/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Crossroads

Shadow Gate

Kate Elliott


Kate Elliott

Shadow Gate

PART ONE

Awakenings

1

Marit was pretty sure she had been murdered. She recalled vividly the assassin's dagger that had punctured her skin, thrust up under her ribs, and pierced her heart. Any reeve — and Marit was a reeve — could tell you that was a killing blow, a certain path to a swift death. In the moment when life must pass over into death and the spirit depart the body, the misty outlines of the Spirit Gate unfold. The passage between this world and the other world had opened within her dying vision. But her spirit had not made the journey.

She woke alone, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for a covering. Her eagle was dead. She knew it in the same way you know an arm is missing without looking to see: your balance is different. Her eagle was dead, so she must be dead, because no reeve survived the death of her eagle.

Yet that being so, how could she stand up, much less stagger to the edge of a drop-off so sheer she hadn't noticed it because she was disoriented? She stepped into thin air before she knew she'd mistaken her ground, and she was falling, falling, the wind whistling in her ears. The earth plunged up to meet her.

Then she woke, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for covering, and realized she had been dreaming.

Sitting, she rubbed her eyes. The place in her dream had been a narrow ledge without even a wall to warn of the drop-off. This place was high and exposed, an expanse of glittering stone untouched by vegetation. She rose cautiously and ventured to the highest point on the bluff. She stood at the prow of a ridgeline. The vista was astonishing: in front lay a lowland sink dropping away to a wide cultivated plain that extended toward a distant suggestion of water; to her right spread a pulsing green riot of forest so broad she could not see the end of it; behind, ragged hills covered with trees formed a barrier formidable not because of their height but because they were wild. The wind streamed over the ridge, rumbling in her ears.

She knew right where she was: on the southernmost spur of the

Liya Mills, an excellent spot for thermals that an eagle and her reeve could spiral on for hours with a view of the Haya Gap. The vast tangled forest known as the Wild lay to the south, and the lowland plain that bordered the arm of the ocean known as the Bay of Istria ran east.

She knew right where she was.

Aui! She was standing on a Guardian altar.

So far nothing had happened to her. But that didn't change the unalterable fact that she had broken the boundaries that forbade all people, even reeves, from entering the sacred refuges known as Guardian altars. She had broken the boundaries, and now she would be punished according to the law.

That being so, what had happened to her lover, Joss, who had after all been the one who had persuaded her to follow him up to an altar?

There was only one way to find out: walk to the main compound of Copper Hall, which lay about midway between the cities of Haya and Nessumara, and find out what was going on.

The altar wasn't so difficult to get down from after all. A stair carved into rock switchbacked down the stone face and into a sinkhole that twisted to become an ordinary musty cave with a narrow mouth hidden by vegetation. She ducked under the trailing vines of hangdog and pushed through a thicket of clawed beauty whose thorns slipped right off the tempting fabric of the cloak. Clusters of orange flowers bobbed around her, which struck her as odd because clawed beauty only bloomed in the early part of the year, during the season of the Flower Rains, and that was months away.

Except for the rest of the afternoon and the following days it rained in erratic bursts as she trudged through the woodland cover. The trails she followed became slick with puddles and damp leaves. She slopped alongside cultivated lands. Farmers, bent double in ankle-deep water, transplanted young rice plants. Women dragged hoes through flooded fields, skimming off the weeds and setting them aside for animal fodder. The sun set and rose in its familiar cycle. As she moved toward the coast and low-lying land, the dykes and edges had their own distinctive flora: pulses, soya, hemp, with ranks of mulberries on the margins. She kept her cloak wrapped tightly around her, but anyway people were too busy to notice her.

Soon enough paths joined cart tracks that joined wagon roads that met up with the broad North Shore Road. Although the original Copper Hall had been built on the delta, the main compound was now sited about forty mey south of Haya on one of a series of bluffs overlooking the Bay of Istria with a lovely vantage and good air currents swirling where land met sea.

It had been years since she had walked to the turning for Copper Hall. Once Flirt had chosen her, she had always flown. The paved roadbed was raised on a foundation and surfaced with cut stones fitted together as cunningly as a mosaic, flanked by margins of crushed stone. From an eagle, you didn't notice the remarkable skill and craftsman's work, or the stone benches set at intervals as a kindly afterthought. From an eagle, one's view of the roads turned from textured ramps of earth, gravel, and paving stone into the all-important solid lines linking cities and towns and temples.

She trudged past the triple-gated entrance to a temple dedicated to Ilu, the Herald. The gatekeeper slouched on a wooden bench under a thatched lean-to, staring disinterestedly at the road. His dog whined, ears flat, and slunk under the bench. She wrapped her cloak more tightly, but no one — not the gatekeeper and none of the folk walking along the road — paid the slightest attention to her. Salt spray nipped the air. Fish ponds lined the rocky shore. The bay gleamed gray-blue in late-afternoon light, waves kicking against the seawall.

On the seaward edge the land rose into a series of high bluffs while the road curved inland past rice fields lined with reeds and salt grass. As the sun set, she found an empty byre to shelter in against the night rains, its straw mildewed. She didn't really sleep; she lay with eyes closed and thoughts in a tangle, never quite coming into focus.

She woke at dawn and rose and walked, and at last saw the stout stone pillar carved with a hood and feather in relief and the huge wooden perch, freshly whitewashed, that marked the turning to Copper Hall. She was home.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she plodded up the long slope toward the high ground, feeling more and more winded, as if all the life and spirit were being drained out of her. As if she was afraid. How would she be greeted by her comrades at the reeve hall? She had broken the boundaries. She would have to accept punishment.

Aui! She had to find out what had happened to Joss, protect him if she could or back him up on his reckless decision to investigate the Guardian's altar in Liya Pass. Hadn't he been right? Wasn't it true that something was terribly wrong?

No person in the Hundred had stood before a Guardian at an assizes since her long-dead grandfather was a boy. Anyway, an old man's memory might be suspect. The meticulous records stored in Sapanasu's temples recording the proceedings of assizes courts where Guardians had presided might, in fact, be explained as a conventional form used by the clerks and hierophants of the Lantern to account the decisions made by wandering judges who were otherwise perfectly human.

Many said the Guardians had abandoned the Hundred. Others said the Guardians had never existed, that they were only characters sung in the Tales. Yet on the Guardian's altar up on the Liya Pass, she and Joss had discovered bones — the bones of a murdered Guardian, maybe, because a pelvis could have been splintered in that way only by a tremendous fall or a massive blow.

But all the tales agreed that Guardians couldn't die.

The reeve hall was a huge compound surrounded by fields and orchards and open ground where a pair of reeves — relatively new ones, by the look of their tentative maneuvers — were learning to harness up under the supervision of a patient fawkner. She didn't recognize the young reeves, but she was pretty sure the fawkner was her good friend Gadit, although she was holding her body at a canted angle, as if her right shoulder was stiff from injury.

High watchtowers stretched up as little more than scaffolding. She did not recognize the pair of very young men lounging on gate duty, but their bored faces and listless chatter irritated her. They did not bother to challenge her, and they ought to have; she was an unlikely sight, with her naked feet and calves and a cloak clutched tightly around her body, yet she walked through the gate unremarked. She would have words with Marshal Alard about their lackadaisical attitude.

It was difficult to remain annoyed in the familiar environs she loved: the wide-open land-side parade ground with its chalk-laced dusty earth; the low storehouses side by side in marching order; the barracks and eating hall sited where the high ground dipped,

making a bit of a windbreak; the high lofts set back to either side, and beyond them the seaward parade ground that overlooked the cliff and the choppy bay.

Most reeves must be out on patrol, since she did not recognize the few faces she saw. Two very young fawkner's assistants scurried toward the lofts with harness draped awkwardly over their backs. A youth shuffled past holding a cook's ladle while sneezing and wiping his nose. A young woman seated on a bench was sniveling while Marit's dear friend and fellow reeve Kedi spoke in the tone of a man who has said the same cursed words a hundred times:

'It's done, Barda. When an eagle chooses you, you've got no choice in the matter.'

'But I don't want this. I never wanted it.' She wasn't a whiner. She was genuinely overwhelmed, her eyes rimmed red but hollow-dark beneath; her hands were trembling. 'I was supposed to get married tomorrow. All the temples agreed it was an auspicious day for a wedding, Transcendent Ox, in the Month of the Deer, in the Year of the Blue Ox. Especially for a long and steady and calm alliance. That's all I ever wanted, and I like Rigard, only now his clan has called off the wedding. They've broken the contract, because now I'm a reeve. I was just walking to market and the bird dropped down out of the sky and I screamed I was so scared. Don't you see? My life is ruined!'

Kedi sighed in that weary way he had. His hair had been trimmed back tightly against the skull, almost shaven bare like a clerk of Sapanasu, and when he shifted to slap away a fly Marit realized he was leaning on a crutch. He wasn't putting any weight on his left leg.

'Heya! Kedi!' she called.

But he was too intent on the young woman. 'I know it's not what you wanted. But let me tell you that every reeve in this hall envies you for the eagle who chose you.'

'Trouble? It's a stupid name. She scares me.'

'She's the most beautiful and best-tempered raptor in the Hundred.'

Trouble! Marit wanted to ask what had happened to Trouble's reeve Sisha, a particularly good friend who besides could hold more ale than anyone, but Kedi had launched into an energetic description of Trouble that would make the hardest heart melt, so she walked down the alleyway between storehouse and fawkner's barracks that led to the marshal's garden.

Alard had loved flowers, the more resplendent, the better. So Marit was startled to see that his carefully nurtured beds of azaleas and peonies and heaven-full-of-stars had been replanted into ranks of practical herbs, as though the cook and the infirmarian had snuck in when the old man wasn't looking.

She climbed the steps to the roofed porch, where she paused, listening to the shush of a broom around the corner in a steady accompaniment to voices murmuring beyond the closed doors. Ladiya appeared butt-first, attention focused on lines of dirt forming ranks along the boards.

'Can I go in?' Marit asked.

The old woman still had her back to Marit and did not answer. She tilted her head to one side until it rested against the thin wall. Eavesdropping.

As the voices from inside were raised, it was impossible not to overhear.

'You've been marshal for one month. I'm surprised you waited so long to get rid of me!'

To hear his voice, healthy and strong and angry, hurt like a dagger to the heart, but it was the pain of unlooked-for joy that brought tears to her eyes. He was still alive.

'Joss, you have the makings of a good reeve — of an excellent reeve, perhaps — but you are out of control.' The words were emphasized in a firm voice, entirely calm and utterly sincere. She knew that voice very well. It went on speaking, each word crisp as if with frustration hooded. 'Still, with things the way they are, and the problems in Herelia, I can do nothing but send you to Clan Hall to get you out of my jesses. I will let the commander deal with you, thank the gods, so that I do not have to. I have enough to deal with here. If I could keep you belled I would, but I cannot. In the old days, so they say, a rogue and errant reeve was subject to execution for the kind of insubordination we have seen from you, the repeated breaking of the law, going time and again to Guardian altars despite knowing that it is absolutely out of bounds, despite knowing what happened the first time you did it. But we do not have the luxury now of punishing you in that way. The gods know we need you, and especially we need Scar. So I am sending you to Clan Hall and that is final. You leave today.'

The last word rang. Afterward, there came a pause. Marit braced herself for the storm.

Instead of an answer, one of the doors was slammed open and Joss — as handsome as ever! — charged with all his loose-limbed passionate grace out of the chamber and past Marit without giving her a glance.

'Joss,' she said. 'Sweetheart.'

He was already gone.

Ladiya turned around as a reeve whose short hair was laced with silver walked onto the porch in Joss's wake.

'Did you overhear all that?' he asked without a sliver of amusement, but he wasn't angry either. Masar was the most upright, bland, and humorless person Marit had ever known, and she had known him pretty well, having taken him as a lover for half a year when she was a lot younger. He'd been as humorless in bed as out of it, and he'd accepted her departure from the affair with a straight face and never in the years after showed the slightest sign that he resented her or, for that matter, pined after her. He was absolutely rock solid, a person who would back you up and risk his life to save yours and never ever cross the line past which proper behavior became improper.

Except that he was holding the marshal's staff with its jessed and hooded cap, the mark of authority in Copper Hall.

Ladiya said, 'It's hard to resist a lad with good looks and the charm to back them up, but even I can see how he's gone wild since her death. Three years now, it's been. You would think he'd have devoured or drunk it off by now. You're going easy on him, Marshal.'

Marshal?

Masar said, 'I keep hoping he will settle down. I do not know what else to do. Nor do I need to. He is Clan Hall's problem now.'

'Masar,' Marit said. 'Ladiya. What happened to Joss? Where is Marshal Alard?' She extended a hand, touched Masar's elbow. 'How long have I been gone-?' Faltering, she gingerly patted Ladiya on the upper arm to get her attention.

They neither of them looked at her or appeared to hear her voice or feel her hand. She might as well not have been standing there, for all the notice they took.

At last it all made sense. As the thoughts lined up in their neat ranks, a weight — more of terror than pain — settled in her chest. All

that long way she had walked from the Guardian's altar across the plain, for days and days she had walked and only now did it occur to her that she had not eaten or drunk or even truly slept. No one had spoken to her or acknowledged her.

No one had seen her.

And for that matter, her feet weren't dirty.

'Great Lady,' she whispered, as Masar beckoned to Ladiya and they walked past her back into the marshal's cote and slid the door shut in her face. 'Great Lady…' Prayers failed.

That girl named Barda had stated that she had intended to marry tomorrow, an auspicious day made especially so because it was also the Year of the Blue Ox.

Marit was pretty sure she had been stabbed by an assassin's dagger in the Year of the Black Eagle. Three years before the Year of the Blue Ox.

The cloak fell open as she extended both arms and stared at the paler skin of her palms, like a ghost's hands against her brown complexion.

Joss had 'gone wild since her death'.

Three years it had been, according to Ladiya.

Three years.

Now she understood the punishment laid on her.

Marit walked out of Copper Hall, one clean foot set in front of the other clean foot and the first again and the second again, out to the turning, and there she stared one way along the North Shore Road and after that the other way. People were out and about, going on their business and their lives. They couldn't see her, because she was dead.

Is this what it means to be a wandering ghost, one whose spirit has failed to cross through the Spirit Gate?

She wept without sound because no one could hear her. At length she got bored of standing there and crying to no purpose. She turned north and walked toward Haya. The mey passed smoothly; no wonder she didn't tire. Questions dove like stooping eagles.

Do I even exist?

If no one can see me or hear me, then why can I see and hear myself?

What do I do now?

Late in the afternoon with the waters of the bay settling into their twilight calm and the light fading in the east, she saw the triple-gated entrance to the temple of Ilu beside the road and wondered if she could overnight in the lean-to. The bored young apprentice sitting as gatekeeper would not care. He would not even see her.

He was playing ticks-and-tacks in the dirt with a stick and pebbles. His dog whined and cowered, and the youth looked up and down the road and, seeing nothing, scratched its head absently. The temple compound was set back from the road, separated by gardens where the envoys and apprentices grew vegetables. The last workers were shouldering their hoes and rakes and laughing together as they headed up the track toward the compound walls. One shuffling figure wandered through the rows, bending to finger the strong green shoots.

A woman broke away from the laborers. 'Here, now, Mokass. Come along. It's time for our gruel.'

The lone figure skipped away from her, gabbling in a singsong voice. With a most unholy oath, the woman chased after him. He bolted, giggling, for the gate, a white-haired old man with bent shoulders and bowed back but nimble legs. The dog lifted an ear and barked once. The young gatekeeper heaved up, muttering.

'Oh, the hells. Not again.' But he wasn't really angry.

The old man skittered to a halt beneath the gate, staring at Marit. He leaped back a single hop, and raised both hands palms-out.

'Death, death!' he chanted. Tears flowed suddenly. 'Go away, fearsome one!'

'Can you see me?' Marit demanded.

'I never did it! I never stole that coin. Anyway, you don't want anyone here. Just walk on.'

The woman caught up with him and took hold of his right arm. 'Mere, now. Don't go running off. It's time for our gruel.' She nodded at the gatekeeper. 'Good work, Lagi.'

'1 did nothing. He just stopped of his own accord and started babbling.'

'He's gods-touched,' said the woman with as much fondness as exasperation. 'Poor old soul.'

'I beg you,' said Marit. 'Mokass. Is that your name? I need your help.'

'You've got no call to be knowing my name! Go away! We don't want you here

The dog tool' courage from the old man's defiance and began to bark at Marit In sympathy, more dogs within the compound started up a yammer.

'Aui! Mokam, just come along, now you've got them all going. My ears will swell up and drop off from the noise!' The woman dragged on him, and he wasn't strong enough to do more than stumble along unwillingly behind.

'Have to sen.d death off!' he cried. 'Go away! Go away!'

'In the name of the Lady, I beg you, Mokass,' Marit called after him. 'Go to the reeve hall and tell that the ghost of Marit sends warning: Beware Lord Radas of Iliyat. Let someone warn Copper Hall: Beware Lord Radas. He's the one who had me and my eagle killed.'

'Hush, now! Sit!' Lagi towered over the dog, scolding. 'You cursed beast! What's gotten into you?'

Mokass hopped, waving his hands as though batting away a swarm of wasps. 'Aui! Aui! Her eagle is copper. I was born in Iliyat, did you know that? But I won't tell any tales. They're all lies.' He did not look back over his shoulder, and his companion crooned soothingly as they walked away.

Marit sank into a crouch and covered her head with her arms, just sat on her heels and rocked. But it did no good. Nothing changed. The cursed dog kept barking, and finally the youth whapped him a single hard blow to shut him up, and that was too much for Marit. She jumped to her feet and ran off, not wanting the poor dog to be punished for doing its duty just because the only person who could see her was an old man not right in the head.

She walked through the night with its scraps of clouds and a Sickle Moon fattening toward the half, and at last she fumbled with the clasp and tore off the cloak and flung it aside with a scream of frustration and grief and fury and fear. She ran, as if by sprinting she might churn Spirit Gate into being and race through it to the other side, where she could find peace.

The running caught up with her. She began to cough, and could nol take in air. A wind rose off the bay, howling up the road and

over the fields. She staggered to a halt and fell to her knees, bracing herself on her hands as she gulped and hacked and gagged, her vision fading in and out. The world tilted and spun. She pitched forward, hit the gravel with her shoulder, and tumbled onto her back. A white mist rose off the road, rippling and billowing. Blown by the raging wind, the cloak slithered along the ground. Rising to envelop her, it molded itself to her face until she could not breathe. She fought and clawed, but it devoured her. There was no pain.

She woke alone, sprawled naked on a Guardian altar with only a cloak for a covering. Her eagle was dead, so she must be dead, because no reeve survived the death of her eagle. Since it was too much trouble to try to make sense of the world, she slept.

In her dreams she trudged up hills or slogged through swampy coastlands, searching for the man she loved or for her eagle or for an answer. She wandered, lost and alone, and kept falling, falling, until she woke again with the cloak wrapped around her. She found herself in a new place, one she did not recognize except it was high and exposed and the stone ledge on which she lay glittered with a twisting pattern grown into the rock.

It was a Guardian altar, just like the ones before.

She had a headache as bad as if she'd been sucking sweet-smoke, drugged and dazzled for days, as good an explanation as any although how she had gotten up to a Guardian's altar she could not figure. It seemed she was only now truly waking up. Probably she had dreamed the entire journey to Copper Hall.

She felt thirsty and hungry, and she wanted clothing because the winds on the height chilled her. With the cloak clasped at her throat, she climbed a treacherous path down to the base of the altar, bloodying her feet and hands. She stumbled through sparse highlands forest and happened upon a shepherd's high pasture cottage, uninhabited in the cold season. Here she found a storeroom with old but serviceable tools and hunting equipment. She also found humble clothing, needing a wash that, she discovered later, hadn't gotten out all the clinging lice, and a stash of nuts and moldering nai to be pounded into a paste for a stale porridge.

The thing is, when you're not sure if you have become a ghost or

perhaps something more frightening, you are wise to choose prudence. When a winged horse lands in the highlands meadow where you are sheltering, where you are trying to make sense of what has happened to you, you don't chase it away. You investigate, because you are still a reeve in your heart. In a small bag hooked to the back of the saddle, you discover a modest offering bowl like those beggars carry, and a polished black stone. The offering bowl presents no surprises; it is just a bowl. But when you place the stone in your left hand to get a better look at it, a sharp pain strikes up your arm and a flash like lightning sears you.

When you wake again, to find yourself on the ground with dirt and debris covering you as though a storm has blown over you or days have passed, and that cursed horse slobbering across your face as it nuzzles you, then you discover that the stone has vanished.

But at night, you can call light from your palm.

Marit was weak, too exhausted to travel. She lived in the shelter through the cold season, gathering and hunting. Once she had gained enough strength, she cut herself an exercise staff to work through the conditioning forms taught to reeves.

The winged horse vanished for intervals that never lasted longer than a day. She never saw it graze in the meadow or drink from the cold stream, which made her suspect that it, too, was a ghost: the ghost of a Guardian's winged horse. The Guardians were dead and gone. She had herself seen the bones of a dead Guardian, the day she was murdered on the Liya Pass. Most likely this state of being betwixt and between was indeed the punishment she had received for walking onto a Guardian altar when everyone knew it was forbidden.

But at least Joss still lived. He had survived. That was her consolation.

2

A new year arrived with the heat and the Flower Rains. She prepared travel food. When she left, she traveled along animal tracks and footpaths through high, dry country unfamiliar to her. Walking was such a slow way of traveling, especially since the worn leather

straps of the sandals she had taken from the hut kept breaking. Yet if she walked in bare feet, her soles got cut and bruised.

The winged mare tagged after like a love-struck youth. When the path was reasonably smooth, she practiced riding. Except for that morning of its arrival, she did not see it fly.

Not until the day the bandits attacked her.

She heard them long before she saw them.

'We've been tramping up here for months and found nothing. I say we go back to Walshow. I'm wanting hot spiced soup from Shardit's kettle.'

'That's not all you're wanting from Shardit's kettle. Not that she don't dole it out to anyone with enough coin to pay the tithing.' Cruel laughter floated over the trees.

Marit paused on a mostly washed-out track where she was picking her way among stones and steep water-cut trenches. Reluctantly, she had taken the knife and the bow from the shelter, not liking to steal but knowing she couldn't survive without them. She shut her eyes, listening. The wind chased up the ridge through pine and tollyrake. She smelled a sweet-sour scent, like a festering corruption in flesh.

'Shut your ugly muzzle, arsehole. She's my wife.'

'We all know what she was before, heh heh. Didn't she get thrown out of the temple for asking for coin-?'

A scuffle broke out: the distinctive smack of fist against flesh; men egging the combatants on; feet scraping and sliding on earth; breath coming in bursts and gasps.

'Stop that!' A stouter weapon thumped heads. 'Cursed fools. Keep your minds on our task.'

'Yes, Captain. Yes, yes,' they said, but she heard resentment and fear in their voices.

'Move on out, then. Move out.'

'Captain! See there! Is that the one we're looking out for?'

Their tiny figures were perfectly visible where the path bent through a clearing a very long distance below, beyond earshot. Hearing them had distracted her from looking so far. But she could see them.

And they had seen her.

She swore under her breath, losing track of their voices as they

burst into activity, some racing up the path while others spread out to make a net of men along the hillside to capture her in case she tried to sneak past them. She had only seven arrows, and the knife was just a knife, the blade not longer than her hand.

'The hells!'

She began climbing back the way she had come. The horse blocked the track, lowered its head, and shoved her.

'Great Lady! You useless beast! Get out of my way.'

It raised its head and stared at her, affronted.

'I beg you, please,' she added impatiently. 'I can't fight them. I have to run.'

It unfolded its wings. They were astonishing, as pale as its silvery-gray coat and too fragile to lift such weight.

'Curse it.' She tugged her stolen pack more tightly on her shoulders and ducked under one wing to come up at the saddle from behind. The wings rose over the mare's shoulders, sprouting out of a deep barrel chest thick with muscle. She made awkward work of mounting but fixed her legs into the straps -

The horse leaped.

She shrieked as she lurched sideways, grasping the post to stop from falling as the mare beat with heavy wing-strokes into the sky. Then she started laughing with relief and nerves as they rose higher, and the men came into view. One loosed a single arrow, which fell harmlessly back to earth, although she wished it might loop back and stick him in the chest.

The mare's flight seemed snail-like compared with the effortless sail of her eagle. It passed through the edges of several promising thermals, but unlike an eagle, it did not catch them and rise. It flew no faster than a horse could gallop, its thin legs imitating the gait as if it were running along an invisible road. Slow, slow, slow. Below, the company continued its dogged pursuit, scrambling up the trail.

'We're in for it now,' she said to the horse, who flicked an ear. 'Cursed if I don't think they're out looking for me in particular, although why I should think so, I don't know. I must have escaped that woodsmen's camp after all. Maybe these are friends of theirs, or the very men from that camp in pursuit of me. Lord Radas might have put them on my trail. But the one man said Walshow. That

town lies beyond High Haldia, up in Heaven's Ridge. That's well to the north of the Liya Pass and far away from Iliyat.'

Above the trees, where they flew, she had a better grasp of the land around her. She knew she was no longer on the Liya Pass, and nowhere near the vale of Iliyat, where Lord Radas ruled. And she certainly wasn't anywhere near Copper Hall. She had seen country like this during the year she had flown her apprentice's circuit as a newly trained reeve: in the high mountain escarpments of Heaven's Ridge. Steep ridges and peaks dominated the northern and northwestern horizons, a wall to separate the Hundred from the dangerous lands beyond. She and the mare flew above the foothills, a wilderness known to reeves as a haunt of bandits and other folk tossed out of their home for criminal behavior; it was also the remote nesting territories where eagles mated and raised their young out of sight of human eyes.

How had she gotten here, hundreds of mey away from the place she had died?

If she had died. Yet she could not shake that horrible dream of walking to Copper Hall. It had seemed so real. Yet if she had died and become a ghost, why did she get cold? Why did her hands and feet get scratched? How could these men see her? That twenty gods-touched men would have flocked together in the barren backcountry defied belief, because the temples prized any man or woman gifted with the spirit sight, even the ones who were cracked in the head like the old man Mokass. It was almost as if she had been a ghost then, and no longer was. How could that happen?

They lost sight of their pursuers. The mare shifted balance for a ponderous turn. Mark's legs ached as she clung to saddle and post. To be harnessed under an eagle was a very different sensation from sitting astride a horse; the view was worse from the horse, for one, with those wings getting in the way of her sight. The rise and fall of the wings distracted her until a light glinted ahead, halfway up a black cliff face rising out of a wooded hill. As the horse flew straight for the rock wall, Marit realized that she had no reins and could not control its flight. They galloped through the air straight at the escarpment, and the shadows opened to reveal a cleft and a wide ledge. The mare sailed in. Its hooves struck stone. Marit hissed between gritted teeth as the horse stamped to a halt.

She dismounted, staggered, and dropped to her knees. The mare folded its wings and ambled to the back of the cleft where a fountain burbled from a deep fissure in the cliff. It lowered its head to drink. Across the broad ledge a pattern glittered, whether in sunlight or the growing edge of shadow. It was like a crystalline labyrinth grown into the stone, a twisting pattern whose like she had seen before.

Gods preserve her. The mare had brought her to a Guardian's altar.

Aui! What did it matter now?

She rose. No one and nothing stirred. She set a foot on the entrance to the labyrinth, then the other. The pavement pulsed as if she were feeling the heartbeat of the Earth Mother. She paced its measure. With each change of angle in the path's direction, the world shifted. She saw far beyond the isolated ledge into distant landscapes: surging ocean; a fallen stone tower above a tumble of rocks lapped by soft waves; rain pattering in tangled oak forest; a vast gleam of water — not the sea — bordered by dunes; a high peak slipping in and out of streaming cloud; a homely village of six cottages beside a gushing river; a pinnacle overlooking a wide basin of land surrounded by rugged hills; a dusty hilltop rimmed by boulders where a presence tugged at her… and she faltered.

'Here you are,' said a man's voice. 'I've been waiting for you.'

She did not move, sure that to take one step back or one forward would break this inexplicable link. She saw no face, only a suggestion of gold light, but she felt him as strongly as if he were standing behind her. She hid her own face by pulling up the hood of her cloak.

'You must be confused,' he said. 'I can help you. What is your name?'

Cursed if she was going to say that out loud to a stranger! She recognized the voice, but couldn't place it. A sour-sweet smell drifted within the lines, making her want to sneeze.

'I'm hesitant to say so,' she said, measuring her words. 'Who are you? How can I know I can trust you? Where are you, and how is it you can speak to me? I have many questions.'

'All shall be answered as you gain your strength. You're just awakening. Here, now, let me introduce myself. I am Radas.'

The name pierced her like a dagger to the heart. She was cold, then hot, breaking into a sweat.

But another man might be named Radas. It wasn't an uncommon name. 'Where are you from, Radas?'

'I am lord of Iliyat. I have the resources to help you. Only stay where you are, and I will come to fetch you.'

The hells he would!

Lord Radas of Iliyat had ordered her death. He was responsible tor the murder of her eagle. He was a killer, and she smelled his corruption even here, not knowing how far away he was or, indeed, how they could be talking at all.

She had flown ten years as a reeve. A lie to buy herself time to edge out of a bad situation was nothing she couldn't handle easily. 'I will wait for you here. How long will it take for you to reach me?'

She felt him nod, but she understood that he could not physically reach her from where he was now despite the magic that allowed them speech. 'I have men in the area, searching for you. If you see them, you'll be safe with them. But they won't be able to reach you at the altar. That's where you must meet me. Stay where you are. It will take me two days to get there. You haven't told me your name?'

How persuasive he sounded! If it weren't for knowing he was responsible for the murder of her eagle, if it weren't for remembering how crisply he had ordered the men under his command to rape, mutilate, and then kill her, she would never have suspected what manner of man he was just by the pleasant tone of his words.

'I'm Ramit,' she said. 'I'm so very confused. Can you tell me what has happened to me?'

'All in good time. You mustn't rush these things. Some explanations are best accomplished face-to-face.'

I'll just wager they are, she thought, and found herself shaking as she took another step, as the dusty hilltop vanished and a damp vista of marshland overhung by low clouds came into view. Cursing furiously, she strode to the center of the labyrinth, ignoring the landscapes flashing dizzily past. She stumbled down to the crevice, where water trickled into a basin from which the mare had been drinking. She unhooked the bowl from her belt and held it under the spring. Still trembling, she lifted the bowl to her mouth and drank her fill. The cold water burned her lips and throat. She started

to cry, gulping sobs that doubled her over. Dead, slaughtered, and that poor chained Devouring girl dead by her own hand after being abused in ways that Marit was sure were worse than what little the girl had voiced aloud. Dead, lost, wandering.

Alone.

Panic swelled like a black cloud, ready to swallow her. She clawed for the steady heart that had taken her through so many years of reeve's work; she fought past the tears, and found her strength.

Enough!

She had no time for this. Two days she had, if he had been telling the truth. Knowing what manner of man he was, she knew he might as well have been lying.

She wiped her face with the back of a hand as she rose and looked around. What magic sustained the Guardian's altar she did not know. How the maze wove its sorcery into the angles of its path she could not guess, because there was actually only one route to walk once you started on the path. The many landscapes visible from within remained invisible now that she stood at the center, but by an odd trick of the view she could see from here at the center a complete vista of the ordinary land around her, all the approaches to this pinnacle, even those that ought to be blocked from her view by spurs and heights.

A pair of hawks floated on a thermal far above. To the west, on an impossibly narrow path, a mountain goat picked its way along the slope. A thread of smoke rose beyond the nearest hill, but it smelled of sheep and a drowsy shepherd strumming a simple tune on a two-stringed lute. A family of rock mice skittered below thickets of sprawling heath-pink. Stunted pine trees grew low to the ground, and spiny broom poked its first flowers from their hairy sheaths. The wind moaned along the height. Otherwise, the land was empty. She was utterly alone.

The mare waited beside the burbling crevice, watching her with interest or, perhaps, disdain. Beside the horse, a bridle hung from an iron post hammered into the rock.

With some difficulty, she slid the harness over the mare's head and, after a few problems with the ears, got it correctly settled and buckled. She had grown up in a village, and while her own family

hadn't been wealthy enough to own horses or even a donkey or mule, as a girl she had been hired out on occasion to the stable master at the local inn and learned the rudiments of harness care and use. Those skills had aided her when she had first come to the reeve hall, after Flirt had chosen her.

Flirt was dead.

The wind stung her eyes. A weight crushed her chest, a haze of grief rising to fill her vision and weaken her body. But she could not succumb now. She could let Flirt's death overwhelm her, or she could use it to make her strong enough to do what must be done. First, evade Lord Radas. Second, observe, and decide what to do next. This simple plan must sustain her as she walked into an unknown landscape: her life after the death of her eagle, or her death after her own death.

She led the mare to the edge of the cliff. The sheer drop did not dizzy her. Reeves learned quickly not to fear heights. Or maybe the great eagles never chose as reeves any person likely to fall prey to that particular fear.

The mare balked, wanting to stay.

'We're getting as far from here as possible, do you understand me? That man killed me, or tried to kill me, even if he wasn't the one who wielded the knife. I'll never trust him, and neither should you.'

After a pause, as if considering her words or deciding whether it was worth a confrontation, the mare opened her wings. Marit mounted. They flew.

The mare did not want to take her in the direction Marit wanted to go, but Marit held the reins, and forced the issue. Beyond the eastern hill in the direction of the thread of smoke lay a box canyon utterly without life or interest beyond dusty green thickets of spiny hedge-heath and bitter-thorn. The smoke came from a pile of brush smoldering at the very end where the walls fenced you in, an excellent spot for an ambush. They came to earth, the mare tossing her head and snorting. Whispers hissed from thickets along the slopes, but no one appeared. The sound might only have been the way the wind clawed through the buds and leaves, but she had a cursed strong feeling that whoever was there had seen her.

It might have been the passage of a drizzling rain, quickly laid down and quickly vanished as soon its hooves touched earth. It might have been the way the mare turned, once on the ground, and headed straight out of the trap with a determined gait despite branches of bitter-thorn raking her flanks and tearing a pale gray feather from her wings. Those wings, folded tight, protected Marit's legs.

'That's the second warning you've given me, or maybe the third,' said Marit, bending low in case some cursed fool decided to loose an arrow or fling a spear.

As they cleared the canyon and found themselves in a rugged intersection of hills and ridges with the suggestion of a valley opening away to the southeast and the sharp spine of the high mountains to the west, Marit wondered if she had imagined the ambush.

'You choose,' she said to the mare. 'Anywhere but north.'

The mare took flight, bearing due south according to the sun. Steep hills were easily cleared. Almost before Marit realized they had come upon human life, they sailed over a high meadow where a flock of sheep grazed. The youth watching over the flock plucked strings, head bent over a two-stringed lute.

The mare trotted to earth out of sight of the meadow, and Marit left her with reins loose, hoping the horse wouldn't stray. She cut through a stand of pine, thick with scent, and brushed through knee-high grass at the meadow's edge. The lad played intently, biting a lip. His concentration gave him charm. A handsome dog emerged from behind him and ran toward her with ears raised, interested but not particularly suspicious. The dog raced around her as she advanced, and a startled blat from one of the grazing sheep caught the boy's attention. He looked up as Marit paused a stone's toss from him.

His eyes opened wide. Equally startled, she took a step back.

He grinned and set down the lute. 'The hells!' He whistled, and the dog pattered over to him. 'Usually he barks,' the boy added. He was old enough to be sent to the high pastures with the sheep but not quite old enough to be called a man. 'Where did you come from?'

'Just over the ridge.' The box canyon wasn't all that far from here, truly, although she wasn't entirely sure how to reach it traveling on

the ground. Reeves sometimes lost that skill, seeing everything from on high.

'You're not from around here. Are you hungry, or thirsty? I've got plenty.'

'I would appreciate a bit.' Reeve habit died hard: you ate and drank whenever opportunity offered, as you didn't always know in the course of a patrol when you might have leisure to eat and drink again.

He shared a cursed sharp cider and a ball of rice neatly wrapped in nai leaves, poor man's food but filling nonetheless.

'I'm surprised to see anyone up here,' he said with nice manners which, together with his pleasant features, would make him a favorite among women when he got a bit older. He was water-born, judging by the pattern of tattoos ringing his wrists. An attractive youth, but forbidden to her because she was also water-born. 'We're about as far west as folk live. You can see how the mountains rise.' He indicated a barrier of grim peaks to the west. 'Nothing beyond that but the flat salt desert.'

'You've seen it?'

He laughed. 'Not myself. My uncle claims to have climbed the Wall, to see onto the deadlands. He said they stretched for a thousand mey, farther than he could see even from the mountains' edge, nothing but pale gold to the flat horizon. Maybe it's true, or maybe he just said so to impress the woman he wanted to marry. He did bring back a shard of an eagle's egg. From a nest, so he said. Said he climbed to it, and fetched it out. But he did talk blather. I bet he just lound it on the trail, fallen from a high place.'

He carefully asked no questions, plying her with highlands hospitality, offering a second flask of cider. He was an open lad, sure she wasn't a bad person because the dog — whose name was Nip — tolerated her. She was just utterly stunned to be having a commonplace conversation.

'I see you've a lute there. Have you always played?'

'Surely I have, since I could pick one up. Would you like me to play for you?' He was sure she would like to hear him; everyone always enjoyed his playing.

She nodded, settling more comfortably cross-legged beside him. I le plucked a pair of tunes and hummed a melancholy melody that

made her eyes water. Thin clouds chased across the high landscape. As the sun passed into shadow, she shivered at the unexpected draft of cool air seeping down from above and pulled her cloak more tightly around her torso.

'Listen, ver. I'm called Marit. I'm lost, truth to tell, and I got lost by running from a nasty pack of bandits who aren't too far from here by my reckoning. I'm not sure it's safe for you. You might be safer walking back to your village, wherever you came from, and warning them that dangerous men are wandering out here looking to make trouble.'

He shrugged with a peculiar lack of concern. 'We've had trouble for years with that crew, most of them out of Walshow and other places north of here. But we've made our own defenses.' With a sly grin, he indicated Nip. 'You'd be surprised what that dog can do when he's roused. We've learned to defend ourselves. It wasn't so bad before, when I was a nipster — a toddler, like. The elders say it was peaceful then. Still, the troubles are all I've ever known. But your bandits won't be finding this pasture. I'm surprised you did.'

'How long have bandits been wandering up here? How can they feed themselves? How do you know they're come from Walshow? How far is it to Walshow from here?'

He snapped his fingers. Two more dogs appeared out of the grass. They were bigger than Nip and had massive muzzles and powerful chests. They loped over to sniff at her, then slipped away to resume their patrol. 'You're a reeve, aren't you?' he asked. 'We see them now and again, hunting around here.'

'Do you? Where do they hail from?'

He shrugged. It was obvious he was telling the truth and never thought once of lying to her. He didn't even feel he needed to lie, he was that confident. 'I don't know. They keep to themselves, although it's true that a time or two we've had a bit of help from them when packs of men came drifting down out of Walshow.'

'They're not patrolling out of Gold Hall? Clan Hall hasn't the resources. I suppose Argent Hall or Horn Hall might fly these parts. Don't they oversee your assizes?'

He looked at the ground, dense with the green growing breath of plants feeding on the early rains and the promise of a fresh year. It

almost seemed that he darkened in aspect, pulled shadows over himself as he changed his mind about trusting her. He was hiding from her, flashes that pricked at her vision

what if she knows?

a snake winds through underbrush, tongue flicking

keep a vessel as of clay about your thoughts, — it is the only protection against the third eye

She blinked back tears and realized he was not speaking.

Fear makes you cold. Shivering, she clambered to her feet. Nip barked as the other dogs circled in. There were five dogs that she could now see, but three wagged their tails tentatively. None threatened her; they simply remained vigilant.

'You're one of them, seeing into me,' he said in a hoarse voice. 'You're death. Have you come to kill me?'

The speed of his transformation from pleasant companion to frightened lad shocked her. She took a step away from the ugly emotion she had roused in him. 'What do you mean?'

He scrambled to his feet and backed away, holding the lute as if it might shield him from attack. 'She hides us, it's all she can do against the others, for they have all become corrupt and soon their shadow will darken every heart. It's just that the dogs didn't bark at you. Why is that? What power do you have that can charm the clogs? Is it all for nothing, all that she has done for us to spare us?' Tears ran down his cheeks. He wept for what his folk had lost. And lie continued backing away, angling so she had to turn to keep lacing him.

Desperately, she said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I'm seeking answers. I'm lost.'

'That's what they all say. That's what she warns us they will say, trying to get inside us, to get past the defenses she taught us to build. Nothing is safe. Nothing.'

For so many years the protection had held. Now, in an instant, all had fallen, fallen. The shadow will grow, and in the end it will consume even those trying to hide from it.

Marit swayed, struck by the hammer blow of his fear and grief. The sun cleared a cloud; its light forced her to raise a hand to spare her eyes. He had turned her, so the sun's glamour blinded her.

I le whistled. The dogs bolted into action, rounding up the

bleating sheep. He grabbed a pack that had lain concealed in the grass. Silver ribbons to mark the new year fluttered from the buckle of the pack where he had tied them. The Year of the Silver Deer followed the Year of the Black Eagle, only in that case why weren't there only two ribbons tied to his pack, appropriate to the Deer? Why were there eight ribbons, the number of the Fox? He loped away from her with his lute in one hand and the pack bumping up and down on his back.

The Year of the Silver Fox would fall nineteen years after the Year of the Black Eagle. So why was he celebrating it now?

She didn't call after him. She recognized futility when she saw it. Anyway, she was still trembling with a fear that penetrated her entire body. She hadn't 'seen' into him. It was a trick, him speaking and her too tired or anxious to notice, or maybe a kind of magic she'd never heard of except in the tales: the magic of misdirection common to clever thieves and cunning jaryas. But he had recognized the change. He'd known she was doing it. That's when he had run.

The lad and his dogs drove the sheep out of the meadow while she watched. The dogs yipped excitedly, eager to be on the move. Behind her, a creature stamped through the grass on her trail. She spun, grabbing at her knife. The mare trotted up beside her, wings furled.

'You warned me,' she said. 'I just didn't know what you meant.'

The horse nosed in the grass. A surface glinted, and she crouched to investigate as the mare chopped at the earth. An ornament had fallen among the grass, frayed strands of silver ribbon caught in a tiny leather loop that had once fastened the ornament to another object. It was a cheap replica of a fox, no longer than her thumb and rendered out of tin: a poor man's year medallion, the kind of thing, like the eight ribbons, given out by the temples at the feasts dedicated to the year's beginning. The Year of the Silver Fox.

Maybe she was still dreaming.

The mare lifted her head, left ear flicking back. Her stance changed. She stared toward the tree line off to the north in the opposite direction to which the youth had fled. Clutching the fox medallion, Marit rose.

A spit of movement made the mare shy, and Marit jumped sideways. An arrow quivered in the earth.

The hells!'

A punch jabbed her body. Gasping, she looked down to find an arrow protruding from her belly, low by her right hip. The mare spread her wings. Gagging at the sheer utter knife of red-hot pain, Marit snapped off the haft and tossed the fletched end aside. With a shout, to pour out a breath's worth of pain, she hauled herself into the saddle. The mare sprang into the air. Marit gripped the saddle horn, sweat breaking over her as she resisted screaming, as the point jabbed and ground inside her gut. Armed men ran into the meadow, bows raised and arrows rising in high arcs after her. These were the same sullen bandits who had first chased her, their ruthless captain identifiable by the lime-whitened horsetail ornaments dangling from his shoulders.

Then they were clear. Her vision blurred. Hills rose and fell on every side like an ocean spilling and sighing beneath her: highlands pine, vistas of grass and heath and bitter-thorn and later moss and lichen with no sign of the youth and his dogs and sheep. She concentrated on clinging to the saddle. Hold on. Hold on. Let the horse take its head and run the straightest course away from danger.

They will never stop bunting me.

'You're death,' the lad had said.

Blood leaked down her belly and spilled over her thighs onto the mare's gray flanks, to drip-drop into the air like rain. Her hands went numb as feeling left them. The cloak wrapped her so tightly she could not even see the landscape passing beyond, shrouding her in the same way the white shroud of death drapes the dead. But she was still breathing, each breath like flame sucked into her body. The pain of burning kept her alive for a thousand years with each lift and fall of wings, and she hung on forever wishing that oblivion would claim her, but it never did.

With a jolt that made Marit cry out, the mare clattered to earth. She spread her wings, and Marit tumbled out of the saddle and fell hard on her back. Pain blinded her, or she was already blind with night suffocating her. She choked on air. Better dead than this. Desperate, wild, she fixed hands around the broken shaft and yanked.

A stink of blood and effluvia gushed free, warming her hands. The gods heard her pleas. A roaring like a storm wind battered through her. Rising out of that gale, the white cloak of death smothered her in its wings.

3

After a certain point death is a peaceful condition, but a bit uncomfortable if your one leg is twisted beneath you, and if your shoulder, pressed into rock, is beginning to feel the pinch, and if your hip aches. She shifted, because it irritated her that minor twinges must plague her when she had earned the right to rest. Once shifted, she realized she was awake and her mind was full with questions.

Why were those men hunting her? Why did Lord Radas want her? Was it not enough to murder Flirt? Must he torture and abuse her as well, as he had that poor Devouring girl? Yet he had not questioned her when she had claimed her name as Ramit. Did he seek Mark, the reeve, or Ramit, the unknown woman walking an altar? What had the shepherd boy meant when he had called her 'one of them'?

So many questions, and not a single answer in sight.

She groaned and rose to her knees. A sticky dry substance flaked from her hands as she pushed up to stand. Blood stained her tunic and leggings; her hands were grimy with dried blood and slime, but the smell had faded. She raised her hands to rub her eyes, then recalled how disgusting her hands were, and looked around bleary-eyed as her skin went clammy with fear.

The mare had brought her back to a Guardian altar.

The cursed horse sucked noisily from a pool, tail swishing. The stupid beast paused to snap at a fly.

The hells!

Marit tugged at the stolen tunic, but the worn linen weave ripped right away. Below, her dark belly rounded in a curve dimpled by the Mother's Scar, her navel. A paler line, smooth along the skin but ragged in its journey, marked a scar just below and to the right of her navel. Had she earned that scar in her days as a reeve? Had she

only dreamed the arrow that had punctured her abdomen? She probed along the scar, but felt no tenderness and no pain.

'What am I?' she said in the direction of the mare, who lifted her head at the sound of Mark's voice. 'What has happened to me?'

The cursed animal gazed at her. What did she know about horses, really? Stubborn, unpredictable, skittish, narrow-minded, fixated on the familiar because the unfamiliar is a threat to them, they were prey, born to run from that which pursued them.

As she was running. She was no longer a reeve, bound to her eagle, free to hunt. She was the hunted. Like the deer, she fled the arrow meant to kill her, and when the next flight struck, she probably would not even have seen it coming.

'You'll give me warning, won't you?' she called to the mare.

The cursed beast flicked its ears.

'I'll call you "Warning", just to call you something. I'll hope you grow into your name.' She dusted flecks of grime from her ragged clothing. 'Why in the hells do you keep bringing me to Guardian altars?'

The wind hummed across the pinnacle of rock on which they stood. She was panting with anger, furious and scared together, but even so the rose-purple light of a setting sun caught her attention. She spun slowly all the way around, because when beauty awes you, you must halt and try to catch your breath and your staggered heart.

The wind was light this evening, a constant blowing presence but easy enough to stand upright in despite that she stood on the very top of a vast pillar of rock. Broken contours suggested that a low wall had once rimmed the edge. No craggy peak loomed above. No overhang offered shelter within. She stood a few steps from a sheer drop-off; she might easily stumble over tumbled stones and fall to her death because the ground was a long, long way down. There was no way down except to fly.

To the west, a range of hills was painted by the colors of the falling sun. Below the pillar, a ridgeline snaked out from the hills. The ridgeline terminated in a bulge where a ruined beacon tower stood, a complex of abandoned buildings arranged at the base of the spire on which she and the horse perched. To the east, the ground dropped away so precipitously that even a reeve with her

experience of heights felt her breath taken away by the grandeur of the scene: a wide basin of land darkened as the eastern sky faded into purpling twilight. Clouds drifted like high islands above the land. Out there beneath the sea of night, a few lights glimmered, village watch fires lit against the gloom.

As twilight overtook them and the light changed, the twisting coil of the labyrinth came to life, marking the path to the center where the mare waited beside the pool. Water burbled up from the rock beneath. Marit licked her lips, smelling the moisture and craving its coolness.

She did not want to be caught out at the edge of the pillar once night fell, for fear of falling over the edge. That cursed mare had a knack for dumping her at the entrance to the labyrinth. She set a foot on the glittering path, then the other. Nothing happened.

With measured steps, she warily paced out the path. A pulse hummed up through her feet as the magic of the labyrinth came to life around her: a flat ocean pricked by the emerging milky-bright light of stars; a fallen stone tower rising above rocks barely visible above surging waves; the last rumbling footsteps of a thunderstorm over a tangled oak forest keeping time with flashes of blue light high in the sky; the sun drawing a golden road across a calm sea of water; mist shrouding a high peak; in a homely village of six cottages, farmers laughing together as they trundled their carts home.

For an instant she saw onto the place she actually stood: the pinnacle of rock beneath her feet, the vast bowl of land to the east, and the rose-painted hills to the west. She took another step and saw a dusty hilltop rimmed by boulders, the setting sun visible as a red smear. She faltered, chest tight as she sucked in air for courage.

When she had looked onto this place before, Lord Radas had spoken to her. Hastily, she moved on. She smelled the rotting damp of marshland but could see only the suggestion of a flat landscape against the swallowing night. As she moved through the path, she must smell and hear what lay beyond each turn because the sun had set and she was walking in layers of night, some too dark to penetrate and others still limned with the last measure of day as though she were leaping from east to west, north to south, and back again, randomly.

Not randomly. The pattern repeated. And if it repeated, she could learn it.

She took another step. Air iced her lungs. Her face and hands smarted in a bone-freezing chill. A tincture of juniper touched her nostrils. She halted, startled by the brush of that perfume, remembering Joss and how he had washed with cakes of juniper-scented soap sent twice yearly by his mother. Joss, her lover. The man she loved, even if she had never quite told him so.

Twilight is a bridge between day and night. On its span, the wind blows both into the whispering past and the silent future, and you partake of them both because you are in transition from one state to the next, a condition that recurs with every passage between night and day and night. Indeed, this condition occurs many times in the entirety of a life, which is lived out as a series of such transitions, bridges between what has gone before and what will come next.

Twilight is a presence, hard to know in its impermanence.

Twilight speaks to her in a soft foreign lisp, with a good-natured voice half amused and half cynical.

'Hu! There you are. They've been looking for you for a good long while now, since long before I came to them. They're getting irritated. If I were you, I would submit now. That's better than what will happen if you can't keep hiding from them. On the other hand, I don't mind seeing them wring their hands and stamp their feet a bit longer.'

'Who are you?'

'I'm a ghost.'

'A ghost! You don't sound like a ghost.'

'What do ghosts sound like?'

'Aui! I suppose they sound like we do, I mean, that they talk no differently as ghosts than they do when living.'

'So are you saying I can't be a ghost? Or I can be a ghost?'

'You're a flirt,' she said with a laugh, because she liked his lazy, good-natured, and sexy baritone even if she could not trust him.

'It's been said of me before.' Like twilight, he seemed not to partake completely of any one thing: he might be a good man coarsened by a bad situation, or a bad man mellowed by a good situation, or just someone caught in the middle with no way out but through.

'Don't trust me,' he added, his voice darkening. 'I'd give you over in an instant if I thought it would get me what I want. Who are you?'

'I'm not telling. What do you want?'

The lazy tone worked up to an edge. 'Escape from this hell of endless suffering.'

'Why are you trapped?'

His laugh scraped. 'We're all trapped. Don't you know that yet? Wait where you are and submit when they reach you, or keep running and hiding.'

The bitterly cold air hoarsened her voice. 'Those can't be the only choices.'

'How have you evaded them for so long? Neh, don't tell me. I don't want to know. But they're long in looking for you. They don't like that. They hauled me free at once. They made me what I am now.'

'What are you now, besides a ghost, if you are a ghost?'

'A coward who fears oblivion and yearns for it. I have more power than I could ever have dreamed of. I wish I could die. I want to go home, but I never will leave this land.'

'Who are you?'

For a long time he remained silent. Her fingers grew taut with cold until it hurt to bend them. Her ears were burning, and her eyes had begun to sting as though blistering from the cold.

He spoke in a whisper. 'How I fear them, for they are sweet with the corruption that comes of believing they must do what is wrong in order to make things right. I was called Hari once, Harishil, the name my father gave me. Will you tell me your name?'

Mark had served as a reeve for over ten years. She'd learned to trust her instincts, and she knew in her gut that even if she might want to trust him, she must not. Anyway, what kind of person got a name from his father, not his mother? 'I can't tell you. I'm sorry.'

Had she been able to see him, she would have guessed he smiled. 'You need not apologize for what is true. I'll have to tell them I saw you, but I'll say I didn't know where you were. There's one thing you need to know. We can see into people's hearts with our third eye and our second heart, but we are blind to each other. Remember that. It's your only weapon against them.'

'Who are "they"?'

'Nine Guardians the gods created, according to the tale you tell in this land. I think at one time they walked in accord, but now they are at war. Two rule, and three of us submit; five are enough to hunt and destroy the four who have not yet submitted to the rule of night and sun. They will find you in the end, and if you will not submit, they will destroy you and pass your cloak to another, one more easily subdued.'

'The Guardians are dead. They've vanished from the Hundred. Everyone knows that.'

'Guardians can't die. Surely you know that, now you are one. Hsst! That cursed worm Yordenas is walking. Go quickly if you don't want your whereabouts known to him! Go now!'

His urgency impelled her. She took a step, and a breath of fetid air washed her. She took another step into a spitting salt spray with the crash of surf far below, and another step to warm rain in her face amid the racket of crickets and the smell of damp grass. Her hands smarted as blood rushed back into the skin. The pulse beneath her feet throbbed with a third tone, hot and intense, the presence of blood washing down the path like an incoming tide.

She could not run within the confines of the labyrinths, but because she was compact she could negotiate the path's twists and turns economically, keeping ahead of the other presence. The muzzy confusion of earlier days had lifted and she felt both the widening focus and the pinpoint awareness of her surroundings from her days as a reeve when her instincts — right up until the last day — had served her so well.

She was back in the game, one step ahead of fear. Flirting with danger, the rush that her eagle had taught her to love. Wasn't all of life like that: never more than one step ahead until the day death caught you?

The path spilled her into the center of the labyrinth, where the horse waited, looking aggrieved, if horses could look aggrieved, as if to say: 'Why did you take so long?'

Gods, she was thirsty. Hands shaking, she filled the bowl and drank her fill, the water blazing into every part of her body. She sank down cross-legged, panting, and rubbed her forehead. Night

had fallen. Knowing a cliff plunged away on all sides, she dared not move, not unless the horse was willing to fly at night, something an eagle could not do because they depended so heavily on their vision. She'd heard tales of eagles who could be fooled or forced into flying at the full moon, but she'd never had such luck with Flirt.

But as she sat with a sweet breeze steady against her face, she realized the mare actually had a kind of sheen to it that might be described as a glow. Its coat was not so much pale gray as luminescent silver. Indeed, the horse had an unnatural look, a ghost in truth, if ghosts flicked their tails and tossed their pretty heads.

Why did the cursed mare keep bringing her to Guardian altars? Her chest was tight the way a person gets when they don't want to breathe for fear of inhaling where they know there will be a noxious smell.

A Guardian altar. A winged horse. A cloak. A simple begging bowl. Light from her palm, if she needed it, and a patterned labyrinth through which she seemed able to speak across distances to others like her.

She knew the tale. She could chant the words or tell it through gesture, as every child could.

Long ago, in the time of chaos, a bitter series of wars, feuds, and reprisals denuded the countryside and impoverished the lords and guildsmen and farmers and artisans of the Hundred. In the worst of days, an orphaned girl knelt at the shore of the lake sacred to the gods and prayed that peace might return to her land.

A blinding light split the air, and out of the holy island rising in the center of the lake appeared the seven gods in their own presence. The waters boiled, and the sky wept fire, as the gods crossed over the water to the shore where the girl had fallen.

And they spoke to her.

Our children have been given mind, hand, and heart to guide their actions, but they have turned their power against themselves. Why should we help you?

For the sake of justice, she said.

And they heard her.

Let Guardians walk the lands, in order to establish justice if they can.

Who can be trusted with this burden? she asked them. Those with power grasp tightly.

Only the dead can be trusted, they said. Let the ones who have died fighting for justice be given a second chance to restore peace. We will give them, gifts to aid them with this burden.

Taru the Witherer wove nine cloaks out of the fabric of the land and the water and the sky, and out of all living things, which granted the wearer protection against the second death although not against weariness of soul;

Liu the Opener of Ways built the altars, so that they might speak across the vast distances each to the other;

Atiratu the Lady of Beasts formed the winged horses out of the elements so that they could travel swiftly and across the rivers and mountains without obstacle;

Sapanasu the Lantern gave them light to banish the shadows;

Kotaru the Thunderer gave them the staff of judgment as their symbol of authority;

Ushara the Merciless One gave them a third eye and a second heart with which to see into and understand the hearts of all;

Hasibal gave an offering bowl.

All she lacked was a staff of judgment, whatever that was. Really, a reeve who tallied up the evidence might suggest, against all likelihood, that these added up to an obvious conclusion: Here sits a Guardian.

Was she merely spinning and drifting on sweet-smoke, unmoored from the world around her? All she knew for sure was that she was being hunted by forces she did not comprehend, ones her gut — and Hari the outlander, if that was really his name — warned her never to trust.

She didn't know what precisely she was now, but she had been a reeve once. She could investigate. And it would help to figure out

where the hells she was, where her enemies were, and what they wanted.

'You might want to turn back,' said the old woman as she scooped nai porridge into Marit's bowl. They stood under the triple-gated entrance to a temple of Ilu, where Mark had come to beg for food. 'Once you ford the river and cross through West Riding, you'll have left Sohayil.'

'Merchants will trade, and beggars will beg, and laborers will seek work wherever they can find it.' The nai's richly spiced aroma made Marit's mouth water; it was all she could do not to bolt down the food right there.

'In the old days that was certainly true, but not anymore. We can't be so easy about things in these days.' Morning mist rose off the river and curled in backwater reeds. A last gust of night rain spattered on the waters, and stilled. On the grounds of the temple, an apprentice trundled a wheelbarrow full of night soil to the temple gardens, while a pair of children carried an empty basket to the henhouse. A trio of elders even older than the gatekeeper paced through the chant of healing from the Tale of Patience, their morning exercise. From the round sanctuary rose the sonorous chanting of male voices. 'I don't mind telling you, for your own good, really, that we've recalled all our envoys who've been walking the roads from here to Haldia and Toskala. Sund and Farsar and Sardia aren't truly safe, although some still make the journey.'

'You must have envoys carrying messages to the Ostiary in Nessumara, to the other temples of Ilu. Not to mention your work as envoys.'

The old envoy was spry, comfortably plump, and nobody's fool. 'Think you so? Why are you headed that way? If you don't mind my saying so, your clothes and walking staff mark you as a beggar or a laborer down on her luck — and the gods know we've seen enough of them in these days — but your manner doesn't fit. The cloak's nice. Is that silk? Good quality.'

Her interest was genuine. She was envious, in an amused way. She didn't trust Mark, not in these days with any kind of traveler out on the roads and every sort of awful rumor blown on the winds. The region of Sohayil remained a haven of relative calm probably

only because of the ancient magic bound into the bones of the surrounding hills as a fence against trouble. But on the other hand, a lone traveler wasn't likely to cause much trouble unless she was a spy scouting for-

She glanced away, as if troubled, and the contact broke.

'For what?' asked Marit.

'Eh!' The envoy laughed awkwardly as she looked back at Marit. 'For what? If I could find silk that good quality, I'd get a length of blue and make a wedding wrap for my granddaughter. But not white, like that. White is — White's not a color for weddings.' White is death's color, but any decent person is too well mannered to mention that to someone who clearly has nothing else to wear against the rain.

'My thanks, Your Holiness. My thanks for your hospitality.'

'Blessed is Ilu, who walks with travelers.' Her smile remained friendly, but it was pitying as well: Especially poor kinless women like this one, alone in the world. No one should have to be so alone.

Shaken, Marit retreated from the temple gate and from its neighboring village of Rifaran. She walked back to the glade where she had concealed Warning. She slurped down the porridge, the spices a prickle in her nostrils, but the comforting nai did not settle her. She worked through a set of exercises with the training staff, but the martial forms did not focus her today. Even the delicate shift of the wind in trees flowering with the rains did not soothe her.

She'd never been a loner. She liked people. But perhaps she liked them better when she didn't have an inkling of what was really going on in their heads.

She sank down on her haunches, grass brushing her thighs. Red-petaled heart-bush and flowering yellow goldcaps bobbed as the breeze worked through the meadow. White bells and purple muzz swayed. Everywhere color dazzled, and the scent of blooming made the world sweet.

'Great Lady,' she whispered, 'don't abandon me, who has always been your faithful apprentice. Let me be strong enough for the road ahead. Let me be strong enough to stop thinking of Joss, to let what was in the past stay in the past. Let me be wise enough to know that what we shared then, we can no longer share. My eyes are open, and there are some places and some hearts I do not want to see.'

Tears slid from her eyes. She wiped them away. 'Hear me, Lady. I'll stay away from him. In exchange, please watch over him even though he belongs to Ilu. Surely we are all your children. I'll follow this road, wherever it takes me. I will always act as your loyal apprentice, as I always have. I will serve the law, as I always have. Hear me, Lady. Give me a sign.'

Warning stamped. A red deer parted a thick stand of heart-bush and paced into the meadow. Twin fawns, tiny creatures so new that they tottered on slender legs, stumbled into view behind her. The deer stared at Marit for a long, cool hesitation, and then sprang away into the forest with the fawns at her heels.

Marit smiled, her heart's grief easing a little. The Lady of Beasts had heard her oath, and had answered her.

She no longer needed much sleep, and anyway she didn't fancy the flavor of her dreams, which seemed to cycle between Lord Radas whipping hounds and archers in pursuit as she fled into a dark mazy forest, or her lover Joss aged into a cursed attractive middle-aged man except for his habit of drinking himself into and out of headaches and flirting up women at every opportunity. She'd never thought of him as a person with so little self-control.

She napped in the middle of the day, hiding herself and the mare in brush or trees. In early morning and late afternoon she worked through her forms diligently. She rode at night. Under Warning's hooves, the road took on a faint gleam that lit their way. It was funny how quickly you got accustomed to a piece of magic like that, when it aided you. She minded the night rains less when she was awake. They washed through and away, blown by the winds, and afterward her clothes would dry off as she rode.

One night, Warning shied and halted, refusing to go farther. Marit led her into cover just before she heard the tramp of marching men. They were a motley group; she could see them pretty well despite overcast skies that admitted no light of moon. They had torches, and all manner of weapons, and they were moving fast and purposefully, heading southwest. Their captain with his horsetail ornaments had a ragged scar crudely healed across his clean-shaven chin, and he had the look of a real northerner, hair and complexion lightened to a pale brown by

outlander blood. They all wore a crude tin medallion on a string at their necks, a star with eight points. In a cold moment, set against the misty-warm night, she recognized the men who had tried to capture her in the mountains.

She moved on once Warning was willing to go, but she could not shake the sight of those men. Most likely Hari had confessed that he'd seen her, and identified the Guardian altar where she had been standing. It seemed likely they were marching to the Soha Hills, hoping to trap her.

They'll never give up. They want me that badly.

She plotted a path in her head that would, she hoped, lead her to Toskala. She and the mare pushed north through Sund for days, begging at temples and farmsteads at dawn or twilight. She was always looking over her shoulder.

Warning, deprived of her favored sustenance at the Guardian altars, began to graze with the same enthusiasm a dog might display eating turnips. She deigned to water in streams and ponds as if the process disgusted her.

When they reached the region of Sardia, where the tributary road they were traveling on met the Lesser Walk, they turned east toward Toskala. Late in the afternoon they set out through woodland on a track running more or less parallel to the paved road. Just before dusk they began moving through managed woodlands, skirting an orchard and diked fields marked with poles carved at the peak with the doubled axe sacred to the Merciless One.

She found a copse of murmuring pine and left Warning in its shelter. Walking along the embankment between fields, she headed toward a compound lying in the center of cultivated land. From here she could not see the main road, but she knew it was close. She circled around the high compound walls, ringed at their height with wire hung with bells to keep out intruders. Drizzle spat over the ground as she stepped up onto the entry path and walked to the gate.

The doors were shut with the dusk, lamps hanging high on the wall. She ventured into the light and raised both hands to show she was holding no weapon.

'Greetings of the dusk,' she called. 'I'm a traveler, begging for the goddess's mercy by way of a bit to eat and drink. Maybe some grain

for the road. Withered apples? Anything you have to spare.' She held out her bowl.

'Go away,' said a woman's voice from atop the walls. 'Our gates are closed.'

Among other things, Mark had been at pains to discover what day and month it was, now that she knew she had slept through nineteen years and by doing so walked from the Year of the Black Eagle, with perhaps a slight detour through the Year of the Blue Ox, directly into the Year of the Silver Fox.

'I'm surprised to hear you say so, holy one. I thought Ushara's temples kept their gates open all day and all night of the day of Wakened Snake. So it always was in my own village.'

'The gates are closed, day and night,' said the woman. 'Shadows walk abroad. No one can be trusted, so we no longer let anyone in. Go away, or we'll kill you.' Mark sensed the presence of five others along the wall.

'How can this be, holy one? The Devourer turns no person away. Her gates are always open.'

She received no answer, and no beggar's tithe, and when they shot a warning arrow to stab the dirt at her feet, she walked away.

She had better luck in the villages and towns set up as posting stations along the Lesser Walk. The folk there might be wary and reluctant to share with a mere beggar, but the laws of the gods were clear on the duty owed by householders and temples toward indigent wanderers.

'Greetings of the day to you, verea,' said the shopgirl, a pretty young thing in a shabby taloos that was frayed at the ends. She tried a smile, but it was as frayed as the fabric, barely holding together. She looked ready to duck away from the hard slap her father would give her if she didn't close more sales this month than last month, even if it wasn't her fault that so few travelers were out on Sardia's main road, the principal route through this region to Toskala.

'Greetings of the day to you,' said Mark. The girl's cringing attitude disturbed her, so anger gave bite to her tone.

'I'm sorry. How can I help you? I'm sure there's something here you must need. What are you looking for?' Desperation made the girl's voice breathy. She was trying too hard.

Mark forced a kinder tone. 'I need a brush. For grooming a horse. And something to pick stones out of its hooves. It's a nice shop. You must get a lot of customers here, you're in a good stopping point along the road.'

'Custom used to be better,' admitted the girl, relaxing a little. She had a round face and a honey-colored complexion, smooth and unblemished. 'Folk don't travel anymore.'

'Why is that?'

The girl glanced at the entryway. Wide strips of hanging cloth, stamped with the gold sigil of the merchants' guild, were tied back to either side, so with the doors slid open, she could see straight down the road along which the posting town sprawled. The girl sucked in a sharp breath. Fear rose off her like steam. Mark turned.

She should have noticed the cessation of street noise, followed by the ominous slap of feet. A pack of armed men strode down the street, breaking off in groups of two and three to climb onto the porches of shops and dive through the entrances without even the courtesy of taking off their sandals.

The girl reached over the counter to tug on Mark's sleeve. 'We have to hide!' She whispered, but her thoughts screamed: They'll take me like they took Brother. Father won't protect me this time. 'Quick, duck down over behind the chest there, they won't look. Papa!' She opened the door to the back and vanished as she slid the door hard shut behind her.

Shelves lined the shop front, but pickings were scarce: a pair of used brushes polished to look new; a single piece of stiff new harness, and several neatly looped lead lines recently oiled. A few other refurbished items also catered to travelers whose gear might have broken along the road. The chest had the bulky look of a piece left behind by a prosperous merchant fallen on hard times; not many people could afford the weight of such an oversized container.

The door to the back snapped open.

'Cursed beggar!' A sweat-stained man slammed the door shut behind him. Marit realized she had let her cloak open, which revealed her ragged clothing still damp from the dawn's shower. 'Get out of the shop, or duck down behind that chest. I don't want trouble from you! Beyond what I've already got!'

She dropped down into the narrow gap between the chest and a

set of lower shelves. The space was so small she had to turn her head to breathe, facing into the open shelving. A pile of brushes and combs had been shoved back here, pieces missing teeth or with wood cracking.

A heavy stride hammered along the porch. A man's voice raised in the shop next door.

'You promised me eight new halters, but here are only four. I'll need coin to make up for the ones I'll have to purchase elsewhere.'

A murmured reply answered him. Mark could not hear the exact words, but terror drifted like a miasma. Beside her face, dust smeared the lowest shelf and its discarded goods, and dust stirred in an unsettled swirl of air as the man stomped into the shop where she hid.

'Heya! What about it!' he shouted, although there was something insincere about the way he bellowed. 'Where are those lead lines you promised us?' In a lower, more natural voice, he added, 'What news, you cursed worm?'

The shopkeeper replied in a rapid whisper. 'There's little to tell, Captain. The leatherworker is hiding the rest of his stock in the grain house in his courtyard. The woman who makes banners is hiding stock down by the mulberry orchard, in the old tomb of the Mothers, plenty of good cloth for tents and other such things. This is the third week the farmers have refused to come to market.'

'We've taken care of the farmers.' His voice had a snarl in it. Marit's skin prickled; it was like being close to a lightning strike, wondering where the next bolt would burst free.

The shopkeeper groveled. 'The blacksmith left town. Thought he'd walk to Toskala. Hoped to be safe there.'

'He didn't get far.'

'Eh, hah, sure it is you'd not let such a valuable man walk out on you in your year of need.'

'He's working where he can't argue so much, it's true. You've told me nothing I don't already know, excepting for the bit about the leatherworker hiding goods from us. I know you have a daughter as well as the lad. I need more than this in payment, ver.' His tone was sly and nasty, drunk as much with the power he held as with the wine he'd been drinking.

Marit wanted to grab the slimy weasel and slam him against the

counter until he begged for mercy and returned all that had been stolen, but of course this village had clearly lost far more than could ever be restored now. Anyway she had no weapon except the old knife, whose wooden handle was coming loose, and her walking staff, hard to use effectively in a crowded shop. She hated herself for what she could not do.

'A reeve came through,' said the man reluctantly.

'Sheh! You know it's forbidden for you folk to talk or tithe to reeves.'

'I know it, I know it,' he gabbled. 'But the reeve wore the Star of Life, like you folk do. He said he was flying down to Argent Hall, where a marshal was to be elected or murdered or some such. That's what he said. How can we stop a reeve from flying in, when all's said and done? Eh? Eh?' He was whining. 'There's nothing we can do when folk do walk into town on their own feet. We can't stop them.'

'Maybe so.' The news had distracted the captain. Mark heard him scratching in the stubble at his chin. 'Argent Hall, eh? Wish they'd made their move at Gold Hall, to get those cursed reeves up there off our backs, but there it is. The lord knows his business, just like you know yours, eh? The reeve halls will topple soon enough. What else? You've got that look about you, ver, like you're hiding somewhat from me.'

'Neh, neh, nothing at all. Just a word I overheard the other day, a passing comment, you can't trust chance-heard conversation, can you? Anyone can talk and say anything they please, can't they? How can a poor soul know what's true and what is just sky-spinning?'

The captain's silence made the shop seem abruptly warmer, stuffy and hard to breathe. From the street came calls and cries, so remote they might as well have been meaningless: a woman sobbing, a man's triumphant giggling as with a fit of cruelty, a spasm of coughing and spewing. Mark heard, from the back of the shop, a murmuring like mice rustling below the floorboards, words exchanged between two people in hiding:

'He'd not betray her, would he?'

'Hush, girl. He'll do what he must to save us. Hush.'

The words, sounding so clearly in her own ears, evidently did not reach the captain, who rapped a metal blade on the counter. 'I

haven't all day to wait! We gave you this chance to work with us rather than be cleaned out like the rest. I can burn down this shop if I've a wish to do so. Or take your daughter, like I did your son.'

'Peace! Peace! Just a cricket in my throat got me choked.' He made a business of clearing his throat. 'There, it's gone now.' Once started, the shopkeeper flowed like a stream at spring tide. 'A merchant come through, a stout fellow headed southwest on the Lesser Walk and meaning to head onwards down the Rice Walk to Olo'osson. This was a few weeks after the new year's festival. He was still wearing his fox ribbons, all silver, very fine quality and embroidered to show how rich he was.'

'I'm surprised a rich man chooses to strut his wealth these days. The roads aren't safe.'

'Heh. Heh. You'd say so, ver, wouldn't you? Eh, he wasn't afraid. He was a cocky fellow, even if he did have that cursed sloppy borderlands way of speaking. He would sneer at our humble town, though he'd no reason to do so. He ordered me about when he could just have asked politely for the items he needed.'

'What does this have to do with anything?'

'Oh, eh, it's just I notice such things, being a shopkeeper. We have to size up our customers. So when I went into the back to fetch out another lead line, I heard him saying to his companion that he had powerful allies in the north. That they were going to march on Olossi later this year. He did like to hear himself talk. He was indignant, said it wasn't his fault he'd had to make outside alliances. It was just that there were troublemakers in Olossi trying to elbow their way into power and push out those who had been good stewards for these many years, and he had to protect his clan.'

It was a common saying among the reeve halls that some came into service possessed of good instincts while some learned good instincts during service, and that those who neither possessed nor learned did not survive. Mark had good instincts, and had learned better ones in her ten years as a reeve, although not enough to save herself from a knife to the heart.

But ever since she'd woken, she heard and tasted and smelled with cleaner senses, as if the Four Mothers — the earth, water, fire, and wind that shapes the land — had lent her a measure of their own essence.

The captain said, 'Who else did you tell?'

He's going to kill him. The air told her because of the way his sour scent sharpened. The earth told her because of the way his feet shifted on the floorboards, bracing for the thrust.

The shopkeeper scratched his head, nails scraping scalp. She could smell his fear, but he wasn't afraid enough. He didn't see it coming.

'None but my wife, as a curiosity'

Because he thinks he can sell the information later. Because if no one else knows, then he can hoard harness and the used traveling gear he accumulates in the hope of making a greater profit off it later by selling to a mass of men on the move — an army — who need goods immediately and can't wait. The fate of the folk of Olossi concerns him not at all.

'If the troubles down south settle out,' he added, 'then maybe more folk will be on the roads, we'll see more trade. Trade's been scarce these past few seasons. Folk don't want to be out on the roads because they fear-'

She stood in the moment the captain drew his sword.

In the lineaments of a face shine the spirit; in the posture of the body speaks the soul. The tight set of a jaw reveals anger. A hand clenched around the hilt of a sword shows resolve.

Fear settles where a man leans back.

Shoulders hunching, a hand raised helplessly, the shopkeeper glanced toward Marit.

J am dead now, but at least I kept the secret. At least my sister will have escaped them. The shopkeeper's thoughts might as well have been words spoken aloud, they were cast like seeds in a broad spray, everything about him caught between his small, fatal victory and his simple fear that the blade, striking him, would hurt terribly as it cut and smashed his flesh.

We all live in terror of pain.

'You not least,' she said to the captain. 'You are one of those who will die in pain. You have sown with cruel seeds, and the bloody harvest will devour you.'

His sword point dropped. She studied his face so she would remember it no matter how much time passed before they met again: a broken nose; a scar under his left eye.

His lips parted as he trembled. 'You are death. Where did you come from?'

'Answer your own question. Go from this town. Don't come back. I know you now. I'll hunt you down if harm comes to any here.'

His thoughts spilled as water over the lip of a fountain. I'll be rewarded for this message, for telling them I've spotted one of the cloaks walking abroad in daylight. Or what if she is already acting in concert with them? What if this is a test? To see if I act rightly, follow orders? What if they punish me? Aui! Aui!

'Get out,' she said, wondering if she'd have to try and grab the sword out of his hand and kill him.

But he fled.

The shopkeeper began gasping, spurts of sobs punctuated by racking coughs. The door slid back. The pretty daughter stuck her head in, eyes seeming white with fear.

He spun, hearing the door tap against the stop, and before she could cringe back he slapped her. 'Get back in the closet, you witless girl! Can't you stay where you're told?' The purse of his mouth betrayed his shame. He looked back at Mark.

An onslaught of thoughts and images tumbled: She'll run away, find a temple, any place to take her in, but what if the soldiers capture her as they did Sediya-? A young woman — his own sister — staggers into their humble house, sneaking in out of the alley and huddling in the chicken house until dawn. She's much younger than her brother, the last child of their parents. Like her niece, she's pretty enough, but haggard with misery. Her thighs are sticky with blood and she stinks of piss; she limps as her sister-in-law supports her into the house. She is crying, 'They'll come for me. I ran away. Please hide me.'

The shopkeeper jerked his gaze away from Marit.

'They'll kill us when they learn we've gone against them, that we're hiding one of the captives they took,' he said hoarsely to his daughter, but she was too stunned to speak or move with her cheek flushed red from the blow. Her silence infuriated her father. He raised his hand just as the captain had raised his sword.

'Don't take your anger out on her,' said Marit, 'or she'll run and you'll have bartered away your honesty and your honor and your good name for nothing.'

'Just get out, I beg you,' he said, his movement as stiff as that of an aged elder as he kept his gaze averted. 'Take whatever you want.'

Reeves could accept tithes, receiving from those they aided the necessities that allowed them to live. She grabbed what she wanted: a feed bag, a pair of brushes one stiff and one softer, a hoof pick, a lead line, rope, and a bundle of tough rags.

She paused with the goods stuffed into the feed bag. What if a reeve became greedy? It happened; they took more than they needed, or they taught themselves to take what they wanted and told themselves they deserved it all. 'He passed under the gate into the shadow.' In every one of the Ten Tales of Founding, more than one man and woman crossed the Shadow Gate to the other side, where corruption takes hold in the heart. With each step, the path got smoother as you told yourself why it was acceptable to walk farther down this road. The tales of the Hundred told the story of humankind and the other children born to the Four Mothers. It was natural that some succumbed to the shadows.

Maybe it was unnatural that any did not.

'Where are the reeves who should be aiding you? Isn't Gold Hall patrolling? Isn't there a temple of Uu nearby that can send an envoy to Clan Hall in Toskala to ask for help?'

He laughed recklessly. 'The reeves can't help us. You can walk out of our town and never come back, but we have to live here. No matter what you said to him, they will come back. It's us will have to face them. Not you.'

'That merchant,' she said. 'You said he was from Olossi. Did he give you a name?'

'Quartered flowers were his house mark. Is that enough? Will you go?'

Marit followed the sniveling girl into the narrow living quarters, tromping through in her outdoor sandals like the rudest kind of intruder. There was a single table and two cupboards, everything put away neatly except for a single ceramic cup filled with cooling tea set on the table. The floor was swept clean, and this homely indication of a woman doing her best to stem the shadows by keeping her home tidy made Marit hurt as if she'd been punched under the ribs.

She shoved open the back screen and clattered onto the porch

and down three steps to the courtyard. The damp of night rains still darkened the ground. The gate that led to the alley was tied shut. She fumbled with the knot, her hands clumsy.

Where were they hiding the fugitive sister?

She paused to scan the yard: the squat house with scant room above the eaves; the small grain storage up on stilts; a pit house with the sticky scent of incense drifting; the henhouse, an empty byre, and the surrounding wall too high to see over. She clambered up the ladder to the grain storage and tugged out the smallest sack of rice, something easy to carry over a shoulder.

Stillness was settling over the village as folk assessed the damage and checked their injuries after the abrupt departure of the soldiers. There, after all, she heard the shallow breathing of a woman trying to make no sound: the sister was hidden in the henhouse, scrunched under the nesting shelf and by now smeared with fresh droppings and the filthy wood shavings strewn on the floor to absorb the waste.

Mark took a step toward the henhouse, mouth open to speak. But she said nothing.

She hadn't the means to support a traveling companion. It was difficult enough dealing with the cursed horse. A hundred other reasons aside told her she had to move on alone. This wasn't the time to try to save a woman here and a man there, like trying to hold your hands over one beautiful flower in a driving hailstorm while the rest disintegrate under the onslaught.

'The hells,' she muttered. She said, in a low voice meant to carry no farther than the courtyard walls, 'I'm a traveler, and I'm headed out of town. The soldiers have gone for now, but they'll be back. If you want, you can travel with me. I offer you such protection as I can, and insofar as I am capable, I will get you to a place of safety. If there is such a place any longer. I can't make you come, and I can't promise you much. There it is. Take it or leave it.'

Her offer was met with a resounding silence. Thank the gods.

She turned back to the gate and fumbled with the knot, sure she had tugged on it the wrong way and caused what ought to have been an easy slipknot to jam into itself. She'd never been good with rope, not like Joss, grown up on the sea's shore where every child learned a hundred cunning knots…

'I'll go.' The voice was soft and female, and not a bit tentative.

Marit turned. A woman crouched in the low entrance to the henhouse. Her hair had matted into clumps now streaked with white droppings; her face was patched with muck and dotted where wood shavings had stuck to the damp. The color of her cheap hemp taloos was concealed beneath a coat of red clay and paler mud, sprinkled with more droppings.

The woman looked right at her.

An assault of images: a weeping girl with hands bound; the ruins of a village smolder as the line of captives staggers past, but they're too exhausted to do more than cover their noses to ease the smell as the soldiers drive them on; an unexpected moment of laughter when eight of the captives, wary comrades now, splash in a pond; stumbling in mud while somewhere out of sight a baby cries and cries. She had lied about her name, because then all the things that happened to her were really happening to someone else, someone she was not.

Marit said, 'Your name is Sediya.'

Wearily, the woman said, 'You're one of them, one of the cloaks who pin us. The soldiers are their slaves, and we're slaves to the soldiers. Now I guess I'm your slave.'

'I'm not one of them,' said Marit fiercely.

'You're not going to kill me? Punish me? Take me back to Walshow?'

'The hells! Did you walk all the way here from Walshow?'

'Not really. I was swapped out to a scouting patrol, to service them while they were ranging, cook their rice, pound their nai. We walked for weeks and weeks, and I was too scared to run away. Then I got to seeing places I recognized, and that's when I ran. They'll kill me when they catch me. That's the promise they make you.'

Marit swiped a hand through her grubby hair, and cursed, the biting words taking the edge off her anger.

The woman had the numb gaze of a person who has learned to gauge how close she is to the next time she'll be hurt.

'Stupidest cursed thing I've ever done,' muttered Marit as she turned back to the gate, but she thought of the Devouring girl in the temple up on the Liya Pass and she couldn't take back what she'd offered.

'Here, let me.' Sediya had a funny way of walking, favoring both legs, trying to hide that each step pained her. But she had clever hands; the knot fell away.

The door to the house scraped open. The shopkeeper stuck his head out, saw his sister, and blanched. 'Sedi! If they see you, if they know I sheltered you — you've already brought trouble down on us. Can't you think of anyone but yourself?'

Sediya wrenched open the gate. 'I'm leaving.' She bent her head just as Mark caught a flash of dull fear. 'May the gods allow that you fare well, Brother.'

Marit took a step out into the alley and glanced up and down the narrow lane. 'No one's moving. Let's go.'

4

When Sediya saw Warning, she sank to her knees and wept.

'The hells!' Marit knelt beside her. 'What's wrong?'

The tears ended as abruptly as they had begun. Sediya wiped her cheeks with the back of a grubby hand.

'You're one of them after all,' she said without looking Marit in the eye. 'Are you going to kill me now, or after you've taken me back to Walshow, in the ceremony of cleansing?'

'I'm not one of them!'

She indicated the mare. 'You ride one of the holy ones, the winged horses.'

'These others do, too?'

'Yes.'

'How many are there?'

Sediya glanced sidelong at her, then away, but Marit caught that awful need to believe that all might be well when after everything the woman had seen really it was a stupid thing to hold to but she couldn't help it. She couldn't help wanting there to be hope.

'I have seen four with my own eyes — twilight, sun, blood, and the one who wears green — but there's another they speak of, the one even the rest fear. They come and go out of camp. The one wearing the Sun Cloak is the worst, that was the rumor among us slaves. I

used to smear my face with dirt.' She faltered, staring at her hands. The two leftmost fingers on her left hand had been broken and healed crooked. 'Are you the one others fear so much?'

'I'm not one of them,' Marit repeated, teeth clenched. 'What "ceremony of cleansing" do you mean? I've never heard of such a thing.'

Sediya sang in a thready voice a horrible desecration of a holy chant. ' "The weak die, the strong kill, and the cloaks rule all, even death."'

'Sheh! That's not a proper chant.' But seeing the woman cringe, Marit forced her shoulders to relax and her hands to uncurl, trying to appear less threatening. 'How did you manage to escape?'

She brushed her belly, caught herself doing it, and winced. 'After a while they get careless. They thought I was grinding grain over behind a tent. I just walked away.'

Marit knew the signs. She could evaluate people quickly. 'Had they just raped you? Is that what made you run?'

She started talking, fast and low, her shame like a rash. 'After a while you get torn and you never heal. Now I bleed and pee all the time, it leaks out of me, there's nothing to hold it in. Maybe it would be better to be dead after all. What clan will ever want me as a wife for one of their sons? I have nothing to hope for. I'll go back with you. Please don't let them kill me.' She never once looked up.

'We'll find a place for you to shelter,' said Marit, so furious she had trouble tugging in air. 'We'll go back the way I came, to the southwest. It's safe there.'

Sediya heaved a sigh, then settled to sit crookedly along one thigh as if it were uncomfortable to sit straight down cross-legged in the normal manner. She plucked a strand of grass from the ground and wound it around her crooked fingers. 'Where are you from?'

'I was born in a village in southeast Farsar. Very isolated, quite poor. My family was too poor to keep me, so they gave me a month's worth of rice and put me on the road. I walked to Toskala looking for work as a laborer. But I became a reeve, instead.'

'Where's your eagle, then?'

The memory was still fresh. Marit shuddered. 'My eagle is dead. She was murdered. By men under the command of Lord Radas of Iliyat.'

Sediya showed no reaction to the name, her gaze still bent on the grass she was winding around her deformed fingers. At last she said, to the dirt, 'I'm a Black Eagle. Born during the season of the Flood Rains.'

Mark shut her eyes. 'That's the year I-' But she could not say That's the year I was murdered. Ghosts didn't sit on the ground with the damp soaking through their leggings and have conversations with brutalized young women. 'I'm a Green Goat.'

The statement made Sediya's eyes flare as she murdered the earth with her gaze. 'You'd be counting forty-seven years. You can't be that old. You don't look it.'

'Did you serve your apprentice year with the Lantern?' asked Mark, laughing. 'You sorted those numbers quickly.'

'I did not, though everyone thought I should,' said Sediya with a grin. The change of expression betrayed a friendly spirit with a lively manner, hiding beneath the grime. 'I served my year with Ilu, because I liked the thought of getting to walk to the nearby towns and see a bit of the countryside. Afterward, the temple wanted to keep me for the eight years' service, and my brother would have tithed me out to them in exchange for freedom from the yearly tithings, but I wouldn't go.' Her expression darkened, cutting to a dull gray bleakness with the speed of a machete hacking off a rains-green tree limb. 'This is the gods' way of punishing me for not taking the service.'

'What was done to you has nothing to do with the gods.'

'Doesn't it? What are you, then? What are the others like you, the ones who see into your heart, who ride the winged horses? The cloaks are the Guardians, the servants of the gods.'

'That can't be. Guardians bring justice. That's what the gods decreed.'

'The gods turned their backs on us.' She pulled the grass off her finger and pressed it into the dirt, pushing and pushing until earth buried that frail strand of green. 'The Guardians aren't people. They're demons.'

Mark remembered — felt to her bones — the poisonous air that swirled around the quiet voice of Lord Radas, speaking to her across a Guardian altar.

'Don't be angry, I didn't mean it. Don't hurt me.'

We're both afraid, thought Marit. Fear drives us.

She rose. 'We travel at night. Can you ride?'

Sediya rose awkwardly. A trickle of liquid slipped down her ankle, and shook out as a drop to vanish on the soil. 'It's easier to walk.' She drew the back of a hand over her eyes. Healed scratches laced the skin of her arms. Her right shoulder had a gouge in it, knotted with scar tissue. Using the movement as hesitation, she straightened her taloos, which had gotten twisted. She bit her lip, puffed out breath, found her courage and her strength.

'We're not going to Walshow,' said Marit. 'We'll go to Sohayil, try to find you refuge there, maybe at one of Ilu's temples. I know a place.'

Sediya followed obediently, head down, mouth tight.

They walked in silence along the deserted road. Sediya stared at the glimmer that marked the horse's path, that gave them light to see by. She trudged along as if walking barefoot on nails, so clearly in pain that at length Marit called for a halt and found a sheltered spot to sleep.

The woman fell asleep, but Marit sat awake beneath the trees.

'I have seen four with my own eyes, but there's another one they speak of, the one even the rest of them fear.'

She leaned her head back against a tree trunk, shutting her eyes, breathing in the sting of sharp night-wand and the odor of intermingled rot and growth.

She considered her options. To ride into the north, to make her way to Toskala through lands controlled by this mysterious army watched over by folk who wore Guardians' cloaks, was foolhardy. Most likely she would blunder into the nest of demons and get chopped up first thing. Even if she reached Toskala, no one at Clan Hall would have any reason to know and trust her. She'd been gone for nineteen years. There was no reason for anyone to believe she was who she claimed to be, or to believe her story of Lord Radas's treachery and an army led by five people pretending to be Guardians. No reason at all.

Not without proof.

An owl skimmed low. A night-flying insect whirred among branches that ticked in the steady wind. Water dripped. A creature rustled away through bushes heavy with damp leaves.

She opened her eyes.

Sediya was gone. Mark tracked her with her hearing. First the woman crawled — not a likely way to be creeping off to relieve yourself — and when she got far enough away from the night's encampment, she eased to her feet and trotted with an awkward rolling gait, now and again stumbling but picking herself up and going on with admirable determination.

Mark sighed. She stood. Sticks and scraps of vegetation tangled on her ragged clothes. She whistled. Warning came alert from her equine doze. She raised her hand and called light.

Sediya screamed when they caught up to her, and fell sobbing to her knees, beating her fists against the ground, praying, pleading, weeping.

Pain twisted in Mark's chest. She's that afraid of what she thinks I am.

'I meant what I said. I'm taking you to a safe place.'

Sediya refused to answer.

At the temple of Ilu in the village of Rifaran, Sediya went mutely as an apprentice led her off to the baths. She did not offer a parting glance and certainly no thanks. It was likely that, whatever she said later, no one would believe her.

The envoys in charge gifted Marit with clothing in good repair in exchange for bringing one of their injured daughters to a place where she might find healing. The old woman who stood gate duty gave Mark a mended but otherwise stout cloak of a faded green color more appropriate to and practical for journeying.

For her own part, Marit thanked the envoys properly and retreated, alone, to the glade where Warning rested out of sight.

But when she unclasped the cloak to take off the rags and put on decent clothing, the cloak slithered back to clutch at her calves as if it were a living thing. She began to heave, sucking and coughing. She could not get air. The cloak poured up her body, wrapping her until she was too tangled to stand. She sprawled, vision fading… choking, she grasped the clasp and fixed the cursed thing around her neck. She lay for a bit, skin clammy and hot by turns. After a while, she got to her feet. The cloak swagged around her like ordinary cloth, draping to midcalf.

An ordinary piece of cloth in every way, you might think, except it never became grimy. It never stank. The clasp did not rub raw her skin. Magic infused it. Death's cloak, she might call it, and it was true enough. Death's cloak had risen off a Guardian's bones to smother her that day up on Ammadit's Tit when she and Joss had broken the boundaries and invaded a Guardian altar. A day later, death's cloak had claimed her in truth, when the knife had pierced her heart in the woodsmen's camp. If she was dead, then it was appropriate that death's cloak wore her and would not let her go.

'What are you, if you aren't one of them?' Sediya had asked.

Maybe she was just asking the wrong question. Not 'Why did the Guardians vanish, and where did they go?' but 'What is a Guardian, after all? Therefore, what am I?'

She rode to Olo'osson and made her way via back roads and isolated irrigation berms to Argent Hall, the westernmost reeve hall, on the shore of the salty Olo'o Sea. She released Warning to fend for herself, as the mare had done for an unknown time before Marit found her. She hid the harness and saddle in an abandoned shack and walked to the gates to ask for work in the lofts as a fawkner's assistant's assistant. Remarkably, they took her on.

They assigned her to the most menial of tasks: sweeping, cleaning, hauling. Maybe later, they told her, if she proved herself, they might let her start working with the harness.

She had to keep her eyes lowered at all times, so no one could possibly suspect how much she could really see. She pretended to be a woman fallen on hard times who had become suspicious and unfriendly because of the beatings she had endured from an angry husband and his unsympathetic relatives. It was a situation she'd encountered all too often as a reeve. They accepted her odd manners because she did her work, and because they were so poorly supervised and understaffed that many of their long-term hirelings had recently quit. Because the reeve halls tended to attract people who didn't fit into the daily life of the village.

With her head hunched and her gaze lowered, and her cloak tied up out of the way and layered beneath the old green cloak, she observed.

Marshal Alyon was an ailing and ill-tempered old reeve poorly

suited to manage such a roil. Half of the reeves stationed at Argent Hall had transferred here from other halls in the last few years, and they were malcontents and loose arrows to a man and woman, the kind of reeve Mark despised, the ones who kept taking more than they needed, the ones who got to loving their baton and the power they wielded more than the law they served. Marshal Alyon could not control them. There was at least one fist fight a day in the exercise yard. She kept her chin down and her eyes averted, but she saw everything. She heard their whispers. She knew how many stank of corruption, and how many fought for a restoration of the old order but kept losing ground. The newcomers were waiting, but she wasn't sure for what.

She'd not been there ten days when she woke one day to voices all aflutter.

'Garrard is back from Clan Hall. He says Clan Hall won't help us. We're on our own.'

She washed her face and slouched to the eating hall. The nai porridge tasted particularly bland today, no spice at all, but as always it was filling. She sat with the other menials, who had learned to ignore her beyond a perfunctory greeting.

At the next table, the loft fawkners were whispering fiercely, heads bent together.

'Yordenas has returned, still with no eagle. I've never heard of a bird nesting for so many seasons. I don't like him. I don't trust him.'

Heads went up as six reeves wearing gleaming reeve leathers sauntered into the eating hall. Marit shuddered; a red haze washed her vision, and the last smears of porridge turned as pink as if mixed with blood. She blinked, and after all it was only her eyes playing tricks on her. The porridge had no color at all, just a few grainy lumps stuck to the sides of the bowl.

She looked up, and saw a man wearing a Guardian's cloak.

He wasn't looking her way, or he would have known instantly, as she knew instantly. She ducked down, pretending to fiddle with her sandal's lacing. He sat down with his companions at a table well away from the one where she sat, because certain of the reeves strutted an attitude that they were better than the rest and certainly did not want to associate with the menials or even the fawkners, although the health of their eagles depended on the fawkners.

He sat with eyes downcast, listening more than he talked. His cloak was red as blood, somber rather than bright. It made her think of seeping wounds that never heal.

He did not eat, only made his presence and his allies known to all. Eventually, he left the eating hall. As he walked to the door, she bent down to let the height of those sitting at her table shield her from view. As soon as he was gone, the fawkners began whispering.

'Hsss! You see how the conflict will fall out. Yordenas means to become marshal in Alyon's place. He'll poison him.'

'Poison Alyon! Even I don't believe that, Rena.'

'You're a cursed fool if you don't believe it. It's going to get ugly, when Alyon dies, and he will die because he's weakening fast. Then it'll come down to a fight between Garrard and the outsiders, and that'll get even uglier. If we were any of us smart we would just up and leave like the hirelings keep doing.'

'We can't abandon the eagles. They need us.'

'That's right,' the others murmured. The eagles needed them. For a dedicated fawkner, it was all the cause they followed.

The moment enough menials got up to go to work, Marit rose and kept within the pack of them, and with gritted teeth walked at their ambling pace along the aisle and out the door into the exercise yard. She slunk immediately to the barracks, where she gathered her few possessions and tucked them into the feed bag. Then she went to the pits to relieve herself, and afterward she hauled up two waste buckets and swung them on a pole over her shoulder and walked out the gates toward the dumping pit as if she had been assigned to clear out night soil. The dumping pit lay a good long way away from the reeve hall. The distance seemed even farther with that stench swinging to either side, always in your face. But it was far enough away that when she set down the buckets next to the stinking pit, she could keep walking because no one was likely to run out to question her or even notice her at all from the distant walls.

A man wearing a Guardian's cloak sat in a reeve hall, pretending to be a reeve. When she thought about it, it was a good strategy. If you want to build an army and terrorize the countryside, then corrupt the reeve halls first so they won't interfere. Yet what did Lord Radas want in the end? Was it greed that drove him? Perhaps it was as simple as lust for power, as it says in the Tale of Honor: 'The first

man bowed before him, and at this sight his heart burned and his lips became dry, and then all the men must bow or he could not be contented.' Did he simply want to rule the Hundred?

She kept walking, lugging the feed bag. Storm clouds advanced over the Olo'o Plain, and a thunderstorm boomed, soaking her as she trudged. As the clouds spilled away toward the salt sea and the first cracks of sky appeared, firelings sparked in the heavens. She stared, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the last drops of rain, but the blue lights were already gone. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and she grinned, thinking of the time she and Flirt had flown through a massive storm like the complete and utter idiots they had been because they were young and full of glee. Thinking of how a fireling had winked into existence less than an arrow's shot below them, eyes afire and translucent wings a blaze of light. And cursed if Flirt hadn't stooped, and pulled up when the fireling had winked out before her talons struck. Only the blue light had flashed again below, and Flirt had stooped again, and then again and again, and for a brief wild insanely glorious passage she and the raptor had engaged in a game of chase with the one creature in the worlds no eagle can catch.

Eiya! Grief is a mire. She put her head down and kept walking.

Slowly, the skies cleared to a patchwork. After a day and a night she reached the abandoned shack and sank down, exhausted, beside the dusty harness. Her thoughts chased in circles. She was alone, just as the blood-cloaked Guardian had been alone even though he was sitting in the eating hall among reeves who identified themselves as his allies.

What is a Guardian? she might ask, and she had found one of her answers: a Guardian might walk among humankind, but she was no longer one of them. She never would be again.

Marit woke at dawn when Warning shoved her nose into her face and slobbered on her. The cursed mare's coat needed brushing, and her mane was tangled, but her hooves were clean of stones and debris and she was otherwise healthy. By all appearances, the mare was as happy to see Marit as Marit was to see her, curse it all, for there were tears in her own eyes.

5

'Here's your pay,' said the stable master, holding out a string of vey. He cleared his throat, shifted his feet, scratched an earlobe. 'You're a good worker, no complaints there. You don't make any trouble. But I have to ask you not to come back tomorrow.'

'I see,' said Mark to her feet. She knew what was coming. She had been through this conversation six times in the weeks she had been in Olossi.

He spoke quickly, to get through the distasteful job. 'Custom is off, and that's besides it being the Flood Rains and fewer folk walking about this time of year due to the weather. Someone is causing trouble on the roads for carters and stablekeepers, for all us honest guilds folk, so we can't keep our hirelings as we might otherwise want in a better year.'

'Custom does seem low. What do you think is causing the trouble?'

He cleared his throat. She glanced up, meeting his gaze.

Images and words churned: she's got that northern way of speaking; what if she's a spy for one of the Greater Houses; I don't trust 'em; they're trying to corral all the trade for themselves and their favored clients; anyway, there's something about her that creeps everyone and no surprise…

She dropped her gaze. He took a step away, as from someone who stank.

'Might be anyone,' he said, backed up against the closed door, 'ospreys diving for a quick snatch, criminals wandering down from the north, folk wanting to drive a wedge into the carters' guild and make trouble for them.' His tone picked up confidence. 'So there it is. Someone has to go. The other hirelings are, eh, well, it's your — ah — northern way of speaking. Makes them uncomfortable. I've had them on hire for years now, so that makes you lowest roll.'

'First to go,' she agreed with a twisted smile. She had replaced the old sandals she'd taken from the shepherd's hut with better ones, but after weeks in the city keeping her gaze down she had

memorized every stain and nick in the worn leather. Her feet were dirty again, toenails black with grime from stable work. 'My thanks. You were a fair employer, I'll give you that.' She took the vey from his hand, trying not to notice how quickly he pulled his hand back, hoping not to touch her. As if she was a demon walking abroad in human skin.

Who was to say she wasn't?

Keeping her head down, she walked through the lower city of Olossi toward the baths she favored. Mud slopped over her feet. At the trailing end of the season of Flood Rains, every surface was layered in muck. The clouds hung low and dark, threatening to spill again.

She paused at the edge of Crow's Gate Field. In the dry season, commerce through the gate would be brisk, and the guards and clerks busy. Today, Sapanasu's clerks lounged under the shelter of a colonnade, seated in sling-back chairs, sipping at musty bitter-fern tea. They laughed and talked, teeth flashing, voices bright. One slapped another on the arm teasingly. A trio had their heads bent close, sharing secrets. One dozed, head back and mouth open, and the others were careful not to jostle her. Their easy camaraderie reminded her of her days at Copper Hall among her fellow reeves. Those had been good days. She'd been happy there. She'd had friends, colleagues, a lover.

Some things, once lost, can never be restored.

Bear this grief, and move on.

She walked toward the river along the wide avenue that paralleled the lower city's wall, such as it was, more a livestock fence than a wall to halt the advance of an army. Her sandals shed dribs and drabs with each step. Aui! Everything stank. Everything dripped. Rich folk hurrying home before dusk made their way through town in palanquins carried by laborers whose brown legs were spattered with mud. The streets in the upper city were paved with stone, so presumably there was less Flood Rains filth there, but the one time she'd ventured past the inner gates she had felt too conspicuous. The lower city hosted all kinds: laborers, criminals, touts and peddlers, country lads and lasses come to make their fortunes in a trade, outlander merchants come to sell and buy, slaves and hirelings and shopkeepers and craftsmen and folk who would sell

anything, even their own bodies, as long as they could grab a few vey from the doing. She might make folk uncomfortable, but in the lower city the watch would not drive her out unless she actually broke the law. x

On a street on the river side of Harrier's Gate stood two ranks of bright green pipe-brush, ruthlessly cut back, which flanked an ordinary pedestrian gate set into a compound wall. A bell hung from a hook on the wall. She rang it, keeping her gaze on her dirty feet.

The door was opened from inside. 'You again. It's extra for a bucket and stool carried to your tub.'

'I know.'

He held out a hand, and she pressed vey worth a week's labor into his very clean palm. He led her along a covered walkway raised above muddy ground and lined with troughs of red and pink good-fortune trimmed into mushroom caps. Water flowed smoothly alongside them through split pipewood. The attendant gave her a sour look when she bypassed the usual changing rooms and common scrub hall.

The private rooms were a series of partitions separating filled tubs heated by hot stones and stoked braziers. In the dry season, awnings could be tied across the scaffolding of the tall partitions for shade. The smallest and cheapest private room lay closest to the entrance and the common baths, where everyone must tramp back and forth; the more expensive were larger and sited at the end of the walkway. The truly wealthy could purchase relaxation at one of five tiny cottages situated within the pleasant garden with its manicured jabi bushes, slumbering paradom, and flowering herboria.

He showed her into the smallest of the private chambers, and watched to make sure she removed her filthy sandals before she stepped up on the raised paving stones alongside the slatted tub. He left the door open until he brought back a bucket of water and a stool.

'You pay extra for pouring bowl, scrub brush, and changing cloth,' he said.

She showed him the ones she had purchased from a peddler, items not too worn to keep in use but certainly nothing a prosperous clansman would carry. The attendant inspected the items, touching the cloth only at the corner, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

'You want the lamp lit?' he asked.

'No. I've light to make my own way out.'

He tested the water with an elbow, sniffed to show it was satisfactory, and finally cut off a sliver of soap. When he shut the door, she had, at last, a measure of peace.

She stripped of everything except her cloak, scrubbed, rinsed, scrubbed, and rinsed, and climbed into the tub. The heated water was not hot enough to redden her skin, as she would have liked, but it was satisfactory. She draped the cloak over the rim, and sank in up to her chin.

The heat melted her. She tilted her head back to rest against the slats and let her senses open.

Someone lit lamps in other chambers, oil hissing as it caught flame. Folk passed clip-clop on the walkway, treading heavily or lightly according to their nature. Business increased at dusk, as the shadows gave cover to men and women who didn't want to be recognized.

She tasted the powerful scent of night-blooming paradom like cinnamon kisses on her lips.

A pair of lovers whispered in one of the cottages, words of longing and promise poured into willing ears. How fiercely they yearned! She sank into memories of Joss, made more bitter and more sweet because she knew he might well yet be alive, older than her now although he had once been younger. She had to let go of her affection for him. He had lived for twenty years without her, grown his own life without her. And anyway, was it even possible to love where there are no real secrets, where no part of your lover is thankfully hidden away from you?

She accepted the grief, and set it aside, because there was work to be done and she had never once in her life turned away from any task laid before her.

In these baths met merchants and guildsmen who desired privacy for certain delicate negotiations. She had come to these baths the first time because she'd heard she could pay coin for a private bathing room, an astounding luxury. Now she ate and drank sparingly of the cheapest gruel and watered rice wine, and slept in a boardinghouse little better than a rathole, so she could keep coming back for the conversation that her unnaturally keen hearing picked up.

She had learned a great deal about the city of Olossi: trade secrets and outside-the-temple dealings; petty rivalries pursued by narrow-minded competitors; militia men deep in schemes for the upcoming Whisper Rains games. Olossi's Lesser Houses and guildsmen were discontented, being ruled by the greed of the Greater Houses, and certain people in their ranks plotted an uprising. A group of reckless young men was engaged in smuggling, more for sport than for profit. A lad and a lass from competing clans who would never ever consider letting them marry made their assignation here, even though — as Marit knew — they were long since being followed by various agents from their own families.

She picked out voices like threads from a multicolored shawl.

'… No one can know we are negotiating. I'll lose the contract if the Greater Houses suspect I'm going outside the official channels. I tell you, we in the Silk Slippers clan have been providing reliable river transport for generations, and what do the Greater Houses do now? They try to force us to lower our rates, greedy bastards…'

'… If you take the cargo across the river after moonset, Jaco's boys will meet you just downstream of Onari's Landing with the knives…'

'If the militia continues to refuse to send out long-range patrols, then the carters' guild has agreed to cooperate with us. We'll send a joint mission to Toskala to appeal to Clan Hall directly, and ask them to intervene to improve the safety of the roads…'

'Eh. Eh. Yes, like that. Ah. Ah.'

'I want you to kill a man.'

Her breath caught in her throat as she strained to hear.

'That would be murder. Against the law.' The other man's voice had a slight hoarse timbre, as though he had once inhaled too much smoke.

'Do as I ask, and no charges will ever be brought against you.'

'How can you possibly guarantee that?'

'We control the council. It will never get past a vote.'

'The council does not control the assizes if the reeves bring me in to stand trial.'

'Argent Hall will not charge you. They have a new marshal, hadn't you heard? He'll not interfere.'

'The hells. You sound certain, Feden. Considering what manner of crime you're asking me to commit.'

'You haven't asked the name of the target. Or why he needs killing.'

'I want to know first why Argent Hall won't interfere if it gets wind of the killing. Surely the dead man's clan will seek justice.'

'Argent Hall is too busy looking for some manner of treasure that my allies in the North seek. Something valuable taken out of the Hundred years ago that they have reason to believe has been found and brought back.'

The smoky-voiced man's laugh was sarcastic. 'Silk? Gems? A rare cutting from one of the Beltak temples' Celestial Golds? A stallion for stud?'

'I don't know.' This said brusquely. 'It's not my responsibility, but if you want to keep your eyes open at the border crossing it wouldn't hurt to get word of such a thing before anyone else did. I don't mind telling you, I don't trust that new marshal, Yordenas.'

The other man hrhmed thoughtfully under his breath. He seemed distracted, perhaps spinning out fantasies of treasure and wealth as the other man — Feden — went on impatiently.

'I don't mind telling you I think the entire cursed mob of them are hatching a plan to overthrow the Greater Houses.'

'The reeves of Argent Hall?'

'Neh, neh, the Lesser Houses and those ungrateful guildsmen. After everything we've done to make Olossi prosperous and safe! If we kill just one man, one of the ringleaders, it may make the rest hesitate.'

'Because they'll see you can get away with it?' asked Smoky Voice with sharp amusement. 'Don't they already know that you in the Greater Houses can do what you cursed well please?'

Water splashed on rock and poured away as hands emptied a bucket over stone. A door slid closed with a slap.

'What if we ran away?' the youth demanded in a husky whisper. 'We could go to Toskala, make a new life there for ourselves.'

'Dearest,' she replied breathlessly, still recovering from her drawn-out pleasure, 'the roads aren't safe. Anyway, they'd send agents after us. How can we hide from them?'

That piece of practicality silenced the idiot, thank the gods. Marit

wound a path past his unsteady breathing, past the chuckling of the young fools planning their latest smuggling venture for no better reason than the lark of evading the militia, pinched out the low-voiced argument of a man sure sure sure that the gift he had proffered to the Incomparable Eridit had been rejected because she thought herself unworthy of his attentions while his friends, lounging with him in the baths, assured him rumor had it she wicked anyone who was to her taste, so gifts were meaningless because she had rejected him merely because he was one ugly Goat.

There.

'I'll do it, then. But if you get any word about what the treasure is, you'll let me know.'

'Don't tangle with the Northerners, Captain. Don't try to take what they want. You'll regret it.'

'Only if they know I have it. If the Argent Hall reeves are so busy patrolling the Barrens and the Spires, who's to say they might miss what passes right under their talons, eh?'

'Do you envy the reeves, Captain? Is that resentment I hear?'

'I have a sword, and you have your coin and your clan's power. Don't think we're friends to share confidences. Just allies of convenience, that's all.'

'You'll be glad enough I approached you, come the end of this Fox year. Mark my words. Come Goat year, you'll value this alliance. You'll thank me.'

She hauled herself out of the tub and toweled dry with the changing cloth. She dressed quickly, and slung her bag across one shoulder; it was everything she owned and needed, the essentials of her life — or her death — pruned back to almost nothing. She waited, listening for the smoky rasp of his breathing, and followed. She did not need to stay close to keep track of him. She had been a good reeve in her day, able to sniff out trouble without knowing precisely where the rot grew, but she could now follow the odor of dishonesty and cheating and corruption and depravity straight to its putrid source in a venal heart.

The compound had half a dozen gates set at discreet intervals. He left by the one closest to Harrier's Gate, and by his gait and posture — and the rank his associate had given him — she placed him as a militia man, dedicated to Kotaru the Warrior and still in service

to the Thunderer. He wasn't a fool. He felt an itch in the center of his back where her gaze had fixed, and once out on the street he paused to sweep his gaze along the passersby, most of them hurrying home with lamps to light their way. She halted some ways back, a nondescript traveler among many, but lifted her eyes to meet his.

As corrupt as they come, and willing to sell out his duty in exchange for wealth, yet even so, his were the shadows of a small heart ruled by the banal greed of a man pinched by jealousies and resentments.

He staggered, rubbing his head as if he'd been struck a blow. She stepped into the shadows. After a puzzled glance at the street, he strode to the closed gates and gave an order to the guards on duty. They let him out the postern gate and barred it back up tight, and she had no means by which to force an exit. She was not ready to draw attention to herself in a city whose masters had apparently allied themselves with the shadow out of the north. If they discovered her, she would find herself with wolves hard on her heels and a cloaked man called Yordenas ruling Argent Hall, not so far away.

As long as the others did not find her, she could continue her investigation. So she kept her head down, and worked gathering information in the same slow, circuitous way.

Master Feden she tracked to the merchant house marked with a quartered flower, just as the shopkeeper had described. But she could not reach him; he guarded his privacy too well and she never encountered him again at the baths. It was days before she identified the captain as a man called Beron, commander of the contingent stationed at the border crossing on the Kandaran Pass, which led southwest into the Sirniakan Empire. By then, a well-known merchant had vanished from town, and while gossip whispered that he'd been murdered, or decamped after a string of humiliating gambling losses, nothing could be proven.

She rode west on the trail of Captain Beron.

Caravans did not travel in the season of the Flood Rains; folk tended their fields and stuck close to home. She traveled through the West Country, mey upon mey of empty road and sprawling vistas of uninhabited high plateau and stretches of shoreline. The majestic Spires thrust heavenward in the far distance. In an isolation that

magnified one's daunting insignificance, it was easy to forget how difficult it had become to converse with ordinary folk in an ordinary manner because you did come to desire the simple everyday contact of one person chatting with another about the consequential and trivial matters of life.

Yet on every stop she made on West Spur to buy a bag of grain or a bladderful of ale, she was reminded all over again that people did not feel comfortable around her. To minimize these contacts, she spent more time foraging for food. Twice, Warning insisted on flying free, stranding her for a day each time in the wilderness but then returning. Mark had a very good idea that the horse was visiting Guardian altars. When she thought of the fountains that lay at the heart of every altar, her throat burned with a physical longing. Yet she dared not enter a Guardian altar, where the others could find her.

So the journey passed.

One evening, riding through a series of isolated valleys, she spotted a campfire in the trees. After dismounting, she led Warning under the cover of pine and tollyrake. Alone, she walked forward alongside the road. Night wrens queried, cicadas buzzed, evening chats chivered. Her hearing had sharpened so much that it seemed she could hear every mouse creeping and night cat padding through the undergrowth.

Ahead, the forest was cut back into a clearing rigged out as a caravan rest point with troughs, hitching posts, fire pits, and a pair of corrals. She surveyed the open space. Aui! Two eagles slumbered upright on opposite sides of the clearing, talons fixed around logs mounted as perches. One wore a hood; the other did not, but its head was tucked against a wing.

The campfire burned well back in the trees. She approached cautiously. Because of her newly acute vision, she was able to step around clumps of thorn-fern and whispering thistle and avoid roots grown out from the earth or branches torn free in the recent storms.

A man and a woman sat on either side of a briskly burning fire, their faces in light and their backs in shadow. Short cloaks hung from their shoulders to keep off the rain, should it come. By the cut of their leathers and the tight trim of their hair, they were reeves.

The man gesticulated as he spoke, hands cutting circles in the air.

'I say we abandon Argent Hall. There's nothing we can do, Dov. Nothing. Garrard is dead. We get out while we still can.'

'We can't just abandon people. The fawkners will never go. They won't leave eagles with no one to tend to them. There must be something to salvage. Something left we can do.'

He laughed bitterly. 'We lost. Argent Hall is the playing ground for bullies, cowards, thieves, and murderers now. You would think that every crooked reeve has flown in and made himself a cozy nest in our lovely hall.' He choked down a sob.

She reached out to touch his hand. 'Garrard's death isn't your fault.'

'If I'd called out sooner-' he whispered.

She slapped him under the chin. He reared back, and she jumped to her feet. 'There's nothing you could have done! How many times do I have to tell you?'

He rubbed his jaw. 'We could fly to Clan Hall, give them our report. Surely they ought to have sent someone to investigate. They should want to know why Yordenas swings the marshal's staff yet we've never seen feather or talon of his eagle.'

The woman slumped down on the log. 'Clan Hall! Didn't they authorize half the transfers of those criminals into Argent Hall? Maybe they're up to their beaks in the whole corrupt enterprise.' She shoved a stick into the fire, then cursed when the edifice of burning scaffolding cracked and tumbled, spilling sparks and spits of red-hot wood everywhere.

They both leaped up, stamping and laughing in the way of old comrades who can down a mug of ale and enjoy a bowl of porridge after exhuming a rotting corpse from the pit where the murderer buried it.

'Eridit's Tit! That's burned my arm.' The man brushed himself down. His face, turned into the light, had a grim pallor. 'Eiya! Dov, what will we do?'

She sat back down, kicked a charred stick into the fire pit, and picked up a new branch to poke around until she rousted fresh flames. 'See if it's true that this Captain Beron is in league with Argent Hall in some murky doings. I just don't get it.'

'What's to understand? There's a larger conspiracy boiling under our noses. Yordenas is taking orders from the north. He's got his

cronies hunting into the Barrens for this "treasure" everyone is whispering of. Gold. Gems. Silk.'

The woman shook her head. Like the man, she had the look of an experienced reeve not much older than Marit had been, in the prime of her reeve service. Tall and lean, she had a firm grip as she grabbed his wrist.

'Teren. Listen. Maybe it isn't an object. Maybe this "treasure" everyone whispers of is a goal. Why take over Argent Hall with their thugs and their squirks if they didn't want the power to twist the hall and the eagles and the reeves to their own purposes? To rule the Hundred?'

'Neh. I think it's an object, all right. I think they're the greediest scum that ever mucked a pond, looking to make themselves rich. I think-'

'Hush.'

She rose and drew her short sword. He eased back and picked up his baton from the ground behind him, held it under his cloak. They were not looking toward the place Marit had hidden herself.

The faint sounds of animals at their nightly rounds had ceased. Nothing moved. At first, Marit saw only the blink of late-season fireflies twinkling in the trees opposite her, but it was actually a woman stepping out of the shadows and blinking as her eyes adjusted to the firelight.

'I saw your fire,' she said. 'You're reeves out of Argent Hall.'

'We are-' began the man.

The other reeve cut in. 'How do you know?' She did not lower the point of her sword. 'You don't mind my wondering why you're wandering out here in the wilderness alone, I am sure.'

'Teren, son of Filava. Dovit, daughter of Zasso.' She had a mild voice and a mild face, round like the moon and pleasingly dark.

Teren choked out a word and stepped back, stumbling over the root he'd been sitting on.

Dovit said, in a quavering voice, 'Who are you?'

The woman wore an undyed linen tunic with leggings beneath, humble clothing that was also practical for a traveler. The cloak she wore was so black it seemed it might dissolve to become the shadows. Oddly, she carried a writing brush and a scrap of rice paper.

Without answering, she bent her gaze to the paper and scratched a few efficient lines.

Like rag dolls let go by a careless child, they dropped: first Teren, and a breath later Dovit, her sword clanging on a rock as it fell from slack fingers. The pen ceased scratching. From the clearing, two angry squalls erupted. Wings beating, an eagle chuffed in distress. Afterward, everything settled back into an uncanny stillness.

The reeves lay with limbs asplay, Dovit's face pressed into the ground and Teren's hidden by the hump of root over which he had collapsed. Branches snapped on the fire. Flames hissed.

'Who is out there?' asked the woman in a sharper voice. It wasn't fear that edged her tone but a complex pressure of emotion rather like a cook who surveys her well-ordered kitchens with the sudden suspicion that a mouse is hiding behind one of the pots and means to nibble at the feast she has so perfectly prepared and laid out for her guests.

Mark sure as the hells did not reply, or move, or even breathe more than a shallow breath held, leaked out, and held again. She thought of how bright her cloak was, white as death, and she willed it to be as still and silent as the death that creeps unawares, never seen before it enfolds its unsuspecting victim.

How long that woman stood there Mark could not guess, but it might have been half the night. Cursed if Mark was going to reveal herself no matter how badly her legs ached from standing in one place. She could be more stubborn than anyone, and in the end she was.

Finally, the woman moved away into the trees, and Mark allowed herself to lean against a tree trunk, not a single step, until the world grayed toward dawn. She heard a crackling beyond the trees, and an eagle passed low over the forest. With a grimace, she popped the worst kinks out of her stiff limbs, then ventured cautiously to the dead fire.

The two reeves had no pulse and no breath, their spirits utterly vanished. They had flown beyond the Spirit Gate. She searched their bodies but could find no dart or needle that might have pricked poison in them. They had packs set on the ground and now crawling with bugs; inside she found a blanket, reeve's gear for tending harness, a set of clean and mended laborer's clothing for off-duty

wear, and travel food: rice balls wrapped in se leaves, nai paste, a pair of sprouting yams, and a pouch full of nuts.

'May your spirits go gently under the gate,' she whispered. 'My thanks for this gift. I'll seek justice for you, comrades.'

She hoisted the packs and backtracked cautiously until she saw Warning trotting toward her along the road. Well enough. She took the mare's lack of concern as a good omen. She scrambled up to the road and caught the reins. 'Dead,' she said to the mare. 'I hope you don't mind the extra weight.'

She could not get out of her mind the way they had both simply fallen, as though that woman was a demon in truth, a lilu who had sucked their spirits right out of their bodies even though she hadn't been touching them. Gods, that was a frightening thing!

Aui! And what of their eagles?

The hooded eagle lingered in the clearing, unable to fly because it was blind, but the other eagle had vanished. No doubt it was the raptor who had flown at first light. Eagles were not sentimental beasts. Reeves often joked that eagles jessed their reeves, not the other way around, since everyone knew that an eagle chose its reeve. Once a reeve had died, her eagle did not maunder or grieve. They departed for Heaven's Ridge, and in time — weeks or months or years — they might return to jess a new reeve.

The hooded eagle could not fly. It was in distress, calling out, wings extended, hackling, and feathers flushed. Marit had lost her own eagle. She was not aboutjio let this raptor starve or be slaughtered.

She balanced her staff in a firm grip in her left hand and fixed her knife in her right.

'Here, now, sweetheart,' she said in her most soothing voice, but an unjessed eagle is a wild eagle. The raptor struck at the sound of her voice or perhaps a tremor felt in the earth. Marit danced aside. She lunged for and grabbed the slip. No time to strike the hood properly. She slashed with the knife, and cursed if the eagle didn't hook the plume with a talon and cast the loosened hood straight to the dirt.

They stared at each other, Marit standing stock-still and the eagle glaring with utter fury from under her ridged brows.

The raptor struck so fast Marit didn't even have time to scream.

Rain poured into her mouth, pounding the earth on all sides, hammering her flesh. She cursed and rolled over, spitting out a throatful of water. A big body appeared out of the storm, and suddenly the rain lessened because she lay in a rain shadow under the shelter of pale wings.

She sat up, opening and closing her hands. She sat in a puddle of slop. Her butt was cold, and her feet were bare. Several horrific rents had been opened in her clothing, and her skin beneath the ripped fabric was scarred. But she was whole. She was breathing. She was alive.

If she could call herself alive.

The eagle had flown.

The rain slackened, quieted, ceased. Wincing, she got to her feet. The eagle's hood lay on the ground about five strides away, covered with mud and scraps of vegetation but a good cleaning and oiling and a new slip would fix it. Her sandals were gone. She wiped water out of her eyes. Warning folded her wings and flicked her ears as though to say, 'Can we go yet?' The two reeve packs remained fixed to the saddle where Mark had tied them to the feed bag. In the clearing, all the flowers were gone.

'Lady's Tits,' she swore under her breath. She walked back into the forest, marking a forked tollyrake here and a tall pine there as landmarks to make her way back to the campfire.

'The hells!'

Animals and rain and wind had reached them first, but not even animals and the Four Mothers worked this quickly. Two greasy skeletons lay tumbled in the undergrowth, bits of soft tissue and fibrous muscle still attached but most of the flesh gone. One was headless, but she located the skull about five strides away. It was missing teeth, and she backtracked and found them beneath the neck of the remains. Their leather vests and trousers were in remarkably good shape, smeared with dirt and layered with foliage but otherwise intact. The woman's sturdy reeve boots still had foot bones — and scraps of desiccated flesh — inside them. Cursing, she emptied them and measured the boots against her own bare feet, and when she saw they would be a fair fit, she stumbled off to one side and vomited. The good ale in her drinking gourd had soured. The rice balls in the nai leaves had turned to mold.

'What is happening to me?' she cried, slapping a hand repeatedly against the ground, but her tantrum accomplished nothing except to make her hand hurt.

She rested her head against the bole of a tree, trying to get her breathing under control. The rain cleared off, and as night fell, a cold and bitter wind blew down off the unseen mountains to the southwest.

The season changes. Only late in the year do you feel the chill all the way down to your bones.

Marshal Alard used to say, 'If you have to choose between what seems the most reasonable explanation, and what the cold, hard evidence reveals, go with the evidence.'

The reasonable explanation was that she had slept through a day and a night recovering from the shock of what she had seen and from the eagle's attack.

When she thought it through, she had to believe that the eagle had killed her in its fury. The evidence of the corpses and the weather bore out the unlikely supposition that months had passed.

Guardians can't die.

They can kill, but they can't be killed.

Now, there was a recipe for corruption.

She rose to shake out her clothing. Why, in the tales, were the Guardians always honorable and upright, the upholders of a justice that is never disturbed by their own petty jealousies or grand descents into lust and greed? How honest were the tales, really?

What had Sediya sung? The cloaks rule all, even death.

Who would believe her, if she walked in off the street into Clan Hall and claimed to be a woman murdered nineteen years ago? Who would even remember her?

One man might.

PART TWO

Cups

In the Year of the Red Goat

6

Joss woke up in his private chamber in Argent Hall to find a woman lying beside him on the sleeping mat, naked, tousled, and barely covered by the thin cotton coverlet. He sat up cautiously, rubbing his aching head. He had no idea how she had gotten there.

With a sigh, she rolled over, exposing a face he recognized and eyes that, opening, were clearly alert. She'd been awake for some time.

'The hells!' he muttered, staring at her in shock.

She sat up, exposing a pleasing, muscular figure ripped by healed scars. The worst ran from her left shoulder across the mauled remains of a breast and down past her ribs to pucker to a finish by her belly button.

'Regrets already?' she asked with a smile half of amusement and half of a woman thinking of giving an idiot man a slap to the face.

'Verena,' he said, glad that at least he remembered her name and feeling ten parts stupid and ten parts hungover. Last night's activities surfaced in his memory as he woke up fully. Oh, yes, he remembered it all now.

She chuckled.

'No regrets at all,' he said feelingly. 'It was well worth the doing. I just suddenly realized that I am marshal of this hall now and you are a fawkner here, working under my authority. I'm not sure I should have — I'm accustomed to being a simple reeve — what I'm trying to say is-'

'That you don't want it said you took advantage of your position to get a woman into your bed?' she asked with a laugh. 'Rest easy. You took a lot of coaxing, and an entire pitcher of cheap rice wine before I managed to talk you into it.'

The chamber was strewn with clothing. This scene and its musky aftermath were nothing new, but with the weight of his new authority it didn't seem as carefree as it once had.

'Heya, Joss! Listen. We're of an age. I have living a twenty-year-old son and fifteen-year-old twin daughters, may the gods give me

patience. My husband has been dead these ten years. It was a marriage arranged by the clan. He and I were never close. I have no wish to remarry, and since the clan got what it wanted from the match — my son has followed his grandfather into the guild — they have no further claim on me. My work and my life are here at Argent Hall. Still, I'm not dead. Yet. You're an attractive man. If you've a wish for this to end here, then say so. I'll swallow my aging pride and say nothing more of it.'

It was true she wasn't a young woman with the breathtaking lithe charm granted by youth and worn by youth so carelessly. But women who had experienced the world possessed confidence and humor and wisdom, a sense of perspective that very young women lacked, so on the whole he preferred older women. She wasn't pretty, but she was attractive in every way that mattered: clear eyes, a good face, a love for her own body and its pleasures, and the strength of mind to match the rest. She knew what she wanted and she wasn't afraid to try for it. She reached out to find the dregs of the wine, poured him a tumbler, and handed it over. She'd been raked across the back, too, the wound treated so well the scars had remained supple.

'Where's that one from?' he asked.

'Which?' she asked, twisting to display first her back and then the horrible disfiguring gash across her front. 'These are the two worst. The others-' She had a nick on her chin, another nick on her right shoulder, and a single white line running down one forearm. 'These are like kisses. Sometimes those cursed eagles try to be affectionate and don't know their own strength. Even this one, the back, that's when U'ushu was trying to play and missed his aim. He's dead now, poor thing. He was a good bird. They all are, mostly, as long as you know how to handle them.'

He gently traced what remained of her left breast. 'What about this one?'

She said nothing for a moment, face pensive. She took the tumbler out of his hand and drained it. 'Sheh! You need a new stock of wine. This is bitter even for being so cheap. Anyway, that's a gift from an eagle named Tumna. She's the worst-tempered raptor I've encountered, although I will tell you I put a lot of the blame on her reeve. He was an altogether foul character and he didn't care for her

as she needed. He was one of those who transferred in during the bad years leading up to the days when Marshal Yordenas held sway here.'

'Tumna?'

'Her reeve's name was Horas.'

'Was?'

'She killed him. That same day you and Clan Hall and the out-landers rid us of Yordenas and his allies.'

'Eiya! I remember now. That's a serious charge, when an eagle kills its reeve. When did she do this to you?'

She shook her head. 'A few years back, when Horas first arrived here. She came to trust me later. We fawkners don't dwell on such things or we'd not be able to do our work.'

He saw the warning look in her eyes, the set of her mouth and the way she had a breath half held in, but he couldn't quite let go. Maybe only because he wasn't sure if he'd betrayed her trust by allowing himself to sleep with her. 'We all know the dangers of working with the eagles. But I'm only close to Scar, and he'd never hurt me. I don't know how you fawkners do it, training the young ones, treating the ones who are injured and in pain and most likely to lash out… teaching an eagle who's mauled you to trust you. Where do you find the courage?'

She slid a hand around the back of his neck and pulled him closer.

'It makes me feel alive,' she murmured, and kissed him.

Amazingly, her breath was still sweet, although he was sure his was sour. A great deal more came clear about what had passed between them last night, indeed it did, and he wrapped his arms around her and settled her closer.

A hard rapping, tat tat tat tat tat, sounded on the outer doors.

'The hells!' he swore.

She cocked her head to one side to listen, then grinned and stretched. 'Take your pleasure while you can, Marshal, for they will be clamoring for you as soon as you blink.'

Didn't anything ruffle her feathers? Neh, surely not. She had more courage than he'd ever know. She'd faced the creature that tried to kill her, and won its trust.

She began to gather the clothing tossed here and there about the

tiny sleeping chamber. He stood and caught her lightly by the wrist. She looked at him, studying his face.

'Listen, Verena,' he said. 'I thank you for what you offered me. I'm glad for it. But I'm marshal now, and I have to think whether it's best for the hall that I share such a relationship with a fawkner who works under my authority. I just don't know. It all came on me so suddenly. I'm not sure how to negotiate these currents, much less rebuild the hall after Marshal Yordenas tried his best to destroy it.'

'You're honest. I appreciate that.'

'I'm not saying that-'

'Joss. I'm looking for a pleasant way to pass the evening now and again, that's all. I think you're pretty well accustomed to women's admiration, so you have to believe me — even if it's difficult for you to do so — that I'm not looking for more than that. Nor will I sit around pining for you. And maybe this isn't such a good idea. We have enough complications as it is. It's true enough that Argent Hall needs us all to work hard and together if we mean to restore it to what it ought to be. We have forty eagles or more come home to the hall looking for new reeves, and a raft of hopeful candidates knocking at the gates-'

The pounding resumed, a thapping that made his head hammer right between the eyes.

She grinned. 'I would have thought you held your wine better than this. Go on.' She handed him the vest she'd unlaced last night, then tugged on her own pair of leather trousers.

'Marshal Joss?'

'I'm coming!'

He dressed, then tossed the coverlet back on the sleeping mat and decided to roll it up and store it away later. Verena picked up the empty pitcher and the pair of tumblers, slid the door open with a foot, and marched across the outer chamber of the marshal's cote to the outer door. Joss, trying to smear the muzziness out of his eyes, stepped into the outer chamber and slid the inner door shut just as she slid open the outer door. A pair of reeves and a fawkner in a linen coat stood on the covered porch.

The fawkner said, 'Morning, Rena,' as Verena stepped past him and hunted for her sandals by the stairs. 'That cursed Tumna is still hanging about. We were thinking she'd fly on off to the mountains

like any normal bird that's lost its reeve does, but maybe she's gone rogue. She's looking for someone else's head to rip off.'

Verena turned to give the other fawkner a hard stare. 'She's a good bird. Don't go thinking otherwise.'

The two reeves watched this exchange with interest, grinning first at the fawkners and then at Joss. He ignored them and sat down in front of the cluttered desk that was the marshal's worktable, but all he could do was to stare in disgust at the hopeless disarray: two pots of unstoppered ink turning to sludge; a writing brush left uncleaned so its fine hair tip had dried into a twisted horn; a pile of paper needing a clerk to read to him; a mug filled with chits, each one marked with a name so he could resolve a long-standing dispute over duty rosters; a pair of blue and black glass-bead bracelets — what in the hells were those doing here?

'You didn't waste much time,' said the older reeve, sauntering in when he hadn't been invited. 'The story in the hall this morning goes that she got you drunk last night and hauled you off by the — Eiya! A new version of the usual tale, I admit, but with the same ending.'

Joss squinted up at the man he thought of as 'the Snake'. 'Volias. Greetings of the day to you, too. Why are you hammering on my door?'

'That was Siras, here.' He gestured to the younger reeve, who was still standing at the threshold.

'Come in,' said Joss wearily, beckoning to Siras and the old fawkner, whose name he had forgotten. Verena's footfalls crunched away down the gravel path. 'I'm not awake yet.'

'I'll fetch tea and soup from the cook,' said Siras hastily and, without attempting to come in, he took himself off.

'Is the news that bad?' asked Joss, eyeing first the Snake's smirking face and then the old fawkner's serious expression.

Unexpectedly, the old man smiled. His was a sweet smile rather like a child's. 'Neh, Marshal. It's a good morning when we wake up to know we're shed of Yordenas and the rest of his hateful crew.'

'I admire you fawkers and reeves who stuck it out despite everything for the sake of the eagles and the hall,' said Joss. 'You did well. I mean that, Geddi.' The name surfaced at last.

'Begging your pardon, it's Askar. Geddi is taller and about twenty years younger by my reckoning.'

Volias snickered.

'Why are you here to plague me?' asked Joss. 'Didn't I send you back to Clan Hall?'

'Commander sent me right back again. There's trouble everywhere, Joss.'

'Wherever I see your ugly face. Aui! I recall now. You returned yesterday. High Haldia is fallen to an army larger and better-disciplined than the one that attacked Olossi.'

'That's right,' said Volias more soberly. 'That we managed a victory here in the South and sent that second army into flight is by the mercy of the gods.'

' "By the mercy of the gods, and the cunning of the out-lander,"' added Askar. 'As it says in the tale. After you've had a sip of tea and a swallow of soup, Marshal, there's duty rosters to sort out. The fawkners would like to talk to you about the injured eagles. The senior reeves need to talk to you. The training master wants a word about how to sort out so many novices at one time. The hall steward needs your imprint to ask for a tithing increase since we're feeding so many new novices and eagles, with more to come. And besides there are a hundred new young hopefuls still waiting in the western parade grounds, each one eager to try for an eagle.'

'Amazing how they will come,' said Volias in a thoughtful tone, spoken in a way that made even Joss want to know what had provoked those words. Then he laughed scornfully, ruining the effect. 'Eh! So this morning when passing out rice balls among them, Darga and Medard got to talking in loud voices about how that cursed eagle — Tumna — slaughtered her very own reeve. They did go into detail of what the remains looked like. A puncture wound in the chest big enough to slither through, which eels were doing. His head half ripped off, dangling by a few tendons, and one arm clean gone. By the time they were through talking, a good twenty of those bright-eyed innocents had slunk out the gates heading for home.'

Joss grunted, feeling the headache reemerge. 'Askar, have we a clerk who can read all these contracts and correspondence, and write replies?'

'Neh, Marshal. Marshal Alyon did have a good clerk on retainer from the temple of Sapanasu in Olossi, but when Yordenas came in

he sent the man packing and kept that Devouring girl to read his letters for him.'

'And read more of him besides, I am sure,' said the Snake with his habitual sneer.

Joss felt his anger rising. Siras clattered up the steps, kicked off his sandals, and brought in a tray of tea and soupy which he set on the desk in the last cleared space.

'Well now, Volias,' said Askar in his same serious tone, 'you might think so, and many did think so, but I'm not so certain. I doubt the Devouring girl danced to Yordenas's melody.'

The Devouring girl.

All memories of the sweet night he had spent with Verena vanished like so much chaff blown away under a stiff wind. Hoping his hand's tremor would be interpreted as exhaustion and wine-sickness, he sipped at the tea. The cook had kindly brewed thin medallions of ginger with a sprinkling of dried purple arrowroot flowers, good for hangovers.

'With your permission, Ruti will fly me into Olossi this morning so I can go to the temple of Sapanasu and see about them sending us a clerk for the work needs doing here,' continued Askar. He went into detail about what needed the marshal's oversight and what usually ran well without his interference.

As Joss listened, he drank the spicy soup and drained the tea, glad to have the conversation move onto less volatile ground. Askar hadn't much of a sense of humor, but he knew what was needed for a reeve hall to run smoothly.

'I'm fortunate to have you,' he said when Askar had done. He set bowl and cup on the tray, grabbed a knife, his short staff, and, after a moment's consideration, a pair of loose jesses. 'How did you and the others manage not to lose hope while Yordenas ruled here, with those dirty, corrupt reeves gathered around him? They must have made life miserable, and dangerous, for the rest of you.'

Askar shook his head. 'We did what had to be done. Of course, now we know there was another mind, working at a distance to corrupt Argent Hall and the council of Olossi. That Yordenas was simply a tool.'

'This battle isn't done yet,' said Joss. 'Our war is just beginning.'

7

Standing in the shop of her Ri Amarah hosts, Mai studied the wares for sale: netted bags; varying qualities of linen and cotton cloth, from stands-up-to-hard-use to dainty-for-festivals; needles of varying length and thickness; and two shelves packed with thread and yarn of diverse luster, strength, and color. Behind the counter, Eliar's father presided over cubbyholes and shelves and baskets packed with medicinals.

'Isn't that oil of naya?' she asked Isar, indicating a display of vials containing a pale liquid.

'Oil of naya is famed for its healing properties, verea.' Isar had Eliar's good looks, aged and mellowed, and Eliar's charming manners, but in other ways he reminded Mai of her own father: he liked tidy shelves and tidy rules, because he arranged them. 'This is finest-quality water-white, useful against certain skin conditions and ailments. Crude oil of naya has the property that it burns even when water is thrown on it, so it is hard to extinguish.'

Mai leaned against the counter to steady herself as the memory of living men engulfed in flame flashed in her mind's eye. Fifteen days ago, she had watched from the women's tower of the Ri Amarah compound as Anji and his troops, with the aid of the Olossi militia and the reeves of Argent and Clan Halls, had attacked the army invading the city. They had won a victory against a numerically superior force by dropping oil of naya on the army's encampment. Merciful One! Everything had burned, even flesh.

'Are you well, verea?' Isar asked. 'If you'd prefer to go back to the women's quarters, you might find it more suitable.'

She took in and released a measured breath, just as Priya had taught her, cupped a hand over the curve of her belly. After the battle, Anji had stayed with her for one night, and then he had ridden off with his troops in pursuit of the remnants of the broken army. He had his work. And she had hers. She would do what must be done.

'I am grateful to you for sheltering me, ver,' she said a little

hoarsely. 'Your house has shown me nothing but kindness and generosity. But I find I miss the bustle of the market. It keeps my mind off those things I cannot change.'

Isar seemed about to object when a pair of matrons entered the store and demanded his attention in their quest for an ointment to soothe abrasions and burns that men in their family had received while fighting the fires that had sprung up in the lower city during the attack. Mai sat on a stool reserved for customers, relieved she did not have to answer his objections, and watched the give and take. She never tired of bargaining. She could learn much observing how others conducted themselves. In addition to selling his wares, Isar acted as an apothecary might, refusing to recommend any tisane or ointment until he had led the women through an exhaustive list of symptoms to identify the severity and precise nature of each ailment. A pair of turbaned younger men entered from the back, bearing a tray with tiny cups. They offered this fragrant tea to the customers, but both women refused.

Several young women dressed in good quality silks ventured in, laughing together. As they spread out bolts of fabric, they glanced at Mai, whispering with heads bent together. The Hundred folk favored bold colors and patterns: stylized flowers too bright to be realistic, playful butterflies and bats representing day and night, handsome motifs formed out of ranks of green-on-gold vegetation. Their chattering, the strange patterns, the smell of unfamiliar herbs, and even the color of the dirt made her feel an utter outlander, tossed into a foreign land with no choice but to fight for her own survival.

She could not allow it to overwhelm her. She and Anji, and their company of about two hundred soldiers and additional grooms and slaves, had chosen to make their stand here, to carve out a life in exile.

'Verea, is there anything you need?' asked one of the young men hesitantly. When she smiled at him, he reddened and tugged at the cloth wrapping his head that concealed his hair, as if the action would deflect her gaze.

'No. I thank you.' She rose.

Isar looked up from his customers, marked her exit with a creased brow, and offered a brief and possibly disapproving nod.

If only his daughter were permitted to accompany her, but of course that was impossible.

She pushed through the hanging banners stamped with the signs that signified to customers what was sold within, and emerged onto the porch. Every storefront had such a porch, set a few steps up from the street, on which folk left their street shoes before entering. Her attendants waited outside. Priya sat cross-legged on the porch, watching the passing traffic. Her lips shaped the words of prayers that she chanted to herself whenever she had a quiet moment. Chief Tuvi and four soldiers stood guard. Eliar, her chosen escort and local guide, was leaning against a wooden pillar chatting with O'eki, the mountainous slave, about wool.

As Mai bent to strap on her sandals, Priya rose. O'eki broke off his disquisition on the importance of a long and lustrous fiber to a carpet that would stand up to repeated wear.

Eliar grinned as he pushed away from the pillar. 'Did my father talk you out of your reckless scheme, Mai?' he asked, as casual with her as if she were his sister.

Chief Tuvi gestured, and the soldiers fell into formation, two in the vanguard and two for the rear guard. 'Mistress? What is your wish?'

She gathered her courage, let out a held breath. 'Surely shopping must be the same in every town, even a foreign one. I am ready to go!'

The market streets in Olossi brimmed with ten times the wonders that even the twice-annual market fair in isolated Kartu Town could ever ever ever boast. Along one narrow street you could browse the stalls and shops of papermakers, with rice-paper lanterns, plain or painted fans, decorative paper for folding, and painted landscapes suitable for screens as well as ordinary white rice paper for windows and doors. An alley snaked between shops selling fabulous creatures carved from bone. She found mirrors backed with bronze lacework, braided cords to ornament jackets, and silk ribbons woven plain or patterned.

'You're dickering,' said Eliar as they strolled down a rank of stalls that sold nothing but beads: wood, ceramic, stone, crystal, polished, unpolished, in so many colors she could not name them all. His

silver bracelets jangled as he gestured toward the bustling shops. 'But you're not buying.'

'This is my first time out. I was fearful of venturing out, after the battle, with everything in disarray. Then your sister told me it was also the year-end festival with ghosts and such. So I thought it would be better to stay indoors. But now that's over-' She laughed. 'You can see it wouldn't be wise to buy when I don't really know how bargaining works here.'

'The same as any other place, I suppose.' Eliar heaved a sigh that ought to have shaken earth and sky together. 'Not that my father and uncles will let me travel to other towns and see.'

'The roads aren't safe. Didn't a man from your house get killed on the road to Horn last year?'

'Yes. But they wouldn't even let me ride out with the militia during the battle. All I was allowed to do was fight the fire in the lower city after the army had already run!'

Mai shuddered, remembering the way buildings and tents and living creatures had burned and burned and burned. 'People died fighting those fires.'

'So they did. I shouldn't make light of it.'

A girl scuttled up to the pair of soldiers standing rear guard. Ducking her head shyly, she held out a wooden platter of sweet rice dumplings. 'My papa asks you take these as a gift, for fighting for the city. The Silver isn't permitted any.'

Eliar's frown deepened.

'That's rude!' muttered Mai.

'Maybe not meant so,' he said. 'Best the soldiers be seen accepting the gift.'

She gestured to Chief Tuvi. He strolled back to inspect the dumplings and the girl, who wasn't more than ten. He indicated she should eat one first, and when she popped one promptly in her mouth, he allowed the soldiers to share the rest.

'Even so, walking through the market is more than your sister can do,' said Mai, mouth watering as she watched the soldiers devour the moist dumplings. She couldn't bring herself to taste them when Eliar was rejected in that way, but if he meant to let the slight pass, she would not mention it again. 'She wasn't allowed to accompany me.'

'She's unmarried. She's not allowed to walk in the market until she becomes an adult.'

'Which I am, although I'm younger than she is? Just because I'm married? That doesn't seem reasonable.'

Like his father, Eliar might smile and charm but there were things he would not joke about. 'That isn't our way, verea.'

'Forgive me. I had no intention to offend. I grew up selling produce in the market in Kartu Town. It seems strange to me that your sister lives so restricted.'

'Let's move on,' he said.

Even Miravia's absence could not ruin the delight of walking through the bright day and enjoying the sight of a city so rich they could build with wood as much as with stone and brick. So many colors and smells! Vendors sold oil by the ladle. At food stalls you could buy noodles, or mounds of colorful spiced and pickled vegetables.

A girl sat on a blanket under the shade of a canvas awning, fruit mounded in neat piles before her, crying her wares in a cheerful voice: 'Sunfruit! Best and sweetest! Ghost melon for the new year! Strings of redthorn.'

Mai wiped away unexpected tears.

Priya cupped Mai's elbow under an arm. 'Mistress, are you well? Perhaps we should return?'

'Just remembering when I used to be that girl, selling fruit in the market in Kartu Town.'

She bought several sunfruit, making only a cursory effort to bargain, and shared out the segments with the others. The moist flesh cooled her mouth, but it tasted a little sour.

The smell of fried fish made her stomach turn, so they walked on, past carpenters raising walls where a hall had just days ago burned, past roofers shifting broken tiles, past folk hauling water and pushing wheelbarrows piled with bricks, past men and women calling out their wares in a singsong that grabbed and held the ear. The rhythm of the marketplace truly was the same anywhere. And today she had no need to feel hurried, to grasp at trinkets in passing, to wonder if the coin she'd been given as a sign of favor by Father Mei might be pried from her hand by Grandmother Mei in a fit of pique. She could wait, see what appealed, how prices compared, and she

could come back whenever she pleased, because she and Anji were wealthy. Anji's troop of Qin soldiers had saved Olossi. Acting as negotiator for their services, she had pinched the Olossi council for so much coin that she couldn't imagine how she'd had the audacity just days ago to manage it.

No, there was no haste to buy.

Not until they came to the street catering to those who knew how to write, with its brushes and inkstones and ink knives. In one shop, a dozen wretchedly preserved scrolls had been tossed into a dusty basket in the corner.

'Look here, Priya,' she said to the slave, drawing her close, hand tucked into her elbow. 'Don't those look like prayer scrolls? Whatever would such a thing be doing in this land, where they've never heard of the Merciful One?'

The shopkeeper hustled over. 'Verea.' He nodded at Priya, not realizing she was only a slave, and then at Mai, gaze shifting between the two to gauge their relationship. 'How may I help you?'

'I'd like to look at these,' Mai said. 'What a curiosity!'

'Please, please.' He was a short, broad-chested man wearing a sleeveless vest and loose trousers that fell to just above the ankle. He cleared a space on a table and carelessly dropped several of the frayed scrolls there.

A youth wearing only a kilt belted low on the hips was seated on the floor in the opposite corner at the rear of the shop, twisting hairs into brushes. His well-muscled chest was mostly hairless, quite smooth. He glanced up as if he had felt the weight of her gaze, and grinned flirtatiously right at her. She looked away, although not because she feared a lad's dazzling smile. The Hundred folk wore much less clothing in public than Mai was accustomed to, displaying a great deal of lovely brown skin. Perhaps it was no wonder Isar did not like his unmarried daughter to walk in the market.

Priya sucked in a sharp breath, a hiss of surprise. She had untied a ribbon and smoothed out the first few turns of a battered scroll, careful lest the ragged tears rip further.

'This is a copy of the Thread of Awakening,' she murmured.

Was that a tear below Priya's eye, or a stray drop of rain? Priya had always a well-modulated voice, in which Mai heard only

affection and wisdom. Tenderly the slave tied the scroll back and peeled open a second.

'Aie!' She sounded as if the sight pained her. 'The Discourse on the Seven-Branched Candle. Ill handled for its pains. I cannot imagine how these holy books journeyed here.'

'Yet here they are,' murmured Mai as the woman mouthed the words silently and rocked side to side to the rhythm of the unspoken phrases.

The months-long overland journey with Anji's company had been hard on Priya, but she had never relaxed her care of Mai, never once spoken of her own fears and aches. Nor had Mai, in the seven years Priya had been her personal slave, ever asked. Anji was the one who had discovered that Priya had been kidnapped years ago from a temple where she served the Merciful One, and marched over high mountains to be sold into slavery far away from her homeland. Her only comment: 1 survived because of the teachings of the Merciful One.'.

'Do these exceptional scrolls interest you, verea? They are rare. Outlander work. It was chance I was able to lay hands on them. You'll find nothing else like them in all of Olossi.'

'Look how dirty and torn they are,' said Mai with a kind smile. 'How sad that those who handled them treated them with such scorn. Here, now, what can you tell me of these prints?' She indicated a set of pictures leaning against the wall. 'How I love butterflies! So colorful they are! But is this a practiced hand? Or apprentice work? Please advise me, ver.'

Distracted, he followed her to the ranks of prints on display. 'It's very good work, although you might find Hoko's work more to your taste, she is a master artisan, the best in town. Here are Hoko's festival prints special for the Year of the Red Goat, which I can offer at a markdown since we scarcely had a festival this year due to the terrible events. See the detail of this wharf scene! The festival banners, the ghost ribbons, the food stalls. Here, the incomparable Eridit, and there a talking line of children from the Lady's temple dance the episode of the reunited lovers from the Tale of Change.'

'It's very fine, but the colors here look a little smudged. Oh, I do like that one, but-'

She smiled brightly and spoke cheerfully, and wielded her 'but's

like a trimming knife until the shopkeeper begged for mercy. 'Your sweet tongue is as sharp as those swords carried by your soldiers, verea,' he said, laughing. 'I accept defeat! What is it you want?'

'It seems a high price for prints for a festival now over, for a year that won't come around again for — well — how can I even count that far? Many rounds of years, surely, before the Red Goat walks again.'

'I can't lower my price, verea. My overhead. Surely you understand. But I could throw in something else. Is there something you have your eye on?'

She made a show of examining other prints, the brushes, the ink-stones. He had an assistant bring tea. As she sipped, savoring the gingery taste, she entertained him with a long digression about needing to bind a new accounts book, as she must of necessity set up a household.

'So you and the outlanders are indeed staying, as it is rumored?'

'Is it spoken of?'

'Surely it is, verea. You must know every person in Olossi talks of little else. How could it be otherwise, since your bold attack saved us from ruin?'

She liked him, for his laugh and his praise of Anji and the soldiers, and because bargaining entertained him as much as it did her. Because he offered tea not just to her and Priya but also to Eliar and Tuvi and the four soldiers as they loitered under the eaves, waiting for her. 'I'll need two accounts books. I am sure you can bind them with good-quality paper, something that will hold up better than those poor scrolls, and provide the necessary scribal tools.'

In the end she purchased the prints and the accounts books, with the entire basket of dusty scrolls thrown in as a courtesy. The books and scribal tools and prints would be delivered, but Priya herself carried away the basket, clutched as tightly as a precious child. Mai could not have been more pleased.

'Mistress, here is juice, just as you like it with lime and mint.'

'Ah! That's very nice, Sheyshi.'

'While you were gone, I washed the cloth just as you said. I folded the bedding. I cooked rice. The young mistress helped me.'

'Very good, Sheyshi. Where is Miravia?'

'She went back through the gate, Mistress. Do you want your hair brushed, Mistress?'

'Yes, Sheyshi.' Mai sank down onto pillows and sighed with pleasure as Sheyshi took out the combs and sticks that held her hair. Released, her hair fell past her hips. As Sheyshi brushed with steady strokes, Mai watched Priya examine the scrolls. The slave said nothing, but tears shone on her weathered skin.

'What have we found?' Mai asked finally.

'A treasure! Six of the scrolls are written in script unknown to me. They might be anything. But the other six are discourses and threads. I have not touched holy books since the day our temple was burned and we were taken away by the raiders.' She wiped tears from her cheek. 'I thank you, Mistress. This treasure brings me great joy.'

Mai sniffled, wiping away her own tears. 'We'll make an altar. You can teach me all the holy prayers.'

'We will not build an altar in the house of the Ri Amarah.'

'No,' said Mai with a frowning laugh. 'I suppose we will not.'

The brush paused halfway down her length of hair.

'Mistress, what altar will you build?' Sheyshi asked. 'Can I pray there? I know the words "the Merciful One is my lamp and my refuge". But that's all I know.'

Priya touched each of the scrolls in turn, as if she could absorb their holy essence through her skin. 'Of course you will pray, Sheyshi. The Merciful One hears the prayers of all people.'

'Even women?' Sheyshi whispered. 'Even slaves?'

'Especially women. Especially slaves.' Priya sat back. She had grown thin. In Kartu she had been more robust, favored with extra food in her capacity as nursemaid to the house's favored daughter, Mai. But the long journey had whittled at her flesh to expose the ridges and hollows of bone.

'You must eat more, Priya,' said Mai, scooting forward to touch one of Priya's hands with her own. 'And rest. I could not bear to lose you.'

'I will recover, little flower. Do not fear for me. You are the one who must be careful to eat plenty, now that you are with child. Look. Here comes Miravia.'

The guesthouse attached to the Ri Amarah compound was

separated from the street by gates, and further separated from the main compound of the family by another set of gates.

Miravia entered, ran over, and kicked off her sandals before she dropped down beside Mai on a neighboring pillow. 'Sheyshi, what a lovely brushing you've done!' The young slave dipped her head shyly, smiling at this praise. 'Priya, you look tired. I will take Mai into the house for supper and afterward I will bring a tray of food for you and Sheyshi myself. That way you can rest.'

'Let me put your hair up, Mistress,' said Sheyshi.

Sheyshi braided Mai's thick black hair into the loose arrangement which she then twisted and bound up on Mai's head with combs and hair sticks, while Mai and Miravia discussed the shopping expedition and the scrolls.

'Don't mention that they are holy scrolls,' said Miravia, with a look of alarm as if she thought invisible spirits might be eavesdropping. 'They might make you get rid of them.'

'Even if we just keep them here in the guest house with our other belongings?'

'It would be better if you did not mention it. Might you teach me the reading of the script, Priya?'

'Certainly,' said Priya. 'Must you ask permission from your elders?'

'I won't, for they would forbid it.'

'Then not in this house. It would not be fair recompense for their hospitality.'

Miravia sighed, and made no reply. She took Mai's hand. 'Come, Mai.'

They slipped on sandals and walked to the inner gate. 'My mother is particularly keen to talk to you. She wants to know what you thought of our markets.'

'I don't think it's right you're not allowed out to shop! Yet you visit the prison!'

'To bring food to indigent prisoners. That they cannot forbid me to do because of our obligation to act for justice and mercy where we can. But only adult women are allowed to go out into the marketplace.'

'And even then, with a veil covering your face!'

'Mai, let it go, I beg you.'

They had reached the gate. Mai embraced her friend as they waited for the mechanism to be drawn back from the other side. 'I'll say nothing more. But I have my own plans. You'll see.'

After supper, Mai accompanied Miravia on her lamp-lighting rounds.

'Do you miss him?' Miravia asked as she stood on tiptoe, pressing a lit taper to a wick. With a hiss, flame brightened.

Mai closed and latched the glass door. 'Yes. But I don't like to think about him. What if he is killed? That would be too painful to bear, wouldn't it?'

'If you cared for someone, it would. Otherwise maybe it would be a relief, wouldn't it?'

Her voice had such a finely grained dark tone that Mai touched her hand, to let her know she was not alone. 'When my uncle Girish died, I think everyone wept only because they were ashamed that they were glad he was gone. But people will feel relief, if a death lightens their burden.'

Miravia wiped her cheek with the back of a hand, but she did not reply. She walked on to the next lamp in the vast rectangular courtyard of the women's side of the Ri Amarah compound. Older children not yet sent to bed played in the open space, shrieking and giggling as they dodged around benches and the twisting forms of pruned trees. A hearth glowed in the kitchens, and beside it a pair of old women prepared pots of steaming herbs. At a raised trough, chatting girls scoured dishes. Most of the married women had gone to the innermost apartments, leaving the supervision of the courtyard to the unmarried women and elderly widows.

'What if another's misfortune brings relief to you?' asked Miravia as she lit a lamp, keeping her face turned away from Mai. 'If something you never wanted is made impossible through no effort of yours, only through trouble afflicting others?'

'What happened?' asked Mai as she latched the tiny glass door. They stood in shadow far from the running children, the clatter and laughter in the kitchen, and the intermittent cries and complaints of younger children being coaxed to bed in the sleeping rooms. 'No one can hear us here. You know I'll keep secret any word you tell to me, Miravia.'

A bench stretched below the lamp, the polished wood gleaming

under the illumination. Miravia sank down, and Mai sat beside her, taking her friend's hands between her own.

'A courier came from Clan Hall to Argent Hall, a reeve bearing letters. One of the Ri Amarah houses in Toskala paid to have a message delivered to us. High Haldia is fallen-' Her voice broke on a caught breath.

'Yes, I heard that, too.'

'I spoke once to you of the young scholar it was arranged I would marry. I should have gone a year ago but the roads weren't safe. To High Haldia. Where their house is.'

'Oh, no,' murmured Mai.

'A few survived the assault, and fled to Toskala with their news. But he's dead. Mai, he's dead. And I'm relieved to know it. I never even met him. It's just I didn't want to marry someone I never met and never knew. But you did.'

'I always knew I would marry someone my father chose for me.'

'He didn't choose your husband.'

'No,' said Mai with a strangled laugh. 'He was very upset when Anji picked me. Father had no choice then. No more than I did. In Kartu, you could not say no to the Qin.'

The lamplight made Miravia's face ghostly and vulnerable. 'Where did you find the grace in your heart to accept it? And not fight it?'

'The only place to find happiness is inside. In the house I grew up in, the ones who fought to no purpose, who thrashed and flailed like Mei and Ti, they were the unhappiest ones. Even Uncle Hari didn't know how to be happy even though everyone loved him because he was so funny and charming. But a worm gnawed at him. He was dissatisfied. He never learned how to use his anger to build, only to tear down.'

'How did you learn?'

Mai shrugged, amused at herself and saddened by Miravia's distress. 'Maybe because I am like my father in wanting to control things. So if I can control myself, then no one can touch that part of me. That's my garden, where my spirit rests.'

'My spirit flies in the mountains and fields and forests,' said Miravia with a grimace, 'or it would, if I could ever go there. They'll just arrange another marriage for me.'

Mai felt her trembling. She kissed her lightly on the cheek. 'Maybe you'll be fortunate, as I was.'

'Maybe so,' she said without meaning it. 'But there was talk, before the scholar, of an old rich man who's already buried three wives, and needs a fresh young one. A lecherous goat!'

'Miravia!'

'It's true. You know how they talk around what they don't want said. Hearing nothing ill means there is nothing good. If a man is rich enough, he can buy what he wants. He has a daughter fit for Eliar, an excellent match for our family, but Eliar refused the match the first time it was offered two years ago because the agreement was for him to marry the daughter and I to marry to the old man. Eliar knew I would hate living trapped in Nessumara in a house said to be much stricter than our own. So he refused to make the bargain, knowing how I would hate it.'

'How can a house be stricter than this one, with a men's court and a women's court?'

'Most everyone here is related, so we have more freedom of movement between the two courts than may be obvious to you. In a very strict house, all movement is regulated, and women who have married in especially are confined to the women's court and to a private family chamber where their husband meets with them. It's like a prison.' The last lights in the weaving hall were extinguished, and the counting rooms went dark. 'Even here, it was more informal when Eliar and I were little. But in the last few years we've had marriages, apprentices, and fostered girls brought in to complicate matters. And we absorbed a smaller cousin house from Horn that was driven out.'

'Driven out?'

Miravia walked on to the next lamp, opened and lit it, and gravely regarded the light as it flared. 'In fire and blood. Many in the Hundred still consider us outlanders although my people have lived in this land for a hundred years. We are honest merchants. Sometimes there is resentment, because we look different and don't worship their gods. Because we are wealthy, I suppose. Anyway, our house is now large enough that it will branch soon, sons and cousins splitting off to make their own house. Not like that rich old

man in Nessumara, who clutches all the generations beholden to him in his fist.'

'Maybe he found another wife when he heard you were betrothed to the scholar.'

'Maybe he did.' Miravia rose, shaking out her loose trousers and the calf-length pleated jacket worn over all. 'Poor young scholar. I wonder how he died.'

'In fire and blood,' said Mai, remembering how the tents had burned outside Olossi, remembering the rising and falling whoops of men too weakened by burns for full-throated screams. She let her tears flow, knowing better than to suck them down. There was nothing shameful in sorrow.

'I've made you gloomy, too,' said Miravia, hugging her. 'How dare I! I'm sorry.'

'It would be worse not to think about it. But we lived and won, and they lost and died.'

'Thanks to Captain Anji and his company. And that reeve my friend Jonit cannot stop talking about.'

'Marshal Joss is charming and handsome, I'll have you know, although he is pretty old.'

Miravia laughed. In lamplight, the courtyard glowed. Mai brushed the last glistening tear from her friend's face. She wanted to assure Miravia that all would be well, but who could ever know? It was better to be honest, and remain silent.

Several women emerged from the weaving hall, walking the length of the porch around to the living quarters, where they disappeared inside. Girls carried heavy ceramic pots on trays across the courtyard and went in after them. Miravia tipped back her head and inhaled. 'Ah! Can you smell it? Warmed cordial.'

'It must be time for me to return to the guesthouse.'

'Yes, it is, just when families gather in the evenings to exchange their news of the day.' She snuffed out the taper. 'I'm sorry you always have to go back to the guesthouse alone.'

'Never apologize to me, Miravia. That you are here is what makes my days tolerable.'

'A sad tale, to be sure, if listening to me complain is the best part of your day!'

Companionably, they strolled across the courtyard on one of the

gravel paths, brushing against the waxy leaves and soft petals of night-blooming paradom. Fumes from the hearth fires and the lingering smells of clove-spiced meats and sharp khaif roiled out as they passed the kitchens.

'Miravia? Is that Mai, with you?' The mother of Eliar and Miravia crunched toward them down an intersecting path. 'Come with me, Mai, if you will. Miravia, please fetch warmed cordial and a pot of khaif and bring it to Grandfather's rooms.'

Miravia gave her mother a startled look, but she released Mai's hand and hurried off.

Puzzled, Mai asked, 'Isn't Grandfather dead?'

'So he is, but his rooms will go to Eliar when he marries.'

'That's a notable honor.'

'Eliar is Grandfather's eldest living male grandchild, although naturally my husband and his brothers hope for more sons. However, since Eliar has not yet married, the rooms remain unoccupied and therefore available.'

Available for what? Her worst fears intruded. Barely able to speak, she choked out words. 'Is there somewhat amiss?'

'Not at all. Your husband is back.'

'Anji?' The drowsy languor of falling night vanished as quickly as droplets of water steam off a hot brick.

'This way. Your hirelings have already been informed that you won't be returning to the guesthouse tonight.'

On the porch, Mai slipped off her sandals and found cloth slippers that fit well enough. Public rooms faced the courtyard. Beyond them lay a warren of inner chambers separated by papered walls, sliding screened doors, and corridors. Some rooms lay dark and quiet, or alive with the excited whispering of children who everyone pretends are asleep. Others rooms were lit. As Mai followed Miravia's mother, turning left and right and right again, she heard voices chatting in the companionable way of families catching up on their day.

They fetched up at a dead end, facing a pair of sliding doors. A narrow corridor extended to either side, ending in gates. The gate on the left had its top half slid open; beyond, lamps glimmered in the courtyard where she and Miravia had just walked. The gate to the right was latched shut, but evidently it opened into the men's court. Miravia's mother slid open one of the doors, and they

mounted six steps into a narrow chamber lit by a single oil lamp. Polished wood planks gleamed, smooth and dark. The whitewashed walls bore no decoration save for a ceiling strip minutely carved with vines.

'This way'

This narrow room opened into another. Nearby, male voices rose in argument. In an alcove, a set of peepholes looked out over a bright chamber where men were talking and, by the sudden outbreak of laughter, not arguing but conversing in the intense manner Mai had always associated with arguments. She stepped inside the alcove and raised up on her toes, hoping to see, but Miravia's mother pulled her back and led her on. They passed a second alcove fitted with a bench and a series of openings like arrow slits in a fortification, and at the end of this series of small rooms found themselves in the vestibule to a square chamber fitted with mats, a wide sleeping pallet, a low desk, and a lit lamp hanging from a tripod. The chamber had a musty smell, and the merest twinge of sweet mold festering.

The woman sniffed audibly. 'Eh, that mildew will have to be found and cleaned, wherever it's hiding. I'll be back in a moment. Remove your slippers before you go in.'

She left, her footfalls ringing away. Mai fidgeted. She wanted to go back to the peepholes, to see if she could see Anji, but she dared not insult her hosts by eavesdropping on a conversation she had no right to overhear. The vestibule contained an empty table and a stand with hooks opposite, suitable for hanging articles of clothing.

Muted sounds drifted: more male laughter, and a burst of speech as several men spoke at once. Laughter again, after which a voice spun its tale uninterrupted. Was that Anji speaking? She pressed a palm to her chest, breath tight and heart pounding.

The soft slap of feet startled her, and she patted the creases and folds and twists of her hair, wondering if she looked worn or weary, but it was only Miravia's mother, bearing a tray with a pot of steaming khaif, a pot of warmed cordial, a pitcher of water, four small cups, a washing bowl, and a tiny bowl containing mint leaves. She set this tray on the vestibule table, laid out squares of folded cloth, and pressed Mai's hand between her own in a gesture meant to comfort.

'There, now.'

She left.

Mai chewed on mint as the doors slid shut, and the quiet settled like dust, undisturbed but for the hearty festivities in the men's hall and, once or twice, a childish shout from farther afield. After a while, she crept back to the alcove, but even standing on tiptoe she could not see through the lowest slit. In the dim light she prowled the rooms until she found a pair of bricks, likely warmed in cool weather to place within the bed, and stacked them beneath the lowest peephole. She balanced carefully atop this, hands splayed against the wall to steady herself.

Ah! She peered into a high beamed hall. Mostly she saw the aura of light spilling from lit lamps, tangling with the darkness that pooled in the rafters. The mingled scents of burning oil and spiced cordial made her wrinkle her nose. The fierce conversation had died down. She saw a few turbaned heads, one crossing the hall and others lower, as if seated, swaying a little. Did that black hair belong to Anji? She pushed as high as she could, craning her neck-

''What are you doing?'

She shrieked, lost her balance, toppled back to be caught in strong arms.

'Anji!'

He was whole and unmarked, clean and smiling, perfectly handsome and entirely here, right here. She embraced him, pressing her face against his warm neck. He smelled of horses — he always did — and sweat and dust, the best scent imaginable. She knew she was crying, so she held on until she could draw up calmness and let it suffuse her. He talked in a voice as mellow as if their lives had not been turned entirely upside down, as if they had not been tossed into exile and then thrown into battle against an implacable enemy whose strength ought to have battered them into surrender but had not, because he was cleverer than they were. He was indomitable.

'My informants tell me that you are eating well, sleeping well, and have been out into the market despite their concern that I might find this behavior inappropriate in my wife. Which I do not. Our own endeavors have gone smoothly so far. The remnants of the invading army are fleeing north, but we're keeping on them, killing

as many as we can although unfortunately some will escape and take news of our victory to their commanders. We can't know how long it will take the retreating soldiers to reach their base, or how their commanders will react. All these matters must be discussed and considered. I left Tohon and Chief Deze and most of the men on the hunt, with orders to drop back if our force gets too strung out. Reeve Joss has been named marshal at Argent Hall, which is excellent news. Meanwhile the Olossi council wishes to meet with me tomorrow on military matters. Isar has his sources, so I get advance notice of their complaints and fears and demands. It seems they want me to coordinate the entire regional militia, since the militia they have now is worthless.'

She found her voice, still a little frail. She hadn't used to be so easily overset, but she remembered how the women in her father's house got irritable and weepy in early pregnancy. 'Our soldiers need wives.'

'Isn't it too early to be thinking of that?'

She could not hold him tightly enough. 'If we wish to settle here and be accepted, the men must marry local wives. And the women they marry should have connections with local clans.'

'Why would they not have such connections?'

'Many women will come who are destitute or without family, because their suspicion of outlanders will be overcome by their desperation. Such women will be grateful, and will work hard, but if there are too many kinless women, without clan support, then the rest of Olo'osson will not feel connected to us.' He seemed perfectly able to understand her despite that she was speaking into his neck. She could not bear to release him, as if he would vanish if she let go. But even so, she had been thinking about these things for days and days, having little else to do. 'We don't want to be seen as outlanders for generation after generation. We want to be seen as Hundred folk.'

'Mmmm,' he agreed, kissing her hair.

'Anyway, it will take months, perhaps years, to find fitting wives for all the men. Once children are born, then a transformation begins, the children become woven into the land, so it is less easy if the locals decide we have served our useful purpose.'

'What do you mean?'

'To start agitating for us to leave, to feel we are not a part of the land, that they can't eat with us, to fear us or want to drive us out…' She pushed back, so by looking into her face he could see how serious the matter was.

Unlike every male in her family, he nodded to show he had heard her, that he considered her opinion worthwhile. 'I do not think peace will come quickly, but you are of course correct in your assessment of the situation. You are in charge of the strongbox in any case. Do what you need to do, and I will do what I need to do.'

'I want a house, a compound, of our own. A place Miravia can come visit me. An altar to the Merciful One where Priya and I can pray. I want-'

'Mai,' he said softly. 'Can this wait?'

There is a moment in every one of the thrilling story-songs she had grown up with and loved when the bandit prince clasps the young maid close against him, and devours her with his brooding gaze because he, never caught by those who pursue him, has fallen captive to her innocent charm. How foolish and naive are those who believe in such tales, none of which are true. That's what everyone always told her.

'Anji,' she murmured, leaning forward to kiss him. 'I missed you so badly.'

He swept her up in his arms, carried her past the vestibule, and brought her to bed.

8

According to Siras, one hundred and two people hoping to be chosen as reeves had checked in at the gate over the last twelve days. Eighty-three remained when Joss called them to silence. Most sat cross-legged on the dirt of the parade ground; a few stood, apparently too anxious to sit. The majority were young men, a number of whom he recognized from Olossi's militia. A few young women and older men had made the trek as well, and he was surprised to see one stocky woman not much younger than he was standing in the back with arms folded and chin up. In the cloud-patched sky, eagles

circled. That they appeared so tiny to the naked eye meant they were sailing very high indeed.

'I don't know why any one of you came to Argent Hall,' he said. 'Maybe you've always watched the reeves and wanted to be one of us. Maybe you want to know what it's like to fly. Maybe you're angry about what you see around you: injustice, crime gone unpunished, corruption in your village council or temple conclave with no other authority to appeal to. Maybe you watched that army march down on Olossi, burn villages and homes along West Track, and do worse besides, and you want to do something, anything, about it. Maybe you just want a baton of your own-' He brandished his baton. '-to whack people with.'

The comment elicited a few chuckles, an elbow to the ribs, a snort of laughter.

'Most of you will go home disappointed. You can help us with our chores, you can share sex with any one of us, remind us that your uncle knows our aunt or your clan made a deal with one of ours years ago. You can share apprenticeship stories — I rode my year as a messenger for Ilu, by the way — but none of that will matter. The eagles choose. We don't. How they make their choice we've never known. Even with as many eagles as we have here now looking for new reeves, I can't even say that one of you waiting here will be marked and chosen by an eagle. You may all end up walking home. You may ask to stay on as assistant to one of our fawkners, who take on the difficult job of caring for the eagles and the lofts. You may hire on as one of the stewards and hirelings who do the day-to-day work of running the hall. Even if you do become a reeve, you'll discover that the training process is arduous and dangerous.'

Restless murmurs began to rise. He raised a hand to quiet them. 'Is there a question?'

An older man rose respectfully. 'Marshal, thanks for hearing me. How long have you been a reeve?'

'Twenty-two years.'

'And how long a marshal?'

'Twelve days.' That got laugh.

A younger voice called from the crowd. 'Is it true that eagles sometimes kill their reeves?'

'It's very rare, but it happens. If you don't like that answer, then leave now.' He waited, but no one moved, nor did he expect any person to walk out while everyone else watched. 'Hall eagles aren't as territorial as eagles in the wild. Perhaps the gods bred it out of them. But they are territorial, and they will tangle, and the routines of patrol and hall rest and mating cycles are carefully calibrated so the halls can function smoothly. Eagles are our partners, not our servants. Their needs come first. There's one other thing you may not fully understand. Once chosen, you cannot change your mind. You are a reeve for life. You can't leave. And if your eagle dies, you will die with them.'

'Do you regret it?' called the older woman suddenly. 'Do you regret being chosen as a reeve by your eagle?'

Joss grinned. 'Never.'

He put his bone whistle to his lips and blew a note no human ear could hear. From elsewhere in the compound, dogs barked. Scar appeared, huge body seeming monstrous as he flew in low over the walls. Folk shrieked in alarm. The big eagle braked with talons forward and wings wide, and whumped down onto one of the big perches. Most flinched, or jumped back. A few, to their credit, did not. Scar dipped his head and turned it upside down to stare at the assembly, making many laugh nervously. Joss walked in under the cruel beak, within reach of the killing talons.

'You'll need the courage to stand here, knowing your eagle can kill you. You'll need the courage to imp her feathers, cope her beak and talons, and a hundred more things besides. You'll need patience to build the trust that jesses the bond between you.'

Scar opened his wings like great sails. He flirted. He squawked with that funny chirp the big eagles had, so at odds with their size and magnificent beauty.

'We're bringing a training master down from Clan Hall, by the name of Arda. The senior fawkners are Askar, Verena, and Geddi. Now, Steward Govard will assign work duties and sleeping billets to those of you who wish to try your luck.'

He stepped from under Scar's shade, and whistled. The eagle thrust and with a hammer of vast wings beat aloft, caught the wisp of a current, rode it to a better thermal, and shot up into the sky. (iovard took his place, and Joss retreated to the marshal's cote.

Askar had left for the city, but others filed in with a thousand tasks left undone that needed his sanction. The morning wore on and on. He downed another two cups of rice wine, poured a third, but set it aside untouched.

Siras stuck his head in. 'Marshal? The bell rang for meal. Will you want to eat in the hall or have me bring you a tray here?'

'Gods!' He stared longingly at the third cup of wine. 'Can someone clear out these writing things? Who is meant to straighten this chamber?'

Siras shrugged, looking embarrassed. 'I'm assigned to you for the moment, Marshal.'

'Surely you should be patrolling, Siras. Don't you have a young eagle?'

'Fortune is his name. He vanished just after you and the out-landers drove out Yordenas and his crew. The fawkners told me Fortune's overdue for nesting, so they think he's flown to Heaven's Ridge.' He wore the optimistic vigor of youth easily, but when he thought of his eagle, the line of his mouth cut downward and his gaze tightened. 'Wouldn't I know if he was dead?'

'The fawkners here know their business,' said Joss. 'Heaven's Ridge it is, and so you're assigned to me for the interim, I take it. No doubt you'd rather be patrolling.'

The lad grinned winningly. 'They do say it's the best way to learn. That is, to follow around a more experienced reeve.' His gaze drifted to the full cup, and flashed away, and Joss wondered if someone had told him to monitor the new marshal's drinking. It was the kind of thing the commander out of Clan Hall would happily command; she had a gift for sticking the salted knife into an already open wound.

He sighed. 'I'll go to the hall and eat with everyone else. That's the custom.'

At first the senior reeves who were left hesitated to join him at the marshal's table, but he waved them over with a pleasant smile to cover his irritation. In his short tenure as marshal, Yordenas had corrupted the traditions of the reeve hall even down to so small but significant a habit as the marshal taking his meals with the reeves so he could gauge the temper of the hall through hearing the complaints, troubles, gossip, and good tidings that circulated around the tables where everyone ate.

'What's our strength today?' he asked when the senior reeves had settled onto the benches around him with their gruel, salted fish, and soft goat cheese.

Medard was a young man — by Joss's estimation, that meant anyone under thirty — with a mean streak a mey wide. 'Get rid of Toban. That hells-rotted vermin walked hand in hand with Yordenas and the worst of his bootlickers, and now he whimpers that he'd no choice but to cozy up to them in order to spy for the sake of the rest of us, those of us who suffered. Or the ones like Dovit and Teren who just disappeared.'

'I didn't see you leading the resistance,' said Darga, an older woman with a blade of iron in her gaze. 'You went running Yordenas's errands up in the Barrens every chance he gave you.'

'To stay alive! I tell you, that cursed Horas wanted nothing more than to murder me, with the blessing of his sniveling comrades. He would have done it, too, if I hadn't kept myself away from the hall. I ran no errands for Yordenas!' He was flushed with indignation. 'You just ask in some of those villages up in the Barrens, who was it who presided over their assizes when no one else would step in? That was me!'

'Here, now,' said Joss. 'What's past is past. As it says in the tale, "no use trying to build with a charred log". Toban will be given a chance to do the duty assigned him. If he scants it or neglects it, then we'll censure him what the dereliction has earned. We have lost too many reeves as it is, some dead and others flown off.'

'Where does a rogue reeve and his eagle make their perch?' Darga asked. 'Who will take them in?'

'I don't know,' said Joss. 'That's why we need Toban under supervision, doing such tasks as he can be trusted with and thereby freeing up other reeves for patrol. We're dealing with a desperate situation in the north. We have to find out what is happening, who these people are who are attacking throughout the Hundred. We have to maintain constant communication with Clan Hall, and the other halls if we can. We must be prepared for anything.'

A girl with the slave mark tattooed at her left eye ran into the hall, sweating and out of breath. Every person there hesitated, with spoon half raised to mouth or cup to lip, sentences cut off, laughter

choked down. They were like dogs and children who have been kicked once too often: expecting the worst.

She grabbed hold of her braid as for courage, and quick-stepped up to the head table. 'Marshal.' The squeak of her tiny voice made Medard snort and folk at nearby tables titter.

Joss rose to survey the hall until every voice was stilled and no one moved. The girl wasn't much more than ten or twelve, a fawkner's assistant's slave by the look of her clothing, someone to sweep the floors and fetch and carry.

'Go on,' he said, trying out a kindly smile. 'Do you have a message for me?'

She whispered in that scrap of a mouse's voice. 'An eagle's dropped in. Carrying a-' Her voice faded, and he barely caught the last two words. '-Qin soldier.'

'Aui!' He straightened.

'The hells!' muttered Medard. 'I don't trust those outlanders with their funny eyes and their strut. I hope you're not going to make us eat with one of them.'

Joss laughed, although he wanted to slug the horse's ass. 'That's funny, I recall one of the Qin soldiers remarking the same thing. I wonder why that might be.'

With a grin to point the sting, he left before Medard could decide whether a retort was worth the risk of insulting his new marshal. Siras scrambled after.

As Joss walked alongside the girl, he considered his position within the reeve hall as an outsider brought in to restore order. He couldn't decide if the night's dance with Verena would earn approval or disdain from the hall at large, and so far no one was ready to challenge him to his face. Medard's carping seemed of a piece with his personality, nothing serious. So far.

Out on the parade ground, a fawkner and his assistant had raced up to take charge of the newly arrived eagle on its high perch. The reeve was unhooking a Qin soldier from the harness that allowed a reeve to haul a passenger hooked in front.

When he saw Joss approaching, the Qin soldier spoke a word to the reeve and then came over. 'Marshal Joss!'

'Tohon, greetings of the day to you. I'm surprised a man of your position among the Qin was chosen for messenger duty.' He

grinned, because the other man was a little white about the eyes, like a panicked horse.

Tohon was a man willing to laugh at himself, as well as being a superb scout. 'I was the only one brave enough to volunteer. Hu! A good horse under me is all I need! Not wings. Still.' He eyed the eagle, whose feathers were ruffled as it decided whether to settle in or take off. He glanced heavenward, to the eagles circling above. 'It's amazing how much you can see from up there.'

'True enough. A man of your skills can truly appreciate it. What's your report?'

'We are tracking down the remnants of the Star army as it runs north. We need more reeves out on patrol. They can spot soldiers hiding, or those lagging back. I will tell you this.' He scraped a hand through hair mussed by the wind. He was a man somewhat older than Joss, stocky, fit, and as tough as they came. Entirely ruthless, Joss suspected, when it came to the honor and safety of his captain. 'There are refugees everywhere. They wander down the roads, they get in our way, they beg for help or throw rocks at us. What do you want us to do with them?' He paused, and when Joss did not reply right away, went on. 'We cannot restore order when so many landsmen wander away from their homes. Also, soldiers from the army can walk among the refugees and pretend to be what they are not.'

Joss rubbed his forehead. 'Eiya! A heavy list of complications. Let me think on it.'

Tohon's grin flashed. 'My boys need me back by evening. I thought I would piss myself, I was so scared at first, but then I got to staring so much I forgot where I was. Hu! The land looks different from up there.'

'That it does. I'll not keep you longer than I have to. Meanwhile, if you go to the eating hall, a reeve named Medard will get you something to eat.'

Back at the marshal's cote, Joss sent Siras to fetch Volias. While he waited he downed the third cup of wine, then composed himself with a satisfied smile, having hatched his revenge.

Volias slithered in with a smirk on his ugly face. 'Medard's spouting. You gave him a real kick in the ass by sending that Qin bastard in to ask for food. Especially that one fellow, their special scout.

That cursed smile of his makes me nervous, and I swear to you he figured your angle the moment he walked into the eating hall, he's that canny, and it amused him to tweak a few ears. He pretended not to know how to use a spoon! I don't think Medard likes you better for making his ears red.'

'Medard doesn't need to like me,' said Joss equably, just barely able to suppress a smile.

Volias glanced suspiciously around the chamber, which was no neater than it had been this morning. And the wine cup was empty.

Joss slid an unused cup — there were four more on the tray — over to the ceramic bottle. He picked it up and tipped it. There was just enough to fill a new cup. He set down the bottle and pushed the cup toward Volias. Siras, hovering by the door, made a move toward the desk, as if to take the bottle away for refilling, and then with the graceless charm of a young man who hasn't learned to disguise his thoughts, made himself stop and sit down beside the open door. No doubt they had given him instructions: Don't let the marshal drink too much.

'For me?' Volias picked up the cup, held it briefly beneath his nose to take in the aroma, then downed it in a gulp. Setting the cup down, he licked his lips. 'Not bad. I trust I'm about to hear something I won't like.'

'Sit down.' Joss indicated a pillow.

'I'll stand.'

A sense of glee filled Joss, but he kept his voice level. 'The fnost significant problem the Qin and the militia have encountered seems to be refugees. There are far too many folk uprooted and displaced by the recent incursion. Disruption will lead to trouble if order isn't restored. I need you to get out there, identify a few collection points, and arrange for the militia and the Qin to send refugees to those points. We'll need a temporary assizes at each one. All these people out wandering on the roads will merely create more trouble.'

Volias snorted. 'That came out smoothly. Getting your revenge on me?'

Joss felt the sweetness of this petty victory. He smiled, as at a woman he was seeking to win over. 'I wish it were so, but the truth is, you've the experience to do a proper job.'

'Smile that pretty smile all you want,' said Volias, 'and I hope you

end up sucking on it for a cursed long time, because I know it will turn sour. Still, I admit I'll be glad to be out of this pus-hole.'

Siras grunted as though he had swallowed a nasty-tasting grub. Out in the marshal's garden, voices rose as two men laughed at a shared joke; they were coming closer. Siras glanced out the crack in the door that let him see outside, but he shrugged and did not rise, so with no great surprise Joss watched as the door was slid open and Askar walked in with the informality of a man accustomed to his voice being heard.

'Heya!' Askar looked at the table as he wiped his hands on a linen scrap. 'Any chance there's wine, Marshal?'

Siras leaped up, grabbed the ceramic bottle, and left.

'No surprise but that the mess this place is in, it builds a strong thirst,' remarked the fawkner, ignoring Volias's smirk. 'And I do have a tale to tell.'

He patted his lips with the cloth, then wiped his brow. 'I'm back from Olossi. Cursed merchants and guildsmen running around like ants with their hill smashed. So it happens, Marshal, that I went to the temple of Sapanasu, and explained your situation, and cursed if the hierophant didn't tell me they would be best pleased to send a clerk to be at your disposal.'

'Surely that's good news,' said Joss.

'Wait for it,' murmured Volias, who had the instincts of a stoat when broken eggs are about to be revealed.

'Which they did say they would do as soon as they have cleared all the contract work to do with the burning of the outer city and the tangle of contracts and legal claims that the siege has brought to Olossi's assizes.'

'That could take weeks!'

'Sure enough. They were quick about dismissing me, too, leaving me with my hair on fire, I don't mind telling you. I had to go cool my head with a few drinks.'

'Too bad the marshal couldn't have joined you,' said Volias with a foul smile.

Joss curled a hand into a fist, but he let it go. 'Then we'll wait a week, to be polite. I'll go next week myself, once the worst of the disorder in Olossi is put to rest. They'll not be so quick to push aside my request if I come in person.'

Volias opened his ugly mouth, no doubt to make a retort about some attractive clerk being taken with Joss's charms, but Askar cut him off in the manner of a man who hasn't heard a thing.

'So there I was, drinking in the Demon's Whip, which is not the kind of establishment you might think it is from the name, and a hierodule walks right up to me and says I'm to come to the delta, to Ushara's temple. She says the Hieros has a message to be delivered personally to a representative of Argent Hall so I can bring it personally to the marshal. Naturally, I went. The Hieros is not a woman to cross, and it seems some crossing has been done. She wants to see you immediately.' He scratched his neck.

Volias snorted. 'I would think Joss here is one of the foremost devotees of the Merciless One. I can't imagine how he would have come to offend the holy Hieros, as he never seems to turn down any offer made to him.'

Cursed if the old fawkner wasn't the finest kind of fellow, able to sail right past that idiot comment by Volias as if it had never been spoken.

'It's about that Devouring girl who tended to Marshal Alyon in his final illness, and then stayed and kept house — or so some claimed — for Marshal Yordenas during his vile tenure. But perhaps you don't know who she is.'

'I know who she is.' Joss was amazed at how cool his voice sounded. He picked up his cup and shook it, hoping there were a few drops to wet his throat, but he was dry.

'It's like this,' said Askar, sketching gestures in the air as folk did to start a tale. 'The young woman was sold to the temple as a girl, as happens, and was trained as a hierodule. Then just before the northerners besieged Olossi, her brother bought out her debt. I wasn't told the particulars, but the Hieros was forced to accept the payment he offered and therefore to let the girl walk free. Any fool with eyes could see the transaction made the Hieros unhappy, that her hand had been forced. Now it transpires the payment the brother offered didn't belong to him at all. She had to give it up to its rightful owner, and so she wants her hierodule back. And the brother punished for cheating the temple.'

'What's this to do with me?' asked Joss, as his thoughts tumbled. When had he seen her last? About two weeks ago, twenty-four

clays. She'd been riding away from Olossi with packhorses and gear. By the Herald! What were the last words she'd said to him? 'Had I known you were so full of yourself, I'd have known I need only wait until you fill up with the poison of self-love and strangle on it.'

Desperate, he found the teapot and poured cold ginger tea into his empty wine cup. The powerful flavor — it had been steeping all day — made his eyes sting.

She'd done her part in saving Olossi from the army that had marched out of the north and east. She'd earned the reward she'd asked for: to leave Olo'osson with her brother before the battle was fought. But it seemed she wasn't a free woman after all. It seemed she still had obligations here.

'What's it to do with you?' mused Askar. 'That I don't know, Marshal. The Hieros wants to talk to you particularly. She's not so willing to bring the council of Olossi into the matter, maybe due to this outlander, Captain Anji, who stands so high among them now. Anyway, our eagles can search quickly for the woman she's wanting back.'

'The Hieros wants me to find her.' The taste of ginger still buzzed on Joss's lips.

'There are reeves here who could recognize her,' said Askar. 'No need for you to go out on patrol.'

'I'll go to the temple, and see what the Hieros wants. There's the pursuit of the northerners to keep an eye on, and this matter of refugees. Knowing that the marshal of Argent Hall is himself out in the field overseeing the efforts may help the locals feel something is truly being done for their security. You fawkners and stewards have things well in hand here. I can't do much more with my office until a clerk is released by the temple of Sapanasu.' He drained the tea and set down the cup.

Volias stared at him, eyes wrinkled with puzzlement, and it was clear the Snake could not figure out where to prod. It all made too much cursed sense. Joss grinned. Rising, he grabbed a knife, his baton, and after a moment's consideration a pair of loose jesses. Siras came into the room with a full bottle of warmed wine, the smell enough to make you sigh with pleasure.

'Siras, can you see that a light travel pack is made up for me? I'll be out for some days. Volias, too, for that matter.'

The young man looked startled. 'Yes, Marshal. I'll tell the factors at once.'

Joss walked out to the porch, Volias trailing at his heels while Askar remained inside to pour himself a cup. The sun was out, bright with the morning, but the headache that had been trembling above Joss's eyebrows was receding as he walked into the marshal's garden and looked for flowers to present to Verena as a thanking gift. An eagle skimmed low, shadow shuddering along the ground. He bent his head back, shading his eyes to see at least twenty eagles gliding high above: reeveless eagles come to choose a new reeve for themselves. And there were more out there.

Two weeks ago Argent Hall had been ruled by a marshal whose very breath 'was like the taint of corruption', as it said in the tale; whose presence had driven reeves out of Argent Hall and halted the return of eagles seeking new reeves. Two weeks ago the town of Olossi had been besieged by an unstoppable army of criminals, bandits, and despicable outlaws who wore cheap tin medallions stamped with a sigil they called the Star of Life.

Now that army was on the run, with a troop of excellent soldiers and their doughty allies in pursuit, and Argent Hall was free of the corrupt marshal and reeves who had tried to poison it. Joss had been perfectly content to remain a simple reeve, as content as he could ever be with the demons of grief and reckless anger that had chased at his heels for half of his life. He hadn't wanted to be named marshal of Argent Hall, but sometimes you didn't get what you wanted.

He thought of the glorious Zubaidit, whom he had met briefly in the course of these troubles. Not that she had necessarily returned his interest. It was difficult to tell with a woman like that, although he was certain she would not be pleased to hear that the Hieros, and the temple, had reclaimed her life and her freedom.

She had walked north with her brother straight toward the advancing army. He did not know if she had even survived.

PART THREE

Debts

Fourteen Days Earlier

9

'Are you sure it's safe to light the lamp?' Keshad asked his sister.

'That's the third time you've asked. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't have lit it.'

Keshad stood beside a stone pillar, the only one left standing atop Candra Hill. In ancient days, according to the tale, the beacon fire had roared in times of trouble, but all that remained of the old tower complex was fallen walls and the bases of seven other pillars. From the treeless height, he stared over the town of Candra Crossing. The main district massed in the center; homes, shops, gardens, temples, fields, and refuse pits stretched east and west along West Track until woodland took over. The River Hayi widened here to make a good ferry crossing in the rainy season and a passable if dangerous ford in the dry season.

He had already seen everything he needed to know, but he could not stop looking because the sight so unnerved him: the town was deserted. Emptied. Swept clean.

'I know the main force of the army passed us already, but what if there are outriders coming up behind? Sweeping for stragglers? Looking for more villages and hamlets to burn? Women to rape? Children to bind into slavery? Hands to hack off?'

'Kesh! Get hold of yourself!'

He sucked in a breath and let it out, shaking.

'There's no one here,' she went on. 'The townsfolk have fled. The army is marching on Olossi. We're safe enough tonight to light a fire. Do you trust my judgment, or not?'

He shuddered as he turned away from the view. Someone could easily creep up the hill's steep slope under cover of night. Maybe it was best to get killed from behind, not knowing death was stalking you. That way it would come as a surprise. No fear and no anticipation meant no pain, surely. But it was already too late. As he looked across the ruins of the old tower complex at his sister, he was already afraid.

A single lamp illuminated the tumbled stone walls and dusty

ground. Most likely, the folk in Candra Crossing had experienced relative peace for so long that no one had thought they needed to repair the beacon tower. No one had thought an army would appear from the east, devastating all the towns and villages in its path.

In the remains of the ancient tower, Zubaidit had discovered a fire pit, sheltered from the wind, that had seen recent use. A stone slab protected an old cistern, which was half full of reasonably fresh rainwater. It was a good place to camp.

As he came up beside her, the fire she was making kindled and caught. She sat back on her heels and waited until the fire took hold, then pinched out the lamp and set it beside the saddle bags. The two ginny lizards, Magic and Mischief, were dozing side by side on a strip of cloth. Bai grabbed the cloth by two corners and gently pulled them closer to the heat of the fire. The ginnies stirred, giving Kesh indignant looks as if to accuse him of disturbing their rest, but settled as Bai scritched them. The three horses were already watered, fed, and hobbled for the night, penned within the higher walls of an adjoining chamber, heard and smelled but not seen. Their presence, at least, was a comfort.

Bai unfolded a small iron tripod and hung a pot over the fire. Firelight softened her face. 'I'm brewing khaif,' she said, without turning to note that he had come up behind her, 'so stop complaining.'

When he did not reply, she rose easily; every movement she made seemed effortless and powerful. Beside her, he felt clumsy and weak.

'Kesh, what is bothering you? You've scarcely spoken ten words together since we escaped that skirmish on West Track days ago. And those words were mostly to question my judgment and, if I must say so, to whine. Just as you're doing now. This isn't the big brother who gave me courage, who pulled me out of the water when I fell in over my head. We're free, because of you. Free to walk where we want, free to start a new life.'

'Unless the Hieros sends someone after us, hoping to get you back into the temple's clutches. Unless Master Feden concocts an excuse to question my debt payment and tries to chain me back into his service. We made them our enemies when we bought our freedom because they didn't want us to go.'

'Are you still afraid?'

'Yes.'

'Of what?'

Afraid of a little sister who had grown up to become someone more frightening than death.

'Nothing.' He picked his way around the ruined wall, felt for the fallen gate, and sat down on the stones blocking the passage. Past this gate stood the horses, drowsy and calm. Their big bodies soothed him. Horses liked familiarity. They liked to know where they fit in. But Bai, born in the Year of the Wolf, had become a wolf in truth: everyone knew that wolves will gladly tear apart a man even if they aren't hungry. You never knew when they might strike.

For a short while there was silence, then he heard her moving about.

'I'm going to make the prayers for a safe night. You want to help me?'

'No.' He touched the blessing bowl that hung at his belt, but he did not pour water into it and murmur the proper blessings for day's end. At the edge of the firelight, she stamped the rhythm with her feet and sketched the story with hands and body as she sang.

'The Four Mothers raised the heavens and shaped the earth,

and then they slumbered.

and then they grew large.

and then they gave birth.

The seven gods are Their children,

who brought order into the world.

who built the gates that order the world.

who sawed the wood and split the wood and planed the wood and carved the wood and dug the iron and forged the iron and hammered the tools and put piece into piece to form the arch and gathered the harvest and bled the sap and colored the resin and coated the lacquer and sprinkled the dust of gold and the dust of silver into the base and polished the surface.

and thus Shining Gate rose and Shadow Gate rose.

and thus day and night gave order to the world.

Look! Look! Look at the horizon! A voice calls. Shadow Gate rises. Night is come.'

This late in the year it was still hot even with the sun set and the night rains coming in. Her skin glistened. She brushed moisture from her eyes and swiped the back of her neck. She glanced toward the gate, where the shadows hid him.

'You don't pray with me. You carry one of the bowls that the slaves of the southern god carry. It imprisons their souls. But you don't pray their prayers, either.'

Uncomfortable, he shifted to ease the pressure on his seat.

'If you truly believe in the southern god, Kesh, then you should pray to him. If you don't, you shouldn't carry that bowl.'

She strolled back to the fire, poured a sludgy mix of khaif and rice porridge into their cup, and held it out to coax him out of the darkness. 'Aren't you hungry?'

He slouched into the light. She waited until he took the cup, then spooned gruel for herself straight out of the pot. They ate in silence. The khaif went straight to his head. As always, the buzz made him feel reckless and irritable.

'Why should I pray to any gods? What have the gods ever done for me?'

'Sheh! For shame! How could we be here, without the gods? How could anything have come into existence? The gods ordered the world. But it is our prayers that hold it together.'

'You have to believe that because you served in the temple.'

She lifted the spoon to her lips, sucked in the gruel, then licked clean the spoon. All the while she stared at him. He didn't like that look.

'What are you accusing me of?' he demanded.

She gestured, and he handed her the cup. She measured out another portion and returned the cup to him. Then she removed the pot from the tripod and scraped out the leavings.

'Well? Say something!'

She finished eating and set the spoon into the pot with a gesture of closing. 'We'll ford the river at first light.'

Before dawn, they led the horses down the path into Candra Crossing. The ginnies, riding on Bai's shoulders, were drowsy and irritable. In the heavens, the boldest stars still shone, while a blush lightened the east. Birds twittered. No wind stirred. It was already hot.

They approached along a dirt path that raft parallel to West Track behind the riverside row of buildings. Trampled fields marked where a large host had camped, and animals had grazed. The army had left shallow ditches stinking with refuse and offal, still swarming with bugs many days later.

A few buildings had burned down. The doors of the temple dedicated to Sapanasu had been smashed, and the counting house was singed. The compound dedicated to Kotaru, the Thunderer, was stripped of weapons and stores. Bai paused outside the gates of the temple to the Merciless One, carved with Her sigil: the bloom of the lotus pierced by a dagger. Like the rest of the town, the Devourer's temple was abandoned. When Keshad peeked through the half-open gates, he saw only dust and dead plants, and a solitary stone bench where a single passionflower had fallen, its color withered to a pale pink.

Was that a noise? The scuff of a foot? A voice, speaking soft words?

Magic lifted his crest and hissed.

'Keep moving,' whispered Bai.

Kesh kept glancing back over his shoulder as they walked away. Surely those noises had only been rats scrabbling through the leavings or birds fluttering in the abandoned buildings. There was no one here. No one at all. The army had poured past Candra Crossing, and the town's population had drained away after them, dead or fled or taken captive.

'Careful, now,' said Bai as they approached the River Hayi. 'Listen.'

A shallow river sings with a different voice from one at flood: water babbles over smoothed rocks along the bank, purls above barely submerged sandbars, shushes through a backwater of reeds. Through the gaps between houses he saw the ford. Where the water rippled and lightened, poles had been hammered into sandbars that almost breached the surface. Where the current dug deep, the water

ran dark and swift, and from this bank that gap looked wide and dangerous.

'I wonder where they came from,' said Bai as the ginnies bobbed their heads.

Four people stood on the bank, two adults and two children.

Kesh choked down a yelp. 'You said no one was here.'

'Those are refugees. I'm surprised they're not running. Here, now, fetch those skiffs pulled up on the bank. I'll take your leads.'

'What do we need a skiff for?'

'Those children can't swim the ford.'

'We're not going to slow ourselves down by helping them?'

Bai called. 'Do you need our help getting over the water?'

She strode away. With a curse he trudged over to the skiffs. Most were dragged well up onto the shore, but two had been shifted down to the waterline and left there, sterns rocking. He checked around nervously but saw no sign of a struggle, of any poor townsman struck down while attempting to escape, of goods and possessions abandoned midflight. He grabbed the towline of the smaller skiff and shoved it around until the water lifted it; here in the shallows the current wasn't overwhelming and he could haul it upstream toward Bai.

What was she about? She had halted a prudent distance from the ragged group: two young women not much more than girls with dusty clothes and hair matted with leaf and twig, and a pair of grubby children. The littlest, likely a girl, was very young, old enough to walk but small enough to need carrying most of the time.

The young boy's piping voice raised as Kesh splashed within hearing. 'They can't be thieves,' he was saying indignantly to his ciders, 'for no person can steal the holy ones. She must be a holy one, too. Maybe she ran away from a temple to get away from the bad people.'

Bai laughed, rubbing the jowls of the ginnies. 'The offer is sincerely meant, but I can see you've had trouble, so if you've a wish for us to move on without bothering you, we'll just ford the river and leave you be.'

'Where are you going?' demanded the elder of the young women.

Magic lifted his crest and opened his mouth to show teeth, a mild

warning. Bai's smile sharpened, just like the ginny's. 'We're going away from the place we came from. Where are you going?'

'Our village was burned down. We'll take your help. I'm called Nallo. These are my children: Avisha, Jerad, and Zianna.'

'We'll take your help with thanks,'' said the pretty one, Avisha, as she flashed a hesitant smile.

'Can I touch them?' asked the boy.

Mischief tilted her head and gave the boy a keen and almost flirtatious look. There was no accounting for the taste of those animals.

'These two are Magic and Mischief, and yes, if you move slowly, and follow my directions, you can greet them. I'm Zubaidit. This is my brother Keshad. Kesh, get the boat in and load it. Put our gear in as well. The horses will do better without the burden.'

'Those can't be your children,' said Kesh to the elder girl. 'You're far too young.'

'I'm the second wife. Their mother's dead three years past. Died bearing Zianna, or how else do you suppose the poor little girl got such a name?'

She was the kind who bit first!

'Where's your husband, then?' he retorted.

As soon as he uttered the words, he felt shame. Avisha looked at the ground, a spasm of grief twisting her expression. The cursed gin-nies eyed him, as if saying Kesh, you stupid idiot! Change the subject, already!

The boy said, 'I want to touch the holy ones!'

'Keep your mouth shut!' snapped Nallo. She flicked a glance at Bai and then, oddly, flushed. 'Here, now, Jer,' she added in a voice meant to be kindlier but which only sounded curt, 'just get in the boat.'

Cursing the wasted time and his own stupid mouth and the pointless bother of stopping to assist useless refugees who were no doubt doomed despite whatever help they might receive, Kesh untied the others' gear and settled it in the skiff. Their possessions seemed to consist of an impressive coil of heavy-duty rope and a single large bronze washtub carefully packed with scraps and oddments: cloth tied around a scant tey of rice; a few scraggly bundles of herbs; a stand for making cord; a pot of sesame oil; an iron knife with a

charred wood handle; an iron cooking pot; and two whole leather bottles grimy with ash. He peeked inside a singed leather case to find, within, a dozen untouched first-quality silk braids, colorful work suitable for fancy cloaks, festival jackets, or temple banners.

In they all must go. The little girl woke and cried, then subsided. The boy trembled with excitement. Bai peeled the ginny lizards off her shoulders, introduced them to the boy, and draped them over the mound of gear. They chirped, and Jerad, in imitation, chirped back. Zianna scooted to the bow of the boat as far away from the ginnies as possible; she sucked on her thumb, her gaze troubled.

Bai said, 'We'll need to string rope along those poles to give us a handhold. That's what they're there for. The water's come up some with the rains, I'm guessing, so with everything we've got to get across I want that rope for a safe hold.'

'I can swim,' said Nallo. 'I'll help you. We've got enough rope to string across the ford.'

Bai grinned at her. 'Good. You can strip down if you don't want your taloos wet. Although it'll dry quickly in this heat. And you might be cooler afterward for leaving it on.'

The young woman blushed again. 'I'll leave it on. Vish, put my pack in the boat.'

'You're limping. What happened?' Bai asked.

'Turned my ankle on the road.'

Bai glanced at Kesh and shrugged. She waded into the river with the coiled rope. Reaching the first pole, she tied a loop and placed the line. The sun's light flooded the horizon as true dawn raised. The two women plunged into the deeper current.

Avisha sidled over to Kesh, where he waited beside the horses. 'Do you know who those soldiers were? Those locusts swarmed into the village one morning. We were lucky to escape.'

'They marched out of the north, that's all I know,' he said reluctantly, not wanting to be drawn into this conversation.

'We hid in the woods.' She hesitated, as if waiting for him to reply, and then went on. 'Our house was burned down. My father's dead. We're going to the Soha Hills where Nallo's family comes from, only she doesn't think they'll want to take us in because they never liked her much anyway because of her bad temper. She does have a bad temper, not like my dad. He never loses his temper. He's

the kindest and gentlest man. Everyone said that's the only way he could stand her, Nallo that is, my mother talked a lot but she never lost her temper at anyone.'

'You'll want to consider how much you tell to strangers, who might not have your best interests at heart. That army was taking slaves. You're a good age for it. Pretty enoughjto be of interest. Worth a few cheyt on the open market.'

She stepped away, then looked at the little children, measuring her chances to run.

'Eiya! My sister was a hierodule. She'd never go against the law.'

A woman shrieked. In the deepest part of the river, where the current ran hard in chest-high water, Nallo had lost her footing.

'Nallo!' screamed Avisha. She choked out wordless yelps and started to cry.

'Here, now. Bai's got her.'

Bai hauled her into shallower water. Nallo sputtered, coughed, spat, and both women began laughing. Bai looped the rope around the farthest pole and with Nallo's help tugged it taut, then tied it off. Holding on to the rope, they crossed back.

'That's good-quality rope,' Bai was saying as they dripped up onto the pebbled shore beside Kesh and Avisha.

'My husband made it,' said Nallo with evident pride. 'He only made best-quality rope, and for the temples, too, and for festival banners and all manner of ornament. Everyone said he was the best ropemaker on West Track.'

'I was so scared when you slipped,' said Avisha in a gulping wet voice. 'I thought we lost you.'

'Well, you didn't!'

There was the temper. It made even Kesh stand up straight.

Bai said sweetly, 'Kesh, you swim the horses across. I'll take the boat. You two follow. Best we get moving in case anyone else is on the road.'

The crossing went swiftly and without incident.

While Kesh slung panniers and bags back on the packhorse, Bai and Nallo waded back into the river to recover the precious rope. On this side of the river, someone had abandoned a pile of refuse since battered by wind and rain. Avisha ripped through the pile, but except for sodden cloth and a bronze bucket she found nothing worth keeping.

'Where are you two going now?' Avisha asked as she rolled up the cloth.

He shrugged, hoping she would leave him alone.

'It's true what you said,' she added with a catch in her voice. 'We walked a long way to get to Candra Crossing. It's the only place you can cross the river for days and days. We had to hide a few days after we left the village because there was a group of soldiers, marching Hornward on West Track, back the way they'd come. They had tens of children roped up like beasts. Eiya! Just like beasts.' She grimaced, wiped her eyes and her nose, and sucked in breath to keep talking. 'We could see from where we were hiding. There was one child who stumbled and another child who helped him up, and then the soldiers came and beat that child to death, the one who helped.'

Kesh had seen such a company of children being marched away as slaves, and he had no desire to relive the memory. If only she would stop talking!

'Just for helping, you know. Just for helping.' She began to rock back and forth like a sweet-smoke addict.

Kesh grabbed her wrist. 'Listen! If you want to survive, you have to keep walking. There's nothing any of us can do for those children.'

A glance from fine, tear-filled eyes could make the world bright, if you were the kind of man who liked pretty girls made tense by a touch of fear. He'd worked as a debt slave in Master Feden's house for twelve years, and he'd seen men, and women, who did enjoy forcing sex on reluctant slaves. He'd hated them especially. He released her arm as though it burned him and turned away, but the cursed girl would keep talking.

'I thought Nallo was going to abandon us, too, when we got back to the village to find my father dead and everyone dead — you know Dad and the rest, they ran out with their shovels and hoes to try to hold off the soldiers so us children could run away. Afterward, the landlady wanted to sell us as slaves. Nallo wouldn't let her.'

'Can you tighten that rope for me?' he asked, to shut her up. 'We need to get moving.'

Bai splashed through the shallows and jogged up the slope, Nallo limping behind. He recognized the grim look on Bai's face.

'Get moving.' She slung the rope over the packhorse's neck, fixing it to the panniers. 'Kesh, put the girl in the basket, and tie the boy

up on the mare. Nallo, you'll ride the gelding. Avisha, you'll either have to leave the washtub or carry it at the pace we'll set. There's something coming into town. I want everyone out of sight before it gets to the riverbank and spots us. Move! I'll meet you.' She settled the ginnies into the sling tied to her saddle.

Nallo mounted awkwardly, stomach over the saddle, then pumping her legs until she got the left one over. Thanks to the gods, the horse remained quiescent despite her obvious lack of experience. Swearing under his breath, Keshad lashed the horses into a line and set out at a brisk pace. Avisha hurried after, lugging the washtub. On the mare, Jerad was grinning at the ginnies.

As Bai crossed the river back into town, all Kesh could think of was his old friends Rabbit, Twist, and Pehar, the worst companions a man might fear to have. He hoped they were all dead now, but he was sure they weren't. How anyone could defeat the army that had been descending on Olossi he couldn't imagine, which was why he and Bai had left and more honorable or foolhardy people had stayed behind. Like she was doing now. The road cut into the woodland, and he lost sight of the far shore.

'What about your sister?' said Avisha with an anxious look.

'Shut up. Keep moving.'

No one spoke as they strode along. For the longest time he just walked, thoughts shut down. The horses were obedient, the children quiet, the girl steady.

After a long time he heard hurried footsteps pattering on the earth, coming up from behind. He drew his sword. Avisha started to cry.

But it was Bai, loping like a wolf chasing prey. She was wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth, and although she threw away the cloth before she reached them, he was sure it was bloody.

10

Nallo knew the tales, how the persistent, fortunate, clever child fought past obstacles and won through to a good life in the end. But she'd never believed in them. She'd watched three older brothers die, too weakened with diarrhea to do more than stare mutely at

those tending them. She'd been sent to Old Cross market with her uncle and littlest niece, both girls meant for debt slavery, but although her little niece's labor had been bought up quickly, not one soul had bid on Nallo. Too thin, too sour-looking, too tall, too old, not pretty. There were plenty of desperate folk on the roads, farms failing, laborers out of work, too many children and not enough food to feed them all. The folk who could afford to purchase the labor of those unfortunate enough to be selling had the leisure to be choosy.

Her husband had made the contract with her family through intermediaries. He'd needed a wife quickly; there was a newborn to care for. Everyone had told her she was fortunate. It was the best life she could hope for.

He'd been a gentle man, patient and kind. Everyone in the village had said so, reminding her again and again that she was fortunate. And it was even true.

She wasn't gentle or kind or patient. Everyone had said so, and it was true.

She had no obligation to stay with Avisha and the little ones. But she had nowhere else to go. That had been her husband's last, if unwilling, gift to her: a reason to keep going and not just walk into the hills, lie down in the grass, and die.

They walked for half the morning, and at length halted to let the horses water at a pond ringed by mulberry trees. The children peed, and got a scrap to eat and a swallow of old wine. Then they walked on.

Avisha moved up to walk alongside the man. She tried to draw him into conversation. When he wouldn't talk about himself, she talked about her old life, about her father, about her mother; she chattered about plants and their uses.

'She's a pretty girl,' remarked Zubaidit over her shoulder, addressing Nallo. 'She seems knowledgeable about herbs.'

'Her mother taught her.'

'That's a good piece of knowledge to have. She's old enough to think of marriage.'

'We're too poor to think of marriage. We've no kin. We've nothing.'

'Perhaps you can find a man willing to look no farther than youth and herbcraft.'

'One who is desperate enough to take on a destitute girl with no marriage portion and no kinfolk to sweeten the net of alliance? It was hard enough for my family to find a man willing to marry me.'

'Why is that?'

'I've got a bad temper. I say things people don't want to hear. I ought not to, but they just slip out.'

'Which god took your apprenticeship service?'

'The Thunderer. After my year was up, my kinfolk asked if the temple would fake me on for an eight-year service, but they didn't want me either.' She hated the way she sounded, like a child whining for a stalk of sweet-cane to suck on. 'Never mind. It wasn't so bad. My husband treated me well. The work wasn't so hard. We didn't go hungry.'

It had been a good life. She saw that, now it was gone.

'It's a hard path to walk, away from what you can never go back to.'

'Is that how it is for you and your brother?' Nallo asked boldly. Since she could not see the hierodule's face, she watched her walk instead.

The woman wore a plain linen exercise kilt, tied with a cord at the waist, and a tight sleeveless vest. Her limbs, thus displayed, were smooth, sculpted, and strong. 'I'm not sure where this path will lead us.'

They hit a steep stretch, too difficult to climb while talking, and afterward Nallo could think of no way to resume the conversation. Up ahead, Avisha had started in again.

Late in the afternoon they halted for the night near the dregs of a stream. They shared out a leather bottle full of vinegary mead and finished off a sack of dry rice cake and mushy radish, although these scraps could not cut the hollow feeling in their stomachs. Avisha got the little ones settled to sleep while Nallo went to wash in the stream, to take a little privacy to do her business. Coming back, walking slowly because her ankle ached, she came up behind the sister and brother where they had moved away from the camp to talk between themselves. She paused in the cover of a stand of pipe-brush, too embarrassed to reveal herself.

'What is wrong with that girl? She won't shut up.'

'You'd be more agreeable if you'd look at people with a little compassion. I worry about you, Kesh. You aren't happy.'

'We were slaves for twelve years! In what manner am I meant to be happy} Or does the goddess have an answer for that as well?'

'The gods have an answer, if you take the time to pray.'

'I pray that we get rid of them. We're moving so slowly, Bai. Why did we have to bring them with us?'

'We had to get everyone out of sight, because if that lot marching into town saw these on the far shore they might think to cross and grab them, and then they'd find sign of our passage. I don't want any trouble.'

'We've got trouble enough with these refugees. How long will you let them burden us? Or do you mean to hand out our coin to them, too, until we have nothing left for ourselves?'

She chortled, but it was a bitter laugh. 'We have plenty of coin, Kesh.'

'Stolen from Master Feden's chest! I'd have liked to have seen when you grabbed those strings right in front of his fat face. Aui! What do you think is happening in Olossi?'

'Captain Anji has found a way to defeat them, or he's dead and Olossi is overrun.'

'Then best we not drag our feet helping every sad traveler on the road. We can't help everyone.'

'We can help these.'

'Nallo?' Along the track from camp came Avisha.

The brother muttered a complaint under his breath while the sister laughed softly and said, 'I'm going to make the prayers for a safe night. Do you want to help me?'

'No. I'll go take a piss.'

'As you wish.'

'Aui!' That was Avisha, meeting them on the trail. 'I didn't see you here. Did you see Nallo?'

Nallo rattled the pipe-brush, then moved into view as if she'd just come walking that way. Keshad pushed past her. Nallo noticed what had been staring her in the face all along: the man had the debt mark tattooed at the outer curve of his left eye. Twelve years a slave. He had said so himself. He wore no bronze bracelets to mark

his status as a slave, but those were easy to take off. Zubaidit's face was unmarked, but that wasn't unusual in those dedicated to the gods, which was a different form of servitude and obligation than that taken on by those who sold the rights to their labor or their debt on the auction square.

They were runaway slaves, who had brazenly raided the master's strongbox. Wasn't there a penalty, assessed at any assizes court, for those who aided or abetted slaves running away from their contract?

At dawn, Nallo took the children and their few possessions aside. She saw, in the man's face, a rush of relief at the thought of being rid of them, and she supposed that Zubaidit's complicated frown disguised relief as well.

'Our thanks for your aid,' Nallo said politely. 'May the gods watch over you and grant you the same courtesy you have shown others.'

Zubaidit snorted, and her brother looked alarmed.

'Can't we go on this way together, Nallo?' Avisha asked plaintively.

'No. We'd just slow them down.'

'Let's go.' Keshad was already looking up the path as the sun rose.

The hierodule's gaze was a terrible thing; she might see anything with such a stare, that pierced right through you as though she could read your every thought just in the way you scratched a bug's bite in the crook of your elbow because you were uncomfortable and embarrassed. How could you ask two armed and strong adults if they were runaway slaves? It was better to remain silent.

Zubaidit nodded. 'It's true we'll make better time not burdened with you. Yet are you sure?'

'We've been traveling on our own for days now,' snapped Nallo. 'I know the Soha Hills well enough. There won't be many folk traveling, if there are any traveling at all in days like these with so much trouble on the road. We can take care of ourselves.'

The brother left without more than a barely polite fare-thee-well. The hierodule offered them a pouch of food, another bottle of old wine, and five precious leya, just as if they were beggars, which they were, so Nallo took it and with thanks. Jerad wept to see the ginnies

As soon as the horses were out of sight, Avisha burst into tears. 'Why did you make them leave?'

'They're runaway slaves, and thieves in the bargain. We'll get fined if we're caught with them, and that will throw us right into slavery. Is that what you want?'

The little ones hunkered away from her temper.

Avisha sniveled, wiping her eyes, but the tears kept flowing. 'Eiya! The slave mark on his face. How he was so anxious to get on. He wouldn't talk to me. You're so clever for seeing it, Nallo.'

But she wasn't clever. She was angry, and embarrassed, and she couldn't stop thinking about that woman. She couldn't stop hating herself for never having once in three years as a wife looked over her kind and patient husband with the kind of unexpected and thrilling desire that had hit her smack between the eyes the moment she had seen Zubaidit. Who had treated her with respect and courtesy, but nothing more. Nothing more.

'Where are we going, Nallo?' Jerad asked.

She swung Zianna up onto a hip. 'Just walk!'

That was the day everything began to go wrong. Not that it hadn't gone all wrong from the day the army marched into the village and killed her father, but Avisha had begun to hope they would escape, find a safe refuge, and make a new life. Keshad and his sister had appeared, as though sent by the gods, to help them across the river. He was so handsome! But not very talkative. Burdened with doubts and concerns, most likely. Why should he want to hear the chatter of a dreary, irritating girl who couldn't keep her mouth shut? Avisha was so ashamed of herself, knowing she had prattled on trying to impress him, when after all a man as good-looking and intense and experienced as him couldn't possibly be interested in her.

Then Nallo realized that their two companions were runaway slaves, and thieves in the bargain, and therefore dangerous to travel with. Isn't that what Papa always said, when he scolded her for being vain of her looks? A sincere heart is better than a pretty face.

So they set off on their own, again, tramping along the road at a snail's pace with Jerad sullen because the ginnies were gone. The wind picked up, and it started to rain, a big gusting downpour that

soaked them through. It came down so hard and fast that the road churned with muddy water, but they had to keep going. They walked in the rain all morning, and rested where they could find shelter. Midday the rain slackened and ceased. Soon after, the sun came out between shredded clouds, and they walked in the steaming heat until Jerad could not go one step farthea

Ahead lay a village, surrounded with a fence to keep livestock in and wild beasts out. Stands of fruit and pipe and mulberry trees broke the expanse of field, and in the distance rose denser woodland not yet cleared.

It had been so many days since they had seen folk walking about their daily lives that it seemed strange to Avisha to see it now. Men sowed rice in seedling fields. Younger men guided their draft animals, plowing furrows through the larger fields, mud and water splattering until they and the beasts were coated. A pair of young women stood on the raised earth that separated the fields, holding trays with drink and food for the working men; they were chatting and laughing as though they'd no idea what had happened to Candra Crossing not three days' walk away. Seeing the refugees, the young women splashed away into the cover of trees.

Two young men hurried over along the raised berms and confronted the travelers with spears and sour faces. The way they looked Avisha up and down made her shiver, for it wasn't a nice look at all but an ugly one. 'You're not allowed to stop here.'

Nallo placed herself between the armed men and the children. 'We can offer what news we have, of Candra Crossing, in exchange for a meal of rice.'

'We already know about Candra Crossing. You're not the first travelers to come through. So you just move on.'

'The gods will curse you!' Nallo spat on the dirt.

The brawnier of the young men pushed the haft of his spear right up against Nallo's chest. 'Don't threaten us. Take your ugly face and your pretty sister and your little brats and get moving before we make you wish you'd never walked this way. We'll protect ourselves.'

Nallo grabbed Zianna and swung her up onto her hip. 'The gods will judge the worth of your hospitality. Come, children. No need to linger here. It's a gods-cursed place, as they'll soon discover.'

Her stare sent the men back a few steps, and Nallo walked past, not looking to see if Avisha and Jerad were following. Those hostile stares scared Avisha, but she could only walk so fast and keep the washtub balanced on her head, and anyway Jerad was lagging. But he stuck it out, and Nallo — who wasn't as oblivious as she sometimes seemed — called a halt as soon as they discovered a Ladytree on the far side of the village, just off the road. Under its spreading branches they found shelter from the drizzle. In a recently used fire pit, Nallo got sticks smoldering and cooked up two handfuls of rice, not enough to fill their stomachs but enough to cut the ache of hunger.

'I wonder what happened to Keshad and his sister,' Avisha said when the little ones were asleep, wrapped up in the blanket, and she and Nallo lay on the ground sharing the cloak against the damp night air. 'They should have been ahead of us on the road.'

'They've gone off the road. There could be a dozen trails, a hundred, leading through the fields and woods. We should take to the fields, too. If an army marches, it'll be on this road.'

'You said we'd be safer going this way than east on West Track and walking into Sohayil by the Passage.'

'Safer. Not safe. I'll decide in the morning.'

In the morning, Nallo identified a trail that ran more or less parallel to the main path, seen as a berm beyond fields and coppices. Walking on this trail, they spotted clusters of buildings that marked hamlets or villages, but they kept their distance.

That night, they camped under a scrawny Ladytree growing at the edge of a meadow. Its canopy was dying. Bugs ate at them all night, a cloud of annoyance. A nightjar clicked, so that she'd start dropping off to sleep and then startle awake. Late in the night it rained again, dripping through the branches.

By morning, Zianna was sniffling. They slogged through intermittent rains all day, drying out when the sun shone.

By the next morning, Zianna had started to cough. Although Nallo explained that they had not yet begun to climb into the Soha Hills, this was rugged country, sparsely inhabited, and rough walking on a path that sometimes was smooth and easy and sometimes little more than a gouge barely wide enough for one foot. Several times Nallo stopped and, pointing aloft, marked the passage of an eagle high overhead.

After some days they reached the outlying hills and began climbing. As they toiled up the first slope, slick from the rains, Avisha slipped. She lost her hold on the washtub, and it slid downslope and spilled its contents every which way on the wet hillside among trees and scrub.

She scrambled down through thornbush and prickleberry to retrieve their belongings and the precious bag of rice while the others huddled under such cover as the woodland gave them. Her father's cordmaking stand — the one special thing of his she had salvaged from the ruins of the house — had broken in half. The fire had weakened it, and the fall snapped it. Just like her life. She sobbed, holding the pieces. Papa had handled this so gently, and now it was gone. It couldn't be fixed. None of it could be fixed.

'Vish! What are you doing down there?'

Of course Nallo had no idea how sharp her voice sounded.

'Almost got everything,' she called back.

A length of bright orange cloth, not theirs, had gotten stuck among prickleberry. She pushed over to it, careful of thorns. The cloth was stained, wet, torn. Below, tumbled into the bush, lay the corpse of a young woman, freshly killed: blood stained her thighs and belly. She'd been raped and had her abdomen cut open in a jagged line.

'Vish?' Nallo's voice drifted down to her, but she might have been a hundred mey away for all it mattered.

Flies crawled in and out of the gaping mouth. Her fingers had been eaten away, and her eyes were gone, two empty pits. Abruptly, her belly stirred, the skin rippling. A bloody face popped out of the cut. Black eyes stared at Avisha. She shrieked. A small animal darted away into the brush.

'Vish!'

Her throat burned. Her eyes stung. She backed up, tripped, fell rump-first into a tangle of bushes. Her hands brushed a trailing branch of prickleberry, and blood bubbled up on her palm. Scrambling back, she found the washtub. But as she climbed the slope, dragging the washtub behind her, she kept losing her footing and slipping backward. The ghost of that dead woman was trying to drag her into the shadows. Claws bound her ankle, tugging at her. She whimpered, but it was only a vine caught around

her foot. She wrenched the vine loose, and climbed. After an eternity she reached the road. She was scratched, soaked, caked in dirt. Blood dripped from her palm. She wiped her hair out of her eyes.

Nallo wasn't even looking at her. She was staring up at the sky, mouth open, rain washing her face.

A huge eagle swooped low over them. Avisha ducked. Jerad wailed. Zianna hid her face in her hands, sobbing. The creature banked around and, flaring its wings, struggled to a landing in an open space above them, beside the path. It stared at them with eyes as big as plates and a beak large enough to rip open a poor girl's belly so every manner of vermin could crawl in.

'Is that blood on its feathers?' said Nallo. 'Look how it's holding its wing. It's injured.'

'Look at that beak!' sobbed Avisha. 'Those talons! We can't walk past it.'

'Have you ever heard of a reeve's eagle killing a human being?' Nallo picked up Zianna and began walking up the path.

'Nallo! I'm afraid!'

Jerad burst into tears. 'Won't go. It's so big!'

'Stop it, Vish! Look how you've got him blubbing! That bird isn't going to hurt us.'

That bird was staring at them, deciding which was plumpest. 'How can you know?'

'Stop shrieking! Look how it gets your brother and sister scared.'

'C–Can't we just wait until it leaves?'

'No! No! No! No! No!' sobbed Zi.

Nallo set the little girl down roughly. 'We'll stand here in the rain until the cursed bird flies off and we'll all be dead by then anyway.' Abruptly, horrifyingly, Nallo, too, began to cry.

The rain pattered over them as they wept. Avisha's clothes were wet, her feet were cold, and her face was muddy, smeared with dirt. Her hand hurt, and that girl down there was dead and mutilated and abandoned, just like she was going to be. Everything was the worst it could be. She wished Papa was alive because he could have fixed it all but he was dead. Why did Papa have to die? Why did everything go so bad? Why couldn't they just all be at home in their good little house all dry, sitting on

the porch like they always did when the first rains came and watching the wet over the other houses and over the fields and woodland and sipping on the last of the year's rice wine that Papa always held over for the first day of the rains and the promise of a new year? Now there would be a new year without Papa in it, nothing good at all, everything torn and broken and bloody and hopeless.

She kept gulping, trying to stop crying, but the sobs kept bursting out, shaking her whole body. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. Why did any of it have to happen?

The eagle chirped, a delicate call at odds with its size.

Jolted out of her misery, Avisha turned to look. The eagle flapped, rose awkwardly, then dove along the path, talons raised and ready to hook them.

Avisha shrieked. She grabbed Jerad and threw herself flat, Jerad squirming beneath her. The heat and roil of the eagle passed over her body.

Below, men yelled out in a panic. Then they screamed.

She lifted her head to see men scattering away from the eagle's attack. The eagle had plunged into a group coming up the path. With talon and beak it slashed and cut and tore.

Avisha pushed Jerad's head down. 'Don't look!'

Nallo cried out. 'Vish! Those are soldiers like the ones who burned the village. Run!'

Like the ones who burned the village.

Like the ones who could rape and murder a girl in the woods.

She bolted, slipping, cursing, weeping with terror, sprinting into the woods where she might hope to hide. Glancing back, she saw the batting wings, the slash of talons, the flash of gold that ringed its beak. The men's screams drove her on. She ran with trees clawing at her, until her sides heaved and she fell to her knees spitting and retching. Her chest was aflame.

Nallo leaned on a tree, gulping air, holding Zianna. 'Where's Jerad?'

Avisha lifted her head. Jerad was not with them.

The ground dropped out from under her. She fell, dizzy, tumbling, helpless. But she was kneeling in the dirt with rain drizzling over her. She hadn't fallen at all.

Nallo said, 'Did you leave him behind?'

Between one ragged breath and the next, the rain ceased falling.

Jerad wasn't with them. She had left him behind.

11

Someone had to go back and find Jerad. So Nallo didn't wait. She pried Zianna off her body as the girl whimpered and clung, shoved her into Avisha's arms, and stumbled back the way they had come.

She'd recognized what those men were the instant she had seen them. What a fool she'd been! Avisha had stood there blubbering on the path, when they should have kept going despite the eagle. That was how those outlaws had walked up from behind without her hearing.

Eiya! She must watch, observe, keep her eye on the trail they'd tramped through the woodland so she could find her way back. She must listen, to make sure she didn't stagger out like a flailing drunk onto the road, an easy target. The rain gave her cover; the vegetation was damp enough that instead of snapping it merely bent, squooshed, sucked. She marked how the canopy altered where the path cut along the slope as it moved sidelong around the hill. She slowed down, grasped the slender trunk of a pine tree, trying to quiet the surging pound of her heart in her throat and ears.

She heard no sound of men talking. She heard no sound of footfalls, nor press of branches swept aside as they searched into the woodland for the runaways. She eased forward into the cover of a stand of pipe-brush. Her ears stung as the wind picked up. Still nothing. Crouching, she tipped to hands and knees and crawled through the muck to the shelter of a bush from which she could see the path.

Six bodies sprawled on the ground, limp and torn, several still twitching. She forced herself to scan the path.

The eagle chirped.

She slunk along the line of bushes until she could see where the path pushed onward. With wings spread and head raised, the eagle waited. A bundle of clothing had fallen to the ground beneath it.

It wasn't clothing. The eagle was standing over Jerad, cruel talons fixed on either side of the boy and its gaze pinioned on the dead men it had ravaged.

She found a stout stick on the ground, tested its heft. With this pathetic weapon, she walked onto the path.

'Jerad!'

The eagle flared its wings wider. She halted. Like the eagle she, too, was panting, angry, scared, injured in her own way. When it looked at her, she returned its fierce gaze without fear.

'We're friends, not enemies,' she said, a little testily.

Its mouth gaped, showing its tongue. Was that a good sign, or a bad one? She took another step and a third, by stages moving closer until she could see that Jerad was alive. The eagle was guarding him.

'You saved us,' she said, hoping to sooth it with her voice.

It swiveled its head, measuring her.

'N-Nallo?' His voice was so soft she barely heard it. 'I'm scared, Nallo. Did you see what it did to those men? Is it going to kill me?'

'Hush!'

At her agitated tone, the eagle flared again, and Nallo said, more harshly than she intended, 'Stop that! He's just frightened! You're scaring him.'

He sobbed, so she grasped the stick more tightly and held it a little above and across her head as if that flimsy stick could ward off the eagle should it strike. She walked at a measured pace right up to the huge eagle. Under its wings and the vicious-looking beak, she knelt beside Jerad and coaxed him to his knees.

'Come on, now, Jer! If the eagle meant to kill you, it would have done it already.'

'It's going to eat m-m-me.'

Really, the boy was impossible. 'No, it isn't. Get up.'

'They play with animals, and then eat them alive.'

'Get up!'

He clung to her as she dragged him away from the eagle and off the path. 'It tore that man's head off. It stuck that man right through the chest with its claws. Did you see?'

it protected you, Jerad.'

She shoved the boy down into a heap of sodden leaves ripe with

smells released by the rains. Turning, she examined the eagle. The heavy feathered brows made its stare more intense, and naturally the hooked bill with its pointed tip looked daunting. The top of its bill was colored a bright yellow, and yellow rimmed its mouth behind the bill. Its feathers had a golden sheen, shading darker along the wings and breast, patched with white. Its legs, too, were feathered, shaped like leggings. Its talons were skin and claw, big enough to enclose her chest.

As she watched, it began to clean blood and bits of flesh from its bill with one talon. It had a fussy touch, comical until you thought of what the eagle had just done.

Where had the outlaws come from? Were there more of them?

'Jerad, hide in the woods. Take this.' She picked up, and handed to him, the pouch she had dropped in the first steps of their panicked flight.

'It's too heavy.'

'Take it into the trees. I'm coming.'

She found the washtub where Avisha had dropped it. When had that happened? The series of events blurred in her mind: the washtub tumbling down the slope and spilling its contents every which way; Avisha hauling it up again. The eagle had come, and then the outlaws, and she realized that the eagle had surely come because it had seen armed men moving up behind them. It had deliberately saved them.

It lifted its head, looking past her. She heard men tramping up the path, moving in haste. She lugged the washtub off the road, and just in time she and Jerad dropped behind a stand of pipe-brush. She left the washtub beside the boy and shimmied forward on her belly through the brush until she could look over the path. The wind was rising again, rippling in the clothing of the dead men as if the cloth had woken and meant to abandon the mutilated husks.

Two men trotted into view. They wore the same leather coats and molded leather helmets she'd seen on the armed men who had marched into her village. One of the men carried a red banner marked with three black waves enclosed in a black circle, similar in cut to the banner she had seen that terrible day, although the banner those men carried had had four stripes.

The soldiers scented death before they saw it. They moved

hesitantly forward, then spotted the dead men and, last, the waiting eagle. Backing up hastily, they called to unseen companions. One man hoisted his bow and, hands shaking, fitted an arrow.

Fly. Fly.

As if it heard her thoughts, the eagle spread its wings, thrust, and beat hard. It rose agonizingly slowly, and the archer loosed an arrow. But the shaft went wide, and the eagle was aloft, out of range, as Nallo sucked in a breath, dizzied, her pulse thundering in her ears.

The men shook fists at the sky, then split up to investigate the scene of the battle. As they prodded the corpses, another dozen men came up behind, a straggling, undisciplined line that collapsed into commotion with a lot of shouting and cursing.

'Get on! Get on!' they cried, hurrying forward as if something more dreadful than an eagle was chasing them.

She and Jerad hid as the afternoon wore on, while groups of men passed at erratic intervals, fleeing northeast into the Soha Hills. Those who staggered into sight panting and exhausted found strength to move on when they spotted the dead. She grinned. They were beaten, whipped, frightened and disoriented, a beast without a head to lead the way.

'Did you see Captain Mani? He was burned alive. I saw the bones in his face while he was still screaming…'

'Captain Mani's dead? Then who's in charge?'

'We have to reach Walshow. There'll be captains there to tell us what to do…'

'We've not going fast enough. If they catch us, they'll kill us. They're demons.'

'Is the lord dead? Can he be dead?'

'Did you see the tent burning? The fire stuck to it. Water wouldn't put it out. No one could escape such sorcery.'

'They promised us! Said nothing would stand in our way'

'Neh. This was a test. Those who didn't truly trust the lords' power, died. But we survived, didn't we?'

'Heh, so we did. We spoke the proper prayers and offered the proper sacrifices, not like the others. We'll be admitted to the real army-'

'Aui! Look! Eagles!'

Three eagles swooped past. Shouting, the men ran. The eagles rose higher into the sky with an eerie glide, wings not beating. These eagles carried reeves slung into harnesses that dangled beneath, leaving their arms free to hold weapons. Trapped in the brush, she lost sight of them, but she heard the hammer of hooves as a company of horsemen approached at speed.

'Run! Run!' the men cried.

It was too late.

Up the path swept a score of horsemen, black wolves on the hunt. They harvested the fleeing soldiers with swift strokes. Half rode on, up the path, while others spread into the woodland on the trail of men who bolted into the trees. She dared not move; she scarcely breathed. Men screamed as they were cut down. The mounted soldiers called to one another with calm shouts. One dismounted to survey the corpses killed by the eagle. He was an older man, somewhat older than her husband, although it was difficult to tell his age. He had an outlander's look, with a broad face and pronounced cheekbones, a mustache but no beard, and noble eyes that flicked restlessly over the scene. She held her breath as his gaze passed over the pipe brush, but he looked away. He walked to the spot where the eagle had stood guard over Jerad. He knelt, touched the ground as if the ground could speak to him, then rose. Briskly, he walked directly to the stand of pipe-brush, halted, and spoke.

'Come out.' His words were strangely accented and a little difficult to understand.

She didn't move.

He sighed. 'Come out. You are in there. With you is another one.'

Maybe he was only guessing.

He hacked through the pipe-brush above her head, shearing it off. Leaves showered her. Stalks rattled onto her body. He stepped back and waited.

He might still go away.

He tilted his head, rubbed his chin, and took another step back. She heard crashing in the brush, male laughter, and — like a stab in the heart — a woman's sobs. Two black-clad riders emerged onto the path within her line of sight. Using their spears as prods, they were driving Avisha in front of them. She had Zi clutched to her chest.

Her eyes were red from weeping, her hair tangled in disarray. She shivered with terror as the men looked her over.

'Pretty girl,' said the older man, measuring her.

Nallo rose and pushed through the brush, splintering stalks in her haste to get to the path before they could do anything awful to Avisha. She flung herself to her knees before the older man. 'Don't kill us, I pray you. We've done you no harm. Don't kill us. Take me if you must, but leave the girl alone.'

The laughing soldiers fell silent. The older man pulled off his helmet. He had a pleasant face, even if he did look and talk like a foreigner.

'The pretty girl, she is your sister? You not look alike.'

'She's my husband's daughter.'

'Your husband, where is he?'

'He is dead.'

She cursed herself silently the moment she said it, but the man nodded as he looked from her to Avisha and Zianna, then past them. Jerad came running, and he flung himself at Avisha and hid his face against the fabric of her tunic.

'You are walking from your house to your kinfolk, maybe?'

'That's right. They're expecting us.'

He rubbed his chin again, looked over at the younger soldiers where they guarded the children. 'Maybe they are dead, also.'

Three soldiers appeared on the path above and studied the scene, grinning as they spoke to their companions. Farther away, a man's shriek cut off abruptly.

'Please don't hurt us.' Her mouth formed soundless prayers.

He shifted his sword to the same hand that was also holding his helmet, and with his free hand wiped sweat and maybe blood from his eyes, careful as he cleaned his brows, rather like the eagle in his fastidiousness. One of the younger men spoke in rapid words she could not understand, and the older man laughed and, with a friendly smile — or perhaps a mocking one — turned back to her.

' My young comrade wants to know if you and the pretty girl are looking for husbands. We are looking for wives.'

Why had they to suffer all this, and now more besides? Anger boiled over, and words spilled out. 'We can't stop you from doing what you want. But don't mock us by calling us "wives"!'

He laughed, face crinkling. 'Whew! My ears are burning. You remind me of my wife, may she find peace.'

'Then if you have a wife, you can't be looking for a wife.'

'She's dead many years. I am not mocking you.' He offered an affable grin. 'Maybe I am having a little fun. We could rape you and kill you. This is true. But that gives pleasure for a moment, and not much pleasure when you come to think of it afterward. Maybe we are wanting something different. We are new to this country. We intend to settle in lands west and north of Olossi. So, if you are looking for husbands, I know where some can be found.' He indicated the five mounted men.

Startled by this speech, she really examined the soldiers. They looked different from Hundred folk in having broad cheekbones and scant beards, but she could tell them apart even with the helmets covering their hair: one had a long, dour face and small eyes, and another a big grin and two missing teeth. One had pox scars and a thoughtful gaze, while the one with the roundest face had a markedly reddish-brown complexion. The one with pretty eyes and regular features kept glancing at Avisha in the way men had when they were thinking more of their strut than their manners. Not that these men need have manners. They carried weapons.

'Are you hunting down the outlaws?' she asked.

'Yes. We hunt them and we kill them.'

'Good!'

'Perhaps these are the ones who kill your husband?'

Grief caught her unexpectedly. Tears blurred her vision. 'Or ones like them.'

Three eagles glided past, and one turned in a great loop that took it out of sight over the trees before it dropped back and came to earth with a thump on the path, just where the eagle that had saved them had first landed. A reeve unfastened from the harness and picked his way down the muddy path. He looked over Nallo, Avisha, and the children, shaking his head as he halted beside the soldier.

'What have you found, Tohon?' he asked.

'Maybe these strong young women will agree to be wives to the Qin soldiers.'

'It seems you saved them from a gruesome fate. That might persuade them, if your charms can't.' The reeve was a good-looking

man, with handsome features and a sympathetic expression as he nodded by way of acknowledging her. 'I'm called Joss. I'm a reeve out of Argent Hall. You and your sister and the little ones look like you've been traveling for a while. That can't be good, not in these days.'

'It was an eagle killed most of those soldiers, not these men,' said Nallo irritably. 'I'd think that you being a reeve, you'd have seen it at once.'

'Would you? Aui! I am found out as a man with little wit and less observational skills.' But his smile took the sting out of the words, and anyway he seemed at ease laughing at himself. He seemed at ease, despite the brutal nature of his task, scouting for soldiers on the hunt for outlaws so they could kill them. If she hadn't recognized the men who were on the run as similar in dress and look to those who had overrun the village, she wouldn't have known who to distrust most. 'Listen, verea. We haven't much time, for as you can see we've urgent work at hand hunting down this army of outlaws. We can leave you on the road and let you go your way, or we can direct you to a sheltered spot where you can wait for the Olo'osson militia to escort you to a place of safety.'

'Does that include the offer of marriage?'

He looked at Tohon and laughed again. 'Are you making that offer to every woman you meet on the road?'

'No harm in asking,' said the other man. 'The young men will want wives. A man isn't complete without a woman. Nor can he fill his tent with children, and what is a man after all without children?'

'He might be something like me,' said the reeve without heat, 'so I think your point is well taken. What will it be, verea?'

Belatedly, Nallo realized that Reeve Joss was surely only a little younger than her husband, only he did not seem old as her husband always did. She said, 'I'm called Nallo. This is my husband's daughter, Avisha, and her brother and sister. My husband's dead.'

'Yes, I suppose he is. I'm sorry to hear it. Where are you from?'

'I'm born and raised in the Soha Hills. But the village where we lived lies along West Track, or it did, anyway, before it was burned down and half the folk murdered.'

None of these words surprised him. 'I've heard this tale too often.'

'Best we be moving.' Tohon sheathed his sword and gave Nallo a wink. 'These are good young men. They have discipline. They will treat you in the proper manner, with respect.' He fastened his helmet on his head, mounted, and called the advance. The young man with the pretty eyes raised a hand, in a parting gesture to Avisha, then followed the others up the path on the trail of the fleeing army.

'What do you mean to do?' asked the reeve.

'I would marry,' said Avisha suddenly. 'If they meant it. If they would take the little ones in, and raise them as their own. What other hope do I have?'

'Eiya! Don't go leaping before you've looked.'

'Are you saying they're not looking for wives?' asked Avisha desperately. 'Maybe they need a marriage portion. No matter what Nallo says, we have nothing and no hope for anything except to walk until we're starving and willing to sell ourselves into slavery. Or until we're caught on the road and raped and cut open and left like refuse in the brush.'

'It doesn't have to end that way. They're as good men as any others. Tohon meant what he said. There's two hundred or more, all looking for wives. They're far from home and hoping to make new homes here in the Hundred. Just… you're a pretty girl, and you're still young. If you'll trust me, and wait in the shelter I've promised, I'll see you get escorted to Olossi. There, you can see what the Qin will offer you to make a marriage with one of them. Just don't go making a bargain before you've seen the goods.'

Avisha began to cry. Nallo fumed, thinking of how the girl had boxed them in with her thoughtless words. To say differently now would sound heartless, not that she didn't have a lot of experience with being called heartless. The hells! Avisha was right. They had no better prospects in Sohayil or Sund, if they could even walk that far with outlaws everywhere.

'How long have you been on the road?' the reeve asked Nallo.

'I don't know. Fifteen or twenty days.'

He sighed. 'We're not just hunting outlaw soldiers. We also have a commission from the temple of Ushara by Olossi. We're looking for a man and a woman, a brother and sister as it happens, who cheated the temple. We're hoping to bring them back to face the I Iieros.'

She examined her dirty feet, caked with wet slop over dried mud over dirt, layers on layers, like deceit. She owed those two nothing. Then she happened to look over to see Avisha staring at her, lips pressed together to urge her to keep her mouth shut.

Nallo had never felt much allegiance to the gods because the gods had never been particularly kind to her, and because most of their priests were buffoons. Even the Thunderer's ordinands she'd spent her year's apprenticeship with had been self-important imbeciles, or tiresome bullies, or bored slackards going through the motions. Only the Merciless One had shown her kindness. She'd been welcomed into the arms of Ushara, the Merciless One, at her temple in Old Cross. Many a youth went there at the age of choosing, wearing a necklace of flowers, and was sweetly introduced to the embrace of the goddess. She held those tender memories close. She owed a debt to the Merciless One.

'We saw them down at Candra Crossing.'

'Nallo! How could you!'

He glanced at Avisha, curious at her outburst.

Nallo continued. 'They did us a good turn, helped us across the ford with the little ones. Otherwise we might not have made it. We didn't realize they were runaway slaves until after we had crossed.'

'How did you find out?'

'I overheard them talking. So they went their way, and we went ours. They must be days ahead of us. They had horses.'

'Many refugees walk the roads in troubled times.'

'He had the debt mark by his eye. Her name was Zubaidit.'

His eyes flared. Then he smiled. 'That's right. They were traveling on this track?'

'They walked the road out of Candra Crossing that leads into the Soha Hills. We walked that road for a few days, but I thought it would be safer to stay away from the main road.'

'You were right to do so. These outlaws are running scared. They've attacked villages and done worse.'

'Then we'd be foolish to keep traveling rather than taking an offer of shelter. The outlanders you're hunting with, they can't possibly kill all the outlaws, can they?'

'No.'

No decision she made now could possibly be a good decision, only the least bad decision. Although the reeve glanced now and again at the sky, and at his eagle, he otherwise showed no sign he was impatient to go. 'How do we know we can trust you?'

He winced, just a little, and laughed, just a little. 'Once, you would have trusted me simply because I was a reeve. But we no longer live in those days, do we? You must know that Tohon and his company could have done what they wished to you. I have an eagle at my back and companions aloft, watching for trouble. So either we are telling the truth, or we are more deceitful than you have yet imagined, devising a sport in which we lure you into trusting us only to abuse you later.'

He twisted to take a long look at his eagle, a watchful bird with a noticeable scar. Then he walked down the path and made a quick circuit of the corpses, pausing to study the sprawl of limbs, the trajectory of blood as it had spattered, the cuts and gouges, the manner in which each man had met his death. Circling back, he halted in front of Nallo. With his gaze narrowed, he looked much less friendly. She stood her ground.

'How do you know an eagle killed these men?'

'Aui!' That was an easy question. 'We saw it.'

'You saw it?'

'Yes. The outlaws were coming right up behind us. They would have caught us and killed us, but an eagle attacked them.'

'An eagle? With a reeve?'

'No, just an eagle. One of its wings seemed injured.'

The scarred eagle chirped.

'The hells!' He looked into the sky.

It was as if her words were a summoning. Her eagle — she thought of it as hers, in a funny way — glided down, hitched up as it overshot his eagle, and thumped hard on the path below them. It raised its big head, and chirped.

The reeve stared at the eagle, looked at Nallo, looked back at the eagle, and then again at Nallo. 'The hells. Do you know what this means?'

Whatever she had seen in him before — geniality, charm, a gaze that made you feel he was looking at you alone with no thought for anyone or anything else — vanished as he thought through some

deep conundrum, as he frowned and made a move as though to grasp her arm, then withdrew his hand and fixed it awkwardly in the straps of the harness he wore around his torso.

'You have to come with us now.'

'The hells I do! Why?'

'No need to snap at me.' He flared. He wasn't one bit cowed by her temper. 'Didn't you wonder why that eagle dropped down right here, right then, only to aid you?'

'The gods fashioned the eagles to seek justice.'

'So they did, but a lone eagle without a reeve flies to the mountains and lives in solitude, in their ancient hunting territories. Only with a reeve does an eagle seek justice. And you'll note that particular eagle carries no reevee.'

She didn't like the probing way he examined her. She wiped her dirty chin with the back of a hand. 'I'm not blind!'

'I know that eagle,' he continued, ignoring her outburst. 'Her name is Tumna. Her reeve is dead. I thought she'd flown to the mountains, to mark the passing as eagles usually do, but I see she's already chosen a new reeve.'

Nallo looked at Tumna, at her ragged unkempt feathers, her injured wing, her angry, impatient gaze. Here was an eagle who was irritated that her reeve was dead and she had so much to do and no partner with whom to accomplish all those tasks. How annoying people are! Why can't things fall out without so much trouble and incompetence muddying the waters?

'Who?'

He took hold of her hand, gently, as would a relative when offering condolences.

'You, Nallo. This eagle has chosen you to be its reeve.'

12

Keshad stood beside a stone pillar, staring nervously over the darkening vista. After days of hard traveling, they'd pushed through the rugged Soha Hills. Tonight they sheltered in ridgetop ruins that overlooked Sohayil, a wide basin with hills rising on all sides. The

valley floor blended into the darkness as daylight faded. 'Bai, if outriders from the army stumble onto us, they'll kill us.'

'Kesh, on all those caravan runs you made into the Sirniakan Empire when you were Master Feden's slave, were you as likely as this to jump at your own shadow? The approach to these ruins is narrow, along the ridge. No one is going to try to navigate that track at night without a light. If they come with a light, we'll see them. As for whatever folk live down in Sohayil, even if someone down there happened to see our light all this way up here, they'd most likely think the ruins are haunted. So we can rest easy for one night. Why don't you trust my judgment?'

He shuddered as he turned away from the view, clutching his bowl of gruel in his hands. Someone could crawl up that long steep slope, even at night, testing each handhold, moving slowly, using feel and the texture of the air to make his way. Someone who knew the hills well.

A single lamp illuminated the stone walls and dusty ground. The old beacon tower had collapsed untold years ago. Most likely, the folk in Sohayil had experienced relative peace for so long that no one had thought they needed to repair it. Just like in Candra Crossing, no one had thought an army would march through, devastating every village in its path. Maybe in the valley of Sohayil they still didn't know. An army marching down West Track could have entirely bypassed Sohayil.

A spire of rock, its sheer face impossible to climb, thrust up behind the ruined beacon tower. It had a flattened top, and if you looked at it from the right angle you might imagine those contours were the remains of an old wall, all the way up there where only someone with wings could reach. Probably it was an old Guardian altar, long since abandoned.

Was that a light — a lamp's flame — winking up there? No. It was only a trick of the light, catching in the angles of rock as the sun set behind them.

From the the tower's ruins, beside the campfire, she watched him. 'You've never told me.'

'Told you what?'

'Obviously since my debt was bought by Ushara's temple, I was apprenticed to the Merciless One. All those years we were slaves, I

never saw you more than once a year. You never told me where you served your apprentice year. Which of the gods you served.'

His stomach was aching, and his head hurt. He gulped down the last of the gruel, walked back to the fire, and took hold of the pot's handle. 'I'll scrub this clean.'

She grabbed his wrist and held it. 'I'm just curious.'

'Let me go.'

Her hold tugged on him, like a river's current dragging you in the direction you don't want to go. 'Are you telling me that Master Feden broke all custom and holy law, and did not let you go for your one year when you were fourteen or sixteen? He could be fined for that! Even children sold into debt slavery must be allowed to serve their apprentice year to one of the gods. Why didn't you complain?'

'Do you think any of the temples in Olossi would have listened to me? Master Feden rules the council. A word from him, and the tithes to the temples would have dried up like a dry-season channel in the delta. A word from him, and any merchant who tried to mention his lapse to one of the temples would have lost her license to trade and been ostracized in the bargain. You are so naive, Bai.'

She released him. 'Maybe so, but when I was in Olossi twenty days ago, Master Feden was in deep trouble. He's the one who made a dirty alliance with the northerners, the same people who burned villages and murdered innocent village folk just for whatever sick pleasure they took in the doing.'

'Don't forget I had to march with that army for an entire day.'

'The council in Olossi now knows what Master Feden did. We needn't fear Master Feden any longer.'

Having to remember the twelve long years he had served out his debt slavery to the man made him want to kick and punch and destroy some helpless object, breaking it down until it hung in splinters. Wasn't that the way his and Bai's life had been destroyed, when they'd been orphaned and their aunts and uncle had sold them on the block rather than raise them? The life they might have hoped to have had been smashed to pieces, and here they were, remade into people he no longer recognized.

She went on, a wolf gnawing at cracked bones. 'Once we reach a place we can stop, you have to apprentice to one of the gods. It's not

unheard of to come so late to your year of service. It's better than carrying around that prison bowl, where the southern god sucks in the souls of his worshippers.'

'You don't know anything about Beltak!'

'A Hundred man should not be praying to a god from the empire.'

'I only took up the bowl because it gave me an advantage in trade. That way I didn't have to pay the fines the empire men levy in the market on merchants who aren't believers.'

'I thought their priests burned anyone who didn't sacrifice to their god.'

'They do, but they have to accept merchants from other countries, at least in the market, or they'd have no trade, would they? But they can charge them extra, and forbid them to build temples of their own or to say prayers to other gods.'

Her lips, pressed together, made a tight line.

'I did what I had to! I got us free, didn't I?'

'You did,' she said as the line of her mouth softened. 'It's not too late. The gods will not abandon you. You only need stand before them. It's just… I can't look at you and easily see to which god your service is best suited. Kotaru the Thunderer? You're not obedient enough nor do you get into fights just for the fun of it. Ushara the Merciless One? You can't give up your very self to the heart of the goddess. Atiratu the Lady of Beasts? No, for hers is a caring and selfless heart, and you have trouble looking beyond your own troubles. Taru the Witherer? He who waxes and wanes? I think not, for you have remained constant all these years, and that's a fine thing, since we're both free now because of your efforts. Ilu the Envoy? You've traveled, but you're just not talkative enough. You're observant, but only when you're toting up things to your own advantage or disadvantage. Sapanasu, the Keeper of Days? It's true you're an excellent accountant, and you've made' good use of those skills in acquiring the coin to free us. But I just can't see you being willing to shave your head on the day you enter through that gate. You're too vain of your lovely hair.'

I le glared at her, thinking she was teasing him, but it was obvious she was perfectly serious. The hells! She was right, of course: Although she'd been glad to leave the temple, she was nevertheless

sworn to the goddess in her heart in a way he could not fathom. No doubt she considered herself a hierodule still, even if she no longer served at the temple of Ushara, the Devourer, the Merciless One.

'That leaves Hasibal, the Formless One. Eh!'

He jumped, spinning around to see if anything was sneaking up behind him, but there was nothing except shadows.

'You might have been walking Hasibal's path all along,' she continued, because the exclamation had been merely a grunt of consideration. 'Still, you know what they say.'

'Must you drone on with this annoying prattle? When you were little, you were so quiet. The temple ruined you.'

'Our souls are bound to the land through our service to the gods. At birth we enter one of the twelve years, which determines much of the character of our heart. With our naming, we are linked to one of the Four Mothers, which determines the texture of our mind. Without service to the gods, we are as a boat without an anchor: adrift in stormy seas.'

'I survived twelve years adrift. But I might expire if I have to hear any more of this. Can't we go to sleep now?'

'A difficult path to follow, but the deepest.'

'Sleeping?'

'Hasibal's path.'

'Won't you stop?'

'No!' Rising to face him, she seemed larger, brighter, fiercer, a wolf about to lunge. 'Don't mock the gods, Kesh. Don't turn your back on them. We are what the gods make us.'

'We are what we make ourselves!'

'How can you separate the two? You only think you can.'

'You don't know anything!'

Her weight shifted forward. Her shoulders stiffened. He thought she was ready to rip out his throat. She could kill him. He knew it. She knew it.

Then she smiled, and relaxed. Raising both hands, palms out, she nodded briefly. 'You must walk your own path, Kesh. That's truth. But there's another truth you don't want to hear and must hear: you must walk a path, or you'll always be lost and wandering, as in the wilderness.'

'Aui! Can't we-'

'Go to sleep? Yes. Scrub out that pot. I'll check on the horses.'

He scoured the pot with a handful of gravel, then rinsed out the grit with water from the cistern. Bai took the pot and hauled more water for the horses. He wrapped himself in a blanket, in a walled corner where he'd get shelter when it rained during the night, and closed his eyes.

But he was restless. Their argument had robbed him of the ability to sleep. The words of the evening prayer to Beltak, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, the Shining One Who Rules Alone, whispered in his head.

Rid us of all that is evil. Rid us of demons. Rid us of hate. Rid us of envy. Rid us of heretics and liars. Rid us of wolves and of armies stained with the blood of the pure. He touched the sacred bowl tucked against a hip. 'Teach me to hate darkness and battle evil. Teach me the Truth.'

Yet what is truth? Master Feden had prayed to the gods of the Hundred, and paid his tithes to the temples at the proper times and in the proper amounts. But he had cheated his own slaves by padding out their debts so they remained in perpetual servitude to him, never able to buy themselves free. He had made common cause with a mysterious commander out of the north, whose army included the worst kind of criminals and sick, twisted men. Feden had done all that to consolidate the power his faction already held in the council of Olossi.

Still, any Hundred-born-and-bred man must admit that the situation in the Sirniakan Empire was unpleasant, with lords and priests able to kill any man they wanted at their whim, with helpless folk born into slavery and never able to buy themselves free, with women trapped like animals behind high walls. When Kesh had hired a Sirniakan driver named Tebedir to cart his trade goods north from the empire on the very last trading journey Kesh had taken as a slave, Tebedir had made all kinds of awful remarks that struck Kesh's ears as offensive or cruel. And yet, Tebedir stuck by his oath to stay with Kesh even when they'd been attacked by bandits in the village of Dast Korumbos. He could have run, but he'd said himself that honor was more important than death.

So who was a better man, Feden or Tebedir?

'Peace. Peace. Peace,' he whispered. A wind soughed up from the basin. Rain pattered through the stones. But he was not soothed.

When bandits had attacked, threatening to rob him of the precious treasure that would buy his and Bai's freedom, he had prayed to Beltak, Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the Shining One Who Rules Alone. And after that, the black wolves — Captain Anji's troops — had ridden as out of nowhere to save their caravan from the ospreys who sought to pillage it. So maybe Beltak had answered his prayer. Or maybe it had just fallen out that way. Maybe he'd just been lucky that the right people had come along at the right time. Maybe it was only that Master Feden had abused his power and gone against the law because he wanted to enrich himself and squeeze the throats of others more than he wanted to do what was right in the eyes of the gods.

On Law Rock in Toskala, the laws governing the Hundred were carved in stone. When a person sells their body into servitude in payment for a debt, that person will serve eight years and in the ninth go free.

But laws mean nothing, not really. They only mean something if people agree they do, if people walk in obedience to the law, or are forced to comply. If your heart had turned away from the law, then your heart would not restrain you when you violated it. Long ago the Guardians had stood over the Hundred, to guard the law, while the reeves had enforced the law. But the Guardians vanished, and while some of the reeves were turning their back on their duty to enforce the law, the others were losing their power to do so even if they wanted.

So who was a reeve to talk of justice? Who was anyone to do so? Anyone could be lying. Anyone could be speaking words out of the right side of her mouth and acting opposite them with her left hand.

Aui! His Air-touched mind could not quiet. He must turn and turn things, flit from one thought or memory to the next. He must wonder what was happening in Olossi. He must wonder what would happen to Nasia, who had been his fellow slave and lover for four years even though he had abandoned her the day he'd returned. He must wonder what would happen to the treasure he had obtained far to the south through simple good luck. He had

handed off the ghost girl without a second's regret, trading her freedom and her life in exchange for Zubaidit's freedom.

He must wonder about the envoy of Ilu he had met on his last journey over the Kandaran Pass. That amiable man had conversed cheerfully with him, had laughed kindly at him: 'Goats are inconstant and unstable, prone to change their thinking, especially if they're Air-touched and liable to think too much. Still, they can survive anything!'

Kesh suspected now that the envoy had been looking for the ghost girl with the demon-blue eyes. It should no longer matter. The envoy was dead, murdered in the bandit attack, yet his face and voice haunted Keshad. How was it that you might meet a person and spend only a day with them, and yet have them imprinted so deeply on your heart and your mind that they could never be forgotten?

The rain eased. The wind stilled. He slipped into a state drifting between a waking dream and a restless doze.

He woke abruptly, but he wasn't sure what had broken his sleep. Listening, he heard nothing except the whisper of wind through the stones and the irregular drip of water onto stone. Some night animal had been out on the prowl and wandered away, that was all. Yet the night's unease had returned, and along with it the memory of that last trip over the mountains out of the south. The envoy of Ilu was dead. He hadn't even known the man's name, but he could still remember vividly the look of his face and sound of his voice and the effortless way the man had negotiated the twisting paths of life.

After the twilight rains washed through, the waters of the wide Olo'o Sea calmed to become a mirror in whose depths burned those few stars visible between tattered clouds. The moisture soaking into the earth woke a sweet scent that permeated the air. Long ago, an unknown hand had planted a stand of thorn trees in a crude semicircle, with the open side facing the inland sea. A traveler's shelter, four poles and a low thatch roof, was tucked away within that protecting fence. A man uncovered the fire pit and blew on its coals until flame rose along fresh wood. By its light, he sat back on his heels and busied himself with raking stray embers into the center,

where he'd built a frame of kindling. Light flared as the embers caught in the wood.

He was a slender man of mature years, no longer young and not yet elderly, and dressed in the gaudy manner of an envoy of Ilu: baggy pantaloons as dark as plums, a knee-length tunic woven of a cloth as pale as butter, and a voluminous cloak that in daylight would be seen to be the same color as the cloudless sky, a pure, heavenly blue.

He hummed softly, hoping the sound of this wordless melody, like the rains upon the parched earth, would soften the girl's hard shell.

She said nothing. Silence, like night, is a cloak that conceals.

She was young, no longer a girl and yet not entirely a woman, and startlingly, disturbingly, horribly pale with a ghostly complexion and hair colorless as straw. She seemed to be staring at the ground, not even lifting her gaze to the lovely dance of fire. So be it. He was patient.

He tended the fire. Waves slapped the tumble of rocks in the shallows before hissing back into the sea. She sat on a large rock that some thoughtful soul had rolled into place untold years ago, a homely act to benefit strangers from whom the builder could never hope to gain thanks, or profit.

'It is hard to know whether we will meet with brutality or kindness in the world,' he mused aloud. The fire popped. A spark dazzled, spinning into the air, then flicked out. 'Or indifference. I traced the tracks of your passage to the temple of the Merciless One by Olossi, and there indeed I did find you. I admit you were not what I expected. I thought you would speak your name and know at least something of where you came from. That's usually how we awaken. But, in truth, how is life ever what we expect? We are constantly surprised. I suppose it is those who wish never to be surprised who cause most of the trouble. I wonder…'

She did not rise to the bait. He rose, returned to the shelter, and picked up one of the torches that a passing traveler had bound and left for those who would come after. A small courtesy, one of many in the fabric that weaves society together. He thrust the knotted end into fire. Flames licked up the torch to reveal their surroundings more clearly: The outline of thorn trees was softened with white

flowers folded against the night. The grass in the clearing was cropped short. A red flag was tucked into a corner of shelter, one flap loose, and bound by a rope that could be used to tie it atop the roof as a signal to any passing reeve if travelers found themselves in trouble.

He walked toward the shore but halted where the last thorn tree held its ground. A treasure was caught in the branches. Using his free hand, he eased it free, then walked back to the fire holding a huge feather mottled brown and white. The feather was as long as his arm but so light it was like holding air in his hand.

'A tail feather. See how the quill runs right down the center. You'll learn to know the shape of any given type of feather, whether it is a tail feather, or the leading edge of the wing, or the rear edge, or a contour feather grown close to the bone…'

Even the precious eagle's feather did not attract her attention. She stared as into a void.

He sighed. In the days since he'd found her, he had not touched her in any manner, fearing that even a reassuring pat might be interpreted as violence. It was so hard to tell with this young thing, caught as she was in the whirlpool of awakening and trapped as well in a deeper stream whose currents he could not fathom. Some other trap was strangling her voice. She must emerge of her own will, by her own choosing, in her own time.

Yet leisure was the one thing they did not have. Now that he — and she — were back in the Hundred, those who wished to destroy them would seek them out swiftly and without mercy. Days and months and years they had in plenty, given what they had become, and yet a measure in which to pause and breathe, they had not at all.

'We can't stay here long,' he said.

Mindful that the molt feathers of the giant eagles were sacred to the gods, he anchored the feather within the bristling hedge of thorn trees. The gods must watch over that which they deemed sacred. Another traveler would come, and find it, or no one would.

He stood beside the shelter with the torch still blazing, his gaze turned toward the dark sea. He mused aloud, as had become his habit over the years. He was not a man who liked to be alone, but he had learned to endure solitude when he must and enjoy company

when he could. Anyway, he supposed that the sound of his voice, kept low, might soothe her.

'After so many years and such an arduous journey, I expected further trials of a very different sort.' He chuckled. 'So I am paid in my own coin, being given what I had hoped to avoid. Yet it did seem to me that you recognized something, that there was a spark of knowledge, a moment of trust, when we first came face-to-face in the temple of the Devourer. You gave me a question, and a decision. You asked me, "Who are you?" You told me, "I will come with you." And here you are, and here I am.' He smiled, amused by his own consternation. 'Aui! Now it seems you cannot speak, or will not speak. I love conversation above all things. Shelter over my head, a dram of cordial, a well-laid table, and a few cheerful companions with whom to pass the evening! I like to think of myself as a man who makes few demands, and is easy to please, and content with little enough, but I see the gods have chosen to test me in the manner meant to make it hardest for me. So it goes.'

Her torso expanded and contracted as she took in and released breath, that was all.

'I remember my own awakening — a long time ago now, to be sure! It took the patient coaxing of a pair of cloaks — like you and me — to instruct me. Twilight was one. Strange that I can't now recall the other. Yet there is more to your silence, for it's not the usual way — not that there's anything wrong with it, mind you! What brought you here? Where did you come from? How — why — did the cloak of mist reach to you? What is your name? I have a name, too, although no person has called me by name for a very long time. I was born in the Year of the Blue Rat, which is what makes me what I am. We Rats are known for being acquisitive, but Blue Rats don't grasp after money but rather after company and conversation and secrets. Then I was dedicated to Ilu, the Herald, because I was always restless, seeking, wandering. And named by my mother in the honor of the Water Mother, whose fluid nature thereby enhances those other qualities. It's a wonder I can keep silence at all! Nothing like you. I suppose we're well matched in that way. I talk, and you — heya! — maybe you listen and maybe you're hearing some other voice entirely, one I can never hear. Maybe you're tired of voices.'

The wind has a voice, light and airy, full of promise, but sometimes cruel and rough. So does the rain have a voice, arid the waters of the sea lapping the shore with their constant motion, never entirely quiet, able to choke and drown those the sea swallows. Fire has a voice, first crackling and impatient and later fading into a soft burn that may spark again when least expected. The earth's voice seems to slumber, but she, too, speaks in her slow, measured way and she may crack when none expect her temper.

Even demons and ghosts can speak, if one has the ears to hear.

She raised her head.

He smiled gently, to encourage her.

She was looking beyond him. He turned. The two horses had wandered back into view. They differed from ordinary horses in several ways, two of which were obvious now: they possessed uncanny night vision, and they had wings, at this moment folded tightly over their backs and flanks. She rose, walked past him, and went to the horses.

She didn't approach too quickly but held back, waiting for them to invite her. They let her know they'd allow her to approach. She stroked their ears and noses. She had a treat for each, shriveled pieces of fruit he'd not seen her hide in her sleeves.

He must coax her as one would a skittish, abused, anxious horse. Her scars ran deep, certainly, but she hadn't run away from him. Or maybe it was just that she hadn't run away from the horses. He must be patient. He had time in plenty, after all, as long as their enemies did not catch up to them before he had won her trust and taught her the terrible truth about what she had become.

13

The surviving militiamen from various villages and towns in the eastern Olo Plain had been hastily organized to patrol the roads and tracks and to guard safe havens. In these havens, folk who had fled their villages or lost their homes could gather, catch their breath, reassess their situation, and decide what to do next. That was the idea, anyway. In practice, it wasn't so easy.

After a day searching the Soha Hills, Joss and his eagle returned to the staging camp at the southwestern edge of the hills. In ancient days, a refuge had been constructed on a pair of hills joined by a narrow ridgeway path. Farmers still worked the terraced fields, but the walled fortifications had been uninhabited for as long as anyone could remember. Both hilltops had been stripped of trees and substantially leveled, although the taller hill retained a rocky protuberance on the northern edge of the steepest slope, a perfect landing and perch for the big eagles. Leaving Scar up in these rocks, he scrambled down to the open ground and walked straight into an assault of petitioners.

'Reeve! I have a complaint! This man's cart blocked the trail… When will there be an assizes? Two men got in a fight. How are we to make provision for-? What's this I hear about people burying the dead-?'

He raised both hands to show he'd not be answering questions yet. Much of the crowd moved away, but perhaps a dozen followed him across the summit. They just would not stop talking. He walked past women cooking over fires and men hoisting canvas awnings to make shelters against what remained of the old walls. Bedraggled hierophants paced out the proper dimensions for a temporary foundation temple to Sapanasu, the Lantern, while in the distance a cadre of young ordinands cleared stray rocks from a section of ruined wall so they could patrol on top of it.

He turned on the petitioners. 'Enough! Give me time to take a drink and eat something. I'll hear your petitions at the assizes.'

They backed off. He cut over to the ordinands, climbed onto the old wall, and shaded his eyes as he surveyed the countryside. The landscape rolled away westward into the Olo Plain. On the road, a dozen wagons and many people moved toward the haven. From up here, they looked so small, but you could never know how big their problems were.

The sergeant of the little group approached him diffidently. The hells! The lad was so young he had scarcely any beard along his jaw. 'Reeve. If I might-?'

'Yes, what is it? I'm Joss.'

'I'm called Gani. Out of Sund.'

'You're a long way from home.'

'I am. I was sent to the temple in Westcott to do my year's service with Kotaru. I made a pledge for the full eight years of obligation. They sent me on to the temple in Candra Crossing. We had to flee for our lives.'

He was a quiet lad, not at all belligerent, with a humble manner that Joss liked.

'How can I help you?'

Gani scratched his forehead, rubbed his chin, and looked back at his cadre, who were all watching him intently.

'Go on. I won't tear your head off, whatever you might be thinking.'

'Is it true you're the marshal at Argent Hall?'

Joss sighed, feeling the weight of responsibility settle back on his shoulders. 'I'm Marshal Alyon's successor.'

'There was another man serving as marshal before you.'

'He wasn't a real reeve. He had no eagle that anyone ever saw. Anyway, he's dead.'

'Ah. Eh. That's it, you see. There came a pair of Devouring priests, a kalos and a hierodule, with a message from the Hieros of the temple in Olossi. It's said there was a conclave of all those holy ones in charge of the temples in Olo'osson. They agreed that any of the men from the army that attacked Olossi and who are dead now are to be…' He stiffened.

'You haven't been sergeant long, have you?'

T am most senior of those left,' he admitted, but the comment gave him courage — or made him ashamed of his hesitation. 'It's like this. We've been told to dig ditches out of sight in the forest and to — to bury those dead men and cover them with dirt.' Having started, the rest poured out in a rising voice. 'But if we do that, then they can't rest. They can't pass the Spirit Gate. What if they turn into demons? Or haunt us? Their ghosts will be angry, and trapped! I know it's meant as a punishment for them, but what will happen to us who are assigned to complete such a task?'

'That's not reeve territory, lad. I can't help you.' Thank the gods! Still, it was shocking. A brutal, calculated impiety. 'Yet the army that invaded lis has done terrible things, rape and murder, desecrating temples, defiling corpses.'

The lad looked at his companions. They were silent and uncomfortable. They didn't want to talk about it in front of him.

Such talk made Joss uncomfortable, too, and he let his gaze wander. Six children worked the slope leading down to the terraces, picking petals of the baby's-delight that flowered with the first rains. The pale flowers brightened the slopes, which evidently had been recently cropped short by industrious sheep. He met the lad's gaze with a stern one of his own.

'It's an ugly thing to contemplate. But I saw the army marching Olossiward on West Track. I saw what they left behind. Maybe it's best if their spirits are crushed beneath earth. They're already corrupted. This is a pollution that must be buried before it consumes us. But that doesn't mean you have to like it. That it bothers you means your heart and spirit are clean.'

'Very well, Marshal.' The lad nodded, so tense it made Joss sad to think of what he must have seen in the last two weeks to cause him to look angry and worn down. 'We'll do as we've been bid. Perhaps you'd come at dawn, to where we've been assigned to dig the ditches. By that stand of ironwood.' He pointed toward a dozen mature ironwood trees towering above the edge of dense scrub forest that flowed away over the nearby hills. 'Just in case any folk see what we're doing and make trouble. You could let them know the temples gave the order.'

'That's fine. I'll be there at dawn.'

Below, a crowd had gathered, waiting on Joss. He assured himself that Scar was at rest, preening as dusk settled. Then he clambered down and waded into the roiling waters.

A temporary court had been set up within the compound. Who had he assigned here?

Ah. The Snake.

'I don't care if your son is younger than the other man,' Volias was saying to a particularly persistent woman whose face was flushed. 'Every witness says they were both drunk. That makes them both culpable. Why these young idiots should make themselves free with wine in times like these is more than I can understand. Haven't they anything better to do, with folks living under canvas and desperate for water and food, and babies sick with diarrhea? Well, they will have something to do now, since I've

assigned them both to dig and cover night-soil pits for the rest of the month.'

'You can't-!'

'I can. Now get the hells out of my face or I'll ask my militia escorts here to drag you away and toss you into the pits. The ones that are already full with the same crap that's coming out of your mouth. Gods! Let someone else have a turn.'

He looked up, sensing the crowd that approached. Seeing Joss, his ugly scowl turned into a sneer. He waved away the next petitioner, rose, and strode over to Joss.

'You gods-rotted rutting ass! These people are impossible.'

'Such a good match, you and them.' Although he knew better, he grinned because he did so enjoy seeing Volias suffer.

'You'll drown in your milky self-love some day. And I hope I'm there to watch and not throw you a rope. Listen, can we talk with some privacy?'

The crowd refused to give them up. They pressed around, everyone talking at once. 'What about the theft from my cart? I've nothing to feed my children. We've no shelter. We were told we could return to our village, but it's not safe to go back. Is it true the outlanders are looking for women to marry? Why aren't there more reeves here? One isn't enough.'

Joss raised both hands to get their attention. 'Heya! Listen!' At length, they quieted. 'We've got business to talk over between ourselves, and then we'll open the assizes for another session this evening. There are other reeves, at other refuges. But in the end you'll have to either go back to your homes and rebuild, or go to Olossi. If you're thinking your lives will be easier in Olossi, be aware that much of the outer town was burned. The folk there have all they can do to rebuild. Go back to your own homes.'

'Why shouldn't we go to where walls and numbers will make us safe?' shouted one man.

Joss identified the speaker and noted his close-cropped hair and broad shoulders and the plain leggings and jacket commonly worn by farmers. 'You'll get safe passage in a few days. I expect the roads from here back to Olossi to be as safe as we can make them in the time we've had. I can't promise safety on the Hornward road, but patrols will continue to range as far as East Riding. You must take

responsibility for local patrols. Each village must set up a militia of able-bodied adults. There may be a few outlaws left hiding in the woodland. You'll need to capture and turn over to the Olossi militia every straggler you find. Meanwhile, the single most important thing any of you can do, ver, is to plant fields for the coming year while the season is ripe for planting.'

'Can't Olossi's militia protect us? What of those black wolves who rode through here a few days ago, chasing the invaders? The tale says that an outlander will save us!'

His questions were echoed by others, all pressing forward so eagerly that Volias actually took a step back. Joss held his ground.

'We were aided by the outlanders. Captain Anji's company served us well. But another army, a stronger one, may attack out of the north in the months to come. Don't give the responsibility to protect yourselves to someone else, lest you forget how to defend yourself when there is no one to lend you a sword or bow. You've faced that day already, and lost your homes and kin. Best we don't walk this road again.'

He nudged Volias's elbow. Before the crowd could recover, he and Volias moved back behind the table set up to mark the assizes court and into what had once been a house. The upper courses of the stone walls were gone, but the sections of wall that remained served as a barrier. He leaned against stone and scratched at a watering eye.

'Dust everywhere,' he muttered.

The Snake paced. 'You get all puffed up with your hectoring. Half the women in the audience were eyeing you, hoping for a glance from those pretty eyes.'

'Enough! What do you have to say to me?'

'There's a solo eagle hanging around, comes and goes. No reeve. She favors one wing, a recent injury.'

'Tumna?'

'Is that her name?'

'Yes. She's out of Argent Hall. Her old reeve's dead. It seems she's already chosen a new reeve.'

'How could she have done that? No one's stepped into the circle.'

'I don't know. But it happened. Hasn't the girl made herself known to you? No, maybe she isn't here yet. It'll take her days to reach here, and she has small children with her.'

'Married?' asked Volias with surprise.

'Widow. They're stepchildren. The father must have been a lot older.'

Volias leaned on the wall, propped on his elbows, and stared over the darkening hills to the northeast. Their personal feud had gone on so long that Joss rarely saw on Volias a neutral expression, but the man had borrowed one now, and it softened his features and made him appear almost likable. 'You weren't just putting her on to try to get a taste of her, her being thankful for the attention?'

'Gods! For sure that's a likely thing for a newly appointed marshal to do. And in such times as these! The hells, Volias! Is that really what you think of me?'

'Heh. Got you.' There it was: a grin. Not precisely friendly, but not quite bitter and mocking either. 'I'll keep an eye out. What do I do with her?'

'She'll have to go to Argent Hall to train. Tell you what, when she comes in, you fly her back to Argent Hall, or delegate another reeve to do so. Yet I'm not sure she'll be willing to separate from the children until we can get them settled in some other way. There's an older girl, old enough to marry. I'm hoping she might be persuaded to marry one of the Qin soldiers.'

'Whew! It's a cursed shame, us encouraging good Hundred girls to marry outlanders. You can't trust foreigners. Everyone knows that. Maybe they don't even have eggs. Maybe their members have thorns on them, like it's said in the tale about the wildings. Best if our lasses stick to their own kind.'

Joss wanted to slug him, but refrained. 'We have over two hundred unmarried men who have weapons, who know how to use them better than our militia do, and who might expect a little gratitude after saving Olossi and Argent Hall. I'd rather these outlanders marry good Hundred girls and have a reason to settle down and ally with us than go riding after someone who'll make use of them. Like the Northerners.'

'I don't like their slanty eyes. They look at us like they think we're so much smaller than they are. They remind me of you in some ways.' The sneer was back.

Joss pushed away from the stone. 'Is there anything else? I'd like to eat and drink before I sit down at the assizes for the evening.'

'Are you going to allow this order that came from the Olossi temple conclave? To bury the corpses of the dead soldiers?'

'I am.'

'The hells! You can't mean it. It's going against the laws of the gods.'

'You saw what those criminals did in the villages. We must bury such spirits.'

'And become as impious as they were.'

'Maybe so. But young men — and debt-bound slaves — will think twice about running away to the north to make their fortune robbing and raping and murdering, won't they? Anyway, it's the punishment spoken of in the Tale of Fortune, isn't it? That must be where the temple ruling comes from. That's all I have to say. Make sure Nallo — that's the new reeve's name — gets to Argent Hall. If she won't leave the children, then make sure some provision is made for them, else she won't cooperate. Otherwise, you're in charge here at this haven until everyone has dispersed. Then you can return to Clan Hall.'

Volias was still stewing. Joss took his silence for assent and went to find something to eat. A scrap of bread, sour wine, and the leavings of watery soup were all that was available, and even that must be eaten with folk rudely trying to get his attention while a trio of young militiamen out of Olossi did their best to hold back the crowd. He set up afterward at the makeshift assizes court, and the petitioners kept coming to him and Volias for hours. A woman needed a healer for a broken hand. Every small child in one corner of the sprawling encampment had diarrhea. A dispute had broken out between two families over the contents of a wagon full of goods salvaged from their burned village. A lad and a lass wished to sit on the marriage bench, but both their clan heads forbade it, while the hopeful couple claimed that they had already received permission from clan elders who had, alas, been killed in the recent trouble.

He heard numerous accusations of petty theft, and four serious accusations of assault. Twelve children had vanished since reaching the haven, there were nine abandoned children no one would claim, and one chubby infant girl that two clans both swore on all the gods belonged to their house. He finally sent an exhausted Volias to rest but was himself up half the night, and the demands never slackened.

Nor, when he made a judgment, were the petitioners satisfied, but would want to keep arguing for a different outcome.

Finally a new watch came on, headed by a vigorous old woman who took one look at his face by the light of her lantern and, turning to the crowd, declared the assizes closed for the night. She had a hard face and a bullying manner, and he'd never been so grateful for either.

'Get you some rest, lad,' she said in her country way. 'You can't make good judgments when you're so tired, and them too tired to listen to what you do have to say. They'll not pester you if you take your rest now.'

'No, truly, they won't. If you'll lend me a light, or someone to escort me, I'll sleep by my eagle.'

She chuckled. 'Eh! You'll get no petitioners bothering you there, I'm thinking.' Then she winked at him. 'Although you're the kind might want bothering.'

He laughed for the first time in days, it seemed. 'Truly, I need to sleep.'

A burly man escorted him most of the way, humbly silent out of respect for Joss's exhaustion, or perhaps exhausted himself, for he had a stiff gait and favored one leg. Only over by the rocks, atop which Scar perched in his night drowse, did the man venture a question.

'Think you that northern army will attack a second time?'

'We have to prepare.'

'It's said the soldiers wear a talisman, this "Star of Life". I saw one for myself, a starburst sigil hammered out of cheap tin. But what do they want? Where did they come from? The tales tell of war and trouble in the days before the Guardians came to stand at the assizes. And now — well — begging your pardon and no disrespect to you reeves, but it seems that with the Guardians vanished from the Hundred, bad times have fallen again.'

They were honest questions, and deserved an honest answer.

'I know not much more than you do, ver. I've heard tell that a man named Lord Radas commands another army in the north, likely larger and better disciplined although we don't know for sure. We do know that the city of High Haldia has been overrun. What do they mean to do next? That I don't know. March on Toskala? Or

march again on Olossi? We'll fight. Don't doubt that. As for you and your people, you must return to your homes and fortify them. And plant your crops, else we'll have famine on top of all else.'

'Are the Guardians gone forever? Or is it true, as some whisper, that they'll return? I've heard it said that the Guardians never left the Hundred, but that they became cloaked in darkness and now mean to kill us all and rule those who are left behind. I heard it said that the man who commands this dark army is a Guardian.'

'That can't be.' But perhaps he said the words as much to convince himself. A number of Captain Anji's men had seen, and shot at, a man riding a winged horse. They had no reason to lie, and on the whole Joss had found the Qin soldiers to be temperamentally disinclined to exaggerate. Zubaidit had claimed to have seen winged horses, and so for that matter had the Hieros. The gods had created the Guardians to bring justice to the land, to stand in judgment at the assizes. The Guardians could not die.

And yet they had all seemingly vanished.

'Who else could raise an army?' the man asked. 'Who but a Guardian would have the authority?'

'Why would the Guardians vanish, leaving the assizes without their oversight, and then reappear at the head of an army that has committed nothing but murder and mayhem, the worst kind of injustice? Everything that goes against why the Guardians were created by the gods in the first place? Why?'

The man bent his head, as though listening to another, softer voice. He scratched his beard. 'Why does anyone lie or cheat or steal? Or do worse things, which we've all heard of and you, reeve, have surely seen plenty of in your time. When the Four Mothers shaped the world, they set all in balance. Afterward, the gods ordered the world, but it is our prayers that keep all in balance. But what if balance and order are lost? In one man, in one woman, that loss may give rise to a lie or even a murder. Yet that is only a single act. In many men, or in one with the power to sway men, the loss of order means chaos will rise. Then greed and fear will rule. That's what I fear. That the shadows have risen, that order is lost.'

'What's your name, ver?' said Joss, for he was struck by the man's sober wisdom. 'I'm called Joss, as you may have heard.'

'Hehl' He had a modest way of chuckling, and a friendly grin.

'I'm called Pash, Fire-born like you. I grow rice and nai in a village on the plain, not far from here. We were fortunate. We gave shelter to a few refugees, and thereby knew to take flight ourselves with our most precious goods. We hid in the woodland. Some men then come ten days past, those running from the battle by Olossi, but they hadn't time to burn anything for they were in such haste to flee north. They only stole a few of our stores, nothing we can't replace.'

'Wise heads prevailed. I'm glad to hear it.'

'Let me ask you another thing, for I know you had a hand in the battle by Olossi.' Pash favored him with a close gaze, as if trying to sort out if his heart was in balance, or in chaos. 'I have five daughters, ver, and not enough land to parcel out between them if each one hopes to make a living from it. There aren't enough lads with decent portions nearby to make husbands for all of them. I saw the Qin soldiers. Is it true they're looking for wives?'

'They made a bargain with the council of Olossi that if they could drive off the army, they'd be allowed to settle in this region.'

'I heard, too, that they're cursed rich. That they've a canny merchant among them, a real Rat, if you take my meaning, who flayed the coins off those fat Olossi merchants and filled the outlanders' coffers.'

'She's an Ox, not a Rat, and a very beautiful woman, but, yes, that's more or less how it happened.'

'Ah. You've an interest there?'

Joss laughed. 'Not I, ver. She's married to the captain. And she's very young.'

'Good fortune for him. So these young soldiers, any one of them are well set up? Likely to be well endowed with land and coin? Worthy of one of my good daughters?'

Joss grinned. 'As worthy as any man could be, ver.'

'Heh! You have me there, for I don't think much of most men when it comes to my good daughters. But tell me true, reeve. If it were your own daughter, would you be willing to marry her to one of these outlanders?'

'I suppose they're no different than other men in most ways. They held to their side of the bargain. They mean to settle here, and make their way. I'd seal no bargain until the lass had looked them over, but it's worth a look.'

'My thanks, then.' He shifted his staff and, with a slight grunt as he bent one knee, seated himself on a stone wall. Scar's shadow loomed above them, at the summit of the rocky promontory. 'I'll settle here to keep petitioners away, ver, if you've no objection and if your eagle won't tear my head off.'

'My thanks.'

He picked his way up through the ruins. Dressed stones gave way to true rocks where the ground was too rugged to tame into architecture. At the crest, he paused to catch his breath. Behind lay the busy encampment, lit with watch fires, itself inhaling and exhaling with so many frail lives huddled in what fragile haven they could find. Before him, the hillside plunged down a steep slope impossible to climb. Because of the clouds, it was too dark to see anything. He felt out an open-sided overhang in the rock that offered a little protection from the night rains. Above, Scar had roosted for the night. After wrapping himself in a blanket, Joss lay down and closed his eyes.

The dream unwinds itself in a veil of mist, rising into the heavens as if the rocks exhale the breath of life, which has in it the essence of all those spirits killed in the recent attacks. The dream is familiar, well remembered. He is walking through a dead countryside of skeletal trees and scorched earth. He is himself dead, yet unable to pass beyond the Spirit Gate. The mist boils as though churned by a vast intelligence. For years, at this point in the dream, he would see her figure in the unattainable distance, walking along a slope of grass or climbing a rocky escarpment, always in a place he cannot and must not reach because he has a duty to those on earth whom he has sworn to serve.

But this night he finds himself sitting up, still sheltered beneath the wide overhang. Scar drowses. The rains haven't yet come. Mist billows in the air, and she emerges from it. A death-white cloak spills from her shoulders, enveloping her. She rides out of the air as if the air is a path. She can ride on the air because the horse has wings. Its hooves ring on rock as it halts a short distance from him and furls those impossible wings, tips hiding the length of her legs.

'Joss,' she says.

'Mark!' To hear her voice is agony, because he still misses her

although twenty years separate them. 'You're dead,' he adds, apologetically, because it is after all a dream.

'Yes.' Her smile is sad. 'Don't carry this burden. Don't mourn me, Joss. Let it go.'

'Is that you telling me, or me telling myself? Why do you haunt me?'

'I bring you a warning. At dawn, they'll try to kill you. The guards you've agreed to meet by the ironwood trees are not guards but outlaws who have infiltrated this haven to murder you. Beware!'

'They're just lads!'

'Look into your heart, Joss, and you'll see their story doesn't hold water.'

'Everyone is talking about how the temples have ordered it done. As it says in the Tale of Fortune: "Their spirits were buried."'

'That's not what I mean. You're a reeve. Investigate!'

'Yes, and you're a reeve, too.' The only woman he had truly loved, his first and only lasting passion. She was the only woman he had truly betrayed, and in the worst way: he'd never meant to abandon her to her cruel fate. 'So why do I see you in the form of a Guardian, with a death-white cloak and a winged horse? What are the gods trying to tell me?'

'I don't know what the gods are trying to tell you, Joss.'

'I wish you were here to tell me where that cursed woman Zubaidit and her brother are got to. Taken some side trail into the Soha Hills, but Scar and I haven't found them.'

She looked away abruptly, breaking eye contact. 'There's a black tide trickling north and east through the Soha Hills, the remnants of the army.'

'Is it true a Guardian commands this "Star of Life"?'

'Lord Radas commands them.'

'Lord Radas of Iliyat?' He remembered the lord's strange behavior, years ago, on the Ili Cutoff. Then he shook his head. 'Maybe so. That doesn't make him a Guardian.'

'How can any of us know what a Guardian is? They walk abroad, hiding themselves in plain sight. I see with my third eye and I understand with my second heart that they are corrupted, so I dare not approach them. They will destroy me if they find me.'

'Because you are a Guardian, or because they are? You speak in riddles.'

She looked back toward him without truly meeting his gaze. 'I'm alone, Joss. You're the only one I know I can trust.'

He tried to make sense of her words. 'A man appeared before the Hieros in the Merciless One's temple by Olossi. He demanded she turn over to him a slave, a "ghost girl", they called her. He was dressed like an envoy of Ilu, but he claimed to be a Guardian, and the Hieros believed him. He had with him two winged horses, and when he spoke, she said, "Every heart listened." As it says in the tale.'

He knew Marit as well as he knew any woman, though that knowledge was twenty years' gone. For months, each least variation in her expression had been; his most intense study. That cast of face — mouth slack, gaze drawn inward as thoughts raced — and the tension in her shoulders marked surprise and shock as a clever, powerful mind reassessed what it thought it knew.

'A man dressed in the manner of an envoy of Ilu, claiming to be a Guardian? On the trail of an outlander? Seen at the Devourer's temple in Olossi?'

He nodded, but she was already turning her horse, moving for the edge of the promontory. She looked back over a shoulder. 'I saw a woman and a man, traveling together, with three horses, camped in the ruins beneath a Guardian altar right where the Soha Cutoff begins its descent into Sohayil.'

'Mark!'

The horse opened its wings and sprang into the sky. A gust raked through the overhang, and he woke to find rain spraying over his blanket and boots.

'The hells!' He scrambled out from under the overhang, right into the teeth of the wind. Rain spat into his face, and he wiped his eyes as he stared into the darkness, but there was nothing there. By the time he crawled back into the shelter, found a brand, lit it, and searched the ledge, the rain had wiped every track away. He knew he would have found nothing anyway, no mark of a horse's hoof. It had only been a dream.

The rain passed, the last drops splattering on stone. Scar chirped, rousing, and Joss saw distant objects in the east, evoked by the lightening that presaged dawn. He shook his head like a dog shedding

water, and shook out his cloak, then rolled it up. In the dim light he picked his way carefully down the slope. There, sitting on the stone where he'd left him, was the farmer, Pash.

'Greetings of the day,' Joss said.

'Morning is coming on,' agreed Pash, who seemed remarkably alert for a man who had, presumably, stayed awake all night. 'Whether it will bode good, or ill, I can't say. You're up early.'

'Where did you say you came from?'

'A little hamlet, you wouldn't have heard of it. We call it Green Water for the particular color of a pool there, a holy place dedicated to the Witherer. It's a day's walk from Candra Crossing.'

'Know you anyone here in the haven that's out of Candra Crossing? In particular I am looking for any person who might have served, or be serving, in the temple of Kotaru there.'

He chuckled. 'Why, indeed, the old battle-axe who took command of us is a captain in the Thunderer's order. You met her. Whew! She hasn't the strength of arm I'm sure she had once, but she has that manner about her that is as good as a blow to the head, if you take my meaning.'

'I'd like to see her right away.'

She was awake, with the night watch, getting ready to turn their duties over to the day watch. She introduced herself as Lehit. It was true she was old enough that her youthful strength was gone, no great threat when it came to arm-wrestling, but none of the militiamen doubted her authority: A look is as good as a hammer, as the saying went.

At his question, she shook her head. 'No youth named Gani apprenticed at the Thunderer's temple in Candra Crossing since I've served there, and that's been forty years. Best we send a party down to the ironwood grove with you. Or better yet, if you'll give me a few breaths to sort things out, set an ambush. If they see us all coming, they're like to flee. I'd like to capture them.'

So it happened that, somewhat after dawn, he walked alone along a track through muddy fields toward the grove of ironwood. The tops of these green pillars swayed in the dawn breeze. A lone iigure stood beside the massive trunk of the closest tree, waving at him to draw him closer. Just out of what he judged to be bowshot, Joss bent as if to shake a stone from his boot.

Shouts rose from the trees. Joss straightened. The figure had vanished, but a moment later Gani burst from behind the tree and sprinted toward Joss with sword drawn.

The hells! Joss drew his sword. In recent days, he'd felt that weight too often in his hand, for as the old reeves who had trained him had always said, 'If you have to draw your sword, you've already lost control of the situation.'

Halfway to him, Gani staggered, stumbled, and fell facedown in the dirt with a pair of arrows sticking out of his back. He thrashed a moment, got his head up, and began crawling toward Joss with a grimace of determination on his beardless face. He was still holding his sword. A pair of militiamen jogged out of the trees, bows in hand. As Joss stared, they ran to the lad, tossed down their bows, and stuck him through with their spears as if they were finishing off a wild pig.

Joss trotted over to them, but it was too late. Gani lay with body slack and blood leaking from his mouth. 'I thought we were going to capture them.'

The two militiamen — one a heavyset young woman and the other an older man — had fury etched in their expressions. Both spat on the corpse before turning to Joss.

'You'll see,' said the woman. She tested her right leg, then groped at her right knee.

'How bad?' asked her companion.

'Eh. It'll bruise, but nothing was cut. Now I understand why the holy ones ordered their spirits buried. Fah!' She spat again, wiped her mouth, and kicked the corpse.

'Here, now!' Joss hadn't yet sheathed his sword.

'We'll lay offerings at the Thunderer's altar so his blood doesn't corrupt us,' added the woman. 'Come on.' She limped back toward the trees. Joss and the other man followed.

The settlers in this region had left the rank of ancient ironwood alone, but the woodland behind it showed all the signs of being second-growth, trees and shrubs sprouting where once a mature stand of forest had stood. His companions hacked a way through. He pushed past bushes whose crests waved above his head. His feet squelched on debris soaked by the rains.

A tiny campsite had been cut out of the middle of a particularly

labyrinthine architecture of interlaced tranceberry bushes. It was wider than he expected, although still in shadow from the foliage all around it, and covered with a carpet of recently downed branches and the mulch of last year's leaf litter. In this small clearing, eleven ordinands lay dead and two militiamen were wounded. Lehit had her back to him; she was hectoring some poor soul. She saw him, and limped over.

'What happened?' he asked. 'I thought you wanted to capture them.'

Shock showed in the way she stared at him, as if she could not comprehend words. She shook her head, but was only trying to get strands of hair out of her eyes. She brushed them away with the back of a bloody hand. 'Once we suspected they were here, it was easy to track them. We crept in on three sides, and attacked just as we said. They wouldn't surrender. Once they saw they'd lost and that they couldn't escape, they fought to make us kill them, or killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner.'

'A frightening sense of purpose. That lad crawled at me with two arrows stuck in his back. He meant to kill me.'

'Yet none of that is the worst you'll see.' She gestured, and he walked with her over to a sliver of an opening in the pipe-brush.

They had dug a pit into the ground, deep enough that a tall man standing upright could barely touch the rim with outstretched arms. The walls of the pit were slimy with moist soil, worms, and bugs, and the stink of excrement and urine was strong in the depths. Into this pit they had flung children. One was a headless corpse, still dressed in the ragged remains of an everyday short tunic now smeared with dirt and spattered with blood. The rest were alive, staring up fearfully. He counted twelve.

'Are these the missing children?' he asked Lehit, feeling sick. 'Do any of you recognize them? Here, let's get them out of here.'

They were too afraid to reach up their hands to be pulled free. They didn't know the guardsmen, and it quickly became apparent some had been raped. Coming out of the pit might bring a new round of horrors. One boy began to cry and, after a moment in which they watched the stunned and horrified guardsmen for their reaction and saw that nothing was to happen to the crying boy, the rest began to weep as well.

With an effort, Joss found his voice. 'Lehit, send a couple of your guards and ask members of the families who are missing children to come out here.'

Two were sent. Lehit stayed, scratching her chin, while the heavy-set woman jumped into the pit. The children shrank away from her, but she crouched and began talking in a singsong voice, telling the tale of the Swift Horse, a familiar and soothing bedtime story that every child knew by heart. She didn't look at them or try to engage them; she just talked.

Joss moved back from the edge of the pit. In the clearing, the guardsmen were dragging the bodies to one side, while the older man and Pash knelt beside the wounded pair, stanching and binding.

'Bad enough to kidnap children,' said Lehit in a low voice. 'But we all hear such stories, when a family becomes desperate without young ones to carry on the line. But to brutalize them in such a manner, and them not even having celebrated their Youth's Crown to be of age! While meanwhile, the Devourer gives freely to any person willing to walk through Her gate. How could any decent person choose this over what the gods have ordained?'

The familiar throb of a headache was beginning to build. Joss rubbed his eyes. 'They'd not been here long. It doesn't smell bad enough.'

Lehit leaned close. She'd had a bit of rice wine; its sour brack perfumed the air briefly. 'How did you know this camp was here? That these youths were part of the enemy's army? We're so overwhelmed with all the folk up in the haven that we'd never have known. I sent out a few patrols to search for the missing children, but… how did you guess?'

He thought of his dream. 'A reeve asks questions when things don't look right.'

'That other reeve didn't ask. Seems to me you've better sight than most.'

He shrugged.

Pash walked over, wiping his hands on a bit of torn cloth. 'Best we carry the wounded and the young ones back to the haven quickly, for a miasma dwells in this place that would corrupt the healthiest man.' He glanced toward the pit.

The woman's voice drifted up, the tale unfolding in a soothing patter of words. The other guardsmen waited in silence.

'How did you know, Reeve?' Pash asked Joss. 'We'd have never found them if you hadn't guessed. Them so young to be so foul. Sheh! It's beyond my understanding.'

Joss remembered words spoken twenty years ago. He still heard

Marit's voice as though she was speaking into his ear. ' "Make them

ashamed of themselves and they will not betray you,"' he said,

"because they will know they have stepped outside the boundaries

and made themselves outcast by their deeds.'"

'As the captain's wife said in the Tale of Fortune,' mused Pash, shaking his head. 'True enough words. Thank the gods I kept my good daughters close beside me.'

'No wonder the temples want their spirits buried,' said Lehit. 'Such corruption must be crushed beneath earth and never allowed to rise. We'll bury them in the very pit they dug. Then we'll lay offerings on the Thunderer's altar so their blood doesn't corrupt us.'

In the pit, the young guardsman's voice flowed on. She'd gotten to one of the funny episodes, the encounter of the horse's ass of a merchant and the horse's ass itself, complete with a steaming pile of horse manure always calculated to amuse a child of a certain age, and sure enough there came a tiny childish chuckle, a sound so unexpected that Joss thought he might have dreamed it. Branches snapped, and a pair of young men loped into the clearing with their bare arms scratched up and their faces sweaty.

'We checked all around, Captain, but we saw no evidence that anyone got away.'

Lehit nodded. 'Good work. No doubt once they'd murdered the reeve, they meant to run. Yet with the children, as well? It makes no sense. They'd be a burden to them. And that poor child — the hells! what do you suppose happened to its head? Why did they want to murder the marshal of Argent Hall?'

'Because we killed the one who came before me, who we have reason to believe was set in place by those commanding the northern army.'

'Will you be going back to Argent Hall, then? The hall might be the safest place for you, now you know they're stalking you.'

Argent Hall awaited, and he had plenty to do there. 'Not yet. There's one last task I must accomplish out here. One last person to track down.'

Scar was well rested and eager to go. Where the hills shouldered into the plain there were plenty of thermals. They rose, and glided far above the Soha Hills. This range was rugged although not high. Many a narrow valley and densely wooded vale offered shelter to fleeing men. Twice he saw cadres of Qin soldiers on the road, easy to mark because of their distinctive dress and manner of riding and also because one reeve was assigned to each cadre to scout for ambuscade or refugees in the lands along the Soha Cutoff.

Just after midday, they hit the shifting currents that marked the abrupt end of the hills where the land fell away steeply into the wide basin of Sohayil. In the distance, seen as green smudges, he saw hills to the north and east. These slopes were cut by the gaps of West Riding and East Riding, although in truth those gaps lay more to the north and south.

He banked low, spiraling down. Maybe his dreams spoke true, granted him by the gods. Maybe that really had been Marit talking to him, however impossible that might seem. Or maybe it was just a good hunch, filtered through his sleeping mind. For there they were, the pair of them with their three horses, plodding down the switchback trail from the height of the Soha Hills into the deep basin below. They were easy to spot, right out in the open on the bare slope, and they had nowhere to hide here in the afternoon with the rain holding off and no one else on the road. He recognized her the moment he saw her, for no matter how small she might appear there was something in her shape and posture he could never mistake for another. The fugitives paused to look up as he circled overhead, and although he was riding the thermals and quite high above them, he was sure she knew what reeve had tracked her down.

He sent Scar to earth at the base of the trail. The tall grass was greening under the onslaught of early rains. He unhooked from the harness, dropped to the earth, and strode forward to the road. Not too long after, they trudged into sight. It was obvious even from a distance that they were arguing, and soon enough he heard their conversation.

'Bai, we can't just give up-'

'What do you intend to do? Turn around and toil up that damned steep road? It's better to face what's chasing you than to keep running.'

She was close enough that he could raise his voice and hope to be heard. 'Good advice, verea. For here I am.'

Her gait shifted subtly, enough to make him catch in his breath as she sauntered in full swing toward him. She looked him up and down in a measuring way that made his ears burn. 'Yet I must be wondering why you have come after us and, apparently, alone but for your fine eagle there.'

He grinned. 'Reason enough.'

'So I imagine, by the look of you.'

'Bai!'

Joss spared a glance for the brother, then looked again, surprised that he recognized the young man. The intricate architecture of causation and consequence unfolded before him: he'd met this young man for the first time in the village of Dast Korumbos, when they were both standing over the body of an envoy of Ilu who had been mortally wounded by the ospreys — the bandits — who had invaded the village.

For a moment he was speechless; he'd known, but it hadn't really occurred to him that so many of the players in this tale were linked so neatly. Then they halted in front of him, the horses blowing and stamping, eager for water and yet nervous of the eagle, the woman amused and the man irritated and anxious. Two holy ginny lizards stared at him. Their gaze was unnervingly disapproving, so he shifted his attention.

'Keshad, isn't it?' he asked.

'So it is. We're clear of our debts. We're free to go.'

'As it happens, you aren't.'

The young man had an expressive, passionate face, although his features were marred by a sense of perpetual impatience and anger. 'That bastard Feden-'

'Master Feden is dead. His heirs, indeed all the Greater Houses of Olossi, are in disgrace. You're safe on that count.'

'What does the Hieros want?' asked Zubaidit.

She was a truly magnificent young woman, handsome without

shallow prettiness, built with the strength of a woman who knows how to labor, forthright, bold, unbelievably attractive. Her black hair was pulled back from her face, but a few thick strands fell over her shoulders. Her sleeveless vest was short enough to show a bit of belly; her kilted wrap left most of her long, muscular legs showing. The hike had made her sweaty; her brown skin glistened. Whew.

'What are you thinking?' she asked with a laugh.

'Just thirsty all of a sudden.'

'I can see you're the kind who drinks a lot.'

'Eiya! I'm hit.'

'Maybe. You clean up well, I'll say that.'

'Bail' protested the irritable brother.

Joss chuckled. 'Did I ever thank you for rescuing me?'

'Likely not. In my experience, men so rarely do. They get what they need, and they leave.'

'How can I thank you, then?'

'Not in the way you're hoping.'

'How can you possibly know what I'm hoping? Verea, I fear it's your own thoughts have taken charge of your lips. Not that I'm complaining.'

'Enough of this!' cried the brother. 'Make your claim, or let us go on.'

'Yes,' she agreed, smirking in that maddening way that made Joss hotter than the day warranted. The larger ginny opened its mouth, showing teeth. 'What claim are you making?'

The flirtation played between them lost its power to amuse. Whatever his expression showed, she caught his change of mood at once. The smaller ginny hissed.

'What?' she demanded.

He raised both hands, showing empty palms, the old gesture for 'it's out of my hands'. 'I've been sent by order of the temple of Ushara in Olossi, by order of the Hieros with the backing of the Olossi temple conclave, to return both of you to Olossi. For breach of contract. For theft.'

She looked thoughtful.

Her brother was not so patient. 'I delivered property to the temple, which the Hieros accepted as compensation for Zubaidit's debt. The accounts book was marked and sealed. I have it here in

my possession.' He patted the strap of the pack he had slung over one shoulder.

'New information has come into the light. That's why I'm here.'

'What I offered, the Hieros accepted,' said the brother. 'The payment was ample compensation for Bai's debt to the temple.'

Bai turned to look inquiringly at Joss, as if to say, 'How will you answer that?'

He shrugged. 'What you offered in payment for your sister's debt was not yours.'

'Of course it was mine! If I find a precious stone on the river-bank, it's mine. That is the law, that any item which has no other claimant can be taken and owned by the one who finds it.'

'There was another claimant.'

'How can there have been another claimant? I found the girl abandoned and dying in the desert so far south of here that I wasn't even in the empire, much less the Hundred! Am I to understand that now any person who likes can just claim whatever he wants? I claim your eagle, then. Or your sword. Or the temple itself! I'll claim Master Feden's storehouse, if I've as much right to do so as another person who dances in after me to claim what / found and I transported and I fed and cared for and I sold to pay off my sister's debtV

'Kesh,' said Zubaidit in a soft tone. 'Let him speak.'

'A man, mature but not yet elderly, came to the temple some nights after you made the exchange,' said Joss. 'According to the testimony of the Hieros, and corroborated by every hierodule and kalos I interviewed thereafter, he was dressed in the manner of an envoy of Ilu but claimed to be a Guardian.'

Kesh snorted. 'Guardians! There's a man who knows how to dance a fraud. The Guardians are gone. Vanished. Dead.'

'Kesh! Let him finish.' The teasing manner she'd had before had fled utterly. This was not a woman you wanted to cross.

'The man went on to say he was sorry if the treasure came into her hands in any manner which led her to believe she could own it.'

Kesh was really angry now, puffed up as certain animals fluff up fur or feathers to try to intimidate the beast that has cornered them, 'I admit the girl's coloring was odd, her skin as pale as a ghost's and her eyes demon blue and her hair an unnatural gold-white color. But

when has it ever been said that no one can own a slave? Except among the Silvers, I grant you. Heh! Did he claim that she was a Silver? None of us have ever seen the faces of their women, although the men don't look anything like that.'

'The man claimed that the girl, like him, was a Guardian.'

'How can anyone have believed that?'

'The Hieros believed it. She let him take the girl.'

'To sell for a tidy profit elsewhere! I didn't know that woman was a fool.'

'She's no fool,' said Zubaidit.

Joss glanced at Scar, who watched the interaction with his usual uncanny alertness, ready for trouble. At the foot of the hills, the basin still sloped away, and from this vantage one could see the vista rolling into a heat haze. Clouds covered the sun, and the recent rains had softened the air and made it bearable, but it was still hot. A man still sweated, thinking of how much he did not understand about the world. 'He came attended by two winged horses.'

'Winged horses!' blurted out the brother. 'What kind of child's nonsense is this?'

'So my eyes were not cheating me after all. I saw a winged horse in the camp of the army.'

'So you told me,' Joss said. 'I didn't believe you at the time.'

'No, you didn't. What happened at Olossi?'

'Captain Anji and his troop, two flights of reeves from Clan Hall, and the newly elected council master of Olossi using the local militia combined forces to drive the northerners away.'

She nodded. 'There are two of us, and only one of you,' she continued amiably enough, but Joss's instinct for danger crawled like a prickling on his skin. Like a fine steel sword, she was a honed weapon. 'Even with the eagle, you can't force us to go with you. You can't carry us both.'

He braced with the haft of his reeve's staff fixed on the ground, ready to move with a mere tightening of his grip. 'I can track you until the Qin soldiers who are hunting down the remnants of the army catch up to us.'

Ah.' She nodded with a faint smile. 'I concede this match.'

The brother fumed, and the glance he loosed at his sister betrayed other emotions struggling beneath the surface.

Joss said, to her, 'You truly saw a winged horse at the army's encampment?'

'Yes, on West Track, a few days before the army reached Olossi. Even so, I find it difficult to believe I saw what I did. Do you think this supposed "envoy" who approached the Hieros could be in league with the dark spirits that attacked Olossi?'

'Dark spirits, indeed,' said the brother with unexpected heat. 'I've seen what they're capable of. But now I'm wondering about that envoy. I met an envoy coming out of the south, but he was killed by ospreys in Dast Korumbos.'

'Ah.' Joss nodded. 'You remember.'

'I'm scarcely likely to forget that day, Or that we've met before, ver. The envoy was a man of mature years, not yet elderly, now that I think of it. And he was looking for something. I think he suspected I had the ghost with the demon eyes. Yet he died, so it can't have been him who spoke to the Hieros, can it?'

'It's difficult to see how it could have. Although the descriptions match. It does seem we're talking about the same man.'

'Anyway, I cannot see that envoy — such an amiable man! — as being in league with those corrupt soldiers.' But, as if struck by a new thought, Keshad sighed sharply.

'What is it?' Bai asked.

'I did meet a different man, with a shadowed manner, and an odd accent. He said nothing of being a Guardian, but I was sure — then I thought I had dreamed it-'

Zubaidit grabbed his arm. 'Sure of what, Kesh? You never told me this!'

'That hurts!' He pulled his arm out of her grasp. 'I was sure he was riding a winged horse. He seemed to leap down right out of the sky, but it was night, and then I thought afterward I had mistaken it. Wouldn't anyone think so?'

'Where did you see this?' she demanded.

Reluctantly, the brother spun a halting tale. He'd been marching with the army, forced to do so because he and his sister had been overtaken by the strike force on its march toward Olossi and it was the only way he could save his own life. By his unfeigned disgust as he related the tale, Joss believed that he'd had no part of the army before or after that encounter. While at their night's bivouac, a man

on a winged horse had arrived in the encampment. Keshad had been sent in to speak with him. 'He wanted to make sure I wasn't there to betray his company. He gave me such a look, I thought my insides would be torn out. I said I cared nothing for him and his, and it was true anyway, and thankfully he believed me and sent me away. That was the last I heard or saw of him.'

'The hells!' said Zubaidit, laughing again. 'Say something, reeve. For I think that's shocked you as much as it's shocked me.'

Joss eased an itch that had sprung up on the underside of one wrist. 'The Hieros also said that the envoy of Ilu told her that there has not been peace in the Hundred for these last many years.' He remembered the clipped, forceful way in which she had repeated the words. 'That the war for the soul of the Guardians had already begun.'

Zubaidit dropped the reins and crossed to stand directly in front of Joss. She stared into his face, as if daring him to look into her heart — or at least, to not drop his gaze down to the swell of her breasts under her tight vest. It was a struggle, but he managed it.

She took hold of one of his wrists. Her fingers were strong, her skin cooler than his own. 'Every child who's listened closely to the tales knows the Guardians can't be killed. That's part of what gives them their power. What if more than one Guardian has survived? Or if some are aligned against the others?'

Maybe he swayed, because her grip on his wrist tightened as if to stop him from falling. Mark was dead, but walking again in his dreams, claiming to be a Guardian. Was he crazy?

She released him and walked to the horses.

'We'll go back with you,' she said, over her shoulder.

'Bail'

'Kesh!' Her rejoinder was almost mocking. Her brother winced. There was a passionate quality in the young man's heart that seemed about to burst out over the merchant's chilly facade. 'Keshad, what's at stake here is greater than our freedom. We'll go back and face the Hieros. Then we'll seek out the truth about the winged horses people have seen, and the truth about people claiming to be Guardians.'

'Why do we have to do it?' he whined.

'Because you cheated the temple.' Between one breath and the next, Joss's headache returned. 'That's a crime.'

'I can't have known a mute girl I found at the edge of the desert in foreign lands was-'

'Kesh! We have to do it because it's the right thing to do. Because it has to be done. Because we have an obligation to the gods, and to the Hundred. Now shut up.' She turned to Joss, all business now. 'Is the road safe?'

'It should be cleared by now. The Qin are efficient and effective.'

She cocked her head to one side. 'So they are. Let's hope that wolf doesn't bite back.'

She took the reins of her horse and, without a backward glance, began the long climb up the switchback. After a glance at Scar and a roll of dark eyes that girls might find pretty, the brother grabbed the reins of the other two horses and followed.

Joss watched them go. They had a hard trudge ahead, and he was already exhausted. Scar chirped an inquiry. Like their reeves, the best eagles learned to judge to a nicety danger and mood in any situation, and they were very smart birds, but they were birds all the same.

And yet what did he really know about the origin of the Hundred's eagles? No more than he knew about the Guardians. He'd encountered strange things in his life: he had seen the eyes of a wilding at the edge of the deep forest where they hunted and lived; he had spoken to one of the rare delvings who walked out of the caverns of Arro into the sunlight; he had traded information with the nomadic lendings in the grasslands through a series of hand signs and stones; he had even heard the rippling voice of a fireling in its brief passage through the sky. He'd dealt with every manner of human greed and generosity, cruelty and kindness, anger and calm acceptance. He'd memorized the law, because it was carved in stone. He'd dedicated his life to serving justice.

Now he wondered: was it all for nothing?

If it was true the Guardians still walked in the land, and if it was true they warred among themselves, then what could justice possibly mean? How could any ordinary person hope to live a decent life if those the gods had raised to establish and maintain justice in the land had fallen into the shadows?

A shadow fell over him from behind. Scar's big head lowered

until the eagle was able to look him in the eye. Joss stroked the curve of the beak offered him.

'We're not beaten yet. Not as long as you and I have anything to say about it. Now go on.' He tugged on the leather cord hanging around his neck and pulled his reeve's bone whistle out from under his vest. Raising it to his lips, he blew the set to signal to Scar that the eagle was free to hunt.

The raptor huffed, raking the ground with its talons. Joss walked out of range, and the eagle thrust, beat, and flew, then found a thermal along the steep slope and rose swiftly into the sky. Joss scanned the road. Sister and brother hadn't gotten far. Zubaidit paused to watch the eagle's ascent, then bent her gaze down to where he stood at the base of the trail. With a grin, Joss slung his pack over his back and walked after them.

14

The man long known as an envoy of Ilu stayed too long at the thorn tree shelter on the shore of the Olo'o Sea. He enjoyed the hiss of rain over the wide waters and the smell of the first buds squeezing into the air as the rains woke the drowsing vegetation. He watched the ceaseless spill of clouds as the change in air currents between land and water shredded them. But when one day became three and three became five, their enemies caught up to them.

He never slept, not anymore, but he had learned to slip into a drowse similar to the long interlude before awakening, when he had drifted for untold days weeks months years in a state between waking and sleeping. He liked to think of himself, in this state, as similar to the condition of trees during the season of drought: not dead but held in abeyance.

Change will wake them.

He startled into awareness. First he smelled sweat and fear. Then he heard a branch snap and a whispered exclamation.

The sun nosed up in the east. To the west, the band of the inland sea remained dark, speckled with the last bright stars fading into the rising of day. The girl sat beside him. She had fallen back into her

stupor, eyes open but unseeing, mouth lax and hands loose on her thighs.

A pair of unsavory-looking men burst into the clearing, pursued by the bay mare, who had her wings tightly furled along her flanks. She was a biter, mean when she wanted to be, and they edged away as she circled. But they had spotted the two cloaked figures under the shelter. One of the men swung with his spear, and the bay shied away, although she was only playing with them.

With a sigh, he rose and walked out to confront them. They shrank back to the edge of the trees, where an unbroken fence of thorn at just that spot made them hesitate. One was taller, one shorter. He caught the gaze of the shorter man.

The flood of images and thoughts never got any easier to absorb. A man might as well be kicked and beaten, for all that the surge of emotion bruised him.

Gods! Is that a ghost, or a demon? I wonder how she tastes, and if she cries when-

The power we wield over others brings us power. Take pleasure, take pain, take life, and you'll gain strength. Otherwise, you are the victim.

And why should I be persecuted, eh? The Daped clan lied about me cheating them and shamed me in front of the entire village as the hot sun burned and burned

'Stop!' The man's shrill voice rang in the quiet dawn. He tossed aside his spear to fumble with his bow, loosed an arrow that spent itself harmlessly in the dirt.

'The hells!' cursed his taller companion, loosing an arrow in reaction, so careless that the missile wobbled to earth. Then his gaze was caught.

As reward, they give me more coin. With the coin, suck more sweet smoke. Need the coin. Need the smoke.

The bay mare snorted. The gray mare trotted into view from around the far edge of the thorn tree fence. She halted, looking things over with her usual pragmatic consideration. She was even-tempered, but not a horse to mess with. She stretched her neck, then partially opened her wings and charged.

'Shit!' The shorter man lost his anger and his courage, and tossed his bow aside. With his short sword he hacked into the thorn,

yelped as the thorns tore at him although no more sharply than his own sour thoughts.

'Eh! Eh!' The taller one stumbled in his wake, too muddled to make his own decisions.

The envoy shuttered his eyes. He let the taste of the breeze moisten his parted lips. He let the scents drifting on the air tickle his nostrils. Others hid in the brush, six in all, a cadre on the hunt.

He heard whispers pitched too low for ordinary ears to hear.

'… Can't face him…'

'Sniveling whiner. No wonder they keep passing you over for promotion. Harbi and I will go.'

'Let's just get out of here.'

'Then he'll move on and we'll have the hells of a trip tracking him down again. Or you want someone else to get the prize money and the promotion? A chance for the lord's favor?'

'I'm not going back out there. Those horses are cursed demons.'

The girl rose. She walked over to the spent arrow and fallen bow, picked them up, examined them with a frown. The envoy caught a glimpse of dark cloth where the men peered out through green branches.

'What is that? A lilu?'

'A demon!'

'A ghost.'

'I thought we were just after the sky cloak. I didn't come here to hunt demons!'

She fitted the arrow to the string; tested the pull; swung the bow around to aim into the trees. Loosed the arrow.

A scream — a hit! — surprised him. He heard a shout of pain, then the rustle of undergrowth as they retreated through the undergrowth. Men argued:

'We're six, they're two.'

'The horses!'

'Not that easy.' That was taller's voice, startled out of his dream of sweetsmoke. He spoke in a mumble that quieted the others. 'He'll kill us just by tearing out our insides, just with a look from him. You know it's true. Best we hurry back and report. Maybe he won't chase us if we go quickly.'

Eyes narrowed, she spotted the second arrow and fetched it.

In the brush, the whispered debate went on. 'You fools. Two of them, six of us.'

'Best we saddle the horses, if you will,' the envoy said to her.

For the first time, she was listening to him. She walked back to the fire as casually as if no man had just tried to kill them, as if they were not in danger of a second attack coming at any moment.

She whistled, and the horses trotted over to her. He held his staff at the ready, his senses trained on the thorn tree fence and the woodland scrub beyond it, on the noises of the cadre as they crept out of arrow range, debating what to do next, no one able to take charge. He didn't fear them, and if they attacked, he'd have no choice but to kill them. Perhaps they instinctively guessed it, for the taste of their living essence faded entirely. They had chosen retreat.

A weaver bird flitted within the thorns, its wings a faint stutter. Branches ticked against each other as the breeze stirred them. A bud breathed into a trembling petal as it struggled to unfurl with the same slow majesty as wings.

She walked up beside him, leading the horses. He slid back into himself.

She had saddled them, tied on his few possessions. She said nothing; she didn't even look at him but kept staring at the break in the thorn fence where the short man had cut his way out. She was ready to go.

He took Telling's reins and swung into the saddle. He didn't trust the bay mare, and because the girl tolerated her easily, he let her ride the bay.

He turned Telling's head toward the sea, and the girl, on Seeing, followed his lead. He urged the gray to a trot, to a canter, to a run, and as they reached the shore, they unfurled their wings and skimmed over the water, rising on slow wing beats. The sea fell away beneath. As the shelter shrank with distance, the thorn trees could from the height be seen quite obviously to be planted by hand, while the scrub grown beyond them had a wilder scumble.

He was accustomed by now to riding almost everywhere, but he still preferred to walk. You saw things when walking — the blade of grass, the bee's feet tickling a flower petal, the last tear of a wronged woman who has resolved to seek revenge — that the height and power of a horse might hide from your senses. She was at home in

the saddle. Aloft, her aspect changed. Her eyes opened wide, watching everywhere as they winged over the sea. Even after all this time, each least bobble or hole of turbulence in the air made him gulp and grip and hope he did not tumble. She simply rode.

Eiya! What to do? Where to go? He dared not take her to one of the altars, because there they would easily be spied out. And once she touched her staff, she would likely be out of his control. Yet it wasn't safe to give the staff into her hands until she understood what she was. It wasn't safe to give it into her hands until he was sure she would walk the path he had chosen and not the easier path, the path that begins in light but soon enough crosses under the gate of shadows into corruption.

'We tell stories to make the time pass between birth and death,' Bai was saying.

'I thought the gods gave us stories to help us understand the world,' Joss replied.

'So we are taught in the temples,' she agreed. 'But think about it. What is a story?'

She would chatter on so, flirting with that cursed reeve. Even huffing and puffing up the switchback trail that, incredibly, they'd had to climb back up, those two had talked and talked in the way of people showing off for each other. Kesh wished they would shut up.

'It's not the truth, and yet there's truth in it. It's a way of ordering the truth, just as we order days and weeks and years, as we order guilds and colors and the Hundred itself. Did the gods create the tales? No. People like you and me made the tales and told them to others. Even so, the ten Tales of Founding are not like other stories. We made them because the gods commanded us to. Because they help us order the world, just as worship does. And what is the world except that time between when we enter this place and when we leave it?'

They reached the ruins where he and Bai had sheltered last night. Here, Kesh thought, they might decently pause to rest, but the other two would keep talking.

The reeve answered her. 'As it says in the Tale of Discovery, "Where did we come from, and where do we go?"'

'That's right,' she said with such a flattering smile that Keshad actually gave a disgusted grunt. She glanced at Kesh and for an instant resembled the child she had once been, his little sister, as she rolled her eyes at him to say, Don't ruin this for me.

The reeve didn't notice. He walked to the ruins of a stone wall and jumped up atop it, right at the edge of the drop-off where most men wouldn't dare to stand. Shading his eyes, he gazed across the basin now turning a hazy purple-blue as daylight faded. He was breathing hard, as was Kesh, face suffused with blood. Bai watched the reeve when he wasn't looking at her. This was a side of his sister Kesh had never seen. Sisters weren't supposed to have such feelings, nor to flirt with men so much older. The hells! Bad enough they should flirt at all.

He took a few steps, closing the distance between them.

'Bai, he's old enough to have fathered you. What can you see in a man like that?'

'The horses need water, Kesh. Make sure they don't drink too much.'

Stung, he grabbed the reins and led the exhausted horses to the trough while, naturally, she sauntered over toward the reeve.

'Not many men would stand right there at the edge of the cliff,' she called to the reeve.

'I've no fear of falling,' he said without looking at her. 'Or did you think I was afraid of taking the plunge-'

Halfway across the open space, she paused beside a scatter of faced stones long since tumbled from their place. She turned. She raised a hand and, seeing the gesture, Kesh stepped back from the horses. The reeve turned, alerted by her stillness, and when she waved a hand, he started talking again.

'I never feared climbing trees when I was a child, or standing at the very top of the watch tower in Haya, but even so, after years with an eagle, you get used to surveying the land from very high up.'

Bai prowled past Kesh, circling the horses and the cistern, and vanished behind the remains of a round building. The reeve nattered on, but as he spoke he drew his short sword and shifted sideways on the wall, ready to move.

'Some people can't abide heights. That's a strange thing about the eagles. They never choose a person who fears heights so much

he can't bear to go aloft.' He gestured meaningfully at Kesh. Your turn.

'Eh, emm, how do reeves get chosen?' Now that he thought about it, he wondered. 'I always thought it was other reeves who picked out likely candidates.'

'Not at all,' said the reeve in a lively voice, although he wasn't smiling. As he spoke, he scanned the ruins. 'Eagles choose, not reeves nor any other person. Some do try to put forward certain young men or women. We've been offered bribes. But it makes no difference to the eagles. They will choose at their own-'

A man shrieked. An object slammed against stone, and metal clattered. The reeve leaped from the wall, dashed across the open space, and ran out of sight around the building. Kesh grabbed the horses and pulled them away from the trough.

The reeve backed into view, retreating against the attack of two desperate men. One slapped at him with a staff, while the other cut wildly with an axe. They were not well-trained fighters; the reeve punched away their strokes easily, but he could make no leeway because they were crowding him.

Kesh drew his own sword, but before he could step into the fray, Bai slipped around the other side of the building, climbed over the trough, and raised an arm. She flicked her hand. A blade winked. The man with the axe staggered, fell forward onto his face with a knife lodged in his back. The other man yelped, and the reeve broke inside his guard and twisted the staff out of his hands.

'Down! Put your hands out to the side!'

The man dropped to his knees, ripping at one sleeve, clapping a hand over his mouth as if stifling a scream.

The reeve slapped his shoulder with the flat of his blade. 'On your face! Hands out where I can see them!'

Bai nudged the axeman with a foot, yanked out the knife, and rolled him over. 'He's dead.' She turned back to the reeve, who stood over the prisoner. 'Kill that one, too.'

'He's surrendered to my authority. We are not judges, or Guardians, to render a verdict. He must be taken to trial at the assizes.'

She shrugged. 'Do you mean us to escort him and feed him the entire way? He'll eat our food, and try to kill us. It's a cursed long

walk back to Olossi, I'll have you know. I haven't the luxury of eagle's wings to take me in two days what a earth-bound person must walk in ten.'

'It's the law,' the reeve said.

'I agree with Bai,' said Kesh. 'Bad enough we have to keep watch for these bandits, but to have to nurse one along who just tried to kill us… The hells! How many were hiding here?'

'Five.'

'Where are the other three?'

The prisoner shuddered, seemed about to push himself up. Bai's intent gaze fixed on him, but the reeve placed a foot on the back of the prostrate man to hold him down.

Bai wiped her knife's blade clean on the dead man's tunic, then opened the pouch the man wore at his belt and tossed its contents onto the ground beyond the pooling blood. 'Vey. A spoon. A needle with thread. A razor for shaving. Flint. Not much to show for himself.'

'They abandoned their supplies when they fled Olossi,' said the reeve.

She laughed, a startling sound. 'It's a story good enough for the tales. The few against the many. Oil of naya, and rags set alight. Eagles swooping down from the sky.'

Kesh was still staring at the dead man. He'd seen death in plenty, walking the roads as a merchant's factor. There are many ways to die, and in time all people do die, even if Beltak's priests talked of a garden where believers dwelled after death on this earth. That place had sounded a better fate than the hells that greeted most folk, but Kesh wasn't sure he believed in hells or gardens. Certainly the sight of a dead man, and a prisoner lying so still as if pretending to be dead, made his stomach hurt. The reeve looked angry. Bai glanced toward the path.

'Here come Qin horsemen,' she said, shading her eyes. The sun's westering light fired the Soha Hills. 'You sure you don't want me to kill that one?'

The reeve had not slackened his control of the prisoner. His frown made Kesh smile and Bai look twice. 'If we allow the law to be altered for our own convenience, then we will have murdered the law anyway.'

'There comes a time when change overtakes the traveler, as it says in the Tale of Change.'

'Not so great a change as to abandon the law,' he protested. 'You're the one who agreed to return to the temple because of your respect for the law and the gods.'

She lowered her hand. 'It's true we can't abandon the law for our own convenience. But I serve the Merciless One, not the reeve halls. Anyway, we can't know how great a change we face. We can't know what may happen next. We must be ready for anything.'

Sometimes people talked with words, and sometimes they spoke with looks, and sometimes the way their posture altered communicated their emotion and the words they hadn't uttered. Kesh watched Bai and the reeve, and he knew they were talking but in words and meanings that excluded him. He was alone, as always. Rescuing Bai had not brought him a companion. She had her own path, and it seemed to him that she treated him little differently than she did the horses, as a beast she needed for the time being to make her way.

'Kesh,' she said. Hearing his name, his spirits lifted. 'Taking the horses to drink at the trough made the bandits think we hadn't noticed they were hiding there.'

He twisted out a smile. He'd had no idea bandits were hiding here, and he had a good idea the reeve hadn't either. Only Bai had. Ushara trained her hierodules and kalos in the art of love. But the Devourer was also called the mistress of life, death, and desire, the Merciless One, and in the inner precincts of her temples another sort of acolyte was trained.

Riders appeared on the path. Dust settled around them as they halted. One man dismounted and walked across the ridge path to meet them in the fort. He greeted Joss casually as the reeve sheathed his sword.

'Tohon, this is Zubaidit,' said Joss, 'and her brother.'

'I recall you,' said the Qin soldier with a respectful nod and the flash of a grin directed at Bai. He paid no attention to Kesh at all. 'I'm Tohon, chief of this small company.'

'Yes,' she agreed. 'I remember you and your captain. Your soldiers did good work in that battle, and better work later, so the reeve tells me.'

'We accomplished what was needed,' he said, a statement neither modest nor boastful.

'How is the road?' the reeve asked.

'There are others fled ahead of us, but we are now strung out far from our lines. Better if they escape than if we push out too far north and get cut off.'

'Yes,' the reeve agreed. 'It is time to turn back. We've done as much as we can for now. If you will, Tohon, escort these two back to the temple of Ushara outside Olossi. I must return to Argent Hall. Send a messenger ahead of you, and I'll meet you at the temple.'

Tohon scratched his chin. 'Is this temple the place where a man can walk in with no coin in his hand and a woman will have sex with him? And there is no shame in it?'

'How do folk sate their desires in your country if there is no Devouring temple?' Bai asked. 'Or do the Qin imprison women in cages as it is said they do in the Sirniakan Empire?'

Tohon had an interesting face, of the kind of man Kesh did not mind bargaining with: he knew how much he wanted to pay and would bargain without malice until a deal was struck.

'Our daughters and wives are not so free in what they will give to others,' he said to Bai, 'but neither are we barbarians. We are not like the Sirni.'

'Then come to the temple, and be welcome.' She finished wiping her hands. With a gesture, she called Kesh. 'Let's go. We've got a long walk before us.' She looked at the reeve. 'Will we meet there, Marshal Joss?'

He looked troubled as he examined the dead man and the living prisoner, now silent and still. 'I suppose we will. Here's a prisoner, Tohon.'

'That one? He's dead.'

'The hells!' The reeve jostled the man with a foot. When he got no reaction, he knelt and turned him over. Sightless eyes stared. Brown foam stained the mouth.

'Poison,' said Bai.

'Did you see him take it?'

'I saw him die. Didn't you?'

Without replying, the reeve walked to the wall, and lifted his bone

whistle to his lips to call his eagle. A hot wind rose out of the basin, humming among the stones. The sun beat down. Kesh wiped sweat from his brow as he tugged the horses forward.

'He lives too much in the past, and can't see how change is overtaking us,' said Bai in a low voice, but her gaze stayed on the reeve.

'I'm just glad the man poisoned himself and spared us the trouble of guarding him. Bai! Must you stare like a lackwit at the very man who's destroyed our plans for a new life?'

'He's a fool,' she added, but her eyes said something else.

The envoy and the girl flew north along the shore of the Olo'o Sea, halting during the day to rest and water the horses. The rich farmlands of the Olo Plain gave way to sparsely settled drylands. Irrigated fields and tidy villages became separated by tracts of pas-tureland and finally by the wilds of scrub grasslands as the land rose steadily toward the foothills. They did not fly high enough to see the peaks of Heaven's Ridge, the mountain range that ran like a huge stockade all along the northwestern border of the Hundred. By late afternoon he began to seek a place where they might shelter for the night.

In a place where a silver stream spilled into the sea, she indicated by gesture and action that she wanted to make camp. Trees crowded the stream's banks, spreading upstream and along a gully. Thickets of assertive chamber-bells in flower spilled into the scorpion grass that carpeted the far hillside. Spiny broom mingled with carob bush.

She took the horses. He walked a wide circuit from the shore, tasting the air for threat. He allowed his sense of the world to expand until the smallest things touched him: the snuffling of a red deer through a stand of pipe tree; the rattle of a pair of yellow caps within the cover of the prickly-branched chamber-bells; the respiration of blue tranquillity flowers, petals quivering with each touch of the breeze. The gasp of breath as life, and spirit, escape a living creature.

He stood, turned his head, listened.

Footsteps crashed through brush. A mouth panted. There came a branch-splintering tumble, a grunt, and then a cough of triumph.

The salt heat of blood spilled onto the wind. He ran back to the camp, his face hot and his hands cold with fear.

With the other arrow, she had killed a small red deer, slit its throat, and hung it from the branch of the largest nearby tree, hindquarters up and head down. She had filled his good bronze cup with deer's blood. Her lips were stained as red as a jarya's as she looked up and, seeing his hurried approach, offered him the cup.

'Neh, neh, I am sure I do not care for any of that,' he said, swallowing a bitter taste in his own mouth. To drink blood fresh from the animal was a barbaric custom known among the lendings or the herdsmen in the Barrens but not among the civilized city folk where he'd been bred and raised. Yet as the thought struck him, his revulsion vanished as he paused to watch what she would do next.

She drained the cup and set it aside. With his machete in hand, she wandered into the trees. He followed her, taking the cup, which he rinsed out in the stream. She tested first this tree, then that. She tore off strips of bark and twisted them; she chopped down saplings and bent them, testing their spring and strength. With a quickening of breath, she saw what she wanted: the tree known as silver-bark, which usually preferred higher ground and a cooler climate. Somehow, a scattering had taken root in a damp depression where the stream had made its bed in former years. She measured, then cut down one that was more than a sapling but not yet truly a tree. This together with two saplings she dragged back through the undergrowth to their camp.

He watched, not wanting to interfere, although he set up a shelter against the rains that might come in the night. She took out every item he possessed and sorted them: the iron pot and tripod legs she kept beside her, the cup and leather bottles she set aside. Flint and knives and awl and shovel she set beside the pot. He caught in his breath when she examined the writing box, but she placed it unopened back in the saddle bags with the small brass lamp and strings of vey and leya. Needles, leather, cordage and straps she recognized; the scissors she puzzled over.

First, she cut three long strips of wood, like backbones, out of the trees she had felled.

Dusk interrupted her, but in the morning she set to work. While bark boiled in the pot, she skinned the deer, then butchered it. She

carefully pulled and scraped off the glistening sinew from its back and neck and legs. She cleaned and washed skin, sinew, and membranes. She rendered fat and boiled glue stock, cooling it in hollows in bare rock. She cut down saplings and shaped them into arrows. She practiced with the captured bow.

Her industry silenced him; he had not before seen her work to such purpose, and he did not want any word he uttered to distract her, for what she did now revealed much about what she was and where she might have come from.

15

They reached Olossi at last, and in the temple dedicated to Ushara, the Merciless One, the All-Consuming Devourer, Keshad scratched along his jaw into the fresh growth of new beard, trying to get out the dust that chafed his skin. A dozen Qin soldiers sat on a bench in the courtyard while Bai scolded him in a low voice as Magic hissed.

'You have to wait here with them. Explain the way things go. Make sure they don't insult any of the hierodules or kalos.'

'Why not just let them wait outside the temple while you attend the council? Outlanders can never be properly respectful in the temple. You ought to know that.'

'If the Qin truly intend to settle here, they must learn our ways. Since they have to wait for me anyway, this is a perfect opportunity to begin. So, you're responsible for their behavior.'

'Me? They don't even like me!'

'Stop whining, Kesh.'

Mischief parted her mouth in a brief, mocking smile.

With the ginnies on her shoulders, Bai sauntered to the white gates that led into the garden of the Hieros, the innermost sanctum of the temple. The Qin soldiers watched her go, but Kesh couldn't tell if their interest was sexual or a more masculine form of comradely respect. Certainly during the long ride here she had joked and sparred with the soldiers in the most casual manner. She was not as physically strong, one to one, but she was quick, fearless, toughened

to pain, and well trained in every kind of dirty trick. The soldiers had liked that about her. Of course they had ignored Kesh.

The white gates opened a crack, and Bai slipped inside. A hush settled over the Heart Garden where Kesh and the Qin sat. Men shifted, toying with their hands or shuffling their feet. One rose, turning toward the entry gate, ready to leave.

'Shai, sit down,' said Tohon.

The young man sat.

The glorious blue and violet stardrops of Kesh's previous visit had been stripped bare by the rains, but the rest of the garden had bloomed, and the woozy scent of flowering musk vine overlaid everything. It made you open your eyes and look around, aware of the sharp, bright beauty of the world.

'Heya! Zubaidit's brother! Where are the whores?' asked Chaji, the soldier with pretty eyes and the features that most passed for good looks in the Hundred.

As if his words were a summons, the gates of gold opened without a sound. Four young women and one young man strolled out to look over the foreigners. The kalos was dressed in a kilt and vest, while the four hierodules wore taloos draped fetchingly around their figures.

One of the hierodules was a tall, lanky girl with a teasing grin. 'I'm Walla,' she said to Kesh. 'Do you remember me?'

He tried not to stare at the swell of her breasts under the tightly wrapped taloos. Every part of him remembered her, although he'd never touched her.

'You're Bai's brother. You thought you were so smart, but you two are in deep trouble now. Hah!'

Chaji stood and grabbed Walla by the forearm. 'I take this one.'

The look she turned on him should have killed him; he didn't even notice as he tightened his grip. The other holy ones became very quiet and very still. Even the breeze seemed to falter and catch its breath. Tohon rose. The younger soldiers watched with steady gazes.

'Eiya!' Kesh made a show of getting up with a hefty sigh. 'That's not how you do it! There are customs to be followed. If you offend the holy ones you'll never be allowed to pass the gate a second time.'

Chaji, despite his pretty eyes or perhaps because of them, had a

spoiled temperament. He stared blankly at Kesh and did not remove his hand from Walla's shapely arm.

Tohon said, 'This is a brothel. We choose one. Coin changes hand with the mistress of the place. We get our pleasure. She gets the coin. We leave. Neh?'

'There are times I wonder why the Merciless One opens her gates to all,' murmured the kalos to Walla as the other three rolled their eyes, looking disgusted. 'They're such savages. In their lands, those who should be allowed to offer pleasure freely are slaves forced to the work.'

'No,' said Kesh to him, 'those who might offer freely aren't allowed to. It's considered shameful. Those who are slaves are forced to the work whether they wish it or no.'

Now he had shocked them. Here in the southwest, where they entertained the most traffic from outlanders of any of the temples, the holy ones ought to have known better. By their horrified expressions, they did not.

'The customs of your country are not the customs here,' said Kesh to Tohon. When he looked at Walla he received for his pains another mocking smile that made him sweat. 'This is not a brothel. No coin changes hands. This is a holy temple. The holy ones give freely because they serve the goddess Ushara, the mistress of war, death, and desire.'

The Qin looked at him blankly, not understanding.

'Never mind,' said Kesh impatiently.

He closed a hand over Chaji's wrist and yanked to dislodge his grip. He barely shifted Chaji's arm, but the soldier sucked in breath with an audible hiss, then released Walla and slugged him.

The blow landed on his shoulder, and he staggered back with a yelp. The holy ones shouted for the warders, Chaji grabbed at Walla, and Tohon strode into the breach with angry words that sat Chaji down on the bench as though he'd been shoved. Everyone quieted. A pair of broad-shouldered warders, easily spotted in orange sashes, showed up from the outer court.

Walla examined Tohon and, then, Chaji with his petulant expression but obedient seat on the bench. She made a sign with her left hand, and the warders stepped back to lounge watchfully by the gate.

'Maybe we get tired of explaining ourselves to grasping, rude, horny outlanders,' she said to Kesh. Her stare made him self-conscious in a way both irritating and provocative.

'When you come to the temple, you are offering yourself at the altar of the goddess,' Kesh said to the Qin. 'The hierodules and kalos choose you if they are willing to, ah, worship with you.' He brushed a hand over his curly hair, aware that he was blushing. Not that any of it was at all shameful, only that Walla was bullying him. He wondered if she hated Bai, and if this was payback for an old rivalry.

'They choose us?' Tohon tugged at his ear, obviously wondering if he'd heard wrong. Of all the Qin soldiers, this middle-aged man was the only one Kesh respected. He ruled his cadre firmly but without cruelty; he conversed pleasantly with Zubaidit, treating her like a comrade. The worst Keshad could say of him was that he seemed genuinely to like that cursed reeve, Joss.

'The hierodule or kalos makes the offer. You can refuse it, if you wish, and hope to receive another offer. Which may come, or may not. Men walk through the gate of gold and women through the gate of silver, to the gardens, where the acolytes of the Merciless One wait. Then it's up to you to accept or refuse what is offered.'

'What of these four here?' asked Tohon, indicating the four hierodules and ignoring the young man.

'These five acolytes,' said Kesh, 'all reside beyond the gate of gold, which admits men to the inner precincts. They came here to the Heart Garden because you're outlanders, and they wanted to see if you could behave according to the temple rules. Not all outlanders can.'

'I can behave!' said one of the young soldiers, Jagi, with a grin, and Walla looked right at him, seeing something in his smile that interested her.

The one called Pil looked sidelong at the kalos, then away quickly before anyone could notice, but the kalos marked the look and yet hung back.

Tohon was still stroking the nub of his ear. 'Huh. What else are we to know?'

'You'll all need baths.' Walla bent her gaze on Jagi, whose grin

widened. 'But you won't mind that. Whew! You all do smell. How often do you wash those heavy garments?'

'Take a bath}' cried Chaji. 'In water}'

'Here, now,' said Tohon, beckoning to Kesh. 'Is that necessary?'

'I should think so.' Even the heady smell of blooming flowers could not cover the rancid odor of the men and, in particular, their clothing. 'Folk in the Hundred bathe every day if they can. Don't you have bathhouses in your country?'

This word brought blank looks.

'Water weakens a man,' said Chaji.

'It's not what we're accustomed to.' Tohon had given up on the ear and was now twisting the few whiskers that grew, like a wraith's beard, from his chin. 'There are evil spirits in water. Everyone knows that.'

The bold and brave Qin soldiers shuffled their feet and looked toward the gate to the outer court, as if seeking escape.

'The baths lie just beyond the gate,' said Walla, 'and you can advance no farther into the goddess's body without cleansing.' She beckoned to her companions. They sauntered back to the gate and went in, leaving the gates ajar.

'Baths aren't bad,' said Shai hesitantly, and the others looked at him, and away. 'They never killed anyone, eh?'

Released by the sun's heat, fragrance poured off the flowers until it seemed to drown them. Birds flitted within the lush arbors of musk vine with their bright red passion flowers.

Jagi jumped to his feet. 'I'll try it!'

That was enough for most of them. They trundled forward cautiously, leaving Kesh sitting on the bench beside Shai, Chaji, and Tohon. Tohon gestured to Shai, and the young man sighed but, obediently, stood and followed the others.

'It can't be right, this story about the whores picking and choosing and turning a man down if he wants them,' said Chaji after Shai was gone. 'They're just saying that to take advantage of us.'

'Best you go in after them,' said Tohon to Kesh. 'Make sure the lads do what is fitting. We have to learn to live in this land.'

He might as well have been in collusion with Bai! With a grimace, Kesh rose. 'You're not coming?'

Tohon slanted a gaze sidelong toward Chaji. 'Anyway,' he added,

'I have an old feud with the water spirits. I'm not sure about these "baths".'

'There are bathing pools, it's true,' said Kesh, 'but you can also just wash yourself out of a big basin. You just have to strip down and wash your whole body with a cloth and soap. You have to clean yourself before you can get in the pools anyway. And, honestly, you might want to — well — wash your clothes.'

Chaji rose, both hands in fists. 'What makes you think you can insult us? You're no better than a naked rat, a worthless-'

'Chaji-na,' said Tohon sharply. The young soldier sat down, shoulders heaving.

Kesh was shaking, but he kept his voice cool. 'I was born in the Year of the Goat, Gold Goat, as it happens, not that you would know what that signifies.'

'No need,' said Tohon mildly, 'to keep talking, lads. I'd recommend you both to shut your mouths. Keshad, go on, as I told you.'

Chaji lifted his gaze just enough to let Kesh know he was looking. Those pretty eyes didn't impress Kesh; glaring, he crossed his arms.

'Go on,' said Tohon, voice like the snap of a whip.

Kesh grabbed his small pack; everything else they'd left at a stable in the village of Dast Olo, by the pier where they'd taken boats to the temple island. Behind, he heard Chaji murmur, his words too faint to understand, and Tohon's curt rejoinder. He reached the gate, set a hand on the painted door, and paused before stepping into the garden of gold. From inside, he heard the spill of water into a basin; he heard laughter. A woman was singing a familiar song in time to the beat of a hand drum and the rhythm of shaken bells: I paused inside the gate and beheld the garden.

'Keshad!' A youth wearing the casual kilt of the off-duty acolyte stood over by the white gates, beckoning to him.

The hells! Kesh walked over to the youth, where Tohon met them.

'It seems you and I are called to the council,' said the soldier to Kesh. 'Chaji waits here. The rest — hu! — let's hope they behave.'

Back on the bench, half concealed at this angle by the arbors and flowering trees, Chaji sat in sullen silence, fists pressed in his lap.

'The Hieros wants you right now,' said the temple lad impatiently.

Kesh and Tohon followed him through the white gates into a courtyard filled with a tangle of vegetation. A narrow path littered with petals and old leaves cushioned their steps.

'Hu!' muttered Tohon. 'What a thick forest! I can see nothing.' His gaze darted this way and that, and once he stopped and abruptly brushed at his face. Then he stared into the shadowed branches. Draped on a limb, a ginny stared at the Qin with a look Kesh recognized as amusement.

'Huh!' grunted Tohon. 'That's the male Zubaidit keeps. She let him go.'

'They're the goddess's acolytes,' the lad called over his shoulder. 'They belong here, truly. Anyway, the Hieros doesn't like to be kept waiting. She's got many more things to accomplish today, and wants this business finished and closed.'

Kesh wiped his brow and scratched his chin. The shade gave relief against the sun, but the overwhelming scent of green growing things oppressed him. They strode out into the open space in the center where the fountain splashed, water tracing the strenuous curves of a man and woman intertwined in the act of devouring.

Tohon actually blushed, and looked away, gaze fixed on the back of the lad, who kept walking without a glance at the sculpture to another path on the far side of the clearing. This path wound through a jungle of spiky orange and yellow proudhorn and falls of purple muzz and white heaven-kiss, their scent almost too sweet. Tohon walked as if expecting an attack.

A steeply slanted tile roof rose from the greenery. They ascended a flight of stone steps, pressing through uncut shoots of musk vine that groped at Kesh's body. He staggered into a pavilion of surpassing beauty: the pillars painted in gold leaf designs; the benches upholstered with rich fabrics so expensive that immediately his mind toted up their worth in days of labor and the price of slaves; the floor inlaid with a complicated pattern of precious woods. The lad threw out an arm before Kesh or Tohon could actually step onto the floor, and indicated that they must remove their shoes and then sit to one side on a pair of plain silk pillows.

Four waited in the pavilion, sipping wine. Zubaidit looked perfectly comfortable seated cross-legged on a pillow, ginnyless. Beside

her, that cursed reeve flirted with a smile on his smugly handsome face as he made some quip meant for Zubaidit's amusement. Captain Anji sat quietly. Bai marked Kesh's arrival with a glance but did not acknowledge him. The reeve kept talking, attention fixed on Bai. The Qin captain noted Tohon, then Kesh, and gave each a crisp nod before turning back to the conversation.

The fourth person sketched a greeting. Master Calon was the head of a well-to-do merchant house whose faction had never before held power in the city, although today he wore the crossed sash of a seated council member with the red braid of power fixed to his right shoulder. In the aftermath of the battle, a huge change had swept the city and council of Olossi. The Greater Houses, who had held power for untold generations, had fallen to the machinations of the Lesser Houses and the guilds in alliance with Captain Anji and his troop.

A pair of elderly hierodules — by their age, lifelong slaves to the goddess — mounted the steps and with a tinkling of bells announced the arrival of the Hieros. All rose, Kesh last of all. How he hated this woman!

Her attendants helped her sit on a particularly fine pillow covered in a heavy damask of an intense jade green that set off the pale pipe-sprout of her rich silk taloos. For such a delicate, frail, elderly little woman, she had a stare that hammered you. And she was gloating. He could see it in her smirk as she addressed the gathered company.

'That man, the Qin sergeant. The stink of his clothing offends me. Have your people some objection to bathing, Captain? Yet by all report you are yourself perfectly happy to indulge in the baths in the city.'

'I see you have a network well placed to bring you all manner of reports, holy one,' said the captain with a faint smile.

'As you will yourself in time, I expect,' she retorted. 'You haven't answered my question.'

Captain Anji looked at Tohon, gave a nod.

Tohon's expression remained calm, his voice untroubled. 'I can answer for myself, holy one. As a man who has earned respect, I ask to be treated with respect.'

She looked him over. His gaze, on her, was not challenging but it was also not submissive. 'I will listen to your words.'

He acknowledged her reply with a nod. 'It is well known among my people that the water spirits hate human beings. They are kin to demons, and therefore there is a long war between us. We Qin know better than to trouble the spirits. Maybe you folk have a better understanding with them than we do. Anyway, my daughter drowned, and my wife died of grief from losing her to the water spirits.'

Kesh expected the Hieros to scoff at this ridiculous story. There weren't any spirits in water except for strong currents and unexpected eddies. The merlings lived in the sea, but they were living, material creatures like humans and delvings and firelings, not spirits. Even demons were living creatures with powers beyond human understanding. The only spirits abroad in the world were ghosts. Everyone knew that.

The Hieros touched fingers to her right ear and then her forehead, the gesture of hearing and understanding. 'Very well. If you wish to walk in the temple, then come to me personally. Like all hierodules, I am trained in the act of cleansing a body in preparation for the act of worship. I am powerful enough to protect you against anything, within these walls, that might wish to harm you.'

The temple lad whistled under his breath, Bai looked baffled and Joss and Master Calon amazed, but the elderly hierodules made no comment at this remarkable offer. It was impossible to know what Captain Anji was thinking.

Tohon tugged on his left ear, blinked, and then met the Hieros's steady gaze. 'My thanks to you, holy one.'

Kesh hadn't known the old bitch could smile in a friendly way, but she did so now, like a flirting girl all lit up when a boy agrees to meet her family. 'That's settled, then. Now to our other business.' The smile vanished. She turned a cold shoulder to Kesh quite deliberately, drawing attention to his disgrace. 'Marshal Joss, you've fulfilled your duty and brought me these criminals. Zubaidit I absolve from fault, although naturally she will have to return her accounts bundle and resume her service with the temple. She can't have known that her brother would use a stolen object to purchase her freedom. He, on the other hand, must pay full forfeit and be prosecuted for his crime of buying out the contract of a temple slave under false pretenses. He tried to cheat us. The temples cannot allow such behavior to go unpunished.'

'The girl came into my possession by finder's right, which none of you can dispute,' objected Kesh. 'How can I have known some envoy of Ilu would come along to make a claim on her? How do I even know you're telling the truth? You could be trying to cheat me, to get Bai back into your claws.'

She continued as if he hadn't spoken. 'How the assizes choose to deal with any complaint in the matter brought by his former master, matters not to me. Master Feden is dead and his house disgraced-'

'I bought out my own contract with trade goods! Nothing illegal about that!'

'-so it may be that the heirs of the House of Quartered Flowers will bring no claim against him. But the temple certainly means to take back what is rightfully ours-'

'Only because you'd been cheating her all along, you old bitch-'

'Keshad!' snapped the reeve. 'Be quiet!'

'I won't be quiet! I've been found at fault without being allowed to speak in my own defense, or have any kind of representation at the assizes. She means to tilt the judgment against me before I ever stand up at the rail. What kind of justice is that? Or do the reeves simply stamp as justice what's the wish of those in power?'

Ha! That stung!

The reeve examined Kesh with a look that hadn't the hammer of the old bitch's look but which was just as annoying, like someone poking into you to see what would make you squeak. Kesh shifted on his pillow and rubbed his throat. Tohon coughed into a hand. Bai watched the Hieros much as the ginnies had watched her.

The captain broke in. 'If you will. It appears the dispute rests on whether this man, Keshad, brother to Zubaidit, had a legal claim on the individual whose body he used as payment for his sister's freedom. He exchanged a girl he found in the south for the outstanding balance on his sister's accounts book, the unpaid balance of which kept her as a debt slave to the temple. Am I correct?'

'You are,' said the reeve.

'I accepted the female as payment because of her obvious value,' said the Hieros. 'I would have been a fool to let such a treasure pass out of the temple's hands. However, it appears she belonged to someone else.'

'This is the part I do not understand,' said the captain. 'A man

came to the temple, at night, and claimed the female. Did he have a contract? Proof of ownership? He might himself have been a thief, a clever con man, who cheated you and left the blame to fall on Keshad.'

There is a silence that soothes, and a silence that frightens. Silence can conceal, or reveal. It can make you stop and think, or it can be a warning. The garden lay quiet behind them, smothered in green growing things. Clouds scudded overhead, piling up over the Olo'o Sea. Kesh smelled rain coming, but it hadn't reached them yet.

'He was a Guardian,' said the Hieros, 'and so was the girl.'

Nine simple words, coolly spoken. A cold thrill woke in Kesh. Guardians walking the land again! He could not imagine what it might mean for the Hundred. Or for him.

He got up clumsily and glared all around. 'Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. But how would she ever have gotten to the Hundred, eh? Many months' journey! She could never have made it alone, a naked girl, with nothing and no one, starving, mute, lost. I brought her here.'

'You have no idea what Guardians are capable of, or why she might have been walking in the south,' began the Hieros in a cruel voice. 'You are the worst kind, making excuses for your crime, refusing to accept responsibility for the acts you have committed. Don't think I don't have reports of what you did as Master Feden's factor, how you treated those in his employ, how you treated your fellow debt slaves, how you used them and discarded them-'

The captain broke in, politely. 'I beg your pardon, holy one. It seems to me that, while you are perfectly reasonable in your assessment of the young man's faults, they are not among the concerns that trouble us most in these days.'

'That he cheated the temple is of no concern to you?'

Captain Anji had a pleasant smile that deflected anger. 'It is of greatest concern to me, although naturally you understand that as a newcomer to the Hundred, I do not worship at the altar of your gods for I do not know them. But I am aware that every land is tightly woven with its gods. This dispute is a matter to be judged carefully, and thoroughly. My concern is that you may have no chance to do so if other events overtake us in the meantime.'

The old bitch counted her temple and her authority higher than

any cursed thing in the Hundred, that was obvious. But when she looked at the captain, she raised a hand, wristlet bells tinkling like whispers, and touched ear and forehead to show respect.

'Captain Anji, your actions in recent days saved Olossi, and this temple. You've earned the right to speak. Kass, pour wine around.'

The lad poured gracefully from a silver pitcher into goblets adorned with intricate silver patterns and tiny pearls: the Hieros first, of course, then the reeve who as marshal of Argent Hall deserved special respect, then Master Calon, then the captain followed by Tohon. Zubaidit and the two attendants were served last, and the lad took the pitcher away without offering Kesh anything.

They drank. Tohon nudged Kesh. The pressure jarred his aching shoulder. He hissed pain through his teeth. Tohon tapped the cup, still half full of wine, against Kesh's arm. Gratefully, Kesh took the cup and drank.

Anji set down his own cup on the floor beside his right knee. 'I'll make short work of my accounting of events. Our company rode into the Hundred as guards for a caravan, but we were also looking for a place to settle and begin a new life.'

'Because there is a succession dispute in the Sirniakan Empire,' said the Hieros. 'The current emperor, Farazadihosh, considers you a rival because you are his half brother, sons of the same father, Emperor Farutanihosh, now deceased. Meanwhile, his cousins — who are also your cousins, the sons of your father's younger brother — dispute Farazadihosh's right to the imperial throne and title.'

'You have good sources of information, holy one.'

'I do. It may be that your relation to the imperial court will cause trouble for us later, but for now I am content with matters as they stand because I do not see we have any choice. Go on.'

'The Hundred is no longer a peaceful land, that we can all agree on. There is trouble in the north. A city called High Haldia has fallen to an army commanded possibly by a man known as Lord Radas. Toskala and the lands of lower Haldia lie under immediate threat. The commander of all the reeve halls sits in authority in Toskala, and there also many of your ancient traditions have their heart, although I understand that the largest city in the Hundred is called Nessumara and lies farther south, on the delta of the River lstri.'

'You've grasped a great deal of the Hundred in your short time among us, Captain.'

'I have good sources of information,' he said with a smile. Was he sparring with the Hieros, or dancing to her chant? It was hard to tell. 'A second army marched south and west on West Track to attack Olossi. Too late the people of Olossi discovered that some among the Greater Houses had made a pact with this army, to consolidate their hold on the Olossi council. Too late, these same members of the Greater Houses discovered that the leaders of this army had no intention of honoring that pact but meant to burn and pillage Olossi as they did the villages lying along West Track. Together with Marshal Joss and the reeves of Clan Hall and the support of Olossi's new ruling council and their militia, my troop managed to rout the besiegers. We then pursued those who fled, and have killed as many we can. However, many have escaped back into the north and east whence they came. It is obvious to me, and I hope to everyone, that if they could attempt this attack once, they can regroup and try again. They have numbers, coin, wagons, weapons, and horses in plenty. And it seems to me that they have something more difficult to defend against, some manner of sorcery.'

He picked up his cup and drained it, set it down with a thap that made Kesh start. 'I have come to the Hundred to make a home for myself in a place where I may know peace, and to raise children with my wife. That is all I hope for.'

'Where is your wife?' asked the Hieros. 'I have heard many speak of her, but she has not come to the temple.'

'Nor will she.'

'Ooosh!' murmured Kesh.

The reeve coughed, while Master Calon gasped at the implied insult.

The Hieros pounced. 'Why is that? Here today you are come to the temple.'

Captain Anji opened his mouth to speak, and then he closed it and said nothing.

Marshal Joss said, 'Surely an outlander who worships another god is not expected to visit the temples of the Hundred.'

'What gods does your wife worship, Captain? Surely not the god

of the empire, for that god does not look kindly upon women. Or so my sources tell me.'

His mouth twisted in annoyance. He picked up the cup, noted it was empty, and set it down again, but now his expression was neutral and his voice smooth. 'The Lord of Lords and King of Kings rules each person as befits his nature, men according to what is proper to men and women according to what is proper to women. But you are right. My wife is not of the empire. She prays to the Merciful One, whose mercy is known all along the Golden Road and past the southern desert even into the lands beyond the Sky Pass and the towering heights of the Heavenly Mountains.'

'Ah,' said the Hieros. 'The orange priests. There's an old hut far up on the Kandaran Pass where an orange priest once lived with his begging bowl. It's said he would give aid to travelers without regard to their station or their gods. Then he died. Gone altogether beyond, as they say in their prayers. Such a strange phrase, "gone altogether beyond". What does it even mean?' She was still holding her cup. She handed it to an attendant, her wristlet bells chiming softly with the movement. 'So, Captain, it is true that a shadow has grown in the north, a shadow we cannot name. By your efforts and those of the reeves of Clan Hall, many of us were saved. Yet this war is not over.'

'It is assuredly not over.'

He had a whip, which he'd been allowed to keep on the temple grounds. He played with it now, pulling its length through a hand as he considered what he meant to say. At length, he turned an inquiring gaze on Master Calon.

Briskly, Calon said, 'I am here as representative of Olossi's ruling council. This man has accepted as a temporary measure the responsibility to oversee the defense of the city and the surrounding region of Olo'osson. We ask for your cooperation and the cooperation of all the local temples in our efforts to live in peace in our own homes.'

Now Kesh understood. In the region of Olo'osson, long overseen by the town of Olossi, the Greater Houses had ruled until the battle two weeks ago, when a cabal of Olossi merchants and guildsman, a troop of outlander mercenaries, and that cursed reeve from the north had defeated the invading army and overthrown the Greater

Houses. The Hieros was the most powerful temple official of any of the temples in Olo'osson. Joss represented the reeves, Anji the militia, and Master Calon the Olossi council. The four of them met now to decide what action they would take next.

So much for the vaunted council of Olossi, with its warring factions and voting members and raucous assemblies! So much for village elders and local authorities and temple priests. Here Kesh sat, witnessing the only council that mattered. He was here by accident, because he was a bit of flotsam that the Hieros wanted to sweep up, being the kind of person who didn't forgive anyone who defeated her in even the smallest way. Yet as long as they didn't kill him, he could find a way to exchange knowledge for coin or something even better: freedom and the right to be let go without interference. They hadn't beaten him yet.

'When I make a plan,' Anji said, 'I prefer to know as much about my enemy as possible. I have heard the Tale of the Guardians, but surely there is more you can tell me about the Guardians.'

'The gods formed the Guardians out of the land to serve justice. The gods sustained them as they went about this duty. Yet they vanished from the Hundred when my grandmother was a girl, so we had come to believe they were gone forever.'

'Anyone may claim to be a Guardian,' said Joss suddenly, 'and maybe they are, and maybe they aren't.'

The Hieros turned her proud gaze on the reeve, making him glance away before he had the courage to meet that stare. ' "You will know the Guardians when you meet them,'" she quoted. 'Can you doubt it, Marshal Joss? Do you doubt it?'

He said nothing.

She said, 'I do not doubt, nor should you. I have seen the truth with my own eyes. I have touched the truth in my heart. The envoy told me that there is war among the Guardians. Fear this, for even as he spoke the words, I knew them to be true in my heart and in my spirit. Where the Guardians war, the Hundred falls into darkness and chaos. The tide of that war has swept over us once. If we do not resist it, protect ourselves, and push back, we will drown.'

'What you're saying, holy one,' said the captain, 'is that in truth you know very little about the enemy we face.'

'Captain,' murmured the reeve warningly.

Master Calon fluttered a nervous gesture with a hand.

The Hieros smiled coldly. 'That is indeed what I am saying. The Guardians withdrew from the affairs of ordinary men many rounds of years ago. We who are mortal were never privy to Guardian councils in any case. Now their wars have spilled over the land, but we are as ignorant of their plans and feuds and their network of influence — always hidden from us! — as are newly born infants just waking to the riot of life.'

'Ignorance will kill us,' said the captain.

'Yes.'

He nodded. 'This is my proposal. We send scouts into the north.'

'To what end? The reeves already spy out the northern army, scout troop movements, mark which villages and towns are under threat, and report back.'

'They do their work well,' he agreed, nodding at Joss, 'but they and their eagles are targets when on the ground. They cannot walk into the heart of the enemy and hope to learn their plans.'

'Any such venture is likely to end in death,' she said.

'Perhaps. But without good intelligence, and careful observation of the lay of the land and the discipline and organization of the army, we can't hope to confront, much less defeat, a force so much larger than our own. Tohon is a scout of unsurpassed excellence, whose observations I would trust with my life. He can bring one of his own men to carry a message back to us, if necessary. If I had my way, your servant Zubaidit would go as well. We must seek every opportunity that offers itself. If anyone can assassinate the army's commander, she can.'

Kesh gasped aloud. He hadn't finished the wine; it spilled now, the dregs staining his tunic. Tohon grasped his wrist and tightened his grip until Kesh sank back passively. But he'd already lost the battle. A grin tugged at Bai's lips. Her shoulders straightened, and her chin rose.

'Eiya!' said the old bitch. 'You're quick to throw my best weapon into the worst battle.'

'The battle will be upon us whether we wish it or not, holy one. The only question is, on our terms or theirs? You know she is the best choice.'

She knew it, so she refused to acknowledge him.

Bai said, 'I'll go, but on condition that Keshad is cleared of all charges against him.'

'Yes, indeed,' said the Hieros scathingly, 'cleared of charges, let to go free, and you'll hare off and join him once you've walked out of Olo'osson, no doubt.'

'He can remain under house arrest under my guard until Zubaidit returns, or her death is confirmed,' said the captain.

'Do you think you're bargaining over a loaf of bread or a bolt of silk?' demanded Kesh. 'I refuse-'

'Enough!' said Marshal Joss. 'Shut your mouth, you self-regarding idiot! You've got no rights in this negotiation. If you're fortunate, you may benefit from it, so just be quiet.'

'You've got no call to talk my brother that way!' cried Bai.

'You've come to me to set the seal on your plan?' asked the Hieros of the captain.

'You stand highest among those who sit in authority over the temples of Olo'osson,' said the captain. 'You know it must be done this way.'

"A sharp blade can cut both ways," she said.

'I beg your pardon?' demanded Joss. 'What has the Tale of Change to do with the matter at hand?'

'Do our weapons serve us well, or ill?' Raising both hands, she traced phrases from the tale with graceful gestures accompanied by the tinkling of her wristlets. She need not sing the chant, for all they knew the words by heart. In he rode, the one meant to save them, the handsome one, with his sash and his kilt, his sash and his kilt and his garland of sunbright. But the gods embrace silence. The gods turn away, they avert their eyes.

'This is not a language I understand,' said the captain.

'No,' agreed the Hieros. 'You are an outlander. It is the language of our heart, we who live in the Hundred. Very well. It is true that if we cut off the head of the snake, the body might die. The price Zubaidit names for her cooperation is not too high. I will consult with the other temples and we will choose a second candidate as well, someone suitable for spying. What about the council, Master Calon?'

'I think it's a fool's errand,' said Master Calon with a heavy sigh, 'tried once before and ending in utter failure. But my voice was

overruled. The council wishes to make contact with clan members in the north, restore alliances, and so on. Three have been chosen to go, well-connected sons and nephews, alas. That cub Eliar pushed and pushed.'

'The Ri Amarah wish to send one of their young men as part of the scouting group?' asked the Hieros. 'To see what profits can be reaped?'

Kesh snorted. 'In what way are they different than the rest of the merchants, then?'

The captain said, quietly, 'The lives of the Ri Amarah are at risk, just as ours are.'

'The presence of a Ri Amarah man would give away the scouts immediately,' said Joss.

Calon raised his hands to signal a stop. 'The cub's father forbade it before I was forced to point out that a Silver would be spotted a mey away. The three men we're sending are at least good fighters. However, anyone seeing the Qin soldiers will know them at once for outlanders.'

'They'll pose as runaway slaves,' said the captain.

Kesh touched the raggedly healed scar beside his left eye.

The marshal said, 'Will you tattoo them? That's how debt slaves are marked here. The enemy will have heard tales about the outlanders who aided Olossi. They'll be suspicious.'

'I'll take Shai,' said Tohon, 'for he looks nothing like the Qin. No one need know we are any relation. Anyway, Shai has family business up by this town called Horn. Captain?'

At first, the captain looked ready to refuse, but then his expression changed as he thought of something he did not share with the others. 'Yes,' he said with narrowed eyes. 'Shai might prove very valuable. But let me tell my wife that he's to go.'

'We are agreed, then.' The Hieros clapped her hands. Her attendants helped her stand, although Kesh doubted she needed the aid. For such an old woman she was limber and vital, perfectly at ease. Before she stepped off the pavilion, she turned back. 'So, Captain, what does your wife do now, while you sit in the councils of power?'

'She is not absent from the councils of power. Her skills are of a different constitution than mine. I would suppose that right now she is settling matters of land, title, and business.'

'Ah.' She acknowledged Master Calon and Marshal Joss with a nod and Bai with a critical stare that, strangely, softened her eyes. Kesh might as well not have existed, but at length she smiled at Tohon.

'Hu!' He laughed. 'Don't mind if I do. Captain?'

The captain nodded. As Tohon followed the Hieros into the garden, Anji caught Kesh's attention with his gaze. 'You'll come with me,' he said, no argument about it.

Kesh looked helplessly at Bai, but she shrugged. The hells! She was already thinking about walking into the shadows. Walking into death, it might as well be. He'd bought her freedom with tainted goods, and now they'd been thrown back into slavery, as if the simple act of daring to grab for freedom had cursed them to worse than what had come before.

She'd be dead and he… It hit him as in the gut, a blow that made him double over with fear and grief. He'd be alone, without purpose, for that was all that had sustained him during the twelve years he'd labored as Feden's debt slave: the hope of freeing his beloved younger sister.

'Kesh?' Leaping up, she crossed to kneel beside him. 'Is it something you ate? The old bitch didn't even offer you wine, just for the spite of it!' Her hand warmed Kesh's shoulder.

'I'm all right.' He forced his fear under control like a hand pressing billowing cloth back into an open chest in a high wind. 'Do you have to go?'

'Of course I have to go.'

'You're just going to abandon me? And the ginnies, too?'

'They can't come on such a mission. They'll be well taken care of.' She turned to confront the captain. 'He'll be well taken care of, Captain. That's what I expect.' She swiveled her head to glare at the reeve. 'All the charges dropped, just as I said, Marshal. Is it agreed?'

She was a wolf, ready to lunge for the kill, but they were predators, too. Joss was a proud, handsome eagle. Folk had started calling the Qin soldiers 'the black wolves' for their manner of dress, and even though Captain Anji had not been born in the Year of the Wolf as Bai had, he might easily be mistaken for that beast.

Anji's smile showed teeth, a threat. 'Are you questioning my honesty, or my honor?'

She grinned the reckless grin Kesh had come to distrust. 'You're still an outlander, Captain Anji. So we'll see.'

Anger burned in his expression, a tightening of the eyes.

'I expect to be judged in the same manner,' she added. 'Yet you've held a hostage for my honor.'

His shoulders relaxed. 'True enough. I'll treat him as my own cousin.' His wolf's grin flashed. 'By Qin laws of hospitality, I assure you, for in the imperial palace of Sirniaka, any male cousin or half brother of mine is dead by now.'

'I'll see Keshad is well treated,' said Master Calon. 'I know his worth.'

Kesh offered him a grateful nod.

Bai embraced him. 'Courage, Kesh. Keep your eyes open and your heart bold.'

She released him. Let him go.

'I never had anything to do with the charges brought against your brother,' said the reeve to her, 'and I'll thank you not to imply I had.'

Kesh put on his shoes and, with the captain and Calon, descended by the stairs behind Kass. Bai remained in the pavilion, and it appeared she had fallen into a roaring argument with that cursed reeve.

'Whew!' said Kass with an appreciative look toward the pavilion and the pair under its roof. 'She really fancies him, doesn't she? She'll chew him right up, and I bet me he'll love every minute of it. I never saw her go after a man like that before.'

'She's a respectable woman,' said Anji repressively. 'It's ill-mannered to speak of women in such a way.'

Kass laughed merrily. 'You outlanders!' He looked around for someone to agree with him, but Kesh couldn't be bothered and Calon was lost to sight down the path. Kass glanced back a final time. 'Heya! She's slapped him! I knew she had a temper, but-'

A thick curtain of patience cut off their view.

'Slapped him!' yelped Kesh, shifting to go back, but Captain Anji caught his wrist.

'If she didn't fancy him, she'd have slugged him and been done with it,' said Kass. 'That's foreplay for certain folk.'

'I've heard enough,' said the captain.

Branches rattled. Bai appeared on the path, flushed and breathing hard.

'He wouldn't lie down quickly enough, eh?' said Kass.

Her hand darted out.

'Ow! That hurt!' A mark reddened on the lad's forearm.

'You pinched him!' said Kesh.

'Nothing the little pest hasn't earned twelve times over!'

Grinning, the lad rubbed his arm.

Her glare did not cause the flowers to erupt into flames, but it was a close thing. Kesh remembered the woman who killed so skillfully that she couldn't possibly be his timid little sister. He remembered the way the reeve had stared at her after the ambush. Troubled, Kesh had to admit, rather like Kesh was troubled. He wanted to hate that cursed arrogant reeve, but at the moment he wondered if they shared something in common, wondering what kind of person Bai had become, an assassin sent into the north to kill.

'There comes a time when change overtakes the traveler.' Bai pushed past Kass and Kesh, and skirted the captain more politely. 'If you don't mind, I'll walk a little way with you. Where do you go now, Captain?'

He was an odd man, seeming such an outlander one instant and then, with an unexpectedly charming smile, such a familiar one. 'Where do I always go, to find my heart's ease? To my wife, of course.'

16

A trio of hirelings unshackled and dragged open the doors before retreating to the courtyard to await further orders. Sunlight poured a path into the dark interior. Mai ventured a few steps into the empty warehouse, smelling dust, the loft of air above her head, and a faint sweet rotting scent.

Chief Tuvi cut in front of her. 'Let the lads go in first.' She stepped back beyond the threshold as four Qin soldiers entered the building while outside the hirelings took down wooden shutters to reveal rice-paper windows. Each stripe of light revealed

more of the warehouse, a long building with a bench built along one side and windows set above, a row of cubicles on the opposite side, and a complicated structure of roof beams visible all the way to the shadowed cleft within the peak. When the soldiers had checked out every corner, they gave the all-clear and she walked into the hall.

'What was this used for, and why was it closed up?' Mai asked Eliar.

'This warehouse is owned by the House of the Embers Moon. Thirteen years ago they fell into a dispute with the Greater Houses. I need not tell you that the Greater Houses went out of their way to ruin the house's fortunes and destroy its reputation. In the end, the last adult member of the house made public what the gullible thought was a wild accusation: that the Greater Houses were involved in a conspiracy, that they'd allied with unnamed villains out of the north.'

'Which is true.'

Eliar snorted, flashed a grin, then sobered. 'Yes, all too true, which I tried to tell everyone a thousand times for all the good it did. When he vanished, some said he'd been arrested by the militia and sent to the assizes prison. Others said he'd been murdered.'

'He's the one Captain Beron murdered, isn't that right? Master Feden ordered the murder done on behalf of the Greater Houses. And then the temple ordered Captain Beron's murder when they discovered he'd carried out an assassination without their imprimatur. Are the politics of Olossi always this convoluted?'

Eliar heaved a passionate sigh. 'Olossi got off easy. Thanks to Captain Anji. And to you.'

He smiled his charming, flirtatious smile. Chief Tuvi eyed him skeptically. As if Tuvi could possibly think an untested youth like Eliar compared to Anji!

'Anyway,' Mai said, waving Priya and O'eki forward for a look, 'what's that sad tale to do with this warehouse?'

Eliar's gesture, indicating the echoing space, made the silver bracelets on his forearms jingle. 'With no adults remaining to stand in authority over the house, the business was shut down by order of the Greater Houses. All their stock and their contracts and slaves and real estate were placed in administrative hold until the case be resolved.'

'There are child heirs? No adults at all?'

'Eight under-age children. No adults except for hirelings under contract and debt slaves. Many of the hirelings were naturally released from their contracts, and of the slaves, some were sold to pay for maintenance expenses.' Frowning, he glanced at Priya and O'eki.

'Hu! That's one way to rid yourself of business competition. What merchandise did the House of the Embers Moon deal in?'

'Oil, of course. For as the moon wanes, you've more need of lamps, do you not?'

She smiled. She liked Eliar. He had a mind like hers in many ways, he treated her with a respect she'd never experienced in the house where she had growp up, and of course his clan had shown her nothing but gracious generosity. Most importantly, he was Miravia's beloved brother.

And he was still talking. 'Cooking oils, spiced oils.'

'Rose oil? Other perfumed oils?'

'I suppose so.'

'Oil of naya?'

'They would have had access to the trade route, since seeps lie in the western Barrens beyond the Olo'o Sea.'

'Nut oils? Thatch-tree oil? Mu oil?'

He smiled. 'Oil is not my specialty, so I don't know. This particular warehouse is set up to store their stock in storerooms depending on type and grade.'

She counted the narrow cubicles, opening doors and testing latches. 'Each of these can be separately locked shut.'

'Mistress, I'll check the rooms, take a count, and measure space,' said O'eki.

'Yes.' At the far end of the warehouse a single room ran the width of the space, with heavy braces and tripods for lamps and a pair of elaborately carved low writing desks beside two wide cabinets with numerous small sliding drawers to store parchment and scrolls. 'The main office. What is through those doors?'

'The public receiving rooms of the house. There are private living rooms as well, accessible through a hidden door. This was the clan's headquarters, their main compound in Olossi, so it's an elaborate compound. They own two warehouses in the outer city and a small

estate on West Spur where they grow olives. They stored their best product here, under the watchful eye of loyal guards. The head of the household lived here while residing in the city.'

Mai was tired, her feet hurt, and she had constantly a bad taste in her mouth. She touched her belly, and with a blush drew her hand away in the hope no one had noticed.

Priya was there in an instant, hand under her elbow. 'Mistress, do you need to sit down? I saw trees beyond the walls of the main courtyard. Perhaps there is a garden where you might rest.' The slave looked at their escort.

Eliar nodded. 'I have the keys to the living quarters and gardens as well. Shall we go in?'

A pall of dust had settled over the living quarters. Mai shuddered, finding the vacant quarters eerie in neglect with the furniture left neatly in place and one cabinet door ajar as though someone had meant to get something and then left before closing the door. She kept expecting a stranger — or a ghost — to walk into the chambers.

The compound included two gardens, one an intimate herb and flower garden and the other a larger enclosure with a dozen fruit and nut trees ranked on either side of a pair of tiled basins filled with water and the scattered debris of fallen leaves and withered petals. Priya brushed windblown scraps off a bench under an octagonal pavilion sited between the long pools. Mai sank down gratefully. Several roof tiles had smashed on the paving, and an iron lamp stand listed on one broken leg.

'This is very pretty,' she said, because when she talked she could ignore the bile creeping up the back of her throat.

'It hasn't been maintained.' Eliar surveyed the garden with a critical eye while Chief Tuvi paced the length of the basins and back, counting steps under his breath.

Mai coughed, and swallowed.

'Mistress?' Priya knelt beside her.

'Nothing I shouldn't have expected.'

'Would you like to go back to my family's compound?' Eliar asked, looking pink and embarrassed.

'No.' Louder and more firmly, she repeated herself. 'No. If there are no adults remaining, then who can negotiate for use rights for this compound?'

'The council has appointed a temporary factor to oversee the clan's interests. Usually in such matters a hierophant from one of the temples of Sapanasu is hired until the estate is settled or a child reaches legal age. In this case, as I happen to know…'

Mai pressed a hand to her collarbone as Eliar's words blurred away into meaningless noise.

Chief Tuvi trotted back. 'Mistress?' he asked.

Priya said, matter-of-factly, 'Just the usual sick.'

Mai said, 'Oh, no.'

She stumbled down off the pavilion and made it to a patch of bare earth before vomiting. The wet soil stained the fabric of her gown, and her hands came up dripping crumbs of earth. Yet even with the taste of vomit in her mouth, she felt better.

'Grandmother would say, "Now you have fertilized the garden, you must plant in it.'" She wiped her mouth with the back of a hand.

Eliar flushed as though he'd been burned. Tuvi laughed.

A door slammed shut with a sharp report. Footsteps raced on stone flooring.

Tuvi drew his sword, swearing under his breath. 'Move behind me,' said the chief.

Mai had never forgotten the armed men who had burst into her private chamber in an inn in Sirniaka. She could still see their pragmatic expressions, men bent on killing with no feeling but of business that needed to be concluded. Not again! She ran over to the grizzled soldier, while Priya placed herself between Mai and the house.

Mai's young uncle barged out into the garden. A pair of Qin soldiers followed, not hiding their grins.

'Shai!' cried Mai on a burst of expelled air. 'You frightened me!'

'What's this, Seren? Tarn?' Tuvi's glare jolted all three young men to a halt. 'With all your clattering, I thought the Red Hounds had found this house.'

Shai said nothing, as usual.

Seren was first to speak. 'This one' — he gestured to Shai — 'was in a hurry. Sorry, Chief. Captain Anji is in the warehouse talking to Mountain.'

'His name is O'eki,' said Mai, more curtly than she intended, still panting from the scare.

'Shai calls him Mountain,' said Seren with a shrug.

'I'm going after Hari,' said Shai.

Now that Mai's heart could slow down and with her stomach settling, she saw that Shai was holding his entire body as though ready to leap. 'Uncle Hari? He's dead.'

He hauled her out of earshot of the others. Tuvi grunted, but did not otherwise react.

Shai bent close, whispering in an urgent voice. 'It's my chance to prove myself, Mai. They're letting me go on a scouting expedition into the north, with Tohon and some others.'

'How many of you?'

'Seven.'

Seven sent to scout the trail of a marauding army now in retreat! Already she imagined their violent deaths, just like in the tales, cut to ribbons and the pieces dropped into a dry ravine.

Shai was still talking. 'Father Mei sent me to find Hari's bones and return them to the family. Now I have a chance.'

He glanced over his shoulder toward the waiting Qin as they both heard voices from the inner rooms. His hand tightened on her wrist. She gritted her teeth because he was strong from years of carpentry, and he was anyway more passionate now than she had ever seen him in all the years they had grown up together in the same clan house in faraway Kartu, where she had been everyone's favorite child and Shai had been the youngest and least-favored of Grandmother's seven sons, only two years older than she was. They had played together more like siblings than niece and uncle, and she knew him as well as anyone did.

His round face glowed, and maybe it was sweat but maybe it was determination that animated him. 'I have a chance to prove myself to the Qin.'

More Qin soldiers poured through the doors into the garden. When Anji appeared, still talking to O'eki, Shai released her. She rubbed her wrist as Anji marked Chief Tuvi and Priya, greeted Eliar with a nod, and walked over to her.

'You'll have heard,' he said to Mai. Shai dropped his gaze to the paving stones. 'The scouts leave tomorrow at dawn.' He narrowed his eyes and leaned closer. 'You are sick?'

'I am well, just the usual trouble.'

'What trouble?' demanded Shai.

She made a sharp sideways gesture with her head, and mercifully he took the hint and moved away, then halted to watch them.

'Why does Shai go?' she asked in a low voice. 'He isn't a soldier.'

'It's true he's not ready for the rigors and subtleties of such an assignment, but it would be dishonorable of him not to seek out his missing brother at Horn.'

'He could easily die!'

'Tohon will look after him. There's another reason. You know and I know that for whatever reason, both Shai and I can see the ghosts of the newly dead. He can even hear their voices, which I cannot.'

'Yes, and in Kartu, people who saw ghosts were burned?

'That may be true, but among the Qin, they were honored as holy ones, and in the empire, such boys were taken away to become priests.'

'You weren't.'

'Because I was the son of the Sirniakan emperor, and nephew of the Qin var through his sister, who was my mother.'

'Yet both your father and your uncle betrayed you in the end.'

He shook his head curtly. 'Leave it, Mai. My point is, we don't know how such people are treated in the Hundred, whether honored or hated. But what matters right now is that a man who can hear the voices of newly-made ghosts makes a valuable scout.'

'What if he doesn't come back, Anji? He's my only kinsman here.'

'Then it has fallen out as it will fall out.'

Further argument was useless. Anji was determined, and anyway Shai did have to try to find Hari's bones or he would dishonor the Mei clan. She nodded her acquiescence. Shai, seeing her nod, smiled brilliantly at her, a rare gift from a young man usually frowning.

Anji went on. 'I am thinking it is time for me to ride a circuit of the countryside to survey possible settlement sites for us and the men.'

Anxiety fluttered within her chest. So might a bird react, finding itself caged. Anything might happen. It already had. But Mai knew from long practice how to quiet her fears. She put on her market face. 'Ride west, and survey the estate of the House of the Embers Moon. They also own this compound.'

Anji looked closely at her, rocked back on his heels, and forward again. 'You are interested in renting from the House of the Embers Moon?'

'No. We should acquire the entire house, which has no living adult members, and its assets. I'll have to look through their accounts first. Their specialty trade was in oil. Their primary olive estate lies on West Spur. That road gives access to the trade route for oil of naya.'

'King's oil. Very good, Mai. King's oil saved us.'

'So I was thinking. If we mean to establish ourselves in this country, then it seems to me we should make sure we always have king's oil in our possession.' She frowned.

'What troubles you, plum blossom?'

'West and south lies the empire. I thought today — even Chief Tuvi thought it — what if the Red Hounds follow us here?'

He did not often touch her in public, but he did so now, a delicate touch as light as a bird's as he brushed her hand. He did not smile to placate or reassure her. He never played that dishonest game. He knew the risks, as did she.

'Sometimes you have to fight where you stand,' he said, reminding her of her own words to him. He lifted his hand to show the wolf-sigil ring he had taken from her hand as a sign of the gamble they had mutually agreed on the night they had decided to make that stand, to build a new life in the Hundred. 'We can prepare our ground, so any fight we enter is under circumstances and in the place of our choosing.'

17

The Barrens were a dry and brutal place, thoroughly unpleasant. Kcshad winced as he walked down to the shore of the Olo'o Sea. The air stank, and his eyes watered, but the tears came mostly because of the stabbing pains in his buttocks and thighs.

'You're not accustomed to riding.' Captain Anji halted on a slick shelf of rock lapped by oily water.

'I was a slave,' said Kesh irritably. 'Slaves walk, or at least they do in the Hundred.'

'Yet you walked south over the Kandaran Pass many times in order to trade, and returned safely each time. That suggests you are hardier than you act, and smarter than your sulks and dagger's tongue make you appear.'

Kesh eyed the Qin captain in the last light of the day, with the sun pouring light across the calm salt sea. Anji was a* man of medium height, with the coloring and broad cheekbones common to his Qin tribesmen but a sharp-hooked nose more usually seen among the Sirniakans of the empire. He intimidated Kesh far more than his old master, Feden, ever had, because while Feden had been a tyrant, a man of pouts and rages, he was also a man whose pouting and raging made him vulnerable. As he had been in the end, for the price he had paid for selling out Olossi to the northern army was his own life.

Anji had none of those weaknesses. Kesh was sore not so much because they had been traveling for ten days but because they had pushed on, with a string of mounts for each man, at such a blistering pace. He was rubbed raw in places he did not want to think about. But in this group he would never dream of complaining. Under Anji's leadership, no one complained. They just got on with it.

Now they were many days' ride west of Olossi, having rounded the southern limit of the Olo'o Sea and ridden north into the Barrens with the land-locked sea stretching away to the east and the jagged Spires rising abruptly in the west. Broken tableland bridged the transition between mountains and water.

'You can't farm this land,' said Kesh. 'Not like that estate on the West Spur we stopped at. At least that had a substantial olive grove.' He crouched, drew a finger across flat rock, and tasted the substance on his tongue. It was oily, salty, and entirely nasty. He spat. 'But there are unexploited seeps of oil of naya everywhere in this region, if hard to reach and transport.'

'There's enough grass for sheep and goats to graze. Streams coming down out of the mountains, and other sources of water to be channeled. There may be water and forage enough for horses and even cattle, maybe even fields.' The captain scanned the landscape. 'Maybe a spring is hidden out there.'

They had left West Spur days ago and ridden north-northeast on

a cart track past a few villages and hamlets so isolated that everyone had come to stand at the side of the track to watch fifty Qin soldiers ride past. The locals had been wary, but not scared; as the local experts in oil of naya and pitch, they didn't expect trouble, even from foreigners.

More fools they, thought Kesh. The Qin could have slaughtered them without breaking a sweat.

'There's no one living this far out,' added Anji. 'I haven't even seen herdsmen with flocks.'

'All the villages we passed trade in oil and pitch. There are enough seeps and sinks south of here to keep them in livelihood. I'm sure traders send expeditions into this region occasionally, but it's difficult to transport.' Kesh shaded his eyes. 'If you keep riding north, if there's a path, which I doubt there is, you'll eventually reach the valley of the River Ireni. Ten or twenty days' walk, I'm not sure.'

Anji indicated the sea. 'Has no one thought of sailing from here to Olossi?'

'Trade over the water is expensive to maintain, and anyway there's nothing much to trade. There's a route that runs overland from Olossi around the eastern shore of the sea and then north through the valley of the River Ireni, that I just mentioned. Heaven's Ridge and the Spires meet northwest of there. It's possible to travel over the hump from there into the land beyond the Hundred, the white-grass plains, but it's so dry out there that no one goes that way except to trade with the barbarians — eiya! — that is, the folk who live on the plains.'

'Like the Qin.' That quirk in his lips was Anji's way of showing amusement.

Kesh found himself smiling. 'Like the Qin. Horses, hides, steel, gems, slaves.' The wind off the mountains brought a chill that crawled along his shoulders. He shuddered, thinking of the ghost girl he had brought out of the southern desert. 'I heard there are tribes of demons on the plains. You can tell them by their blue eyes and white-grass hair.'

Anji looked away from Kesh, and something about the way his shoulders stiffened and his jaw moved slightly, as though he was swallowing hatred, made Kesh wonder what the Qin captain was

thinking. 'Plenty of demons. We Qin have battled demons for generations.'

Caution stilled Keshad's tongue. The oily film oozed and bubbled on the rocks, and the smell hit so hard it was like tasting. Then a wave of salt water washed the edge of the shelf, changing the composition of the liquid, and the stink eased.

Anji said, 'You know a great deal about the trading routes in and around the Hundred.'

'How much I know might depend on what it's worth to me.'

Anji's smile made Kesh shiver. 'Your sister's life and freedom, perhaps?'

'You have no control over that!'

'Is that so? The Hieros placed you in my custody, and in my custody you'll remain until the transaction is complete. Yet what can you do? You're not a soldier, a farmer, a herdsman, a craftsman, a poet to weave songs and tales. A man who contributes nothing to the tribe is worthless. If he has his own tent and herd, he may survive on his own, but if hard times come — and they always do — he'll need the support of his kinsmen. You and your sister are alone, without tent or herds. That leaves you vulnerable.'

'Do you want something from me? Just say so!'

The sun set behind the mountains. A fire burned where the Qin soldiers had set up camp. Two guardsmen waited close by, arms crossed and shoulders slumped in a posture that to the untrained eye might appear as boredom, but Kesh knew from experience that the men who guarded Anji never relaxed.

Nor did Anji.

'You may carry an accounts bundle that marks you as a man freed of this debt obligation you Hundred folk call slavery. But a man is not free if his heart is not free. It seems to me, Keshad, that you are always carrying your chains. You trust no man because you cannot trust yourself.' He began to walk carefully along the rock shelf toward drier ground beyond.

Kesh hurried after him, sliding once, arms flailing, and righting himself. 'Why should I trust any man? What man has ever done right by me, or tried to do anything but exploit me?'

Anji's boots crunched on gritty earth. He flashed a grin over his shoulder for no reason Kesh could fathom. 'That's the first sensible

thing I've heard you say since we rode out on this expedition. Trust no man. No man except one who holds honor higher than his own life.'

'Where can I find a man like that?' demanded Kesh.

A cool wind chased down from the heights. The fading light cast a warm glow over peaks whose ragged contours were softened by the change of light. Over the sea, scraps of cloud drifted into shadow, but here there was no rain.

'Where, indeed? "How?" is the question you should ask.'

A spark can touch off a conflagration. Kesh boiled with anger, not even knowing why. 'What makes you think there is a single honorable person in this world?'

The press of darkness swept over them, the bright fire their only beacon in an empty land. Anji spoke in a quiet voice that was nevertheless perfectly clear.

'Because I am married to her.'

18

No one disturbed their encampment in the wild lands bordering the northeastern shore of the Olo'o Sea. As one day passed into the next, the envoy of Ilu figured out how to help the girl in her work. He'd not grown up in the country, with country ways and country skills. He was a city boy by birth and training, accustomed to buying what he needed from the shops and artisans and craftsmen of Nessumara. Yet after so many years of wandering alone, he'd learned to survive.

He cleaned hide, a task he detested. Really, it was so unpleasant to get one's hands so slick and stinking. He wove a crude shelter of green saplings, and built a fire of greenwood to smoke the deer meat. He spent an entire afternoon scouring the stench of glue-making out of his precious iron pot, which had accompanied him tor so many years he sometimes thought of it as a congenial friend. 1 le left the horses to stand guard — for they would be sure to alert him if they sensed an enemy approaching — and ranged wide, gathering edible plants. He walked the shoreline until he found a place

where salt pans had formed. The deer's hooves were boiled, and antlers polished. When she vanished one day with Seeing, he took from Telling's calm manner a message, and he waited for her to return, which she did late in the day bearing the deer skin wrapped around a slimy collection of cattle parts: four horns, raw hide, intestines, sinew, heart, and the best cuts of meat. He asked no questions. She volunteered no answers.

She carved and shaped hooks and drills and points from bone; she chewed sinew to make it malleable, then rolled it into thread. She glued side strips of a denser red wood to the backbone of silver-bark, and in the shallow channel along each face, glued strips of horn. She carved out and smoothed a ring of bone to fit her right thumb.

He sat beside her. She showed him with her hands what she wanted him to do, and he did it: scraping, polishing, grinding, twisting, oiling. Talking, for he could not bear the lack of words.

'As it says in the Tale of Beginnings, "We tell ourselves stories to make the time pass between birth and death". But it's more than that. We tell tales to try to understand the world, the gods, and ourselves. Let me tell you a tale.'

He told the story punctuated by the most basic of gestures, enough to suggest the tale's outlines. As he spoke, she measured and she glued and she shaped, but he was not sure if she listened.

'Long ago, in the time of shadows, a bitter series of wars, feuds, and reprisals laid waste to the countryside and impoverished the lords and guildsmen and farmers and artisans of the Hundred. In the worst of days, an orphaned girl knelt at the shore of the lake sacred to the gods and prayed that peace might return to her land…'

The tale unfolded easily, but then, he had always found it easy to talk.

'… Now it so happened that the girl had walked as a mendicant in the service of the Lady of Beasts, and when the other gods departed, the Lady of Beasts remained behind.

' "They are content," said the Lady of Beasts, "but I see with the sight of eagles and I listen with the heart of an ox. For this reason, I know that in the times to come the most beloved among the guardians will betray her companions."

' "Is there no hope, then, for the land and its people?"-'

He broke off, smiling humbly as he watched her hands.

At last he saw it take shape.

She was making a bow.

She looked up. The feverish gleam of those demon-blue eyes, touching his own gaze, startled him.

'A good bow demands patience,' she said, challenging his stare. 'This one-' She touched the bow at her right hand. '-I'll reflex on a form and store in a dry place for many months. Then maybe after two winters it will become a good bow. This other, if the glue sets properly and I give it more time, maybe it will serve until the other is properly cured. I'll make a pair of simple bows from staves. But a cured bow is best if you want to reliably kill a man.'

He gaped, speech squeezed out of him by the force and content of her words. Her speech was fluid and easy although her vowels were clipped, very short, and she coughed certain consonants and slurred others. Had she known the language of the Hundred all along, or had it poured into her when her destiny enveloped her?

Telling neighed. Seeing raised her head to look upstream.

The girl rose, grabbing the captured bow and a handful of crude arrows, shafts with sharpened points. She pushed her cloak back over her shoulders, to leave her arms unencumbered. He stood, too, gripping his staff.

'What cursed use is it,' he muttered, 'to wait so patiently, to spend these days in silence so the child wakens a little more — with such triumph! — only to be caught yet again by those hells-bitten criminals?' He was shaking, even angry, really just entirely twisted dry of the good humor he prized most of all as a Water-touched Blue Rat sworn to serve Ilu the Herald.

Dusk had crept over them without his noticing. The gleam of their cloaks gave them an aura, and made them targets. The horses, of course, could barely be seen. He saw an inconstant pattern of light fading and waxing by the nearest thicket of chamber-bells; their delicate tinkling caught in the wind.

A woman stepped into view, wrapped in a bone-white cloak. He knew that cloak. Once, he had known the man who wore it.

'Who arc you?' she demanded. 'What are you?'

The girl nocked an arrow and drew back the string with thumb and forefinger.

The woman shifted, not moving closer but not retreating. 'Nay, that was ill-said. I am here to talk with you, nothing more. Do not think I am here to threaten you.' Yet her tone was that of a woman accustomed to ordering people about. 'I would know who and what you are, for others have spoken of you, and I think you are not what you seem. Oh, the hells!'

Almost he chuckled, to hear the voice of authority break with frustration.

She continued. 'Are you Guardians, or are you not? I beg you, tell me what you know so I can understand what has happened to me.'

The girl glanced at him as a soldier looks to her captain for the order to loose, but he shook his head, yet raised a hand to show that she must stay ready.

'Show me your staff,' he called, 'and we can talk.'

'I have a walking stick.' She held out a trim pole. 'I can defend myself, lest you believe otherwise!'

His disappointment was sharper than he expected. Also, he recognized the stab of fear that pricked his breast, but he smiled to show a bland face. 'No need to quarrel with me. I am a peaceful man, camping here in the wilderness where I had hoped to bide undisturbed.'

'You don't trust me!'

'It seems you are standing a long way from me.'

'I want to trust you. But I don't know who to trust. I have seen others…' She glanced at the girl with a shake of her head. Then she clucked, and a pale shape moved out of the shadows: a horse.

Telling snorted, as in greeting, and the other horse replied with a whinny and a toss of its head. Seeing flicked her ears dismissively.

'What others?' he asked, because, alas, he knew now what she was. She belonged to his opponents, her staff held by them as hostage to keep her a prisoner to their will. They had sent her to hunt him down.

'There's no point in loosing that arrow at her,' he said to the girl, 'because even if you hit her squarely, you cannot harm her.'

She nodded to show she'd heard, but her gaze, and the arrow, remained fixed on the target.

'There are others like us,' said the woman.

'How do you know?'

'I have spoken to them within the labyrinth.'

'Have you approached them, as you approached me?'

She smiled, an ironic quirk that made him want to like her. But he must not succumb to congeniality; he had made that mistake a long long time ago.

'No, for it seemed to me that they smelled sweet with corruption. I am a reeve — that is, I was a reeve — so I knew better than to trust them.'

'Tell me your story. Don't come any closer. I can hear you perfectly well from here.'

She laughed bitterly. 'There! I'm told by your words what you think of me. Yet what choice have I?'

Her horse nuzzled her arm. She fished in a sleeve and plucked out a turnip. This delicacy the mare peeled daintily from her hand. Telling and Seeing watched the exchange with interest; was that an accusatory gaze Seeing turned on him, as if to say Where's my treat?

She went on. 'My name is Marit, if indeed I am still who I once was, which I at times doubt. I was a reeve, out of Copper Hall. My eagle was called Flirt.' At the name her voice hardened, choking down anger. 'I believe I must be dead. I was stabbed in the heart twenty years ago when I was taken prisoner by men under the command of Lord Radas. It surprised me then, for I'd seen Lord Radas stand in authority over the assizes in Iliyat some months before that day, and he seemed a man like any other. I understand now that he had changed to become something other than what he was before.'

'He had become a Guardian.'

She covered her eyes with the back of a hand, then lowered the hand. 'Yes, that's what I have had to come to believe. For a long while after I was stabbed I was not awake, not aware, but not asleep either. Dead, yet I never passed the Spirit Gate. I have been alone since that day'

'Why would you trust me with this secret?'

'You don't have the stink of corruption that the others do. You know what I am, don't you?'

'In some ways I may, but in more ways I do not. Therefore, alas, I

cannot trust you. She has been trying to find and destroy me for years, but I have so far eluded her.'

'Who is she}'

He waited, to see how she would answer herself, but she only watched him with a hard stare. Eager to hear. Desperate to understand. Aui! He wanted to like her. It was true there was no taint to the air, no vile taste on his tongue, nothing to suggest that she had turned on the path away from the lit road and walked into the shadows. That she was what she claimed to be was inarguable. The cloak at her shoulders gleamed with the pallor of bone. The horse — he'd not seen this mare before, or if he had he did not recognize its markings and face — tolerated her; maybe it even liked her.

Taking pity, he said at last, 'If you don't know who she is, then I will not tell you.'

'What then?' she demanded, goaded to a burst of temper. 'How can I gain your trust? I need allies. And I am guessing that you do, too, for you speak of opponents. Meanwhile, not all the Guardians are accounted for, are they?'

He began shaking, exhausted by the long years of running and hiding and by the terrible hope that this precious ghost girl would not turn away from him on the day she came fully awake.

'I'll tell you this,' said Marit. She wasn't one to give up easily. 'Myself, that's one. I heard of your existence from others, not from others wearing the cloak but from a reeve who spoke to a hieros, who spoke of how you came to the temple and claimed that girl. That's why I sought you out, and how I found you. You're two more. That makes three Guardians. Lord Radas makes four. And I have encountered three others who I believe are allied with Radas. One is called Hari, one is Yordenas. The third is a woman wearing a cloak of night. That makes seven. But there are nine Guardians. Where are the other two? What are we, if we are not the Guardians spoken of in the stories? If we are not the Guardians who sit in authority at the assizes, who guard the law on which the land is built? What happened to the real Guardians? Why did they vanish, and why are you and I here now? Do you know the answers?'

For once it was easy for him not to speak. Without trust, there

can be no free exchange. Without trust, there can be no answers that have a hope of sounding out the truth.

'What can I do to earn your trust?' Her gaze burned, but he would be veiled to her just as she was veiled to him. The third eye granted to the Guardians by Ushara the Devourer allowed them to see into the hearts of mortal men, not into the hearts of other Guardians.

'Kotaru the Thunderer gave each Guardian a staff,' he said. 'Where is yours?'

T don't know. I never had one.'

Maybe she was a very good liar. Maybe she was as ignorant as she seemed. He had no way of knowing, and no way of finding out.

How sad, really, that he sought to teach the girl to trust him, while refusing to trust this woman who was, after all, asking of him nothing more than he was asking of the girl. If she was what she said she was, then they might join forces. There was strength in numbers. There was hope in numbers. Alone, he and the girl could do nothing but run. Here she came, offering the thing he desired most. No doubt his enemies knew that. So easily they could tempt him, snare him, and destroy him. Take the girl for themselves. And plunge the Hundred so deep into the shadows that he couldn't see how the land could ever recover.

'The hells!' she said at last. 'Can you not help me? Will you not?'

Weary, he remained silent.

'Eiya!' Then she laughed. She wasn't a fragile creature, one crushed by a single blow. He could well believe she had been a reeve. She had a reeve's confident physical stance, and measuring, deliberate stare. A good reeve was stubborn and observant. 'Aui! The man I loved — and love still — now thinks of me only with regret and pain, while it's another, younger, woman who he burns for in his thoughts with passion and longing. While you won't talk to me at all. So be it. I've wandered too long hoping to find someone to tell me what I am and what I must do now. You've taught me something, ver, by just standing there with your friendly smile and wishing me gone. I have to find out the truth where it lies within myself. I must walk into the shadows, and see if I am strong enough to come out unscathed, with the truth fixed in my heart and my duty carried in my hands.'

She waited a moment longer. When he did not answer, she led the mare away into the trees. The rattle of their leaving faded. The wind sighed in the underbrush.

Seeing whinnied, and the other horse — now out of sight — called in answer.

'Have I made a terrible mistake?' he said to the;air, to the sky, to the earth, to the water.

The girl looked at him, her gaze a question, perhaps even an act of trust.

He nodded. 'We must pack up. It's time to move on. Quickly now, lass. Quickly.'

19

After the gates were unlocked, the women who had been waiting all morning on the hot Olossi street were herded into a courtyard surrounded by high walls. Avisha trudged in, carrying Zianna and holding Jerad by the hand. Their keepers, a foursome of militiamen hired to maintain order, kept up a running patter of crude jokes. 'Heh. I wonder if those Qin soldiers have swords or prickles, eh?' 'Sharp as their swords, eh? I wouldn't want one swiving me.' 'This lot hasn't much choice. Heya! Rufi, look there. Isn't that your mother? Eihi! No call to go hitting me, just a joke.'

Avisha kept her head down. Fortunately, she was not the only woman here burdened by children, so perhaps that wasn't an immediate disqualification for marriage. Her arms were numb from the weight of holding Zianna. Jerad was sniffling.

She pushed him over toward a small door set into one wall where the tops of pipewood rising on the other side of the wall offered a silver of shade. A beggar in a red cap and ragged kilt who was leaning against the door in that shade kindly moved away as she and the children approached. She sagged against the door, wiping sweat from her neck as she looked around.

The court's stone pavement and high, whitewashed walls suggested it was either an unloading ground for wagons, or an open space for people to work. She had no idea how things worked in a

city as big as Olossi, with its crowded streets and aggressive inhabitants as likely to shove you out of the way as wish you the blessings of the day. Her eyes watered from all the cook-smoke and from ash that still drifted off the burned sections of the lower city. Clouds were piling up in the east, and she was sure that on top of everything, it was going to rain.

'Vish.' Jerad's voice threaded into a whine. The sad little sprout sagged against the wall, his legs crossed.

'You have to be patient, Jer.' She shifted the sleeping girl, Zianna's weight aching her shoulder. The little girl's naming-day clothes — the nicest garments anyone in the family had ever owned — were dirt-stained and stinking from being urinated in more than once; the once-precious orange silk was probably beyond salvaging after all those days on the road. 'Just a little longer. See those double doors, there?'

She pointed with her free elbow.

The women pressed forward to cluster around the impressive wooden doors that gave access into a building bigger than Sapanasu's temple hall in the village. There was a door in each wall of the vast courtyard. To the east, gates led to the street. The warehouse entry doors carved with elaborately twined salamanders were set in the western wall. To the north stood a gate trimmed in iron, big enough for wagons. The small door against which Avisha and the children huddled was the kind of entrance regular people passed through. The trees rising on the other side of the wall meant there was a garden beyond, filled with cool shade and, perhaps, a fountain. She licked dusty lips with a parched tongue.

'Don't crowd!' shouted one of the militiamen as he reined his horse in a mincing circle, whip raised.

There were about fifty women, with perhaps twenty children in arm or in tow. Most of the women were young; some were older. Most were wrapped in a plain cotton taloos or dressed in the linen tunic and trousers worn by farmers and artisans and laborers. Poor clans desperate enough to send their daughters and sisters to make a marriage with outlanders; impoverished widows eager to find a home with their children. The beggar shuffled through the crowd, trolling for alms among folk likely as poor as he was!

A pair of elegant city girls passed him a few vey and returned to their conversation.

'My uncle told me to demand nothing less than forty cheyt as a marriage portion. They can afford it. They took the whole treasury. Greedy bastards.'

'Forty cheyt? Whew! You could never hope to see that much coin in your whole life. Who's being greedy?'

'It's fair payment for having to marry a dirty outlander.'

'Best make sure they don't find out about-' Their voices dropped to a whisper.

A girl with a bright red birthmark splayed over one cheek kept lifting a hand to cover her face. 'Auntie, don't you think they'll turn me away the instant they see me? Can't we just go home? I'd rather go to the temple than be scorned again.'

'Quiet! The dowry the temple is demanding is more than we can afford. We'll offer you to the outlanders with no request for a bride price at all. That might induce them to take you.'

A middle-aged man fussed over two girls dressed neatly in farmers' best, each in a cotton taloos, one dyed a calm sorrel green and the other a reassuring bracken orange-brown. 'Be polite. Be respectful. It's a good opportunity but there's no need to sign any contract unless you're truly willing.'

'Papa, you've said this twelve times.'

He smoothed down the hair of one, twisting the end of her braid, and tugged out a wrinkle in the cloth draped over the shoulder of the other. 'They have to prove themselves to you, girls, in the same way you have to prove yourselves to them. They're folk just like any other, even if they look different than we do and have different ways.'

Avisha wiped her forehead again. Taru have mercy! It was so hot. Thunder rumbled, but the clouds hadn't yet gotten to the city. Her hair felt stringy and tangled, however much she had tried to keep it combed and clean. She'd washed out her one good taloos a day ago, in a stream, but it had gotten stepped on and there was a big smudge of red clay dirt smeared across her hips. She hoped her face was clean, but Zianna would keep rubbing her hands in the dirt and then patting her big sister's cheeks.

i have to pee.' Jerad's body was jiggling as he tried to hold it in.

Tears dribbled down his face. 'I don't want to wet myself out here in front of everyone.'

If only Nallo were here!

But Nallo had been marched off to the reeve hall. They'd probably never see her again.

A shout from the gate startled her. A troop of grim Qin soldiers dressed in black rode into the courtyard from the street. She'd seen them during the long march from the Soha Hills to Olossi with the other refugees, but except for the day she and Nallo had encountered them on the trail, she'd not spoken to one. Every gaze shifted to stare with fear or apprehension at the newcomers.

If Nallo were here, Avisha knew what she would do.

'The hells!' She grabbed the boy by the wrist. 'Come on.' She jiggered the latch and found the door unlocked. They slipped through while every eye in the courtyard was fixed on the Qin soldiers.

She closed the door behind them and sank against it, breathing hard. A stand of hatmaker's pipewood screened the door. Jerad fumbled at his trousers — she'd made him put on his only pair so he would look respectable — and with a snivel of relief let go of his water. The spray rattled so loudly Avisha thought the whole city must hear, but the clamor of horses in the courtyard drowned him out. Her arms ached, and she looked around to see if there was anywhere she might put down Zi.

They stood in the shadowed corner of a walled garden. A larger garden lay beyond a second wall, green with fruit and nut trees, but this modest garden was laid out in a square with beds and troughs for medicinal plants, now overgrown and neglected, and stands of pipewood or shrubs of rice-grain-flower and purple-thorn and other such useful plants set against the walls. In the corner opposite her hiding place, a second door stood ajar. Just a few steps from it, a young woman sat on a bench. With her shoulders bowed, she was weeping too softly to be heard, but weeping nonetheless, wiping her face with the back of a hand as she lifted her head.

She was an outlander! She didn't look like the Qin, with their flat faces and broad cheeks. She was some other breed of outlander. She wore sumptuous silks, the kind of cloth only a rich woman could afford or that, if the stories were true, a rich man would lavish on

a valuable bed slave. A broom lying slantwise across the walkway and a hem of dust on her silks betrayed that she'd been sweeping.

Avisha gaped. How could she risk dirtying such magnificent silks by wearing them to sweep in? What manner of person was she? Had she tried her luck at a marriage contract only to be rejected? Or did she live in this grand compound?

Jerad coughed as the river slacked to a trickle, and ceased.

'Who's there?' said the girl in a cool, firm voice. You'd never have guessed she'd been crying.

Avisha stepped out from the pipewood, trying to keep her voice calm and her hands from shaking. 'I'm sorry, verea. I was just waiting out in the courtyard with the others when my little brother had to pee. He's just nine, you know how it is, and tired from all the waiting.'

The girl examined Avisha and the sleeping Zianna critically. 'Where is he?' she asked with a pretty smile but a searching gaze.

'Here, Jer, come out,' said Avisha.

The boy stumbled out to the open square, still tying up his trousers. He saw the other woman, and his mouth dropped open. 'Her eyes are pulled all funny. Is something wrong with her?'

'Hush! Don't be rude! I'm so sorry, verea. He's just a sprout. We've never been to the city before. We don't see outlanders where we come from.'

'No offense taken,' said the girl as her shoulders relaxed. She squeezed back the last of her tears and sniffed hard, then wiped her nose with the back of a hand. The more she spoke, the more you could hear the funny way she had of speaking, the sounds squished tight so it was hard to understand her. 'What is your name?'

'I'm called Avisha, verea. This is my brother Jerad, and my little sister Zianna.'

'You are here for the interview?'

'Surely I am. There's quite a few out there, truly.'

'That's a surprise. In the first five days after the announcement in the markets, only fourteen women came to the gate. I do not know why so many crowded in today.'

'Do you live here?' Avisha gestured to the peaked roofs that marked the buildings of the greater compound.

'1 do.'

'Sheh! Whoever is gardener of this place should be hauled out and whipped. No one is taking care of these valuable plants!'

'It has been neglected, that is true.' The girl examined the garden as if she was really getting a good look at it for the first time. 'Why are they valuable?'

'To start with, that's a nice stand of hatmaker's pipewood, although it needs thinning. My mam would crush the seeds of purple-thorn — there — to kill insects in the storeroom. You can perfume clothes with the rice-grain-flower…' Now that the girl's flush of tears had faded and her face was more at ease, Avisha saw that she was lovely despite her odd features. She had lustrous black hair bound into a long tail with a ribbon; the tail hung to her hips. 'Or you can put a spray of the flowers in your hair, like an ornament.'

All at once, she felt sorry for the other girl. No one rich enough to wear silks of such quality would also wield a broom. She knew the tales as well as anyone. A rich merchant house could afford foreign slaves, and of course a life slave had no rights at all. Nothing about them belonged to themselves, not like a debt slave, who might hope to pay off the debt and walk free of all claim. No wonder the poor girl had been crying. 'You're from the south, aren't you?'

The girl had been scrutinizing the rice-grain-flower, brushing at her hair where an ornamental flower might adorn her, but she turned back to Avisha. 'I am, that's true.'

'You have a funny way of pronouncing things.' The idiotic words sounded worse now that they hung in the air, awaiting an answer, so Avisha stumbled on. 'I'm sorry for your trouble. I saw you were crying. We didn't mean to interrupt. It's just the boy had to pee so badly and didn't want to wet himself.'

'Vish!' hissed Jerad indignantly.

No, I'm glad you came.' The girl patted the bench. 'Sit beside me. I am glad of a girl my own age to talk to.' As Avisha approached, the girl indicated a shady spot in one corner of the paved square.

'Ooof!' Jerad stopped short with a squeal of outrage followed by a childish giggle. 'Did you see what she did?'

'What did I do?' asked the girl, alarmed.

Avisha wanted to slap the runt, but he didn't know any better. 'Nothing, verea. It's just rude to point with your finger like that.'

'Ah.' The girl stared at her for a moment with her mouth open in a smile that wasn't quite sincere and wasn't quite false; anxious, maybe, or embarrassed. She had all of her teeth, and they were as white as the landlady's string of precious pearls, so perfect that Avisha felt a stab of ugly jealousy for the careless beauty she would herself never ever possess. Then the smile faded, and the girl rose, with dignity, revealing a shawl that she had draped over the bench and on which she had been sitting. This she spread in the shade. 'The little one can rest here.'

'My thanks!'

It was such a relief to have Zi's weight off her arms and back that Avisha almost wept, but instead she sank down on the bench beside the outlander and rested her head wearily in her hands. Still suspicious, Jerad sat down cross-legged beside Zi. His head drooped, his eyes closed, and he dozed off.

'Why do you want to marry one of the outlanders?' the girl asked. 'Most Hundred folk don't seem eager.'

'There's a good group waiting out there today.'

'Good, or numerous?'

Avisha laughed. 'There are a lot of them. There were two women there, dressed as fine as ever I did see, in city fashion, nothing like we'd ever see in my village. All they could talk about was how much coin they mean to demand in exchange for marrying. I didn't think that was nice. But there was a nice father, telling his daughters they'd best be polite, and that they could look things over and make their own choice if they wished to wed an outlander. That was kind of him, for usually the clan gives you no choice. You know how it is.'

Only what a stupid thing to say to a slave who was no longer her own person!

The girl smiled softly. It was hard to tell if she was happy or sad. 'Truly, sometimes a person isn't given a choice.'

Impulsively, Avisha reached toward her, but drew back before she touched the other girl's arm because the gesture seemed so intrusive, so bold, so intimate. 'Eiya! I shouldn't chatter so much. That's what Nallo says.'

'I don't mind your chatter. I like it. You remind me a little of my sister. Maybe it's only that we're of an age.'

'I was born in the Year of the Ox.'

'Why, so was I! Who is Nallo?'

'My father's wife.'

'She's not your mother?'

Avisha looked at Zi, sprawled on the shawl and snoring with toddler snuffles in the blessed shade. 'My mother is dead. My father remarried soon after. That's Nallo.'

'A second wife! Is she kind to you, or awful?'

'She's got a murderous temper, and she slapped me once! But then Father got angry at her, and he never loses his temper, so she apologized and she never did it again. How I wish she was here. She's very tough-minded. Nothing scares her.'

'Where is she?'

'They took her to the reeve hall. They said she was chosen by an eagle and she has to be a reeve even though she doesn't want to be one.'

'Is that how it goes? You get chosen by an eagle? Even women?'

'Of course even women,' said Avisha. Really, outlanders were so ignorant! 'If an eagle chooses you, then you have to be a reeve. Isn't it that way where you come from?'

'We don't have reeves where I come from. Although I suppose that's not true anymore. I come from here, now.' The girl's expression brightened momentarily, then darkened as she recalled a bitter thought. She sighed heavily. 'Hu! Enough of feeling sorry for myself. What of your father, then? Where is he?'

It was like being slapped in the face.

'My father's dead, isn't he?' Avisha snapped.

The girl flinched, and the echo of the words — not the sound but the ugly anger in her own voice — made Avisha cringe with the vivid memory of the ruined village, the swarming flies, the sweet stink of rotting flesh, and the acrid stench of burned houses. Of the way the mellow green cloth of her father's jacket and trousers had rucked up around his corpse. She mustn't bring that anger with her now, or she'd never save herself and the children. She heaved in breaths, shaking.

The outlander draped an arm around her shoulders. 'You're safe here.'

'How can we be safe?' Avisha sobbed into her hands. She'd hammered it in for so many days. 'We've no close kin. We owe rent to

the landlady, so she wants to sell our labor, so we'd have to become slaves. All I can hope for is that some outlander I don't know might want to marry me because people say I'm pretty, and that counts for something, although you must wonder what I'm frothing on about thinking too well of myself since I must look like a field hen with my feathers all every-way for I haven't had a bath in days and our clothes must be stinking, and all torn besides. And I have the little ones and I can't just let them go. I wouldn't anyway, and it would be a terrible dishonor to my father's memory to sell their labor just to save myself. Now what will we do? Who will want us all? Why would anyone agree to take us in?'

Her voice became brisk and competent. 'Priya, bring me a cup of sweet ginger cordial.'

Avisha gulped down sobs and raised her head, but there was no one else in the garden. The little ones still slept. They were so very tired. She was all they had, now that Nallo had been dragged from them. She hadn't leisure for weeping. She was an artisan's daughter, accustomed to working hard, not some city-bred girl lounging in elegant fashions and thinking she could get forty cheyt — whoever had forty cheyt altogether except maybe the temples! — from some outlander to marry him.

With a fierce scowl, she rubbed the tears from her cheeks and swallowed her fear and her anger. 'Eiya! I don't know what came over me. Best I leave you, verea. I'm sure you have your duties to be about. I wouldn't want you to get beaten for shirking.'

'No, I wouldn't want that either. Here is Priya and she's brought some ginger cordial. Won't you taste it? It's very good. It's my favorite right now, for it settles the stomach. Priya, maybe some juice for the two little ones, although I don't think we should wake them yet.'

A woman with amazingly dark skin and round outlander features offered her a cup with a kindly smile. Dazed, she took it and sipped the most glorious sweet ginger concoction, sharp but light on the tongue. Its bite rose to her eyeballs, making them water.

'Eihi! That's good!'

The girl stood, her expression transforming as she smiled. The older woman took several steps back. Belatedly, Avisha turned to look behind her.

'Here you are, Mai.'

A man walked into the garden, wiping wet hands. He wore black, like the Qin, and he was accompanied by a middle-aged Qin soldier with the typical round face and merry eyes of the foreigners and by a huge man with a slight slump and a complexion rather like the pretty girl's. Outlanders, all. The man was not handsome but not ordinary. He halted with his hands out in front of him, registered Avisha's presence, and looked around the garden as if expecting a tiger to leap out and devour him. Of course he noticed the sleeping children. He looked back at her. Really, he was a fearsome man with a commanding stare, a sword swinging casually at his hip, and a way of looking at you that made Avisha feel she had done something very wrong.

Then he looked away. The older woman handed him a cloth and he finished wiping dry his hands.

'You are returned.' The young woman used that same cool voice Avisha had noticed when she and the little ones had first stumbled into the garden, but Avisha thought she understood it better now: it was the voice of a woman holding her emotions in check.

'We are returned, and we have seen much to interest us. Who is this?' He pointed at Avisha. 'Who are those children?'

'Don't point with your finger, Anji. It's considered rude. This is Avisha. And that is… ah, Jerad, and the little girl is Zi'an, I think.'

'Zianna,' said Avisha reflexively. 'Zi'an would be a boy's name although that would be very old-fashioned.'

'Thank you,' said the girl. 'Avisha, this is Captain Anji.'

Avisha rose hastily and brushed off her horrifically rumpled and dirty clothing.

'Where did she come from?'

'From the courtyard gate.' Mai indicated the stand of pipewood. 'Now that I think of it, Chief, how will I ever convince the Ri Amarah to allow one of their daughters to visit me if I can't promise a secure house?'

The middle-aged man narrowed his eyes. 'That door was secure at dawn, for I checked it myself.' He trotted over to the gate.

The captain's gaze assessed Avisha. He was like the temple clerks, toting up numbers that might not bring them any personal benefit but needed accounting because that was their job and one they were

accustomed to doing well. 'Who is she? Certainly not one of the Red Hounds, for they don't admit women to their ranks. An assassin from the temples, perhaps?'

Mai seemed amused. 'She's a girl from a village. These are her siblings. She hopes to find a husband among the troop.'

'Ah.' He handed the cloth to the older woman and turned to look through the open door, into an interior Avisha could not see. 'Nothing I need concern myself with, then. Mai, I have an idea Keshad might actually be useful.'

The older soldier walked back to them, shaking his head in disgust. 'When I find out who left that unsecured, I'll whip him myself.'

'Tuvi-lo,' said the captain. 'Where did the prisoner go off to? He was right behind us.'

Inside, a familiar voice rose. 'Don't touch that! Don't you know a priceless vase when you see one? What kind of five-burned fool are you?'

The splintering crash of ceramic meeting floor answered the question. Gales of laughter followed this assault, accompanied by a few choice swear words that genuinely shocked Avisha, for the only person she had ever heard say such rude things was the disreputable village drunk.

'Who did that?' demanded Mai in a voice meant to carry indoors. 'If that vessel was truly valuable, then the owners of this house will have to be paid its value out of your own portion. What a waste!'

Her words cut short the laughter. Three young men filed into the garden. One was smirking, one was still stifling laughter, and the third was fuming with such intensity that Avisha expected steam to rise from the top of his curly black hair. Eiya! He was the man with the handsome eyes and the overbearing sister who had rescued them at Candra Crossing and gotten them across the river.

The law had caught up with him.

His gaze passed over her, and she found herself smiling stupidly only he had already looked away without any flicker of recognition. He glanced first at Mai, then looked at the captain and, flushed, glared down at the paving stones.

It hurt to be dismissed so easily. Avisha was used to being known as a pretty girl in her village, but she also knew perfectly well that

her village wasn't very large and that the world must be populated with women twelve times more beautiful than she could ever hope to be. And yet those two young Qin soldiers were looking at her in a gratifying way even if she did wish it was Keshad who found her of interest. In fact, the soldiers were staring as if they recognized her, and all at once she remembered the one with the pretty eyes. He had been part of the cadre that had intercepted them on the road in the Soha Hills. His teasing grin made her grin shyly in return, and his grin widened.

'Which of you did it?' asked Mai in her cool voice.

Keshad's head came up. 'It's not just these two. They were all jostling and making jokes with no respect for the possessions of others! They all need a lesson in good manners!'

'You're called Keshad, aren't you?' asked Mai in a kind voice that would have killed most men and made Keshad shut right up. 'I need to hear from these two men what they will say. I thank you.'

He gulped down a couple of breaths. Poor man! He felt things so deeply. But even as she thought it, Avisha saw Priya and the big man exchange an intimate glance, and the big man rolled his eyes and mouthed something that made Priya look at Keshad and smile with unconcealed amusement.

The clip-clop-clap of hooves on stone clattered in the courtyard; a buzz of women talking in low voices droned under. The sounds of hooves faded, shuttered by a clang of closing gates. Chief Tuvi walked over to the children and gently tipped Jerad so he could rest comfortably on the ground beside Zianna. Then he returned to stand by the captain. Everyone looked at the two Qin soldiers.

The soldier with the pretty eyes spoke first. 'It slipped out of my hands.'

'I told you!' muttered Keshad.

Mai said, 'Chaji, why did you drop the vase? After he said it was valuable?'

Chaji shrugged. 'How could I have known he knew what he was talking about? I only meant it as a bit of fun. I didn't mean to drop it. It slipped.'

'You may go, Chaji,' said the captain. 'You'll continue to ride with the tailmen until I say otherwise.'

His eyes widened; his mouth twitched. Yet as quickly as anger

flashed, he controlled it, tightening his lips into a straight line. He nodded obediently, spun, and left the garden. The other Qin soldier began to follow, but Anji raised a hand.

'Hold on, Jagi. What do you have to say for yourself?'

The soldier's gaze shifted toward Keshad, who was still glaring at the pavement. Then he looked back at his captain.

'Chief Tuvi,' said the captain, 'place Keshad in a private chamber with guards.'

'Come on,' said Chief Tuvi with a cough that was almost a laugh.

When they were gone, the captain nodded at the remaining soldier. 'Jagi?'

Jagi scratched his pock-scarred chin. Like all the Qin, he had a mustache but no beard to speak of, just wisps of hair on his chin. Captain Anji alone had a neatly trimmed beard.

'Speak,' said the captain.

Jagi sighed. 'Captain, none of us like him. That's the truth. First, some of us journeyed many days with him and his most excellent sister. Now we've traveled with him again to the barren lands and back. He's arrogant. He's unfriendly. He treats us with no respect. He never shared wine or ale but hoarded his own cup. So I suppose I thought he had it coming. I admit I enjoyed seeing the way his mouth frogged open and his eyes bugged out.' His grin made his eyes wrinkle and look merry.

'An honest answer, but yours was the behavior of a boy, not of a man.'

The smile fled. 'Yes, Captain.'

'Furthermore, you know what situation we find ourselves in. We must establish ourselves as settlers in this land, respected and accepted by those we mean to live among, while at the same we know that a dangerous threat remains, one we do not understand nor know the extent of. I need my tailmen to become men, so I can assign each one of you to stand as sergeants over recruits. To survive, we have to protect ourselves. To protect ourselves, we need what our enemy already has: an army. You may go.'

'Yes, Captain.' He left.

Mai said, 'Anji, after the battle, you told the council of Olossi you were not minded to accept the post of commander of the militia of Olossi.'

'Because the commander of the militia of Olossi can accomplish very little. This whole region needs a militia, not just the city. We need a militia, plum blossom, so our children may grow up.' He shifted, reaching to take Mai's hand, but before he touched her he caught himself, glanced at Avisha, and withdrew his hand.

Mai rested a hand on her abdomen. 'You think the army wearing the star will attack again.'

'I am sure they will.'

Avisha sank onto the bench.

Trembling, Mai sat beside her and took hold of her hands. 'Don't fret. You'll be safe.'

'I would attack, in their place,' he continued. 'But I would also assign new commanders, get better discipline in my troops, and most importantly I would send-' Looking at Avisha, he broke off. Paused. And started again. 'I would do what I have already done.'

'Shai is not ready for this,' Mai whispered, and Avisha thought she did not mean the captain to hear, but he did.

He said, "If you do it, don't be afraid."

She smiled wanly. 'I will not falter. It's just that sometimes it seems so hard.'

He nodded. 'Mai, we'll get the land we need. We'll build a stronghold and set up our perimeter. While you run the business, I'll teach the people of Olo'osson how to fight. Between us, we can survive.'

'Of course,' said Mai faintly as her expression twisted. She swayed, covering her mouth.

He said, briskly, 'Priya, can you fetch her some of that sweet ginger cordial she likes?'

'Here's my cup,' said Avisha.

The older woman whisked the cup out of Avisha's hand and knelt beside Mai. 'Just take a sip, little flower.'

It seemed unfair that the woman had ripped away her chance to give a kindness to repay the kindness shown her. She glanced at the children; their ragged clothes and dirty faces wouldn't help her cause. But she had been rehearsing speeches for days now, making lists of reasons she would make a good wife. 'My mam taught me a tincture, steeped herbs, that helps settle the stomach of pregnant women. I can make some for you.'

Mai was still sipping, looking almost cross-eyed with nausea, trying to hold it in.

Avisha looked up, straight into the gaze of the captain. Finally, she had caught his interest, and she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin and felt that her ears were going to burn off, only they didn't. 'For instance, you've got a nice stand of tallow-berry over in that corner.' She pointed with her elbow. 'Mama would say, "Inedible, good tallow for candles, oil pressed from the seeds good for varnish or paint and can be used as lamp oil although poor quality, residue of dry cakes with oil pressed out is good for fertilizer, also soap." The wood carves well, and can be burned for incense. The leaves produce black dye if boiled in alum…'

He smiled so suddenly it made her heart jolt.

'Choose wisely,' he said, transferring his gaze to Mai. 'They're not all of equal worth.'

Avisha flushed, seared as though by lightning. He had already turned his back, and anyway, a man like him was far beyond her reach. While Priya fussed, he went inside, followed by the big man talking about sheep and wool.

'That's better,' said Mai, sitting back with a sigh. 'I thought sure it would all come out.'

Priya set down the cup, then examined Avisha. She had a dark gaze so deep it seemed to go on forever. When she touched Avisha's hand, tears stung in Avisha's eyes although she didn't know why.

'You'll stay with us,' said Priya. 'Won't you?'

Tears spilled, and she began to laugh as much as cry, for it was raining finally, a mist that smeared the dirt and pattered among the leaves, presaging a fiercer storm to come.

'You'll want a bath,' added Priya with a kind smile. 'Once you've gotten it all out.'

'I just didn't think-'

'There, now,' said Mai. 'I have to interview all those women. 1 ater, if you feel able, maybe you can point out to me the ones who were talking about coin.'

'O-Of course.' She gulped several times and found she could swallow, she could breathe, she could think. She fixed her jaw, braced herself. 'I'm so grateful. B-But I'll need a contract. So I have

a chance to choose a husband from among the s-soldiers-' Or Keshad, if he would have her. Thinking of him made her skin scald with heat because she was so stupid, but she was alone, the only one the little ones had left. She had to proceed as she knew Nallo would, by being forceful and bold. '-and that I'm assured n-no one will change his mind and throw me out. The children have to come with me and be treated as full kin, not debt slaves having to work to offset the expense of keeping them.'

Mai laughed. 'I do like you. Is there anything else?' To think of her father was to yearn for him, to wish the gate might open and he, with his gentle smile and with a half-braided cord in hand, would walk in to greet her. The grief of knowing he was truly gone had not lifted, and she supposed it never would. Yet she had hope she could raise the children, and honor their father's memory by doing so.

'It's just a small thing, and I don't think it would be too hard… it's just… I would like know how Nallo is faring.'

'I don't like you,' said Nallo. 'So quit bothering me.'

'Eiya! I was just trying to be nice.' The young reeve took his bowl of soup and his inane banter, obviously meant to impress her, and walked over to another table in the eating hall where he was greeted with friendly cheers.

She thought herself shed of them, able to eat the spicy cawl-flower soup in peace without a bunch of chattering pleasantries, when another cursed reeve plopped down beside her.

'I don't like Siras either,' said this man. 'All that glad-handing talk, like a cursed entertainer.' He placed his bowl on the table, nudged it to the right, and stared at the dumpling floating in the center surrounded by limp cawl petals and specks of bright red pepper. 'Did they replace the cook? This looks more appetizing than the last meal I ate here.'

'1 wouldn't know. I only got here yesterday. And I plan to leave tomorrow.'

He chuckled. 'Don't you remember me? I'm Volias.' 'Yes, 1 remember you. You made me leave the children I'm responsible for and come here to Argent I Iall, where I don't want to

be. And since I'm not planning to stay, I don't see why I should have to remember anyone's name.'

'You're very irritating and rude,' he said appreciatively. 'Will you promise me you'll be this rude to the marshal?'

Nallo wasn't used to people smiling at her. It made her suspicious. 'Why do you want me to be rude to him?'

'Because I don't like him. Not enough people are rude to him, just because he's charming and good looking. How like them not to see past his handsome face to the insufferably smug and self-righteous man beneath!'

'Will being rude to him help me get out of here?'

He laughed. She wasn't a good judge of laughter. She couldn't tell if he was laughing sympathetically, or if he was laughing at her, and that made her bristle.

'Why are you so ill-tempered?' he asked.

'I didn't say anything!'

' "A look's as good as a hundred words", as it says in the tale. Have you always been this way?'

'So they tell me!' She turned her attention back to her soup, sipping cautiously, but it had just the right sting of pepper to really make your eyes open as you swallowed the rich broth.

He tried his own.

'This is good,' he added, as if she weren't ignoring him. 'Listen, Nallo. The gods marked you the moment that eagle chose you, or the eagle chose you because the gods marked you. It's hard to know how that works. You can no more walk away than you can expect to see your dead husband walking among the living. Keep your ill temper and your rudeness if you wish. It'll intimidate people, once you get out into the world as a reeve. But the sooner you accept that you can't leave, the better it will be for you. Although why I bother to tell you, I don't know. I'm leaving tomorrow anyway, to return to Clan Hall. I won't have to deal with your sulks and outbursts, although I'll miss them. I like you.'

She was finding it hard to breathe because the air had gotten so thick and the pepper in the soup was stronger than she'd realized, making her eyes water. 'No one likes me.'

'That sister was bawling her eyes out when you took your leave of them-'

'She's my husband's daughter, not my sister. I don't have any obligation toward them now their father is dead.'

'Which is why you are mad at me for taking you away from them. Hrm, that makes sense. Anyway, presumably your husband liked you.'

'He tolerated me. He needed a second wife quickly because the first died in childbed. I'm the prize he got!' Her voice had risen. Folk seated at other tables looked at her and quickly away when she glared at them.

'Here, now,' said Volias with a sneer. 'If you feel a little more sorry for yourself, even I might begin to dislike you despite your wonderful ability to say cutting things to people deserving of a cut like that idiot, Siras, who fancies himself a future marshal just because the fawkners here pet him so and signed him up to run errands for the marshal. So how many people do you suppose are dead already, and how many more do you suppose are going to die, with the way things are these days? Maybe we need reeves right now. Maybe we need the work reeves can do. Maybe the gods are desperate enough to touch you, or maybe you're just someone who could be a good reeve. Think about it.'

Now he did ignore her, working at his bowl in silence. The hum of other conversations surrounded them. The hall had windows open to a courtyard. Rain pattered on the pavement outside. Lamp flames trembled under the breeze raised by the twilight rains. The hall easily sat two hundred; truly, Nallo had never in her life been under a roof so large because not even Sapanasu's temple in her village had been anywhere this big. She might as well be outside as inside because there was so much loft hidden by darkness up in the open rafters. And yet it did smell like indoors: the shavings that covered the floor to keep down dust and mess had been mixed with herbs to sweeten the air. The scent reminded her of home.

Home.

Not the house where she had grown up, which had smelled of goats, but her husband's house. His was not a violent or expansive temperament. He was quiet and kind, and he liked things to be tidy and pleasant, and yet unlike the landlady, he didn't fuss unnecessarily to make a point that it must be done his way or not at all. He was a good ropcmaker, a true artisan, because he had an eye for

detail and a real love for doing things right just because that's what satisfied him. She had respected him, but she had never loved him.

Overcome with feelings she did not understand and could not explain, she slumped forward with her elbows on the plank table and covered her face with her hands.

'Making the women cry again, Volias?'

'I'm the only one she'll talk to. She probably saw you coming. It's enough to make me weep.'

She lifted her head. Volias lifted his bowl to his lips and slurped down the last of the broth. The marshal was standing behind him, holding the short staff carried by all reeves. He was a good-looking man; you just couldn't help noticing that every time you set eyes on him. When he saw that Nallo had looked up, he smiled, a look calculated to melt people's hard hearts.

She scowled. 'I don't have anything to say to you.'

Volias set down the bowl with a clunk. 'My heart, have I told you recently that I love you?'

This was not worth replying to, nor did her harsh words have the effect she hoped for.

'You two are well matched,' said the marshal in such a genial way that she wanted to slap the good humor off his handsome face.

'She and I?' said Volias. 'I'm flattered you think so.'

'No, I meant her and the eagle. A worse-tempered raptor I've never encountered in my life, which is why I need to talk to you right now, Nallo. You'll come with me.' Under that charm lay an implacable temper, maybe worse than her own once roused, and she knew all at once that she dared not cross him. She shoved the bowl away and got up from behind the bench.

'That just goes over to the table, there,' said the marshal helpfully, pointing to a table where other bowls and utensils had been stacked. All of the other people in the hall — reeves and fawkners and hirelings — had turned to watch the encounter. Aware of their scrutiny, she stalked to the table and set down the things before walking to the door, where he waited for her. Volias came with him, the two men talking in low voices.

1-I think it's a risk with that eagle,' Volias was saying, 'and I'm surprised you-'

The marshal nudged him.

He broke off.

'I'm here,' said Nallo needlessly. Sometimes she didn't even know why these griping phrases popped out of her mouth. 'What do I have to do to convince you I'm not the right person to be a reeve? That I don't want to be here?'

'Oh, you've convinced me you don't want to be here,' said the marshal. 'But as you'll discover, how you feel about your situation doesn't actually matter.'

'There's no sign of that eagle.'

'That eagle's just flown in, and she's in no better temper than you are.'

'The hells,' swore Volias.

'That's right,' said the marshal. 'Quicker is better. Come on.'

Rather than walking across the courtyard through the rain, he skirted the edges of a quadrangle of wooden buildings: the eating hall, the fawkner's warehouse and shop, the barracks, and the back wall of one of the high lofts, like a byre for beasts, where eagles quartered. Eaves sheltered them from the rain but the wind sprayed moisture over them. She welcomed the cool spatter. The Flower Rains at the beginning of the year were her favorite, a cleansing draft to cool what burned and tore at her insides. Angry, she followed the marshal through a narrow alley between two buildings and halted on the edge of the vast parade ground.

Four fawkners stood against the far wall of the north loft, under the eaves. One clasped her right hand to her left arm as though she'd been raked. Another held a hood, ties dangling, as they all stared despairingly toward the center of the parade ground. The yard was cleared of all eagles save one, who clutched a perch and stared belligerently at the fawkners. The idiots hadn't even gone in to examine her wound; dried blood and fresh glimmers discolored one wing.

'She's really angry,' said Volias. 'You know what she did to-'

'Let me finish,' said Joss to Volias. 'Nallo, do you recognize that eagle?'

'That's the one that protected us on the trail. Can't you see its injury? Why isn't anyone helping it? I thought these fawkners knew everything about eagles.'

'They need to hood it first.'

'Why don't they?'

'She's really angry,' repeated Volias.

She did look angry, with her neck feathers puffed out and the rest of her slicked down.

'They need that hood on so they can treat her injury,' said the marshal. 'She'll settle down then.'

Volias frowned. 'You can't mean you'll send Nallo out-'

'If that injury isn't treated properly, the eagle will not survive. If the eagle dies, Nallo dies.'

'You're saying that to scare me. To get me to agree.' It was ridiculous the way they were all scared of the big eagle, not that she wasn't a frightening sight when you really compared how puny the humans looked compared to the magnificent size and weapons of the raptor. But Nallo had sheltered under that vicious beak before; the bird had saved Jerad from the bandits.

With a grunt of disgust, she strode over to the huddled fawkners. 'Give me the hood.'

Blood stained the skin of the woman clutching her arm. 'She's favoring her right leg,' she said, calm as you please, 'which is what saved me from worse. If she strikes, she'll strike with her left. Watch for the talons.'

A man handed her the heavy leather contraption.

'How do I get this on?'

'That part fits around the beak,' said the injured woman. 'Just get the eyes covered. Once she settles, we'll do the rest until you've learned more.'

One of the other fawkners, a short, fine-boned man, whistled under his breath and shook his head, but the rest simply watched as she took a step back.

'Oh, I see,' she said as she opened it out. The leather was soft and pliant, heavy because there was so much of it, and there was an obvious hole for the beak. She'd grown up dealing with goats. This couldn't be that different.

Yet as she approached the eagle, whose fierce gaze fixed on her, her heart raced until her ears throbbed. That beak was big enough to rip off her head.

The eagle moved, a swipe with her talons. Nallo leaped back out of range as, behind her, a man groaned and many voices gasped.

'Just keep going.' That was the marshal, calling encouragement. 'If she'd meant to hook you, she'd have made contact. You're much slower than she is.'

'Isn't he the cheerful one,' said Nallo to the bird, taking courage in irritation. What a prancing idiot that marshal was! 'Although by the look of you, I suppose it's true. Or I hope it's true.' If she kept talking she didn't have to think about how scared she was. 'If you really wanted to bite my head off, I don't see how I could escape you.'

Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward. The eagle raked again, but she was slow and jerky.

'Stop that!' She was on her toes ready to bolt with a knot in her throat she had to squeeze the words past. Even so, feeling stuck between all those cursed reeves and fawkners expecting her to do what she didn't want to do, and the huge raptor looking furious with everyone, made her temper rise even more. If that was possible. But not at the poor bird.

'Here, now, you recall me. We met up in the Soha Hills. You gave the boy shelter, didn't you, and I appreciate it as I think I said then so I don't know what you're slashing at me for now. I never did you any harm!'

It drew up one leg. Its neck feathers eased.

That seemed less threatening. She went on.

'So if you want that wing looked at, you'd best be cooperative. Not that I can't see that you dislike all of them, and I surely can't blame you for doing so since they seem an unlikable lot to me, too.'

It lowered its head. A feathered brow ridge gave her a grouchy look, as if she were saying, 'What took you so long?'

The hood was bulky, and Nallo tried to sling it over. The eagle lifted her head, and leather spilled off and flopped to the dirt with a thump.

'Be still! Do you want that injury tended to, or not?'

As she bent over to grab the hood, she heard a sharp hiss, a whispering, the shifting of many feet. Rising, she swung around.

All kinds of folk had crowded under the eaves to watch. There were a dozen more fawkners, some armed with staves and long padded spears and hook-bills, and too many reeves and hirelings to

count. The eagle lowered her leg to get better purchase on the perch. Nallo sensed her contempt and impatience and pain.

'Yes, may they all rot in the hells, idiot gawkers! Just let me get this thing-oof! — ' She heaved. '-up over your head and-' Tugged awkwardly, one leather thong briefly clamped in her teeth to keep it out of her face. '-sheh! keep your head down! — and you won't have to look at their ugly faces anymore. There!'

The eagle was hooded, although the straggling ends needed tying off. Nallo beckoned to the fawkners. 'Don't just gawp there! How do you fix this thing so she can't scrape it off?'

Three started forward, including the woman with the torn arm. They grabbed the leather ties at the back of the hood and, while the eagle still had her head lowered, tightened them.

'These ties are called the brace,' explained the injured fawkner. 'You stayed calm.'

'Best get that arm tended to, Rena,' said the small fawkner, taking charge. 'Aras, can you run and get the salve? I'll need the imping needle and — Eiya! — just bring the lot of it. What's your name again?'

When no one answered, Nallo realized he was talking to her. 'I'm called Nallo.'

'Well done. Tumna's famous for having an uncertain temper at the best of times, but you handled her well. Better than Horas ever did.'

'Who is Horas?'

'Her last reeve.'

'What happened to him?'

Tumna dipped her head, huge beak probing the air as the marshal and Volias walked over.

'Keep talking,' said the small fawkner. 'She likes the sound of your voice.'

'Tumna, don't fret, they're coming although I must say they're slow about it and why all these staring fools have to stand here and stare so rudely is beyond my understanding. How badly is her wing injured?'

The fawkner was grinning, although she couldn't figure what he thought was so funny. 'She can fly on it, so that's one thing. But we've got bleeding even after this long because she's not resting