took the subject off on another tangent.

Alone in her suite, Tess sat down on her bed and pondered. Why should the captain confine her to quarters? He could not, in any case. Becoming fluent in the language had not given her, or any human, much insight into the Chapalii mind. That someone of lower rank should presume to prohibit their superior any place whatsoever was inconceivable to the Chapalii. On a Chapalii starship, whose highest official was a captain she outranked, she could go anywhere he could go. To suggest confining her, then-the implications of that were staggering.

They were hiding something. They must be. Something to do with Rhui, or the cargo shuttle. What unforeseen events had Hon Echido been talking about? Perhaps it was a good thing she was here, after all.

She opened her valise and changed into the clothing she had brought, clothing that could pass as native on Rhui: light undergarments, special thermal cloth cut into tunics that layered over trousers, and leather boots. The cut and texture of the clothes felt strange. At least the thermal cloth insulated her from both heat and cold.

A pouch hung from the belt she put on. She filled it: Jedan coins, mostly, a handkerchief, gloves, the old Egyptian ankh necklace given to her by Sojourner, unremarkable odds and ends for hygiene, a volume of philosophic essays from the university in Jeds. Anything else she needed she could get once she arrived at the palace in Jeds.

She laid the computer slate down on a table and reread her letter. The sentence about her dissertation she erased, and in its place she wrote: / have reason to be suspicious of this cargo run. I'll keep my eyes open. She locked the slate's memory. A looped message on the screen instructed that the slate be taken to her brother. On impulse, she keyed the cosmetic function and ran a hand over the screen. It darkened to a reflective surface, mirroring her. Light brown hair-some called it auburn. Not slim, though her former fiance had constantly reminded her that she could be. She only resembled her brother in her deep-set eyes, her high cheekbones, and in a certain grace of form lent by the coordination of parts and an evenly proportioned body. Perhaps it would be best just to go on to Odys. God, though, she did not want to face Charles.

Even as she thought it, the captain's intercom, which she had left on, chimed to announce that the cargo shuttle would depart in one Chapalii hour. She slapped the reflective screen off, not even wanting to face herself, and left the suite. She was doing her duty to Charles, going to Rhui on this shuttle.

A steward waited outside. She waved him off and headed alone by lifts and passageways down to docking. Her retinal-ident scan gave her access to the entire ship. As she passed, stewards bowed and got out of her way. She cycled through the decontamination threshold and crossed the transom to the feeder that snaked out to the waiting shuttle. In the holding room off to one side, Hao Yakii, elbow clip gleaming, stood speaking with a cluster of Chapalii.

Tess hesitated. No one, not even a steward, blocked the feeder. Doubtless cargo was being transferred into the shuttle farther down. To go over to Hao Yakii demanded that she change her direction, announce her arrival in another room, and inform him of her change of plans in front of an audience. A real investigator would just go on, not asking for permission. She barely slackened her steps as she walked up the feeder and on to the shuttle.

Was she being bold, or simply cowardly? Tears stung her eyes, and she wiped them away impatiently. A bubble lift gave access onto the control bulb, and through its open tube she heard the pilot conversing with some merchant about their cargo. Horses? The lift must be distorting his words. Ahead, an elaborate glyph marked a contained storage hold. She could either ride down in there or confront the pilot now. She had lifted up her hand before she even realized she'd made the decision. The wall seamed away from the entrance to the hold. She took one step in. Stopped, amazed, and then shook herself and slipped inside as the wall closed behind her.

Horses!

She had expected sundry bags of trading goods for the handful of Earth merchants and anthropologists who lived, disguised, among the native populations, or possibly even boxes within boxes of laboratory or communications equipment for the hidden rooms in the palace at Jeds. She had certainly not expected horses.

The animals breathed and shifted around her. Their scent lay heavy and overwhelming in the confined space. A quivering hum stirred the shuttle. The horses moved restlessly, and Tess felt the floor shift, a nauseating distortion, and they were free of the Oshaki. She settled back into a shadowed corner to wait.

The hold's walls gave off enough light that she could extract the book of essays from the pouch and read aloud to herself, practicing the language which had gone on to give its name to the planet. It was the language spoken in Jeds, where Charles had established a native provenance for himself, and a role, as the prince of that city, through which he could keep track of his interdicted planet.

A loud snort startled her from her book. High vibrations shook through the floor-the landing engines. She had thought the Oshaki to be above the northernmost reaches of the Jedan continent; it had been a remarkably fast trip. The shuttle jerked and shuddered, then stilled. They had landed.

Silence, broken by the nervous shifting of the horses. With a sharp crack, the hull opened. Light poured in. Tess flung one hand up over her eyes to protect them. Didn't the shuttles land on their off-shore island spaceport at night, to minimize the risk of being seen? Perhaps the routine had changed.

From the outer stalls, horses were herded out. Someone counted down a list in Chapalii: thirty-two, forty-five, fifty-six. Hooves rang on the ramp. Two Chapalii discussed grass and manure in neutral, colorless voices. Finally, their boots sounded dully, fading, on the metal ramp as they left. In the distance, a horse neighed. Someone shouted in Chapalii. Saddles? The word was unfamiliar.

Tess rose, put away the book, and walked to the ramp to look outside. She saw grass, sloping up to the ring of low hills that surrounded this tiny valley. About fifty yards away a clump of broken boulders littered the grass. Around the shuttle to her left she heard the horses, and other sounds-unloading on the primary ramp, the cargo master going over lists with the League agents who channeled the trade between the island and Jeds.

She half slid down the ramp, hopping to the ground. Thick grass cushioned her landing. The air was sharper, fresher, colder than she remembered.

With a burst of movement, horses emerged from behind the shuttle, herded by eleven riders dressed in native clothing. The riders looked strange; in fact, all of this looked a little strange. She did not recall the shuttle valley to be a land with so little variety: the sky such a monotone of deep blue, cloudless, the land a gentle incline to the heights, covered with an unbroken layer of grass and patches of unmelted snow. The riders paused at the crest. A few looked back before the entire group rode out of sight.

The riders were Chapalii. And they were wearing native clothing. Charles would never countenance this. She ran out to see where they were going, to find whomever of Charles's people was letting this violation of the interdiction take place.

A high hum warned her. She threw herself down on the ground. A gust of heat roiled over her and faded. She rose to her knees, lifting her hand to alert them that she was here. But the shuttle had already taken off. She stared, astounded. The blast of a human ship would have killed her, this close. She watched the sleek smoothness of its upward path, hearing only the wind against her ears, like the faint echo of the lengthening of its arc. They had not had time to unload the entire cargo. There was a last wink of silver and then only the violet-blue of the sky. If she had not known what to look for, she would never have seen it.

This was insane. She dusted herself off, flicked a stem of grass away from her mouth, and walked back to the charred site of the shuttle's landing. Such a faint scar, to mark its having been here. The breeze cooled her cheeks as she strode along the trail of beaten-down grass left by the horses. Snow patched the shadows, but her clothes adjusted their temperature accordingly. She did not bother to pull on her gloves. After all, she would catch up with the Chapalii soon enough. The island on which Charles's engineer had disguised his spaceport was tiny; every hill overlooked the sea. Off-world women and men in Charles's employ lived in the island's only village. There, Tess could find a galley sailing the rest of the way across the vast bay, to the harbor at Jeds. There was no other way off the island.

By the sun, she guessed that her trail led east. Climbing, she felt invigorated, enjoying the sweet pungency of the air, the untainted crispness of the wind. She came to the crest of the nearest hill quickly, her cheeks warm with the effort.

There was no ocean. There was nothing except grass and snow and broken forest straggling along the march of hills. As she stared out at the unvarying expanse, dwarfed by the huge bowl of the sky and the wide stretch of hills, she knew that she had never seen this place before. This was not an island.

"Oh, my God." Empty space swallowed her words. Her legs gave out, and she dropped to her knees. The air had a sweet, alien odor. A bug crawled up her thumb. She shook it off, cursing. No wonder the Chapalii had left so quickly. Trespassing-such a flagrant act of contempt for her brother's authority that they must have some reason to risk a conviction of Imperial censure which would strip them of all rank. But there was nothing on Rhui worth that to a Chapalii.

For a long moment she did not move. What if there was?

Hills hid the Chapalii riders, but they had left a trail. She followed it. At the base of the hill it veered south. Wind brushed through the grass, lifting trampled stalks. Tess fished in her pouch, found the necklace and put it on, and pulled on her gloves. Then she walked.

The trail proved inconstant, but even when it faded, she could always find it fifty meters on. At first she was optimistic.

That evening it was the cold and her thirst that plagued her. But sheltering in a miserable patch of trees, with her cloak wrapped around her head and body, her clothing kept her just barely warm enough to doze. In the morning she melted snow in her bare hands and drank, and melted more, until her hands grew so stiff that she had to put her gloves back on. At least she would not die of thirst. But during the day the trail got worse.

Half the time she walked by instinct, following the curve of the hills, the snow-laden shadows, as if this Chapaliian violation of her brother's edict left an invisible line that she, the avenging representative, could stalk. They should not be here-had never been here. What if they knew that Charles was biding his time, consolidating his power until he could successfully free humanity from their grip? What if their purpose all along had been to put him in a position within their hierarchy from which they could easily ruin him? And now, stupidly, she had gotten herself lost. He could not adopt a new heir unless she was certified dead. He would not know where to look for her-somewhere near Jeds-of course, the Chapalii would cover up their unauthorized landing. And she was the only one who knew they were here.

That night it was hunger more than the cold. Small plants grew under the grove of scrub trees she sheltered amidst, but she dared not try to eat them. In the darkness, as she stared up at the sky through a gap in the branches, none of the stars seemed familiar. She had known the night sky of Jeds well. It took her a long time to go to sleep.

The third day. It was harder to keep a steady pace. A thin cut on her upper lip stung constantly. She believed she was still following a trail-she had to believe it. In the afternoon, when she stumbled across a small water hole bordered by a ring of trees, she broke the crust of ice with one boot and drank until she was bloated. Then she fell asleep, exhausted.

Jacques was laughing at her. Her faithless lover was laughing. She had taken him once to her folk-dance club, where she went with her friends. He thought dancing silly. "Flying," he said, "is a man's sport." So she said, "I'll race you on the Everest Loop." But she beat him, beat the president of the Sorbonne flying club. Bright, popular, magnetic, he was so much that she wasn't. It had been a terrible mistake to beat him.

Until she found herself in the same class, Diplomacy and Chapalii Culture, and he had honored her with his laughter again. "You speak Chapalii so well," he said. Withdrawn, uncomfortable with most people, she was flattered when he asked her to be in his study group. Later, somehow, he discovered she was the heir to the admired Soerensen, freedom fighter, duke in the Empire, champion of Earth and the League. That summer he asked her to marry him.

"No," she said. She woke up, shivering.

Night. Late. Without thinking, her eyes focused on a formation of stars. She recognized the constellation. In Jeds, the Horseman rose high in the sky, sword leading. Here he hugged the hills, and by the angle of his sword she knew she was very far north, a thousand times farther north than she could possibly walk. She knew the map of the Jedan continent. Its northern mass was taken up by vast plains, broad as Siberia. She might as well attempt to walk from Mongolia to Venice. And she did not know whether winter was ending or just coming on. Oh God, she thought, don't let me be there: I can't be there.

When she slept again she dreamed that her bones lay, white, laced with the flowering vines of spring, on a golden, infinite hillside.

The rising sun woke her. Her left hand ached, the cloth of her cloak clutched in its fist. Shaking with cold, she pried it open with her other hand, and rose and drank and looked around. There was no trail. No sign that anyone had passed here, nothing, no life at all, except her. But south was surely that way, south to Jeds. She had a duty to Charles. However she had failed him before, she could not fail him now.

Strangely, the walking seemed easier, but she was very light-headed. Her eyesight grew unclear at intervals. When she picked up her feet, they seemed to fall from a great distance before they struck the ground. The sun rose high and cold above her.

Rounding the steep end of a small rise, she saw before her trampled grass, scattered ashes, and one long thin strip of worn leather. She was in the middle of it before she realized it was an abandoned camp. Her knees collapsed under her and she sat. She covered her face with her hands, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. It was recent, yes, alien and primitive, and there was a trail leading away, a trail she could follow.

She set off immediately. Ran sometimes, thinking she had seen something, stumbling, falling once into a freezing hard layer of snow, walked again, catching her breath and rubbing her cold cheeks with her bare hands. But as midday passed into afternoon, the grass thickened and lengthened, the hills ended abruptly, and the trail disappeared.

She stood silent on the edge of a vast plain. At first she merely stared. Nothing but grass, and grass and sky met in a thin line far in the distance, surrounding her, enclosing her in their vast monotony.

The wind scoured patterns in the greening grass. A single patch of flowers mottled a blazing scarlet through the high stems. A body could lie a hundred years in such space and never be found. In a hundred years her brother would be dead.

Her throat felt constricted. Tears rose, filling her eyes. But this was not the time to cry-think, think. She coughed several times, eyes shut. That, perhaps, was why she did not notice his approach.

A stream of words, incomprehensible, delivered in a steady, commanding voice.

She whirled. A man stood on the slope above her. He had dark hair, cut short, a trim dark beard, and the look of a man hardened by many years of difficult life, yet he had no coarseness. He waited patiently. His shirt was scarlet and full, his trousers black; his high boots were tanned leather and fit closely to his ankle and calf. A long, curving blade! hung from his belt. He took one step toward her and asked' another question in the same incomprehensible tongue.

She held her ground and replied in Rhuian. "Who may you be, good man?" she asked, remembering formality somehow, perhaps only because it was all that was left her. Here, not even her brother's name mattered, except as a courtesy. "I am Terese Soerensen. I have nothing in my possession that could harm either you or your people."

His unreadable expression did not change. He spoke a third time in his strange tongue, motioned to her, and turned to walk up the hill. She hesitated the barest second. Then she followed him.

CHAPTER TWO

"Speech is the shadow of action."

— Democritus of Abdera

He waited for her just over the crest of the hill, one hand loosely grasping his horse's reins. Compared to the horses she had traveled downside with, this was a stocky animal, with no beauty whatsoever; its legs were thick, its neck short and powerful. Its thin mane straggled over a dense coat, and its muzzle had a blunt shape that gave it the look of some prehistoric creature. Against its imperfections, the man standing at its head looked faultless: His red shirt was brilliant against the dull grass, his posture utterly assured, his eyes a deep, rich brown, his face-Too hard. There was too little kindness in his face. Wind stirred Tess's hair and a bird called in the distance, a raucous cry. The man's eyes as he examined her in his turn were intelligent. She recalled her conversation with the merchant: intelligent enough to suspect her off-world origins? How could he, when Jeds itself-thousands of miles away but at least still on his planet-was likely a meaningless word to him? When Rhui was interdicted, protected from the knowledge of the space-faring civilizations that surrounded it? Without realizing she was doing it, she shook her head. The movement made her dizzy. Her hunger and thirst flooded in on her, and she stumbled.

She did not even see him move, but his hands were under her elbow, pulling her up. She jerked away from him.

"Damn it," she said, ashamed of her weakness. "I suppose it was too much to hope that you would speak Rhuian." He stood very still, watching her. "God-damned native wildlife," she added in Anglais, just to make herself feel better, but even her tone made no dent in his impassivity. He simply retreated to his horse, returning to her side a moment later with a hard, flat square of bread and a damp leather pouch filled with water.

She ate the bread, but drank only enough water to slake her thirst, and offered the pouch back to him. After he had tied it to his saddle, he mounted and held out one hand for her to swing on behind him. The strength of his pull surprised her; she had to grab at his shoulder to keep from falling over the other side. What he said under his breath did not sound like commendation.

Tess bit at her lip. She put one hand on each side of his waist, the cloth of his shirt fluid and smooth under her hands. Ahead, a wind moved in the grass. He glanced back at her, moved her arms so that they circled his waist entirely, and gave a terse command-even without knowing the language, she could translate the tone of voice. She took in a deep breath and held it, because her instinct was to tears. His legs moved against hers. The horse started forward.

His entire back was in contact with her. She turned her face to one side. Her cheek pressed against the back of his neck. The ends of his dark hair tickled her eye. His back was warm, and under her hands, held open and flat on his middle, she could feel every movement of the hard muscles in his stomach, his slow, controlled breathing. She closed her hands into fists.

They rode down onto the plain. Here, away from the hills, the sky seemed even larger, as if some giant hand had pushed the horizon down to reveal more blue. They seemed so small, the three of them alone in such an expanse, invisible, surely, to any eye looking down from above, yet his sense of purpose and direction gave them significance.

She could not judge time, but soon her thighs began to ache. After an eternity she began to believe that there had indeed been some change in the sun's position. The grass continued on around them without a break. Snow glittered in occasional patches. The man in front of her neither spoke nor moved appreciably, except for the finest shifts to adjust for the horse.

A flash of brilliance sparked on a far rise, vanished, only to appear again closer: another rider in scarlet and black. This one had a second horse on a lead line, trailing behind him. Quickly, more quickly than Tess expected, the two riders met, slowed, and halted their horses.

The newcomer was a young man with bright blond hair and a cheerful smile. The smile emerged as he met them, fading into astonishment as he looked at Tess. He spoke in a flood of words, to which the dark man replied curtly. Unabashed, the younger man swung down from his horse and came over to stand below Tess. He blushed a little-easy to see on his fair skin-and lifted his arms up to her.

She flushed with embarrassed anger-he was helping her down as if she were a child. But her eyes met his, and there was something in his gaze, something utterly good-natured, that made her smile slightly, at which he blushed a deeper shade of pink and lowered his gaze. At least he was as embarrassed about this as she was. She let herself be helped down. He let go of her instantly, and for a moment she stood next to him under the censorious gaze of the dark man and felt allied with the young blond against a force impatient with both of them. Without a word, the dark man reined his horse around and left them standing there together while he rode back the way he and Tess had come.

She gaped, she was so surprised at this desertion. Beside her, the young man laughed.

"Not worry," he said in perfectly horrible Rhuian. "Ilya is always angry.''

"I beg your pardon!"

He repeated the words, slower this time, so that she caught them all. "I beg pardon for my tongue," he added, not looking very sorry about it. "It is not so good."

"How did you learn Rhuian?" she demanded.

He shrugged. "I study in Jeds."

She felt herself gaping again: this young native-nondescript except for the merry cast of his face, arrayed as barbarically as any savage, living out on a trackless plain-had studied in Jeds.

Under her stare, he dropped his gaze shyly. "I apologize. Forgive me. I have not given you my name. I am Yurinya Orzhekov." Long lashes shaded his blue eyes. "But perhaps you will call me Yuri." He hesitated, as if this request were a liberty.

Tess began to feel dizzy again and, leaning forward, she put her hand on the first thing within reach: his horse.

"Are you well? We go to camp now. Ilya says you were walking many days."

"Yes, I…" In a moment her head cleared. "I'm Tess. Terese Soerensen, that is. But Tess, that is what my friends call me."

"Ah," he said wisely. "Can you mount?"

Under his stare, not intimidating at all, she felt it possible to be truthful. "The last time I rode a horse was, oh, ten years ago."

"Well, then, I will keep the lead, and you hold on. Can you manage that?"

By this time she had adjusted for his atrocious accent-his vocabulary was decent enough. "Yes," she replied gratefully, "I think I can manage that."

He helped her mount, mounted himself, and led the way forward at a sedate walk. After he saw that she could manage that much, he let his horse ease back beside hers. "You are from Jeds?''

"Ah… yes."

"It is a very long way. Many months' journey."

"Yes, I suppose it is." She hesitated to question him further on geography, for fear of revealing the wrong sort of ignorance. Instead, she chose silence.

"Ah, you are tired. I will not bother you." He lapsed into a silence of his own, but a rather companionable one, for all that.

She let it go because she was exhausted, still hungry, still dizzy on and off. When at long, long last they topped a low rise and she saw below a perfectly haphazard collection of about four dozen vividly colored tents, she felt only relief, not apprehension. A rider some hundred meters distant hailed them with a shout and a wave, and Yurinya waved back and led Tess down into a swirl of activity.

Their arrival brought a crowd of people to stare, mostly women and children, and soon after a woman whose broad, merry face bespoke a blood relationship to Yuri. She held a child in one arm, balanced on her hip, but when Yuri spoke briefly to her in their language, she handed the child over to another woman and crossed to stand next to Tess. She called out to the crowd, and it quickly dissipated, except, of course, for a score of curious, staring children.

She looked up at Tess and smiled. It was like water in the desert. Tess smiled back.

"I am Sonia Orzhekov," said the young woman. "I am Yuri's sister, so he has properly brought you to me."

"You speak Rhuian." Tess stared at her, at her blonde hair secured in four braids, her head capped by a fine headpiece of colored beads and leather; she wore a long blue tunic studded with gold trim that ended at her knees, and belled blue trousers beneath that, tucked into soft leather boots. An object shaped like a hand mirror hung from her belt. "I suppose you studied in Jeds, too."

Sonia laughed. "Here, Yuri." Her accent was far better than her brother's, and she spoke with very little hesitation. "We'll walk the rest of the way." She lifted up her arms and helped Tess down. "There. Men can never talk to any end, sitting up so high all the time. Yuri, you may go, if you'd like." Although couched politely, the words were plainly a command. Yuri glanced once at Tess, smiled shyly, and left with the two horses.

"But did you?" Tess persisted. "Study in Jeds, I mean."

"You are surprised." Sonia grinned at Tess's discomfiture. "Is Jeds your home?"

"Yes." The lie came easier to her, now that she realized it was the best one she had, and not entirely untrue.

"So you do not expect to see such as we studying in the university in Jeds. Well." Sonia shrugged. The blue in her tunic was not more intense than the fine bright blue of her eyes. "You are right. Jaran do not normally study in Jeds. Only Yuri and I, and Dina now, because Ilya did, and he thought it would be-" Her grin was as much full of mischief as laughter. "-good for us. Poor Yuri. I suppose he was miserable the entire time, though he will never say so much to me, even if I am his sister. And never ever would he say it to Ilya."

"Who is Ilya, and why was he studying in Jeds?"

"Ilya Bakhtiian? He is my cousin, first, and also the dyan of our tribe's jahar.. You would say in Rhuian, perhaps, the leader of our riders. Why he went to Jeds? You will have to ask him. He's the one who found you, if Yuri did not say."

Tess, remembering that dark, aloof, censorious man, and their ride together, flushed a furious red.

Sonia merely laid a soft but entirely reassuring hand on Tess's arm, guiding her, supporting her. "Come, you're tired. Eat and sleep first. Then we can talk."

So Tess did as she was told, and was relieved to be treated both kindly and firmly. Sonia took her to a huge, round tent, I gave her warm stew and hot tea to drink, chased four inquisitive children out of the curtained back alcove of the tent, and helped Tess out of her boots and clothing. Then, giving Tess a yellow silk shift to wear, she pointed to a pile of furs and left, returning once with a small bronze oven filled with hot coals. Tess lay down. The furs were soft enough, but they smelled-not bad, precisely, but musky, an exotic, overpowering scent. Outside, children laughed and called in some game. A woman chuckled. Pots chimed against each other in the breeze. More distantly, a man shouted, and animals bleated and cried in soothing unison. A bird's looping whistle trilled over and over and over again. Tess slept.

Charles Soerensen sat at his desk, staring out at the mud flats of Odys Massif that stretched for endless miles, as far as one could see from this tower and farther yet. While his companion spoke, Soerensen sat perfectly still, engrossed in the scene beyond. But Marco Burckhardt knew that Charles Soerensen listened closely and keenly to everything he had to report.

"… and while I was in Jeds, Dr. Hierakis isolated another of the antigenic enzymes in the native population that has been puzzling her. Which reminds me, this lingering illness that the Prince of Jeds is suffering is either going to have to get better or you're going to have to kill yourself off and let your sister take over, or some invented son, once she can be fetched back from whichever damned place overseas you supposedly sent her to study. It's been over two years since you've appeared publicly in Jeds, or even been downside at all."

Charles reached out and with one finger rotated the globe of Earth suspended to the right of his desk a quarter-turn, revealing the Pacific Ocean. "Eighteen months. And in any case, I just inherited twenty years ago. We've got a while before we need a new prince down there."

"If you say so. I think I'll sail the coast up north from Jeds next. Northeast, that is, up the inland sea."

A soft click sounded, barely audible, but both men stilled, and Marco turned expectantly toward the tiled wall opposite the huge open balcony that looked out over the tidal flats.

A seam opened. A woman dressed in an approximation of Chapalii steward's garb appeared.

"Visitors," she said, low, and quickly. "The Oshaki, in from Earth. Hao Yakii Tarimin."

Charles nodded. He did not stand, but Marco did. The woman backed out of the room. A moment later, Hao Yakii entered and paused on the threshold. Marco gestured for him to enter, and Yakii came forward and with a precise, deep bow, presented himself to Charles.

"Tai Charles," he said in formal Chapalii. "I am thrice honored to be allowed into your presence, and I beg leave to thank you again for your generosity in letting my ship transport cargo and passengers through your demesne."

Charles inclined his head the merest degree. He folded his hands together, one atop the other.

Marco echoed the folded hands. "The Tai-en accepts your thanks. Is there any news to report? Have you your manifest for the Rhui cargo?"

Yakii produced a palm-thin slate and offered it to Marco, and bowed again to Charles, retreating a step.

Marco studied it, puzzling out the letters of formal merchanter's Chapalii. "Laboratory equipment," he said in Anglais. "The usual kit for the good doctor. Forty boxes of bound paperbooks for dissemination. Silk bolts. Iron ingots. Spices. Some luxuries from home for the personnel. Pretty sparse for a cargo, I must say." He glanced up. Charles rubbed his chin with his left forefinger. "Nothing missing that I can see," Marco added in Ophiuchi-Sei, the only human language they were fairly sure the Chapalii had not learned, since its structure and cadences were decidedly and pointedly egalitarian.

Charles returned his gaze to the monotonous gray-green flats and stared, as if he saw something out there Marco did not. Yakii waited with Chapaliian patience for the duke to acknowledge the manifest or dismiss him. Finally, Charles reached out and turned the globe again, and rested his right forefinger lightly in the middle of eastern Europe.

"Is there also a message," asked Marco in his painstaking but rather rough formal Chapalii, "from the Tai-endi Terese Soerensen?"

Marco saw the faint flush, the quiet creep of blue onto Hao Yakii's skin before it melted and blended back into white Whether Charles could detect the color shift in the reflection of the glastic pane he could not be sure.

"I received no message," said Hao Yakii in a colorless voice, "from the Tai-endi Terese Soerensen to convey to the duke."

Charles's eyes narrowed slightly, scarcely noticeable, unless one knew him as well as Marco did.

"You may go, Hao Yakii," said Marco.

Yakii bowed to the correct degree and retreated out of the room. Charles stood up.

"Get Suzanne," he said. "I want her to take the next ship back to Earth."

"Aren't you overreacting?"

"Tess sends a message by every ship that comes through here via Earth. We agreed on that when she decided to study at Prague."

"Still, Charles." Marco walked to the desk and laid his palms flat on the satiny surface. "Wasn't she in the last throes of writing her thesis? Damned linguists. I've studied Chapalii since before she was born, and she still speaks it ten times better than I do."

Charles had pale blue eyes, deceptively mild eyes except when their full force was turned on an adversary. "When I have every reason to suspect that Chapalii Protocol officers arranged the accident that killed my parents? I don't think I'm overreacting."

Marco shrugged. "I'll go."

Charles considered. "No. Suzanne can handle this. I'll have her send a bullet back to us from Earth once she's there."

"That's pretty damned expensive."

Charles laid a hand on the north pole of the Earth, gently, reverently. "Why the hell do you think I accepted this honor? She's my only heir, and you know damned well we're the only toehold humanity's got to the chameleons' power structure. Now." He removed his hand from the globe, and his tone altered, softened, as he sat down again. "Is there anyone else from the Oshaki I am meant to see?"

Marco pushed off the desk and went to the transparent wall. The tide was coming in, a low, steady swell that overtook islands of reeds and swallowed them. On the horizon, the towers of Odys Port winked in the light of the setting sun. "The merchant, Keinaba."

With a soft click, a door opened in the back wall. The woman came in and walked straight up to the desk.

"Curiouser and curiouser," she said. "Marco, haven't I told you that turquoise blue is not your color?"

"You're welcome to undress me, my love," said Marco with a grin, "and show me something more appropriate to wear.

"Fat chance, sweetheart. Here, Charles, this is from the Oshaki. " She dropped a thin slate down on the desktop. "No sooner did the captain hie himself out of here but his steward comes in with this message from the Chapalii merchant. Hao Yakii and house Keinaba's regrets, but Hon Echido Keinaba has been unavoidably detained and will continue with the Oshaki to Chapal system. I can't believe that anything in this galaxy would drag a merchant from that house off the chance we offered them to tie in with our trade and our metals foundries."

Charles steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them. He did not look at the formal Chapalii script inscribed on the slate's screen. The tide lapped at the wooden docks built below, stirring a rowboat and a gross of lobster cages tied to the pilings. "Let's not take offense yet," he said slowly. "Let's keep channels open with the Keinaba house." He glanced up, first at Marco and then at the woman. "Suzanne, I need you to go to Earth and find out why Tess didn't send her usual message. What's the next ship heading out that way? On second thought, commandeer one. Not the Oshaki, I think."

Suzanne picked up the slate and keyed in a few quick commands. "Five days would be easy. But if you really want to pull rank, I can leave tomorrow.''

Charles nodded at the flats, shimmering, stilling as the tide settled and the last glow of the sun scattered out across the dull water. "Tomorrow," he said.

Tess woke abruptly, to silence. She did not know how long she had slept. She sat up. Suddenly she heard two men arguing, fluid, foreign words, and a woman weeping, a constant undercurrent to their angry exchange. The conversation ended abruptly, but the weeping kept on, fading at last as if the woman had walked out of reach of Tess's hearing. It was utterly, unnaturally quiet.

Tess groped forward and opened the flap that led into the front half of the tent. Light streamed in here, dappling her clothing, which was neatly folded next to a pouch of food and a tin pot of water. Quickly, she dressed, drank, and ate, and then ventured outside.

The sun lay low along the far rise, but she could tell by the quality of light that it was morning. The camp was empty. Tent flaps stirred in the dawn breeze, but not one single figure moved along the trails beaten down in the grass between the tents. Movement caught her eye, up along the rise, and she saw two figures disappear over the height, edged by the glare of the rising sun. She followed them.

The tribe had gathered in the shallow valley on the other side of the rise. They stood in shadow, the sun's light creeping down toward them, and Tess stopped at the height, staring down, aware that some alien, serious ritual was taking place. To her left, she saw another solitary figure crest the rise into sunlight and then descend again into shadow. She recognized him by his walk, and the dark line of his beard: the man who had found her-Bakhtiian. The air, heavy with dew, felt soft and cold on her cheeks. She watched him descend, for a moment seduced from her other thoughts by the grace of his walk and bearing. Then she winced and went down to the right, where she could see and hear the proceedings but not be part of them.

The tribe stood silently in a rough semicircle. A baby cried and was hushed. One man, fair-haired, middle-aged, dressed in black, stood by himself beyond the crowd. He stared straight ahead-although the sun rose directly into his eyes-and his stance was stiff.

The crowd parted soundlessly to let Bakhtiian through their ranks. His stride was unhurried and smooth. Drops of dew glistened on the tops of his boots and on the hilt of his saber. He halted in front of the single figure.

The silence spread beyond them so that Tess was not aware even of the birds calling or the wind's slow breath on her cheeks. Bakhtiian spoke. What he said had a rhythmic quality, like a spell or a poem, and it wrapped around Tess like a snake so that when he ceased speaking she pulled her arms close in against her chest. A single voice, unsure and weak in the silence left by his speech, answered him, followed by several more in a set way that made her realize that this was some kind of ceremony.

Bakhtiian addressed the man standing apart. He responded with one word. A second question, another single word. A third; the same word again. He was a pale figure, this man, alone against the blank sky and the endless grass. No one spoke. A high call came from above, and a lone bird swooped low, rose into the wind, and flew toward the sun.

Bakhtiian moved slightly, drawing his saber. A sigh spread through the crowd as though strewn by the wind. The point of the blade rested on the man's forehead. The world seemed to stop, its only motion the movements of Bakhtiian. Tess could not look away. He looked to the sky and spoke a short invocation to the expanse above. Something awful was about to happen, but it was too late to run away.

In a kind of ghastly slow motion, the more terrible for the effortless beauty of his movement, he drew his saber up to his left shoulder, stepped left, and cut back to the right. Without meaning to, Tess clapped her hands over her eyes. Forced them down, only to see the man, covered with his own blood, collapse into a grotesque heap on the ground. Bakhtiian stepped forward, dropped the saber on the man's body, and turned away and walked, without a word, back toward the camp.

There was a brief, horrified hush. People moved back to let him through and stared after him, hands hiding the sudden buzz of whispering.

Not even aware of her path, Tess fled-from the camp, the crowd, the dead man. She huddled in a little hollow, unable to weep or retch or rail, unable to do anything but bury her head against her knees and shudder, over and over, her arms clenching her knees so tightly that it felt as if bone was touching bone. How long she stayed like this she did not know.

After a time she began taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly, inhaling the musty sweetness of the grass. She rocked back and forth, relaxing her clenched muscles one by one until at last she could shut away the ghastly picture of the man collapsing, of his blood staining the grass-She took another breath, let it out. Her neck ached. She lifted her head carefully, as if it were so delicate that the slightest jar would break it, and almost screamed. Bakhtiian stood not twenty paces away, watching her.

CHAPTER THREE

"If God had not created yellow honey, they would say that figs were far sweeter."

— XENOPHANES OF COLOPHON

Far above, a bird dove toward the earth, a bundle thrown from some high spot to be dashed to pieces against the ground. Abruptly it broke its plummet and jerked upward, wings spread. Tess's hand was on her throat.

Bakhtiian walked toward her, slowly, each step measured and even. A saber swayed at his hip.

Tess forced herself to lower her hand and, knowing that it is always best to face your fears directly, she stood up-slowly, so as not to startle him-and looked him straight in the eye. He looked away; that fast, like a wild creature bolting; then, deliberately, he returned her gaze. His hesitancy gave her courage, and she found that her heart was no longer beating so erratically.

"I suppose you think us savage," he said in a low voice.

He spoke such faultless Rhuian, enhanced rather than marred by a melodious accent, that it took her some full, drawn-out moments to even wonder why it ought to matter to him. "My God." It was the only response that came to hand.

"Sonia says you come from Jeds." She simply stared at him; when she did not reply, he went on. "I studied there myself, at the university, some fifteen years ago. I was very young." He paused. "But even then I thought the architecture of the university, set out around such a fine square, was particularly remarkable." The wind stirred the scarlet silk of his shirt. It reminded her of blood.

"Savage is too kind," she said hoarsely. Then, realizing that she had just insulted a man who could kill her as easily as he had his previous victim, she cast round desperately for a safer haven. "Anyone who's been in Jeds knows that the university is unique because its buildings are set in the round."

His expression, unrevealing, did not change. "I've seen men killed in more brutal ways in Jeds. And for less compelling reasons. You're pale. You shouldn't be alone."

"Go away." She deliberately turned her back on him. Five breaths later, she realized what she had done, and she whirled back. But he was gone.

"Tess."

She bolted right into Yuri.

"Tess. Don't be scared of me."

She could not help herself. She gripped his shirt in her fists and sobbed onto his shoulder. He stood very still. After a bit she stopped crying and stepped a half pace away. She dried her eyes on her hand, feeling like a fool, and looked at him. "Your shirt is all wet."

"I don't mind." He stared at her so earnestly that she looked away. "You are sad."

"Oh, Yuri, that was awful."

"It's true that he got a more merciful death than he deserved. My mother and the other-elders-will be angry with Ilya now, I can tell you that."

"Good Lord," she murmured, utterly bewildered. "How could that be called merciful? How was he supposed to die? No, don't tell me that." She lapsed into silence.

"Tess, he had to die. He had broken the gods' law. Otherwise his-crime, is that the word? — would have made the whole tribe suffer.''

"What did he do?"

Yuri looked shamed, and he hesitated, as if he was afraid to confess the magnitude of the man's wrongdoing. "He shot a whistler.''

"A whistler?"

"It's a bird." Wrung from him, the admission seemed both anguished and, to Tess, utterly incongruous.

"A bird." What kind of people had she fallen in with?

"He shouldn't have been out hunting with women's weapons anyway, and he was three times a fool to shoot into a thicket. He should have flushed out the game." Yuri shrugged. "But it's done now. The gods must have guided his hand. It was a just execution."

He spoke so matter-of-factly that Tess was appalled, and not a little frightened. "Yuri. You'll tell me, won't you, if I'm about to do something that would offend, that would break your gods' law?"

Now he looked shocked. "You don't think we punish children? Or those who act in ignorance? We're not savages!"

"No, no, of course not. I'm sorry. I didn't mean-" But Yuri could not maintain outrage for longer than a moment. He grinned at her consternation. "Well," said Tess, "I appreciate you coming to find me. Did Bakhtiian send you?"

"Ilya? Why would he send me? No, Sonia did." Abruptly he blushed. "She thought, if you were upset, that you might want-a man's comfort." The constrained tone of his voice left no question as to what Sonia meant by a man's comfort.

For an instant, unable to look at Yuri, Tess was too embarrassed to speak. But then, glancing up at him, she realized that Yuri was far more embarrassed than she was. Their gazes met. Yuri covered his mouth with his hand, and they both laughed.

When Tess tentatively laid a hand on his arm, they sobered. "I don't-I don't need a lover, Yuri. Not right now. But a brother…" Had Charles received her computer slate already? Only to send a message to Jeds and find that she had never arrived? "I could use a brother, right now."

He smiled, looking both relieved and honestly pleased, and grasped her hand with his. "Then I will be your brother, Tess. I would far rather be your brother, because a woman's lovers come and go, but her brother she keeps always." He studied her a moment, serious. "But you'd better wash your face. I'll take you to the stream."

They walked back through camp. Yuri led them wide around his family's cluster of tents, where Tess could see a little gathering: Bakhtiian, standing as if he was on trial in front of a half circle of older women and men. On the far side of camp, they followed a stream past a low rise. The stream slipped down a smooth ladder of rocks and broadened into a pool. Yuri left her at the top of the rise, and Tess picked her way down the slope alone. Sonia, standing with a group of young women, saw her and waved.

"Tess." She came to greet her. "Perhaps my brother does not interest you." About twenty young women gathered around. They were not shy at all; they pointed to Tess's clothing and even touched her brown hair, exclaiming over its color-theirs was either blonde or black, with no shade in between.

Under their scrutiny, Tess was amazed she could keep her composure. "No. No, I like him very much. But I am not looking for a lover."

"Ah." Sonia shooed the other women away and immediately began to undress. "Your heart has been broken. I can see it in your face.'' She stripped down to a thin white shift. Around them, the other young women, naked now, plunged gasping and laughing into the pool. "A man has treated you badly. Here, let me help you take those off."

Tess was not entirely sure she wanted to strip naked in what was after all no more than an early spring day, however fine, and swim in a stream that looked bitterly cold, but after the execution, she did not want to refuse. "Yes," she agreed, to both statements.

"What fine undergarments you wear." Sonia examined Tess's underclothes without the least sign of selfconsciousness. "Perhaps you can show us how to fashion some. Here, Elena, Marya-" Several of them splashed right out of the pool to exclaim over this new discovery, and when they had tired of that, they bullied Tess into stripping completely and coming back into the water with them.

It was like ice. But the company, and the energy with which they all splashed about, soon made her forget her goose bumps. Only Sonia spoke Rhuian; the others addressed her cheerfully in their own language and she quickly learned names and a few words. About half the women had scars on their left cheeks.

"So you are not married?" Sonia asked. "No? How old are you? Twenty-three? A widow, perhaps?"

"No. I… I was to be married, but…"

"Ah. This is the man who has broken your heart. Well." Sonia dismissed the betrayer with a blithe wave of one hand, and a retaliatory splash in the direction of the gray-eyed, blonde girl she called Elena. "In Jeds the customs are different. I did not like them. We have many young men here who are polite as well as handsome."

Tess could not help but laugh. "When I'm ready for a lover, I'll ask your help in picking one out."

"I sent you my brother. But perhaps-" She laughed. Her laugh gave color to the air and sparked her eyes and wrinkled up her nose. "When I know you better, Tess, then I can help you choose. But I think it is time you got a husband, for I see that you have no-what is it to say in Rhuian? — none of the Mother's threads on your belly. As old as you are. I am twenty-four, and I have three children. You must not wait too long. Everyone knows the story of Agrafena's aunt."

The story of Agrafena's aunt was not, it transpired, about anyone living in the tribe, but an old tale. Giggling and shivering, everyone hurried out of the pool, dried off, and dressed. They sat farther up on the slope, the pool dappled by shadows below, an untidy collection of bodies sprawled in the sun with Sonia and Tess at their center. By turns two or three of the young women took clothing to a stretch of flat stones below the pool and beat them clean in the water. As Sonia told the story, it took a fair while to tell, alternately in Rhuian and in khush. It was about a woman who waited so long to have children that when at last she married and wanted them, she was barren-having offended the spirits of earth and water by her stubbornness-and so had to send her niece on a long journey in order to find the holy woman who could restore her to favor.

Poor Agrafena had not yet found the holy woman when a little girl raced down from the direction of the camp and delivered a message to the group. Sonia rose and reached down to help Tess up. "The men are coming."

Slinging the damp clothes over their shoulders, the women walked in a straggling group back to camp. A path had been beaten down through the coarse grass, winding around the base of the hills, and they followed this. Elena, at the head of the line, whistled suddenly. The whole group quieted. A young man, then another, and another, came around a rise-the men going to the pool. All the girls straightened their shoulders, swaying their hips as the men did when they were wearing their sabers, and when the first of them passed the first young man, the entire group broke into song. The men, all young, stared silently at the ground; many were grinning. One had flushed a desperate, flaming red; another hid his eyes with his hands. Toward the end of the line, a young man with reddish-blond hair looked up as he passed Sonia and Tess, and winked. He had piercingly blue eyes. Sonia gasped, laughing, and looked back at Tess.

"Did you see that? Did you? Trust Kirill!" The last of the men passed them. All the women were laughing now, breaking off their song. "Did you see?" Sonia addressed the whole group. "I want you all to know-" first in khush, then in Rhuian "-I want you all to know. He winked."

"Who?" called Elena from the front.

"Who do you think?"

A chorus, up and down the line, answered her. "Kirill!"

"You see." Sonia turned back to Tess again. "He's terribly forward. He has no shame at all."

"I'm not sure I understand what happened."

Sonia swung her wet burden out in front of her and, with a quick turn of the wrist, made it snap in the air. Faint drops of water sprayed. "We sang a man's song at them, which reminds them of the order of things. If a woman sings a man's song, it makes fun of men, you see."

Tess did not see, but she was saved from having to answer by their arrival in camp. Whatever other consequences the execution might have had, it had no effect on the daily round of life: at dawn, the camp had been empty. Now it bustled with activity. A fair-haired young woman, weaving at a loom fastened at one end around her waist and at the other to an awning corner pole, paused in her work and smiled at Tess. At another tent, an elderly woman simply stopped scouring out a pot and stared at Tess. She called a question to Sonia, which the younger woman answered with a few words. The two toddlers at her skirts stared, wide-eyed but unafraid. Three men, standing next to hides pegged out over the ground, glanced up quickly at her and away before she could meet their eyes. Farther out, beyond the tents, children raced in from the fringes of the herds to stare at Tess and were chased back to shepherd again.

Sonia's tent was not actually Sonia's tent, but the one belonging to her mother. The smaller tents that Mother Orzhekov had gifted each of her four daughters with lay pitched around the large tent. Tess helped Sonia hang the wet clothes up along the tent-lines to dry and then was given a board and a knife and a slab of meat to cut into strips for stew. Yuri strolled up with a baby on his hip and with a look of relief deposited the child on Sonia's lap and turned to sit down beside Tess. He looked around rather furtively and, seeing no other young men in sight, drew his knife and helped her cut up the meat. Sonia took the baby away, and Tess and Yuri sat for some time in companionable silence.

Occasionally young men passed by, and Yuri would hide his knife under his leg and lean back as if he were relaxing.

"I do appreciate it, Yuri, but you don't have to help me," said Tess after the third time he had hidden the knife, "I wouldn't want you to get into trouble."

"Oh, I don't mind. Now that I'm a rider it's supposed to be beneath my dignity to do anything but practice saber and whatever work Uncle Yakhov needs done with the herds."

"But you helped Sonia with the baby."

"Everyone cares for the children. And, of course, a man does what his family asks of him."

"But I see men working at many things besides those who are out with the herds. Don't those men fight?"

"Every man can fight, Tess, but not every man rides in jahar. We're almost done anyway." Three men appeared suddenly from around the back of the tent, but after one startled glance, Yuri simply returned to slicing meat. One was Bakhtiian. Beside him walked an older, silver-haired man, and two steps behind followed a fair, pretty young man who wore a profusion of necklaces in a multitude of colors that clashed with the garish embroidery decorating the sleeves and yoke of his scarlet shirt. Tassels of gold and silver braid hung from his boot tops. Tess could not help but stare. Except for a brief, piercing glance, Bakhtiian ignored them. The young man copied Bakhtiian. But the older man met Tess's eyes and inclined his head with a friendly smile before accompanying Bakhtiian on into camp.

"Who was that?" Tess asked.

"Who? Niko? Nikolai Sibirin. He's the eldest rider in jahar. You'll like him."

"Who was the other one?"

"The other one? Oh." Yuri shrugged dismissively. "Vladimir. He isn't anybody. He's an orphan that Ilya took in, because he had a good hand for the saber.''

"He dresses-" She faltered.

"He'd like to be noticed. I suppose women might find him attractive." By his tone, Tess could tell that if women did, their taste was inexplicable to Yuri. "Sonia said that I should teach you khush, if you'd like."

"Yes, I would," Tess replied, realizing that Vladimir was a subject completely uninteresting to Yuri.

"Well, then, let's start with naming things. Damn." He hid the knife.

Tess looked up. A young man sauntered toward them, saber swaying at his hips. He had blond hair, shot through with the red-gold of flames, and a light mustache above full lips. For an instant their gazes met. His head tilted to one side and, with the barest grin, he winked at her before looking as quickly away in a move both shy and flirtatious. Tess flushed.

"Trust Kirill," said Yuri under his breath. He stood up. "What do you want?"

"Really, Yurinya." Kirill halted before them, not at all abashed by Yuri's tone. "Don't you know Mikhal's waiting for you to relieve him?" With another sidewise glance at Tess, he spun and almost too casually strolled away.

Yuri squinted at the sun. "Not yet, he isn't," he muttered. He grinned suddenly, looking down at Tess. "He did that just to get a close look at you."

"I guess I'll take that as a compliment."

"Kirill has no shame at all. If any other man were so forward, he would be run out of camp. I don't know how Kirill gets away with it."

Tess bit down on her grin, hiding it. "He's not unhandsome."

"I suppose not," Yuri agreed glumly. "And he knows it." Then his expression lightened. "But Maryeshka Kolenin showed him, though, when he tried to marry her."

Before Tess could ask for details of this intriguing event, Sonia came around the corner with the baby on one hip and a little girl holding on to her opposite hand. "Yuri! Are you still here? Misha must be waiting for you to relieve him."

"Not yet, " exclaimed Yuri, completely exasperated now.

"Do you want me to come with you?" Tess asked.

The casual question brought much more of a reaction than she expected. Yuri blushed. "No. You can't-"

"Yuri." Sonia set the baby down on the rug and let go of the girl.

Yuri said nothing.

"I can't what?" Tess asked.

"Ilya said not to tell her-"

"Yuri," said Sonia. She let out a sigh and dumped the cut meat into a gleaming copper pot. "You might as well say. I never thought it was right not to tell Tess, and you've said too much as it is." She exchanged a glance with Tess and set a woven bag filled with wet tubers down next to the rug, taking the board from Tess. Then she and her daughter turned their backs on Tess and Yuri and with a fresh knife cut up the vegetables, although the little girl peeked back frequently.

"What is it you weren't supposed to tell me?"

Yuri hesitated, glancing to the right, to the left, at Sonia, and finally back at Tess. "About the khepelli.

"The khepelli?" Tess felt like all the heat had flooded out of her body into the ground and the air. The late afternoon breeze was chill and damp, presaging rain.

"They say you were on the same ship with them," Yuri continued, apparently oblivious to her expression. "When Ilya told them you were following us, they were very surprised. They said you must have followed them from the coast. They said that you were a-a spy-is that the right word?''

"You knew I was following your trail? And the Chapalii-khepelli-" The word, in his tongue, sounded strange and dangerous to her ears. "-they knew, too?"

Yuri's cheeks flushed pink.

Pretending not to listen, Sonia nevertheless said in a low voice, "I call it dishonorable to leave a woman walking so long. How she made it alone from the coast I can't imagine. She might have died. It's a disgrace. And I told Ilya so myself.''

Yuri grinned, glancing up from under long lashes at Tess. "She did, by the gods. You should have heard it."

Tess was too coldly furious to respond to the grin. "And just what do these khepelli say they're doing here, that I should want to spy on them? And risk my life like that while I'm at it?" Abruptly, before Yuri could answer, she stood up and wiped her hands on her trousers. "No, don't bother to answer. Just take me to them."

"I can't. Ilya would…" He trailed off, unable to express what Ilya would do.

"He wouldn't-it isn't-" Tess realized suddenly that she knew nothing at all about this culture, except that they practiced summary execution. "He wouldn't kill you?"

Yuri sighed. "Killing would probably be a mercy, compared to what he would say to me," he replied, evidently having already forgotten the horrible act committed in front of his eyes that very morning. "Ah, Tess, you've never been on the sharp end of his tongue."

"Well, then, Sonia, will you take me?"

Without hesitation, Sonia met her gaze. "I can't, Tess. This is men's business, not mine. But Yuri, on the other hand, ought to take you. Isn't that so, Yuri?"

Yuri sheathed his knife, adjusted the position of his saber on his belt, and ran a hand down the black and gold embroidered pattern that decorated the sleeves of his red shirt.

"Yuri."

"Yes, Sonia. Come on, Tess." He led Tess off in silence, but as soon as they were away from the camp, out walking up a rise, the grass dragging at their knees and thighs, he was voluble enough. "It isn't fair, having four sisters, and all of them older than you. Well, three, since Anna died with the baby. But it's always, Yuri do this and Yuri do that, and what am I to say? They don't have to face Bakhtiian. He would never dare raise his voice to them, and if he ever did-although I can't imagine him ever trying to-then Mother would find out, and then Ilya would hear about it." He looked suddenly pleased with the image brought to him by this hypothetical turn of events. "I'd like to hear that. But then," and he looked at Tess with an impish smile, "Ilya never makes mistakes, so it will never happen."

"Yuri, I promise you, if Bakhtiian tries to blame you for bringing me with you, I'll deal with him."

Yuri regarded her skeptically but did not reply.

It was a shorter walk than Tess expected to the huddle of tents standing next to a makeshift corral of banked earth, stakes, and ropes. Far enough away from the main camp to give privacy to the foreigners, but close enough, Tess judged, for easy access. She recognized the tall, thin silhouettes of the Chapalii immediately. They wore plain brown tunics and trousers, but as always, the clothing could not disguise their gauntness or their pallor. There were other men as well, men of the tribe, but by and large those men were engaged in riding and currying and otherwise examining-horses.

"Horses." The word gusted out of her in a sharp breath. She stopped stock-still far enough away from the tents that no Chapalii ought to recognize her. These were nothing like the horses that Bakhtiian and Yuri, and she herself, had ridden. She knew without question, with that instinct carried down over millennia of Earth generations, that these were Earth horses. The horses from the shuttle's hold.

"They're very fine, aren't they?" said Yuri enthusiastically. ' 'They are a breed called-khuhaylan. When Ilya saw the first one, two years back, and the khepelli traders to him that he could have a hundred more just for helping them search for the lost haven of their god, of course he agreed. They're much stronger than they look. With such horses-He went pale. "There he is. He's seen us."

"Chapalii," said Tess in Anglais, watching one dark figure detach itself from a cluster of men and start with determined and menacing stride toward them, "don't believe in a god. Just in commerce and rank."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Come on, Yuri." She started for the nearest tent, where a lone Chapalii had stopped to stare at them.

"But Ilya-" He trailed after her, glancing over his shoulder at the approach of his cousin.

"I have business with these Chapalii, Yuri, not with Bakhtiian, who, need I remind you, let me walk for three days without food or water, and then-by God! — then the first time he spoke to me in Rhuian, asked me trick questions to see if I was really from Jeds."

Yuri murmured something indistinguishable behind he Tess did not bother to ask him what it was.

CHAPTER FOUR

"Art is ever far better than strength."

— Musaeus

"I greet you with good favor, Cha Ishii Hokokul." Tess halted in front of the Chapalii, whom she recognized as the one who had protested so vehemently against her presence on the Oshaki. A sickly shade of blue gave color to his face as he stared at her. Belatedly, he remembered to bow. Tess smiled. She was so angry at seeing him here, and at knowing that he had known all along of her plight, that she did not mind watching him squirm.

Eventually he found his voice. "May I be allowed to offer good greetings on my part, Lady Terese," he said, his voice as expressionless as any well-trained Chapalii's had to be, but the hint of blue in his cheeks betrayed his consternation.

' 'You may.'' For a moment she let her anger get the better of her, and she lapsed out of Chapalii and into Anglais. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing on an Interdicted planet? Where your species is very specifically prohibited?"

He regarded her blankly. Of course, as a member of the ruling culture, he had no reason to learn her language. "Cha Ishii, I feel sure that you are well aware that you and whatever people are with you are violating the duke's Interdiction order covering this planet. I think you must also be aware that / can have you stripped of all your wealth for this infraction."

But his color faded, and he regained his pallor. "You are also in violation of this edict, Lady Terese."

"I am heir to this system. If I choose to journey through my brother's demesne, I do not need your permission."

He flushed violet and then, looking up, went pale again. "But I comprehend, Lady Terese, that we are here now, and to reveal us for what we are to these natives-if indeed they could understand it in any case-would be an even greater violation of your brother's edict."

"Tess." Yuri sounded nervous as he glanced from Tess to Cha Ishii and then behind her. She turned. Bakhtiian came up, looking grim, with Nikolai Sibirin in tow. He stopped equidistant from both Tess and Ishii.

"Evidently you know one another," he said in Rhuian. He did not sound pleased. His gaze settled for one uncomfortable moment on Yuri, who looked distinctly anxious, and then flicked back to Tess and on to Ishii.

"Why, yes," said Tess sweetly. "We do. I was hired to act as an interpreter for their party. How unfortunate that we became separated. I am sure Cha Ishii will agree with me." She added, in court Chapalii, "You will, of course, agree, Cha Ishii. Do you require my efforts to translate for you?''

"I am not unprepared, Lady Terese. I speak some Rhuian." He twisted to address Bakhtiian in that language. "Certainly it was unfortunate." Tess was stricken to silence by astonishment at his knowing such a primitive tongue. His command of the language was rough, but serviceable. "I apologize for any inconvenience this oversight may have caused you."

"No inconvenience at all," replied Bakhtiian. Tess did not know him well enough to be sure if he meant the remark to be as sarcastic as it sounded to her. "Had you mentioned her before, I might have been able to reunite you sooner."

"But Ilya," said Yuri, "you knew someone was following them before we even met them at the lakeshore."

"Yuri. The horses need water."

Yuri reddened from neck to brow and mumbled something in khush, glancing back at Tess as he left.

His summary dismissal did not improve Tess's mood. "I confess myself curious to know why I was left to walk that long when you knew I was following you." She stared straight at Bakhtiian. "But I now need to speak with Cha Ishii. Alone."

Something subtle shifted in Bakhtiian's already severe expression, a narrowing of the eyes, a tenseness in his lips. "Indeed," he said, scrupulously formal. "You introduced yourself to me before, Terese Soerensen." He did not stumble, only slowed, over the awkward syllables. "But I have never introduced myself. I am Ilyakoria Bakhtiian." He gave a polite bow, like those Tess remembered from the court at Jeds, but she felt it was as much mocking as respectful. She returned it, mimicking him exactly. He did not smile. "If you will excuse me."

Someone, off in the group of men clustered around the corral, laughed, choked it back, and there was a murmur of voices that quieted abruptly as Bakhtiian turned away from Tess and returned to the horses. The older man lingered.

His short, light silvering hair and weathered face and hands offered Tess abundant signs of the natural aging that did not show in his posture. "If I may interrupt a moment," he said in heavily accented Rhuian. He inclined his head in a brief nod of greeting, not really waiting for their assent. "We have not met. I am Nikolai Sibirin."

Despite his sober expression, some light in his eyes made her want to smile at him. "I am honored," she replied, when she saw that his introduction was meant for her. Ishii, as attuned to nuances of hierarchy as all Chapalii must be, stepped back to afford them privacy for their conversation.

Sibirin hesitated, mulling over words. "While I do not, by any means, recommend unquestioning deference to Ilyakoria's leadership in these matters, I do find it inadvisable to provoke him deliberately.''

Tess recalled the execution in vivid detail. "Yes, I see. Thank you."

"Well," said Sibirin apologetically, watching her closely, "perhaps you do and perhaps you don't. He's not usually so volatile, but when he is, one steps carefully and rides with a light hand on the reins." Then, to take the sting out of the words, he smiled. By the lines in his face, she could see that he smiled a great deal.

"I have been known to have a quick temper. And I'm grateful for your people's hospitality." He nodded, satisfied, and she could not resist a question. "Did you learn Rhuian in Jeds, too?"

"No, no. Only Ilyakoria and three of his kin have traveled so far. But I have always liked other tongues, and I try to learn as many as I can. Most jaran speak only khush."

"Then I shall have to learn khush." Having said it, she felt a sudden consanguinity, not so much that feeling of having known someone before but rather of being certain that she would like him very well, and he, her. He smiled and excused himself, leaving her with Ishii.

Three other Chapalii had appeared from inside their tents. They merely stood at the entrance flaps and watched as Ishii bowed again, acknowledging that her attention had returned to him.

"Well," said Tess to herself in Anglais. Her initial flood of anger had dissipated with Sibirin's gentle words and she was better off for it, able now to measure with a cooler heart what she said. "Cha Ishii. You will understand very well that I am shocked and disappointed that you and your party, with the connivance of Hao Yakii and unknown others, have willfully chosen to violate the Interdiction of this planet by the duke. But perhaps your explanation will bring matters into a more positive perspective." She folded her hands in front of herself in that arrangement, palm to palm, fingers of the right hand concealing the left thumb, known as Imperial Judgment.

A hint of violet colored Ishii's face, but it was only a suggestion, paling to white. "We are pilgrims, Lady Terese."

"Chapalii have no God."

A swell of color flooded their faces. One of the Chapalii back by the tent put his hand on his belt. It was a threatening gesture, although there was no obvious weapon there. Cha Ishii raised a hand, and the other turned and went back into a tent.

"You gain nothing by insulting us, Lady Terese. I compliment you on your impressive and scholarly command of our language, but you cannot comprehend all of our culture. And whatever you may choose to believe about us, we have told these natives that we are a priest and his pious followers. It is a currency that they understand."

"Pilgrims engage in pilgrimages. Where are you going on an unmapped, primitive planet?"

"The duke has satellite maps."

"Geological maps, not geographical."

"May I remind you again, Lady Terese, that if you endeavor to expose us to these natives, you will be forced to utterly overturn the duke's Interdiction and meddle irreparably with their cultural development. We have merely asked for guidance and protection, offering horses as coinage, leaving no other trace of ourselves or our culture but our brief presence here. They believe us to be from an empire over the sea. It is a sufficient fiction to leave them unsuspecting. Any other, and you risk obliterating all the protections the duke has put in place."

Instead of replying, she found herself listening. It was a quiet land; the noises of the horses and the hushed voices of the men tending them, a soft scraping sound coming from inside one of the Chapalii tents, and the high whistle of a bird, that was all-no background noise at all, except the whisper of the breeze through the tall grass. Ishii had her, of course, had the right of it. She could not compound their transgression with a worse one of her own. Perhaps they could manage an entire journey and scarcely mark the cultures through which they traveled. It was possible.

"As well, Lady Terese," he added softly, and presumptuously, hearing some kind of submission-or admission-in her silence, "I am aware, as you must be, that the duke has had a handful of men traveling and mapping this world for the last twenty years, for what you call anthropological reasons, and certainly for future resource exploitation, when such times come, as they undoubtedly will. One cannot sit forever on such wealth as this planet holds."

Faced with her brother's flouting of his own rules, she could scarcely claim to be righteous-after all, she had come to Rhui, and to this pass, with no one's permission but her own. "Very well, Cha Ishii. There is some justice in your claims, although you will understand that I must report this infraction. Nevertheless, since I will be journeying with you, if you and your party behave appropriately, I will ask that the penalties be softened."

"You are most gracious, Lady Terese." He inclined his head to signal his obedience. She could read neither his tone nor his skin to give her a clue as to what he was thinking now. "If I may ask your indulgence, I have ablutions to perform."

"You may." She watched him bow and back away into the tent, followed by the two remaining Chapalii, and then she turned and walked back toward camp. His quick acquiescence made her uneasy, but what could he do now that she was here? Kill her? She dismissed the idea as quickly as it occurred-it was simply too alien and revolutionary an idea to the chapalii psyche as she knew it. Hierarchy was too ingrained for one of lower rank to consider doing harm to any person above him. She had only to wait and watch, listen and be patient. Eventually they would betray their true purpose for being here.

At the top of the rise she paused to look back, at the round, tall white tents of the Chapalii and then at the men examining the horses. She could not be sure any of them was Yuri. One man detached himself from the group. By his walk and his dark hair and by the single-minded purpose of his stride, she guessed it was Bakhtiian-coming to talk to her. She started forward as fast as she could at a walk, not wanting to seem to run. She had no desire whatsoever to talk with Bakhtiian, not yet. She had a story to get straight, facts to invent. More than anything, she had to absorb the Chapalii's presence here and what this meant to herself and to her brother. If Charles were here, he would know what to do. But Charles wasn't here. It was up to her. And I'm not the right person to be his heir. She wanted to glance back to see how close Bakhtiian was but she refused to let him know that she knew he was following her. Why can't Charles see that? I don't want this work.

Then what do you want? It was a mocking question, thought at herself, but the answer appeared unexpectedly, although it was the answer to a different question. Tess saw Sonia, walking at the edge of camp with a boy, midway in age between the babe-in-arms and the older girl, in reluctant tow. She saw Tess and halted, smiled, and then, looking past Tess, smiled broadly.

"Tess." As soon as Tess was close enough, Sonia took the boy's dirty hand and pressed it into Tess's.

The boy, who had been wailing insincerely a moment before, snapped his mouth shut and gazed up in awe at Tess with eyes as blue as the summer sky. "You're tall," he said. "You're as tall as my papa."

Sonia chuckled. "Vania, your manners. Tess, is that Ilya I see? He looks quite angry." She seemed quite cheerful. Tess did not have the nerve to turn around enough to see the contrast between Sonia's fair, blonde prettiness and her cousin's harsh, dark features.

"I don't suppose you can hide me? I don't want to talk to him right now."

Sonia's eyes widened in surprise. "Then don't talk to him. But here, you just stay quiet." Tess took a step back, turning, as Bakhtiian came up to them.

''I would like-" he began without preamble, ignoring Sonia.

"Well, Ilya, what is it you would like?" The curtness in Sonia's tone shocked Tess. Yuri had practically slunk away from Bakhtiian's anger.

Bakhtiian himself ceased speaking for three whole breaths together. "I beg your pardon, Sonia," he said in a softer tone. "Cousin, perhaps you would allow me to speak with your companion, Terese Soerensen?"

"Well, Ilya, really, now that Mama has taken her in, you must approach Mama with that request, I think. Although Mama is out with the younger Kolenin girls today, since there was a herd of grazel seen by the scouts, so she'll be gone until dark. But there will be supper in any case. Mama may be back by then."

It was not difficult, Tess reflected, to see that Bakhtiian was seething with fury, having had something he wanted denied him. She tried very hard not to smile. Sonia was being very earnest, but a mocking and almost scolding tone still crept through.

"As you say, Sonia." He gave a brusque bow. "Excuse me." He left.

"But, Sonia," said Tess when she realized she was still breathing, "he just ordered Yuri to do what he wanted him to do."

"Yuri is a man. He cannot be so free with you."

"Are there people I should not talk with? Or approach? I hope you will be honest with me, Sonia. I would not want to-offend-anyone.''

Sonia looked puzzled a moment, but then her expression cleared. "Of course, even while I speak Rhuian I forget you are of Jeds. Though Vania is right. You are taller than any woman of the tribes. You must remember that here, with us, because you are a woman you may speak with whomever you please. Now, kriye," she said to her son, who had watched the proceedings with unblinking interest, "you will behave yourself with Tess." He nodded and gripped his grimy hand more tightly around Tess's fingers. "I wish he were always so well-behaved, but I am afraid that he takes after his uncle. But come, you will meet my sisters, and then this evening Mama will receive you into the family.

Katerina and Stassia made welcome cakes just for the occasion."

She led Tess away into the haven of women's company, haven that was comprehensive in providing both companionship and work. Sonia's mother arrived with a pair of adolescent identical twin girls with bronze-gold hair. The girls struggled along in her wake, each with a slender antelope slung over her shoulders and a bow and quiver of arrows strapped onto her belt. Mother Orzhekov was a small, thin woman of vast energy, whose features were easily as stern as her nephew's. She welcomed Tess with sober grace and invested her into the family, all without a particle of discomfiture at their lack of any common language. But by the end of the evening, Tess had learned perhaps fifty words of khush and could thank the matriarch in her own tongue, a feat which pleased the entire family immensely: Mother Orzhekov, her three grown daughters and their husbands and ten children, her dead daughter's husband and two children, and her son, Yuri, two great-nephews, three grand-nieces and a half dozen assorted other family members.

Once accepted into the Orzhekov tent, Tess discovered quickly enough that her place in the tribe itself was established and unshakable. There was plenty of work for the women, but never too much because it was shared. If the men treated her with distant interest and an intense reserve, the women shamelessly enjoyed her company and monopolized her time. The children, of course, were always underfoot. Tess never had to be alone and never asked to be. However solitary she had lived at Univerzita Karlova in Prague, she had imposed it on herself because of her brother's name and reputation. But what was the Chapaliian Empire to these people? They did not even know it existed. The Prince of Jeds was just a name; that Bakhtiian, Yuri, and Sonia had been to Jeds mattered little to anyone else, except as a curiosity. She felt free.

Seven days after her arrival she felt confident enough with her khush to venture out alone at dusk. She first took the short side trip to survey the Chapalii tents. The Chapalii stayed inside, mostly, and she did not yet want to attempt to bully her way into their most intimate territory-after seven days with the jaran, she had come to have a great respect for the sanctity of tent and family. But the corral with the Earth horses was close enough to serve as a good observation post, and it gave her a legitimate destination. The man on watch was Sonia's husband Mikhal. He acknowledged her with a shy nod and strolled away, leaving her.

Tess leaned against the high side of one of the pair of wagons that formed the barrier and stared over it at the animals. She found it easy to pick out the Earth horses from the handful of native animals. What was the khush word for horse? Tarpan, that was it. The Kuhaylan Arabians were beautiful creatures by any measure, small, certainly, with delicate heads, huge eyes, and small, mobile ears, but there was strength in their line, in the elegant arch of their tails, and intelligence in their broad foreheads. No wonder these riders desired such stock.

The sun sank below the horizon and one bright star appeared in the darkening sky: the planet Odys. Charles was there, deeply involved in his work, ignorant of this trespass. She alone could warn him that Chapalii had invaded Rhui, yet there was so very much space between them. Surely he had gotten her letter, and had put in a message to Dr. Hierakis at the palace in Jeds-put in a message, only to discover that she had not arrived in Jeds. Her disappearance would simply be another burden laid on him.

The horses were quiet, but their movements spoke. They swished their tails. One stamped. Another snapped at a fly. Dappling the hillside beyond the corral, the mass of goatlike herd animals that provided milk and wool and meat for the tribe blanketed the grass. Something scuffed the ground behind her. She whirled.

"I beg your pardon," said Bakhtiian. He did not look very sorry. The wind stirred his hair and rustled the folds of his shirt, more gray than red in the half light.

"You didn't waste any time," she replied, emboldened by seven days among forthright women. "This is the first time I've been alone."

"Indeed."

"Was there something you wanted to know?" Seeing his expression, she could not restrain a smile. "No, I don't mean that as facetiously as it sounds. They are beautiful animals, aren't they?"

"Yes, they are," he said fervently, distracted by this comment. He leaned against the wagon an arm's length away from her and gazed with rapt intensity at the horses.:See the stallion-the gray-there. He alone is priceless. The black stallion is picketed out-" He gestured with a turn of his head. "And mares-thirty-six here, another hundred at journey's end. It is not so long to travel, to receive such a prize."

"How long a journey is it?"

He smiled, not at her. When he turned to look at her, the smile faded. "Your employers have not kept you very well informed, I see. It seems of a piece with so negligently leaving you behind at the port. And being surprised that you had followed them so far."

"Ah, well," said Tess in khush, using a phrase she had learned from Yuri, "the wind has a careless heart."

"You learn quickly."

"I like languages. What will you use these horses for?" It was a casual question, thrown out to distract him, so she was not prepared for the sudden change in his expression.

"To make war." He did not smile. "Now. You are no interpreter. Why are you here?"

She considered refusing to answer, but he was a dangerous man. It was better to choose her words carefully. "I am here to travel with the priest and his party."

"I do not think that they want you to travel with them."

"But I will travel with them nevertheless. Do you intend to make me leave the tribe?"

"I have never had any such intention. I don't have time, now, to get you back to the port from which you can sail to Jeds. You will be safe with the tribe until we return."

The implication of this reply took a moment to sink in. The breeze shifted, bringing the rich, musty scent of horses directly to her. "Until who returns?"

"Ah. You thought the khepelli party was to be escorted by the entire tribe. But it is many months' journey to the shrine of Morava, where these holy men hope to find enlightenment. My jahar, my riders, will be their sole escort. We can move faster, and if there is trouble-Well, then, we are better able to deal with it. You, of course, will stay with the women."

As if that settled the entire thing, he nodded and excused himself. He faded into the darkness, but she heard him exchange words with Mikhal a moment later, and then there was silence. She pushed away from the corral and walked slowly over to stare from a safe distance at the Chapalii tents. Two were dark, but one had a light on inside, a steady glow that she recognized as artificial. What other technology had they brought with them? She had not even brought an emergency transmitter, knowing she could rely on Dr. Hierakis once she reached Jeds.

She stood awhile, as the night air cooled around her, chilling her neck, and watched, until the light flicked out with unnatural suddenness. An animal chittered in the grass. Above, a brilliant spray of stars littered the night sky. She felt scared, suddenly, standing alone in unknown surroundings, caught out on a trackless plain, a solitary and untried force against whatever convoluted plans the Chapalii had made, were making even now, against her brother. The breeze tickled her cheeks. She sighed and walked back to camp, to the bright sanctuary of Sonia and her family.

CHAPTER FIVE

"Harmony consists of opposing tension."

— Heracleitus of Ephesus

Tess followed Yuri out of the corral the next morning and walked with him behind the herd of horses as they were driven down to water at a pool. There was a skirmish, biting, a kick, and then the horses at the fore settled down to drink. Watchful young men patrolled the fringe of the herd, mounted on sturdy tarpans.

"It looks like they're fighting over precedence," Tess said, "but I suppose that's just me wanting to make them like people. Or Chapalii," she added to herself in Anglais.

Yuri glanced at her. "You don't know much about horses, do you?"

"They have four legs, two ears, and a tail. That about covers it. Surely these aren't all the horses your tribe owns?"

"Of course not. We keep the herd out on the grass. But we'll keep the khuhaylans in close so that they can get to know us and trust us." He called a greeting to an adolescent boy who rode by, and then turned and started back to camp.

"Yuri," said Tess as she walked beside him, "can you teach me to ride?''

"Why?"

"Because I'm coming with you, when you leave."

Now he lifted his head to stare at her. "But Tess, women don't ride. I mean, not that women can't ride horses, of course. They often ride out to hunt, but they never ride with the jahar.''

"I have to get to Jeds. I have to travel with the pilgrims."

He examined her. Unlike the other young men, he was not shy with her, because of his status as her adopted brother. His expression was always a mirror of his thoughts, and right now he was troubled and thinking hard. "Are you a spy, as the priest Ishii says you are?" he asked finally.

"No, I'm not."

"I believe you, Tess, but you must tell Ilya something convincing in order to get him to change his mind about letting you go with the jahar. It's a very serious matter, riding. Ilya has enemies."

"If Cha Ishii requests that I accompany you, then surely Ilya must agree."

"I don't think the priest Ishii wants you to go."

"He doesn't, but he will do as I say."

"I think Ilya will be very curious to know why the priest will do as you say, Tess. You are alone, you have no saber, no horse, no tent, no family. Why should the priest obey you when he does not want to?"

Over the last seven days, Tess had developed a story, of sorts, to satisfy the women's interest in her past. Now seemed the appropriate time to spin it further. "You know my brother is a merchant, Yuri. But I haven't said-he has trade agreements, treaties, with the khepellis, and has recently suspected that they are not adhering to these treaties. So he sent me to their empire, their lands, to discover-well, I followed this party, I came over the seas with them, on the same ship. According to these treaties, they ought not to be here, and-and I need to know what they are looking for."

Yuri rubbed his lower lip with one finger. "I never liked Jeds," he said at last. "I never understood it. This is not Jeds, and this is not the land where the khepellis come from. So how can you have a treaty that says which of you may travel here?"

The question took Tess aback for a moment, but her training in Chapalii culture-more mercantile even than Earth's-saved her. "Trade rights. Who gets to trade where."

The answer evidently satisfied Yuri. "Well, I suppose Mama can spare you from the work for some time each day. If she agrees, then I will teach you."

"And Bakhtiian?"

"If my mother gives you permission, then there is no reason for him to object. Why should he anyway? You'll need to know how to ride whether you travel with the tribe or the jahar."

"How many days will I have?''

"To learn? Until Eva Kolenin's baby comes, I think. Ten days, perhaps, or twelve. But I warn you, Tess, no matter how well you can ride, you will have a hard time convincing Ilya."

"Bakhtiian won't have a choice. I'm going, Yuri."

Yuri simply shook his head and refrained from comment.

Mother Orzhekov proved amenable, as long as Tess did her share of the work. It had not taken Tess many days to discover that there was leisure as well as work in this culture, and that a handful of women washing clothes were as likely to pause for an hour to gossip or play with the children as to work straight through and hurry on to another task. No one hurried except Bakhtiian, who was commonly said to have breathed too much southern air than was good for him when he had left, seventeen years ago, an impetuous, serious child of sixteen, and returned from Jeds five years later, just as serious and not one whit less impetuous. That journey had made him hasty and reckless, although Mother Orzhekov could be heard to mutter that Ilyakoria had always been hasty and reckless. But even she treated him with a respect that no thirty-three-year-old man, that not even Nikolai Sibirin, twenty years his senior and a healer as well, came close to receiving. He was a visionary-he was their visionary. Bakhtiian had great plans, and the tribe would follow him, even to the ends of the earth. The name he had earned on that trip-bakh-tiian, he-who-has-traveled-far-was as much a mystical as a physical appellation, and it now superseded his own deceased mother's name of Orzhekov, which by birth he ought to be called.

And when Eva Kolenin went into labor and all the men were chased out of camp until the babe was safely born, for fear their presence might attract malignant spirits, Bakhtiian went only as far as his own small tent, set somewhat in back of the cluster that marked his aunt's family.

Sent to get water from the stream, Tess and Sonia and Elena, the handsome gray-eyed girl who was still somehow unmarried, walked through the camp. Tent awnings flapped over empty ground cloths; men's work, a shirt half-embroidered, a knife getting a new hilt, a saddle half made, lay abandoned, left in neat piles. The low trembling of drums accompanied their walk. A lulling chant rose and fell in time with the rhythm. A group of children ran by, giggling. They hushed suddenly, overborne by a swell in the chanting, and escaped in a rush out into the high grass. Alone at this end of camp, Bakhtiian sat in front of his tent, stitching at a pair of boots. He glanced up as the three women passed. Elena smiled at him, but his impassive eyes swept across them without pausing before he went back to his work. Elena frowned. Tess looked back and saw that he had, for a moment, looked after them.

"Why may he stay in camp?" she asked, slowly, in khush.

"You've the ending wrong," said Sonia, correcting her. Her baby, Kolia, was asleep in a sling on her back. "This way." She repeated it twice, and then went on. "Bakhtiian has his own tent, so there is no one to make him leave."

Elena glanced back, and when she spoke, she measured her words carefully so that Tess could understand most of them. "They say that in some tribes, by the settled lands, the men own the tents. Do you suppose that is true? I would not want to live in such a tribe."

"But not every woman has a tent," said Tess.

"No." said Sonia. "A woman who is marked for marriage is gifted a tent by her mother or her aunt."

"Marked for marriage?"

Sonia lifted one hand to brush at the diagonal scar that ran from her cheekbone to her jawline. "When a man chooses to marry you, he marks you."

"He marks you-with what?"

Sonia and Elena looked at each other. Elena had no scar. "With his saber," said Sonia, as if it ought to be obvious.

Tess was appalled. She could not imagine Sonia allowing a man to mutilate her like that. But she was not about to say so. "And-ah-is that the only way to be married? To be-marked?"

"Yes," said Elena.

"No." Sonia shrugged. Grass dragged against the hems of their bright tunics. "There is another. 'The long road to the setting sun, the binding of the four arches.' But that is a path held by the gods. Few people wish-or dare-to ride it."

Elena sniffed. "Better marked than bound."

"I see," said Tess, not understanding at all. She hesitated. "Does it hurt?"

Sonia smiled. "Yes. At first. But it is not a very deep cut. Bearing a child hurts far more. The small pain prepares you for the larger one."

They reached the stream and began to fill the large leather pouches with cold water. "I'm not sure I would choose to marry, if I had to get such a scar,'' said Tess carefully.

Elena turned sullen abruptly, hands caught in the rushing water. "What choice does a woman have in marriage?"

"Elena," said Sonia. "Everyone knows Vladimir prefers you to all the other girls. Mikhal said that Vladi refused Lila's and Marya's advances, all because he's trying to work up enough courage to mark you."

"A kinless orphan! What woman would want that kind of husband?" Elena leaned forward, her hands in fists, her pale eyes fixed on Sonia. "I won't let him get close enough to mark me. He's fine as a lover, but I won't have him as a husband." Tears filled her eyes, and she jumped up and ran off.

Sonia deftly extracted from the rushing stream the two half-full pouches that Elena had dropped. "She's always wished that Ilya would mark her, but it's a vain hope, I fear."

"Do you really have no choice in marriage?"

"In the choosing? No. You must see, Tess, that men have no power over us at all when we're unmarried, but a man who is married can command his wife in certain things, or has at least some power over her that he has over no other woman."

"Then why do you marry?"

The sun shone full on Sonia's face and fair hair, casting a glow on her cheeks. "Sometimes a man has that look in his eye that is hard to resist. You have forgotten, Tess, because I think your heart still aches."

Tess was silent. The wind blew tiny ripples across a shallow backwater.

"It is no shame," said Sonia softly. "We have all hurt for a man who did not love us."

"I tried so hard."

"Perhaps that is why you failed."

Tess put her hands full into the stream. The cold water dragged at her fingers. "Jacques wanted something he thought I had, that I could give him-power and wealth. Something he was too lazy to earn for himself. When he found out I couldn't give it to him, he left. He never loved me at all. I was such a fool." She pulled her hands out of the water. They were already so chilled it was difficult to bend them, but she forced them slowly into fists.

"When you have a full and eager heart in you, you must not go to the man whose heart is empty and weak."

"I don't know if I can judge anymore." Tess sat silent for a long moment, watching the light move from ripple to ripple on the stream. "I'm afraid to try."

"Fear is a poor teacher. But now you have friends. We will help you. It would be best, I think, if you did not approach any of the married men to begin with. One must be discreet, especially in the camp. It is terribly impolite, especially in front of the wife, to flaunt such a thing. But no matter. We have many fine unmarried men to choose from. Vladimir-no, too vain. Kirill-too forward. Yuri-"

Tess laughed. It seemed very natural to speak of affairs so intensely personal, here, with Sonia, in the warming spring sun, the drums a quiet drone in the distance. "Yuri is my brother.''

"Yes. A brother is of far greater value than a husband or a lover. They are much easier to order around. Come, we ought to go back." She rose and, grasping Tess's hand, helped her to her feet. They distributed the extra pouches around their shoulders and walked back to camp. Kolia slept on. A striped tent flap, untied, fluttered in the breeze, one bright end snapping up and down. Pots dangled from side ropes, striking a high tinny accompaniment to the resonant pulse of the women's voices beyond. When they passed Bakhtiian this time, he did not even look up. He had one hand tucked inside the boot, the needle pulling in and out in an even stitch. Sonia's daughter Katerina crouched beside him, intently watching him work.

"Why did he go to Jeds?" Tess asked. "Why would he even have thought of it? Had you ever heard of Jeds before? Had any other jaran ever gone?''

"No, Ilya was the first. I suppose he heard of it when he was a boy. Jaran often trade at ports along the coast. Even so far east as we are now, Jeds is known at every port. I don't know why he went. He was only sixteen. Mama once said there was something to do with his sister, that when she married, he was very angry, but Ilya has always looked farther than others do. I remember when he came back. He told us that if the jaran were one people, and not many tribes, then we would never have to fear the khaja, the settled people, who build their stone tents farther out each year on the plains that the gods meant for our home."

"Are there many tribes?"

"There are a thousand tribes, and a thousand thousand families. We are as plentiful as the birds, and as swift as our horses, and as strong-as strong as a woman avenging her child. So Ilya began to weave a great tapestry, and the Elders of many tribes offered to be the warp in his loom, and the dyans of many jahars offered themselves and their riders as the weft. So the pattern grew. He made enemies. And-oh, it was seven years ago, now-those enemies rode into camp one night when he was away and killed his sister and his mother and father and his sister's five-year-old son."

They had reached the far end of camp and just as they handed the water over to Sonia's mother, the chanting stopped abruptly, pierced by the high wail of a baby. Immediately, singing broke out. A girl ran off to find the father. Kolia snuffled and yawned and opened his eyes.

Sonia set him on the rug under the eye of his grandmother and tugged Tess away. "We'll go start supper. The men will be hungry.''

"But then what happened?" Tess glanced back at the tent where the birth had taken place. The infant cried in bursts. Suddenly there was silence, and the midwife stuck her head outside the tent and called: "He's already suckling." Women crowded in to greet the mother.

"What happened? Oh, with Ilya? He went on. What else could he do? But he has never loved anyone since, except-" Her lips tugged in an involuntary grimace. "Well, he cannot care too deeply now, for fear he may lose more. But he listens to no one. He's made all the jaran his, almost, and when he gets the rest of these khuhaylan horses from across the sea, he'll breed them and then lead the jaran against the khaja, and the name of our people will be on the lips of every person in every land there is, because those lands will be ours. Oh, good. Stassia found dhal roots. Katerina, you little imp, what have you done to your shift?" She gathered her daughter into her arms and gave her a kiss, apparently oblivious to the incongruity of Bakhtiian's great plan for conquest set hard against her sister's plans for supper.

The next morning, Yuri met her for the riding lesson. He was flushed as he jogged up to her. He did not wait to catch his breath before addressing her.

"Tess. We leave day after tomorrow. Ilya would have liked to leave tomorrow, I think, but he could not deny Konstans the celebration for his first child."

Tess's breathing constricted with excitement and apprehension. "But is it too soon? Can I ride well enough?"

He shrugged. "You could travel with the tribe this year. They'll be riding southwest, behind us. Perhaps you could find another tribe going east or north, who could take you to a port this spring. Or wait for us. We won't be gone over a year." "A year? How far are you going?"

"To the shrine of Morava. And then on to the western sea where the khepelli will sail back to their own lands."

The western sea? Tess dug in her memory, seeing the huge inland sea whose northeastern reaches bordered the southern edge of the vast bulk of the northern continent-these plains. And southward, far south on a bay protected by a minor archipelago, lay Jeds. "No, Yuri, I have to go with you. If the khepelli can sail out from the western ports, then I can as easily sail south to Jeds from there. I'll go speak with Ishii now, and then talk to Bakhtiian. There's no point in waiting."

"Tess." He laid a staying hand on her arm. "At least wait until morning. There's no point in spoiling the dance. Ilya gets in a foul mood when things don't go as he wants them to. Men are riding in from another tribe. A scout brought the word. You won't get a chance to speak with Ilya today in any case."

Tess acquiesced and went to help the women prepare for the dance. Any celebration was a great occasion. The arrival of a dozen men from another tribe could only add to the excitement. Indeed, most of the tribe had gathered at one end of the camp to greet the visitors. Tess found a spot next to Elena and Sonia and watched as the ten men rode in, dismounted at a prudent distance, and were escorted into the bounds of the camp itself by Niko Sibirin and another older rider. There, they waited for Bakhtiian to arrive.

The men of Bakhtiian's jahar filtered over in twos and threes to engage in that easy, informal flow of talk carried on between acquaintances who have the same complaint in life. Boys peered at them from behind tents; little girls clustered in packs and stared. The old women ignored them; the married women looked at them from the corners of their eyes; and Marya Kolenin, who wore bracelets around her ankles to show how many lovers she had and who had once kicked a man as hard as she could in the groin to stop him putting the mark of betrothal on her, went right up to them and pulled the eldest's silver-flecked beard. Everyone laughed, including the visitors.

"There he comes," breathed Elena, distracted from this interplay.

Bakhtiian was walking down the rise toward them, the sun bright on his face, his scarlet shirt catching points of light. He had a way of walking that drew the eye to him, that made his surroundings seem merely a stage for himself. He had a great deal of grace, but for the first time Tess realized that not all of it was unconscious. He was purposefully making an entrance. She laughed.

He glanced at her and then away.

Elena elbowed her. ' 'Why are you laughing?''

"I remembered a thing said by an ancient poet of my people," said Tess, "that my brother used to say to me, about the name of vanity being man."

Elena put her hand on her necklaces. "What made you think of that?"

Sonia saved Tess from having to reply. "Come, Tess. They will go on all day with men's talk, which is far more boring to listen to than to watch. We'll go clear a dance circle, and then I think you ought to wear one of my tunics, just for tonight, to please Mama."

It took most of the day to collect enough fuel for as great a fire as the celebration warranted, and the rest of the day for each woman to dress out her one fine tunic with elaborate braids and headpieces and gold and jade earrings. They polished their hand mirrors and traced their eyes with dark kohl. Even the men brought out their best embroidered shirts and fastened tufted and beaded epaulets to their shoulders. Sonia put on six fine necklaces on each arm, and, a thick copper bracelet incised with a spiral pattern, and she wove green ribbons through the two chains that strung her mirror onto her belt.

Food was shared out at every tent. The entire holiday atmosphere was intensified by the brief appearance of the young mother and infant, escorted by the proud father once through camp. Then the musicians settled down by the dance circle, the fire was lit, and the music began.

Nikolai Sibirin, as the eldest rider in jahar, led out his wife. Other married couples joined in, and the unmarried women solicited the unattached men. Light illuminated bits of body and face, changing as the dancers turned. The first ring of watchers was shadowed. Beyond, all was darkness. Tess watched until Yuri came up to her.

"Really," he whispered, "the women are supposed to ask, but since we're kin of a sort perhaps you'll dance with me."

"Yuri, I don't know any of your dances."

"Well," he said, much struck by this, "that's true."

"You go on. I'm happy just to watch."

He left. Tess faded back into the farthest ring of light. The drums were heavy, a strong, rhythmic pulse, the lutes a thick texture through the middle with the pipes shrilling a high, exuberant melody harmonized in fifths and octaves over the rest. Though she enjoyed watching, she found herself longing to dance, but she did not have quite enough courage to put herself forward. The steps they danced were not so different from patterns she already knew, and she grew so interested in analyzing them, even in trying a few surreptitiously, that Cha Ishii's sudden appearance at her side took her entirely by surprise.

"Lady Terese." He bowed. She started. In the darkness, he had her completely at a disadvantage because she could not see the fine shades of color on his skin. "If I may speak?"

"Cha Ishii." To regain her composure, she took a moment to give permission. "You may. I am surprised to see you here."

"It is indeed a primitive display. But I will be brief. We leave day after tomorrow. I wish you to know that once we return to space, we will see to it that the duke is made aware of your presence out here. To that end, I can supply you with a ring-shaped beacon of human manufacture that we will activate once we have returned to the Oshaki. "

Thereby, Tess thought, leaving it to be your word against mine that you were ever here in the first place. She shook her head. "No, Cha Ishii, that will not be necessary."

"But you have no such technology with you. Our instruments showed-" He broke off, and Tess wished dearly that she could see what emotion he was feeling now.

"What instruments do you mean?"

"Those aboard the Oshaki, of course. A slip of the tongue, Lady Terese. Forgive me for disturbing you with my hasty temper."

"Of course. There is no need, Cha Ishii, for a beacon because I am coming with you."

The music stopped. After laughter and applause, the lutes began a slow melody accompanied by a sinuous line dance.

"It is too dangerous a journey, Lady Terese. I strongly advise against it."

"With you to look out for my interests, Cha Ishii, I have absolutely no doubt that I will arrive safely, with you, in Jeds."

The implication of that comment left him without a reply for a long moment as the dance shuffled on behind them. "I cannot allow this," he said at last.

"Do you have something to hide? Surely not, Cha Ishii."

"We have nothing to hide."

"Then you can have no objection to my coming."

"Bakhtiian will not let you go."

"You are paying him. If you request that I go with you, then he cannot refuse."

He pressed his hand together, palms touching, to convey his disapproval of this scheme. His voice remained expressionless. "Lady Terese, I must strongly object-"

She set her hands, fist to palm, in that arrangement known as Imperial Command. "Cha Ishii, I am the heir to this dukedom. You cannot object."

He lowered his hands. "I obey," he said finally, bowing to the precise degree due her rank. "If you wish, I will inform Bakhtiian of my decision now.''

"Now?" She looked to her left, around the circle made by those of the tribe who weren't dancing, and saw Bakhtiian standing nearby, watching them. She sucked in a big breath, blew it out through full cheeks. "Very well. We may as well settle it now."

Ishii bowed again and walked over to Bakhtiian. They conferred together. Standing next to Bakhtiian, Ishii looked angular and stiff; Bakhtiian had tilted his head at such an angle that he did not appear to be looking up.

"Tess! Are you sure you don't want to dance? This next one is very easy, really-" Yuri stopped beside her and followed the direction of her gaze. "What's that all about?"

"Ishii is asking that I come along."

"Oh," said Yuri, sounding apprehensive as Ishii took his leave of Bakhtiian and disappeared into the gloom. Tess grinned at Yuri, but a moment later Bakhtiian walked across and halted beside them. He looked as if he was quite angry but trying very very hard to pretend that he was not.

"Terese Soerensen. When we first met some days past I formed the impression that you had no experience riding horses. You cannot travel with us if you cannot ride."

Tess found that she had enough malice in her soul to enjoy a slow smile at his expense. "But I can ride. Surely Mother Orzhekov told you that Yuri has been giving me lessons. I'm no master of the art, but I can stay on a horse well enough to travel with your jahar, I believe."

"She can, Ilya," said Yuri impulsively. "She's very quick."

Ilya glanced, quick as lightning, at Yuri. "Then I congratulate you," he said to Tess, "although I won't presume to guess how you persuaded the priest to request that you come with us. I don't think you made a friend by doing it."

"Do you mean yourself?"

"I was speaking of the priest," he said impassively. "I have never found it advisable to offend those who are under the special protection of the gods."

"On that count I have no fears."

A high voice broke into their circle. Little Katerina ran up to Bakhtiian, laughing, wanting to tell him something. He crouched beside her, whispered in her ear, and she looked wide-eyed up at Tess and ran away again. The music wound to a close and there was much laughter and a round of singing as the musicians broke off to rest.

"We shall see." Bakhtiian stood up. "It is against my instinct and all my better judgment, but this is the priest's choice, not mine." A single gold necklace shone at his throat, winking in the inconstant firelight as he turned to regard Yuri. "Yurinya. You will see that Terese Soerensen takes proper care of her horse, that she eats, is warm, and is always ready to ride. Do you understand?" It sounded more like a threat than a request.

"Yes, Ilya. Of course, Ilya."

"Terese Soerensen, until such time as we arrive at a port and can put you on a ship, you will abide by my decisions and my orders. You don't know this land. I do. You will ride with me and at other times will stay with Yurinya. If for some reason you can't ride with me, you'll ride with Nikolai Sibirin. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I know I'm inexperienced, but I'll learn."

"You'll have to. Yuri, come with me. Excuse us." He took Yuri by the wrist, as if he was a child, and dragged him away so fast that Yuri stumbled over his own feet and could only manage a brief, despairing glance at Tess before he vanished with Ilya into the darkness of the camp.

Tess had a sudden premonition that Yuri was in for a bad time. She circled the crowd, seeking Sonia, and found her talking easily with one of the men who had ridden in that day. Sonia had laid a hand on the man's arm as casually as if he were her husband, and their heads were close enough together as they spoke that it gave them an intimate appearance. When Tess hesitated, unsure whether to interrupt, Sonia glanced up, saw her, and excused herself immediately.

"What is it?"

Tess told her.

"Ah. You were right to come to me. Ilya will be furious at being outmaneuvered. You wait here."

"No, I ought to come with you."

"As you wish, but stay in the shadows. It will be better for Yuri if Ilya does not know you fetched me."

Tess followed Sonia into camp. Tents surrounded them, cutting off the distant glow of the great fire. There was no sound, no movement, except for the wailing of a child that faltered and stilled. Tess had to move slowly, hands out to either side, fingers occasionally brushing the coarse fabric of a tent wall. Sonia had lost her, but as the music started up again behind, she heard voices ahead, a quiet counterpoint to the distant melody of celebration. She stumbled over a guy-rope and froze, stopped by the voices coming from right around the edge of the tent.

"You deliberately used my aunt's authority to undercut mine." Bakhtiian's tone was so cutting that Tess instantly regretted ever asking Yuri for help. "Of course I would not object, since I did not suspect what you and she were planning."

"I didn't think-"

"Obviously you didn't think, Yuri. Women don't ride with the jahar. Her inexperience will slow us down and could be dangerous."

"But that's why I gave her the lessons."

"If she couldn't ride, there would be no question of her traveling with us, would there?"

"But you just said yourself that-"

"Have you ever bothered to ask yourself why she is here? Or wonder why the priest says she is a spy-"

"You don't really believe-"

"Had I finished speaking?"

The pause that followed was both heavy and uncomfortable. Into it, the distant music metamorphosed from a slow, pacing number into a frantic tune.

"Well, Ilya," said Sonia, walking into their silence with all the aplomb of an angry and protective older sister. When Sonia spoke, clear and carrying, Tess abruptly realized that they were all speaking in Rhuian, a family quarrel that no one else could understand. ' 'Have you finished bullying Yuri now? Or shall I leave until you are done?''

"This is men's business, Sonia."

"Is it, indeed? When two men meet in the dark to discuss a woman, I call that women's business. Yuri, you may go."

"I haven't given him permission-"

"Ilya. Must I speak to Mama about your manners?"

"Go on, Yuri," he said curtly.

Tess, standing frozen behind the dark wall of a tent, did not see in which direction Yuri fled.

"You have made your point, Sonia," said Bakhtiian coldly. "Have I your permission to leave?"

"Certainly, Ilyakoria. But I am curious as to why you were so insistent that Nadine and I travel the long path to Jeds, alone, need I add, where we might have encountered any danger, and in lands where you know very well how they treat women. We cannot even be sure we will ever see Dina again."

"Knowing Dina, we will undoubtedly receive an envoy from the Prince of Jeds himself requesting that we remove her before she destroys the entire city.''

Sonia chuckled, despite herself. "That is very probably true. Don't distract me. What I mean to say is, if you risked us, then whatever excuse you give Yuri about Tess not going because she is a woman is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard."

"Do you suppose she can use a saber?"

"I suppose she can learn, well enough to defend herself, at least. I do not expect her to become such a paragon of saber fighting as Vladimir, or yourself, dear cousin. And I will give her my own bow and arrows, since a woman can use them to protect herself without any shame. What is your real reason?"

"I don't trust her. There are great things in front of us, in front of our massed armies, if we can get so far. I must rid myself of those last few riders who don't understand that we must unite, that the old ways no longer protect us. And I need those horses. What if she acts to harm the priest, to disrupt this journey, to ruin all the work I've done so far?"

"Why should she care? She is a merchant's sister, traveling home to Jeds. She says herself that it was a foolish impulse that led her to follow the priest off the ship, that she only meant to protect her brother's trading rights."

"Do you believe this story?"

"I trust Tess."

He did not reply immediately. "She lied to us once. She is not their interpreter. She's still lying, Sonia."

"How can you know?"

"I feel it in my gut."

"And you're never wrong." Sonia's voice came cold and flat and sarcastic. "Never you. Never Bakhtiian. You never listen to anyone else."

"I would listen to others if they had anything worthwhile to say."

"If you'd listened to others, Natalia and Timofey and your parents would still be alive."

The tension was so palpable that Tess felt it as loudly as any words. Bakhtiian made a sound, like the beginning of speech, and then fell silent, as if he were so furious that he could not even talk. She took a step back, suddenly sure that her presence here would do Sonia no good if it were discovered.

"Come out," said Bakhtiian, as if her thoughts alone had alerted him.

"Ilya-" Sonia began, protesting.

"Whom are you protecting?" he snapped.

Tess knew that however much she did not want to walk around the tent and see either of them, in such a mood, she could not leave Sonia to end this conversation alone.

So she joined them. Sonia stood, hands drawn up into fists on either side of her waist, pale, facing Bakhtiian. He had heard the scuff on the grass and he turned; instantaneously took a step back away from Tess, surprised to see her. He froze, as though touched by some stilling hand.

"Excuse me," she said, and heard the betraying quaver in her voice. "I was looking for Sonia."

His gaze had the cutting edge of a knife. Tess tensed, knowing for that instant that he was about to say something so vicious that it could never be forgiven. Sonia moved, stepping toward Tess as if she meant to shield her.

Bakhtiian caught his breath and whirled and strode away into the darkness.

Distant voices rose to accompany some melody. Tess put her hands to her face. Against her cold palms, her cheeks felt flushed and hot. Sonia came over to her and grasped her wrists. A moment later, they were laughing and crying all at once.

"Gods," said Sonia at last, letting go of Tess. "It's no wonder that there are men out riding just to kill him.''

Tess brushed a wisp of grass from her lips. It was true enough what Bakhtiian had said, that she was lying. But how much could she tell them? How much would be right? How much would be fair? How much could they even believe? She did not know. "Poor Yuri," she said, to say something. "It's just as well I'm going, Sonia. He needs someone to protect him."

"That's right." Sonia leaned forward and kissed Tess on the cheek. "But Tess, however hard it may be, try not to lose your temper with Ilya. It's easy enough to do, but gods, it makes you say the most awful things."

"It is true, Sonia? What you said about his family?"

"I don't know. Other people warned him that there had been threats, but he never would listen. But I shouldn't have said it to him. Harsh words won't bring them back." The high, brisk sound of claps underlaid by muffled stamping reached them, sharp in the clear air, followed by cheers, encouragement to some solo dancer. "Listen to us! This is supposed to be a celebration. We'll wash our faces and run back. The men are showing off. We don't want to miss that." She grabbed Tess's hand, and they went together.

In the morning, Yuri waylaid her as soon as she woke. He looked anxious.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"We have to choose you a horse. I think the little bay. You'll need a saber, a knife… Did I say clothing? A blanket!" He broke off when Tess laughed at his expression. ' 'I would never have believed that Bakhtiian would agree to take you, but you weren't afraid, and so you got what you were reaching for. We call that korokh, one who reaches for the wind. They are few and always brave. The gods favor them.''

"I'll need it." And she wondered, suddenly, finally, what she had gotten herself into.

"There's Sonia. She'll help us."

By judicious application to various members of their family, Sonia and Yuri acquired all the articles that they thought Tess would need on the journey. It did not come to much, since it all had to be carried, but to Tess it seemed like riches: a saber, a knife, an extra set of clothing down to gloves and belt, a thick blanket and light sleeping mat, a bone comb carved in arborescent detail, a lump of soap, and beaded leather strips to braid in her hair as it grew out. Stassia gave her two bracelets, and her youngest son, barely five, insisted that she take his stamped leather flask. After all this, Sonia led her aside to where her mother sat weaving.

"You will be the only woman," said Mother Orzhekov. Her strong hands did not falter, feeding out thread, pulling the shuttle across. "You must have your own tent. Sonia, you know the one. And her mirror. No woman ought to be without a mirror." She dismissed them before Tess could thank her.

"You must thank her," said Sonia as they left, "by behaving in a manner that will make her proud. Words are only words, after all. It is easy enough for me to call you sister, but by the gift of this tent and the mirror, she has made you her daughter in truth."

"She has honored me." Tess wiped a tear from one cheek. The tent and hand mirror she received had belonged to Anna, the sister who had died in childbirth. The tent was beautifully woven, the pattern of stripes, gold, orange, and green as befitted a young woman. On the tent flap a spiral of interlocking, thin-limbed beasts curled infinitely around themselves, and this same spiral of beasts was carved into the wooden handle and back of the mirror. "My parents died when I was ten years old. My brother is the only family I have left."

"Now you have us as well," said Sonia.

They walked on for a time in silence, companionable, going nowhere. Tess stroked her mirror where it now hung from her belt, the grooved handle and the embossed leather case with its cloisonne clasps that protected the mirror's face. Horses whinnied beyond. Wind sounded faintly in the sparse trees.

Two women and a child knelt at a long, flat loom. Stassia's husband Pavel worked, sweating, at his forge. An ancient withered woman tenderly dabbed steaming water spiced with the sweet scent of herbs from a copper pot onto a rash of red sores that blistered a child's back. A girl sang, pounding out meal. Two old men chattered together while they worked at embroidery. A young man sat holding a mass of wool for a girl Tess knew to be unmarried. He smiled as he looked at the ground, up at her as she spun the wool out on her spindle, and down again.

"I'll see a whole land," Tess said. "More than I've seen in my entire life." A life spent within buildings, parks, cities-here it would be all sky, huge, unknown; dangerous, yes, but also new. "I want you to have something, Sonia, to remember me by." She reached into her pouch and drew out the little book of essays from the University in Jeds. "It's all I have, really. And at least you can read them."

Sonia's eyes widened. She reached out and touched the tiny leather volume with reverence. "A book. A real book." Taking it, she held it to her chest. "Oh, Tess." And then, without more thought than that, she hugged her.

"Mama! Mama!" Sonia's little Ivan ran up to them. Sonia released Tess, tucked the book carefully into her belt, and squatted beside him. He put a crude carved figure into her hands. A horse. She smiled, cheeks dimpling, her eyes mirroring his innocent joy, his spontaneous, unreserved expression of love. She looked up, drawing Tess down, laughing together, sharing it with her. Ivan quickly grew tired of their praise and ran away to show his father.

"Wasn't it awful?" said Sonia as they rose. "But so wonderful."

Tess put a hand to one eye and found tears. "I'm sorry to be leaving you, Sonia."

Sonia took both Tess's hands in hers. "You'll come back to us."

Tess smiled. "Can you see the future?"

"No," said Sonia, "but I can see something else, and that will bring you back.''

CHAPTER SIX

"It is better to deliberate before action than to repent afterwards."

— Democritus of Abdera

They started auspiciously enough. Tess readied her pack the night before. Indeed, sleep eluded her until the stars had wheeled halfway around the Wagon's Axle, late, late into the night. But in the morning, Sonia brought her yoghurt and bread and Yuri saddled her horse as well as his own, so she made her good-byes without much trepidation and followed close behind Yuri as the jahar, escorting the Chapalii, rode out of camp. Women waved, wiping away tears. A pack of children raced after them, clustering on the top of a rise from which they watched as their fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins disappeared onto the vast emptiness of the plains.

At first Tess concentrated simply on riding, on staying on the bay mare and finding some accommodation with this animal. She knew that it ought to be possible to ride as one with the horse, who was amiable enough though strong, but she lacked some trick or understanding of the art. After a time, the duration of which she could not guess, she risked looking beyond her hands and Yuri's back at the group around her. The jahar rode in a V-formation, like birds flocking, with the remounts and pack ponies herded in a clump at the broad base of the V. Besides Yuri and Cha Ishii, Tess recognized Niko Sibirin and a few of the younger men: Sonia's husband Mikhal, Konstans, father of the new baby, and Kirill. Kirill was watching her. For an instant their eyes met. His head tilted to one side, his lips parting, and he smiled at her. Tess looked away. Yuri muttered a word under his breath that Tess did not know.

"Yurinya." Bakhtiian rode smoothly past Tess, so at one with his mount that they seemed almost one creature. "You will ride scout with Fedya."

Yuri flushed at his cousin's curt tone of voice, but he nodded his head obediently. "But Ilya, who will Tess ride with?"

Something smug in Bakhtiian's expression made Tess instantly suspicious. "She will ride with me."

"But you always ride rear scout. Tess can't keep up with-" Yuri faltered, blushed from his chin to the tips of his ears, and with a despairing glance at Tess, reined his horse abruptly away from them and rode off. Bakhtiian watched him depart without any expression at all.

Tess drew in a deep breath. Can't keep up with you, he had been about to say. Suddenly she knew what Bakhtiian was about.

"We are not so far from camp yet," said Bakhtiian, "that I cannot have one of my riders escort you back to the tribe, if you wish."

Tess met his gaze squarely and had the satisfaction of seeing him look away. "You won't be rid of me so easily," she replied. Her mare took a rough patch of ground, hard, and Tess clutched at the high front of the saddle to keep her seat.

Bakhtiian did not exactly smile, but he looked satisfied. "Follow me." He reined his horse toward the back of the group. Tess followed awkwardly, and she felt rather than saw that many in the group watched her go, though whether with sympathy or malice she could not be sure. Cha Ishii's white face flashed past, and she had the momentary pleasure of seeing that the Chapalii's seat was no steadier than her own. Then, as they separated from the last wings of the V, she had no luxury for any thought but staying on her horse.

Bakhtiian did not wait for her. The entire day blurred before her as she tried to catch up with him. He always rode just ahead, changing direction and speed capriciously, stopping abruptly to stare at the ground or at the horizon, but always, before she reached him, riding on.

By the time they reunited with the main group at dusk, she hurt everywhere. Everywhere, intensely, and her inner thighs and knees felt rubbed raw. She was too exhausted to dismount, so she simply remained slumped in the saddle.

She wanted nothing more than to cry, but she was damned if she would.

Bakhtiian had already dismounted. He paused beside her as he led his horse toward the others. "She needs to be unsaddled and brushed down." Then he was gone.

Beyond, in the inconstant glare of the fire, she saw the four conical tents of the Chapalii, already set up, but no other tents. Dark figures stood in clusters around the fire, warming themselves. She sat alone beyond its warmth. At least the mare was content to stand for now.

"Tess." Out of the darkness Yuri appeared. "Here is food. Something to drink."

"I'm not hungry," she said, and was surprised to hear how dry and cracked her voice sounded.

"No, Tess. You must eat. I'll take care of your horse." He set down his bundle and reached up to pull her off. She could not resist him, but God, it hurt to move. He gave her a hunk of flat bread and a pouch of yoghurt, and she drank from her own waterskin. He led the mare away.

Tess collapsed. She almost cried out as her muscles cramped agonizingly. In the distance, angry words were exchanged, but they faded away. After a time Yuri returned with her bedroll and half carried her out where she could have some privacy, and left her. She rolled up in her blanket and slept.

Very few people knew it, but Charles Soerensen spent most of his time in the spartan office that looked out over the mud flats of Odys Massif. To the right, concealed behind the flat-screen wall that projected two-deep on its surface or holos out into the room, lay a small bedroom and washroom, equally spartan. In the central tower of the great palace lay the official ducal state suite: sleeping chamber, efficiency, sitting room, receiving room, and the border room whose high, rib-vaulted aisles gave onto the arcade that led to the female tower, untenanted and unused. If a visitor of sufficient importance came to Odys, Charles used the state suite. Otherwise, he lived in his office.

Marco found Charles sitting at his desk. Its lights were up, projecting first flat text, then numbers, then graphs, then virtual representations in three dimensions over the smooth surface of the desk. Charles sat straight in his chair. Now and then he keyed in commands on his keypad. Now and then he spoke a word or two and the holo changed or dissipated to flat text and numbers again.

Marco stood by the door and watched. It was the same program. It was always the same program.

The fledgling League, composed of the planets colonized by the human populations of Earth and their human cousins of Ophiuchi-Sei-ah-nai, explores slowly outward and meets the alien Chapalii. The benign but powerful Chapalii gift this young race with many technological presents: increased youth and vigor to the full span of 120 human years; their own, impossible brand of interstellar spaceflight; other trivial or incredible miracles. But soon enough, Chapalii gifts turn to outright co-option, and the Chapaliian Empire absorbs the entire League into its massive bureaucracy. What choice does the League have but to accept absorption and the rule of the emperor? The Empire outweighs them in size (vastly), in technological expertise (vastly), and in sheer, inhuman patience and attention to detail.

Their grip is soft. But it chafes. A young man named Charles Soerensen, only child of a lab technician and a teacher, studies revolution. He puts a revolt together, slowly, secretly, and when the time is right, humanity rises up to cast off the yoke of the oppressor.

The rebellion fails. Very few humans are punished: only those who broke Chapalii laws and taboos already in place. The Chapalii do not seem overly concerned; they seem more paternalistic, as if at an adolescent's wild behavior before she grows older and returns to the fold. For the ringleader: well, Earth mourns, Ophiuchi-Sei-ah-nai mourns, the colonized worlds mourn, expecting his execution.

But the Chapalii do not think as humans think. They are alien, and because their form is humanlike, though their skin changes color, it is easy to forget that. They ennoble Charles Soerensen. They raise him to their highest noble class, short of their princes and emperor. They make him Tai-en, a duke, and grant him a fief: two systems, the one known to humans as Tau Ceti, which has long since been colonized and is a rich source of mineral wealth, and Delta Pavonis, only recently "discovered," mapped, and marked by the League's Exploratory Survey. Dao Cee, the Chapalii call this fief, for Chapalii reasons, inexplicable to humans.

Marco walked farther into the room. He had the skill of entering and exiting silently, a skill honed in travels on the surface of Rhui, visiting queendoms and kingdoms and other more primitive lands where a false step meant death in a barbaric and doubtlessly excruciatingly painful manner. On Odys, where he knew quite well where he stood, he was bored and restless.

"What did I do wrong?" Charles asked the air, not of Marco so much as of the demon that drove him. "What weakness didn't we exploit? The entire rebellion was planned, timed, and executed perfectly. What have they hidden from us?''

"Everything?" Marco sat on one corner of the desk, one booted leg dangling down, one braced on the floor, as he studied the graph floating in the air at his eye level. "We don't even know how long this empire of theirs has been around. Five hundred years? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand? Nothing in their language reveals it, or at least, nothing in their language that / can comprehend. We haven't any access to their histories, if they even write histories."

"Is an empire capable of being stable for so long?"

Marco laughed. "A human empire? I don't think so. But after forty years under their rule, I'd believe anything about them. They value stability and order over everything else. That's my observation, for what it's worth. You did well against them.''

"Not well enough." Soerensen tapped another command into the keypad, and the graph twisted and melted and reformed as a miniature star chart. Blue pinpricks of light marked the systems known by the League to be colonized, exploited, or ruled by the Chapalii Empire. It was a considerable expanse, enhanced by the newly won human systems. One light blinked red, out past Sirius, a system mapped and marked by the League Exploratory Survey but not yet reported to the Chapalii. A little victory, worth not more than the knowledge that for a short time humanity could conceal information from its masters.

"We need more knowledge. Once Tess is done with her thesis, I'll send her to Chapal. They'll have to let her go there. Only the emperor could forbid it. With her linguistic skills, she should be able to gain solid data that we haven't had access to before."

"But she's female."

"She's my heir. Legitimized by the emperor. He probably thought it was an amusingly eccentric quirk in his token human duke. So they can't sequester her."

"Charles." Marco hesitated. Not because he was afraid of Soerensen's power, of his temper, of losing his friendship by speaking his mind, but because he knew how useless it was to attempt to steer Charles in any direction but the one he had already decided to go.

"Charles. The few times I've spoken with her, I didn't get the impression Tess wanted to use her language skills in such a way. I'm not sure she's ready to be involved in building the next-" But here, by unspoken consent, he halted.

The star chart vanished, and the stars outside bathed the bleak mud flats in their pale light. The bright tails of flitterbugs wove aimless patterns among the rules.

"It doesn't matter what Tess wants." Charles said it matter-of-factly, without rancor, without exasperation, in that same level voice he always used, quiet and commanding. "Through no fault of her own, she was conceived because my parents wanted a child who was theirs alone. Except, of course, they no longer could have a child who was anything but my sibling."

"Poor thing. And so much younger than you, too."

"Nevertheless, it doesn't matter what Tess wants. She is my heir, and as such, she has a duty to me. And more important, a duty to humanity. We will not remain slaves." He flipped the holo back on and started the program again, searching for flaws, for the hidden key that would make the next rebellion succeed.

"Nevertheless," muttered Marco, knowing very well that Charles would not hear him. "Poor thing."

Yuri shook Tess awake. She ached all over. She brushed grass from her face and sneezed. Pain woke and shot like fire through her arms. It was chilly, and cold damp seeped through and stiffened her muscles. The sun nosed at the horizon. Light spread out along the grass tips, gilding their green shoots golden. Tess shivered and yawned.

"Hurry, Tess. I saddled a horse, and here is some bread-"

Behind, a figure loomed, Bakhtiian on his horse. In the distance, Tess heard men talking and horses snorting and blowing. She struggled to her feet. Her legs and thighs were in spasms. She leaned to bend, to roll up her blanket, and could not, simply could not. The pain brought tears to her eyes. Yuri knelt and rolled up the blanket, handing it to her.

"Yurinya," said Bakhtiian, "Fedya has already left. You were to be with him."

Yuri touched Tess on the arm and palmed a stick of dried meat into her hand. He handed her the reins of a horse, one of the stocky tarpans, then mounted and rode away.

"This isn't my bay." Tess regarded the restless tarpan with suspicion.

"You can't ride the same horse day after day," said Bakhtiian, "unless you want to ruin it. I'm leaving now."

She did not reply. Tying the bedroll on to the back of the saddle hurt. Her back was sore, her shoulders ached. Biting her lip, she lifted her left foot to the stirrup. Tears streamed down her face. Beyond, Bakhtiian had paused to watch her. She swore under her breath and pushed off. Every muscle screamed. But she refused to give up now. Grimly, she rode after Bakhtiian.

This day passed much the same as the one before. But at dusk, when they arrived in camp, Yuri brought her food and Mikhal cared for her horse. Niko gave her a salve for her chafed skin. In the morning the bay mare was already saddled. That night, Kirill took the horse when she rode in, and the next night, Konstans shyly brought her yoghurt and cheese and fresh, sweet roots to eat. The fifth morning she saddled her bay mare with Yuri's help. Though she was still sore everywhere, it was an ache and not outright pain.

On the sixth day she managed to ride beside Bakhtiian, not behind him, for most of the day. Yuri and Mikhal and Kirill and Konstans met her when she rode in, and a few new faces, young men she barely knew by name, joined the group as well. The Chapalii remained in their tents. She had not spoken to Cha Ishii in days. What Bakhtiian thought of her partisans she could not tell; in six days she had exchanged perhaps ten sentences with him, and his overwhelming attitude seemed to her to be one of annoyance that she had gotten so far. On the eighth night she unsaddled and brushed down her horse by herself and had enough energy left to ask Yuri for a lesson in khush.

But on the tenth morning, setting out with the sun on their left, she found herself examining the grass, the tiny nuggets of grain piled one atop the other, the leaves as broad as a finger touched with green, the reed-thin stalks golden, and glimpses of earth, as brown as Bakhtiian's eyes, in worn patches. She no longer felt that riding was merely a battle between her muscles and the horse. The grass barely touched her boots. When she had been walking, starved and thirsty, it had dragged constantly at her calves and thighs. She laughed aloud at the sheer joy of it and felt a shift of tension between her and the bay, the mare in that instant responding to her as if they had come to know one another. She leaned down to kiss its silky neck, its clean scent faint in her nostrils, thought through all the words of khush Yuri had taught her and christened the horse-her witnesses the sun and the wind and the unending grass-myshla, which in that tongue meant "freed of the earth."

To her surprise, at midday they circled in to take the break with the main group. She was happy to stand for a bit, stretching out her muscles. When Bakhtiian dismounted next to her, she turned from checking Myshla's hooves to look at him. Behind them, the horses, alone or in pairs, had scattered across the grass, their riders in small groups between them like the bright centers of flowers.

Bakhtiian watched her sidelong for an uncomfortable moment, but then, with decision, he looked at her directly. "The spirit has found you." He lifted a hand to trace a brief figure in the air. A wind touched her face, as if echoing his gesture.

"Is that meant to be a compliment?" she asked, a little sarcastically, and regretted it instantly. He turned and with that breathtaking sweep of grace mounted and cantered away to speak to Niko Sibirin.

Later, when the call came to ride, in khush, she understood it, mounting before it was repeated in Rhuian for the Chapalii. She fell in beside Bakhtiian.

"You learn our tongue," he said in khush.

"Only a small portion," she replied in the same. "Only a gentle breeze yet." She smiled, loving language and the way in which each language grew out of its environment.

"You learn," said Bakhtiian.

That afternoon when they paused just below the top of a rise and Bakhtiian simply sat, staring at the expanse of grass and sky that surrounded them, Tess grew impatient with his silence.

"What do you see?"

He looked at her. "What do you see?"

Tess laughed, unable not to in acknowledgment of her own ignorance. "I see grass, and more grass, a few low rises but mostly flat land, and a very blue, almost purple-blue sky. And the sun."

"What about the clouds, there?"

"There at the edge of the horizon? Yes, those, too."

"Clouds can mean rain."

She refused to take his bait. "I suppose they can, if you know what kind of clouds bring rain, and how fast the wind is traveling, and in what direction. I don't know those things."

His lips tugged upward slightly, but he did not smile. "A jahar, about twelve men, passed this way two days ago. They camped down below us. Do you see how the grass hasn't yet risen to its full height there? A piece of leather was left behind. No fire. They're riding for speed or secrecy."

Tess stared down, but she could not see any of these signs. Except-perhaps-she could see the slight depression in the tall grass, grass that, in a rough semicircle, was not quite as high as the surrounding stems.

"There," he continued, "you see that khoen."

"Khoen?"

"The rocks at the top of the rise."

She looked again, and there, now that she was looking, she saw a pile of rocks half hidden by the grass. Such a structure could not be natural, three flat rocks arranged in a triangle, with six smaller stones, chipped into rough shapes, placed in a cross pattern in the center. "What is it?"

"The passing jaran build these, to mark their way for themselves and to record their passing for others. This one-" He hesitated. Tess waited. His mouth turned down, giving him a severe, stubborn expression. "We'd better return to the jahar."

"Why?"

For an instant she thought he meant to chastise her for questioning his orders, but he was merely leaning forward to stare at the sky where a flock of birds wheeled and drove, chattering, for the sun. His lips moved. She knew enough khush to recognize that he was counting under his breath. "There is a dyan called Doroskayev," he said aloud, settling back into his saddle and starting forward. "He wants to prevent me from uniting the jaran. This was his jahar, or part of his jahar, that rode this way. That means we are near each other. I had hoped to avoid anyone so far north this early in the year."

Tess urged Myshla after him. "If you meet him, what will happen?"

"We will fight, his riders and mine."

He said it matter-of-factly. Tess felt as if a stone had dropped into her stomach. They would fight-and where would she be? Lord, and what would Cha Ishii do, faced with such a battle? "I've been a fool," she muttered under her breath.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I just wondered," she said quickly. "You said before that you'd gotten these horses to make war. Is this the war you meant?"

"Not at all. Doroskayev, and a few other men, are simply obstacles in my path." The flock of birds, still screaming, swept back over them, low, their tiny shadows dotting the earth. His eyes followed them again, and he smiled to himself. "My war is against all the khaja. All the settled people. I mean to sweep them off the plains forever. And once they are driven off the plains, once all the khaja lands bordering the plains are subject to us, then we need fear the khaja no more."

"Do you fear them now?"

"My people fear them." He glanced at her. "But I do not. I have been to Jeds, and I have seen that even the best and the wisest of the khaja are no different than us. What they have, we can have as well."

That night no fire was built, and double guards were posted. Tess and Yuri watched the Chapalii putting up their tents, and caught the tail end of an exchange in which Bakhtiian attempted to convince Ishii that speed and stealth necessitated no tents at all. The tents went up, but when Bakhtiian left, Tess thought he looked more thoughtful than annoyed. She strolled over and greeted Ishii in formal Chapalii. Yuri tagged at her heels.

Ishii bowed. "Your endurance is commendable, Lady Terese."

"I welcome your compliments, Cha Ishii. But I am surprised that you set your tents under such circumstances."

He bowed again. ' 'We cannot sleep in this open air, Lady Terese. Surely you appreciate the physiological differences that demand we maintain some period of rest in atmospheres altered to suit our metabolism."

"Within those tents?" Tess asked, suddenly acutely curious to go inside one. The four tents looked common enough-a heavy cotton or canvas, something unremarkable to the natives-but what had the Chapalii built into them?

It was too dark to see what color his skin flushed, though she thought it changed slightly. His voice continued imperturbably. "We have mechanisms, Lady Terese."

' 'What if this other party attacks? Are you not concerned for your life and the lives of your party, Cha Ishii?"

"I am not concerned, Lady Terese. If I may be excused?"

She nodded. He beat a strategic retreat into the nearest tent. One Chapalii stood outside the second tent, watching her attentively. He was clearly not of the steward class; their deference to her was so complete as to render them almost invisible. Then, bowing directly to her-a slightly arrogant breach of manners, since she had not formally recognized him-he, too, turned and vanished into his tent.

"Why do they bow to you?" Yuri asked. "I never saw people bow except in Jeds, when what they called-what is that word? — the nobility went past."

"I think that Bakhtiian would like to be bowed to."

Yuri grinned. "I'll just bet he would." Then, either distracted from his question or letting it go, he changed the subject. "We should start teaching you to use that saber. Just in case. Kirill will help. He's a good teacher, though he doesn't act it. And Mikhal and Konstans and Nikita and Fedya. I suppose we ought to ask Vladimir to join, too." He took her over to where the youngest men in the jahar had gathered, and they showed her how to hold and balance her saber, and how to take simple backward and forward cuts.

In the morning, Niko Sibirin rode out to scout with Bakhtiian and Tess. For a while, he and Bakhtiian spoke rapidly together in khush. Tess caught the name Doroskayev many times, and other words and phrases in bits and pieces, but not enough to string together into understanding. Then Bakhtiian rode off by himself, leaving Tess with Niko.

"How are you getting on?" Sibirin asked in Rhuian.

"I'm still here."

"Yes. I'm glad to see it. I've seen others fail this test."

"Does he do this to every new rider?"

Niko chuckled. The lines on his face softened when he smiled, gentling the sharpness of his eyes. "Oh, no, my dear. Only those he does not trust yet for one reason or another. Poor Vladi had enough trouble from the young men when Ilyakoria took him in to foster so that he took it doubly hard when he was run into the ground his first ride out. I suppose he thought that Bakhtiian taking him in assured him a place. It did not."

"He must have passed the test."

"Well enough." He glanced to his right. A moment later Bakhtiian appeared around the low swell of a rise. Here the plains still rose and fell like waves, slopes that hid the near ground but revealed what was in the distance.

"Nothing," said Bakhtiian in Rhuian, sounding disgusted. "So you studied at the University in Jeds?"

The sudden question took Tess by surprise. "Why, ah, no, I never did. I was too young, and then my brother sent me overseas to study. He wanted me to learn languages that would benefit him in his trading. So he couldn't be cheated, or sold bad goods." It was close enough. Charles had never possessed a knack for the Chapalii language. That his sister proved adept at languages had been an unlooked-for advantage to his plans. All the more reason that her loss would hurt him badly. Where was Charles now? Did he think she was lost? Kidnapped? Dead? She pressed her lips together, feeling ashamed that she had brought this problem upon Charles, with everything else he had to worry about. Sibirin and Bakhtiian were watching her, Sibirin with interest, Bakhtiian with-? She could not be sure.

"Still, perhaps you came across the works of Iban Khal-dun?" Bakhtiian concealed his thoughts with these innocuous words. "The great historian? His works came to Jeds from overseas."

Tess choked back an exclamation. It turned into a cough. "Yes," she said cautiously. "I've heard of him. Didn't he write about cycles of conquest and civilization?"

To her surprise, Bakhtiian launched into an explication of Iban Khaldun's work leavened by frequent questions to her and to Niko-for it quickly became apparent that Niko had somehow or other also been introduced to these writings-about their opinions and arguments. They talked in this vein until midday, when they joined up with the jahar. For the first time, Bakhtiian ordered both Tess and Yuri to ride with the main group.

"Is he protecting me?" Tess asked as Bakhtiian left again with Niko, back out to scout.

"Not really. You're a-a burden, Tess. If he's caught in the open with you, and Doroskayev and his riders appear, he'll have to defend you rather than get away." He sighed. "It will be easier when you've learned khush."

"What? For me to scout?"

"No, for me to talk with you. I don't speak Rhuian well."

"You speak it well enough. Although your pronunciation isn't very good."

"Tess, you speak khush better already after six hands of days than I did Rhuian after a year in Jeds. And Ilya and Sonia had taught me some ahead of time. Ilya still makes me speak it when he wants to talk to us so that others can't understand what we're saying. It's the only reason I remember any, except now, of course, because I speak it with you."

"Why is Doroskayev trying to find us?"

"To kill Ilya." Yuri grinned. "Can you blame him?"

"And if he kills Ilya?"

' 'Then all the tribes go back to warring among themselves like they did when Ilya was a child. And the khaja move farther out onto the plains each spring. You see, in the long ago days, before the rhan-the tribes-had horses, the khaja took tribute from us. Then a girl was taken from the tribes as a portion of the tribute, but with the help of He-Who-Runs-With-The-Wind, she stole horses from the khaja and gave them to her people, and He took her to His Mother's Tent in exchange and granted us freedom. That is why we are jaran, the people of the wind."

"So the jaran are one people?"

"One people, many tribes, if that is what you mean. Josef Raevsky, there, the older rider, came from a different tribe to ride with Ilya.''

"But he is also jaran."

"Yes. Look, Tess, whistlers." He pointed up. A dark patch of birds skittered and flew far above them. "That is an auspicious sign, to see them this far north so early in the year." He began to count. Tess could scarcely see them except as a blot against the deep blue bowl of the sky, much less discern any individual birds.

"How much do you travel? Each year?"

Yuri shrugged as if he did not understand her question. "We always travel. North in the spring, south in the fall."

"Isn't it hard, moving so much?"

He laughed. "But I love to ride, just as-as fire loves to burn. I love to see the mountains in the winter, the sea and the northern hills in the summer. Would you live forever in one place, never seeing another?"

Tess laughed, echoing him. "No, I wouldn't." She glanced around and caught Kirill, who was riding point, looking back at her. He waved. To her left, Vladimir stared sullenly forward, looking at no one. His necklaces jostled as he rode, slapping his chest, and the tassels on his boots swayed with the movement of his horse. None of the other men wore such finery, not now, at any rate.

To her right, the Chapalii rode in their stiff, stubborn fashion. Cha Ishii's gaze seemed fixed on his horse, but one of the other Chapalii looked across at Tess. She was sure this was the same one who had bowed to her before. What did he want of her? What did he know? She met his gaze, and he inclined his head, as much of a bow as he could manage on horseback. She did not acknowledge him.

CHAPTER SEVEN

"If you seek something wise, reflect during the night."

— Epicharmus of Syracuse

At the late afternoon when they halted for the night, Fedya rode in from scouting with an antelopelike creature sprawled across the neck of his horse. He had shot it, and now took a good deal of teasing from the other men because of his prowess with a woman's weapon. Bakhtiian let the young men build a fire and agreed that those who wished to could pitch their tents as well. Tess and Yuri put up her tent and then returned to the fire. They watched while Nikita and Konstans disemboweled and skinned the dead animal, peeling the pelt whole from the pink flesh. The scent of bowels and blood flooded the air and blended with the must of grass. Pavel took the fat away to feed the horses. Tess left when they cracked open the skull. Yuri followed her, and a moment later, Kirill joined them.

"Tess. If Doroskayev's riders are coming, we'd better teach you some more about saber." Kirill grinned at her. What little diffidence he possessed had vanished after they had left the tribe. Tess sighed. Kirill lifted a hand to his chest, mocking her sigh. "The saber will keep you alive. You can't enjoy lovers if you're dead."

"Kirill!" Yuri exclaimed.

Tess flushed, and was glad of the opportune appearance of Fedya. "We're practicing over by the horses," Fedya said, as if answering a question. "Konstans and Mitenka are waiting."

"Thank you, Fedya," said Tess, and he smiled at her, as if knowing full well that she was thanking him for his intervention not the invitation. His smile had a wraithlike quality, shadowed by some unknown sorrow.

They were camped in a spring-fed hollow in the low hills through which they rode. They came now into sight of the scatter of tents pitched outside a grove of scrub trees and beyond that the huddle of horses. Bakhtiian stood talking to Konstans and Mitenka. He looked up as the others arrived and moved to intercept Tess. Kirill paused deliberately as Bakhtiian approached them, but Yuri nudged him from behind and Fedya brushed his elbow and led him on over to Konstans.

"I was wondering," said Bakhtiian to Tess when the others were out of earshot, "about something you said today, when we were discussing the view held by the Gallio school that words can give no true account of the past."

"Bakhtiian, could we discuss this after dark?"

"Of course. 'The day for action; the night for contemplation,' " He nodded to her and left.

"The Gallio school?" Yuri asked. "It must be something he learned at Jeds. I thought you scouted."

"Niko was with us. We talked about history."

"History?"

"Niko is very knowledgeable."

"Niko reads books when he can get them. Ilya and Sonia brought books back with them from Jeds. Well, I did, too, but only because they wrote me a list."

"Ah. That explains Niko. He and I agreed, but Bakhtiian didn't." She chuckled. "We almost got into an argument."

"Who won?"

"Yuri, no one wins that kind of argument."

Yuri rubbed one hand over his eyes. Smoke and the sweet scent of meat cooking carried to them on the breeze. "I never understood what they taught at University. Hah!" He whirled, saber out and up before he had completely turned to meet Konstans' charge. The two sabers met and sounded, a crisp ring. Tess drew her saber.

Laughing, Kirill walked over to her. "That's right. Don't retreat. But you're too close to Yuri." He put one hand lightly on her hip and gently pushed her two steps over. And grinned, near enough that she could see how very very blue his eyes were.

"Thank you," she said dryly, and shifted so that his hand slipped off her hip.

"This much room," he continued, unrepentant. "And cover-Fedya! Now if Fedya was to come in from this direction, you'd have to cover two angles." Fedya, coming in from that direction, showed her how to parry a side-sweep. Beyond him, outside the ring formed by their little group, a lonely figure adorned with elaborate embroidered sleeves and draped with ornate necklaces watched the practice but did not join in.

When the light faded, they went back to the fire. Dusk made shadows of the tents. The fire outlined groups of sitting and standing men. Sibirin waved to Tess, and she sat down beside him and rested her arms on her bent knees. Yuri brought her meat hot from the fire. She savored it, licking the juice from her fingers when she was done.

"Sibirin, I believe that you promised today to tell me something of your youth, what life was like when you were a boy."

"Do you expect a man of my years to remember that far back?"

"Yes, Sibirin, I do."

"Come now, girl. If I'm going to reveal my youth to you, you had better call me by my youthful name.''

"Did you have a different name when you were young? Or did they speak a different language then, if it was so long ago?"

He laughed, revealing deep lines at the corners of his eyes. "No. I'm not so old that I recall the time before we had horses. But you call the young men by their given names. If I tell you of the times when I was that age, then you must call me Niko."

"So if I was to tell you of how it might be for me when I'm older, could you call me Tess?"

"Most things are possible if one decides they are."

"Please, no more philosophy. Tell me a story of adventure."

The smell of burning leather hung in the air and, above it, the faint, sweet odor of flowers. "Shall I tell you how I won my wife? She was niece of the etsana and sister to the dyan of another tribe. In those days the jaran were divided."

"Yes. Before-"

"May I join you?" Bakhtiian stood before them, lit by the glow of the fire behind him. Somewhere, a horse whickered.

"Niko is telling me how he won his wife. Now, Bakhtiian, we'll see if his words give a true account of the past."

"But neither you nor I can judge that. We weren't there.''

Niko laughed. "Has the argument moved to a new discipline?"

"It was not an argument, Niko. It was a discussion." Bakhtiian settled into the usual seat of the jaran men: one leg bent and flat on the ground, the other perpendicular to the first and also bent, so that the arm could rest on the knee. He smiled at Sibirin. His smile was a rare thing, like the moon on a cloudy night. Tess had seen that he favored Niko alone with it with any regularity, but even with Niko he smiled infrequently. The smile faded slowly and Bakhtiian glanced at Tess. She looked quickly away.

Niko smiled. "Yes, Juli was willful. By the gods, she still is. She was the youngest child in her family, which accounts for it."

Across the fire Mikhal picked out a tune on his lute. Bakhtiian laid a hand on Niko's arm. "Fedya is singing."

Fedya's high, sweet voice rose with the melody. The song matched his looks: sorrowing, mournful, arcane. No one spoke while he sang. After he finished, the lute kept up with cheerful tunes, and talk resumed.

"Fedya always seems so sad," said Tess in a quiet voice.

"His wife died of a fever, two years ago-as did Kirill's-but Fedya still mourns." Niko glanced at Bakhtiian, who gazed, unmoving, toward Fedya.

"So he hasn't married again? Kirill has, hasn't he?"

"Not exactly. He tried to mark Maryeshka Kolenin."

Tess giggled. "Was he the one she-?"

"Yes," said Niko quickly. "But I expect Kirill will mark her next spring. She'll want children soon. But Fedya, no. Women aren't interested in a man who is sad."

"Why not?" Tess glanced to where Fedya sat with the younger men, part of the group but not of the conversation. His air of sadness made him somehow more attractive to her, just as, she thought, she trusted Yuri because he had been shy at first.

"There's no profit in being sad. Life is hard enough. Why lessen its joys by dwelling on its sorrows?"

"The jaran fight against everything," said Bakhtiian, surprising Tess because she had not thought he was listening. "Against each other, against the khaja, against the land, and their final fight is against death. Battle against death, but if the black wind blows up inside and one can no longer fight, then die honorably. Honor alone is worth winning. That alone denies death Her final victory."

"I wouldn't want my entire life to rest solely on the way I died," said Tess.

"How else can you measure it?" Bakhtiian stared into the fire, his face illuminated by its light. "A man's life has no sum until he is dead. He must make what he can while he lives, and he must live every moment as if he were to die the next."

"But isn't it in how you live that you measure your life?" Tess said. "By doing everything as well as it can be done? By striving to find-to find excellence? Then life derives its own worth apart from death. Then you can transcend the routine of existence by living superbly."

Niko stroked his silvering beard and shook his head. "Both of you ride the same path. Seeking honor is no different from striving for excellence. You are looking for something you can never quite find." He held out his hands to catch the warmth of the fire. "What would you say if I told you that of all things given to us, love alone is worth having?''

"That makes you dependent on others," said Tess.

"Each of us must struggle alone," said Bakhtiian.

Niko drew his hands back. "Should all people live as hermits, then?"

"Niko, don't misunderstand me," said Bakhtiian. "Affection for others is a part of life, just as riding and breathing are a part of life."

"But no greater or lesser than these? That is cold, Ilyakoria."

"It's too inconstant." Tess wrapped her arms around her bent knees and gazed into the fire. "Duty is constant, not love."

"I did not claim that love is constant, or free of pain," said Niko with a smile. "That is the risk you take."

"I no longer gamble," said Bakhtiian, almost inaudibly.

"If you believe that, Ilya, then you do not know yourself. You need only look at what you've done. Do you gamble, Tess?"

"It depends on the game."

"All games are the same."

"No, they're not."

"Hmph." Sibirin rubbed a knee with one palm. Across the fire, Kirill and Mikhal and Fedya stood and left. "I was twenty when I met Juli. There was a gathering of tribes that year, but as usual, instead of binding ourselves together, the tribes only sought new feuds."

Bakhtiian looked up sharply. "I ended that. What a waste. It was an affront to the gods who gave us freedom."

"Well, I can't disagree with that. Juli was seventeen. She had more bracelets on her ankles than any other girl in all the tribes, and she made sure everyone knew it. She was vain."

"Then why did you marry her?" Tess asked.

"She was a beautiful girl."

"She is a beautiful woman," said Bakhtiian.

Niko brushed a strand of grass from one boot, but he smiled. "There was a dance. Of course, I was simply one face out of many, but she was, perhaps, bored with the lovers she had and she saw me: a new face, a face, I flatter myself, not altogether unappealing."

Tess laughed. "I expect you were quite handsome, Niko."

"Be careful, young woman. I'll think you're making up to me."

"I could never be so presumptuous. And anyway, I like your wife."

"What does that have to do with it?" asked Bakhtiian.

"Oh, why, nothing." The heat of the fire scalded her face. "In my country, a man and a woman who marry, marry with the understanding that they'll be for each other-that they will never-that they'll remain faithful-"

"Faithful? What is that?"

"That they will never lie with anyone else."

Niko and Bakhtiian exchanged glances. "How barbaric," said Niko.

Tess flushed and looked down at her feet.

Niko coughed. "Yes. The dance. Juli came up to me, and we danced, and she took me aside. She assumed that I would become her lover. Who could refuse her? It angered me to be just one more man counted on her bracelets. Well, I was almost as proud as Ilya in those days." Bakhtiian frowned, studying the fire. "Of course I wanted her. I had to choose, to walk away or to go with her, and I became so infuriated because each moment I desired her more and each moment I felt more humiliated that I drew my saber-without thinking-and marked her. We were both so surprised that at first we just stared. Then she beat me."

Tess gasped, half in laughter, her fingers touching her lips. "She did what?"

"She beat me. Gave me two black eyes, cut my upper lip, and almost broke my arm."

"You can't mean it. She can't have been stronger than you?"

"You don't think I would raise my hand against a woman, do you?" He looked affronted, but at her shamefaced expression, he settled down. "But the mark can never be removed from a woman's face. Ten days later they set the bans over us. She could have broken it then."

"Yes." It was very still, with only the light of stars above, the low rustle of the horses beyond, and the thin, hard lines of grass beneath her. "Once the bans are set, you can't break certain rules for nine days, and if you do, the marriage isn't binding."

"And you may never see that person again," added Niko. "We don't enter into marriage lightly in the jaran. But Juli was too proud to be known as a girl who had broken the bans."

"So that is how you won her."

"Oh, no, child. That is how I married her. Winning her was an altogether different thing, and that took several years."

"Bakhtiian!" A rider called from the edge of the firelight.

Bakhtiian stood. "Excuse me." He vanished into the night.

"Won her love, you mean?" Tess asked. "That took several years?"

"Winning the love of a stubborn, proud woman, or man, can be as hard as winning fame or living superbly, and it is far more rewarding."

Tess looked away from him into the fire, but the fire only showed her Jacques's arrogant, handsome face as he told her that their engagement was ended. "Is it? Then you're only living your life for someone else."

"So young to be so bitter. My child, one can have both "

"Is that possible?"

"Most things are possible, if one decides they are."

She rose. "I think I'll go to bed." Yuri was gone, so she strolled over to her tent, but the thought of crawling inside that closed space bothered her. She stared up. There were no clouds, and the moon had set. Stars burned above. Where Charles and her duty lived. The camp was silent. No light at all shone from the Chapalii tents. Somewhere an animal called and was answered. Tess stood still, breathing. The air smelled of grass and soil, and a breeze stirred her hair. Hills, low and dim, rose on all sides.

She walked past the trees and up the near slope, disturbing a few insects. At the crest, she pressed down the knee-high grass and sat, staring up at the brilliant, familiar patterns above. She traced constellations, cluttered with fainter stars never seen from Earth's bright skies, and then picked out the constellations Yuri had taught her: the Wagon's Axle, the Horseman, the Tent.

A slight noise interrupted the murmur of night sounds. Tess looked around. Nothing. Several insects chirruped, braving the silence. A sound, and the insects stopped again. She moved away from camp, crawling on her hands and knees back over the crest toward a cluster of rocks below. The sharp ends of grass poked into her palms and knees. Another noise. Breaking for the rocks, she ran right into him.

He grabbed her and pulled her down behind the rocks, one hand over her mouth, the other pinning her arms to her stomach. "Damn it. What are you doing out here?"

All her breath came out in a quick sigh. It was Bakhtiian.

"Well?" His hand fell from her mouth.

"Looking at the stars. 'The night for contemplation.' "

He said nothing, finally releasing her and rising to his knees. "Stay here. Don't move or speak until I tell you. Do you understand?"

"Yes. What's wrong?"

He was already gone.

After a time, she began to think she was alone on the slope, but she did not move. How little she knew of these wild, alien plains. How blithely she assumed that she was safe here, fearing the Chapalii more than the barbarian lands themselves. She cupped her hands over her mouth and nose to muffle the sound of her breathing, feeling scared and foolish all at once: Like the maenads I've drunk the wine, and now I have to accept the madness.

Chill settled into her flesh. Her sheathed saber pressed awkwardly against her thigh. A cold wind blew down from the higher lands, the ayakhov, the wind of the deep night. She shuddered, froze.

Someone approached.

A shadow appeared, pausing by the rocks. It must be Bakhtiian. She hardly dared look up, as if the white of her eyes would give her away. The shadow moved. It was not Bakhtiian. It was too graceless, too thick. Tall but not lean, and all the tall riders in Bakhtiian's jahar were, like Bakhtiian, slender. He had said his enemies were following them. What an idiot she had been, not to appreciate what that meant.

She held her breath, her nose pressed against the cloth of her glove. Feet scraped on the pebbled dirt between the rocks, hesitant steps, careful of the ground. A boot struck her leg. Her heart pounded wildly, but she did not move.

"What?" This in khush.

She barely had time to draw her knife and begin to roll before his full weight pinned her to the ground. The knife spun away, lost. He pressed a hand down hard over her mouth. The point of his saber pricked her calf. With his free hand he briefly explored her chest. She swore and tried to kick him.

"By the gods," he whispered. "Has Bakhtiian come to this? A woman!"

Tess's fingers, reaching, brushed the hilt of her knife. He relaxed, staring down at her in the dim light. She took a deep breath, held it.

Exhaled. She heaved her left hip up, and at the same moment bit his arm. He started back. Her fingers closed on her knife, and as he shoved her back down, she thrust. The blade bit into his shoulder. With a curse, he wrenched the knife from her hand, twisting her wrist until she gasped at the pain.

He called her a name, but she did not understand the word, only the intent. His weight on her stomach seemed enormous. She could barely see his face, could not make out his features except for some obstruction, a darkness at one eye. "But don't worry about your good name," he said contemptuously. "Having had Bakhtiian will just make you twice as popular."

He jumped up and ran off, holding his shoulder, making no attempt to conceal himself. Tess was halfway to her feet, hand on her saber, before she remembered Bakhtiian's warning. She swore and dropped back down to the ground. Lord, did she really think she could use a saber against one of these men? She shook with adrenaline.

After a time the trembling stopped. She was unharmed. She lifted her head to look around. A shape fled against the landscape, catching her eye. Two hunched figures ran up the far slope to disappear over the crest. Three forms detached themselves from the hill, just below the far crest, and ran down. From a trench in the dip, five figures rose to intercept them. A flash of metal, so brief that she was not sure she had seen it, and the sight of struggling, the more eerie for its quiet: a pained grunt, the thud of a weight hitting the ground, the thin, distinct tone of sabers touching now and now and-a pause-now.

Eight forms moved, but three were constrained and one limped. Silence descended for a time, overruled once by the sound of running feet and again by an assembly of sabers talking all at once, out of her sight, seeming sentient in the way their conversation varied, first fast, then slow, then a flurry and, last, a silence when the conversation ended. A quick staccato of words penetrated the stillness, then suddenly cut off.

Nothing stirred. Her back prickled as if several thousand insects crawled up and down it. She forced herself to breath slowly, in and out, in and out. Don't think about it. Don't be scared. There was only the hushed wind and the mute stars and the coarse dust harsh against her skin.

She felt him there before she saw him, flat on his stomach where he slid in beside her. She gasped. Her hands clutched pebbles.

"Oh, God." She shut her eyes and opened her hands. "You scared me."

"By the gods. You stabbed him. You can sit up if you want to. We captured them all."

"What did they want?"

"To kill me, of course." Bakhtiian's voice was calm.

She remembered, suddenly, violently, the man in his own tribe whom he had executed. "Are you going to kill them?" she asked, in a whisper, and she felt sick with apprehensive horror as she said it.

"Not this time. They'll serve my cause better alive. For now. We'll tie them up and leave them here." He was still lying on his stomach. "Except Doroskayev." He chuckled. "He's the one you stabbed."

"That's a funny name. 'Scar-sight'?"

"He got a bad wound some years ago to his right eye. Never forgave me for it." Bakhtiian laughed. "A pretty piece of work with your knife. Yuri got it back for you."

"I'm not hurt," said Tess stiffly.

"Of course not. No jaran man would harm a woman. What a thought. I know they do in Jeds."

"Oh, no. In Jeds, jaran men don't hurt women either."

Bakhtiian laughed again. Tess had never seen him so jolly. It made her nervous. There was a moment's silence before he jumped to his feet. "By the gods, I'm tired."

"Was anyone hurt, of ours?"

"Ours?" She could not see his face but felt his grin. "Ours, indeed." He put out a hand and, when she took it, pulled her to her feet. She dropped his hand and brushed off her clothing. "Josef Raevsky got a wound in the thigh, but it isn't serious. Kirill got a cut across the arm. By the gods, why are we standing here, woman?"

He set off for camp, Tess walking beside him.

"Bakhtiian." They reached the crest and started down into the little camp, where a number of men lay tied up near the campfire, Bakhtiian's riders clustered around them. Gazing down at the prisoners, Bakhtiian had the grin of a satisfied and well-fed predator. He looked at her. "What does this mean?" She said the name Doroskayev had called her.

He stopped quite short, and finally made a slight, coughing sound. "Forgive me. No man will ever explain that to you."

"My God." She smiled. "Then I'll have to ask Sonia."

"No woman ought to know that word," said Bakhtiian sternly, "but if one does, then doubtless that one is Sonia." They both laughed.

Descending to the camp, he guided her directly to her tent, avoiding the captives. "It will be better if those men never know you are with us. My riders will say nothing."

"But Doroskayev saw me."

"One does not always believe what Doroskayev says. And perhaps you now understand why you must always wear your saber, and keep it by your side when you sleep. Now, if you will excuse me." He gave her a curt bow, but the gesture was not entirely mocking.

She watched him fade into the night, and then knelt to enter her tent. A closed, private refuge seemed suddenly desirable, and safe. A foot scuffed the grass. She jumped back and whirled. A Chapalii stood behind her, not five paces from her. He bowed, formal.

"Cha Ishii," she began, and then realized abruptly that this was not Ishii at all.

"Lady Terese. I beg your pardon for this rash intrusion. Perhaps you will condescend to allow me to introduce myself."

She stared for a moment, amazed by his audacity. By his inflections, he ranked as a merchant's offspring, of that class one step below the nobility. Why had he come with Cha Ishii's expedition? The last dregs of fear and adrenaline from the skirmish melted away, seared into oblivion by her need to know what Ishii was doing here, and what it meant to her brother. "You may." She set her hands together, palm over palm, in that arrangement known as Imperial Patience.

He bowed, acknowledging her generosity. "I am Hon Garii Takokan. I beg your indulgence." She waited, curious. "I was distraught to discover that these savages with whom we ride were to engage in violence this very night, but far more was I distressed to know that you, Lady Terese, perforce must face such dangers unarmed."

"You are well spoken, for a merchant's son, Hon Garii."

"I have studied to improve myself, Lady Terese," he answered, slipping in two inflections that skirted the bounds of impropriety, hinting that he had, perhaps, some connection with noble blood in him. "If I may be allowed to say as much."

"You may."

"Therefore." He stopped short, glancing furtively behind and to each side. "If you will condescend to permit me to present you with this gift."

Tess considered. Giving gifts in the Chapalii culture was a gesture loaded with implied obligations and serious consequences. But her curiosity got the better of her, so she held out her hand to receive it.

He handed her a knife, bowed, and slipped quickly away, not even waiting for her thanks. She held it up. And stared.

This was not a knife. Certainly, it looked like a knife; it had a hilt and a blade. But twin points of light peeped from the crosshilts, and when she held the blade, it felt warm to her touch. This was something more, far more. That this was Chapalii-manufactured, a Chapalii weapon made to look like a native thing, she did not doubt for an instant. Like the tents. It took no great leap of imagination to guess that this was some kind of energy gun. No wonder Ishii was not concerned about these savages' petty little wars. With such a weapon, one person standing alone could obliterate Bakhtiian's jahar before they got close enough to put her in danger.

"But I wonder," she said to herself, tucking the knife into her belt and crawling into the sanctity of her tent, "I wonder if Ishii knows that Garii has given this to me." It disturbed her very much to suspect that he did not.

CHAPTER EIGHT

"Thou shalt inquire into everything.'

— Parmenides of Elea

Two days later they deposited Doroskayev in the middle of a stretch of featureless flat lands, the hills a dark billow to the northeast. Tess and Bakhtiian tracked him that afternoon as he walked back toward his comrades, who had been trussed and tied and left by the water hole to wait in sullen expectation for their release. Finally, Bakhtiian reined in his horse on a rise. Tess stared down at the solitary figure, whose face was indeed disfigured by an ugly scar over his right eye. It seemed a short enough time ago that she had stumbled, alone and scared and determined, through grass that scraped constantly at her legs. Now it merely brushed the soles of her boots. They turned their horses southwest and caught up with the jahar by evening.

It might have been dull, this riding day after day, week after week, across a land as routine as their daily tasks, but it was spring, and spring was a joy, and the life itself was new, like a language that needed learning. Tess could never resist the lure of an unknown tongue. The sky lifted far above. The land slipped by beneath horses' hooves. It rained once or twice, but it was no more than an inconvenience. Huge herds of antelopelike animals passed them, heading north in a frenzy of bawling and mewling, and on many days Fedya brought in a fresh kill. The other riders foraged for modhal, a tuber they mashed and shared equally between men and horses, and nekhal, a reedy grass whose shoots were edible. They mixed these with mare's milk and with the hard bread and dried meat brought from the tribe.

The Chapalii ate sparingly of this diet, and if they ate anything else in their tents at night, Tess was none the wiser.

So it was that when, one afternoon as Tess and Bakhtiian scouted the wake of a passing herd, they saw five women riding southward with their day's catch, Bakhtiian hailed the hunters and spoke with them while Tess hung back and watched.

"I know this tribe," he said when he returned. "We'll stop a few days with them.''

They returned immediately to the jahar. At the first good campsite, a small lake ringed with scrubby trees and a profusion of flowering bushes, Bakhtiian called a halt for the night.

"Why don't we just go on today if this tribe is so close?" Tess asked Yuri as they walked to the lake's edge. She batted away a swarm of insects, ducked her head as they returned, and retreated from the reedy shore.

Yuri laughed at her and strolled on. It had become the jahar witticism to call them dhal and khal, the twins, because they spent so much time together. Tess liked it because she saw in it an acceptance of her place in the jahar: she was one of them, not one of the pilgrims.

"There are courtesies," Yuri explained when she caught up with him, "when one tribe comes upon another. Some people might not observe them, but Bakhtiian is very traditional. Now they have warning to know we are coming." He grinned. "And Vladimir can polish his stones so his necklaces can gleam brighter and impress the young women."

"Poor Vladimir."

Yuri looked at her consideringly. "Have you ever really spoken with Vladimir?"

"No. I think he avoids me. But then, you and Kirill and the others scarcely make him welcome."

"A horse ridden too hard," said Yuri in khush, "is a horse ruined." He added, in Rhuian, "If Vladimir is not welcome, look to him, not to us. We'd better teach you to dance, Tess. There's sure to be a dance in Bakhtiian's honor. It would look odd if we kept you to ourselves. Though how much we can teach you in one afternoon…"

"I've danced before," said Tess, but the image that came to her, thinking of her folk dancing club at the university, was unwelcome: that night, when Jacques-so cowardly that he had to choose a public place, where pride constrained her from reacting with real emotion-had told her their engagement was over, broken, while they were dancing the last waltz of the evening.

"Are you all right?" Yuri touched her on the arm.

"No, I'm fine. Just hungry. Fedya didn't bring in a kill today, did he? He shouldn't be the only one who hunts. I want to practice archery while it's light. We can dance with a fire. I'm going to get good enough with the bow to do some hunting."

Yuri laughed at her vehemence. "You'll ruin my good name. Very well. But you have to get Sonia's bow. Meet me over there."

The minutes she spent fetching the bow and arrows gave her time to regain her composure. Damn Jacques, anyway; he wasn't worth agonizing over. But her anger carried over into her first course, and she shot poorly. Yuri sighed, fetched the arrows and readjusted the four ribbons tied for the target at varying heights around the tree trunk.

"You did better than that with Sonia," he chided.

While he shot, Tess watched the water birds as they paddled aimlessly back and forth on the pond and with no warning upended and dove under the surface, vanishing, without even a ripple, for so long that one's breath stopped until they suddenly resurfaced in a flurry of wings and water somewhere else. Submerged-that was the word that haunted her. She had been submerged in Charles's life since the day she was born. She had never been herself, but always his sister, his heir, doing his work.

"Three out of five," said Yuri proudly. "Let's see you match that." Returning with the arrows, he handed the bow to her. She aimed and hit.

"There. Is Doroskayev the only dyan riding against Bakhtiian?"

"He's one of the few left. Roskhel is dead now. Veselov-Ilya won him over. Zukhov, Boradin, Makhov. They're all dead, too. Boradin and Makhov died in the battle at the khayan-sarmiia. Ilya shouldn't have won that battle because they outnumbered him, but he did. Doroskayev only hates Ilya because he hates Ilya, if you see what I mean. But his tribe is small. There is one dyan left, Dmitri Mikhailov, who commands a jahar large enough and dangerous enough to threaten us. But we haven't seen him for two summers. I think he's given up."

Tess nocked another arrow and drew. "What about the tribal Elders? The women?"

"War is men's business."

"Meaning women are left to clean up." She shot, missing the tree entirely.

"It's your concentration." Yuri rested one hand on the back of his neck. She drew again, steadying herself. "Ilya could never have united the jaran without the approval of the Elders. After all, his own mother was the first Elder he had to convince, and if he could convince her, he could convince anyone." Tess shot and hit. "Do you know," Yuri added, "when a person stands so still, you see them best. Like your eyes. I never knew eyes could be the color of gorad leaves. Such a green."

Her fourth and fifth arrows hit true. Yuri shot and hit five times along the length of the tree. "You're better at this than you think," she said when he returned with the arrows.

"For a man. It comes of having four sisters. But I always liked archery better than saber."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Yuri!" Kirill called to them from the shore of the lake. He strode over and stopped to stare at the younger man. "You're not actually practicing that, are you?"

Yuri hastily handed the bow to Tess, who turned to face Kirill with one hand on her hip. ' 'If you practiced, we might eat fresh meat more often."

Kirill had a careless air about him that belied his authority among the younger men. "It isn't a man's weapon, but it's true, on such a long trip, we would eat better. I know." He smiled. "We'll have a contest."

"I don't like this," muttered Yuri.

But the young riders took quickly to the idea: ten shots each. Mikhal immediately took the lead, with seven midhits, but this was blamed on his willingness when courting Sonia to go hunting with her.

Eventually Bakhtiian came up. Tess, finishing, found herself with five mid-hits, third behind Mikhal and Yuri. "Do you want a turn?" she asked Bakhtiian, made bold by her success.

"Gods, contest with the rest of us, and with a woman's weapon?" asked Kirill.

Bakhtiian's face shuttered as he looked past Tess at Kirill. Birds landed on the lake, wings skittering. Kirill returned Bakhtiian's scrutiny with an even gaze. No one spoke.

"Very well." Bakhtiian accepted the bow from Tess. "I would never disparage a woman's prowess in archery, especially not if she had bow in hand. Not unless I had a very long head start.''

Everyone laughed except Kirill, who turned and left. Tess felt tension that she had not known was there leave her throat. Bakhtiian stood perfectly still, entirely concentrated. The dark waves of his hair matched his intense eyes and severe expression. With his arm drawn back, the curve of the bow framing him, he could have been the god of the hunt, caught forever in the instant before death. All ten shots hit between the middle ribbons.

Kirill returned, and he brought Fedya with him. Fedya was neither for nor against joining the contest. Kirill insisted.

"You don't have to," said Tess.

Fedya shrugged. "I don't have the energy to refuse." He was one of the shorter riders, stocky without stoutness, with long blond hair caught back in a single braid. Alone among the men he wore a second braid, a horse-tail pinned into his hair. He also habitually wore an expression that suggested that he knew the one, awful secret of man's doom but was kind enough to hide it from everyone else. "I don't mind. After all, I'm the only one here who can outshoot Bakhtiian." The look he gave Kirill was ironic. But he also hit ten mid-shots.

It was growing dark. Tasha, at the fire, called to them that the food was ready. Tess did not follow the others, and Yuri sat with her, finding pebbles to toss into the pond.

"I like it here," Tess said finally, watching the birds dive.

Yuri glanced at her but did not reply. The shifting greens and yellows of leaves stirred in the twilight breeze. Several birds flapped their wings, spraying water, and then settled.

"Fedya's as good as some of the women. I thought men never practiced archery."

"Fedya doesn't need to practice. He sings to the bow, and it responds."

"He looks as if he knows the wrongs of the world."

"Fedya was touched by the gods as a child. What he knows, he'll never tell."

They rose and walked slowly toward the fire. This close, the breeze brought the spicy scent of Tasha's vegetable stew to her. Stars bloomed one by one in the darkening sky. "Do you mean to say…" Tess hesitated, then began again in a lower voice. "That Fedya never boasts, or-"

"If you mean, does he talk about his lovers, no, he doesn't. For all anyone knows, he hasn't gone off with a woman since his wife died. If you made up to him, no one would ever find out through him."

Tess halted, flushing. "You go so fast from start to finish."

"Tess." Yuri laid a hand on her shoulder. The ring of firelight faded into darkness a few meters in front of them, framing the men around the fire. "You're having a hard time of it because of things inside you, and here you are, alone with twenty-seven men. I don't count the pilgrims, you understand. It isn't healthy."

There was a silence.

"Forgive me." Yuri removed his hand. "I didn't mean to offend. As your brother I thought-"

Tess began to laugh. "Healthy!"

"Well, I don't see what's so funny. It's true."

"Oh, Yuri. I'm not laughing at you."

"You'll see I'm right." He headed toward the fire.

"It's when you're being smug," replied Tess, following him, "that I can really see the family resemblance between you and Bakhtiian."

"I beg your pardon!"

Tess grinned. "Now, didn't you say you would teach me some of your dances?"

"There." Yuri pointed. The morning sun shone down on the spread of tents laid in neat lines beyond the edge of a narrow river. "I remember this tribe. Sakhalin is etsana here, and her sister's son the dyan of their jahar. I was only a boy when we met with them last, but they are friends of our tribe. Bakhtiian says we will stay four nights with them."

At the jahar's appearance on the rise, two men and two women detached themselves from the camp and walked up to them. Bakhtiian and Niko dismounted and strode forward to meet them halfway. After what seemed to Tess a long, drawn-out conversation punctuated with elaborate gesturing, Bakhtiian returned, leaving Nito to walk back into camp with them.

Now Bakhtiian spoke with Ishii, and Tess noted with interest that Ishii's face bore a green cast-he was displeased. But when Bakhtiian nodded and retreated from his side, Ishii sent his horse forward, down to the camp. The other Chapalii followed. Tess found Hon Garii easily enough. He rode beside another Chapalii, just behind Ishii, and behind them, the other eight rode in a mob that shifted precedence daily. In the clear light of early morning, she could discern on each of these eight the faint tattoo on the jaw beneath the right earlobe that marked these Chapalii as stewards. Born to serve, certainly, but not the lowest class by any means. Stewards alone served the nobility and had, in their turn, servants as well. That stewards made up the rest of the party, that they did work normally left to lesser castes, simply proved to Tess the importance of this expedition. Now that she had settled in with the riding, it was time to investigate, slowly, circumspectly. She had time.

She laid a hand on the knife thrust between her trousers and her belt. As if the gesture had caught his eye, Ishii glanced back at her, and she removed her hand guiltily. But he looked away again, directing his people down and to one side of the tribe's camp.

"We will stay four nights," Bakhtiian was saying to the jahar. "You will comport yourselves in a respectful and modest manner." He looked at Kirill as he said this. Kirill returned his gaze blandly. With Vladimir riding just behind him, Bakhtiian led the jahar down into camp.

As Tess dismounted, an elderly woman with a baby in a sling at her hip walked up to her. "Ah, my dear girl, I am Elizaveta Sakhalin. You are Terese Soerensen. Is that it?" She spoke khush slowly so that Tess could follow her words.

"Tess, if you will." Tess felt comfortable with her at once.

"Yes, you will want to be with women again. My daughter-here, Konstantina!"

A young blonde woman with an unattractive face but sharp and friendly eyes came over. "But, Mama," she said forth-rightly, "Tsara and I and the others are to go out to hunt today. There is that great-" The word was lost on Tess. "-just beyond the ford."

"Konstantina. A guest! Your manners."

"But perhaps, Mother Sakhalin," Tess began hastily, using the only honorific she knew for a tribal etsana, and seeing immediately that Sakhalin and her daughter approved of it. "If your daughter does not-will not mind-I hunt, go hunting, with her."

Konstantina brightened. "Yes, Mama. You are good with the bow?"

Tess smiled. "No. Not at all. So I am tired of no fresh meat. Traveling with men."

Enlightenment blossomed on both women's faces. "Of course. Such a long journey and no herds. You will go with Konstantina. She will teach you. Then you can hunt for the jahar."

Konstantina hustled Tess off as quickly as if she feared that her mother would change her mind, given a moment to reconsider. And into the company of women Tess was welcomed without reservation. She strode along, finding it difficult to keep up with their pace, and was given a lecture on the behavior of herds, animals, and shooting that she understood perhaps half of. The actual hunt proved more instructive. A huge herd of bovine grazing beasts milled along the river's edge. Tess crouched, and watched, and stalked, and waited, and was even allowed to shoot a few times, although none of her shots brought down any game. Of the seven women with her, six brought down kills, and three of those brought down two. Konstantina allowed her to drag in one of her kills, and with the slender, musty-smelling calf draped across her shoulders, Tess trudged the long walk back to camp and was grateful to collapse in the shade of Mother Sakhalin's great tent.

"Tomorrow," said Konstantina, crouching beside her while they watched her brothers skin the kills, "we will have a dance. So." She grinned slyly. Next to her, her cousin, Tsara, a pretty, dark-haired girl, dimpled and whispered into Konstantina's ear. "Tsara wishes to know which of these riders is the best lover."

Tess blushed. "I don't know."

"You don't know! Surely-how long have you traveled with them?"

"Six hands of days, now." Seeing that Konstantina regarded her suspiciously out of those piercing blue eyes, Tess felt constrained to add, "In my land, it is different between men and women."

"Of course. You are a foreigner. I had almost forgotten."

Tsara sighed. "But so many of them are good-looking. And they are only here four nights. How will I choose?"

Studying Tsara, whose cheek was clear of the scar of marriage, Tess reflected that such a pretty girl would have no trouble attracting lovers. "Well, Kirill," said Tess, and flushed, wondering why he had come first to her mind.

"Aha," said Konstantina, watching Tess's face. "A good recommendation, I think."

"Mikhal is quiet and still in love with his wife. Yuri is sweet."

"He is Bakhtiian's cousin, is he not?"

"Yes, and Fedya-"

"The Singer? But who wants a sad man?"

"He sings very sweetly," said Tess defensively. "He has a beautiful voice."

"And what," asked Tsara, "about the one with the necklaces? He is very pretty."

"He's an orphan." Then, seeing their faces, she was sorry she had said it.

Konstantina waved one hand dismissively. "An orphan. What about the others?"

"What about Bakhtiian?" Tsara asked in a low voice.

Bakhtiian. Tess's vocabulary failed her utterly. What about Bakhtiian?

But Konstantina, either oblivious to Tess's sudden silence, or sympathetic to it, shook her head decisively. "Tsara, men like Bakhtiian are not for girls like us. You see who comes out of Nadezhda Martov's tent in the morning."

"Oh." Tsara's eyes went very round.

"Who is Nadezhda Martov?" Tess asked, feeling a little disgruntled.

"She is the finest weaver in all the tribes," said Konstantina proudly. "She is my mother's cousin's cousin's daughter, though she's rather older than you or I. You'll see."

But Tess, going back to her own tent that night, where Yuri had pitched it for her back behind the Sakhalin tents, saw Bakhtiian sitting beside Niko and some of the men from the tribe around a distant fire, talking intently. Later, dozing, she heard him speaking with Vladimir, and she peeked outside to see him crawl, alone, into his own tent.

She spent the next day with Konstantina and Tsara and some of the other Sakhalin cousins, preparing a flat ground for dancing. Children raced around, some helping, some playing. Tess let Tsara fit a sling to her and carried around an amiable infant until it got hungry. In the afternoon, the young women lent her women's clothing, insisting that no woman ought to attend a dance dressed as she was. They braided her hair properly, and Tsara lent her one of her beaded headpieces to cap her hair and drew kohl around her eyes to highlight them. Tess felt terribly embarrassed, walking at dusk to where the bonfire had just been lit, with the accustomed weight of her mirror, free of its case this night, but without her saber. But the riders of Bakhtiian's jahar had well and truly blended into the mass of riders from this tribe, and she did not have to face their scrutiny up close. Ensconced among the women, Tess found it easy to take refuge in their confidence.

The music, as it began, sounded familiar and exciting. Tess recognized a dance Yuri had taught her, but as the women around her filtered away, seeking partners, she did not have the courage to go seek one of her own. She stood in the shadows and watched until Yuri came up to her.

"Well." Yuri examined her. Tess blushed. "Sonia would approve." He left it at that. "Would you like to dance?"

"Yes!"

Yuri caught her up, pulling her around, and her feet moved into the pulse of their own accord. Faces, muted in the firelight, flashed past. She loved dancing perhaps more than anything except for flying, was good at it, and this firelit stage, a hall enclosed by dark, with sound echoing in the air, voices singing with pipes, bodies, skirted tunics, brushing past her, the fine taste of grass and dust on her tongue, all heightened her senses so that the steps seemed as natural as breathing.

After two dances, Konstantina took Yuri away from her. Tess wandered to stand near the musicians, looking for a familiar face, but it seemed to her that all the men she knew were out dancing. She rubbed her hands together, feeling a little stupid. Vladimir came up to her. He smiled, looking straight at her.

"Oh, hello, Vladimir," she said, feeling even more stupid. If she had exchanged twenty words with him on this journey, she would have been surprised.

He laid a hand on his necklaces, stones that winked and gleamed in the firelight. He wore bracelets on each wrist, rings on four fingers, and his eyes were unusually dark, startling against the blondness of his hair. "Neither you nor I have partners."

Tess lowered her gaze. She knew this dance all too well; it reminded her of Jacques. "No," she replied faintly.

He put out his hand, palm up.

Flushing, she put her hand on his and let him lead her out to the circle. He was her height, slim-waisted, and he danced gracefully enough that he easily covered the mistakes she made. He did not speak much, either. She danced with him again and again. Then, catching sight of Bakhtiian to one side, he excused himself hurriedly and walked away.

Left alone, she put her hands, warm from him, on her cold cheeks. A drum pounded out a slow, elegant rhythm, and Tsara ran up to lead her out into a line dance for women. Pipes serenaded them as they swept through the measures, the bright bells on their trousers and the brilliant headpieces of gold flashing against the firelight. But they abandoned her ruthlessly when it came time to dance with the men again-not, Tess thought, out of any selfishness, but simply because they seemed to think she could fend for herself. If only she had their confidence.

And Vladimir came up and asked her to dance again. They stood in the farthest ring of light after the dance ended, sleeves touching, the hem of her long tunic brushing the tasseled tops of his boots, and she felt in charity with Vladi for keeping her company. Glancing at him, she caught him looking at her speculatively. She flushed again, and cursed herself silently for flushing. I'm terrible at this, she thought. / ought to just- He watched her steadily, and he smiled, as if he was aware of the way her thoughts were tending. / ought to just get it over with. God knows, he's pretty enough.

He laid his hand on her arm, light but intimate.

"Why aren't any of the other women dancing with you?" she asked.

His hand tightened on her sleeve. "Someone said something. Kirill. I'd wager. He never has liked me."

"Vladimir," she began, suddenly guilty, knowing it was herself who had spoiled his chances, and somehow they had taken a step back, out of the last ring of light, and now they stood in shadow.

"Tess!" It was Yuri. Vladimir whirled and vanished into the darkness.

"What is it?" Tess asked a little peevishly, as Yuri halted next to her.

He didn't answer for a moment, looking past her into the dark where Vladimir had disappeared. The music ended. "The next dance. The one I taught you that you liked so much. Come on." He took her hand, hesitated. "It isn't so bad for me to dance with you because everyone knows that by giving you my sister's tent my mother sealed us brother and sister by every claim but blood. It's all right for a brother to ask his sister to dance."

"Are you trying to tell me something?" Oh, God, she'd done something wrong. As always, with men; as always.

"We'd better hurry. They're forming up." He dragged her into the circle and placed her so that her back was to the fire and he faced her. "Now don't forget: step, behind, step, behind, step, then turn, and you've got the quick step-hop. And don't forget to switch partners. But when the hold is called, you're to stay with that partner until you've missed a step. That's the contest. But don't worry. No one will be watching you anyway."

The drums began, a slow, straight beat in four. Tess did not worry. Identical sets, the music starting slow and getting fester and faster, and the switch of partners; if they wanted to make this a contest-where those who made mistakes dropped out and the last pair without mistakes won-she was happy just to dance it, because she loved its complexity. No man, faced with this foreigner when the drummer called "hold," would expect her to dance without error.

The pipes came in with the melody. She danced the set twice with Yuri and on a double clap and turn moved right to a new partner. Spins and high steps, stamps that sounded hollow and muffled on the ground, a strong arm pulling her around, laughter across the fire. A man whistled. She loved it. She had that sense of dancing that anticipates the rhythm and so is exact, the ability to duplicate the melody in the steps. She danced, spun to a new partner, danced, moved.

The high melody, faster now, pierced through the thick sound of feet, of breath expelled and drawn in, of the snap of fire and the slap of clothing. The lutes took up a counter-melody and the drums added an off beat. The women's long tunics swelled out on the turns, sinking back in, swirling around legs. Tess stamped and twirled and came to Niko. He grinned, breathing hard from exertion, and swung her around. As the dance went faster, it became somehow easier for her as she lost her self-consciousness in her absorption in the music. Low drums came in, the high ones pounding out patterns above, matching the pipes. She danced, kick-hop, slide step away, clap and return, moved to the next partner, danced, stamped, and whirled into the arms of Bakhtiian.

"Hold!" yelled the drummer: hold to this partner. The contest had begun.

Bakhtiian glared at her, but pulled her in, and they pivoted. Where she pulled out, she felt an exact counterweight against her. His hand on her lower back signaled her steps, and when he had to turn her so fast that she got dizzy, his other arm steadied her, strong at her waist, until she got her balance back. By the end of the first set, they understood each other. By the end of the second, they could no longer tell if the music was speeding up.

Tess laughed. Step-behind and five stamps, five stamps. She felt as if her soul were flowing out through her limbs, her fingers and her toes, her eyes and her lips. His face seemed luminous, as though sparks of fire had caught it and then spread down to burn in flashes on his shirt; he was not smiling. He spun, and she spun-the drummer called out, "To end!" — and she and Bakhtiian pivoted ten times and came to a perfect halt, stock-still and panting and exactly placed in the circle.

Except there was no circle. They had won.

"Oh, God," said Tess in Anglais.

"You're a good dancer," said Bakhtiian, releasing her and bowing as they did at the court in Jeds. His hair seemed thicker, fluffed into a luxuriant disarray by the activity, touched with moisture on the ends. For an instant she had the urge to touch it. He straightened.

Yuri stood beyond, laughing. Beside him, Kirill had his arms crossed on his chest, grinning. Tsara stood next to him with one hand draped possessively over his arm. Konstantina clapped and cheered, egging on those around her. Niko and Mother Sakhalin stood together, smiling. Vladimir stood off to one side, alone, and he looked furious.

"Thank you," Tess said. Words deserted her. She stared blankly at him, and he averted his eyes. "Ah, yes," she went on, stumbling, mortified. "You understand."

"Understand what?"

"Dancing." She felt as if she were about to dive into a deep pool of murky water; something lay in the depths, and she did not know what it was. "Some people move their feet while there is music, some move their feet with the music."

He smiled, swiftly, like the sight of a wild animal in flight: a moment's brilliant grace and an unfulfilled suggestion of beauty. "What you found in riding, you already knew in dancing."

Tess could think of nothing to say and was beginning to feel stupid again when Yuri came up.

"Tess, I had no idea you could dance so well. Everyone knows that Ilya can dance like the grass, but he never does. I don't know why.''

"Yuri," said Bakhtiian.

"I think that was a warning," said Tess to Yuri.

"Excuse me," said Bakhtiian curtly, and left them.

Yuri took Tess's elbow and guided her past couples forming for the next dance, past the ring of watchers, some of whom congratulated her in low voices, to the shadowy edge of the firelight. His lips were pressed together into a thin line, and his shoulders trembled with suppressed laughter. Behind them, the lutes began a slow melody, accompanied by the shuffle and drag of feet.

"No one… no one ever says things like that to Bakhtiian."

"Why not? It was a warning. I remember when he told you to go look after the horses. I'd never seen anything so rude."

"Oh, Tess. The look-on his face when you said it." He bit at his hand to stop himself from giggling.

"I didn't see it."

"Oh, oh." Tears sparkled on his cheeks. He was still laughing, one hand pressed to his abdomen. "Oh, Tess, make me stop laughing. My stomach hurts."

Tess began to wipe at her eyes, recalled the kohl, and stopped. "Listen, Yuri. I need your advice. About Vladimir."

Yuri stopped laughing.

"I've done something wrong, haven't I?" she whispered. From the fire came a swell of laughter.

"No." He reached for her. She avoided his hand. "Vladimir's behavior-as if anyone could blame you-"

"Oh, Lord." She broke past him and ran away, skirting the clusters of tents, until she found her own, pitched in solitary splendor at the very edge of camp. She flung herself down, crawled inside, and covered her face with her hands.

Once again, she had made a fool of herself with a man. She never knew what to do. She always did it wrong. She snuffled into her palms but could not force tears. Voices, angry voices, interrupted her, and she froze, scarcely breathing.

"By the gods," said Bakhtiian. He sounded furious beyond measure. "If I ever see such an exhibition as that again, Vladimir, then you will leave my jahar. Perhaps Elena Sobelov might keep you as her lover, a kinless man without even a dyan to call loyalty to, but her brothers will kill you if you ever try to mark her.''

"I didn't do anything wrong." Vladimir's voice was sullen.

Tess squirmed forward and peered out the front flap of her tent. She could see neither of them.

"Not even Kirill would flaunt himself like that in front of a woman. Not even Kirill, by the gods, would put himself forward so, without any shame at all, and as a guest in this tribe. I expect my riders to behave as men, not as khaja savages."

Out a little farther, and she could see them, standing by the glow of the fire around which Bakhtiian and Niko had spoken with men from this tribe the night before. Bakhtiian stood stiff and straight, anger in every line of his body. Before him, bowed down by his bitterly harsh words, Vladimir stood hunched, cowed. Tess felt sorry for him suddenly, the recipient of Bakhtiian's ill humor.

"She's just a khaja bitch," said Vladimir petulantly. "She doesn't matter.''

Bakhtiian slapped him. Vladimir gasped. Tess flinched.

"Never speak of women that way.'' Bakhtiian's voice was low but his words burned with intensity. "Have you no shame? To throw yourself at her, there at the dance? What do you think Sakhalin must think of me, of our jahar? That we are so immodest that we make advances to women?"

A muffled noise had started that Tess could not immediately identify. The shadowy figure that was Vladimir lifted a hand to his face. He was crying.

"None of the women, none of them… came up to me…"He faltered. "She is khaja. I thought it wouldn't matter."

"Oh, gods, Vladi," said Bakhtiian awkwardly, his voice softening. "Go to bed."

Vladimir turned and fled into the safe arms of the night. Bakhtiian sighed ostentatiously and kicked at the fire, scattering its coals. The last flames highlighted his fine-boned face.

"Ah, Bakhtiian." The woman's voice was low and pleasant. She strode into the fire's glow with confidence. "I was looking for you, Ilyakoria."

He glanced up at her and looked down again. "Na-dezhda. We have had so little time to talk since I arrived."

"To talk?" She turned to rest a hand on his sleeve. She was older, a handsome woman dressed in long skirts and belled trousers washed gray by the night. "Talk is not precisely what I had in mind."

He shifted so that his arm brushed hers, but still he did not look at her. "You flatter me." She laughed, low and throaty, and lifted a hand to touch his face.

His diffidence astonished Tess and she felt suddenly like a voyeur, spying on a scene not meant for her eyes and ears. She shimmied backward into the tent, covered her ears with her hands, and curled up in her blankets. Eventually, she even went to sleep.

Light shimmered through the crystal panes that roofed and walled the Tai-en's reception hall. Rainbows painted the air in delicate patterns, shifting as the sun peaked and began its slow fall toward evening.

Marco sat on a living bench, grown from polished ralewood, growing still, shaded by vines. He watched as Charles Soerensen moved through the crowd. Worked the crowd, really; Marco had always liked that use of the word. Each new cluster of Chapalii bowed to the same precise degree at Charles's presence. The humans shook his hand, except for the Ophiuchi-Sei, who met him with a palm set against his palm, their traditional greeting. A handful of individuals from alien species under Chapalii rule also graced the reception, but Charles was always armed with interpreters of some kind, and he had the innate ability to never insult anyone unknowingly. Marco studied the crowd, measuring its tone, measuring individuals and family affiliations among the mass of Chapalii honored enough to receive this invitation, enjoying the consternation in the Chapalii ranks at the carousing of a score of human miners in from the edge of the system on holiday, marveling for the hundredth time over how the Chapalii architect responsible for this chamber had managed to coordinate the intricate pattern of the mosaic floor with the shifting rainbows decorating the loft of air above.

At the far end of the hall, under the twin barrel vaults that led out into the stone garden, Suzanne appeared.

Marco did not jump to his feet. He never did anything hastily or blindly, except for that one time in the frozen wastelands far to the south of Jeds, when he had run for his life with a spear through his shoulder, an arrow through his neck, and his dead guide left behind in a spreading pool of blood.

Suzanne did not move from the entrance. She merely stood to one side, shadowed by a pillar, and waited. After a few minutes, Marco rose and strolled aimlessly through the crowd, making his spiral way toward Charles. When he at last touched the sleeve of Charles's shirt, he noted that Suzanne had vanished from the hall. Charles shook the hand of a ship's master, exchanged a few easy words with her mate, and followed Marco out through the narrow side corridor that led to the efficiency and thence through a nondescript door to a hall that circled back and led out onto a secluded corner of the stone garden.

Suzanne waited there, standing under the shade of a granite arch cut into a lacework of stone above. A Chapalii waited with her. Seeing Charles, he bowed to the precise degree.

"Charles," said Suzanne, "this is Hon Echido Keinaba. He has come to Odys on behalf of his family to negotiate shipping and mineral rights. I hope you will be able to find time to discuss this matter in detail with him tomorrow." Then she repeated her speech in halting formal Chapalii, for Keinaba.

Charles nodded.

Keinaba bowed, his skin flushed red with satisfaction.

"Tai Charles," he said, speaking slowly, more as if he were choosing his words carefully than making sure the duke could understand him, ' 'I am overwhelmed by your generosity to me and to Keinaba in this matter. I was most gratified to meet and converse with your esteemed heir the Tai-endi Terese on the shuttle from Earth up to the Oshaki, and I can only hope that her influence has helped bring your favor onto our family." He bowed again, hands in that arrangement known as Merchant's Bounty.

Charles did not move or show any emotion on his face. He simply nodded again.

"Perhaps, Hon Echido," said Suzanne, "you would like to see the reception hall."

"It is my fervent desire," replied Echido. He bowed again and retreated.

"Where the hell did he come from?" asked Charles. "When did you get back?"

"One hour past, on the same ship as Echido. I rather like him, as much as I like any of them. Charles, Tess has vanished."

"Explain."

"The reason I came back in person instead of sending a bullet is that it only took me one day to establish without any doubt in my own mind that Tess finished her thesis, left Prague, and boarded the Oshaki with the intent to come to Odys. I have a holo interview with her friend Sojourner, with a security police officer from Nairobi Port, with a Port Authority steward, and a confirmed retinal print from the boarding access tunnel on Lagrange Wheel."

"And?"

Suzanne shrugged. She slipped her hand into an inner pocket on her tunic and handed a thick, palm-sized disk to Charles. "My feeling? Sojourner had the distinct impression Tess didn't want to come to Odys, but that she was running from an unhappy love affair.''

"Lord," said Marco.

"Don't kid yourself, Burckhardt. She evidently thought the boy was in love with her, but he was in love with her position and what she was and dumped her when he found out about the inheritance laws."

"Do you mean to say," Charles asked quietly, "that Tess was planning on getting married?''

"Looks like it."

Charles's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "She didn't tell me. And then?"

"No other ports of call, according to Echido, except Rhui and Odys. I picked him up on Earth. He did not in fact go back to Chapal, despite what that message said. He debarked from the Oshaki at Hydri and went back to Earth to get a ship back here. But he was very clear that he had met Tess. He said they talked about Rhui and the interdiction and Rhui's rich resources."

Charles considered the pattern of subtly shaded stones set in linked chevrons between twisting statues carved from black rock. "Suzanne, you will follow the trail of the Oshaki, as far as Chapal, if need be. Marco, to Jeds."

Suzanne nodded. "I've already made arrangements for the Lumiere to run a shipment of musical instruments to Paladia Major. We can leave in two hours."

Charles held out the disk. "This is a full report?"

"Of course."

"Then go." Suzanne said nothing more, but simply left, walking briskly on the path. Pebbles whispered under her shoes.

Marco coughed into his fist. "Charles, what if she doesn't want to be found? What if she needs some time alone, to be away from you, from-from everything? You ride her pretty damned hard."

"She would have sent me a message." Charles turned the disk in his hand over, and over again. "In any case, she and I haven't the luxury of time away. It's hard, but that's where it stands. Tess must be found. Do you really suppose that I trust the Chapalii in a matter like this? The captain of the Oshaki lied to me. He knew she was on his ship. Even if he colluded with her, if her intent was to hide on Rhui, still… still… she's leverage over me, and they know it."

"They made you a duke."

"And we still don't understand how their damned alien minds work. Start in Jeds, Marco. You or Suzanne will find her."

Marco watched Soerensen walk away, back to his duties at the reception which he would perform without the slightest visible sign that he had just discovered that his only sibling, his heir, had disappeared. Charles was about as yielding as the stone in this garden. Sun dappled the path where it wound underneath the granite arch, cut by the lacy filigree into twisting and subtly chaotic patterns that blended with the shapes of the pebbles. Perhaps the stone was more flexible. If Tess was missing by some machination of the Chapalii, there would be hell to pay, although Marco could not for the moment imagine what Charles could actually do about it. Chapalii did not harm their superiors, and very few Chapalii outranked Tess. She would be in no physical danger, at least, however small a consolation that was. And if Tess had run, and was hiding, and he found her and brought her back where she did not want to be: well, that might be worse.

Cloth brushed her back, and Tess started awake and lay still, cursing herself for her dreams. Jacques again, damn him. She felt flushed all along her skin, up and down her body, and she sighed, resigned, recalling the dream more clearly now. Jacques's presence had not been the important element in this dream; what they were doing together was.

Outside, bells jingled softly, muffled by distance, and one of the herd beasts lowed, sounding more like a cow than the goat it resembled. A bird trilled once, twice, and then ceased. It must be nearly dawn. Yuri had taught her that trillers heralded dawn, whistlers noon, and hooters dusk.

"This isn't his tent," said a man, his voice pitched so low that Tess would not have heard him if he hadn't been standing a hand's breadth away from her, separated from her only by the cloth of her tent. "This is a woman's pattern."

A foot dragged along the fabric, pushing the wall in ever so slightly. Grass rustled, the barest sound, as he crept away. A word exhaled, farther away, so she heard the breath but not the meaning. She reached to pull her tent flap aside to look out.

"Stahar linaya!''

The force of the words-Battle! Night! Treachery! — ringing out in-in Fedya's voice? — sent her forward without thinking, responding to his piercing cry for help. She tumbled out of her tent and ran right into a body crouched outside. The figure stumbled forward, reaching for his saber. She caught a flash of white face as she reached for her own saber, only to recall that she was in women's clothing. The man took off running.

A confusion of figures clustered around Bakhtiian's solitary tent. A man screamed in rage. Suddenly, sabers winked pale in the hazy predawn dimness.

Two men-Vladimir and Fedya-faced off against three, their shapes shifting in a delicate dance around Bakhtiian's tent.

"Get back, Tess!" A hand pressed her back against her tent, and she looked up to see Kirill beside her. He clutched a blanket around his waist with one hand. His torso was utterly naked, and for a wildly improbable moment, she simply stared, at his arms, at the pale down of fine hair on his chest-

"— your saber!" he hissed urgently.

She swallowed hard and reached back into her tent and pulled out her saber. He grabbed it from her one-handed, slipping the blade free with a deft twist, and ran forward into the fight. "Vladi! Disarm him now! Fedya, to me. Yuri, Konstans, to their backs."

With a blur of strokes, Vladimir disarmed one man and then without pausing flung himself on the other and wrestled him to the ground. Faced with Fedya and Kirill, and the appearance of several other men in various stages of undress, the third man threw down his saber. Yuri darted forward and picked up the three sabers. He wore only trousers and no boots. A man cried out in pain, and then Bakhtiian appeared at the same moment as the first swell of light, the disk of the sun cresting the horizon, flooded the scene with dawn's pale light. He was, of course, impeccably dressed, shirt tucked in, trousers straight, saber held with light command in his right hand-but he was barefoot.

"Vladi," he said in a calm voice that carried easily in the hush of the moment, "let him up."

Vladi sat atop the second man, knife pressed against the edge of the man's eye. Blood welled and trickled down the man's cheek, and he whimpered in fear. Some of the older riders had taken over, holding the other two men captive. Now many of the tribe filtered in to form a rough circle around this altercation. Vladi sat back reluctantly and withdrew his knife. The man did not move from the ground, but he lifted a hand to cover his eye.

"What is this?" Elizaveta Sakhalin and her nephew arrived. "What men have breached the peace of this tribe?"

Niko and Josef yanked the man from the ground and hustled him over to stand by his compatriots. In the light, the raiders looked a sorry bunch, ill-fed, sallow, and peevish.

"I don't recognize them," said Bakhtiian.

One man lifted his head and spat in Bakhtiian's direction. "I'm only sorry we didn't kill you."

"You will be sorrier when we are done with you," said Elizaveta Sakhalin, favoring the three captives with a withering stare.

"This is men's business," the bold one snapped.

"Conducted within our tents? I think not. Yaroslav." She nodded to her nephew. "You will confine them until the Elders have discussed their fate."

"There," said Konstantina, startling Tess by coming up quietly beside her. "You see, Tsara." She angled her neck to include her cousin, who had trailed after her, both hands holding a blanket demurely around herself. "I was right. There is Nadezhda Martov."

Tess was distracted from watching the captives being led away by the sight of Martov arriving some steps behind Bakhtiian, decently dressed in a shift and skirt. Bakhtiian glanced back at her, aware of her presence, and then moved forward to speak with Niko and Fedya and Vladimir.

"And get some clothes on," he said to the other men.

Konstantina chuckled. "You see. All the women have arrived to take a look."

Glancing around, Tess realized that a disproportionate number of the younger women of the tribe had arrived. A few whistled as Kirill came back over to her tent. His eyes were lowered in a becoming fashion, but there was no doubting the slight sauntering display in his walk.

"You, too, Kirill," said Bakhtiian. "Fedya, was it you caught the intruders? I thought as much. And you did well, Vladi."

"Thank you," said Kirill as he returned Tess's saber. Tsara laid a hand on his arm and led him away, looking smug.

"What will happen to the captives?" Tess asked Konstantina, who still hovered at her elbow. Sakhalin and her nephew reappeared to consult with Bakhtiian.

"Oh, I should think that we'll leave them for the birds. Ah, there he is. If you'll excuse me." Konstantina strode away straight toward Yuri, Tess noted with interest, as he retreated hastily from the fray.

"No," Bakhtiian was saying, "I take full responsibility for this act. Had I not been here, this would never have happened. I do not want to bring further trouble for your tribe, Mother Sakhalin. We will leave today."

Sakhalin considered and spoke with her nephew, and then they all walked off together. Vladimir trailed in their wake. Only Fedya remained, standing quite still, head tilted slightly, as if he was trying to hear or taste something on the wind. He turned slowly and walked off, toward Tess at first, and then veering away toward the edge of camp, tracking some unseen path.

"It is a beautiful tent." Tess looked round to see Na-dezhda Martov standing four paces away from her.

"It is," agreed Tess cautiously. "It was gifted me by Mother Orzhekov. It used to be her daughter's."

"Then you are, by her decree, Ilyakoria Bakhtiian's cousin," said the woman pleasantly. "Mother Orzhekov is a renowned weaver. Her niece wove the finest patterns I have ever seen."

"Her niece?"

"Bakhtiian's elder sister. I knew her before she died."

"Ah," said Tess, not knowing what else to say.

"You are from-a long ways away?"

"I am from a-city-a place of many stone tents-Jeds…"

"Yes, I have heard of it. Ilyakoria speaks of it."

For an instant, Tess had an uncomfortably vivid image of just when he spoke of such things to Nadezhda Martov. She suppressed it and smiled instead.

"Those are borrowed clothes, are they not?" asked Martov. When Tess nodded, she nodded in return. "Come. Though you must ride in men's clothing, I think you will benefit from having women's clothing of your own, as well. And with your coloring-" A gleam of challenge lit her eyes. "I know just what will suit you."

They did not leave until midday. Bakhtiian gave them one of his khuhaylan mares, and most of the tarpans were exchanged for fresh mounts. Tess was forced to consult with Yuri on how to add her burgeoning possessions to her saddle roll: a fine suit of women's clothing gathered by Martov from women throughout the tribe. Tsara gave Tess a fine silver bracelet. Yuri managed to fit the roll of clothing on to one of the ten horses now burdened with the generous provisions given to the jahar by the women of the tribe.

"So, Yuri," asked Tess as they rode out of the tribe, "how did you find Konstantina Sakhalin?"

Yuri blushed crimson.

"Poor Kirill. He's sorry to be going." Kirill was half turned in his saddle, gazing back at the cluster of women who had gathered to bid them heartfelt farewells. "Are you?"

Yuri set his lips and refused to be drawn.

"Soerensen." Bakhtiian pulled in beside them. He did not glance back at the tribe. "We'll be riding forward scout."

Tess laughed.

"Why are you laughing?" he asked suspiciously.

"I don't know," she said truthfully, but she whistled as she urged Myshla forward to ride out with him.

CHAPTER NIME

“'The eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears."

— Heracleitus of Ephesus

The sweep of grass, the clear air, the high sun; these were her day. Summer surprised them. Now the plain flowered a second time, the stalks of the flowering plants hidden, engulfed in the grass, only the petals showing like brilliant spots of emerald and turquoise, ruby and amethyst. Occasionally it rained. Herds of khey, deerlike animals that proved more placid than the migrating antelopes, provided meat.

One day, when they stopped early to take advantage of a good campsite, Tess convinced Fedya to take her hunting and was rewarded with her first kill, though she made Fedya cut its throat once she had brought it down. Together they brought back her kill and the one Fedya brought down, and so great a fuss was made over her that Tess finally escaped all the attention by going to pitch her tent with Yuri, an act no man but a brother would ever suggest overseeing.

"Fedya is almost as good a hunter as the women," Tess said as she rolled out her tent. "Is that why he rides scout so often? Even Bakhtiian doesn't ride scout every day."

Yuri shrugged. "He likes to be alone. And he has sharp eyes."

"Yes." Tess paused in her work to gaze at the distant fire and the figures gathered around it. "He's so melancholy, but not sorry for himself. And he's kind."

Yuri smiled but said nothing.

Bakhtiian now spoke very little Rhuian with her as they rode scout, using khush almost exclusively. But when they talked about Jeds and the disciplines studied at the University there, he lapsed back into Rhuian. Tess began to appreciate the breadth of his learning: conversant with all the things a jaran man must know, he had also taken full advantage of his three years at the University in Jeds. Gallio and Oleana, Narronias and the great legalist, Sister Casiara of Jedina Cloister, these Tess knew because she had read their works on Earth in order to keep her Rhuian fresh. But Bakhtiian's knowledge took surprising turns at times.

"Aristotle!"

"Well, you pronounce it rather differently. Surely you've read his works on natural history?"

"I suppose you've read Plato, too?"

"Pla-? Oh, yes, Playtok. But I never found his arguments convincing. I find his dialogue form too self-conscious."

"Ah," said Tess wisely, beginning to wonder what her brother had been up to these past ten years since she had last set foot on Rhui. But then, she had been too young those three years she had spent in Jeds with Charles and Dr. Hierakis, too shocked by the death of her parents, to be aware of what they might have been doing in the midst of the burgeoning renaissance of the city.

"But perhaps…" He hesitated, and then, decisively, he reached into his saddlebag and withdrew a leather-bound volume and opened it. "Perhaps you can help me understand this." He read aloud. " 'Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state-' "

"Let me see that," she demanded, and he handed the book to her without a word. "My God. This is Newton's Principia.''

"So you have heard of him."

"Ah, yes, I have. I suppose you have a volume of Descartes back there as well."

"Dhaykhart? No, I have not heard of this philosopher."

"Thank God. Where did you get this?" She gave the book back to him, and he tucked it neatly back into his pouch.

"I have a-a friend in Jeds. We arranged, before I left, that this friend would send books to a certain port and a certain inn proprietor. Every other year or so, we journey near that port-this year, we will put the khepelli to ship there-and then I collect the books."

"Oh. I wondered how you and Niko got books. But where did that book come from, the Newton?"

He shrugged, mystified by the intent of her question. "One of the printing houses in Jeds. I have only had it one year. My friend writes that this Newton lives overseas, but Jedan traders have brought in many new philosophic volumes to the University in recent years."

"Overseas," muttered Tess. "Of course."

' 'I beg your pardon?''

"No, I was merely surprised because I studied overseas near… where this man lives-"

"Have you met him?"

"Ah, no, no, but I was simply surprised because his works were so swiftly translated and sent to Jeds."

"Perhaps your brother was the one responsible," said Bakhtiian, watching her far too closely. "Soerensen… the name is familiar, but I can't place it. He must trade extensively to have chosen to send his only sister so far away to study."

"Perhaps he was," said Tess, not liking the measuring way in which Bakhtiian examined her. It was easy enough to forget that the Chapalii had accused her of spying, and that Bakhtiian had told Sonia he thought Tess was lying about herself, about her merchant brother and her reasons for being here, about how much else, she could not guess. "But," she added a little sharply, "he is not the only man to have sent his relatives a great distance to go to a university. ''

And Bakhtiian remembered that he was, after all, speaking with a woman, and he looked away from her to scan the level plain and the arching sky.

"Look," said Tess suddenly, "look there! A khoen."

"You are learning to use your eyes." They brought their horses up next to it, a small mound layered with an elaborate arrangement of rocks, mostly hidden in the grass. He stared down. His shoulders tensed and his lips thinned. "Damn them," he said softly, followed by a word Tess did not know. He twisted his reins twice around one fist, unsheathed his knife, looked at it, sheathed it again. Tess waited. He untwisted the reins and his horse put its head down to graze. "So." He squinted briefly at the horizon.

"The last three dyans are combining forces against me. Now that I'm on a long journey with a small jahar, they think this time they can kill me because they know that once I have those horses, it will be too late. You chose a poor time to accompany us."

"Who's combining? Isn't Doroskayev's group behind us? Yuri says you still don't know which dyan those men call loyalty to, the ones who tried to kill you in Sakhalin's tribe. And how can you read all that from these rocks?"

"Why are women always so damnably curious?" asked Bakhtiian. He smiled.

"Because men keep everything from them, of course."

He laughed. "Very well. I relent. I'll show you." He glanced around before dismounting to explain the intricacies of this language of stone and stick and earth. When they were riding again, he said, "The jaran have no language that is set down, unlike Rhuian. Our poetry and songs live in all our memories. Only the stone mounds have meaning."

"No written language at all?"

"Some priests carve in stone, but few know the secret of that tongue."

"Do you?"

"I cannot say."

"Then you do."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not."

"Why are men always so damnably evasive?" asked Tess. She smiled.

"Because of women," said Bakhtiian.

For some reason, this produced a silence. A bird called loudly overhead. Tess gazed up at the sky. It had a slate color, a tinge of gray, as if one storm cloud had been ripped to pieces and mixed in with the blue. In Jeds it had the blue of turquoise, but in Jeds the other colors had not seemed so bright. A torn wisp of cloud clung to the horizon.

"Why did your brother send you overseas?" he asked.

She turned, astonished and irritated, to stare directly at him. "You don't trust me."

His lips tightened, and he reined his horse away from her so abruptly that it shied under the hard rein. He turned it downslope and let it have its head, Tess trailing behind.

She retreated immediately to the company of the young men that evening, and sat at the fire watching Mikhal and Fedya across from her as they sang a riddle song to an appreciative audience.

"Yuri, I'm hungry," she said peevishly, still annoyed and troubled by her afternoon's conversation. "Why can't we eat?"

Yuri sat with his arms curled around his one upright knee, staring morosely into the fire. "Didn't Ilya tell you? Tomorrow we come to zhapolaya, the sacred hill. We have many laws that we must follow at a holy place."

"Including starving? Have the khepelli been out of their tents at all since you set up camp?"

"How should I know? Do you think I care?"

"Well at least you're hungry, too." Yuri made a face at her, but it was a half-hearted attempt. "What is this zhapolaya?"

"The stone that crowns the sacred hill. Something the gods left us."

"How nice of Bakhtiian to tell me," Tess muttered.

"What?"

"Is this one of the sacred places the khepelli want to see?"

"Yes. I think so."

"Wait. Are you saying that they knew it was here?"

"But everyone who knows this land knows of it. Why shouldn't they?"

Of course they would have asked Bakhtiian to direct them to holy sites. Something the gods had left. Could it be the relic of some star-faring civilization? But this planet had been discovered by the League Exploratory Survey, annexed at the same time the League had been annexed by the Chapalii Empire, and then deeded to her brother when the emperor had honored him with the dukedom. Perhaps some ancient Rhuian empire had laid tracks across this trackless plain and then vanished. Perhaps. It was the easiest explanation.

Tess followed the shifting red of flame up and across and found that her gaze had drawn and met Fedya's where he sat next to Mikhal. He smiled in return and looked away, the smile lingering on his face as if he had forgotten it. Tess ran her knuckles over her lips thoughtfully, focusing on the darkness beyond so that her knuckles separated into two exact duplicates, one solid, one shadow. She rose, bidding

Yuri good night, and wandered out toward the Chapalii tents.

But what if Yuri had meant his comment literally-what if the Chapalii had known exactly where they wanted to go and had chosen this way, riding cross-country, to get there as unobtrusively as possible?

The four tents stood isolated beyond the fire and the casual clutter of the jahar. Three stood dark against the night sky. In the second, the tent of Hon Garii and his companion, Hon Rakii Makokan, another son of a merchant house, a low gleam of steady light filtered from the tent. But shouldn't a light inside canvas reveal silhouettes? This one did not. She shook her head, impatient with herself. What could she do, alone on this journey, except keep an eye on them for Charles? Spy on them. She ought to at least use the correct word. Someone coughed nearby. She turned to see a figure standing about twenty paces from her, a tall, slender form traced dimly against the spread of stars. She knew that it was Bakhtiian. Watching her. Watching her spy.

"Damn him." She stalked off to bed.

In the morning, she felt nauseated with hunger. Bakhtiian's pace as they scouted only emphasized the hollow jolting, and now and then, when he wasn't looking, she would put her hand over her mouth. To her unspeakable relief, they reached the sacred hill in the early afternoon.

The hills they had seen on the horizon the day before now rose abruptly out of the plain as if the earth had frozen in the act of bubbling. The grass here, more brown than gold, grew sparsely enough that soil showed through in patches. The zhapolaya was distinguishable from its companions only by the standing stone at its peak, a dark rectangle whose angularity and solid mass looked unnatural against the fluid hills. A standing stone-some kind of marker, perhaps, like the milestones the Romans had used.

"There is a hollow for a camp," said Bakhtiian, and they found it out of sight of the sacred hill. These were weak-soiled, low hills, crumbled in spots from the winter rains. Several dry watercourses ran through the hollow, but there were no clouds, no danger of a washout.

"No storms. Not yet." Bakhtiian laughed. Some tone in his laugh caught at her, made her shiver all the way down her spine, made her warm. The jahar rode in and she watched them, acutely aware of the lines of their bodies, their movements as they dismounted and walked and stretched and glanced-one or two-at her, quickly and then away. She turned away to hide her blush, and she knew: the long drought had caught up with her at last. Some tone in his laugh: remembered pleasure, or anticipation. She dismounted, glad to unsaddle the horse.

She took as long as she could caring for Myshla, checked her hooves twice over, brushed her until her coat gleamed, talked to her. The Chapalii retired early to their tents. The jaran men settled down around the fire, their tents a close wall behind them. Tess walked over reluctantly and sat down beside Yuri, aware of their glances, their bodies, their presence. Niko scattered herbs over the flames, and a sweet, strangely harsh scent drifted out to them.

"What is that?" Tess asked, not sure that she liked the powerful tang.

"Ulyan," whispered Yuri. "All the men carry some." He shifted so that she could see a tiny pouch snuggled up against the hilt of his saber, looped to his belt.

"Why?"

"To greet the gods. A man who dies in battle, or a woman in childbirth, is welcomed to the gods' lands, and we burn ulyan with him on his pyre, so the gods' messengers will come to carry away his spirit. Jahar riders and pregnant women always keep a pouch of ulyan with them."

"I can't stand the scent. It's so strong. I'm going to take a walk."

Yuri patted her hand. "It also covers the smell."

Tess left, walking aimlessly out into the gathering darkness, the hollow lost behind her, the sacred hill hidden behind the hill to her right. She touched her belt in four places, a little ritual: saber, knife, mirror, and Chapalii knife. Covered the smell, he had said. Of burning flesh? With any luck at all, I'll never find out.

The moon, large and bright and not yet half full, rose like a cautious animal over the horizon and began its leisurely circuit of the sky. Stars appeared here and there.

Beneath her feet the ground sloped upward. Tess followed it, letting other forces dictate her movements. She came upon him unexpectedly, sitting on a rock embedded in an overhanging lip of hill. The view was of nothing, except the formless shape of hills. He was, perhaps, watching the moon.

"Hello, Fedya."

"He is happy tonight," he answered, by way of greeting. He did not look at her.

"Do you mean the moon?" She sat beside him, crosslegged, her hands on her knees.

"Of course." He looked at her fleetingly.

"Do you call the moon a man, a male, in the jaran?"

"What a strange question. Yes."

"In my land, we call her a maiden or, sometimes, an old woman."

"But the moon is not nearly as bright as the sun." Fedya considered the moon, tilting his head to one side. He had a soft profile, blurred by his mustache and thick lashes, and by the clean, round line of his jaw.

"Then what is the sun?"

"A woman." He looked at her, puzzled. "Of course."

She looked down. It smelled of soil here rather than grass, a heavy scent unstirred by wind. "There is so much that is different."

"Between a man and a woman, do you mean?"

"Yes."

Fedya shook his head. "There is nothing different."

"You haven't been in my land."

“What is a land but people? Your ways may be different, but people are the same."

"I don't know. I don't know if I believe you."

"How can you not believe me?" he asked, fixing her with a stare so intimate that she felt her face warm with a flush.

"Fedya, will you-do you want to-" She almost laughed, but it came out a half-strangled, tiny sound. "I don't know what to say, how to ask."

"You already have." He put his hand on her shoulder and drew it down, slow and caressing, down along her sleeve to her wrist. She had to hold her breath to stop from sighing, and she was suddenly aware of every inch of skin, tingling, aching. "Tess." His voice was gentle. "I must tell you this first. I can only think of my wife, or of what comfort there is in lying with a woman."

"But it's only-comfort I want. I can't-not men who want more-" Her hand lifted to touch her own lips, lowered, "-than I can give them. Than I have. I'm not explaining myself."

"But you are." His hand lay steady on hers. He looked up at the moon. "The soul is cold and alone when darkness comes. It needs comfort. But the other things, possession, passion, love-ah, they bring hurt."

"Betrayal. Betraying the confidence you give, between a man and a woman."

"Betrayal," Fedya echoed. Her hand warmed now where his touched it. "Perhaps I felt she betrayed me when she died, like the sun, always deserting the moon to the darkness." The light of the moon shadowed his eyes.

"No confidences," said Tess. "Only comfort."

He lifted one hand to cup her face. "Below this rock it is dry."

He was gentle, and quiet, and he knew how to laugh when it was appropriate. He fell asleep afterward, half in her arms, and Tess saw that when he slept he looked much younger, almost as if he were a child again. The roughness of his cloak tickled her skin, but pleasantly, softly, as if it meant to remind her that contentment was all very well, but there was work still to be done. They lay in darkness, the moon far gone on his nightly path.

Something that had been kicking in her had calmed; another alarm now took its place. Work to be done. She slipped on her clothing and wrapped him in his cloak, carefully tucking the cloth around his feet. He did not wake. It was chilly. She reached the crest of the hill, yawning.

A light lit the sacred hill opposite. Shadowy forms, thin and awkward in their movements, clustered around the standing stone, limned by the glow. Tess dropped to her knees and waited and watched.

For a long time they simply stood there, as if they were examining the megalith. She surveyed the ground all around, but she could detect no other watchers. Just as she decided to make a careful circuit, to be sure that no one, especially not Bakhtiian, was also observing this scene, the light cut off.

She scuttled down the hill, keeping low, and at the base of the zhapolaya crouched and stared up. A rectangle of oblivion, drowning out the stars, marked the standing stone. She knew her eyes had adjusted, but she could see no one, no forms, no shapes, nothing but the stone, above her. The Chapalii could not have moved so fast and disappeared so utterly. On the dark face of the stone, a red light winked and vanished. She ducked, expecting laser fire, but none came. The light winked and vanished again, and she waited, and it winked and vanished yet again. A signal.

She crept up the hill. No one shouted. Nothing moved. The light blinked on and off, on and off, beckoning her.

A beacon. The thought struck her forcibly as she reached the top and cautiously stood next to the stone. The megalith dwarfed her, standing three times her width and twice her height. Just above her eye level, embedded within the stone, gleamed the blood-red point. She placed her hand on the stone, next to it, and felt the roughened texture of rock on her skin. But the rock was warm, and the barest pulse throbbed through it, blending with the beat of her heart. She slid her hand across its surface until she covered over the tiny depression within which the point of light lay winking.

The stone gave off an exhalation, like an old woman's tired sigh. Warm air brushed her face. She felt dizzy, disoriented, until she realized that the rock face was pulling away from her, opening. The ground moved, and she stared down into the earth, down a flight of stairs that led-

That led wherever the Chapalii had gone. A ghostly blue light emanated up from the depths.

Tess put a foot on the first step. A hand closed on her shoulder from behind, and she froze. A thin, hard hand, preternaturally strong, and with it, the scent of cinnamon, distinctive and strong. She knew it was a Chapalii before she even attempted to turn.

From below, drifting on the warm draft that rode up the stairs, she heard the low double chime of "signal received," Chapalii standard, and then a voice.

"Progress received. Continue observation of Soerensen. Proceed with caution. Do not act rashly."

A shadow obscured the light from below. "Wa-sen. You were ordered to eliminate intruders." The voice was harsh but inflected as merchant to steward.

"Honorable. I beg to ask pardon, but-"

"Who is this?" The Chapalii halted three steps below Tess and stared.

"Who is this?" asked Tess, coldly formal.

"I beg a thousand pardons, Lady Terese. A thousand, thousand pardons. Your welfare alone precipitated my arrival. I beg you to allow me to escort you away before-"

"Garii? What is this commotion?"

Under his breath, Garii cursed.

"Move aside," said the third Chapalii, who could only be Ishii. Tess laid a hand over her Chapalii knife and backed up, forcing the steward behind her to back up as well, until all four of them stood in the chill air of midnight. The stone closed behind them as soon as they were free of the threshold.

"My God. This is a transmitting station. How did this get here?"

No one replied. The steward kept his hand on her shoulder. His sweet-smelling breath tickled her cheek. In the distance, a bird shrieked, and a rodent's squeal arced and cut off.

"Lady Terese," said Ishii. "I solicit your permission to speak."

"I want an explanation. When did you build this? Why is it here?"

"I regret that I am not at liberty to speak further on this matter, Lady Terese."

"You are not at liberty? I command you, Cha Ishii."

"I regret, Lady Terese, that I am commanded by a higher authority than your own on this matter.''

"If that is so, then why did this higher authority not request permission of the duke to travel on this planet?"

"I submit, Lady Terese, that such permission would have been denied."

"If that is so, Cha Ishii, then why did this higher authority not command permission to travel?"

Another Chapalii appeared out of the dark. They surrounded her on all sides now. The hand gripping her shoulder relaxed and released her, but even standing without restraint, she knew they had her trapped.

"I regret, Lady Terese," replied Ishii, his tone so well-modulated that she could detect no emotion in it at all, "that I am unable to unravel the thinking of those who station outranks my own. I beg you to leave now, and to believe that both your suspicion and your fear of us remain unfounded, and to recall that your own actions brought you to this pass, not any act of ours. Perhaps you will permit Hon Garii to escort you back to the camp."

What could she do? Charge past them down the stairs? What if this confrontation had already attracted notice?

Rhui's interdiction was already breached. To draw the jahar's attention now was to compromise the interdiction even further, and in a more fundamental way. And what had Garii said,' 'to eliminate intruders?'' What if Fedya came looking for her? If Yuri was on watch?

"I will go, Ishii." She dropped the honorific to let him know she was displeased. Lord, what choice did she have? His face was a pale shadow in front of her, the standing stone a huge blot behind him. All four Chapalii bore knives at their belts. Behind Ishii, the red light blinked on, and off, and on, and off-and did not come on again.

"Transmission has ceased," said a faint, disembodied voice that emanated from the stone itself.

"Hon Garii." Tess inclined her head, acknowledging him. The stewards retreated, and Ishii clasped his hands in front of himself in that arrangement known as Lord's Obedience.

She let Garii escort her to the base of the hill. "I will go alone," she said, not wanting to be seen with any Chapalii.

"Lady Terese." Garii hesitated. "I beg of you to let me offer you my thanks. Cha Ishii-" Hearing his hesitation, again, Tess wondered what color his face was, what emotion his level voice hid. "You concealed the knife."

"I did."

"My gratitude is yours, Lady Terese, if you will accept it. More than that-"

"Garii." From above, Ishii's voice called, carrying on the breeze.

"I accept," said Tess. Garii bowed and backed away up the hill. "I accept," Tess murmured, and wondered what it was she had accepted. "You speak the language well enough," she said to herself in Anglais, "but you don't understand a damned thing about their culture, not really."

A blue glow cast a faint nimbus of light around the stone, and then, like mist, dissipated into the cold darkness. Tess shivered. Would they really kill to protect their secrets? The knife felt warm against her fingers, storing energy within. The night was utterly still.

She skirted the hill, walked halfway around it, looking up, before she turned her steps back to camp. Darkness curled in around her, and she felt suddenly alone, isolated, lost beyond finding. It had stood before her, an illegal transmitter station built by the Chapalii on a planet on which they were prohibited from setting foot, a planet deeded to the human they could never trust. Some conspiracy against Charles-that must be their purpose here. But to what end? What did they hope to accomplish? And she had failed to investigate this transmitter, been caught at it like the merest amateur.

Why couldn't Charles understand? Why couldn't he adopt a new heir, someone suited to the task? The Chapalii recognized adoption; it was legal, it was binding. She would never shirk her duty. But surely there was some other way for her to serve the cause. Why couldn't he see how un-suited she was? What if she was forced to take over from him? She would destroy everything he had accomplished so far.

Around the curve of the next hill, with the megalith hidden behind her, the distant glint of the campfire drew her eye. Her feet caught on some imperfection of ground, and she stumbled.

The watcher rose from where he had been crouched, an abrupt shadow blocking her path. Startled, rising, she lost her balance again and caught herself on one hand and one knee on the ground, frozen, staring up, unable to catch her breath.

"We are going to have a talk," said Bakhtiian.

CHAPTER TEN

"The eagle has black bones."

— Democritus of Abdera

A cloud, trailing up from the horizon, hid the moon. She could not see his face, only the shadowed opacity of his form and a slash of darkness swinging out from his hip-his saber. Behind him, remote shapes moved by the far gleam of campfire. Tess sat down so precipitously that he almost dived for her, checking his movement just in time to make him seem high-strung and timorous.

"What do you want?" she demanded, too angry at herself, at the Chapalii, at him for startling her, for following her, to care how her words sounded now. Leave diplomacy to Charles.

He sank down beside her. "I don't understand you," he said, more conversational than accusing. "How can you claim that you are not a spy, and then be caught by the khepelli in the act of spying on them?"

The absurdity of the situation struck her suddenly, sitting here, brushed by the soft night breeze, being cross-examined by the light of the stars and the moon. She chuckled. He said nothing. "Oh, all right," she said, tired of trying to play this game. "I was spying on them, but I'm not a spy. "

"I fail to see how you can make that distinction."

"Intent. I really did get lost. I really was on my way to Jeds. I really was surprised to find the khepelli with you."

"You were surprised that khepelli trade on these coasts, that we knew their name. I have reason to believe that you didn't even know how far it was to Jeds, or how to get there, and I must admit that your real ignorance inclined me to believe your professed ignorance."

"Thank you. May I go now?"

He shifted, slightly, but he did not rise. "You know very well that because you are a woman, you may go any time you like. But as leader of this jahar, I will simply find another time and another place to continue this conversation. I have men who are beholden to me, and whom I have put in danger because of their loyalty to myself and my plans. If you are a danger to the jaran, then I promise you that I will find out."

"What danger could I be?"

"If your brother is a merchant powerful enough to be making treaties with the khepelli over lands so distant from his home and theirs, then I want to know what he intends."

"What about what they intend? The khepelli?"

The clouds, drifting, let moonlight filter out into the night again. Bakhtiian had a slight smile on his face, but Tess did not find the expression reassuring.

"Be assured that I keep my eye on the khepelli as well. When this expedition was first offered me, I did not take it, because I had not yet peace enough within the jaran to risk such a long journey.''

"What do you mean, when the expedition was first offered you?"

"Five years past, it was offered."

"Five years past! How long have the khepelli been trading on that coast?"

"You don't know?"

"I-" She stopped and clamped her mouth shut, realizing that to say anything now would be to risk too much. The wind, shifting, brought the faint, bittersweet perfume of ulyan.

"Cousin, you know too much about some things, and too little about others. I find that puzzling."

Tess wanted nothing more than to end this whole conversation now, because she knew that she was losing whatever skirmish was being fought here. But to go now was to acknowledge the rout. She would never do that. "Bakhtiian, you ought not to talk about people whose educations have been unusual."

He laughed. "You're trying to distract me. It's a good technique. Very well, I'll change the subject. I've heard stories that the khepelli control great powers, especially those like Ishii, who are priests. Do you believe they do?"

"No, I don't."

"Is it true?"

He had trapped her, and Tess cursed herself inwardly for letting him use language against her, of all people, who had been studying language all her life. But not studying war. And she knew she had no choice but to lie outright.

"Ah," said Bakhtiian, for whom her silence had been answer enough. "The dawn." He tilted his head, as if this new angle might allow him to understand her. "There are other stories, about a people who lived here long, long ago, who were driven away by war or by sickness or by drought, and fled under the hills, never to be seen again. Zayinu, the ancient ones. Why do the khepelli bow to you?"

Her heart skipped a beat. She swallowed her exclamation. He was a master at this game; she was far outmatched. "I must go." She stood hastily, choosing rout over surrender.

But he had stood. Before she could move away, he closed one hand around her right wrist and held her, not too tightly but firmly. "Oh, no," he said, the more powerful for his softness. "I will know this."

"Damn you. My brother is the Prince of Jeds."

Bakhtiian swore softly. "The Prince of Jeds. By the gods, I have seen him. You do not look alike. Why should I believe you?''

"Oh, for God's sake," she snapped, "because it is true."

"I rather think it is." He let her go. "Forgive me, I do not mean this as an insult, but you are not very skilled at dissembling."

"How can you be so sure?"

"You can't deceive me."

"Can anyone deceive you, Bakhtiian?"

He smiled softly. "I can't know that, can I?" In the distance, the campfire was doused suddenly, its broad glow shrinking to a few separate points of red.

"May I go now?" she asked sarcastically.

"Cousin, you don't need to ask my permission. Now, if you will excuse me." He gave her a curt, mocking bow and strode out into the darkness in the direction of the zhapolaya. For a vicious moment, Tess hoped one of the Chapalii would kill him as an intruder, but Bakhtiian would never be so clumsy as to let himself be seen, much less caught.

Unlike me. She emptied her lungs in a long sigh. A cool wind sprang up, and she shivered and rubbed at her eyes.

God, she was tired. How could the Chapalii have built a transmitter in the middle of this wilderness? Been trading here for at least five years, unnoticed, unseen? Yet on a primitive planet much could go undetected from what limited surveillance Charles could use, by his own regulations. Undoubtedly the unscheduled and illegal shuttle landing that had left her stranded had also been shielded from satellite surveillance. But if Charles was disseminating Newton and Aristotle, why should he shrink from breaking other regulations, as long as no one else knew about it? What if he knew the Chapalii were here, and was playing his own game with them in turn? What if Bakhtiian discovered too much?

"Lord, Tess," she muttered to herself, "there's nothing you can do about it now. Go to bed."***

On a windswept island in the archipelago that lies off the coast from Jeds, a technician sat at her console and monitored a conversation. She was deft. Filter here, delay there, a tweak in the right place, and no one could overhear, not even the Chapalii. Especially not the Chapalii. Luckily, those conversing had agreed with her to dispense with holo. She was not sure she could cover a holo transmission. Over such a vast distance, from a back room in the palace in Jeds to the wide chamber that Charles Soerensen used as his office on Odys, the technician had advised that a simple voice transmission, analog, with its delays and its static, might be so primitive that the Chapalii would not notice it at all. She watched three screens simultaneously, tweaked the volume, and let the conversation flow past her.

"No," a woman was saying-that was Dr. Hierakis, "Tess is not here. I received no message. Nothing. The scheduled shuttle came as usual, though not all the equipment I expected arrived on that flight."

They waited long minutes; then the reply: "Anything else?" That was Soerensen.

From the same pickup as the doctor came Marco Burckhardt's voice. "There was one discrepancy. Karima?"

The technician clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, activating her voice pickup. With her left hand, she pulled up a new screen, data, and a graph. "I ran back every slightest bit of tape from the Oshaki's visit, from the moment it came into orbit until it left again. We do have a trace of the cargo shuttle leaving the Oshaki, and the record of its landing on the island. Considerably more time elapsed from leaving the ship until landing than was necessary for the distance traveled, and there were no atmospheric conditions to warrant the delay.''

A long delay. "Any ideas?"

"No trace." Karima stared at the data from the shuttle's flight. "As well as I could trace the flight pattern, it conformed to the default route, although given where it detached from the Oshaki, one could model any number of north-continent landing points given their usual flight patterns."

"And they are so damned efficient," said Dr. Hierakis. "Always the shortest line between two points. It's the national religion, I think. It must have been deliberate."

Delay. "Karima, any indications of unauthorized landing? Has the station picked up any planetside communications?"

"None. Off here." She clicked off her pickup and concentrated on scrambling.

"Which doesn't say a hell of a lot," said Marco.

"Thank you, Karima. I'll want a model of the most likely interim landing points if the shuttle did indeed make an unauthorized landing. It's true, we've suspected Chapalii incursions in the past but never been able to prove anything. Damned chameleons. Marco, you were talking before about taking ship northward, up the north coast and into the inland sea.''

"Yes. I haven't explored that way yet."

"Make an itinerary that can overlap with points on Karima's model. Then hold tight. I'll be back to you. Cara, wasn't it the Keinaba trading consortium that the medical establishment first worked with on the aging breakthrough?"

"Yes, in fact, it was. Why do you mention that?"

Marco made some noise, but not speech.

"I've got a cat and mouse up here. Echido is clearly acting as emissary for his family, but he's being very circumspect. They want something, something very delicate."

"Not just transport rights to Tau?" Marco asked.

"Something much deeper. Something linked all the way back to Chapal, and possibly to the emperor himself."

"Do you want me to come back?" asked Marco.

"Not yet. Echido speaks Anglais."

Marco whistled.

Dr. Hierakis said, "Damned right they want something badly if he's bothered to learn human talk."

Even Karima paused for an instant in her scrambling, astounded by the thought of a Chapalii not of the serving ranks speaking Anglais.

"Keep searching. No further transmissions until I get word from Suzanne. Soerensen off."

Karima spread a burst of static over the Odys line and shut it down. "What do you think, Marco?" asked Dr. Hierakis, and then Karima shut down the Jeds line as well and went back to the trace of the cargo shuttle, running the pattern again and again.

Crawling out of her tent in the morning, Tess was first distracted by the smell of food cooking, and then by the acute fear that everyone knew about her and Fedya. But she heard no whispered comments. Fedya passed her as she saddled her remount, but he merely smiled quickly and went on. Beyond, the short grass on the sacred hill shone white under the early sun. The standing stone hulked black against the pale blue of the morning sky. If Bakhtiian had seen anything after leaving her the night before, he showed no sign of it now, eating his stew with relish and chatting and laughing with Niko and Josef and Tasha. The Chapalii stewards rolled up and folded their tents under Rakii's supervision. Ishii reclined on the ground while Garii wrote laboriously with a stylus to Ishii's dictation. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, and this morning she could not summon up the stubbornness to break in on their business.

"Good morning, Tess." Yuri led his saddled horse up to her. "Have you eaten already?"

"Yuri." She folded her arms, considering him, as she recalled what Bakhtiian had said the night before. Yuri raised his eyebrows questioningly. ' 'Have you ever repeated things I've said to you to Bakhtiian?"

Yuri flushed, but he did not look away from her. "The welfare of the jaran must be my first consideration. Surely you understand that.''

"But if you told him things I said in confidence, things I might otherwise not have said-"

"Gods! You don't think I've repeated anything… intimate that you said to me? Violated a sister's confidence!" He looked disgusted. "You'd think that of me?"

She laughed, and Yuri laughed with her. His flush faded. "I'm sorry. That was stupid of me. Of course you didn't."

"It's good to be stupid now and again. It isn't healthy to be right all the time. That's why I worry about Ilya."

"Easy enough. We'll have a contest to see who can catch him out first."

"What will be the prize?"

"Satisfaction, Yuri. Pure satisfaction."

"Tess! You're wicked!"

"No, merely practical. He sets himself too high, our Bakhtiian." And then, because she had been thinking about it all morning, because she didn't want anyone to know but had to tell someone, she hesitated. "There's something else. A secret." She crouched down. Following her lead, he knelt beside her, so close their sleeves and thighs brushed. The horses grazed placidly behind them. He put his hand to her knee. "About Fedya." Her voice slipped to a murmur.

"Tess! You didn't. You did! Hah!"

"Shh! Yuri!"

He lifted one hand to yank playfully at her braid. "By the gods, we'll make you jaran yet. Sonia said we would."

"Did she? When was this?"

An approaching horse interrupted them. "We are leaving," said Bakhtiian, far above them, his face and hair framed by the sky. Tess and Yuri stood hastily, brushing off their clothing. They exchanged furtive looks, stifled giggles, and Tess went with Bakhtiian.

Much later, they paused to water the horses.

"They had a light," said Bakhtiian. "Neither a torch or a candle. Can you explain this?"

"No," said Tess truthfully, meeting his gaze.

"I think they were worshiping the stone, or its god. I couldn't make out their rituals. It was too dark." An animal rustled through the grass. "I wouldn't care to be a god confined in a rock. Do you know if that is what they worship?"

"I don't know. But I do know that people worship many strange things in many strange ways. There is a people in my land-"

"In Jeds?"

"No, in the land overseas where I studied. They worship their god by abstaining from all earthly pleasures."

"All of them?" Bakhtiian looked like a boy being told a tale he did not believe but could not disbelieve. "Wouldn't they starve, or die of thirst?"

Tess looked away to hide her smile. "They eat and drink enough to stay alive, of course."

"Of course. Undoubtedly." He looked at her, eyes widening. Tess grinned. "You don't mean to say they don't-By the gods, what insanity."

"No." She blinked, straight-faced. "They are filled with the passion of God's divinity."

"But how tedious." They both laughed and, quite suddenly, he blushed and looked away from her. They rode on, but later he demanded that she explain how such a religion could exist after one generation.

Two days and four days and six and eight, and then, to vary it, she counted in threes: three days and six days and nine and twelve. It grew warmer and windy. The Chapalii remained polite, and she left them alone, for the moment. They set up their tents every night and packed them up at dawn, all as they had done before, but now the stewards occasionally unbent so far as to gamble with the riders: they taught each other a few simple games and played for ridiculous stakes-beads, needles, necklaces, trinkets. Tess could not see that one or the other ever had the advantage. However technologically superior the Chapalii might be, in these gambling games wit and luck were all that counted. Niko learned how to say 'good morning' and 'good evening' and 'the weather is fine today' in formal Chapalii, but when Garii requested that he be allowed to give Sibirin further lessons, Ishii refused, just as he refused when Garii asked to be allowed to scout with Bakhtiian and Tess.

And all the Chapalii came to listen when, for ten evenings running, Fedya sang for them the long epic tale of the first dyan Yuri Sakhalin and his feud with the demons of the hills and his love for the sun's daughter.

Tess now spoke khush with little hesitation. To relieve the monotony, Kirill pretended to be in love with her, which made everyone laugh; even the Chapalii could appreciate the humor of frustrated passion. Tess marveled that no one suspected her and Fedya. Yuri said simply, "Why should they look? Who would care, anyway?''

Bakhtiian told her more ancient stories: the coming of the people to the plains; the birth of the moon and the sun and the clouds and the wind. How mother sun and father wind gave birth to daughter earth and brother sky, to sister tent and son river. How aunt cloud and uncle moon gave birth to cousin grass and cousin rain. And they discussed Newton's universal theory of gravitation.

Tess wondered what Charles thought he was doing. She remembered his last visit to Earth, five years ago-and wasn't it five years ago that Bakhtiian claimed to have first met the Chapalii? She had been eighteen, Charles fifty-eight, looking no older than Bakhtiian did now. She took him to her favorite outdoor cafe"; it was summer in Prague, hot, but he drank coffee so she did as well, though she had never liked its bitter taste, though she wanted something cool. He sat across from her at the little cafe table, well-groomed, neatly dressed. She tended toward a diffident, sloppy casualness, and she sat warily, nervous, wondering if anyone would recognize them, dreading that always. Charles simply held his cup and mused, looking supremely relaxed. Though she was his only sister, though her first memory was of him taking her for a flitter ride, still she could never read past his surface, know his thoughts, tell his fears or his doubts, if indeed he had any. He spoke that day of his work in the Delta Pavonis system, of his efforts to keep Rhui preserved.

"I've seen records of too many civilizations ruined because a stronger, more forceful civilization swept in and destroyed them. Sometimes inadvertently. Sometimes on purpose. It's easy enough for us to say that the Rhuian natives are primitive, that it is our duty to raise them up to our level. But without respect for what they are, we will destroy them. That's the Chapaliian way, the paternalistic way they treat all of their client states. Like us." His voice was calm and serious, never intense or passionate, but always forceful. "When the Chapalii modernized Odys, they completely wiped out the old indigenous culture. Accidentally, of course. A by-product of civilization. All of the indigenes died."

"Aren't there some onasiu left?" she asked, eager to show off her knowledge.

"In arcologies. That doesn't count."

"No. No, of course not." She flushed and took a sip of the now lukewarm coffee to cover it.

"I won't let that happen to Rhui. Odys can remain my proper ducal capital, as the Office of Protocol once reminded me was necessary to a duke-" His grin was ironic. "-of my station." His sand-colored beard, trimmed almost to a point at the chin, emphasized the hollows of his cheeks. "How can I complain?"

"You're still alive," Tess said, because she knew he liked her sardonic sense of humor.

He laughed. "Yes, and in such a beautiful, modern, expensive place. But I wonder what Odysian mythology was like. They had no moon. Imagine that. Sun for god, and only the light of the stars at night." If one looked, this close, when he sat this still and in the glaring light of the summer sun, one could see faint lines at the corners of his gray-blue eyes. "How I wonder."

Then, of course, a journalist had found them, and they had been forced to retreat from such a public stage. Or had that been the time the proprietor had hidden them in the kitchens and, when the media had been sent away on a false trail, ensconced them merrily at his tables once again? "Whatever I can do for the next rebellion, for the long haul," the proprietor had said, and he was only half joking.

"But however much I loved the learning there," Bakhtiian was saying, "I never thought to stay there."

"To stay-in Jeds?" Tess stammered, caught out by her thoughts, unsure of what Bakhtiian had been saying before, of where this conversation had come from and where it was leading. They rode slowly, following the curve of the hills.

"There was too much to be done on the plains."

"With the jaran?"

"A people poor in reputation, unknown. How strange that I never knew that until I went so far away, and the people whom I met on my travels did not know who I was or from whence I came. Not a soul knew of the jaran." Watching him as he stared raptly out at the far horizon, at the sweep of grass and the soft curve of the land, Tess realized that however much Bakhtiian was like Charles in being a leader, he was utterly unlike him. Where Charles concealed his strength and his power, working quietly and in tiny steps, Bakhtiian radiated his. Where Charles masked his feelings so completely that no one, not even his sister, could read him, Bakhtiian projected all of his; even when you could not tell what he was thinking, you knew it was because he wanted you not to be able to tell what he was thinking.

"But they will know," Bakhtiian said at last, slowly, imbuing each word with potency. "Soon we will be spoken of even in Jeds." He glanced at her, gauging her reaction. "We are only now coming into our time of greatness."

"Measured against-?" It came out before she thought, but of course he did not-could not-understand her meaning: that measured against the vast reach of the Chapalii Empire, against the slow progress of Charles's plans, his campaign was trivial.

"How does one measure the good against the bad? My sister and her child died because of me. My parents died because of me. I know well enough that more of my people will die."

Tess gazed at the horizon of green grass and blue sky, so like Earth and yet so unlike, a subtle shifting of color and shade. She felt abashed. Of course his campaign was not trivial, not to him. Not to the people who would die.

"But still you persist," she said at last, thinking of Charles.

"Still."

They rode on in silence.

That night at campfire Fedya persuaded Bahktiian to sing. He was slightly embarrassed but not ill at ease. He sang without accompaniment. He had a clear baritone and he sang a man's song: days of riding, little rest, the hope of a woman's smile. He knew what suited his voice and kept to it. When he finished, he grinned and began another song. The men chuckled. This was a maiden's song, and a man of the jaran who sang a maiden's song did it to mock women, maidens in particular. He sang it well. Men laughed, wiping at their eyes. Tess hid her grin, glad she sat in the shadow.

"This is the night for the quiet ones to sing," said Yuri, looking at her.

"Yuri, you don't think I'm going to-"

"Of course, you must sing for us."

"Good Lord." Tess frowned at Yuri. "You'll be sorry for this." She stood up. "This is the only song in khush that Yuri has taught me," she lied. It was a man's song, about none of the women wanting to go off with him. She sang it straight-faced, managing to finish that way despite the laughter that erupted all around the fire.

"By the gods," said Yuri proudly, "you sang that well. You should sing more often."

"You should teach me suitable songs." She sat down.

Niko came over to them and crouched, still chuckling. "You are undoubtedly gifted, child. But I'm surprised at Yuri."

"At me?"

"At you, Yurinya. To teach a woman such a song-" He clucked disapprovingly. "Such indelicacy in a youth shocks me."

"But, Niko, I have four sisters."

"That is true," replied Niko sagely. "We cannot fight the gods, or women." He and Yuri sighed together.

"Of course," said Tess. "Blame it on the women." She glanced up to find Bakhtiian standing behind Niko. He caught Tess's eye, and he smiled. If it had not been so dark, she would have sworn he winked. "I suppose next you'll be saying that Sonia taught you that song and encouraged you to teach it to me."

"But she did," Yuri said guilelessly.

Tess laughed, and Yuri, who could never help but laugh with her, covered his face with his hands.

Niko contrived to look offended for a moment. "You see, I am vindicated."

Smiling, Bakhtiian crouched down between Niko and Tess. "I would be honored, Cousin, if you would agree to teach me some of the songs you know, from Jeds and other lands."

Tess caught in her breath, but she smiled at him. "Only if you will teach me jaran songs."

For an instant, she thought he drew back slightly, but then he shrugged and relaxed. "That could be arranged."

"I meant, of course," she added hastily, "only songs that it is appropriate for a man to teach a woman."

All four laughed, Yuri lowering his hands and cuffing Tess on the neck.

"Now, Tess," said a voice above them, "you don't suppose that Bakhtiian would ever do anything inappropriate, do you?''

All four looked up, startled. Kirill had surely chosen that direction to approach them from because the fire, behind him, made a halo about his form. The glow lit red highlights in the thick waves of his fair hair, shone through the angles of his elbows where they stood away from his body, and outlined his stance, easy, a little arrogant. He had his head cocked to the right and he smiled down at her. Nature had, unfortunately, endowed him with a smile as sweet as a girl's, one much at variance with the impudence in his eyes and his demeanor.

Bakhtiian stood up. He was no longer smiling.

"Hello, Kirill,' said Tess, because no one else was saying anything.

"I thought you were supposed to be on watch," said Yuri.

"Well, Yuri, you must have been mistaken."

The big fire sparked, flaming until a rider stamped it down to coals. "As I remember-" Bakhtiian folded his arms on his chest.

"Fedya!" called Niko.

Fedya wandered over. His glance went first to Bakhtiian before skipping briefly back to Kirill. He gave them all his quick, unpretentious smile as a greeting. "Tess," he said in a quiet voice, "I admired your singing."

"Thank you, Fedya."

"I admired your singing, too," said Kirill. "As well as the rest of you."

Tess flushed.

"Kirill." The lowness of Bakhtiian's voice made it more threatening. Yuri scrambled hastily to his feet.

"But it's true." Kirill spread his palms upward in front of himself with such an expression of innocence in the face of false accusation that Tess could not help but giggle. Niko coughed.

"The men in my jahar have manners, Kirill."

"Are you saying I don't, Bakhtiian?"

Bakhtiian's left hand moved to his saber hilt. Kirill's right hand brushed the sheath of his knife. Tess, caught in the middle, pushed herself back.

"You know, Ilya," said Niko quickly, "Fedya escaped without having to sing tonight.''

For a moment, all movement stopped. Bakhtiian's gaze moved to Niko. Some look Tess could not interpret passed between the two men.

"That is true, Niko." Bakhtiian settled back on his heels, his left hand dropping to hang by his thigh, and he transferred his gaze smoothly to Fedya. "You promised me once to teach me some more of your songs."

Kirill was playing with the embroidery on one of his sleeves, his fingers pale in the dim light.

"Did I?" Fedya asked. "I'm not sure I agreed to give them up so easily." His audacity amazed Tess.

"Well, I don't intend to start pleading," said Bakhtiian.

Fedya smiled. "My lute is over by the small fire. We could go now.''

"Yes. If you will excuse us." Bakhtiian nodded briefly at Tess, and he and Fedya left together. Tess sat forward with a long sigh, brushing off her palms.

Yuri rounded on Kirill. "You don't have any manners."

"Aren't you a little young to lecture me, Yuri?"

Yuri stiffened.

"I am not too young to lecture you," said Niko. "You provoke him deliberately."

"What of it?"

"Kirill, I will not bother to answer that question. But I will say that your conduct is not always well considered."

Kirill shrugged. "We're well away from the sacred hill. I have nothing to fear here."

"What does that have to do with it?" Tess asked, annoyed because there was some long-standing enmity here that she did not understand. Kirill and Bakhtiian were only five years apart in age, yet Kirill was clearly included with the youngest men of the jahar.

"On holy ground," said Niko, "the slightest misstep or misconduct, even accidental, may bring the wrath of the gods upon you. Even the khaja know this to be true. It is desecration."

"The priests scared me enough when I was little. I'm not going near such places," Kirill said, and he grinned when Niko chuckled. "Yes, I know, and you'd advise me not to, for my own safety."

"But what would happen?" asked Tess.

"It would be sacrilege," said Niko.

Tess did not reply. The big fire burned down to coals, a dull red speckled with black.

"Kirill! Ho!" Konstans strolled up. "Think to escape from your watch, do you? Nikita sent me. You're to relieve him."

Kirill gave Tess a long-suffering look as if in apology and left.

"I thought so," muttered Yuri.

"Niko." Tess lifted her hands to blow on them and then lowered them to her lap. "It isn't only misconduct at a holy place, is it?"

His hair seemed cast of starlight, a finer light than the coarse red of flames. "Sacrilege away from holy places is limited to those few actions that are repulsive to the gods and which flout without shame their few direct prohibitions. But at a holy place, many things we do gladly in normal life are offensive to the gods."

"At all holy places?"

"Not all. Only those the gods have left quiet. The shrine of Morava, for instance, is not quiet at all, and priests live there."

"What do you mean by quiet?"

"Left to the birds and the animals."

"The birds. Niko, what happened to the three men who tried to kill Bakhtiian at Sakhalin's tribe?"

"They were left for the birds."

"Ah." Tess decided she didn't really want to know. "So some things, like the man in your tribe who killed a bird, those things are always sacrilege?"

Niko considered her. "That shocks you." He nodded. "We have a story, Tess, of a hawk that warned the first tribe of jaran, who were camped against the mountains, of an avalanche, and saved them, and so saved the people."

"That's in the tale Fedya sang about the first dyan."

"Yes. Because of that hawk, all birds, who fly above and can therefore see farther, are sacred to the gods."

"Do you believe that story?"

"My child." Someone stirred the fire, covering most of the coals, killing their light. "If the people did not believe in one way, then there would be no jaran."

Tess could find nothing to say to that. The three of them sat in silence for a time. Tess finally rose and excused herself.

Her path led her near a small fire removed from the rest of the camp. She paused in the dark beyond it. Fedya and Bakhtiian sat there together, the light on their faces, Fedya bent over his lute. As she stood silently, watching, she heard Fedya sing a line and Bakhtiian sing it back to him. And she wondered, for there was something in this music not quite like the usual songs the jaran sang by the fire at night or with their tasks during the day. And she wondered at Bakhtiian, for his bearing as he sat beside Fedya gave to the younger man the status of an elder; she had seen Bakhtiian command the respectful attention of women and men twice his age. She stood for a long time, listening to the two voices, one a high, sweet tenor, one rich and full, but she did not approach them. It was late when she went to bed.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

"Also, in certain caves, water drips down."

— Xenophanes of Colophon

Twelve days later they reached another holy place, the site of a crumbling temple called zhastoynaya. Tess and Bakhtiian reached it first.

"It's beautiful," said Tess.

The temple lay at the base of an escarpment. The cliffs had crumbled away here and there to obliterate much of the back half of the ruins. Behind them lay a river, shallow, sluggish, and muddy, which they had forded to reach the temple grounds. The water somehow signaled the limit of the plain, separating that mortal place from this retreat of the gods, which seemed greener, richer, quieter than the lands humans haunted. A spring bubbled from the ground in the center of the ruins and coursed down, a fluid line shot through with sunlight, to stream silver into the river and then, a meter out, mingle and lose itself in the brown waters.

They let the horses stand and wandered up through the temple. In this land where a tent was the largest shelter, the ruins-no more than three fallen buildings-seemed enormous. Most of the central columns still stood like two lines of soldiers at attention, fluted, wider at the base and top and chipped all along their length, worn away by the wind and the rain. There was no roof. Two buildings flanked the first, one a low line of stone, the other an outline of waist-high walls and stone lintels without doors.

Bakhtiian led her up to the spring and knelt beside it. The water gushed up from an invisible source, filled a stone basin to the rim, and sluiced down between parallel columns half in and half out of a stone trough that had been sunk into the ground to guide it down to the river.

"It is said that a person who drinks from this spring will gain courage and wit and the respect of those worth being respected by." He looked up at her. "Will you drink?"

She gazed at the spring: clear water, without a doubt cold and satisfying. "Who says that?"

"It is an old legend, left here by the gods."

"Then I will drink."

"Drink your fill."

The water was so cold it made her gasp; it took only a little to satisfy her. "Don't you drink, Bakhtiian?"

"Drinking once gives you the favor of the gods. Drinking twice… only a greedy man drinks twice."

They wandered down the avenue of columns and, at Tess's insistence, explored a bit more. He drew the line at climbing the cliff, so Tess climbed one of the taller walls-chest-height-and sat on it, letting her heels drum the stone as she gazed out beyond the river, watching for the arrival of the jahar. Bakhtiian leaned against the wall beside her. He took out his knife and his hands played with it absently as he, too, studied the distant swell of golden plain. A wind bent the grass tips down, sending fluid patterns of light across the land. Tess would have known this place was a temple even without being told. The touch of the gods lay on it, deep, heavy, eternal. A few birds whistled above. Insects droned dreamlike in the grass. The sun beat warmly on her face, and she sighed and closed her eyes.

And thought of the Chapalii.

"Does this temple belong to one of your gods?" she asked.

The knife lay still in his hands. "The jaran have no temples. Our gods are as restless as we are, although there is One you can petition in the dark, in the night, if you are in desperate need. But the gods have touched this place, so we honor it."

"You don't know who it was built for? Who built it?"

"Does it matter? Winds blow from all directions."

"What if it's important what direction it blows from?"

The corners of his lips twitched up. "Ah, yes. Will it be a cold wind or a warm one? Fierce or gentle?" He lapsed into Rhuian. "One that will guide a ship into port or break it on the rocks? That, of course, would be a Jedan analogy.

No. I don't know who built this place. Perhaps the khepelli do."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Tess muttered under her breath. But this place was so old, ruined-and the transmitting station was functional. She could not link the two.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I just-I would have thought that the jaran would be more-more jealous of their own gods."

He considered this a moment. "But they aren't jealous of us. When I was in Jeds, I read of a land across the seas where they worship five underground pools and think their Lady resides within. At the zhapolaya, the khepelli worshiped the stone as if their god lived there. And you spoke of a people who abstain from pleasure and fill themselves instead with their god's passion. They are all gods. That they are different, and so many, does not lessen them. I would never presume to say that my particular gods are worthy of a temple, and not any others."

The wind moved in her hair. "And yet you killed a man for your gods. Are other gods as worthy?"

"I remember. But I have learned that the world is a delicate thing, and the gods-all gods-are as one with it, are the keepers of that balance. And since the world is within me as well as outside of me, if the balance is disturbed and not righted then I am also left in discord, and if I do nothing to correct this imbalance, then we, the world and I, shall never return to harmony. And if this is true for me alone, how much more true it is for an entire people."

"But Yuri said that-" she hesitated- "that you gave him a merciful death, compared to what-what he was meant to receive."

Bakhtiian looked away from her, his expression shuttered. "I am not a savage," he said almost inaudibly.

Tess fell silent. The wind brought to her a sharp, rich fragrance, like vanilla. "It's true," she said finally, "that the world forces us to make bitter choices. I suppose that makes it hard to search for the truth, especially if we believe that truth can only be found along the path that is familiar to us."

He tossed his knife up. It caught the sunlight and flashed. For that instant, as he watched the knife reach its peak and begin to fall again, his face opened somehow, giving her a glimpse of the boy, twenty years ago, who had played with such dangerous toys with the same unself-conscious joy and absorption with which a child plays with building blocks. Then the knife fell, and he caught it.

"God, isn't that dangerous?"

He laughed. "Of course." He sheathed the knife. "How can any one of us claim to know which paths the gods walk? How can we hope to walk on their path at all? Except for philosophers like Newton, of course."

"Newton walked many strange paths. I have to suppose that all paths have gods of one kind or another. But I think we are responsible for finding our own way."

"We must do what we can with what we have?"

Tess pushed herself to the edge of the wall and jumped down. Bakhtiian put out a hand to steady her landing, a momentary touch, no more. "Is that what you believe?"

"What I believe?" Leaning back against the wall, he folded his arms over his belt. Wind caught a strand of his hair and blew it up away from his forehead. "I don't know where the sun and the moon came from, how the grass and the hills came to be. I suppose they came by themselves. But I believe that there is truth to be found, and I'm not always certain that it is only to be found in the gods. Or in what we call the gods."

"You've been reading too much philosophy."

He smiled. "Is philosophy dangerous?"

"Very dangerous."

"What do you believe, then?"

"I believe that there is truth to be found inside every person, but that very few people find it because it is dark inside, and deeply hidden, and the trees grow thickly."

"But you forget, there are always springs one can drink from." He looked toward the plains. "Ah, there are our fellow mortals."

"Come to bask in the fragrance of immortality, however fleeting?"

"Bask in the fragrance? I think you mean bask in the warmth."

They walked down to the grazing horses to wait for the approaching riders. The jahar splashed over the ford and halted beside them. Most of the riders wandered aimlessly around the ruins, curious. A few drank at the spring. Ishii and Garii and Rakii made the most cursory of inspections before returning to their horses.

Ishii came up to Bakhtiian. "We have seen what we need here. We can go on."

If this surprised Bakhtiian, he concealed it very well. The entire company set off westward, Tess and Bakhtiian waiting till the rest had gone.

"So it is a temple. I knew it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"The khepelli asked to see the zhapolaya, didn't they? Did they ask to see this place as well?''

He blinked. "I am beginning to think the prince has curious concerns. What do you mean?"

"Oh, hell," she said under her breath, but she had no one else to ask and she needed to know. "Specifically, by name."

"Ah," said Bakhtiian, meaning by that breath of a comment nothing Tess could fathom. "Yes, they did. Why do you ask?"

She grinned. "I'm searching for the truth."

He smiled. "Have it your way. For now. I'm patient, and our journey is a long one." He reined his horse out, over the ford.

Tess lingered a moment, staring up at the cliffs. The touch of the gods. She was glad that this place had nothing to do with the Chapalii, that it did indeed have gods, that it existed for itself alone. And she was relieved that the Chapalii didn't know everything there was to know about Rhui, that they had believed these ruins might be of interest to them. In which case, did that mean they had known that the transmitter was a transmitter, or not? Neither prospect was reassuring. She sighed and followed Bakhtiian.

They rode southwest through low hills. In the early afternoon the ground broke under them, the uniformity of the plain disturbed as abruptly as a pebble breaks the still surface of a pond. At first, steep hillocks and low sheer slopes radiated out, and then the earth itself fell away on either side, a few rivulets descending past curves, lost to her sight. Coming around the last of the little hills, they pulled up.

Tess saw the lake first, a pale jewel at the center, before her gaze fanned out to the huge basin that cradled this circle of blue. It was an ancient crater; nothing else could form such a distinctive shape, could be so unnaturally round. Or could account for the strange hills, flung out like debris from some massive impact. A meteor, surely-and then

Myshla shied away from the bright wink of sunlight, glancing off a smooth surface embedded in the ground. Bakh-tiian, ahead of her, had not noticed.

Tess pulled up Myshla and stared down. Dirt had eroded away from a plate of metal. It gleamed, uncorroded. A shock of grass obscured most of the plate. In days, Tess thought, the entire patch would be grown over. She dismounted and tried to pry it out, but it was too thick. Where the grass ended, the plate disappeared back under earth. She drew her knife and dug down, working quickly. A third of a meter down there was still no break. This was not the artifact of a primitive culture. Bakhtiian called back to her, and she mounted and urged Myshla forward to catch up with him.

Staring around at the steep slope of the crater, down to the flat-bottomed basin below, she wondered how big a ship, crashing or purposefully blown up, would make such a mark in its leave-taking.

At the same time, she realized that it was not the deepness of the crater but the pall of smoke over the land below that gave the bottom an indistinct tinge. She saw neatly laid out fields, some still green. Others looked strangely altered, as if they had been trampled.

It was the town that was on fire, flames licking up from some of the houses huddled inside the earth wall that from this height seemed pitifully insignificant. In another quarter, a whole street lay blackened, smoking like cold breath on an icy afternoon. Figures ran and labored under the sun. A broken line extended out to the lake, a tenuous string to the water.

"Curse them," said Bakhtiian. "Come on." He turned his horse to ride along the edge of the crater.

"We're not going down there, are we? I didn't know there were settlements out here. What do you think happened?"

"I don't know." His voice, like his shoulders, was as taut as a strung bow. "But see, there are vultures."

She saw the birds, circling near a few squat trees. Below, none of the hurried figures took any notice of the pair far above them.

"I'm sorry," said Bakhtiian suddenly, "that you have to see this."

They weren't trees. They were posts, driven into the ground. Six posts stood in a semicircle just above the well-trodden path, marked by a solitary seventh post, that led down into the valley. The birds cried out raucously and flapped away as Tess and Bakhtiian approached. The stench hit, fetid, overwhelming.

Three jaran men, clad in red shirts and black trousers, had been tied to the posts. All three were dead, and while one, perhaps, had died naturally of his wounds, the manner of execution of the other two was quite obvious.

"They may have been my enemies," said Bakhtiian quietly, "but I can only hope that they were dead when that was done to them."

A bird, emboldened by their stillness, settled onto the slumped head of the farthest body.

"Go away!" Tess kicked Myshla forward. The bird squawked and fluttered away. She found herself on top of the scattered and half-eaten entrails that littered the ground in front of the men. Insects swarmed over the remains. Jerking Myshla hard to the left, she pulled away, gagging, to halt in front of the solitary post that marked the descent of the trail.

"Look here," she said quickly, desperate to stop her gagging, to not have to look behind her and see the burnt-out, bloody eye sockets, the gaping abdomens- "There's writing posted here, but I can't read-here at the bottom it's a bit like Rhuian. I think that's a 'b' there and some vowel, I think an 'o' maybe, and I'm sure that's a 'c' but it would be a hard 'c' if it was related to the northern dialect that the sailors in Jeds spoke and then that must be-my God! It's your name." She put one hand over her mouth.

"It was the obvious choice," said Bakhtiian, so close behind her that her startled gasp almost made her retch. "Don't be too proud to be sick if you have to," he added, more gently.

"Not as long as I don't have to touch them. Can you read what it says?"

"A little. Evidently a jahar attacked and set fire to this settlement. I suppose their goal was to blame the attack on me, and thus make the khaja hatred for me greater than it already is. My enemies have done this before."

"Do you know who they are?"

"Oh, yes. They're Doroskayev's men. You never saw them."

"No," she said faintly.

"We'd better go." He reined his horse around. "Look. They've seen us."

"Bakhtiian!" In her outrage, turning Myshla after him, her gaze flashed past the three strung-up bodies to follow his back. "Aren't you even going to bury them?"

He kept riding. "Bury them? You'd condemn them to burial for raiding a village?"

She came up beside him as they rounded the curve of a steep hillock, the crater and the site of execution shut out by the slope. "Condemn? I don't understand."

"Let's get away from here." He urged his horse to a canter. Emerging onto the plain, rolling here toward a range of low hills, they slowed the horses to a walk.

"Forgive me if I was hasty," he said after a silence. "Burial is the worst thing that could happen to the jaran. But perhaps in other places that isn't-" he shuddered- "true."

"It isn't. Why is it so bad?"

He turned his head to stare at her, amazed. "To be trapped beneath the earth, forever separated from the sky, never again to live where the wind can touch you? That is only for the sacrilegious."

"Is it better to be torn to pieces by the animals?"

"But they are the gods' creatures, scattering our bodies back to the wind. And the wind gathers us up and pours our spirit into the womb of a woman ripe for conception, and the world receives us back again."

Tess was silent, staring out at the wide stretch of plain, that sudden sink of land lost behind them like a dream. Around them the grass seemed empty of any life but the wind's. "But I thought you burned the dead."

"That privilege is only given to those who die in battle, men in honorable war, women in childbirth. The fire releases you from all bonds to the earth, and the gods, alerted to your coming by the bitter herb ulyan, welcome you to the heavens. And your spirit is free forever from this world."

"And everyone else…"

Bakhtiian said nothing for a moment. ' 'It is also an honorable death. Many choose it."

"How can you choose to be left lying on the ground?"

"Old people, ill ones, those who can no longer keep up, often stay behind of their own choosing, knowing that their time has come."

"You abandon them?" She had such a horrible vision of sitting alone among the grass and insects, figures growing smaller, gone, finally, the sun silent above, that for one wild instant she thought all this the dream and herself still far north, lost forever in grass.

"We move, always. We cannot wait." His eyes, his whole expression, seemed remote, staring at something she could not see. "That is how I intend to die, when the time comes, not seeking to prolong it.''

"You have no intention of dying in battle?"

"None at all."

"But you carry ulyan."

Now his gaze focused on her, but it made her feel quite isolated. "But I don't. I want to come back."

They rode the rest of the way in silence. The three men, hung out like leavings for the birds, and the half-buried plate of metal ran like loops through her mind, first one, then the other, then the first again, until she wished she could simply stop thinking. Bakhtiian planning war against the khaja; his enemies trying to start that war early to disrupt his plans. Or simply trying, one way or the other, to get him killed? Or simply enamored of killing-how was she to know? The moon was up when, having been challenged by three separate sentries, she and Bakhtiian trotted over a low hill and down into the scatter of tents.

Niko jogged up to them immediately and took the reins of Ilya's horse. "So many sentries?" Bakhtiian asked.

' "Tasha spotted a scout this morning and held on, but the fellow veered east. Josef got a glimpse of him this afternoon, but he slanted off again. Josef thinks he's solo."

Bakhtiian nodded as he bent to check his mount's left foreleg. "See here. It's swollen and hot." Niko frowned with concern and examined the stallion's leg while Ilya watched. "Let's see if we can lure this scout in tonight and capture him. I wonder if Mikhailov has at last picked up our trail or even joined up with Doroskayev? Gods, I can't believe Mikhailov would stoop so low.''

"Couldn't it be one of Doroskayev's men?" Niko asked.

Bakhtiian smiled slightly and, glancing up at Tess, moved decisively to hold Myshla's bridle so that she, too, could dismount. "But we have news," he said as Tess swung down, "that will put things in quite a different light. Assemble the riders. Single sentry should be sufficient for now.'' Niko nodded and went off.

"Do I have to hear this?" Tess asked.

"No. Yuri will have put up your tent." He led the black away.

Finding herself alone in the gloom, Tess allowed the tears to come, but the force of them overwhelmed her and she shut her eyes, leaning against the comforting bulk of Myshla. The image of the three mutilated bodies flared so vividly in her mind that she gasped.

"Tess?" She put out her hand and grasped substance, an arm, the silken sleeve of a shirt, ridged with embroidery.

"Fedya." She opened her eyes.

"It will only be a short assembly."

"Yes." Her fingers slipped down his arm to grasp his hand. "Afterward."

"Past the horses is a spring and past that a copse." He squeezed her hand, so gentle a pressure that the feeling it left vanished as quickly as he did, gone after Bakhtiian.

She unsaddled Myshla, checked her hooves doubly carefully, groomed her and hobbled her and set her out with the other horses under Pavel's care. Pavel nodded at her but he was busy plastering a cold compress of herbs on the foreleg of Bakhtiian's black, the fine khuhaylan stallion that no one wanted to lose to lameness. The saddle was an easier burden than her thoughts as Tess walked through camp, past the assembly to the very edge of the tents, where Yuri had pitched hers.

As she knelt to dump the saddle on the ground, she saw four Chapalii walk out over a low rise into the darkness. Making a quick tour back through camp, she realized there were no Chapalii anywhere, unless the rest were all in their tents. Surely they could not intend to trek all the way back to the crater by night? A ship, blowing up… What if it had been a Chapalii ship? But that was impossible. Whatever impact had made that crater had occurred millennia ago. Had there been an alien empire before the Chapalii? A greater one than theirs? A hundred possibilities presented themselves. She circled around toward the spring, passing Nikita on sentry duty, and then she was alone again.

She found the Chapalii past the copse, hidden by a rise. They had gathered in a tight clump in the declivity made by the joining of two rises. On her hands and knees, pausing just behind the crest, she could make out all eleven figures, shadowed by the moon. A tiny blue-white light gleamed softly from within their ranks. The night lay still around her. No breeze stirred the air. Voices drifted up to her, phrases broken by pauses and replies.

"… identified two previous… unsure whether the duke… Keinaba… constant surveillance… insufficient evidence to believe…"

A communication. They were communicating-with whom? A Chapalii ship? But none stayed in orbit around Rhui. How far could they transmit? How far did this conspiracy reach? She pulled the little knife Garii had given her from her belt, and hunkered down even more to conceal herself from them as she stared at it. White lights speckled the hilt. She hadn't a clue how to operate it, and either Garii had purposefully left her ignorant or he had simply not thought he needed to tell her. Tess stuck it back in her belt and lifted herself up carefully to watch again. The scene had not changed.

Wind moved the grass above them. Startled, Tess looked in that direction. In the instant before she really saw, she realized that a man was creeping down on them, was halfway down the hill opposite. Light-haired? Had Nikita followed her? But this man was stocky. My God! She stood up. Fedya must have come after her.

At that same moment one of the Chapalii said something, a slight cry. As if in sudden panic, another of the aliens whirled and crouched. Light streaked out soundlessly toward the man on the hill. He seemed to leap backward, half-rising. The thin line of light cut out through the night again, and the man fell, tumbling down the slope to land at the feet of the aliens. Tess cried out and ran down to him.

Ishii's voice. "Do not shoot her, you imbeciles."

She stopped short, facing four knives. Red beads of light shone sharply at their hilts. Armed. Lethal.

"Let me go to him." Her voice broke on the edge of a sob.

"Let her go," said Ishii. A path formed for her.

She stumbled past them, collapsing on her knees beside the body. The second shot had opened up his abdomen, a cleaner cut than those endured by Doroskayev's men, half cauterized by heat. Blood seeped onto the grass. "Oh, God, Fedya," she cried, reaching out to touch his shoulder.

Her touch jostled his head, and it rolled, back, staring at her, one eye strangely shut. One eye scarred shut. It was not Fedya at all, but Doroskayev. She jerked her hands back. The Chapalii clustered around her.

Ishii stood above her, seeming almost to touch the sky. "How fortunate that it is not one of Bakhtiian's men. For a moment I feared that my man's rashness would be irreparable, but now I see he may have done Bakhtiian a service.'' Tess stood up slowly, still shaking. "Excuse my impertinence in speaking without your leave, Lady Terese, but I saw that this situation needed a male's firmness. Please allow me to assure you again that we have never wished to do you any harm. You have only to say the word, and the suspicions that have grown between us shall be laid to rest." He clasped his hands in that arrangement known as Lord's Supplication.

Tess stared at him. She shook. She did not dare look down at the body. She had not the slightest idea what to do with her hands. Ishii could have let his men kill her, could have buried her, and who would have known? Standing alone among them, their only witness the moon and the stars, she could not imagine any human set against her in such a delicate dance showing such forbearance. She outranked him; she was heir to a Chapalii dukedom; she was sacrosanct. Ishii gazed back at her. The moon washed his face so pale it seemed almost translucent. Like the plains beyond, the Chapalii mind had many aspects that seemed unchanging to an alien. Lost in that careful game of diplomacy and treachery that Charles and the Chapalii played with each other; lost on these uncharted plains of Rhui; the two circumstances of her life seemed very similar right now.

"Truce," she said.

"You honor us, Lady Terese." He bowed, and the others echoed the bow as befitted their stations. Straightening, he turned to his men. "Cut away the sod carefully. We must inter him so that there is no trace. Perhaps, Lady Terese, you will indulge us by identifying this man. He was, I think, one of Bakhtiian's enemies?"

"Yes."

Emboldened by her passivity, Ishii went on. "Perhaps you will permit me to allow Hon Garii to escort you back to camp? You need not stay for the interment. I understand very well that females have heightened sensibilities."

They moved away from her, preparing a grave. Trapped beneath the earth. Had Doroskayev deserved such a fate? She walked past them, stumbling slightly in the darkness. Garii followed her, unasked. At the base of the hill, she stopped. He stopped behind her. Without turning around she put her hand on her knife.

"How do I use this?" she whispered.

He did not reply immediately. When she tilted her hand to see him, she saw that he had glanced back to where dark figures worked just beyond the crest of the rise.

"If I may be permitted to speak, I have attuned it to human use, Lady Terese," he said at last. "The heat of your thumb, pressed over the third and second lights, causes the beam to activate. Forgive me. A thousand thousand pardons be granted me that I did not realize you needed instruction in this gift."

"You are pardoned," she said automatically.

"I am yours, Tai-endi," he said, the formal response, and he bowed, as liegeman to his liege.

"Go," she said hastily, abruptly afraid that she had acknowledged something far deeper than she realized. "Ishii will be watching."

"As you command." He retreated back up the hill.

/ am yours. Lord, Tess, you've gotten yourself into it now. The wording had been precise and formal: the bond of servant to master, not any slight thing bound by a wage or a common goal, but true fealty. Surely Garii was already bonded to Ishii's family, and such bonds lasted until death, and beyond death into the next generations.

Light flashed, a brief, searing pulse, and she started and hurried away toward the copse and the spring. Bodies on grass. They should leave him to rot. She would have been left out there, months ago, walking on the plains. A body could lie a hundred years in such space-By the spring, someone waited for her, sitting on a low rock. She broke into a jog, remembering how she thought they had killed him.

"Fedya," she said. Stopped. It was Bakhtiian. A blanket and his cloak lay, folded neatly, on the rock beside him.

"Did you catch a glimpse of our mysterious escort?" he said with a slight smile, but his tone was serious and his eyes met hers. One of his hands rested casually on his blanket. "But if he eluded Josef, he could elude anyone."

For a long moment she could not speak. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I just had to be alone. I'm modest."

"All good women are."

"And good men?"

"Even more so," he answered, not a trace of humor in his voice. There was a pause. "We're extending our sentry ring tonight," he said at last. "If you feel crowded in your tent, it would be safe, tonight, for you to sleep outside of camp."

"I know."

Blanket and cloak tucked under one arm, he stood up so that they faced one another on a level. "I understand that you have sustained a shock."

"Oh, hell," said Tess under her breath, putting one hand to her face to stop the sudden flow of tears. Bakhtiian took one step toward her. Footsteps rustled in the grass.

"Tess?" He came up beside her, bedroll in one hand, cloak slung over his shoulders. "Ilya!" Now he was startled.

There was a very long silence.

"Excuse me," said Bakhtiian abruptly, and he left.

' 'Tess.'' Fedya reached up and gently drew her hand down from her face. "In the morning, it will not seem so terrible."

And in the morning, it did not.

In the morning, Niko rode out with her and Bakhtiian. They circled back but found nothing, from which both men concluded that the trailing scout had veered off. Around noon, coming back to the copse and spring they had left that morning, they spotted the jahar away to their left where, Tess thought, they surely should not be. The range of hills dwindled away in front to the familiar flatness of plain. The three of them dismounted and crouched on the height, the horses downslope behind them.

Tess saw their jahar out on the plain. But the riders still in the hills-another jahar. Closing quickly, too quickly, with their position.

"Niko," said Bakhtiian crisply. "Get our jahar to cover. I'll delay them. We're not ready for a battle, not yet." But Niko did not answer, was already on his horse and riding.

"How long until they reach the spring?" Tess asked.

"Not long enough, although they may stop to water the horses. That can't be Doroskayev. They can't know we're so close, or they'd not be pacing themselves… Why are you still here?" He stared at her as if he had just seen her. "Follow Niko."

"What are you going to do?"

"Decoy them back the way they've come."

"But once they see you, they'll know your jahar is near. How many will bother to follow a lone man?"

"If that man is Ilyakoria Bakhtiian, quite a few."

She glanced to where his remount stood, a stocky tar-pan. "They'll catch you."

"I'll ride Myshla. They won't catch us. Now, woman. Go."

Tess jumped up and ran back to the horses, grabbed the tarpan's reins, and mounted Myshla, kicking the mare even before her seat was stable.

"Damn it," Bakhtiian yelled, rising. "Get back here!"

"I suggest you get down in that copse and hide. And hurry."

He took two stiff steps toward her. "Damn you, Soerensen. This doesn't concern you. I said-"

"You're wrong. I need to get to Jeds, urgently. If you stay there, they'll run you down." She reined Myshla farther away. "You'd better go. We haven't got much time. Trust me."

She turned Myshla and cantered down the slope to the copse, the remounts trailing behind. How to throw them off the scent, how? She tethered the two horses securely to a tree and pulled off the distinctive jahar saddles, obscuring them with the saddlebags. She ripped open her saddlebags, cursing under her breath; everything was jaran, everything. Why hadn't she even brought a change of clothing from the ship?

"Oh, God, Tess, you're in for it now." What was it she had once said about maenads and madness? Sometimes you had to choose all or nothing. And sometimes your weakness became your strength. All at once she knew what to do.

She strewed all her belongings about, piling them into disarray so that their provenance might be concealed. She took her blanket and ran back into the nearest screen of trees and awkwardly-for who knew where Bakhtiian was now-took off her tunic and trousers and wrapped herself in her cloak. It was difficult enough to go out there clad in her underclothes, underneath the cloak, but she had to trust what she knew of jaran culture. The white blouse Nadezhda Martov had given her was generic enough, seen from a distance, so she drenched it in the spring and dampened her Earth-made tunic and trousers and retreated to the edge of the trees, hanging the clothing over bushes to dry. She unlaced her boots and left them by the clothes, but not before stuffing her bracelets inside them; hid the saber and knife under the saddles, but kept the Chapalii knife with her, and finally rolled out her bedroll at the edge of the screen of trees and sat down on it. Nervously she fingered her necklace, the pewtar ankh from Sojourner.

The branches of one lopsided tree scraped incessantly against the trunk of another. On the other side of the water hole, the low rock Bakhtiian had sat on last night lay naked and dark in the midday sun. There was no sign of him. She prayed that he had taken refuge deep in the farthest screen of trees. She touched the hilt of the knife and withdrew her hand. Her palms were slick with sweat.

Then came the sound of hooves, pounding along the earth.

There were at least forty of them, scarlet shirts with low collars and banded cuffs, black trousers cut fuller than those of Bakhtiian's men but clearly jaran. They pulled up, undeniably amazed. She leapt to her feet with a cry of surprise, managing to almost let her cloak fall without actually revealing anything.

By the looks on their faces when the cloak slipped, she knew she would succeed.

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Of pleasures, those that come most rarely give the greatest enjoyment."

— Democritus of Abdera

"Why have you come back?" she cried in Rhuian. She clutched her cloak with both hands, pinning it closed at her chest. "You said you were going to the great temple of the goddess. You cannot have gotten there and back so soon."

A good three dozen or more men stared at her, and she suddenly doubted herself. She was utterly vulnerable to them except for the Chapalii knife belted over her underclothes, a weapon she had never used and was not certain she could use. How could she be sure Garii was the least bit trustworthy? Wind pulled up one corner of her cloak, revealing a glimpse of knee. As if it were a signal, the men's gazes flicked away one by one, and most of them colored as they looked at anything but her. Her hands gripped the cloth more tightly and she forced herself to breathe slowly. It had to work, it could still work, and yet it all rested on this: manners, custom.

A hurried consultation began among the leading rank of riders. She used its cover to look them over as surreptitiously as possible: like all jaran, most of these riders were light-haired and fair-complexioned with a sprinkling of darker ones throughout, but she recognized none of them, only the characteristic scarlet shirts boasting embroidered sleeves and collars and black trousers and boots that proclaimed these to be jahar riders.

Finally three of the men dismounted and walked slowly toward her. They kept their eyes averted. The grass made a low whispering sound as they passed through it. The first, a man of Bakhtiian's age, tall and very fair and unusually handsome even for a man of the jaran, glanced at her frequently but did not meet her gaze. The other two men were older. The man on the right had a sullen, angry expression, and he regarded her with the most direct gaze, suspicious of her. He looked like the kind of man who is suspicious of all people. The third man, in the middle, was the oldest, his fair hair silvering, his shoulders bowed, his expression that of a man harassed beyond all bearing. When the other two halted a decent two body-lengths from her, he came forward another three steps and stopped.

"Do you speak khush?" he asked.

Tess shrank back a step, feigning confusion.

"What is a woman doing out here on her own?" said the sullen man. "Do you think she's from that khaja town? She may recognize us."

The middle-aged man hunched his shoulders even more, frowning. "She may recognize you, Leotich. My men had nothing to do with that idiotic raid. Could you understand what she said, Vasil?" This to the blond.

An auspicious time to break in. "Who are you?" Tess asked in Rhuian. "You are not the men I talked to before."

Vasil tilted his head, thinking hard. "Something about men. But she speaks too quickly."

"But it is this-Rhu-an?"

"I think so."

Tess shrank further into her cloak and spoke very slowly and with precise enunciation. "Can you understand me?"

Vasil smiled suddenly. It lit his face like fire, and Tess caught herself staring at him even as he looked right at her, and he flushed and shifted his gaze. His eyes were a vivid, fiery blue. "I speak," he said hesitantly. "Little."

"Only a little?" She emphasized the disappointment in her tone, and then wondered if she was overdoing it. "The other man spoke Rhuian very well."

"Man?" Unconsciously, Vasil leaned toward her. Necklaces swung forward from his chest. "Other man? He speak?"

"Yes. He spoke like a native but he wore much the same clothes as you do. Is he one of you? Is he here with you?"

"I'm sure of it, Dmitri." Vasil looked triumphant. "A man who spoke with her in Rhuian. It has to be Bakhtiian." Leotich glared at her obliquely, lips tight.

"What else did she say?"

"I don't know."

Tess lowered her eyes, not wanting to seem too interested in a conversation she ought not to understand. She resisted the urge to glance at her belongings, at the copse behind, wondering if it all concealed her true purpose as well as she hoped. Wondering if it concealed Bakhtiian.

"I'll try again," said Vasil to Dmitri. He coughed, hesitated again. "Man," he said. "Other man." He sighed, frowned, concentrated, and then when she glanced up at him, he gave up and pointed to his scarlet shirt. "Is?"

"Yes, yes." Tess let her hold on her cloak slacken slightly. "Such clothes, red shirt, black trousers." She let one arm emerge to point at their clothing and then did risk a half turn to look behind her, where her traveling clothes-obviously foreign-lay drying on the bushes. The white-barked trees beyond stood stark, barely clothed with scant green in the sunlight. When she looked back, all three men were looking not at her, or her clothes, but at each other.

"It has to have been Ilya," said Vasil in a fierce undertone, almost exultant. "It has to."

"Don't get too excited," said Leotich to Vasil.

Vasil's head jerked back, one hand brushing his knife hilt. "Don't tempt me," he muttered.

"Vasil!" Standing between them, Dmitri lifted his chin, and that gesture alone convinced Tess that he was the man to be reckoned with. "Find out which direction."

Vasil returned his attention to the ground on Tess' left. "Other men. Where?"

"Other men! Yes, there were many others, and they were going, like me, to the great temple, but they would not take me with them."

"Many? Temple? Temple!" He grasped Dmitri by one arm. "Many of them, going to the old temple near the town."

"But Doroskayev said they were behind us." Leotich's frown made his eyes pinch together with suspicion. "How could they have gotten ahead of us? Why would they turn back?"

"Gods, man," said Dmitri. "Who knows why Bakhtiian does what he does? He may have gone past the temple and then gone back. He's a far more religious man than you are."

Leotich snorted in disgust.

"And since I obviously must remind you, he is escorting a party of khaja pilgrims. There is a reason to return to the temple. Perhaps he was forced to avoid it in the first place because of Doroskayev's idiocy."

Leotich's pale eyes focused on the other man, and he kicked at the grass, tearing a thin scar in the ground. "Doroskayev is the only one with any kind of plan. Whatever you may think of his raids, he always leaves Bakhtiian's name. Even if Bakhtiian eludes us, someday he'll come too close to khaja lands and they'll kill him for us, for revenge."

"Doroskayev is a fool." Dmitri's voice, sharp as the winter wind, froze them all. "He has played into Bakhtiian's hands, and I, by the gods, intend to tell him so when we meet up with his jahar. Bakhtiian says the khaja are a threat. Doroskayev will stir up a war and then they will be a threat. Don't you see? Now Bakhtiian can justify his work. Fool and idiot twice over."

Leotich's frown had turned into a scowl. "Doroskayev said Bakhtiian had a woman with him. How do we know she isn't some trick of Bakhtiian's, left here to throw us off the scent?"

Vasil flushed with anger. "You're no better than a khaja pig, Leotich. Bakhtiian would never put a woman in such danger."

"You'd know, wouldn't you," snarled Leotich.

Vasil put his hand on his saber. Leotich grinned, almost feral.

"Stop quarreling!" Dmitri's voice cracked over them. Tess huddled backward, cringing away from their angry voices, not entirely pretending fear. "Doroskayev!" His disgust for his ally was all too evident in his tone. "Since when do we believe everything Doroskayev says? None of his men saw a woman. Whatever else you may think, Leotich, I've studied Bakhtiian for years. I know him as I know my own brother, as only one enemy can know another. Bakhtiian would never devise such a ploy as this. Gods, Vasil, see if you can make the woman understand we mean her no harm.''

"Why would a woman be out here alone?" Leotich put in, uncowed by Dmitri's speech.

"Vasil?"

Vasil sighed, facing Tess again. "Temple," he said slowly, as if he knew that his pronunciation was terrible. "Men-temple. You-see?"

Tess untwisted one hand from her cloak, realizing that this was at last the real test: knowing nothing about khaja culture, she had to hope they knew even less. "I go to the temple." She pulled out her ankh necklace, holding it by the chain and displaying it to them as if it ought to mean something to them. Then, dropping it, she crossed herself, because it was the most pious gesture she could think of. More by accident than design, her cloak slipped again to reveal one pale thigh. With an exclamation, she yanked it tightly around her. The three men looked away.

"She's going to the temple," said Vasil in a low voice to Dmitri. He looked sidewise toward Tess. "You go? Temple?"

"Yes Yes "

"Men? Men go?"

"Men go to temple. Men go. To temple. To temple."

"I take it," said Dmitri dryly, "that they were going to the temple."

"Think straight, Mikhailov," snarled Leotich, jerking his head to one side. "It doesn't add up. How did they get ahead of us? How do we know it's the same group? And what about her? Why is she here?"

"You saw her necklace, the sign she made." Vasil took one step toward Leotich. The top of his saber pushed down the grass beside him. "She must be a pilgrim."

"Bakhtiian has pilgrims with him. She could be one of them."

"Why are you talking for so long?" asked Tess in a high, hurried voice that she did not have to feign. "Why don't you leave me and go on your way? Is it not penance enough that I must travel this barbaric land alone? Must I be threatened with savages as well?"

"You're frightening her," said Vasil.

"Frightening her!" Leotich took one aggressive step toward Tess. "Greater things are at stake here, Veselov. Doroskayev said-"

"I'm beginning to suspect you're a fool, too." Dmitri reached out and took hold of Leotich's sleeve with enough pressure that the man had no choice but to step back. "Karol Arkhanov saw those pilgrims. Eleven, he said, tall and very pale, all men. His word is good enough for me."

"My clothes are there," Tess broke in, desperate now for them to leave. Vasil, glancing at her, blushed and looked away when her gaze met his. "And here I am, surrounded by men." She took out her necklace again. "I am a pilgrim, a holy woman. What do you mean to do?"

"Come on," said Vasil. "We've frightened her enough. Let's go."

"I don't believe it," said Leotich. "I want to see what she's got on underneath that cloak." He put his hand on his knife and strode forward before the other men could react. Tess jerked back, twisting free of his grasping hand, and an involuntary cry escaped her. She stumbled back and fell to her knees.

Dmitri grabbed Leotich and yanked him up short. Vasil had his knife out, but he sheathed it again. Behind, the men in the jahar murmured, a swell of disbelief that faded as Leotich stood stiff and angry in Dmitri's grasp.

"Gods, man," said Dmitri. "You'll get a reputation no man could live down."

Tess sank down into the most abject huddle she could make, kneeling, and fumbled inside her cloak for the knife, palming it.

"No." Leotich wrenched free of Dmitri. "Maybe Doroskayev was mistaken. Maybe Bakhtiian didn't have a woman with his jahar. But let's ask Vasil. After all, he knows better than anyone else whether Bakhtiian would have any use for a woman.''

Vasil backhanded him, hard. Leotich lunged at Vasil, but the younger man caught his blow on an arm and slugged him. Dmitri stepped between them and grappled for their arms. The scuffle neared Tess, and she scuttled backward, hand clutching her knife beneath her cloak.

The movement brought them all up short, as if it had suddenly reminded them of her presence. Dmitri now had both of Leotich's wrists in his hands. "Sometimes I don't know what I brought you for." His voice was tight with contempt.

Leotich glared at him, pulling back. "We could at least split up. One to check out her story, the other to go on."

Dmitri let him go with a snort of disgust. "Splitting up is the stupidest thing a jahar can do. We'll catch him. Now get back to your horse." However nondescript a man he might appear, he had command. Leotich sulked away.

"So." He let his gaze come to rest on Vasil, and Tess could not interpret the expression with which he viewed the younger man. Vasil met his gaze without shame, but it was obvious that the younger man was still angry. "So, Vasil," Dmitri continued, ' 'I believe it was agreed that you might ride with my jahar if you kept your grievances to yourself."

"It will not happen again."

"Well, then, can you make her understand that we mean her no harm?"

Vasil glanced at Tess and lowered his eyes, a lock of pale hair falling carelessly across his cheek. Tess wondered, quite at random, what it would be like to push that lock of hair aside, what he, the sum of his particular pleasing parts, would be like as a lover. Lord, she was beginning to think like a jaran woman! He took one tentative step toward her.

"Go away! Go away!" she cried, shrinking back.

Vasil shrugged and looked at Dmitri.

"So be it. At least we can track Bakhtiian now. Come on." Dmitri turned away and walked back to the jahar. Vasil hesitated. He removed a necklace from around his neck and, crouching, laid it on the ground as slowly as if she were a wild animal.

"For you," he said in Rhuian. He mounted and they all left, riding back the way they had come, northeast, back toward the temple.

Her heart beat as hard as if she had been running all this time instead of talking. When they disappeared from view, she sank back on her heels. All of her breath gusted out. Her hand still gripped the knife. After a bit, she uncurled her fingers and sheathed it. They would never meet with Doroskayev, and suddenly she felt glad that the Chapalii had killed him. She moved forward and picked up the necklace, draping it across her palm, amberlike stones strung on bronze links. It lay cool and smooth in her hand. Rare. She smiled. A gift from a renegade.

"Although," she said aloud, "I suppose that depends on your point of view."

Then she realized that she was still half-naked, and that Bakhtiian was hidden somewhere behind her. She got up hastily and went back to her clothing. It was dry enough. She felt like an idiot, shielding herself with a tree trunk, wrestling her trousers and tunic on under her cloak, but at last she was dressed and could venture out without embarrassment. The grass by the water hole, where she knelt to drink, was brilliantly green, short and slippery and cool to the touch. Last night, she thought, smiling, it had seemed warm. The shifting leaves made patterns of light on her arms. She washed her face, put on her jewelry, and laced on her boots. She hesitated. What if they returned? She glanced across the copse of trees but she saw no sign of Bakhtiian. Surely he'd chosen to be as cautious as she had. Adjusting her tunic and her weapons, she hiked to the top of the rise.

The sun beat warmly on her face. At the top, she surveyed the plains around her. There, in the distance, riding northeast, was the enemy jahar. Out on the flat beyond she saw no sign at all of Bakhtiian's jahar. She seated herself on an outcropping of rock and waited, watching, until the enemy jahar vanished entirely from her sight. Then she walked down again.

Halfway down, she spied movement. Bakhtiian appeared, leading out the two horses. He saddled Myshla, and she reached him as he finished the last cinch and turned to saddle his own horse.

He looked up as she approached, pausing with one hand on the saddle. "By the gods, that was Dmitri Mikhailov's jahar.''

"You should be furious," said Tess, trying to sound contrite when she really felt like grinning. "I took a great chance.''

"There are no chances." He favored her again with that unreadable look. "You succeed or you fail. Battles are not won by men who refuse to take risks." It was quiet. Only the rustle of an animal in the undergrowth disturbed the sighing of the wind through the leaves. He returned to cinching up the saddle, the tarpan patient under his hands.

"Do you know, Bakhtiian, they were all good men."

He glanced at her. "How do you mean?"

"They were all modest." Now she grinned. She simply could not resist the urge.

His head tilted to one side and one eye narrowed, giving him a quizzical look. "Do you mean you-" He straightened, putting his hands on his hips. "The cloak, the clothes, a female alone. You did it all on purpose. You meant all along to embarrass them." He burst out laughing, full laughter, without restraint and yet not uncontrolled. Tess suddenly felt extremely flattered. He stopped laughing and favored her with a smile. "Gods, you're a dangerous woman. Using our own customs against us."

"No more dangerous than you, Bakhtiian."

"Perhaps." He finished with his horse while she packed up her saddlebags and tied her belongings on to Myshla. "So they're going back to the temple."

"How did you know?"

"I deduced it." He grinned. "Penance, indeed. I was also close enough to hear.''

"I never saw you!"

He blinked, guileless. "You weren't supposed to. Do I really speak Rhuian like a native?"

"You have an accent," she admitted, "but you speak Rhuian very, very well."

"Thank you," he said, and she thought the comment sincere. "We should go." But he paused with one hand on the saddle. "Vasil left something for you."

"Do you know them all? All the men who are riding against you?"

"Not all of them. Just the important ones, the ones whose grudge against me is so deep that they will not give it up unless they are dead." He waited.

She took off the necklace and handed it to him. He looked almost discomposed as he took it from her.

"This is precious." He turned the stones over in his hands, slipped them through his fingers as if their touch communicated some message to him. "Very rare. The stone comes from a princedom south of Jeds, and it is crafted by a master jewel-smith in the Tradesmen's Quarter."

' 'In Jeds? How would a jahar rider get a necklace from Jeds?"

But Bakhtiian's face had shuttered, and he gave her back the necklace without a word and mounted his horse. "We must go." He rode off without waiting for her, and she hastened to follow. They paused at the crest to gaze north and south, but there was no sign of men or horses, only the smooth, golden flow of grass spreading out on all sides. Tess gazed, watching ripples of wind stir the blanketing gold, and she felt-happy. Somehow, somewhere, she had developed an affection for this peculiarly same yet diverse land. Some movement of Bakhtiian's made her glance at him. He was watching her. When she met his gaze, he did not look away, but stranger still, he seemed, for an instant, shy.

"Will you call me Ilya?" His hands lay still on his horse's neck. His voice sounded as studied and calm as ever. She might have hallucinated that glimpse of shyness.

"If you will call me Tess."

"Perhaps-" He hesitated again, slowly put out a hand. "Clasp friends?"

"I'm not sure I understand."

"It is a mark of friendship. I give my honor into your hands, and you may call on it if you are in need. And your honor into my hands, the same. But it is not a gift to be lightly given or lightly used."

"No," she breathed, staring at him. Here, now, he was asking her to be not only his friend but his equal. "Of course." Her voice shook slightly. "Of course I will clasp friends with you. Ilya." She took his hand in hers.

"I am honored. Tess."

By evening, when they caught up with the others, she felt so pleased with herself that she engaged Cha Ishii in the meaningless, polite, but deviously complex formalities of Chapalii dinner conversation just to test her adroitness. When she tired of that, she collected her blankets and sat out alone, just breathing in the cool air and watching the moon. Behind she could hear the riders laughing, pausing, and laughing again as Bakhtiian told the story of her encounter, no doubt embellishing it with a great deal of exaggeration. After a bit they quieted, and she guessed that a serious council was taking place.

Sometime later Fedya found her. "Tess." He chuckled. "You're a marvel." She could see only the pale oval of his face in the moonlight as he settled down to sit beside her. The night bled all color from his shirt. "To fool Mikhailov. That is the marvel."

"Fedya, how well does Bakhtiian know these men?"

He shrugged. "Mikhailov has been riding against Ilya for years."

"What will they do next?"

He shrugged again, but it was a fatalistic gesture this time. "They'll find out you sent them wrong. We have to prepare."

An insect ran up her hand. She started, shuddering, and shook it off. "Prepare for what?" But even as she said it, she knew what he would reply. If Bakhtiian respected Mikhailov so much, then any battle against him would not fall out as easily as that night skirmish against Doroskayev and his men had. People died in real battles.

"They outnumber us, but we know where they are. We'll choose the ground and ambush them." Perhaps Fedya felt her shiver, though they were not touching. He put his hand on hers, a comforting gesture, but his skin felt cold. "Don't worry," he said softly. "You'll be safe. I promise it."

"Safe," she murmured, and she kissed him, wanting more comfort than that.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Courage minimizes difficulties."

— Democritus of Abdera

They rode for six days, until they came to a range of rugged hills that severed the flat monotony of the plains like a knife. Here they halted, setting up the jahar's tents at the mouth of a canyon and the Chapalii tents what Tess judged to be about a kilometer away in a sheltered hollow. For two nights the riders slept in their tents. On the third, they slept in the scrub. Late on the afternoon of the fourth day, Fedya asked Tess if she would like to go hunting, and Tess, feeling nervous and jumpy, and knowing full well that she had seen no game in these hills, understood the invitation to be a smoke screen for his real intentions. She strapped on her quiver and rode out with him.

Their trail soon led to a rocky overhang close by, but well-hidden from, the Chapalii camp. Bushes and vines screened off the entrance from the casual eye. He pushed them aside and, ducking under the overhanging lip, she went in. Light filtered through the leaves, dappling the bed of moss and grass he had laid for them on the earth. The gesture was so touching and so intimate that she felt embarrassed suddenly, afraid that her feelings for him-tenderness and liking crossed with simple desire-might prove inadequate for his toward her. What if he loved her? She halted on her knees beside the little bed, hands buried in soft moss, knowing that she could never really love him, not as more than a friend and bedmate, not with her entire being. She was not sure anymore if she could love anyone in that way, the way she had thought she had loved Jacques.

Fedya stood just behind her. He laid a hand tenderly on her shoulder. "I made you a song, Anya," he said softly, and then he chuckled, because he had just called her by his wife's name. "Forgive me, Tess. I have not made a song since she died.''

Tess caught her breath, relieved and touched at the same time. "I am honored, Fedya," she said, equally softly, and she felt a sudden warmth toward him, unrelated to their friendship, to their lovemaking, because that inadvertent slip made the truth so evident that she could not believe she had not seen it until now: she had never loved Jacques, just as he had never loved her. She had been infatuated with him, certainly, but love-Fedya had loved his wife. She did not feel diminished because he loved Anya still, though his Anya was dead and he stood here with a different woman. "I hope you will sing it for me."

"For what other reason would I make it, if not to sing it for you?" He knelt across from her, head slightly bowed by the slope of the overhang, and he sang. It was a song about the legendary dyan Yuri Sakhalin who, wounded unto death, had come to beg healing from the daughter of the sun.

Tess stretched out and leaned on her elbows, cushioned by the moss and his blanket, and watched him, transfixed. Singing, he was entirely with her and yet entirely away from her, so that she could really look at him, at his face, his shock of pale hair and the curve of his mouth, the elaborate design of birds embroidered into the sleeves and collar of his shirt, the fine spiraling patterns worked into his leather belt, his saber, lying parallel to his legs where he sat. In a more luxurious land he would have tended to plumpness, but this land had made him lean and tough, hardened with the riding. Yet his voice was sweet, as fragile as a budding flower. And when he finished, silence lay on him as naturally as song had.

"It's beautiful, Fedya," she said, a little in awe. "Thank you." She kissed him.

"Remember it. Remember this place."

Tess let her face slide in against his neck. His hair brushed her eyes. "He's chosen this place for the ambush," she said, because for four days no one, not even Yuri, had spoken a word to her about fighting.

He slipped his hand down to her back, holding her against him. "The plains are wide, but when men travel on a set path, they are very small, indeed." His fingers found her waist and explored it to the clasp of her belt.

"Too small to run?" His hair smelled of grass. "Too small to avoid-your pursuer?"

"Tess," he said. "There are better things to think of, this night, than war and death."

She woke with a start. Someone in her dream had been calling her name insistently, unable to reach her.

"Tess. Tess." The voice was wrong. That voice and her name did not belong together in waking life. Therefore, she was still asleep. But as she opened her eyes, she knew the voice for Bakhtiian's. She reached out her hand-

Fedya was gone.

"Tess."

Light infiltrated their bower. It had been dark when she had fallen asleep. Her clothes lay in a heap at her feet, so tangled that she had to pull them apart and set them in a neat row before she could put them on. Her hands shook. She tried to tuck in her shirt with one hand and comb her hair with the other, gave it up, and tucked her trousers into her boots instead. Crawling on her hands and knees to the entrance, pushing through leaves, untangling a vine from her hair, she stood up just outside. His back was to her.

"Ilya?" Morning sun shone brightly in her eyes. She had to squint, and still she could not make him out clearly. He turned. She saw, with a shock, the streak of blood down his face, and then, like a rush of sick trembling, she realized that it was not his blood at all but someone else's. "The blood," she gasped.

His hand lifted and explored his cheek. He looked surprised, as if he had not noticed it before. "I must have been too close when I killed him,'' he said conversationally. His body was tense with controlled energy: nervousness or perhaps exhilaration. She shuddered. What had he said?

"Killed who?" Her hand rose to touch, on her own face, the area the blood covered on his.

"I don't know," he said cheerfully. "He was about to gut Niko. By the gods, woman, I couldn't let a man do that to my oldest friend.'' He sat down abruptly and his expression changed so completely that it frightened her. "Listen, Tess. I have to tell you something."

The world was silent, waiting on his words. They were too far from the jahar camp, even from the Chapalii camp, to hear-anything-and there was not even wind to rustle the grass. The sun simply shone, painfully bright as it crested the hills. "What happened? Damn it. Tell me."

"No one told- He didn't- Oh, gods." He ripped up a handful of grass and wiped the blood from his cheek. Pale streaks remained, striping his skin.

Tess knew what had happened. She hadn't even said good night to Yuri yesterday afternoon; she'd been in such a hurry to go off with Fedya- She couldn't even picture where she'd left him, last seen him. She sank down onto her knees.

"Who was killed?" she whispered. She almost reached out to touch him.

He looked away, troubled.

"Ilya," she said, his name strange on her lips.

"Fedya."

Tess merely stared at him, caught between relief and disbelief. She had been with Fedya only a few hours past; he was simply gone away for a bit. But Yuri- All her breath sighed out of her and she slumped forward, catching herself on her hands.

"Yuri is alive? Where is he? I want to see him." Fright made her childish. She was horrified that she had slept while blood was shed.

"You can't see him."

"Why not? Why not! He's dead. Just tell me he's dead!"

"Don't go hysterical on me." His voice shook and he leaned toward her, one hand jerking out as if to steady her.

She drew back. "I never faint. Where is Yuri?"

"I sent him with Niko to help the khepelli break their camp and move out. We must travel as far from here as possible today.''

"Let me go to him."

"Yes. But after you come with me."

She simply sat, unable to absorb the tone of his voice-implacable or entreating, she could not tell. He frowned, angry or impatient, and took hold of her arm and pulled her to her feet. A kind of haze descended on her. She let him lead her, as if he were afraid she would bolt given the chance, and they walked and walked, grass dragging at their boots. He talked as they went, his voice a level monotone.

"Seven of our riders were injured, but all will live. Eight of the horses, but we'll have to kill three of them, may the gods grant them peace. Six of Mikhaillov's men I know we killed, and at least twelve were hurt, perhaps more. It isn't that we're such better fighters, even though they outnumbered us. We had the advantage. I chose the ground carefully and we ambushed them, forced them to split into two groups. Vasil… The one who gave you the necklace fought well. He got away unhurt."

He led her down to a place she never had any clear idea of, only glimpses: three men building a fire, the bittersweet smell of ulyan sifting into the air; a bird hovering high above, wings unfolded in some updraft; a dead horse being flayed and its flesh cut into strips for provisions; and beyond it-

"Who was killed?" She would have run, but Bakhtiian held her arm and she knew, anyway, who had been killed. In a way, she had known even before he told her. Bakhtiian waited until they were close to the body before he let her go. She took one step, and a second, and then stopped. Fedya. A blanket lay over him, stained reddish-brown at the chest. He could have been asleep; there was nothing but peace in his face. He looked young, relaxed, unguarded. She moved to kneel by him and glanced up.

They were all turning away, averting their faces, offering her privacy for her grief as the only consolation they could give. Everyone had known, everyone. Yuri had lied to her when he said that no one knew. He had lied to spare her, perhaps to spare Fedya, though surely Fedya had had no illusions about the secrecy of their affair. Lord, had she really thought such a thing could be kept secret?

She stared at his quiet face, and she reached out to touch, briefly, his slack body. She smelled blood and grass, that was all. She should have stayed with the tribe, should have stayed on Earth. And she was afraid because as she gazed at the dead man she felt no grief for him, torn so abruptly and horribly from life, only affection for what he had given her, as if her living, her memory of him, made up for his death. Why had he sung her that beautiful song last night of all nights? How could she have slept through the battle, fought so close, paid for so dearly? How could she not have known and acted to prevent it? Surely there was something she could have done.

"He knew he was going to die," she said aloud, trying to absolve herself, but all the riders had moved away. She shuddered, drawing her hands in to her chest.

"There are some who seek release from the burdens of earth." It was Bakhtiian's voice, not too close, but low and gentle.

She stood and turned to him. The tears in her eyes blurred his form. "He was protecting me, wasn't he?" she demanded, suddenly furious. "He took me out there to make sure I stayed away from the battle." As if, if he had not, he might still be alive. She walked away from all of them, found her way to the shaded, empty overhang, and wept.

The sun, bright and silent, viewed the earth from her high seat and found nothing there worth mentioning, not even the stretch of ground where so short a time ago two bands had met and struggled and come to a temporary decision. Now the field of battle lay empty, yet from such a height it looked the same whether peopled by fifty or one.

Or two. These two were dark and fair, night and day, maturity and youth. They lay without moving on the slope, watching their horses, watching the vacant plain, watching the last flames of the pyre.

"Ilya?" Vladimir sat up. "Will it storm soon?"

Bakhtiian did not move. "Yes."

"Down from the mountains." Something lit in the eyes of the younger man. "When will we reach the mountains?"

"You should be able to work that out for yourself. Forty days."

Vladimir took a breath, hesitated. "When we get back to our tribe, would you object if-if I marked Elena?"

"Why should I object, Vladi?"

"Why should-?" Vladimir swung his head around so fast that his hair caught for an instant in his eyes. "Don't be coy, damn you. It's common knowledge that she makes up to you every chance she gets."

"Is it?"

"You're laughing at me." He jumped up and began to pace. "You always laugh at me when I talk about this. I know very well you've got no eye for her, but so much is said and-and it's true I've nothing to bring her, being an orphan-and I never know what she thinks, and the gods know I want your approval." He stopped in front of Bakhtiian.

"Vladi, it isn't my approval you need. You'd best discuss this with my aunt. Or Niko's wife, perhaps."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant. If you worry a bit more about what people are saying or thinking about you, then you'll be almost as unsure of yourself as I was at your age. In this matter, my opinion isn't important."

"It is to me…" Vladimir's comment trailed off into silence. He sat down.

"Vladi, who do you suppose built that temple?" Ilya picked a blade of grass and chewed at it halfheartedly, gazing out over the plain, half watching, half waiting.

"I don't know. The gods did."

"I don't think the gods build in that manner." He traced the curve of his lips with the rough, broken end of the stem. "It must have been long ago. What people could they have been?"

"What were the khaja doing so far out on the plain?"

Bakhtiian curled the stem around one finger and snapped the finger up, splitting the fibers. "I was also wondering that." He touched his tongue to the moisture left on his finger. "I wonder who built the shrine."

"Which shrine?"

"The shrine of Morava. I wonder who she thinks built it."

Vladimir grimaced. "I'm glad I don't have to go to this Uynervirsite in Jheds that everyone talks about. It's madness, wondering so much."

"It might be, at that," said Ilya, sitting straighter and staring at something in the distance. "But don't be so sure you won't have to go."

"Ilya! You wouldn't. Here I've finally got a place and-oh, damn you. I never know when you're joking. Is that Yuri and Niko? Why did you tell the others to send them back?"

Ilya stood and walked down the slope to meet them. They pulled up and dismounted, the horses snuffling and blowing.

"Mikhailov's jahar?" asked Niko.

"Josef and Kirill are still tracking them. Tasha brought me the last report. I think we're rid of them. For now."

Yuri had been looking about. "Ilya, you've got Myshla. Where is Tess?"

"Get her and bring her to the new camp. She's up-" He motioned.

' 'I know.'' Yuri led his horse over to Myshla and then, taking both leads in his hands, walked away up into the hills.

"She's been up there all this time?" Niko demanded. "After she saw Fedya? Damn it, Ilya! You know better. Why didn't you go up?"

Bakhtiian looked up at the sky, down at the ground, and, finally, out of the corners of his eyes at the old man. "Because I'm a damned coward."

"Ilya."

Bakhtiian colored, turning quickly to walk over to Vladimir. "Ah, thank you, Vladi." He took the reins Vladimir offered him. "Shall we go?"

Tess watched silently as Yuri left the horses below and climbed the rocky slope. She did not rise as he reached her, but when, wordlessly, he put out a hand, she gave him hers and let him pull her to her feet. They paused a moment, frozen there.

"Oh, Tess," he said, the barest whisper, but his eyes held a grief surely greater than her own. She turned in to him, hugged him for a timeless while. He was alive, he was here with her, solid and comforting. She did not want to think, but her thoughts wound around viciously nonetheless: what if she had been given the choice, to save Yuri or Fedya? Was it wrong of her to be glad that Yuri was alive? Not glad that Fedya was dead, never that, but she could not help but feel that her preference for Yuri, given the inevitability of the death of someone she cared for, had somehow influenced the outcome.

Moisture cooled her face. She pulled back to look at him; tears wet his cheeks. He wiped at them quickly, the movement made jerky by his embarrassment. "Don't tell anyone," he said in a low voice that caught even as he spoke.

"Oh, Yuri, I'm sorry. You knew him better than I did."

He shook his head, unable to reply. In the sun, his hair had the same dull gold cast as the grass.

His sorrow so eclipsed hers as to make her ashamed, and doubly ashamed that where she might be allowed her grief, he must hide his. "Oh, God," she said, directing her shame into self-loathing, "I slept through it. How can anyone sleep while someone else dies?"

"Gods. Tess. I hope you never see battle."

"No. I'd rather have seen it. He was here, and then I woke up, and he'll never come back. I don't want to live like that. I want to see the things affecting me."

"You don't want to see that."

But I do, she thought, but she did not say it. Yuri's face was white and strained. Below, Myshla pawed restlessly at the ground and pulled at the tether. "Where is everyone else?" she asked.

"They've gone on to the new camp."

"Do you mean Bakhtiian has entrusted me to you?"

He rallied. "Just for the afternoon, dear Sister. And we've got a long ride to camp. If we don't get there before dark, Bakhtiian will skin me and use my hide for a tent.''

"How revolting, Yuri. And what did the Chapalii think of all this?"

He shrugged, clearly not much interested in the Chapalii. "Lord Ishii is as cold as a stone in winter. He's never the least bit afraid. But the younger one, Garii-he offered to Niko to help him tend the wounded."

"Garii offered to help tend the wounded?"

Yuri nodded.

"And Ishii did not forbid it?"

"Why should he forbid it, Tess? If Garii has some knowledge of healing… Any man would do the same."

"Any man," Tess muttered under her breath, wondering what game Garii was playing now. "Come on." She took two steps down the slope, heading for the horses.

"What's wrong?" he asked when she paused.

"Wait." She hesitated, turning back to regard the entrance to the overhang. With resolve, she crawled back inside where the blanket still lay. She brought it back out, shook it as Yuri stared, and rolled it up neatly. "It's Fedya's blanket," she said at last, when he still did not speak.

"He has a sister," he said finally.

A sister who would mourn him. A sister who did not even know yet that he was dead. Tears filled her eyes, and she wiped at them impatiently, as if that would make them stop.

Yuri took her hand. "Come, Tess," he said softly. They went down together.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

"The best men choose one thing above all else: everlasting fame among mortal men."

— Heracleitus of Ephesus

If they treated Tess more and more like one of their own, she scarcely noticed it because it seemed to flow naturally from her time among them. The ways of the jaran lay in her hands: she examined each one and let it settle within her until her strange hybrid of customs grew so complex and interwoven that, at odd moments, she forgot where one left off and the other began. The days removed her from Fedya's death; he became increasingly the inhabitant of a sequestered dream.

For months now she had become accustomed to the swell and flow of the plain, a grand monotony alleviated by hills and the occasional watercourse slicing through it. But the plains do not continue forever, just as happiness and sorrow both eventually come to an end. Their first hint of the highlands was a rough stretch of land pitted with gorges and rugged valleys that were barren of cover and composed of rock as stubborn and sharp and unyielding as a saint. The jaran playfully called it krinye-tom, the little mountains; Tess called it hell and wondered what the big mountains were like.

They slowed their pace to a crawl and ranged wide to find enough fodder for the horses. The dirt clung to Tess. The heat baked the walls of hard stone, and sweat plastered her shirt to her back. The men veiled their heads in cloth to protect themselves from the sun. Tess's scalp itched, but she did not dare undo her braided hair, having no water to wash it in. The horses got the greatest share of the water. Was there a point past which one could not become clean again?

She dreamed of showers. At least the others looked as filthy as she felt, and they joked about it constantly, liking it as little as she did. Only the Chapalii, who did not appear to sweat at all, appeared unaffected; Tess knew that this heat was doubtless a relief to them, being closer to their natural climate.

At long last, they came out onto the watershed of the mountains, grass and shrubs and a scattering of trees on level land. Not a lush land, by any means-that would be far far south, across the great range-but a breeze cooled her cheeks and her shirt dried. They came to an isolated khaja village, and Bakhtiian traded gold trinkets and two tarpans for grain.

Two days' ride out from the village, Bakhtiian called an entire day's halt when they came to a deep-bedded stream. Tess found a pool upstream from the horses, stripped, and washed herself and her hair-that twice-and every piece of clothing in her possession, for the dirt had contaminated even the saddlebags. Surely this stream of all streams was blessed by the gods, for the clearness of its water and the lazy trickle of its flow. She spread her damp blanket over a smooth-surfaced rock and, naked, stretched out on it to dry.

Pulling her mirror case free of her gear, she undid its clasps and slid the mirror out. Her face surprised her, she had not seen it in so long: the blunt chin, the high cheekbones, the deep green of her eyes. Not a bad face, after all, though the green eyes seemed out of place; she kept thinking they ought to be blue or brown. She had grown lean. Streaks of gold lightened her hair. Her hands were strong. She felt-content.

Except for Charles. Somewhere, Charles was worrying about her, searching for her. At least she was headed in the right direction. Yet at this moment, Jeds seemed like a goal too distant to agonize over. Turning over to let her back dry, she rested her chin on her laced fingers and stared at the rippling water. Light sparked off it, ever-changing, a constant, inexorable flux.

Her privacy was assured, a privilege, not a prison, conferred on her because she was female, and that was a thing she had never known on Earth, where locked doors bought privacy and privacy could be violated by crime or, for those unlucky enough to be related to the most influential human in the Chapalii Empire, by the media and the ubiquitous

Protocol Office. Only the most degraded of outcasts would assault her here and, as for the Chapalii, she outranked them. In this land, a person's fortune could be measured in sun and sweet wind and kinship with other people. Material possessions became, in the end, a burden; what you possessed of the spirit was far more valuable. Gloom was disdained: in a world of fighters it was a hindrance; to a people beside whom freedom ran like a hound, it was absurd.

Except for Fedya. But for Fedya, it had proved fatal. With a sigh, Tess sat up. She braided her hair, pinned the braid atop her head, and went swimming. The water felt cool and soft against her skin. The sun warmed her face. She did not go back to camp until evening.

In the morning she rode out with Bakhtiian. Ahead, dark stained the land, and she asked him what it was.

"Don-usbekh. The dark wood. Days of it, east and west, and south to the mountains. The khaja say it is haunted." He smiled, looking at her to see what her reaction would be.

"Haunted by what?" she asked, not quite laughing.

He shrugged. "The khaja fear many things, not least their own nightmares. I do not know."

"Do you think it is haunted?"

"I think that no khaja will live there. But there's an old road that runs through it, so once people must not have feared it as they do now."

An old road. "Will we follow this old road?"

"It's the only track through. See there-that broken pillar. We'll follow the road from there."

But despite her fears-or hopes-the old road proved to be just that-an old road. Ancient, stone paved, half grown over in spots, it looked exactly like what she guessed it must be: some relic from an old empire, thrown across the vast land.

"Perhaps the people who built this also built the great temple on the plains," she said to Bakhtiian as they waited in the first outlying tendril of the forest for the jahar to catch up with them.

"Perhaps they did."

She spotted the first ranks of the jahar in the distance, tiny figures moving closer. "Bakhtiian, if Mikhailov's men could find you on the plain, aren't you worried that they might find you more easily on a road like this? We'll be trapped on it, on a single road surrounded by trees."

"Mikhailov, whatever else he may be, is not fool enough to follow us into khaja lands. For that is what lies beyond the don-usbekh."

"Then why are we going?"

Bakhtiian's stallion shifted beneath him. Bakhtiian stroked the black's neck with affection. "For more of these horses, I would risk much more than this."

And one hundred more of these horses he would have, should they reach the end of this journey. "Well," said Tess, but nothing more. The jahar arrived then. Bakhtiian sent Josef and Tasha and Niko back to cover their rear, and he rode ahead with Tess, leaving the main group to ride at their leisure in between.

Soon enough the close ranks of trees began to seem oppressive to her even while she told herself that this forest was far more open than many. A dank, rotting scent hung in the air. So much vegetation, falling in and covering itself, and no wind to sweep the air clear. Even the colors turned somber and dense. Now and then an animal that had ventured too close to the road would flee into the forest, a trail of sound marking its path. It was never entirely still. Noise scattered out from the undergrowth, and rodents chittered and birds called from the branches above. The light bled down in patches and stripes so that day never came completely and night came without even the grace of stars.

That night a storm blew down from the mountains. The constant drumming of rain and the patter of falling leaves and twigs disturbed her sleep as she tried to make herself comfortable inside her tent. It was a relief to ride the next morning, although the trees dripped on them all that day and the day after. By the third morning, the forest had leached itself dry in the warm summer air, though the undergrowth looked greener for the drenching. They rode on, having to cut away growth in some places to clear the road, and Tess began to wonder if the forest would ever end.

"I've never seen Ilya so cheerful," said Yuri one evening as he helped Tess set up her tent. Because the trees grew up to the very edge of the road, indeed overgrew the road in many areas, the jahar set up camp on the road itself at night. ' 'He must smile once a day now, and he never smiled but once a month before. What do you two do while you're riding?"

"We talk, Yuri."

He chuckled and sat down next to her tent, fishing in his saddlebags for his spare shirt and his embroidery needles and thread. "Do you want to try again?"

"And ruin your shirt? No, thank you."

"Well, it's true women have little hand for embroidery. But you've taken to saber well enough." He threaded a needle with a thick golden thread and began to embroider golden spirals through the thick black pattern that textured his sleeves. "I thought you might take to this if you tried it again."

"Yuri, I'm sore from my saber lesson tonight. May I just lie here for a while and watch you?"

"If you think this stone is a comfortable bed, then please, lie there as long as you wish."

She laughed. It was not quite dark yet, and a fire built within a ring of stones some ten paces away gave light as well. Here, in this deserted place, game was plentiful and easy to kill, and deadwood for smoking the meat was in vast supply. Bakhtiian had decided to halt for a few days, to hunt, to graze the horses in nearby meadows, to rest. "I'm teaching him some of the songs I know,'' Tess said at last.

"Who? Oh, Ilya."

"And he's teaching me jaran songs. Only decent ones, of course."

"My dear sister," said Yuri primly, "Bakhtiian would never think to teach a woman any songs but those that it is decent for her to know.''

"Unlike some I know."

Instead of replying, he squinted at his work in the inadequate light. Kirill and Mikhal and a few of the other young men were gambling. Farther on, the conical tents of the Chapalii thrust up among the trees, like pale ghosts lost in the leaves.

"And Newton," she said.

"Newton? Who is Newton?"

"Oh, a philosopher. Not just him, but Casiara and Narronias and-and the work of many others."

"Gods. Sometimes I'm amazed that Ilya ever came back from Jeds. How he loves khaja learning."

"You're right," she said, realizing that it was true. "I hadn't thought of it that way." It had not occurred to her before that there might be some link between his relentless ambitions and the constant, restless inquisitiveness of his mind. Just as she could not resist a new language, he could not resist a new philosopher. If she mentioned a name he did not know, he demanded that she recite every scrap of writing she could remember, a feat she usually accomplished by broad paraphrasing since she had not his training in wholesale memorization. He loved to quibble over the smallest point and discuss the large ones to the finest detail. The scope of her knowledge, fostered by a decade in the schools of a stellar empire, was balanced by his experience, his impressive memory, his capacity to assimilate new information, and his astuteness; she always had to be careful of what she said. "I guess I always thought," she said, discovering that Yuri was watching her curiously, as if wondering where she had gone, "that a man with ambitions of conquest would be too single-minded to aspire to be a philosopher as well."

"Oh, I don't think Ilya wants to be a philosopher," said Yuri lightly. He yawned, laying down his shirt, and let a hand rest on Tess's back. "He just doesn't like other people knowing something he doesn't."

Tess laughed. "That's unkind, Yuri."

"Do you think so? I don't. Ilya has no one to answer to. That means he must know everything. It would be enough to drive me mad. I think it's the reason Ilya is so harsh."

"Harsh? Maybe at first, but not lately-" She grinned. "With Kirill, yes."

"Well, Kirill deserves it."

"No, he doesn't!" She laughed again. "Maybe. But / like him. He's-he's Kirill. And you must admit that he's the only one of you who has the courage to make fun of Ilya at all."

"He's the only one stupid enough to do it in front of him."

"He's the only one who doesn't take Ilya as seriously as Ilya takes himself.''

Yuri picked up his embroidery. "I resent that. You never saw Ilya at his worst. When the mood was on him, he would come into camp and, like that, everyone walked everywhere on their toes to avoid his notice."

Tess giggled.

"He hasn't been bad at all this trip. I think he likes you."

"Likes me?" She found a perceptible crack in the stone fitting and traced it out as far as her hand could reach.

Yuri rubbed the light shadow of beard on his chin. "Did I leave my razor with you?" he asked, and then he went on, not waiting for her reply. "He likes Niko. I think he likes Vladimir, or at least is fond of him, and I know he likes Josef and Tasha and my mother, and Sonia, although he would never admit he likes Sonia. But you can never be sure who else he likes. I don't even know if he likes me, but I think he likes you."

"Oh." Tess brushed dirt out of the crack with her middle finger. "I like him. He's easy to talk to."

Now Yuri laughed. "If I'd heard anyone say that a year ago, I would have thought they were as mad as Yevich the Weaver."

"Who is Yevich the Weaver?"

"You don't know the story of Yevich the Weaver? By the gods, that will have to be settled."

The story of Yevich the Weaver took four evenings to tell as told by Josef, the best tale-teller in the jahar now that they no longer had Fedya to sing tales for them. By the time Yevich had gone mad twice and finally settled his score with the wind-maiden and her four brothers, they had ample provisions. They rode on and passed out of the tangled dark wood and into the feet of the mountains.

They traveled for a day up a series of terraces of scrubby grass linked by ridges of rock. The road had vanished entirely, and the ridges proved so devoid of paths that the riders were forced to dismount and lead their horses up each one. Now and again a drying riverbed offered easier passage and even water as they climbed from level to level through the ridges, until the last terrace spread out like a sea before them, a broad plateau brought up short by the mountains.

Tess stared. The air was so clear that it seemed only a thin sheet of glass between her and the mountains, which were surely close enough for her to touch, and yet so distant, lacking any detail, that their size alone awed her.

"Those are the children," said Bakhtiian, watching her. "The grandparents are farther in. It's said they are so high that one cannot see their tops."

"That would depend on where you were standing." She grinned. "Rather like a man's reputation, don't you think?"

"So awesome from a distance, so meager up close?"

"I thought it was the other way around. Small and insignificant from far off, but massive at its base."

"Weighed down by its own importance."

"A heavy burden," said Tess.

"Only to the man who has had it forced on him," said Bakhtiian, suddenly serious. "Fame is a light and welcome burden to the man who picks it up of his own will."

"I don't agree. Fame becomes a heavy burden either way.''

Bakhtiian raised one hand, like a teacher making a point. "But by choosing to carry it- Dismount!" She dismounted almost as quickly as he did. "Damn," he said to himself, and then to Tess, "Follow." A spur of rock jutted up, a solitary sentinel of the ridges that fell away behind it. Bushes and clinging grass patched the dark surface. They halted at its base. "Stir up the ground."

He took the horses around the rock while Tess trampled grass and scuffed dirt. "Good enough," he said, returning without the horses. He studied the spur for a moment and, choosing a path, began to climb.

Tess scrambled after him, her feet slipping on loose pebbles, her hands grabbing bare knobs of stone and long, sinuous roots. He halted at a small ledge, screened by bushes, and pulled Tess up after him, leaving his hand on her arm when she stood beside him. She could feel every point of pressure, however light, where his fingers touched her skin.

"You may as well sit, if you wish," he said. "They may not have seen us, but I know they saw the horses. This rock is the only cover, unless we wanted to risk breaking our necks by running down into the rough. Two against-I'd guess forty-two. We should go to ground."

She took the hint and sat. His hand released her, leaving a lingering tingle on her arm where he had held her. He remained standing.

"Who?" Tess asked. "Another jahar? I didn't see them."

"Another jahar, yes-" He hesitated, absently staring at his hand. "And no."

"If you thought these men really wanted to kill you, we wouldn't be sitting here."

Bakhtiian transferred his attention from his hand to the plateau. Grass and mountains, nothing else. "I just want to look at them before we exchange pleasantries."

"The weather is fine today, and my what a lovely horse that is?"

He looked down at her and smiled, a smile that lit the corners of his eyes. "The jaran have a tale of a woman who brought misfortune to her tribe because she was too curious."

She tilted her head. "Is that so? We have a story something like that."

"If two old moral tales won't teach you, I'll never be able to. What was the woman's name?"

"Pandora."

"Pandora. That's prettier than the woman's name in our story: Vlatagrebi."

"Poor thing, saddled with a bad reputation and a name like that."

"Then you'd rather be called Pandora than Vlatagrebi?"

"By whom?"

Bakhtiian leaned back against the rock face. A spray of dirt skidded down the face to settle behind his boots. He folded his arms over his chest. "By me. It's only fitting."

"We have a saying in our land: 'the pot calling the kettle black.' "

"The pot calls- Shameless woman. If I were a brave man I'd-" He checked himself.

"You'd what?"

"I take it back. I wouldn't."

"Who are they, Ilya?"

It took him a moment to answer because the smile that crept onto his face was the kind that arrives slowly and leaves reluctantly. "I surrender." He put his hands against the rock by his shoulders, palms up and open. "Arenabekh. The black riders."

"I saw nothing."

"You weren't looking. You were staring at the mountains."

"How could you tell they were these-arenabekh?"

"All in black."

"Is this a particular tribe?"

The wind rolled a single wilted leaf past his boot. "They have no tribe."

"No tribe? And they're riding, so they must all be men."

"They have renounced tribe, kin, women, any ties to order or custom or family."

"I thought my abstainers were severe."

"They don't necessarily abstain."

"They take lovers amongst themselves?"

He colored slightly. ' 'This is not a fit subject for a man and a woman to discuss."

"But I'm khaja. And fully as curious as you are."

He smiled. "So you are. Well, then, some do. Not all. Some believe that our life now is not the life the gods gave us to live, so they live as it is said jaran lived in the early days."

"Without women? How could there be jaran now if that was so?"

"Exactly. And how are we to know how the jaran lived in the early days, having only old stories to tell us, which may have been changed in the telling? Do you see them now? Don't shift forward. They're sharp-eyed, these demons."

The screen of bushes and hedge concealed them, but eventually she got a view of the approaching riders through a gap in the shrubbery. Bakhtiian hummed something under his breath, fingering the hilt of his saber. She felt his excitement, and it made her nervous; she had seen that same excitement in him before-for battle.

She wished now that she was not sitting because it made her feel vulnerable, unable to move quickly, but she could not stand up now. The black riders rode straight for the spur of rock.

"God," whispered Tess as they neared. "They look grimmer than you ever did." Because she had not meant to say it aloud, she looked up. He glanced down, a glint of amusement in his eyes, and put two fingers to his lips.

They pulled up a stone's toss away, suspicious and watchful. The dull coats of their horses, the dourness of their expressions and, most of all, the unvarying black of their dress made them cheerless and forbidding. No embroidery decorated their shirts. None wore jewelry.

"A quick night's camp," said one in a strong dialect.

If Tess had thought the jaran men of her acquaintance hard, she had no word for these. One had no right arm, only a loose, empty sleeve that stirred restlessly in the breeze. Next to him a younger man, beardless and rosy-cheeked, examined the rock with one clear eye; his other eye was scarred shut, puckered and white. These men hunted, they had their quarry trapped, and they knew it. She bit her lip to stop herself breathing through her mouth, as if even that faint sound might alert them to her presence.

"The fox has gone to the hill," said a bearded fellow with a haughty forehead and cruel eyes. His blond hair fell in a long braid to his waist.

"Patience, Sergi," said the one with the dialect, a black-haired man who had possibly been given a frown at birth and had been unable to remove it. A tic, almost hidden in his rough beard, disturbed his right cheek. "You three check around the rock.''

The three brought back the two horses. Tess saw how all the riders stared at the stallion and the mare, two creatures so obviously superior in line and breeding to their own animals that it was rather like standing a man of the jaran dressed in all his finery next to an ape dressed in skins. Bakhtiian stood utterly still, his eyes narrowed, his expression more anticipatory than apprehensive. How easily he could blend into the group of men below. Then, startling her with the suddenness of his movement, he stepped out from behind the screen of bushes to stand in full view of the jahar below, but he glanced once swiftly back at her as he did so.

"They are beautiful, aren't they?" he asked. He froze, almost as if he were posing for the benefit of his audience, with one hand on his saber hilt and the other resting on the hilt of his dagger. He looked dangerous.

"By the gods, Bakhtiian!" said the bearded Sergi. "Come here, you ill-favored son of the cold winds, and I'll show you the special trick I've learned with the saber just for you."

"You flatter me." Bakhtiian did not move. Leaves brushed at his boots.

"And bring your treasure down, too, the one you're hiding. Is it some handsome lad you're afraid we'll spirit off?"

Bakhtiian caught Tess's eye and lifted his chin. She stood up and came two steps forward. Even as she halted next to Ilya, about ten men turned their horses away and rode off to one side, backs to her, heads lowered. More than half of those left averted their faces, so as not to look at her, but the rest examined her with cold, inquisitorial interest.

"Gods!" cried Sergi. "It's a damned woman! Who would ever have thought it!"

"Shut up, Sergi," said the one with the pronounced dialect.

"Shall I come down?" asked Bakhtiian with all the familiar pleasantry of a venomous snake.

"Please do," said Sergi. "But keep the woman up on the ledge. Some of our men haven't seen a woman in five years, and I can't answer for them if they catch her scent."

Tess straightened her shoulders, met his eye, and held it. "They wouldn't dare touch me." She laid one hand on her saber hilt, though she had no illusions about her ability to use it against any of these men.

Sergi let out a whoop. "A khaja with spirit, and listen how she talks. They won't touch you. Certainly not if you're Bakhtiian's."

Bakhtiian, descending with composed dignity, stopped dead. One of his feet slipped on the incline and pebbles skittered out and rattled down to the base of the rock.

Tess drew her dagger, tossed it up into the air, and caught it. "You've got it half right, Sergi. They won't touch me. I don't know what Bakhtiian has to do with it."

Bakhtiian, regaining his balance, resumed his descent as if nothing had happened.

"Sergi, shut up," said another man. His face bore a broad, ugly white scar that stretched from forehead to chin, puckering one side of his face into a permanent leer. "You can only keep your mouth shut for as long as it takes a horse to shit."

On the pretext of sheathing her knife, Tess looked away. The jaran men she knew never swore in that way-or at least, not in front of her.

"So, you are Ilyakoria Bakhtiian," said the man with the dialect, and suddenly all attention focused on him, though he had made no obvious effort to attract it. "I am Keregin. You seem a little short for a man with such a tall reputation."

"That depends on where you're standing," said Bakhtiian, looking as though his greatest concern was the fit of his clothing.

"Choose your man," said Keregin. "I want to see if you deserve your reputation. Bakhtiian." He savored the flow of the syllables. "What kind of luck got you a name of your own?"

"Luck is only my lover, not my wife," replied Bakhtiian easily. He drew his saber. "If ever I wed, it will be skill and intelligence."

"Tedious bedfellows," said Sergi.

"Shut up," said the scarred man.

"Choose," said Keregin.

Bakhtiian looked over the arenabekh one by one, his gaze measuring and keen but never quite insulting. Watching him, Tess realized she had clenched her hands into fists without realizing it. This was to be a real fight, a real duel. What if Keregin meant it to be to the death?

"He has too heavy a hand," said Bakhtiian, "and that one, no instinct."

"Got you there, Vlacov," said Sergi.

But Bakhtiian appeared not to hear the comment and the low mutter of laughter it produced. He examined a man far to the side whose light eyes were shadowed by dark circles beneath and whose nose was broken. "He's too angry. There, too unsteady a hand, and that one, he drinks too much khaja wine." He paused, then pointed with his saber at a particularly unprepossessing man of middle years, a remarkably unkempt fellow whose only conspicuous features were a long nose and brilliant blue eyes. "That man."

Keregin laughed. "We'll concede your eye for flesh. To-bay, fight him."

"What will we do with the woman after Tobay kills him?" asked Sergi. "None of us has any use for such a thing."

'' Sergi, if you can't keep your mouth shut while they fight, we'll bury your head in the ground and stuff your saber up-"

"Silence!" shouted Keregin. "Move back. Now, Bakhtiian. Make us remember you." The lanky Tobay dismounted and came forward, holding his saber as if he did not know he had it in his hand. "Left-handed," added Keregin. "Or I might get bored."

With no change of expression, Bakhtiian switched hands and circled left, measuring his opponent. Tobay stared dumbly at him as if he had not a wit in the world. Bakhtiian had moved about a quarter of a circle when Tobay suddenly stepped left and cut in with a broad sweep toward Bakhtiian's right shoulder. Bakhtiian parried, stepping in to the blow, and there was a moment of suspension, metal pressed against metal, and then both men fell back unmarked.

"A greeting in passing," said Sergi.

Bakhtiian edged back toward the rock. He lunged forward suddenly to Tobay's right, cutting low. There was a quick exchange: low, low, and high; then low, and Bakhtiian came out to the open space with Tobay backed against the cliff.

"An exchange of kisses," said Sergi. "How passionate."

Tobay's face and demeanor changed utterly, as if, Tess thought with sudden fear, a light had been turned on inside him. He moved back until less than a meter separated him from the rough wall of rock. With his right hand he reached back to brush the rock with his fingers, and the angle of his saber changed ever so slightly. Bakhtiian circled in, trying to push Tobay completely against the rock, feinting high but striking low again. But Tobay's saber swept the cut aside and went on sweeping for Bakhtiian's head.

Tess gasped, breath suspended. Bakhtiian fell to his knees, saber barely catching the blow. For an instant the tableau held and then Bakhtiian twisted Tobay's saber around, cut free from a flurry of blows, and leapt backward, regaining his feet.

"A conversation," said Sergi. "About the weather."

But Bakhtiian was wounded. Tess stared. Blood welled and, welling to fullness, bled off a cut on Bakhtiian's wrist. She breathed again. Not deep enough to be fatal, or even perhaps, debilitating. And yet, what if Tobay was only playing with him?

They moved away from the rock. Their exchanges grew more complex. Tess saw only a mix of high and low, wide and close, movements begun in one place that ended in another until she could not recognize where one began and the other left off. And all the time, the slow drip of blood from Bakhtiian's wrist tracked his movements over the ground. She could not move. They both feinted, and feinted again, their sabers never touching. Every second she expected to see Tobay kill Bakhtiian. Every second Bakhtiian escaped.

Tobay fenced him against a slab of rock and went for his face, angled the slice into an arc that would open his stomach. Somehow Bakhtiian twisted the blade and was still whole and moving. He parried and pressed, made a bid for open ground, and gained it. They backed off, eyeing each other, breathing fast and hard. Bakhtiian's face shone with intensity. My God, she thought, watching him as he circled slowly, so concentrated that it seemed his entire being had caught fire: if he ever looks at me like that, I'll last about as long as tinder under a glass.

And she suffered an instant of stark fear, wondering what such a blaze would do to her.

"Right hands," said Keregin.

Tess watched the rest of the fight in a haze. Somehow, now that they were right-handed, they seemed more evenly matched, but still she knew that she ought to fear more for Bakhtiian than for Tobay. Until, in a furious exchange, To-bay wrenched himself free and slapped his left hand over his right arm. Blood leaked out between his fingers. He grinned.

"Enough!" yelled Keregin, dismounting.

"The woman didn't bolt," said Sergi. "I'm more impressed with her than with Bakhtiian."

Keregin strode over to Bakhtiian, who stood breathing deeply to regain his wind.

"By the gods," Keregin squinted down at him. "Maybe there's something to your reputation after all. Tobay, put up and go." Tobay sheathed his saber, looking again halfwitted and lifeless. Many of the men, who had looked up to watch the fight, turned their heads away again. "Tobay's got no interest in life but saber. He prefers fighting two or three men, since one is too easy. He wasn't going for the kill."

"I know." Blood still dripped from Bakhtiian's wrist.

Keregin laughed. "And not too proud to admit it." His expression changed. "You've got foreigners with you."

Bakhtiian shrugged. Tess crouched, balancing herself with a touch of one hand on the pebbles that littered the ledge.

"I know the ruins up in these mountains. A place to inspire the gods in you if nothing else might, but I warn you, Bakhtiian, to reach them you've got to ride through khaja lands. There have been jahar raids into khaja towns, and your name linked to them. I won't lift a hand against you, but there's been mischief done. Is it yours?"

"No."

Keregin lifted his right hand to flick a piece of grass off his beard. His little finger was missing. "I believe you. But remember, the khaja know your name now. They blame you. They are like us in one way, Bakhtiian, if not in any other: They seek revenge."

"I'll scarcely bend a blade of grass as I go."

"One blade might be too many. Well, then, can you promise me one thing?"

"How can I know until you ask?"

Keregin smiled. "I admire your companion, who wears a man's clothes with a woman's courage, who is foreign and yet speaks our tongue. Don't let her get into their hands. I've seen khaja do things to their women that made me cringe, and I'm not an easy man to sicken."

Bakhtiian's head moved slightly, as if he began to look back up at Tess and then chose not to. "That I can promise you, Keregin. No woman for whom I have accepted responsibility will ever fall into khaja hands. Don't forget that I have also seen how khaja treat their women."

" 'He who has traveled far,' " Keregin mused. "I begin to think you might even deserve it."

Bakhtiian sketched him the merest trifle of a bow, half respectful, not quite mocking. "You honor me."

Keregin chuckled. "Do I, indeed? I'd offer you a place with us, but I don't think you'd accept."

"I wouldn't." He smiled. "I love women too well, Keregin, to give them up now."

"Yet you've made no jaran woman your wife." Behind, the other riders began turning their horses away. Keregin angled his gaze toward the two horses standing quietly between them. "They're beautiful horses, Bakhtiian, as well you know." He smiled, a little mocking in return, and glanced once at Tess. "Breed strong stock if you can. I wish you luck."

He mounted without waiting for the reply that Bakhtiian seemed unlikely to give in any case, and reined his horse away from them. The rest of the arenabekh followed, not even glancing back as they galloped off. The sound of hooves drummed away, fading into silence in the clear air.

When they were out of sight, Bakhtiian sat down and rested his head in his hands. Tess scrambled down from the rock.

"Ilya, are you hurt?"

He lifted his head to give her a wan smile. "Just regaining my composure."

"I'll get the horses."

"Thank you," he said into his hands.

She busied herself with the horses, recovering her own composure. Eventually he appeared and took the black's reins from her.

"Thank you," he repeated. He rubbed his horse's nose and talked nonsense to it for a bit, slapped its neck, and mounted. Tess, who had been repelling Myshla's attempts to chew off her ear, quickly followed suit. "A congenial group," he said.

"Keregin offered you a place. Would you ever have gone with them?"

"I thought of it once, a long time ago. For them, it is the only life." He shook his head. "It can't be mine."

"I didn't like them."

He smiled and brought his left wrist up to his mouth, touching partially congealed blood to his lips. "And blood is sweet, but life is sweeter." He urged the black forward and they walked the horses parallel to the ridge. "Tobay is better than I am. Much better."

Wind touched her throat and her eyes. She blinked. "Because fighting is his whole life?"

"He could have killed me." He lowered his hand, turning it slowly, eyes on the cut, its slow well of blood almost stopped now. "He chose not to."

She put a hand on her stomach. "Good Lord." He turned his hand over; the cut no longer showed. "But Keregin was impressed."

Bakhtiian flicked several bits of grass off the knee of his trousers. "Tobay can kill any of them, too, if I'm any judge of saber. I did well. With more experience, Vladimir would give him a fight."

Silence followed for a moment, which Tess broke. "Keregin mentioned ruins. Are we near the shrine of Morava?"

"No. The shrine is farther south. This is another temple. I would rather pass it by, but the pilgrims have insisted on seeing every one. What Keregin said about the khaja-well, I shall have to discuss this with Ishii."

He did discuss it with Ishii, that night at the campfire. Bakhtiian flanked by Niko and Josef and Tasha, Ishii by Garii and Rakii.

"Because the shrine of Morava lies still on the plains, some days north of the don-tepes, the great forest, no foreign towns rest nearby and no foreign people come there but the occasional pilgrims," Bakhtiian was saying as Tess settled in next to Yuri, far enough away that she could pretend to be listening to Mikhal strum his lute, but close enough to overhear. "But this temple, the zhai'aya-tom, rests in the mountains themselves, Cha Ishii, and to reach it we must pass by a city with walls and ride up into the mountains, and thereby make ourselves vulnerable to their attack, should the war leader of this city choose to pursue us. And then we must ride back the same way. It will be very dangerous. It might mean a battle, and we are too few, and the mountains themselves too great a disadvantage to the way we jaran fight, that I can offer you with any surety what the outcome of such a battle might be."

Ishii sat with perfect impassivity, hands clasped in front of him in that arrangement known as Lord's Patience, and listened. When, after a moment, he accepted that Bakhtiian had said as much as he meant to say, he nodded. "We appreciate your concerns, Bakhtiian, but our god protects us. We fear no battle."

Tess lifted her gaze from a close examination of the knives at their belts to see Bakhtiian's face tighten in exasperation.

"Neither do I fear a battle, but it is folly to ride into a trap when the trap is there to see. It is only one temple. Cha Ishii. I promise you that the shrine of Morava is by any account the greatest temple in these northern lands. It will not disappoint you."

Ishii inclined his head. "All the temples or none. I believe, Bakhtiian, that we made this agreement."

Bakhtiian did not reply, merely giving Ishii a curt nod, and he turned away to walk out into the night, Niko and Josef and Tasha following him. The three Chapalii shifted as if with one thought to look at Tess, and she hurriedly evinced an overwhelming interest in Yuri's embroidery.

In the morning, they rode across the plateau. Fields appeared, then settlements, each one a handful of cottages surrounded by stockades of varying height and strength but all showing signs of frequent and recent repair. That first day, riding wide around these hamlets, Tess saw them as ugly squares intruding on the landscape like sores on otherwise healthy skin, their inhabitants forever bound and imprisoned by the protecting walls. The idea of defending one place seemed preposterous, until her settled sensibilities took over and the idea of always fading into the brush and never making a stand suddenly seemed cowardly. It was hardly surprising that these people, settled and wandering, could not trust each other.

Bakhtiian led them through without stopping. No one harassed them. Indeed, they saw no one at all. But at every stockaded village they passed, Tess felt, knew, that they were being watched. They halted late that night, kept a triple watch-sleeping in shifts-and rose before dawn to ride on. Somehow word had passed on ahead of them. Empty fields ripe for harvest lay quiet in the sun. No one walked the trails linking the hamlets. Every stockade gate stood shut. Now and again, they glimpsed faces, peering over the walls. Another day passed.

The next morning Bakhtiian gathered them all together.

"Today we reach the mountains. The ruins are at the head of a gorge. To reach it we must pass close beneath a city." There was little color this early. He looked mostly gray, shaded dark and light. "We'll ride fast. Expect attack but do not provoke it. They may ignore us."

The Chapalii waited, patient, unafraid. As they mounted, Garii hung back as if his horse was balking and hissed softly between his teeth as Tess went by.

"Lady Terese, I beg pardon for my presumption," he said quickly, not even looking up to see if she was slowing her horse to hear him-which she was-"but I implore you to have a care for the gift which you were so magnanimous as to accept from me." Glancing down, she saw he had a hand on his knife.

"Garii?" Ahead, Ishii had turned and was staring back at them.

"Yuri," Tess said, riding on as if no exchange had taken place, "how long until we enter the mountains?" She kept going, not even waiting to hear Yuri's reply.

At noon the scouts, hardly more than a shout away, came back from all sides. The mountains loomed before them, huge and impenetrable. But there, like a scar, a great valley slashed through the wall. Where the valley opened onto the plateau, a city rose, hard against the eastern heights of the mountain. A fortress, heavy with stone; high, castellated walls weighted it to the earth. Fields and hovels sprawled out from it like so much debris. A narrow river pushed past, curving east. The valley opened before them and then they rode up between the high sides of the mountains.

They galloped past the town, Bakhtiian leading them as far against the western heights as he could. Small figures gestured atop the stone walls, but they were too far away to attack. The jahar rode on, up the broad valley, and soon enough they left the fortress behind. The last traces of fields merged into the wild scrub of the narrowing gorge. Bakhtiian signaled a halt, and everyone dismounted, walking their horses to cool them.

It was a brief halt. They mounted again and went on. Tess stared at the sheer dark cliff faces, veined with white, that rose like an iron stockade to her left, at the rocky defiles that climbed up and up to her right. Ahead, the gorge ascended toward the white-topped peaks in a gentle but narrowing incline, colored in greens and grays and dry golds. Tess urged Myshla up to ride next to Bakhtiian. He had a slight smile on his face that disturbed her.

"What if they do pursue us?" she asked.

He laughed. "They can't catch us, not on foot. Certainly not on horses. Khaja don't know how to ride."

Tess began to make a comment about how she was a khaja, and then thought better of it. "But Ilya, even if they don't catch us, we're going to run into the peaks eventually. And then we'll have to ride out this way again. They can simply wait for us."

"They can wait," he agreed. He did not glance back. "But I have heard there is another path out of this gorge, a rough trail, but better, I think, than returning the way we came."

Tess chuckled. "Yes. Nature is so much safer than men are."

"Is she?" A cold wind stirred her sleeves, chilling her fingers. "I wonder."

"How far to the ruins?"

"Two days."

"But look how close the mountains are. We'll run into them before then."

His mount shied. A small rodent ran chittering off the trail to disappear under rock and moss. He pulled the black in, undisturbed. "The mountains have as many twists and turns as a devious man."

"As many as you, Bakhtiian?"

"Oh, far more."

She smiled, and then sobered, glancing back. "But what if they follow us? What happens then? I don't think these khaja like the jaran."

"Neither do I." He did not answer her question.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

'I thought in a dream that I was dead."

— Epicharmus of Syracuse

Yuri told her that it was autumn, by their reckoning, and she looked for signs of the change of season. It was bitter cold at night, but that could have been the altitude. Streams spilling down from the heights fed the gorge, feeding green to the thickets and the meadows of thin grass. Smaller plants that neither she nor any of the jaran had a name for grew abundantly. Colors she never saw on the plains, crimson and olive and mustard, dappled the rocks, growing sparser the higher they rode. And yet the eye quickly grew accustomed to the variety. How monotonous the plains were in comparison.

The first night they rode until the moon set, changing mounts as the horses tired, slept in shifts, tentless, fireless. Not even the Chapalii demurred. Even the thermals in her Earth clothing barely kept Tess warm. The gorge angled right, a narrow scar that cut up into the mountains as though some long-dead giant had left this furrow in the wake of his planting. It was cool and damp between the high walls of stone, moss and orange-gray lichens everywhere. They did not see the sun until mid-morning. A stream rushed down one side of the defile, more white than water. It was shockingly cold to the touch.

They followed a road littered with rocks, but a road for all that. Paving stones showed here and there under lichens; tufts of grass sprouted in lines too straight to be natural. The gorge narrowed until they could ride only three abreast, then two, then single file. The hooves of the horses echoed strangely in the enclosed spaces. Just when Tess knew they could not possibly ride any farther, the gorge opened out abruptly into a secret glen. They had reached the ruins.

"That was never a temple." Tess moved her mount up beside Bakhtiian as she gazed out and up at the little valley, a large, open area of grass and ruins, sprinkled through with a profusion of tiny white flowers. "That was a fortress."

"That's what I'm counting on," said Bakhtiian.

Except for the defile through which they had ridden, they were surrounded on all sides by the mountains. An avalanche had obliterated the leftmost portion of the ruins. The back of the vale ended in a sheer cliff face that rose cleanly into the mountains for about twenty meters before beginning to climb in stair steps to the huge, snow-capped peak towering behind.

The glen itself rose in three broad stair steps to the cliff face: directly in front of them, a bluff-not quite the height of two men-ran the entire length of the shallow meadow that the neck of the gorge emptied into. A stone wall rose flush from its edge, so that from where Tess and Bakhtiian sat below, they could see only the suggestion of another wall, above and beyond, that marked a higher level. Here and there the bluff had eroded away and a stone tumbled down into the meadow. The remains of the road continued along the base of the bluff to its lowest point, where it snaked up through a stone gate that had once, perhaps, borne a lintel over the two pillars that flanked it.

They guided their horses around stray rocks, along the road to the gate, but in the end they had to lead their horses up the bluff where the last slice of road, badly fallen away, gave access to the next level.

Here, in front and to the left, the ground was littered with the remains of old buildings. To the right the land rose again in an escarpment, ending in that other wall: the second line of defense. Behind it the ground seemed level and empty for a space, and behind that Tess saw the line of escape: a trail twisting upward into the heights, disappearing behind a huge outcropping of veined rock.

Dusk came sooner here, hedged in as they were by rock. Bakhtiian sent them all up to the level area behind the second wall, and put four men on watch below. He even allowed fires. The Chapalii stood huddled beyond the horses, conversing earnestly among themselves. Tess walked to the wall and stared down at the ruins below, and the long line of wall that edged the bluff below them.

Had men or nature destroyed these? On the one side, certainly, the avalanche had been the culprit. But as she studied the ground below, she could not imagine how any army could take this ground; if the defenders had enough people and missile weapons, their position would be virtually unassailable. Surely no human attack could have ruined these buildings-or was it just one huge rambling building? — so thoroughly. Only time, working with storms and harsh winters, could wreak so much havoc. How many thousands of years old must these ruins be to be so extensive and so wracked?

And yet the surface of this wall, chest high and a meter wide, was as smooth as obsidian. She ran her right hand along it, out away from herself and back again. Scars marred it, chips gone, a runnel scored across it in one place, but otherwise cool and even, like a polished stone. She ran her left hand out-and stopped. And stared down.

Symbols, letters, had been traced into the surface. She ran her ringer along them, feeling the dust and debris of long years caught in their track, feeling the eroded edges, blurred by time and wind and rain. The first two, partially eaten away by erosion, she did not recognize. The third she did. The Chapalii glyph for "tai." Duke. She stood frozen for a long moment. The murmur of voices drifted to her on the cold air of evening. Kirill, telling a ribald story about a man who crept into the wrong woman's tent one night. One of the stewards, complaining about not being able to set up the tents. A lower voice, Pavel's, talking about storms.

Breath stuck in her throat, she traced out the fourth symbol with her middle finger. And laughed. The fourth letter was a "w." Or two "v's" linked in the middle. Or the archaic Chapalii glyph for mountains. And the first, going back to it: with a little imagination and a tiny bit of allowance for erosion and time could be the Maya symbol for nought.

"Lord, Tess," she muttered under her breath. "You'll be finding the Rosetta Stone next. There're only so many shapes can be chiseled into stone." Maybe it was cuneiform. She sighed at her own folly and returned to the fire.

Yuri was on watch so she joined Niko and Bakhtiian where they sat together in the half light of one of the fires, arguing good-naturedly about the defensibility of the ruins. Niko smiled as she sat down, but Bakhtiian only glanced at her and continued speaking.

"I can't agree that rain or storm gives the defenders the greatest advantage. Certainly, it ruins footing, but for both the hunter and the hunted. The loss of visibility is a far greater disadvantage for the defender than the attacker.''

"What do you think, Tess?" asked Niko politely.

"I think," said Tess cheerfully, "that this is a terrible place to be holed up in. I feel like a pig trussed up and left in a pen for slaughter. Although I can see that the defending party does have the advantage of fortification and that narrow approach. Especially if they're using spears or bows."

"A jaran man never uses a bow in battle," said Bakhtiian stiffly.

"Good Lord, I wasn't talking about jaran. Sabers alone can't hold this kind of position. I thought that was obvious."

Bakhtiian stood. "Excuse me." He left.

Tess stared after him. "Excuse me! I thought this was a theoretical discussion. Or was it presumptuous of me to have an opinion?"

"My dear girl." Niko laid a hand on her shoulder, a fatherly gesture. "First of all, this is a holy place, and to liken it to a place where one would butcher animals is rather-shall we say-irreverent. Second, you might consider that Bakhtiian was the one who made the decision to lead us all here."

She shut her eyes, wincing. "Oh, God. That was a stupid thing for me to have said." She looked up at Niko. "I suppose I could just as well have said I thought he was a fool for bringing us here."

"Be assured," said Niko softly, "that he is wondering that himself." Then, unexpectedly, he chuckled. "But few people admit their mistakes as readily as you do, my dear."

"I wouldn't learn anything if I always thought I was right. But I will say that he was awfully quick to get angry.''

"He has a heavy burden on him, Tess, and you must remember that."

"I suppose I must. Can you entertain yourself here?"

"Don't mind an old, frail, friendless man. I'll manage."

Tess laughed at him and left. She found Bakhtiian leaning against the wall, staring down at the ruins and beyond them to the neck of the gorge. His form seemed merely an extension of the shadows.

"Ilya?" He didn't move. She put her elbows on that uncannily smooth wall and leaned out, staring down. The wall below stood like a purplish line against a darker background. "I'm sorry. I didn't think."

"No. The things you said were true enough. The khaja will not scruple to use bows against us, when we ride into their lands. And here… well, no man likes to be told something he already knows and doesn't want to hear."

She shifted her elbows to fit into two hollows that marred the level surface of the wall. "And not when he could already be trapped."

"Tess." He turned his head enough to see her. "You have a habit of choosing unfortunate words."

"What-oh, you mean 'trapped'?"

"Among others. I don't-" He reconsidered. "When you return to Jeds, you'll have to be more careful. In khaja lands, people veil their true opinions in a layer of false words."

"Oh, yes." Tess leaned her chin on her intertwined fingers and stared morosely out at the moonlit outlines of the vale. The white ruins looked like a litter of bones on the dark ground. "When I return to Jeds-" She contemplated this event, amazed at her own lack of eagerness. When she returned to Jeds, when she returned to Odys, to be trapped once again by her duty to Charles. She pushed the traitorous thought away. "Why did you agree to bring me along?"

"You're not going to admit that I was right all along?"

"You weren't."

"And you're not going to tell me that now we've been run into a trap worthy of the fire-keeper's daughter herself that you're sorry you came?" He was, she realized, laughing at her.

"No." She found she was blushing. "I'm glad I came," she said softly, looking up at a bright star that shone above the gorge, glittering in the cold air.

"Yes," he said, as if to himself. "Even for this short time." He blinked, as if he had just realized where he was, and moved his elbows to a different place on the wall. "Of course you would be glad. Yuri and-and Fedya, and the others."

"Yes. Yuri and Fedya and the others. It will be hard to board that ship."

"It is always hard to board ships."

"You haven't answered my question."

"No, I haven't. I should have known better than to try to avoid it. Ishii insisted, finally. I'll always wonder what you said to him.''

"But you're too polite to ask."

"That may be." He smiled. "I also admired your spirit."

"Now there's a very handsome way of telling me that I was a nuisance."

"You were. Jaran women are much better behaved."

"I don't believe that for an instant, Ilya." She laughed. "Are you telling me now that you're sorry I came?"

"Tess." In the silence she heard, far away, the low cry of an animal, followed by a slide of rock, distant and muted. "Tomorrow morning you'll see an army in that gorge."

"What do you mean?"

"They did pursue us. At least one hundred soldiers."

"Oh, God, Ilya. And I said-" He was staring down, his hair and body dark, blending into cliff and wall, his face and hands starkly contrasting with the darkness. "Can you forgive me? I can't believe I said-"

"Stop it, Tess."

She swallowed. "How long have you known?" she asked in something resembling a normal tone of voice.

"Last night I went back down the gorge."

"You might have been caught!"

"I doubt it. They have no more night wit than a crying infant."

"One hundred soldiers." She gazed down at the shadowed gorge. From the rocks came a bird's cry, deep and wailing, like an owl's hoot or a woman's mourning. "The khaja must hate the jaran more than I thought."

"This is their holy place as well. For us to be here no doubt defiles it in their eyes. And jaran have raided a town. Many towns. What did Keregin say? They are like us in that they seek revenge."

"And yet-" She turned her head to look at him. "Yet you rode through their lands and into-into this? Why?''

The dim illumination made his complexion ashen and bloodless except for the shaded hollows of his eyes. "It's a kind of madness," he said, as softly as the merest brush of wind.

"No," she said, equally quietly, because she felt impelled to reassure him. But she knew that to be the kind of man he was, doing what he meant to do, he had indeed to be infected with a kind of madness, a fire that would burn inward and outward until, in the end, he would be consumed and his people transformed on the anvil of change. "No, it's a kind of honor."

He turned his head slowly and met her eyes. "Do you think so?"

"Yes."

"Death should not be unwelcome to the honorable man."

Tess felt her insides tighten. She found it difficult to speak. ' 'You once told me you had no intention of dying in battle.'' He gazed at her, the two of them oblivious for that instant to all that surrounded them. Not me, she thought, I'm not going to get burnt in that fire. And then shook her head, disgusted at her own train of thought.

He shook himself as well and smiled, straightening his back. "Did I mention dying?" he asked, his tone light.

Tess attempted a laugh.

"I sent Josef up the back trail," he continued conversationally, "to discover if it can indeed take us out. The pilgrims can look at the site tonight. In the morning, if the trail is good, we'll ride out that way, though I'll have to leave four archers behind to cover our retreat.''

"Who will you leave?"

"Mikhal, Tadheus, Konstans-"

"I'm better than Konstans."

'' You're not included

"Who's the fourth?"

"l am."

"Of course," she said softly. "Where did you learn to shoot so well?"

"In Jeds. I know how to shoot to kill a man. May the gods forgive me."

"Why don't jaran men use bows and arrows in battle?"

"Arrows in battle. That's a grim thought." Below, at the neck of the gorge, there was a slight movement. Stillness, a flash of light hair. Bakhtiian began to speak again. "The plains are as wide as you can see, and there is space to run. There is nothing to defend, except your kin and your honor, and honor rests in facing your opponent in a land where you could just as well flee."

"In this land, between these walls, you'll be dead before you can reach the man you're trying to kill."

"Do you wonder at our enmity?"

"No. I don't wonder."

"Look. The pilgrims have gone down. Just as I suggested to them. A surprise, don't you agree?"

She looked down to the right, where a light moved among the ruins on the far side, against the slide, dipping up and down. They were looking for something.

"Good God." She felt blood drain from her face. What if the symbols on the wall were Chapalii, worn away by time-but they could not have been here that long-worn away by some inexplicable confrontation, then. She had seen, she had touched, their transmitter with her own hands. She had found a fragment of a metallurgy too sophisticated for Rhuian development. What if the transmitter wasn't a single anomaly set up in the last five years to prepare for this expedition? A whole cluster, perhaps dating from the first years after the League's discovery of the planet, or from immediately after Charles's ennobling and his receipt of the system. Set up to monitor him. And if he was disseminating the odd volume of Newton and Aristotle, what else might he be surreptitiously doing that violated his own interdiction order? What if the Chapalii had set up monitoring positions to incriminate him? It made sense.

She needed proof.

"I have to go," she said, staring down at the light. She took one step away.

"No." He stopped her with his voice alone. "Don't go. Please."

She turned back slowly, her throat tight, flushing along her neck and cheeks. She could just make out his face in the moonlight as he watched her, and she trembled, sure that he was afraid that this might be his last night on earth. What would she do if he asked her to spend it with him? God knows, he's attractive enough, she thought; men like him always are.

"If you don't disturb them now," he continued, "then there will be no trouble about leaving before dawn tomorrow. But if you interrupt them, what will I do to convince them to go?"

She recovered her normal breathing, sure that it was fear that made her overreact in this way, cursing herself inwardly for forgetting everything she knew about jaran men. About this man in particular. "Surely when you tell them about this army, they'll agree to run," she said, knowing that the Chapalii could easily defend themselves against a hundred men, that they would, without hesitation. Missile weapons. She did not know whether to laugh or cry, thinking of it. And which would hurt Charles more-that she not investigate here now, or that she let the confrontation come and force the Chapalii to reveal what kind of magic, what kind of utterly superior weaponry, they possessed?

Bakhtiian stared beyond her at the disembodied, flame-less light moving below them. "It has been said before that the khepellis control great powers. Magical powers. I have no use for magic." He broke off. "Not any more. Can't you wait until the shrine of Morava? We'll be there for a hand of days. Enough time for spying, I should think." But it was said without heat or accusation.

Enough time for spying. In a way, it was almost as if he knew what she was thinking, as if he were offering her a way out, an excuse to follow his lead and exercise restraint now for the promise of a later chance. And she found that against his asking, she could not refuse. "If we get that far," she said, though she knew the very words sealed the agreement, that she would not disturb the Chapalii, not at this time and in this place.

"Be assured," said Bakhtiian coolly, "that I do not intend to die here." He turned away from her to return to the fires, as if, she thought with sudden bitterness, now that he has what he wants, the conversation no longer interests him.

Yuri woke her. It was quiet, damp, cold, and still dark. She lay still for a moment, hearing the soft sound of whispers, and horses, and of leather creaking and rustling against cloth.

"Get up, Tess," Yuri said in a low but urgent voice. "We have to get the horses saddled."

"Are we leaving now? There's barely enough light to see by."

"When Josef gets back."

"Yuri, what if that trail is a dead end?"

"It can't be. It just can't be. Come on, you're one of the last."

"The khepelli?"

"They're ready. I don't even think they slept. Niko has them." He pointed, and Tess could faintly make out a group of men saddling horses, all gray and dim. Then he grabbed her hand and pulled her roughly to her feet. "Tess! Don't you understand? A khaja army is down there, waiting to kill us."

"Are they already attacking?" The last dregs of sleep vanished, obliterated by adrenaline.

"No." He looked back, but all was silence and darkness below. "Not until daybreak. They hate us, but they also fear us. It's bad enough having to come up that path one by one, without it being dark as well. Ilya has fifteen men along the lower wall with him. The rest of us will go when Josef returns, then the fifteen from below-"

"And last the four archers?"

"Yes. Last." A horse whinnied softly. "I'm a better archer than Konstans. But he says I'm to go with you and Niko."

Tess thought, he's doing that for me. She said, "If only you had bows for everyone. If only you could all shoot well."

"It isn't honorable," Yuri began, but he hesitated. "They are only khaja, after all." He put out a hand and Tess took it and laid it on her cheek. It was cold. "I don't know what we'll do if we lose Bakhtiian."

"Neither do I," she replied. They saddled their horses in silence and herded the rest to the base of the trail. The khepellis assembled behind them.

It grew light as they finished, Niko saddling one of the tarpans for Bakhtiian.

"Why isn't he riding his black?" Tess asked.

Niko looked up at her, eyes dark. "He wants it to go with the herd." He stood and laid a hand on the horse's withers. "Headstrong idiot," he muttered, and then, "Well, this is all we can do. Damn it, where is Josef? He knows our situation. Something must have happened to him." And then, as if appalled that he had said it, he lapsed into angry silence.

From her position at the base of the trail, Tess could see the neck of the gorge and the first level of wall, gray now, lightening. She glanced at the Chapalii; they looked completely undisturbed, pallid and colorless. Yuri put a hand on her shoulder.

The night retreated as the sun rose. The fifteen men were ranged along the wall below. One of them detached himself from the line and ran up toward them: Bakhtiian. Tess and Yuri gave their reins to Nikita and walked over to Niko, who had gone to the upper wall. Bakhtiian scrambled up the escarpment and pulled himself up to sit on the wall, one leg dangling, the other flat against the stone.

"Josef?" If he was breathing quickly, it was from excitement not from his short run.

"No sign," said Niko.

"I've changed my mind. You'll go up the trail now. We'll follow as soon as we confuse them enough to set them back a bit."

"How are you going to do that?" Tess asked.

He did not even look at her, his attention on the narrow gorge. Movement flashed and vanished. "You mustn't hasten the game."

"What if the trail is a dead end?" Niko asked.

"Then we're dead either way. Let us hope the gods favor us today.''

Movement again at the neck of the gorge. Bakhtiian stood up on the wall. White flashed, and then a white cloth tied to a spear appeared.

"So they want to talk to a priest," said Bakhtiian. "I hope I'll do."

A man appeared, holding the spear aloft. The white cloth shuddered and danced in the breeze. The man halted and placed the spear butt on the ground: parley. Nothing moved. Deep shadows surrounded him. The man shifted nervously and then threw back his head.

"We have no quarrel with jharan," he shouted.

"Jharan jharan," the echoes returned. "He speaks khush!" Tess whispered to Yuri.

"A similar tongue."

"Give us Boctiyan!" the man cried. "The others may go free." His accent was atrocious.

Tess looked up. Bakhtiian was smiling. "What do you want with Bakhtiian?" he shouted down.

"Boctiyan-he has burnt town, killed children, forced women. He is an evil man, cruel, a demon sent by-" He lasped into a description of something, or someone, that sounded horrible but which Tess could not follow.

"I have gotten a reputation," said Ilya. "Of the unsavory kind."

"That," said Tess, "is an understatement."

The man, silent now, stared up at Bakhtiian, a figure lighter than anything below, the wind moving in his hair and flaring the loose sleeves of his blood-red shirt as he stood, unmoving, on the high wall.

"Do you suppose they think I'm mad?" he asked. He grinned, looking like an uncomfortable blend of beauty and menace: the bright child gone evil.

"You are mad," Tess muttered, wondering if he had already forgotten what he had said last night. And then, because he was looking down at her, she went on hastily. "They probably scare their children into bed at night by telling them stories about you."

He laughed. "Gods. I'm still young. I'll end up by giving myself nightmares." He stared down at the man below. "He must be a priest. Don't khaja priests wear that cut of tunic and those thick-what are they called?" He switched to Rhuian briefly. "Baldrics." He lifted his chin and shouted again. "What will you do with Bakhtiian?"

"He has offended our god by killing our holy brothers in Eratia and Tiarton. We of Tialla Great Walls are doubly stricken, for he has fouled our sacred temple by setting his cursed feet in it. Our god must have revenge."

"Niko!" His gaze remained on the priest below. "This temple?"

"I know of no other near here."

"These khaja are a religious people."

"Devout. Fanatic. Their god offends easily, if the death of a holy brother is of greater account than that of a child."

"Keregin of the arenabekh says that they treat their women particularly badly here. Would lying with a woman in here offend them, do you think?"

"Ilya!"

"Damn it, Niko, would it? We need time. Would they try to stop it? Or retreat?"

That hushed sound, Tess thought. It must be the stream.

"Damn you, Ilya. I talked with a khaja once years ago, a man from hereabouts. We were trading."

"Niko."

"He said that to murder or to rape in a temple brought the anger of the god, and-gods! Yes, I remember. Or to see it done!''

"Ha! Priest! Priest!" He shouted, one hand moving to his saber. "So you think / foul your temple."

The priest dropped the spear, grabbed it. "Black demon!" he cried. Two men helmeted with leather coifs appeared and then vanished back into the gorge behind him.

"So your god is offended!" shouted Ilya. "Niko," he said, not turning his head. "Everyone mounted." Niko moved back, Tess and Yuri following. "No," said Bakhtiian. He reached down, glancing back, and grabbed Tess's wrist. "Up." His pull was so strong that instead of coming up to her feet on the wall she lost her balance, boots skidding on the smooth stone, and fell to her knees on the wall. She stared up at Bakhtiian; the priest stared at her. Bakh-tiian reached down and tugged at her braid. Her hair fell loose around her. "Priest!" he shouted. "Since you offend me, I'll defile your temple."

The priest wailed a protest, incoherent at this distance.

"Fight me," Bakhtiian demanded, jerking her up. She twisted away from him and kicked out, half slipping again. He reacted so instinctively that he wrenched her arm and she gasped in pain. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"No!" cried the priest. "Do not defile the temple!"

She was caught, bent backward, half balanced on one hand and half held up by Bakhtiian's arm behind her back. The sky had a transparent quality; the peaks shimmered. "Scream," he said. He put his free hand to the top of her tunic.

"I've never screamed in my life,' she said, paling. "I don't know how."

"Scream, damn it!"

Tess screamed.

"No," cried the priest. Men appeared, armed, bows ready, spears leveled. "No!" he yelled, desperate. "Stay back. Do not compound the offense. Stay back!" The men retreated. The priest fell to his knees and covered his eyes, calling once, twice, to his god, entreating His aid.

Bakhtiian's glance shifted, and he lifted his chin, signaling to the men stationed along the wall below. Then he glanced back. "Yuri. Tell the others to go. We can't wait for Josef. You wait with Tess's horse." He looked down at Tess. "Do you have anything on under this?"

"Yes."

From above, they heard noises, the beginning of the retreat. The priest looked up. Bakhtiian ripped off her tunic. The priest shrieked and covered his face. At the wall, the fifteen riders leapt up and ran for the escarpment.

"That's Nadezhda Martov's pattern," said Bakhtiian, looking bemusedly at the collar of the white blouse she wore under her now-ripped tunic.

"Stay back! Stay back!" the priest was crying. "We must not compound the crime with offense of our own."

The fifteen men reached the upper wall and scrambled over it to land panting on the packed earth behind.

"Everyone go except the archers," said Bakhtiian.

"But-"

At the sudden silence, the priest ceased wailing and lowered his hands from his face.

"Go!"

Twelve left. Tess saw them, quiet and swift, and heard their horses pounding away up the trail. The priest looked up, confused. Then he stood, dropping the spear, and the white cloth fluttered to the ground.

Bakhtiian closed his hand on the thin white fabric of her blouse. And hesitated. "I can't do this."

"Damned male." Tess kicked him, swung with an arm, and squirmed for the edge of the wall. The priest hid his eyes and yelled again at the soldiers behind him to stay back, adding a string of incomprehensible, hysterical words.

Tess's legs lay half off the wall on the upper side, Yuri crouched beneath her. Bakhtiian lay half across her chest, his left arm pinning her to the rock. Cold edges thrust into her back. His head rested two hands above hers, shading her from the sun. He was not looking at her, but staring down at the priest, a small figure in white and blue far below. She noticed how the waves of his dark hair flowed in patterns that had the same sweep and curve and richness as rose petals. A breeze cooled her cheek.

"Now what?" she asked.

Bakhtiian looked down at her. His mouth twitched. "I think I'm going to start laughing."

Tess shut her eyes and choked back a giggle, gulping in the thin air. Six of them left. Someone was not going to make it up that trail. "How long do you think they're going to believe this?" she cried, not at him really but at the fate that had brought them here. She pushed at him, trying to get free. "Yuri!" yelled Bakhtiian. "Get her out of here." To the others: "Ready!"

Yuri hauled her off the wall. Bakhtiian jumped down after. Faintly, she heard yelling from the priest, orders being given. Tears blurred her sight. Yuri dragged her away toward the horses.

"We can't leave them!" Tess pulled away from him. An arrow struck the ground and skittered to a stop a meter from her. Yuri grabbed her at the elbow and yanked her forward, shoving her into Myshla.

"Mount!" he yelled, as if she were deaf. She swung up reflexively. More arrows peppered the packed dirt, too spent to penetrate. "Come on, Tess."

Far below, a man cried out in pain.

"Ilya got one. Damn it, Tess. Ride." He wheeled his horse back and slapped Myshla on the rump. Four arrows hit, and one stuck in the earth. Myshla moved, ears cocked forward. Tess urged her to a trot, hearing the swell of shouts and cries from below. She looked back: four jaran men crouched behind the upper wall, their shirts like blood against the black stone, shooting.

"Yuri!" She waved frantically at him. "They can't hold them!" She reined Myshla back.

"Ride, Tess!" He reined his horse in, waiting for her, impatient, angry, scared. The horses sidestepped, catching their fear. Myshla neighed, calling to those left behind.

"Mikhal. Konstans. Go." Bakhtiian's voice carried easily in the clear air. Bent low, the two men ran for their horses and started after Tess and Yuri. Behind, the last mounts shifted nervously.

"What if they bolt?" she yelled.

"Then they're dead. Damn it, Tess. Damn it. Ride!" He came close enough finally to grab Myshla's bridle and start dragging her. Tess still stared behind. They came to the head of the trail, where it wound up between rocks until a sharp corner hid its path.

"Go!" Yuri waved her ahead. Mikhal and Konstans neared, cantering. She could not see the stretch of wall that sheltered Bakhtiian and Tadheus, only the high, impenetrable barrier of mountain and a tuft of grass fallen, its brown, withering roots exposed, onto a jagged ledge. She kicked Myshla and rounded the corner.

"Yuri!" she screamed.

Black, all in black, like the avenging spirits of the gods. How she turned Myshla and thrust her back through the others to the ruins she never knew. The arenabekh spilled out behind her, out over the cleared area and scrambling down the escarpment to the ruins below. Curses and shouts of fear came from below, and from above, from a man not twenty feet from her, a yell like the scream of a carnivore after blood. The riderless horses bolted but one of the arenabekh caught them and led them over to Bakhtiian and Tadheus. Tasha's shirt bore a wet stain: blood. A broken arrow lay at his feet, its shaft striped with scarlet. The black riders arrayed themselves over the slopes, utter black against gray and gold and green. Like the obsidian walls, they reflected nothing but darkness. From below came only silence. Except for one body lying prone in a shadow, the khaja soldiers had retreated back into the gorge.

Bakhtiian stood and turned. "My own demons from the mountains."

Keregin rode over to Bakhtiian. "Your sweethearts are no longer so eager.''

Bakhtiian looked down at the mouth of the gorge. A few shadows still overlay it, but light descended steadily, and soon enough it would lie fully lit in the glare of the sun. "They don't approve of my relations."

"They'll get over it. Do you want us to entertain them when they return?'' Keregin grinned, peering through halfclosed, heavy-lidded eyes.

"You have no obligation to take on my quarrels."

"The gods have touched your head, Bakhtiian. You send away your jahar to make the odds interesting, and then, because that isn't enough, you send away the last four, so that you can impress the world by beating off-how many?''

"One hundred and seven."

"One hundred and seven! Ah, Bakhtiian, you've taken our fighting from us by uniting the jaran. Whom can we hire ourselves to now? Give us this. Don't be greedy."

"You are only forty riders."

Keregin laughed. "Rather unfair odds against those khaja bastards, don't you think? If we'd wanted to live forever, we'd have married and gotten children. No, let us do this. This day's work alone will make your reputation."

Bakhtiian smiled slightly. "Make my reputation what?"

"Something for you to live with and live up to. And yet, I still have no good idea of your height." He grinned, purposely insulting. "From up here, you still don't seem that impressive."

"I improve as one gets closer."

"Oh, I like you, Bakhtiian." Keregin slapped his thigh. The sound reverberated through the vale, and he chuckled. "If only I were a younger, handsomer man-but no, you wouldn't make that choice, would you? Ho, there, Sergi!" he yelled down to one of the lead riders. "What are our sweethearts up to down there?''

"Cowering," replied the distant man. "Afraid of love, the fools."

"Love!" shouted Keregin. "No. Passion." His shout echoed back at him.

"Keregin, I've never before let others do my work for me."

"If you plan to lead the jaran, Bakhtiian, you'd best get used to it. Other men have made you a devil to our friends below. Why shouldn't you leave us to make you an atrocity that will terrify them for generations?"

"Damn you. Leave a few alive to tell the tale."

The wind was rising. "We'll tell them you called us up from the very depths of your fire-scorched heart."

Tadheus had mounted. Bakhtiian paused, as if to say something, but swung up on his horse without a word. He sat there a moment, while he and Keregin simply looked at one another.

Abruptly, Keregin reined his horse downward and yelled at his riders. They all left the upper level, scattering down into the ruins, and those in the forefront started down to the gate that led onto the meadow and from there to the neck of the gorge. A volley of arrows sprayed out from the gorge. Tess caught her breath, but no one fell.

Not yet. The riders shouted insults at each other, arguing among themselves over who would get to lead the charge. Until Keregin, shouting, "Move aside!" sent his horse down in front, thrusting past the others, through the gate, and plunged down onto the meadow, the rest crowding behind.

Soldiers burst out of the gorge, swords out. Arrows flew.

Two of the riders fell, but four khaja were struck down by the sabers that flashed in the sun. The khaja soldiers retreated in great disorder back into the gorge, and Keregin, to Tess's horror, charged down the neck of the gorge after them, shouting, all in black, like the shadow of death against rock. The rest of the arenabekh followed him, one by one. Shrieks of agony and shrill, exultant cries echoed through the vale.

"Tess!" A touch on her arm. Yuri. Tadheus, Mikhal, and Konstans had already gone, vanished up the trail. Bakhtiian, like her, had been watching. Now he rode up beside her.

"Go on, Tess. Haven't you had enough excitement?"

"I don't call that excitement," she muttered, but neither man heard her, Yuri riding in front, Bakhtiian behind, as they followed the trail up into the mountains, the vale and the sounds of fighting lost in the towering rocks they left behind. Her last glimpse: fair-haired Sergi, thick braid dangling to his waist, saber raised, horse half rearing as he drove it down into the gorge. Someday, she thought, a great avalanche will cover it all up.

Yuri paused at the switchback to glance back at her. He grinned. Tess pulled the last of her ruined tunic free and tossed it away, letting it fall where it would. The sun warmed her back where it penetrated the delicate weave of her blouse. Ahead, a bird trilled.

"I'll get you a new shirt," shouted Bakhtiian from below. Tess laughed. "By the gods," he said, coming up beside her, "we'll give you a red one."

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

"When therefore in the air there occurs a clash of contrary winds and showers."

— Antiphon the Sophist

They followed the narrow trail all day, hemmed in by high rock, then dismounted and walked their horses until the moon set. Tess slept huddled in her cloak, shivering, starting awake at intervals, but even so, Yuri woke her all too soon. The flush of dawn stained the sky, softening the darkness, and they went on.

The path curled through the heights, ascending and descending by turns. For one interminable stretch a fall of rock half obliterated the trail, and they dismounted and picked their way over the gray slivers that littered the ground. At midday Bakhtiian stopped them at a waterfall that fed a lawn of lush grass; the horses drank and grazed. Tess slumped against a rock, chewing on a strip of dry meat. She was glad of the rest at first, but as it stretched out she became afraid. What if the khaja soldiers were behind them? What if Keregin's men hadn't killed them all? What if more khaja had come hunting them? At last Bakhtiian called to them to mount, and they continued on. Still, they saw no sign of their jahar.

"Niko's driving them," said Bakhtiian when they halted by yet another stream. They rode again until the moon was gone, shadows staggering over the ground. Yuri's Kuhaylan mare went lame with a stone in its hoof. Mikhal's chestnut tarpan began to cough and wheeze.

Tess slept badly. When she woke at dawn, one of her calves had cramped. Her back ached. She limped. The path worsened and their pace slowed. Bakhtiian stopped them again at midday to water and graze the horses; Tess ate her food mechanically, without hunger. The shock she had had in the vale, the sudden appreciation of death, had drained her; she kept going now only because Myshla followed the other horses.

In the late afternoon they halted to let the horses breathe, a rough, tearing sound in the stillness. Tadheus, white-faced and sweating, was too exhausted to dismount by himself, but at least his wound was no longer bleeding. Konstans sat hunched and shaking on the ground. After a bit he rose and checked all the horses' hooves with unnerving thoroughness. Then he argued with Mikhal and Bakhtiian over whether to kill the chestnut, who was lagging badly. They decided to kill it.

Tess leaned against Myshla, not wanting to watch. She breathed in the mare's hot, dry smell as if it were tenacity. No matter how much of the thin air she gulped down, it was never enough.

"Here, Tess." It was Yuri, holding a cup of blood, still warm. "Drink."

Tess clutched Myshla's mane, feeling dizzy with revulsion. "I can't."

"Drink it."

Because it was an order, she obeyed.

"Thank the gods, Myshla and Khani are holding up so well," said Yuri, taking the empty cup from her. He rubbed Myshla's nose affectionately. "Ilya says he's never seen horses with the stamina of these khuhaylans. The khepellis must be the finest breeders of horses in all the lands. Come, Tess. We need your help." He left.

Tess went to relieve Mikhal, who was watching the horses, so he could go help with the slaughter. The horses stood, heads drooping, exhausted. Tasha dozed on the ground. Yuri's words bothered her: the Chapalii-and the Arabians they had given to Bakhtiian-who should have been doing the worst on this journey, were doing the best. Chapalii efficiency. The horses had to have been altered somehow. Yuri brought more blood, and she lifted Tasha up and helped him drink. After an interminable time, the men finished their work. They went on, leaving the chestnut's carcass to rot on the path behind. Yuri and Konstans stank of blood.

The moon rose, bright, throwing hallucinatory shadows on the rock walls that surrounded them. Tess held onto

Myshla's reins and stumbled along in Yuri's wake. This went on forever.

Eventually the path narrowed. Directly ahead rose a blind wall of stone blocking their trail. Somewhere in the rocks an animal called, mocking them. A shout carried back from Konstans, who rode at the fore. She could not see him. The sheer cliff loomed before her, impassable, huge, and she began to rein Myshla aside, for surely they must halt here, having no farther to go. But the path twisted sharply to the right between two hulking black boulders, angled back to the left, and she heard a laugh above her and looked up.

"Kirill!" At that moment she could have seen nothing more pleasing.

He stood on a small ledge, looking more then usually self-satisfied. "Tess. I could have spitted your four companions as they rode past, but I thought that if I did, I'd block the path with bodies and then you couldn't get through."

Tess laughed, spirits already lighter. "You're too good to me, Kirill. Where can I find a space large enough to sleep?"

"At my breast," said Kirill cheerfully, aware that Bakh-tiian had come up behind her and was listening.

"Wanton," said Tess.

"If you go on," he added, not a bit contrite, "it opens up and we've made a little camp."

She walked on. The path remained an arm's span wide for about one hundred paces. Shadowy forms, concealed at strategic intervals, greeted her. Where the path widened, Niko was waiting. He took Myshla's reins.

"Yuri says you're tired, child. Let me take the horse."

She merely stood after he left, her eyelids fluttering, her head sinking. A low humming filled her ears.

"Tess.'' Yuri took hold of her hand and led her to a small space away from the path. ' 'Sleep.'' He dumped her blanket and cloak on the ground and left. She slept.

The sun woke her. Its warmth on her face felt like the stroke of a hand, soft and comforting. Until it occurred to her that in this ravine the sun had to be very high to shine down on her; that they should still be here at this late hour of the morning was impossible. She sat up.

"I thought you'd never wake up."

Looking up, she saw Yuri smiling at her from where he perched on top of the boulder against which she slept.

"Why are we still here?" She got hastily to her feet and blinked in the brightness. Ahead, she saw the camp-the four Chapalii tents and one fire crowded in between the high walls. One scrubby, yellow-barked tree shaded the fire, and a few bushes clung to the slopes. "It must be midday."

"Ah, Tess," he said in Rhuian, "your perspicacity amazes me."

"Why, Yuri, your vocabulary is finally improving."

He grinned, then lifted his head and looked around, so remarkably like a lizard that Tess laughed. He slid down the rock to stand beside her, lowering his voice. "Ilya and Niko had a terrible argument last night. You were already asleep. Ilya was furious with himself for not sending everyone ahead up the trail to begin with, but Niko told Ilya that only a damn fool sent horsemen ahead on a trail that hadn't been scouted and that other circumstances had forced his hand. Well, it was a good thing the arenabekh came along when they did."

Tess nodded.

"But now we can rest and take an easy pace to our next camp. You looked just awful last night though you look fine this morning."

"How you flatter me."

"It comes naturally from having four sisters. One learns how to keep on their good side."

"Where is our next camp?"

"The first good site with forage we come to. We have to wait for Ilya."

"Where did he go?"

"Back to the temple."

A cloud shaded the sun. She shivered. "You can't mean it."

"What do you mean, I can't mean it? He took fresh horses and left as soon as he saw that Niko had everything in order. After they had argued, of course. Niko thought Josef should go back."

"Last night? But we'd been riding for two and a half days."

"Don't you think I know that? If Khani wasn't so damned stubborn she'd have gone dead lame from that stone, and we'd have killed her. Pavel say she'll be fine. But the chestnut-" He shook his head. "Still, I could hardly keep my eyes open. Surely you know that Bakhtiian has nothing in common with such weak stuff as you or me. So off he went, fresh as a spring breeze, singing-" Tess giggled. "Very well. He wasn't singing. You must want something to eat."

"I'm starving."

Yuri laid a hand on her shoulder before she could leave the shelter of the rock. "Niko is going to give you a red shirt. I wasn't supposed to tell you, but I thought you'd rather be warned."

Her face suddenly felt hot and it was not just due to the sun emerging from the clouds.

"I don't remember any woman being given a red shirt. It makes you-this story will be told everywhere, even after you-"

"After I what?"

He hung his head. "After you leave us," he said softly, but, being Yuri, he brightened immediately. "That's so much later I can't even think of it."

"Good. I don't know what you're talking about." She took a step and paused, not quite willing yet to be fussed over-for knowing these riders, fussing it would be. The conical white tents caught her eye. Ishii sat outside one, alone. Rakii and Garii reclined on the rocks above, gambling to pass the time. Meanwhile all eight stewards were busy saddling horses and taking down the first two of the tents.

Had she really feared them so much? Like the khaja priest's terror at the possibility of sacrilege in the temple, the Chapalii's adherence to custom and hierarchy had protected her all along. She could spy on them because of her rank. Ishii would keep secrets from her because his mysterious liege outranked her. But Garii's allegiance puzzled her. Clearly he must be pledged to Ishii's house to have come on this expedition. As clearly, he had pledged himself personally to her in direct violation of his previous pledge, a breach of Chapalii custom that ought to brand him as something lower than a serial killer in her eyes. And yet, as a human, she wondered if perhaps he was just trying to better himself, hoping to attach himself to the household of a lord who outranked Ishii.

"Tess? Are you coming?"

She sighed and transferred her gaze from the Chapalii to the riders, who gathered in anticipation of her arrival. After staring death in the face, she could not imagine why she had ever really feared the Chapalii. Truly, they posed no greater threat than the threat this little presentation posed to her composure: it was her own resources being challenged. Death-real, stark, painful death, that Fedya had faced without flinching-was something else again.

"Tess." Niko came forward to lead her over to the fire. "We have something to present to you, which you have fairly earned." Somehow Kirill had got hold of the shirt so that he got to give it to her along with a kiss on the cheek. Despite all this, she still found that she could receive it without blushing. Until Yuri said, "But, Tess, that's exactly your color!" and everyone laughed. The sound echoed round the little vale, and she blushed and smiled and knew suddenly that she had gained a whole family of cousins and uncles-that gifted one tent and one mirror and one shirt, she now had a tribe, a place where she belonged simply for herself.

Unexpectedly, in the chaos that attended leaving, Garii brought her saddled tarpan.

"Lady Terese. Please allow me to offer you this service," he said colorlessly, offering her the reins.

"I thank you, Hon Garii," she said, accepting them. He flushed pink.

"If I may be permitted to ask a question?" She nodded again. "These men have given you a shirt. Although my understanding may be incomplete, the gift itself seems to act as a symbol of your acceptance into their bonding unit. Perhaps you will be generous enough, Lady Terese, to enlighten me on this."

"No, it is true enough, what you surmise."

"And yet," he hesitated, colors chasing themselves across his cheeks in a brief, muted display, "they have offered you this not because you are Tai-endi, the heir of a duke, but because of acts you have yourself accomplished."

"That is also true, Hon Garii."

"This culture," he said, "is very different from my own." He bowed, glanced back to where the Chapalii were readying their horses, and looked again at Tess. "My family of Takokan has been pledged to that of the Hokokul lordship for only five hundred of your years, a great dishonor to my clan, for we had an impetuous ancestor who transferred his pledge away from the Warakul lordship when that lord used my ancestor's wife and daughters in an impolite fashion."

"Hon Garii, why are you telling me this?"

For the first time, he looked her straight in the eye, without arrogance and yet without any shame either. "Lady Terese, what has passed between us-has passed between us. I withhold from you none of my family's disgrace. I trust you to judge fairly." He bowed and retreated, walking back to Cha Ishii and the other Chapalii.

What had passed between them? He could be referring to nothing but his offer of personal loyalty to her the night Doroskayev had died. An offer that would make him a pariah in his own culture should it become public. But given the protection of a duke's heir, would being a pariah even matter? No wonder opportunism was so reprehensible a trait in a culture whose hierarchy had not changed in centuries.

She sighed and rubbed her finger along the smooth red silk of her new shirt. Not even the Chapalii could ruin this day. She grinned and mounted and rode with Yuri. They took a slower pace for the sake of the horses, and it was fine weather for the sake of her equally fine mood.

At dusk on the second day they camped in a small, high-sided valley tinted with green, the ghost of summer still resisting autumn's pull. From one of the containing ridges the plateau could be seen, flat and yellowing. The sight of it was welcome. Two days passed uneventfully. In the early afternoon of the third, the watch on the trail let out a shrill yell, and soon Bakhtiian could be seen, slowly leading a string of fifteen horses, his black at the forefront, along the valley to the camp.

He looked terrible. The stallion no longer had any trace of glossy sheen to its coat, but it held its head up. A number of men ran to care for the horses. Vladimir took the black. Ilya washed first, and he went from there directly to his tent. That was the last anyone saw of him until morning. Everyone rose early the next day and lavished their energy on the horses, these relics of the arenabekh, yet always they kept an eye on Bakhtiian's tent. When he finally emerged, however, Niko and Josef and Tadheus greeted him first. Tess and Yuri sat on some boulders a bit above the camp, tossing stones at a cleft in the rock, watching the four men as they talked.

"How does he keep his looks?" Tess asked.

Yuri grinned and began to laugh, an infectious and utterly irresistible influence. "I dare you to ask him that."

Tess swallowed a giggle. "Don't, Yuri. I will."

Yuri put a hand over his mouth. Below, the stream shone, sparkling in the sunlight. "I don't believe it."

"Bakhtiian!" yelled Tess.

Yuri choked and held his stomach. "Tess!" he squeaked.

Bakhtiian said something to his companions, detached himself, and walked toward them, his boots light on the moss and low grass. Yuri shook in silent mirth, tears seeping from his eyes.

"We were just wondering," said Tess as Bakhtiian came up to them, "how you manage to keep your looks, running around at the pace you do." She had so far managed some semblance of seriousness, but a giggle escaped from Yuri and she had to cough violently to stop herself from laughing. Bakhtiian stared at them for a moment, as if puzzled. He drew himself up very straight and advanced on them sternly. Yuri's glee vanished like a flake of snow on fire.

"Oh," he said, eyes widening. "I take it all back, Tess."

"All of it?" Bakhtiian halted in front of the young man, arms crossed.

"Help!" said Yuri faintly, but Tess started to laugh. Yuri stared at her in horror. Bakhtiian climbed up to sit on the rock, with Yuri between him and Tess. He wiped dust from his hands.

"Well," he said to Yuri, "it is my experience that when a woman shows interest in a man's looks, he'd best begin to pay attention."

"What!" Tess's laughter vanished. "I deny everything." She blushed.

"I keep my looks," said Bakhtiian with dignity, still looking at Yuri, "by not indulging in frivolity."

"He must have been a dull child," said Tess to Yuri.

"And a dull youth," said Yuri.

"And I fear he's becoming a dull man," finished Tess. She glanced surreptitiously at Bakhtiian. It might have been that he was blushing slightly, or perhaps only the brisk wind on his cheeks, but in any case he had found something in the camp that attracted his gaze.

"I don't really believe it," said Yuri to Bakhtiian. "You must have been the boy in the middle a hundred times before you were twenty."

"At the risk of destroying your very gratifying faith in me, Yuri, I must be honest with you. It pains me even now to remember how very thoroughly I was ignored by the girls when I was young."

"I don't believe it," said Yuri.

"It might even have partially influenced my decision to go to Jeds. And of course there was-" He paused and seemed to change his mind about something. "Nataliia," he finished.

"Of course." Yuri stared at Bakhtiian as though he had never seen him before. "Ilya, I-" He flushed. "I didn't mean to…"

Bakhtiian's gaze flashed past Yuri to Tess and immediately returned to Yuri. Tess suddenly got the impression that this entire conversation was between her and Bakhtiian, with Yuri serving simply as the intermediary. A small, rodentlike animal rushed across rock, paused to look at them, and ran on, disappearing into the tiny crevasse.

"Your sister Nataliia?" Tess asked.

"Yes," he answered, still looking at Yuri. He smiled slightly. "Growing the beard may have helped." He stroked the dark line of his beard absently.

"Men! You're all of you vain."

"We have to be," said Yuri, turning to Tess. "Since we live every moment of our lives subject to the whims of women."

"Do you?"

"Yes," said Yuri and Bakhtiian at the same moment.

Tess opened her mouth to reply, closed it, and shrugged.

"Ilya," said Yuri. "What did you find at the temple?"

Bakhtiian shut his eyes. The high ring of sabers startled Tess. Down in the camp, several men were practicing. "Nothing that I ever want you to see, Yurinya. So. We ride at dawn tomorrow.''

"That bad?" asked Yuri.

"Autumn also brings the early storms, here by the mountains. We're ten or fifteen days now from the shrine of Mo-rava. We have to reach the port before the ships stop sailing for the winter months."

"It must have been terrible," said Yuri to Tess.

"I brought you something," said Bakhtiian. A flat tone of metal from below, a curse, and laughter. "A gift from the dead. Run down to my tent and bring me the long leather sack. There is something for Tess, too."

"Of course!" Yuri scrambled off the rocks, dust spraying down after him, and ran down into camp.

"Where I come from," said Tess, resting her elbow on one knee and turning her head to look directly at Bakhtiian, "we call that contriving to get rid of someone without insulting them."

Bakhtiian smiled. "I believe it's called much the same thing everywhere. I want to apologize to you."

"For what?"

He stared down at his hands. Eyes lowered, he looked so incongruously modest that she had to smile. "At the temple. My behavior was… inexcusable. For a man to behave toward a woman in such a fashion is… shameful."

"Ilya! We did that to save lives."

He did not look up. The brown rodent ran out from the crevasse and halted on the next rock, its bright eyes fixed on them. "Please believe that I would never have done such a thing if I'd been thinking clearly, but I never think clearly when I'm in battle."

"No, you think quickly, and that is why you're a good commander.''

He glanced up at her. "You don't hold it against me?"

"Bakhtiian!" She slapped a hand down on her thigh. The little animal scrambled away. "Did you ever see a play in Jeds?" He nodded. "We were acting. It was a scene played out for that moment, nothing else."

"I learned well enough in Jeds how lightly they hold such violence." He studied his palms where they lay open in his lap. "This is not a thing that is ever spoken of between men and women, but should a jaran man ever try-may the gods forgive me for even thinking of such a thing-to force a woman, he would be dead the next instant. And no man would lift a hand to stop the women from executing their justice."

"There are many things I admire about the jaran, and that is one of them." She lowered her voice. "Ilya, you and I understand why it was done. Every man in this jahar understands." Reflexively, she smoothed the silky soft sleeve of the red shirt she now wore.

He shrugged conciliatorily and at last met her eyes. "You don't think I'm a demon?"

"No." She could not resist smiling. "Though I liked Keregin's suggestion that you called the arenabekh from-what did he say? — from the depths of your fire-scorched heart. Did they all die?"

"I hope so, since those who did not would have been taken prisoner by the khaja."

"And the horses?"

"Those too badly injured I killed. The others-" He gestured below, "-as you see, though not all will be able to keep our pace. Here is Yuri." And it occurred to Tess that Bakhtiian's own remount had not come back with him.

Bakhtiian jumped down from the rocks, took the bag from Yuri and, rolling down the edges, carefully lifted sabers out and placed them side by side on the ground.

"Gods!" exclaimed Yuri. Tess merely gaped. Light flashed from the blades.

"Spoils," said Ilya. "I thought they would rather we had them than the khaja. I couldn't carry many, so I took the ten best. And an eleventh, for myself." He looked at Tess. "Tobay. Do you remember? His saber is as good as his arm." He reached down. "Here, Yuri. This one for you."

"But, Ilya, it's beautiful." Yuri tested it, turning his arm, feeling its weight. "I can't possibly deserve it."

"Perhaps it will inspire you to practice as often as you should. This for Mikhal. Oh-" He laughed, picking up another by its ornate, jeweled hilt. "This for Vladi, of course." He replaced them one by one in the bag until there was only one left: a delicately curved thing that rang when he struck the blade with his nail. "Cousin," he said to Tess. "Our kinsman Yurinya did very poorly for you when he got you a saber. He must have applied to his most miserly cousin who could scarcely bring himself to begrudge you his third blade, and only a few men have two. That you have any aptitude for saber at all is incredible, considering how ill-balanced and ill-wrought that thing is. I suggest you take it off, cast it in the dirt, and forget you ever knew it." He held out the saber. She stared at it. When he put it into her hands, the metal cold on her fingers, she merely continued to stare, until she saw the mark.

"This is Keregin's saber. I remember this mark. Is it a rune? I can't take this."

"I think he would have been pleased to know you inherited it. It was the finest blade on the field. Yes, that is a rune on the hilt."

"What does it mean?"

Bakhtiian frowned. "It can't be explained in one word. It means, the soul that finds the wind that will bear it the highest and does not shrink from being borne. The soul that does not fear being swept up into the heavens. The soul kissed by the gods that rejoices in their cares. That hardly does it justice. Words are too poor."

"Excuse me," said Tess in a small voice. She turned and walked away from them, cradling the saber against her like a baby.

Bakhtiian stared after her, motionless, his back to the sun, his face shadowed.

"Ilya," said Yuri, "that was your old saber you gave me for Tess when we left the tribe."

Bakhtiian started and bent to hoist the bag, his face lit now as he turned into the sun. "Let's take these down," he said.

Tess spent the rest of the day with her saber, sharpening it, polishing it, turning it so that it flashed in the sun, convincing now this man, now that, to give her a short lesson in fighting. She slept with it that night and welcomed the dawn and their early departure because there was nothing more glorious to her at that moment than the feeling of her saber resting on her hip as she rode.

"I'd have brought you another," said Bakhtiian, "if I'd known you'd be so pleased with this one."

Tess reined Myshla past a slight irregularity of ground and laughed. "Gods! What would I do with two? There's enough to learn with one."

Bakhtiian smiled. "Watch yourself, or your brother won't recognize you when you reach Jeds."

"Why not?"

"You've begun to swear in khush. The outer trappings of an alien culture are easily assumed, but when the inner workings begin to touch your own, then you're in danger."

' 'In danger of what? Being consumed? Amnesia?''

"What is amnhesia?"

"Forgetting who you are."

He considered. Tumbled boulders obscured the sides of the path. Plants thrust up from every cleft and crack in the stone, reaching for the light. "There were times, in my three years in Jeds, when I felt confused as to who I was, but I was never in any danger of succumbing to that culture. I'm not very adaptable."

"But that's not true, Ilya. You are."

"Being able to understand alien ways, being able to accept the fact of them, is not necessarily adaptability. I am jaran heart and soul. Nothing will change that."

The path snaked up to the top of a ridge, where they halted. Far below Tess saw the golden sheet of the plateau. They sat for a moment in silence and simply looked. He had killed a man-long ago it seemed now-for transgressing the code of jaran religion, for nothing more than killing a bird, and yet he struggled to understand Newton and was compelled to ask what amnesia was, hearing it mentioned. It was as if half of him questioned incessantly and the other half never questioned at all.

"Perhaps," she replied at last. "But many people would not be able to understand enough of the inner workings of another people to know that, say, the religious strictures of the khaja would be strong enough to stop them at the temple when-"

"Please." Bakhtiian turned away from her, urging his black down the slope. "It is my disgrace that I acted as I did. It is also improper for a man and a woman to speak of such a thing."

"Forgive me," said Tess coldly, but the comment was addressed to his back. She followed him as they descended into a long valley. A thin layer of clouds trailed along the horizon. A snake moved sluggishly off the white-soiled path, leaving an elegant line in the dust. Here, deep in the valley, there were few sounds.

After a long while, he spoke. "Those clouds are no threat, but here in the hills, the weather can change very quickly."

Tess, still angry at his rejection of her and feeling humiliated that she had stupidly broached a subject that offended him, did not reply. Instead, she pretended she was studying the lay of the land. The trail forked below where a huge rock outcropping thrust up from the ground. One path ran on toward the plateau, but the other ran up the opposite ridge and disappeared over its crest. Even so, she was surprised when he pulled up next to the split in the path. In the shadow of the rock lay a dead shrub, scattered and brittle. Bakhtiian dismounted and stacked a triangular pile of rocks on an area of flat ground to one side of the fork.

"What message are you leaving?" she asked, irritated that he had not volunteered the information.

He glanced up at her. "These trails are too well worn. If the arenabekh knew about them, surely the khaja do, too. I want to scout the upper trail, see where it leads. But the jahar should go down. If we're attacked, better for us that we be in the open." He hesitated, frowned, and looked away. "We'll join them at nightfall. Of course."

"Of course." The sunlight stung her eyes. She shaded them with one hand.

"You can wait, if you wish, and ride with the jahar."

"No," said Tess, sure that he only wanted to be rid of her. "I'm curious to see where the trail leads."

He shrugged, and they went on. For a time they saw the second trail like a thread winding away beneath them before they topped the ridge. Beyond, the path dipped into a shallow, rocky canyon, climbing up the canyon's far slope in a series of gradual switchbacks. The sun rose steadily as they rode up to the far crest. Below them now lay a forested valley. Trees, touched orange and yellow on their leaves, stood in thick copses that thinned and dissipated into meadows and rock-littered open areas. Flashes of gray sheets of water showed here and there, streams and pools. It was nearing midday. In the distance, at the far end of the valley, smoke rose.

"Khaja," said Bakhtiian. "Some kind of settlement. Come on." They rode down. The light, broken by leaves and branches, made patterns on their faces and hands. Reaching the valley floor, they found a thick grove of trees and dismounted and led their horses in. Tess tied them on long reins to a sturdy pair of trees within reach of grass and water. Bakhtiian left.

So much vegetation. Scents blended here, damped down by shadow. Moss hung from branches.

He reappeared presently, surprising her, his approach had been so quiet. "I don't know. No doubt we'd be better off leaving, but I'd like to scout out that settlement. I can get there and back by mid-afternoon. We can still catch the jahar before the moon sets."

"You can get there and back?" Water pooled and murmured near her feet, slipping in and out of light as leaves swayed in the breeze. "I'm not staying here by myself." "Soerensen, I gave you the option of riding with the jahar. Now you can stay here with the horses. The settlement is at the other end of the valley, and not large, by the signs. You won't be found here."

"Did Keregin say something about how the khaja hereabout treat their women? How do you suppose they would treat me, Bakhtiian, if they found me here alone?"

He flushed and looked away from her. "Very well," he said in a tight voice. "The horses can protect themselves." He began to walk away, halted, and glanced back at her as she followed him. "But when we get close to the village, you'll stop where and when I tell you."

"Agreed."

But they had not gotten even a third of the way up the valley when Bakhtiian froze suddenly. Despite her efforts to move just as he did, Tess still made twice as much noise, shifting at the wrong moment, getting her hair caught in branches. When he stopped abruptly and put his hand back to warn her, she stiffened to a halt: following the line of his gaze, she saw the hunter.

The hunter could not have seen them yet, but he had certainly heard something. He turned his head this way and that, listening for further noise. Through the brown branches and fading green and yellow thickets their scarlet shirts would betray them. She dared not stir. She wanted to sneeze.

The hunter moved, shoulders twisting as he turned half round to look behind him. In a single movement, Bakhtiian stepped backward and pushed Tess down. She caught her weight on her hands and lowered herself to lie full on the ground. The leaves and moss smelled of moisture and rich soil. Bakhtiian lay beside her, barely breathing. His arm still lay across her back. His hand rested on her far shoulder. Her other shoulder pressed against his, her hand caught under his chest, party to the movement of his lungs, her hip and thigh warmed by his, her foot captured under his ankle.

The hunter whirled back, hearing the rustle. He checked his knife, drew an arrow from his quiver, and fitted it to his bow.

Bakhtiian's hand tightened on her shoulder, his thumb tracing the line of her shoulder blade through her shirt, up and down. A strange double awareness descended on her, an instant drawn out into eternity: the man tracking them; the weight of Ilya's arm on her back, the pressure of his fingers, the unintentional caress. Death stalked her in the guise of a black-haired, middle-aged khaja hunter. Desire had already trapped her, how long ago she did not know, only knowing now that her heart pounded so fiercely not just because she was afraid of being killed. If they had been alone, and this had been Fedya, the cushioning leaves would have been invitation enough-but Fedya had understood that some expressions could be left pure, that they need not become entangled in deeper concerns. Fedya had perhaps been a simpler man. Certainly his needs had been simple, and they had accorded with hers.

Nothing with Bakhtiian would be simple. Imagine that restless, penetrating intelligence focused on her. Imagine him, compulsively ambitious, driven, obsessed with conquest, discovering that the sister and heir of the Prince of Jeds-the greatest city he knew of-was interested, attracted, drawn to him.

The children of different worlds, there were so many things between them that could never be resolved. She had a duty to Charles, she had to leave, she could never tell Bakhtiian where she really came from, and she would live-however primitive Dr. Hierakis might claim the longevity treatments were-she would long outlive him. But they could be friends, surely, and to let the vagaries of physical attraction, the insidious compulsion of the loins, ruin that, ruin everything- Never! If I once gave way to him, I would burn like straw. She would not accept it. In that instant of drawn-out time, fear fought desire and won, and she fled, internally, seeking refuge with cold Reason, a friend of little comfort but great constitution.

Time started again. His hand moved, as cautious as the hunter, wandering to her neck. His fingers, light, smooth, brushed her skin. The hunter paused; Tess's hands tightened into fists; Bakhtiian drew his breath in sharply.

He rolled away from her, leapt to his feet, and dodged left through the undergrowth, making a great deal of noise.

The hunter dashed forward, pulled back his bow, and stopped. Nothing moved. Silence had fallen like a sudden fog. The hunter stared fixedly in the direction Bakhtiian had run. A twig snapped to Tess's right. The hunter's gaze swung: around, exploring. She saw Bakhtiian moving up behind him. The hunter began to swing back. Her hand found a pebble. She flung it as far as she could to her right. It clacked against twigs. A bird fluttered noisily up into the trees. The hunter whipped back, taking a step toward her. The rocky ground of a little meadow lay behind him. Bakhtiian moved to the edge of the trees.

The hunter took another step toward her, eyeing the trees above. She drew the Chapalii knife-but no, Ilya would see. She had to save it as a last resort. She found another rock and flipped it away. A dull thup as it struck the leaves of a nearby bush. The hunter's gaze shifted down, and down. Bakhtiian pushed himself away from the trees, sprinting for the hunter's back.

Stumbled. Fell, landing on one knee, his head thrown back. The hunter, bow drawn, whirled and aimed.

Tess jumped up, shouting, and dove for him, hand slipping on the knife. Twisting back, he shot at her. As she threw herself flat, conscious in a detached way of the nearness of the bow, the notched arrow, the jolt up her arms as she struck the earth, she saw a flash, heard a gasp of pain and, a second later, a grunt.

For a long moment she lay perfectly still. The heavy scent of moss and leaves drowned her. Dampness seeped into her palms and through the cloth of her trousers at her knees. Finally she raised her head slightly. The arrow lay a body's length away, its point slid under a clump of yellow lichen. There was no sound at all from the two men. She rolled onto her side and pushed herself up with one arm.

Bakhtiian stood in front of her, his face white, his saber bloody. Something in his stance was peculiar. He looked fierce, wild, with his hair mussed and his empty hand in a fist, but she was not scared. Instead she stared up at him, a sudden sinking in her heart, knowing without knowing why that the easy, cheerful friendship she had with Yuri was a thing she could never have with Bakhtiian. Something else waited; she felt it like a force between them. Behind him, leaves drifted down from the trees, shaken loose by the wind.

"If you've killed him," she said, "we'd better go."

He stared at her. "You could have been killed!" His eyes seemed black with anger, focused on her face.

"By God, Bakhtiian!" She could have struck him for belittling her in such a way. "I did what had to be done." He did not hold out a hand to help her up. She would not have taken it in any case.

She did not want to see the body. As she stood, she sheathed the knife and turned away, to go back the way they had come, to return to the horses, to leave this valley. A soft noise behind her stopped her.

"I can't walk." His voice was strained and thin.

She turned back, recognizing all at once the whiteness in his cheeks and the pinched line of his mouth: he was in pain. He was standing on one leg.

"My knee." It was hardly more than a whisper. His eyes shut. Shadow grew on the meadow. "I have to sit down," he said, almost apologetically.

She put out a hand and, using it for leverage, he lowered himself without putting any pressure on his injured knee, but he winced as he touched the ground. Beyond him, she saw the bloody corpse. A line of sunlight illuminated the open, staring eyes.

"Oh, God," said Tess.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

"Hollows, ditches, caves and gates."

— Pherecydes of Syros

It was very still, as if all the animals had fled, only the whispering lilt of a distant stream like a muted counterpoint to the undertone of his ragged breathing. Branches clicked together in a rustle of wind. He sat against a slim tree trunk, eyes shut, face ashen. She collapsed to her knees beside him.

"Ilya?" Her voice shook.

For a long moment, as the vibration of her spoken word disappeared into the stillness, he did not move. Finally, he pulled his trouser leg out of his boots and probed his knee, his fingers as careful as an artist's. The blood drained from his face. He was so obviously on the edge of agony that it hurt her to watch him. His breath shuddered, stopped, and began again with forced evenness, but he finished and at last lifted his hands away and opened his eyes. They had a vacant, unseeing cast.

"Not broken." Each syllable was distinct, as though it were hard for him to form them.

"Oh, Lord." It came out of her like a sigh.

Abruptly his gaze sharpened on her. "Can't you do anything?"

He might as well have slapped her. She stood up, spun away from him, and walked, hands clenched, over to the dead hunter.

The hunter could have been asleep on his side except for the spray of blood that spread out from his neck, soaking into dirt and moss. A tiny black bug crawled across one of his open eyes. She pressed the heels of her palms across her eyes. Bile rose in her throat.

She picked up all his weapons-bow, arrows, dagger-and set them down beside Bakhtiian. Took in a full breath and walked back to the hunter. First she stripped him of what clothing was not too drenched in blood to be unusable. Then she grabbed his ankles-almost dropped them because they were still warm, the skin soft, yielding under her fingers. She gagged, clenched her lips together. His toes were white; hair grew below the first joint, but the nails were reddish-brown and dirty, as if they were already decaying.

She dragged him downslope over the rough ground and into a dense thicket. Branches stung her back and head and arms. She shoved him down an incline, and he rolled farther into the vegetation, twigs snapping under his weight. Retreating, she did what she could to cover his path, picking up dead branches and sweeping the trail the body had left until she came back to the congealing blood and scattered clothes at the beginning. Dirt stuck to the soles of her boots. The heavy scent of blood permeated the air. She put her hand to her throat, swallowed once, and turned and ran upslope, sound scattering out from her feet, until she was out of earshot. Then she dropped to her knees and was sick.

The stream murmured nearby. Its gentle chorus brought her back to herself, and she rose, still trembling, and explored until she found it. The shock of bitterly cold water on her face made her think again.

She ran back to the clearing.

Bakhtiian had not moved. She gathered up the dead man's trousers and two tunics, shook them off, and went over to Bakhtiian.

"Ilya. Put these on."

He looked up at her. Only a thin line of iris gave color to his eyes. His gaze strayed past her to the clearing. "He's gone."

"Yes. What happened to your knee?"

His gaze did not light on any one thing. "It went backward. I went forward."

"Hyperextended, probably." She offered him the clothing. "Do you need help?"

"I have clothes on."

"Damn it! You have to stay warm. Over yours." She tossed the clothing in his lap. "Let me see what I can do about your knee."

Just beyond the path of blood that stained the center of the clearing lay the dead hunter's sandals and heavy leggings. A yellowing undershirt lay draped across them, half covering a small, hollowed-out animal horn tied to a thong, the last of his possessions. She grabbed the undershirt and walked back to the stream.

It was like encasing her fingers in ice, but she grimly soaked the cloth and ran back to Bakhtiian. He had gotten both tunics on and was cleaning his saber on the hunter's trousers, slowly and with a kind of desperate concentration.

"I told you to put those on." She crouched next to him. If he heard her, he gave no reply. "Ice the injury," she said, feeling as if she were talking to herself. "Isn't that what you're supposed to do first?" She pulled up his trouser leg, and winced. Already the knee was swollen. Discoloration mottled the skin. He paused in cleaning the blade, and his eyes shifted to her. In a swift, careful move, she wrapped the cold cloth around his knee.

Suddenly, his hands relaxed their grip on his saber, his lips parted slightly. He shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree. Tess finished cleaning his saber with two smooth strokes. Then she set to work again. She found a walking stick and two straight branches for a splint, then eased off his boot-already it was tight at the top as the swelling increased-and bound his calf in the leggings. The blood that lay like rust on the rocks and lichen in the middle of the clearing could be disguised for the time by spreading it out with branches, sprinkling dirt over it, ripping up long swatches of moss and draping them across stained rock. She broke up this activity with trips to the stream, to resoak the shirt and bind his knee. Last, she threw the little animal horn into the same thicket that held the body. Like a grave offering, she thought, hearing the light thud as it struck dirt. Then there was only silence. It was almost as if the hunter had never existed. Almost.

"Can you walk yet?" she asked, going back to Ilya.

His eyes were still shut. "Yes."

"We've got the hunter's belt and some rope from the quiver, for the splint."

He opened his eyes. "Very well."

After a time they managed something marginally effective. He grasped the heavy walking stick with one hand, bent his good leg under him, and pushed off. Halfway up his bad leg shifted, pressing into the ground. He gasped. Before he could fall, Tess grabbed him by the waist and pulled him up. He swayed. When she let him go, he staggered back a step. His free arm circled the tree he had been sitting against. He rested his head against the bark. All was quiet, except for the tik tik of an insect and the uneven flow of his breathing. Finally he opened his eyes and thrust himself away from the tree. Without a word, Tess slung all the extra gear over her shoulders, waiting for him to set the pace.

Watching Bakhtiian as he hobbled back along the valley toward the horses was a lesson in something; Tess wasn't sure what. After every ten steps, he halted. After the space of time to take ten steps had elapsed, he started again. His eyes, his whole face, were glazed with pain. Sometimes Tess spoke, to break the silence. He never answered. Once, when she made a bad joke, she thought he smiled slightly.

Finally, seeing that his progress was slowing perceptibly, she redirected their course toward the hills, hoping to find and follow a stream back to the end of the valley. When she heard the soft rush of water nearby, she left Bakhtiian where he had halted yet again and went ahead with the undershirt.

The stream pooled just below a ridge of rock over which Tess could see the slope of the nearest hill. After slipping down five shale steps, it trailed back into the forest. She knelt, plunging the shirt into the water, gasping from the cold.

A note rose high on the breeze, low and trembling. At first she thought it was an animal, but as the sound arced to a peak and cut off she knew suddenly that it was close by, far too close, and that it was a horn. She looked up. Froze, hands still in the water.

The man stood not twenty paces from her. He stared, as surprised as she was. He raised a hand, taking in her scarlet jaran shirt, her saber, and-she could see it by the widening of his eyes-her feminine form and face. She kept her hands below the surface of the water, terrified all at once that he would see his dead companion's shirt. How could she have forgotten? No one hunted alone.

He drew an arrow and nocked it, but he did not immediately let fly. Instead, he stared. She lifted her right hand from the water. It ached with cold. It hurt to curl her fingers around the hilt of her Chapalii knife, but she did so, watching him. He grinned and said something, foreign words. She drew the dagger. He raised the bow and said something more, clearly a threat. What had Garii said? Thumb over the third and second lights. The world slowed. She slid her thumb along the smooth hilt. The hunter drew the bowstring back and aimed and spoke-Light streaked out. A flush of heat. He fell. She gasped audibly, jumped to her feet, and ran to him. He lay motionless on the ground. He stank, but it was an honest smell: dirt and onions and too many months without washing. He was still breathing.

For a long moment she simply gaped. How could he not be dead? One side of his face was flushed red. Daring much, she bent to touch it-it was warm, unnaturally so, but not burned. Stunned, not dead.

She lifted a hand to wipe at her face. She had broken out in a sweat. She felt hot under her clothes though the autumn air had a chill snap to it. Stunned not dead! Garii had given her a knife set to stun. So it couldn't be used against him? Against any Chapalii?

What the hell did it matter anyway? She ran back to the pool and fished out the wet shirt, wrung it out, swore, and ran back to the hunter and took all his weapons. Raced into the woods, stopping before she reached Bakhtiian. How could she explain these weapons? Her saber was not even bloodied. She ought to go back and kill the hunter while he was unconscious, but she knew she could never do it. She sawed the bowstring into thirds and then dumped the weapons into the densest clump of undergrowth she could find, and ran on.

When Bakhtiian saw her, he sheathed his saber. "How many?''

"One." She wrapped the wet shirt around his knee, which was by now so swollen that she couldn't even make out the shape of the patella.

"Did he see you?"

"Yes." She hesitated. He held onto a low-hanging branch and waited. "We just have to move fast. I'd suggest trying to follow the stream."

"We'll leave a clear trail."

"He has no weapons. He'll have to go back and get help.

If we follow the stream, we can keep the swelling down." She tied the shirt at his knee into knots, securing it to the splint. "And hope they don't find the dead man until tomorrow."

"That's the only thing that helps," he said.

"Besides your stubbornness."

There was silence, except for a few birds calling and the distant spill of water. "You'd better go. Find the jahar."

She slung the gear onto her back and handed him the walking stick. "Come on."

"Did you mention stubbornness?" He pushed himself away from the tree. "I mistakenly thought you referred to me."

She angled their path to avoid the pool. This time they made it all the way to the stream before he had to stop. While he rested, she wrapped his knee again, then scouted ahead a ways, but she heard nothing, saw nothing. Shadows stretched out around them. The bottom rim of the sun touched the blurred line of trees at the height of the hills, casting a deep red glow like blood against the low advance of clouds. Bakhtiian coughed, and she glanced over at him. The last of the sunlight cast gold across his face. It highlighted his cheekbones so that the skin seemed taut across them, in sharp relief like the face of a man who is starving or near death.

Eyes shut, he said, "Don't be an idiot. Go on without me."

"Bakhtiian, did it ever occur to you that I probably can't find the horses, much less the jahar, by myself?"

He was silent.

"By God. Now that's a compliment."

One corner of his mouth tugged upward. He opened his eyes. "You're right." He coughed again, but it was a trembling sound. "I don't know how I could have thought that." They both laughed.

And, eyes meeting, cut off their laughter abruptly. Silence. A bird sang in the distance, a little five-note figure over and over. Bakhtiian grasped his walking stick and pushed himself up. He winced, took a step, winced, took another. They went on.

His pace was so slow that night made no difference to their progress. Animals accompanied their retreat: noises fading out into the brush, drawing closer when they halted, a snuffling once, that skittered away when she threw a rock in its direction.

Each time they halted he counted. Each time, he reached a higher number before he rose and struggled on. Now and then she had to help him over a fallen log, through a thick scattering of rocks, past a screen of branches. Wet vegetation slapped her face. Vines caught at her legs or brushed, slippery and damp, across her hand. Once she fell asleep balanced on a log, but when Ilya rose the log shifted under her and she woke, startled. Dawn came before they reached the end of the valley. It was another hour at least before they staggered into the copse where the horses were tethered.

Ilya sank down onto the ground. Deep circles smudged his eyes. "I can't go on right now." He covered his face with his hands and slumped forward.

"You have to eat." She brought him food from their bags.

He took the food but did nothing with it. "You should sleep," he said. "I'll wake you."

"You should sleep."

"I can't sleep. I'll watch." He shut his eyes again and leaned back, resting against a tree trunk.

Tess rubbed her face. She checked the horses, forced herself to eat, forced herself to refill the water flasks before she allowed herself the luxury of lying down on her cloak three meters behind Bakhtiian, facing the high screen of bushes. Here, in the close wood, the leaves were the brightest green at the tops of the bushes, lit by the sun, shading down to a dark green near the earth, where shadows obscured most of the ground. Encased in gloves, her hands felt almost warm. She fell asleep.***

The palace in Jeds looked out over the sea, over the wide mouth of the bay, out toward the islands littering the horizon like so much flotsam cast back to drift. Marco Burckhardt stood alone on the sea wall, watching the waves slide in along the strand and murmur through the hedge of rocks scattered at the base of the wall. Spray lifted in the wind and misted his face. To his left lay the crowded harbor, sailing ships anchored out in the bay, galleys and boats moored to the docks; beyond it, crawling up and down the hills, the fetid sprawl of Jeds itself. And to his right, set a little away from the city in the midst of neat fields, the university, established at least a century ago but transplanted to its new grounds twenty years past by the first prince of the new line in Jeds.

"Admiring your handiwork?" Cara Hierakis came up beside him and slipped a hand into the crook of his elbow. The wind blew the curls of her black hair away from her face.

"My great masterpiece." Marco grinned.

"I hate to remind you, my dear, but the new buildings were actually built after you died and Charles inherited."

"I meant my death. I think I engineered it very well, dedicating the grounds and then being crushed under stones in that horrible accident."

"Yes, you do like coming close to death, don't you?"

"It's how I know I'm alive. Although an engineered accident does lack something, especially that frisson of risk. The best part of it was getting to become a new man afterward, with a new face and a new name."

"Marco, have you ever considered psychoanalysis?"

"Isn't that outdated?"

"Of all the inhabited planets you could spend your time on, which do you choose? It's only fitting."

They stood awhile in silence, watching Jeds.

"I love this city," said Marco at last. "Because I found it. And don't tell me the Jedans already knew it was here. You know what I mean."

"Yes, it was convenient of old Prince Casimund to be on his deathbed and with no immediate heirs but nephews whose mothers had married lords in the other city-states. You never told me how you convinced him you were one of those nephews and the true heir to the princedom."

"And I never will. You wouldn't approve. I only did it for Charles, my love." Cara laughed. Marco looked offended. "You know very well that I didn't want the position for myself. But we had to get a toehold on the planet somehow. I grasped the opportunity where I found it."

"It's true it chafed you soon enough, all that responsibility."

"Your flattery is boundless, Dr. Hierakis. As well as your cynicism."

"A good scientist must be skeptical. It isn't the same."

The tide was coming in, swelling up under the distant docks. Men worked, tiny figures loading and unloading the ships and the galleys, tying Jeds in to the greater world of Rhui and feeding out goods and knowledge brought forth in the renaissance that gripped Jeds under the rule of Prince Charles the Second, "son" of the late and lamented Charles the First, whose reign had been short but merry.

"A message came in," said Cara. "That's what I came out to tell you. Charles got a bullet from Suzanne, from Paladia Major. The Oshaki put in at Paladia Minor and hasn't stirred for a month. She found no indication that Tess disembarked at Minor."

"Could she still be onboard the Oshaki? Where do you think she is?"

"I think Charles expects her to be like him, but she isn't. You can't make silk out of a sow's ear. Which is not to compare Tess to a sow's ear, though pigs are certainly my favorite domestic animals. But I think you grasp the analogy."

"You didn't answer my question."

"I don't have enough evidence to make a guess. Where is Tess? Why is a high-ranking merchant of the obscenely wealthy Keinaba house loitering on Odys, frittering away his valuable time in endless discussions about the hypothetical worth of Dao Cee's resources-and in Anglais at that? Why did that shuttle flight follow a most inefficient path? And I will not bore you with the number of questions I have about the human population on this planet, such as, why are they homo sapiens, how did they come to have better health than the humans of Earth's ancient past, and, if I can solve the antigen problem, can we interbreed?"

Marco stared out at the gray water and the white flash of sun on the distant isles. "We already know that we can interbreed." His hands curled, gripping hard on the stone.

"I know, Marco," she said gently. "I meant, without endangering the pregnant woman's life. But at least the baby lived. She would have, too, if I could have got to her in time."

"Sweet Goddess, it was an easy enough delivery."

"Marco, there was nothing you could have done. You didn't know about the reaction that set in."

"I damn well could have not gotten her pregnant!"

"Yes, you could have. One can take this going native business too far."

"Thank you, Cara. Your sympathy overwhelms me."

"My sympathy rests with that poor girl. Where do you think Tess is?"

"I think she's on Rhui. Just a feeling I have."

"Then why didn't she come here? Where could she possibly be? Marco, can you imagine the kind of danger she could be in, if that's the case?''

Marco smiled, but mockingly, without any humor at all. "Yes, in fact, I can."

The horns woke Tess. She started awake, standing abruptly. A white rump flashed, an animal bounding away into the trees. Twigs snapped. A bird shrieked.

Bakhtiian woke just before she reached him, one hand on his saber hilt, the other open, out in front of him as if he were confused. Tess halted out of range of his saber.

"Bakhtiian?"

He pulled his hands in and looked up at the sky. His eyes followed the invisible trail of the sun to the rim of the western hills where clouds, a low gray sheet stretching halfway back across the sky, obscured its face. Shadows drew long lines across the meadow. "It's late."

"I'll go saddle the horses." She turned away.

"Tess." She turned back. "You'll have to ride Kriye. I can't handle him with one leg."

"Who?"

There was color in his cheeks, but that might only have been from his afternoon's rest. "My black," he said in a constrained voice.

Tess almost started laughing. "Kriye. That's what you call a very young boy. 'Little one,' but masculine?" He said nothing. "You must admit, Ilya, it's hardly what one would expect you to name a horse." Still he did not reply. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it," she added hastily. "I think it's sweet. But what if you can't ride at all?"

A withering leaf, blown up by an eddy of wind, rolled across his knees. He grabbed it, flinging it to one side. "I can ride."

"Fine. What do I do with an unconscious man?"

"I don't faint."

"Just like you don't sleep?" Then, seeing his face, she realized she had gone too far, and she quickly left.

Kriye remained placid for Tess. In the level valley, forced to a slow walk by the dusk and the trees, and with the stirrup adjusted to hold his splinted leg pretty much in place, Bakhtiian managed Myshla, who was more amiable than the tarpan remounts. But they had barely started up the trail, Tess riding behind, when Myshla broke into a trot, and Bakhtiian acted instinctively to slow her. It was his curse more than any movement that alerted Tess; in the darkness she could see only shapes. She urged Kriye up beside him. He gripped the saddle in both hands, reins slack in his fingers. Tess pulled the reins from him and kept going.

Clouds scudded across the farther reaches of sky. The hooves of the horses rang like the echo of a bell on the hard trail. When the clouds reached the far horizon and covered the moon, she had to dismount and lead the horses.

The wind struck when she reached the crest. Her hair streamed back, caught in the flow. In the darkness, she felt as if she were on the edge of an abyss, the world falling away before and behind her. Dark masses of rock loomed around her, the suggestion of ages. She felt very old, knowing that as she stood here, with the wind's pull like the rush of the planet's rotation, she was as much a part of the scene as the wind itself.

Myshla shifted. Glancing back, she saw Bakhtiian sway in the saddle. She shook him. Finally he blinked and stared at her. His look of complete confusion frightened her.

"You can faint when we get to shelter," she snapped. "I could hold out longer than that. I could hold out twice as long."

"I doubt it," he whispered, but he pushed himself up.

The wind tore at her clothes as if it was trying to scatter her off the heights. She tugged the horses forward, stumbling down the path. Her boots slipped on pebbles. Kriye's breath warmed her neck. Her hands stiffened into a tight grip on the reins. Her toes ached with cold.

When the trail gave out on a broad ledge that angled up into a deep overhang, she realized that in the dark she had missed the switchback and taken an offshoot. As she moved forward she no longer felt the wind, only a still presence over her head. She halted and untied the blankets from Kriye's saddle.

"Where are we?"

"Shelter. For the rest of the night." She laid out the blankets by the far wall.

She had to help him off the horse. He slumped against her. She let him down very carefully onto the blankets and knelt beside him. She was shivering.

"Ilya?" There was no answer, no movement at all. "Oh Lord." She rested a hand on his chest. His breathing was regular and even. She sat back with a sigh. She cared for the horses first; afterward, taking two strips of meat, she settled down at the far edge of the overhang. Darkness surrounded her. Soon, she dozed.

A rush of sound startled her awake. It was raining. She sank back against the wall, tucking her hands under her cloak. For a time the rain kept her awake. Later, despite the cold, it lulled her to sleep.

She woke abruptly at dawn, chilled and shivering. Her cheeks and forehead felt warm. No wind penetrated the overhang, a shallow cave eroded from the hill by a millennia of storms. Outside the rain had stopped. Surely such rain would cover their tracks.

She stamped her feet and rubbed her hands together to try to bring some warmth into them. Turning, she caught Bakhtiian looking abruptly away from her. He was already sitting up. Dark circles set off his eyes. A smudge of dirt mottled one cheek. The night had tangled his hair and trapped a tiny yellow leaf in his beard. Unbelted, the tunics bunched and wrinkled at his waist. One sleeve of his red shirt, showing at a wrist, had twisted at the cuff.

"This is all very foolish," he said.

"You don't still think I should go on ahead, do you?" She offered him water and food.

"It's cold," he said.

She felt her heart race with fear. If he was getting ill from the shock-

"No," he said, reading her expression. "I'm not-I'm well enough. But the air. Can't you feel it? It's the ayakhov, the wind from the peaks. It brings the storms. This shelter can't possibly protect us." He halted, just breathing for a while, as if the effort of speaking so much had exhausted him.

"Can you go on? I'll saddle the horses."

He shook his head, a gesture compounded half of answer, half of pain. "No." She waited. "If we're caught in the open- These storms last days sometimes. You'll have to scout for better shelter. Even a deeper overhang where we can set up the tent…"He trailed off.

"Yes," she said, not wanting to remind him that they had no tent with them. "I'll go now." She saddled Myshla and left. She rode down into the canyon and half up the other side before tethering Myshla and exploring. By the time she found a good cave, the wind had indeed blown up, cold enough that all her exertion did not keep her warm. She gathered all the brush she could find, arranging the softest into a couch set against the steep-sloping cave wall, and gathered scraps, everything she could find for fodder for the horses, and piled rocks for a corral in the dark recesses of the shelter.

He was asleep when she returned. She unsaddled Myshla and took all four horses out on a long lead, letting them graze and water behind her as she hiked up to the crest. As she had hoped, the rain had swept all traces of their passage from the rock-littered trail. At the height she tried to recapture that timelessness she had felt the night before. But the rocks looked drab, worn away by the weather and the years, and there were too many windblown plants clinging to their surface, a few wilted leaves holding tenuously to branches.

It was cold. Wind whipped the ends of her cloak around her knees. No one was following them. Surely the khaja had given up their search. Turning away, she saw a mass of thick clouds tipped with darkness, sweeping down, almost on her where she stood high and exposed on the ridge. Alarmed, she mounted Myshla bareback and rode back to the overhang.

She found Bakhtiian standing at the entrance, hands clutching his walking stick, staring at her as she dismounted and led the horses under the rock. If he could have looked anything but haggard, pained, and tired, she would have said he looked glad to see her. He had made some effort to tidy himself up. His face was clean, his hair combed, the hunter's tunics straight and neatly belted.

She chuckled, because the incongruity-of their desperate situation, of the approaching storm, of his appearance-was simply too much.

"Where were you?" he demanded.

"Scouting. I found shelter." She began immediately to saddle Kriye and Myshla. "The storm