Kate Elliott

Spirit Gate


In the Year of the Black Eagle

In the Hundred


On a hot summer's day like today Flirt liked to fly straight up along the shoreline of the river, huge wings huffing against the wind. The draft off the running water cooled eagle and reeve, and gave the raptor a chance to get close to any unsuspecting deer come out to drink. This time of day, early afternoon, they didn't see a single creature along the shore except once a man chopping wood who had flung up a hand at the sound, poised, listening. When he saw them he relaxed and went back to his work as Flirt's vast shadow shuddered along the rocks. His brindled hound barked, then hushed, ears flat, cowering, as Flirt answered with a piercing cry of her own. She didn't like challenges.

Marit grinned. The man kept chopping and was soon left behind.

Woodland spread up on both sides of the Liya Pass, hills covered so thickly with beech that Marit couldn't see the ground. Here and there a stand of silver birch glimmered on rockier earth, leaves flashing in the wind. The air was smooth today, a steady wind out of the northeast that blew at crosscurrents to their line of flight, but Marit didn't like the smell. She shifted in the harness and wiped sweat off her brow. There'd been something nasty in the air ever since last winter; she knew it and the other reeves knew it. Anyone knew it, who ever tilted her head back to take a look around; who ever stopped to listen. Probably the woodchopper knew it, which is why he'd been scared for that moment, expecting the worst.


"Lust and greed and fear," old Marshal Alard of Copper Hall had said at winter feast. "Mark my words. Blood has been spilled in the wrong places, but we don't know where, not yet. Keep your eyes open. Don't turn your backs."

Not that reeves ever turned their backs, or kept their eyes closed. The Hundred was a broad land made prosperous by towns and villages and markets, by cultivated fields, wide pasturelands, rich forests, and treasure buried in the earth. Yet there were as many hidey-holes-and forgotten caves and old ruins and secret glades and ravines where dangerous creatures might lurk-as there were laughing children.

Like all reeves, she'd ridden a circuit of the land her first year out of Copper Hall. She knew how wide the land was. She knew how the ocean bounded the Hundred to the north and east and how the Spires and Heaven's Ridge with its Barrens protected the good folk of her land from their enemies to the south and west.

"Our worst enemy has always been the one within, Flirt," she said to her eagle, but the rushing wind against her face caught her words and flung them into nothing. Not that Flirt could understand her words, only shading and emotion. Smart as pigs, the great eagles were, but no smarter than that no matter what the old legends said.

That was the first thing you learned when you were marked out for a reeve: limits. A reeve could do so much and no more, just like her eagle. In the old days, so the story went, the reeves had had more power and been treated with more respect, but not any longer. Shadows had been creeping over the Hundred for a long time but it was only now they seemed to be gathering strength.

She shook away these dusty and useless thoughts. Today had been good so far: Just after dawn in the hamlet of Disa Falls she'd successfully mediated a dispute over the stones marking the boundary between two fields. She'd allowed the local arkhon to offer a haunch of sheep as a snack for Flirt, enough to keep her going until a real hunt. So it went, a typical start to a reeve's day.

Flirt banked and shifted position as the air currents altered because of a notch in the higher hills up to the east. Below, the woodland frayed into the patchwork of saplings and underbrush stretching between broad swaths of mature beech that betrayed human hands at work. Soon enough she saw a pretty green valley nestled between the hills. It was mostly trees and meadows, but there was a village with a small boat dock built out into the river and a few houses on the far bank beside new fields cut into the forest. The summit road dipped down from the east to run by the village, which had probably grown up as a wayfaring stop for travelers and merchants.

As she flew over, surveying the lay of the land, she was surprised to see a man actually in the act of running a red eagle banner up the message pole set in the village square. She circled Flirt around and with a swell of wings and a thump they landed on the stony beach. She hitched her legs out of the harness and leaped down, absorbing the landing by bending her knees. A dozen villagers and more children had gathered at a prudent distance outside the low stockade that kept woodland predators and pesky deer out of their gardens and homes. She slipped her staff out of the harness and sauntered over. The staff in her hand, the short sword rattling along her right thigh, and the quiver slung over her back weren't nearly as daunting as Flirt. The eagle's amber stare, her massive claws, and her sheer, shocking size-bigger than a surly cart horse and twice as mean-were enough to concern anyone. The eagle fluffed up her feathers, whuffed, and settled down to wait.

"How can I help you folks?" Marit asked.

They weren't scared of her at any rate. They stared right at her boldly enough, maybe surprised to see a woman.

"Go get the reeve some ale, and bread and cheese," said the man who still stood with the rope in one hand. The banner snapped halfway up the pole.

In answer, a girl about ten years of age trotted, backward, toward an inn whose low barracks-like building took up one entire side of the village square. The girl just could not rip her gaze away from the eagle. Naturally, after a few steps, she stumbled and fell flat on her rump.

An older girl yelled, "Turn round, you ninny! That beast ain't going nowhere yet."

Others laughed as the girl got up and dusted off her bright red tunic and pantaloons, then bolted through the open door of the inn. The sign creaking over the porch bore fresh paint and the cheerful visages of a quintet of happy, drinking fellows: three men and two women. One of the painted men had an outlander's pale hair caught back in a trident braid, but none of the folk who'd come up to greet her had the look of foreigners. These were good, handsome Hundred folk, dark skin, black hair, brown eyes.

"I'm called Reeve Marit. What's the trouble?" She sorted through the map she carried in her mind. "This is Merrivale."

"Indeed it is, Reeve Marit." The man had a bitter twist to his mouth. Everyone else was looking at him with frowns and whispers. "I'm called Faron. I own the Merrymakers, there." He gestured toward the inn. "It's a lad what works for me has caused the trouble." He coughed. Several folk scuffed their feet on the dirt, looking away. She noted the way their eyes drifted and their fingers twitched. "Stole two bolts of silk I'd had brought in. It come all the way from the Sirniakan Empire."

Marit whistled.

"Indeed. Bought it for my new bride and the wedding. I'm getting married again-first wife died three year back," he added hastily. "I miss her, but life goes on."

"You mourned her longer than was rightful," said an elderly woman suddenly. She had a wen on her chin and a killing gaze. "That's what caused the trouble."

The innkeeper flushed. He fussed with the white ribbon tying off the end of his long braid. Everyone turned to look at Marit.

"How old is the thief?"

Faron blew air out between set lips as he considered. "Born in the Year of the Wolf, he was. Suspicious and hasty. Very selfish, if you ask me."

"You would say so, given the circumstances," muttered the sarcastic old lady, rolling her eyes in a way most often associated with rash and reckless youth.

"So he's celebrated his fifteenth year. Has he a weapon?"

"Of course not! Nothing but his walking stick and a bundle of bread and cheese out of the larder. That's all else we found missing."

"How long ago?"

"Just this morning. We looked around in his usual haunts-"

"He's vanished before?"

"Just hiding out, mischief, breaking things. Stealing odds and ends. It's only noontide that we found the silk missing. That's serious. That's theft."

"What would he be wanting with bolts of silk?"

"He's been threatening to run away to make his fortune in Toskala."

"Over the pass and through Iliyat and past the Wild?"

"Maybe so," admitted Faron.

The old woman snorted. "More like he's running up to that temple dedicated to the Merciless One, up at summit. He can buy himself more than a few snogs with that fancy silk."

"Vatta!" Faron's cheeks flushed purple as anger flooded his expression.

"My apologies," Vatta muttered, rubbing at her wen, which was dry and crusty. She'd known prosperity in her day, or a generous husband. Her well-worn yellow silk tunic, slit on the sides from knees to hips, and the contrasting twilight blue pantaloons beneath were also of expensive Sirniakan weave. "But he threatened to do that more than once, too. A boy his age thinks of the Devourer day and night."

Marit smiled slightly, but she had as little trust for devotees of the Merciless One, the All-Consuming Devourer, mistress of war, death, and desire, as she had for out-landers, although the Merciless One's followers were her own countryfolk. Although she'd caroused in the Merciless One's grip often enough, and would do so again. Hopefully tonight.

"Anything else I need to know?" she asked instead.

Faron shrugged.

He was hiding something, certainly, but she had a fair idea of just what he wasn't willing to tell her. Shame made some men reticent. "I'll hunt for him, and come back and report come nightfall."

"My thanks." Faron wiped his brow. "Here's ale, if you'll take a drink."

"With thanks."

She drank standing and handed the cup back to the waiting girl. No one moved away, although at least they had manners enough not to stare as she ate. The bread was hearty and the cheese nicely ripe with the tang of dill. With such provender to warm her stomach she walked back to Flirt, fastened herself into the harness, and lifted her bone whistle to her lips. A single sharp skree was the command to fly.


The exhilaration never left. Never. Every time was like the first time, when a short, stocky, innocent girl from Farsar sent to hire herself as a laborer in the city-because her family hadn't the wherewithal to marry her or apprentice her out-found herself chosen and set in the harness of the raptor who had done the choosing. Such was the custom out of time immemorial, the way of the reeves. It was not the marshals who picked which of the young hopefuls and guardsmen would be reeves; it was the eagles themselves. In ancient days, the Four Mothers had bound magic into the great eagles, and the Lady of Beasts had harnessed them to their task, and Marit laughed every day, feeling that magic coursing around her, part of her now as she was part of it.

They rose above the tops of the trees. Although Flirt wanted to go back over the river, Marit guided her a short distance east of the river along the lower ridge-line where the road ran, in places carved into the rock itself. The road was older than the Hundred, so it was written in the annals kept by the hierophants who toiled in the service of Sapanasu, the Keeper of Days, the Lantern of the Gods. Who could have built it, back before people came to live here?

So many mysteries. Thank the gods she wasn't the one who had to puzzle them out.

She judged time and speed to a nicety-she'd had ten years of experience, after all-and spotted the youth long before he noticed her coming. He was toiling up the road near the summit along a broad escarpment devoid of trees. Fortune favored her. With him so exposed and no trees to hide behind, the catch would be swift. Flirt's chest muscles rippled as the eagle shifted altitude, narrowing down for the kill. Marit felt the raptor's excitement; it burned in her blood as well.

The two bolts of dazzling green silk were clapped under his right arm as he swung along, left arm pumping with the steady pulse of a highland child accustomed to long hikes up grim inclines. A breath of wind, a whisper from the Lady of Beasts in his ear, good hearing-some hint alerted him. He cast a glance behind, down the road. Flirt huffed and swooped. Too late he looked up. He shrieked and ran, but there was nowhere for him to run because he was stuck out on the road on the rocky flanks of the hills. Flirt loved this; so did Marit. The plunge with the wind rushing, the brief breathless throat-catching sense of abandon as they plummeted.

Flirt caught him in her talons and with her incredible strength cut upward just before they slammed into the dirt. He screamed in terror and piss flooded his legs; Marit smelled it.

"Drop that silk and I'll drop you!" she shouted, laughing.

Flirt yelped her shrill call in answer: Triumphant!

It was harder to turn with the added weight of the boy, who looked like he weighed at least as much as Marit, so they took a long slow sweep south and southwest and northwest and north until they came round eastward and flew back along the river the way they had come. Flirt struggled a bit because of the extra burden, but the eagles weren't natural creatures, and in any case the raptor had an eagle's pride. So it wasn't much past midafternoon when they came within sight of Merrivale, but it seemed like a long trip, what with Flirt tiring and the youth babbling and moaning and cursing and begging and crying the entire time, although he was smart enough not to struggle. Most folk were.

At the sight of them, the inhabitants of Merrivale came running. Just before landing, Flirt let the boy go. He tumbled, shrieking again, grunting and howling, rolling along the rocks but no more than bruised and banged up, as Flirt rose to get past him and then dropped to the earth.

"Oof," said Marit, jarred up through her chest. "That was a thump, girl!"

She loosened her harness and swung out quickly. Faron, at the front of the village swarm, staggered to a stop a stone's toss from her and Flirt. The boy crawled forward, cloth clutched to his chest.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he babbled. He stank, poor lad, and there was snot all over his face. He cringed like a dog. "I'm sorry, Pap. I'll never do it again. It's just I didn't want you to marry her, but I know I'm being selfish. It's not like you didn't mourn Mam what was fitting. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll never cause you trouble again. Please let me come home."

Marit smiled.

Faron wept as he lifted the boy and embraced him. The girl in red grabbed the precious silk bolts and ran them into the safety of the inn.

Once the first commotion subsided they tried to press gifts on her. She refused everything but food and drink to carry with her for her evening's meal. That was the rule. No gifts meant no bribes, and once she made it clear she'd not budge, they respected her wishes.

"You'll not spend the night?" asked Faron. "You can have my best bed. A reeve can take lodging."

"Lodging and food," agreed Marit. "That's allowed. But I can't stay. I've a fellow reeve to meet at sunset, up near the summit."

"Beware those Devouring youths," said an unrepentant Vatta. The old woman had the wicked grin of a soul that hasn't yet done making mischief. "I should know. I was one of Her hierodules once, before I got married."

Marit laughed. The boy sniveled, chastened and repentant, and Faron wrung her hand gratefully. Maybe there were a few happy endings still to be had.

Joss was waiting for her at Candle Rock, just as they'd agreed five nights past. The rock was too stony to harbor trees; a few hardy tea willows grew out of deep cracks where water melt pooled, and spiny starflowers straggled along the steep northern slope. Candle Rock provided no cover except the shelter of the craggy overhang where firewood was stowed. No man or woman could reach it without the aid of flying beast, so reeves patrolling over the Liya Pass commonly met here to exchange news and gossip and to haul up wood for the signal fire kept ready in case of emergency.

She saw Joss standing beside the smaller fire pit, which was ringed with white stones like drippings of wax. The fire burned merrily and he already had meat roasting on a spit. The young reeve had his back to the setting sun and was looking east up at the ridge of hill whose familiar profile they called Ammadit's Tit, which despite the name was held by the hierarchs to be sacred to the Lady of Beasts.

Showing off, Flirt made a smooth landing on the height. Joss raised a hand in greeting as Marit slipped out of her harness and walked down to the fire.

"Mmm," she said, kissing him. "Eat first, or after?"

He grinned, ducking his head in that way that was so fetching; he was still a little shy.

She tousled his black hair. "Shame you have to keep it cut."

They kissed a while longer. He was young and tall and slender and a good fit, the best fit she'd ever found in her ten years as a reeve. He wasn't boastful or cocky. Some reeves, puffed up with the gloat of having been chosen by an eagle and granted the authority to patrol, thought that also meant they could lord it over the populace. He wasn't a stiff-chinned and tight-rumped bore, either, stuck on trivial niceties of the law. It was true he had a sharp eye and a sharp tongue and a streak of unexpected recklessness, but he was a competent reeve all the same, with a good instinct for people. Like the one he had now, knowing what she wanted.

Grease sizzled as it fell into the flames. The sun's rim touched the western hills.

"Best see to Flirt," he said, pulling back. "I sent Scar out to hunt and there's no telling when he'll get back. You know Flirt's temper."

She laughed softly. "Yes, she'll not like him moving in where she's roosting. I'll make sure she's settled."

Flirt was cleaning herself. With a resignation born of exhaustion, she accepted her demotion to the hollow where Candle Rock dipped to the southwest to make a natural bowl with some protection from the wind. Marit chained her to one of the rings hammered into the rock, hooded and jessed her. Then she skinned her out of her harness, greased the spot it chafed, and, with an old straw broom she found stuck in a crevice, swept droppings out of the bowl.

"You'll eat tomorrow, girl," she said, but Flirt had already settled into her resting stupor, head dipped under one wing. It was getting dark. Wind died as the sun set.

She hoisted the harness, her pack, her hood, and her rolled-up cloak over her shoulders and trudged up a path cut into the rock, back to the fire. Off to her left the rock face plunged down to where the road cut up toward the summit, seen as a darkening saddle off to the south. Joss was sitting on the white stones, carving up meat onto a wooden platter. She admired the cut of his shoulders and the curve of his neck. The touch of the Devourer teased her, right down to her core. He looked up and grinned again, eyes crinkling tight. She tossed down harness and weapons, pulled the platter out of his hands, set it down, and tumbled him.

"Cloaks," he muttered when he could get in a word.

"Oh. Yes."

He'd already spread out his traveling cloak and tossed his blanket down on top of it. It was a warm night without clouds and they really only needed a little padding to protect flesh from stone.

"Mmm," she said later, when they lay tangled together. He was stroking her breasts and belly absently as he stared up at the brilliant spray of stars. She dragged the platter of meat close up and fed him bits and pieces.

"Do you ever think-?" he started.

"Not when I see you."

He chuckled, but he wasn't as much in thrall to the Devourer as she was. Sated, he had a tendency to spin out dreams and idle thoughts, which she never minded because she liked the feel of him lying beside her. He had a good smell, clean sweat but also the bracing perfume of juniper from the soaps his mother sent once a year to Copper Hall. "Just thinking about what I did today. There was a knife fight at a woodsmen's camp east of summit ridge, out into wild country. Both men stabbed, one like to die."

"Sorry," she said, wincing. "Murders are the worst."

"I wish it were so," he said, wisely for one so young.

"What do you mean?" She speared a chunk of meat with his knife, spun it consideringly, then ate. The meat was almost bitter; a coney, maybe, something stringy and rodent-like. "I've got bread and cheese for the morning. Better than this. Got you no provisions for your pains today?"

"Not a swallow. They were happy to be rid of me. I was wondering if you'd come back with me. A few of them had the debt scar-" He touched the ridge of his brow just to the left of his left eye, where folk who sold their labor into debt servitude were tattooed with a curving line."-and hair grown out raggedly to cover it."

"You think some were runaway slaves."

"Maybe so. It's likely. And then what manner of law-abiding persons would take such men in, I wonder? They made me nervous, like they had knives hidden behind their backs." He shuddered under her hands.

"I'll come. No use courting trouble. They'll not kick with two eagles staring them down."

Abruptly he sat up, tilting his head back. "Ah. There he is."

A shadow covered them briefly. The big eagle had a deer in his claws. He released it, and the corpse fell hard to the ground at the eastern edge of the rock, landing with a meaty thunk. Scar landed with a soft scrape and after a silence tore into his prey. Bones cracked. From across the height Flirt screamed a challenge, but Scar kept at his meat, ignoring her. Flirt yelped twice more, irritated, but she wouldn't be particularly hungry yet. She'd settle and sleep. Marit yawned.

Joss wasn't done worrying over the problem. "I have to go back in two days to see if the man died, and then what's to do? I'm to conduct a hearing? They've no captain, and the arkhon at the nearest village-Sandy Falls-told me he'll have nothing to do with the matter. Maybe the lord of Iliyat will agree to sit in judgment."

"That's a long way for Lord Radas's arm to reach. He's young in his position, too. His uncle died just two years ago, and he's still testing his wings. I don't expect this will fall under his authority. We should be able to handle it. Honestly, sweetheart, no matter how ugly a murder is, it won't be the first time two drunk men settled their argument with a knife."

"I know," he said a little more desperately than the situation seemed to call for, "but reeves aren't meant to judge. It's the place of the Guardians to hold assizes to settle such grievances and disputes, those that can't be resolved by local councils."

"True enough," she agreed. "I had to mediate in a boundary dispute this morning. I've shifted a hundred stone markers in the last ten years, and I don't like it any better now than I did the first time. Half of them don't like that I'm a woman, but they'll say nothing with Flirt at my back. Still. No Guardian's been seen for-oh-since my grandfather was a boy. Maybe longer."

"The Guardians don't exist. They're just a story."

She gave him a light shove, because his words disturbed her. "Great Lady! That's nineteen years' bad luck for saying such a thing! Anyway, my grandfather remembered the assizes from back when they were held properly. He saw a Guardian once, who came to preside over the court. Do you think he was lying to me?"

"He was a boy then, you said so yourself. He listened to, and danced, the tales, as we all do. Stories blend with fragmented memories to make new memories. He came to believe as truth what never really happened. No shame in that."

"Joss! Sheh! For shame! The hierophants preserve in the Lantern's libraries the old scrolls that record the judgments made in those days. Judgments made by Guardians. How do you answer that evidence?"

"What is a name? I could call myself a 'Guardian' and my attendance at an assizes court would show in the records that a 'Guardian' oversaw that day's proceedings."

She squeezed him until he grunted, air forced out of his lungs. "Say so if you must! But my grandfather had the best memory of anyone I have ever known. He could remember the time when he was a lad when the first Silver merchant came through the village, with two roan cart horses and a hitch in his stride as if he'd broken a hip and it had healed wrong. He could remember the names of all his clan cousins, even the ones who had died when he was a lad, and the folk they married and which temple their children were apprenticed to. If we see no Guardians now, that doesn't mean there were never any."

He sighed as sharply as if he'd gotten a fist in the belly. Twisting, he looked eastward, although it was by now too dark to see anything but stars and the dark shadow of the towering spire that gave Candle Rock its name. "Ammadit's Tit is a Guardian's altar, it's said. What's to stop us flying up there and looking around?"

"Joss!" Startled and shocked, she sat up. She went cold, all goose-bumped, although the wind hadn't gotten any cooler. "It's forbidden!"

"No Guardian's been seen for seventy winters or more, you said it yourself. What if you're right, and there were Guardians once? Shouldn't we try to find out what happened to them? Maybe we could find clues at their altars. Maybe someone needs to find out why they're gone, and if we can do anything to bring them back. You didn't see the look of those woodsmen. They scared me, Marit. Even with Scar glaring at them, I knew they'd kill me if I took a step into any corner where they didn't want my nose poking. They hadn't even a headman among them, no arkhon, no manner of priest. No Lady's cauldron. No Lantern. No dagger or key or green-staff or anvil. Not even an offering bowl for the Formless One."

The crawling jitters prickled up and down her back, a sure sign of danger. "Maybe this is what Marshal Alard was warning us about. You'd best not go back there. Fly to Copper Hall and give a report. If there's trouble brewing… men like that… men who would run away from their legal obligation… they could do anything if there's nothing to check them."

"Anything," he muttered at last. He began to speak again, but choked on the words. He was quiet for a long time, arm around her, head still thrown back as he gazed up at the span of stars and the Herald's Road whose misty path cut across the heavens. "Is this what Marshal Alard meant by a shadow?" he whispered. "It seemed to me there was a shadow in their hearts. Like an illness."

"Hush," she said, because he was shivering even though it wasn't cold. "Hush, sweetheart."

Marit woke at dawn as the sun's pale glow nosed up to paint rose along Ammadit's Tit. Joss still slept, hips and legs covered by her cloak. A blanket was rolled up under his neck, cradling his head. Sleeping, he looked younger than ever, barely more than a child, although he was twenty. A man might hope to celebrate five feasts in his life; Joss was barely six winters past his Youth's Crown, while in another year she would have to lay aside her Lover's Wreath for the sober if invigorating responsibilities represented by the Chatelaine's Belt. Your thoughts changed as you got older. Your hopes and dreams shifted, transmuted, altered into new shapes.

He cracked open an eye. The early-morning sunlight crept up to spill light over his smooth chest. She saw him examining her warily.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"If I'm going to have a baby, I have to have it soon. Would you-" She hadn't known how tightly the wish had knotted up inside her; it unraveled in a rush. "Would you father it, Joss? No need to handfast, if you've no mind to. You're young yet."

"Do you mean to give up patrol?" he asked unexpectedly.

The pang struck hard. "Why do you say so?"

"It's unfair," he mused.

"Which part of life?" she said with a grin, but a sour taste burned in her throat.

He stroked her arm thoughtfully. "I could father ten children and no one would speak one word about it, or think it made me unfit to patrol. But I've seen how reeves who are women are told in so many ways that they'd best be a reeve only and not think of ever bearing children. It's true that when a baby is nursing, the mother must stick close if she wants to keep her milk running. But after the child is weaned, he's cared for by his older cousins anyway. That's how it was in my village. No one would have dared to tell any of my aunties what they could or could not do with their businesses or their labor, and then pretend it was for their own good."

"You say the most unexpected things!"

He looked at her, silent, for the longest time, and fear curdled in her stomach as his dark eyes narrowed and with a flick he tossed the blanket aside and gathered up his clothes. "I'm going up to the altar."


His expression was set, almost ugly. He pulled on his trousers while she sat there, still naked, and stared at him. "Who made all those rules? We don't even know, or why, or when. We just follow them without thinking. We see a fence around our village but we never go out to make sure it's still in good repair. Maybe that's why there are shadows. Maybe that's why the woodsmen live in that camp like beasts. They don't see the point of mouthing the same words their fathers did, so they've cast them aside. And if the fence around your pasture looks sturdy from a distance but is falling down, that's when wolves come in and kill the lambs. I've got to find out."


The sun illuminated the curve of his handsome chest, the taut abdomen, his muscular shoulders made strong by two years controlling an eagle, the handsome, angular tattoos-covering his right arm and ringing both wrists-that marked him as a child of the Fire Mother. His chin had a rebellious tilt. He threw his tunic over his head. As he wrestled it down, she shook herself and leaped up, groping for her clothes. She always tossed everything all this way and that in her haste to get undressed but at some point during the night, while she'd slept, he'd recovered it and folded it neatly and laid it on her pack, off the ground. She'd not even woken. He might have lain there for many watches brooding over this madness and she never knowing.

"You're crazy," she said. "It's forbidden."

"You don't have to come with me. I know the risk."

"Do you?"

"Are you going to report me to Marshal Alard?"

"He'll flog you and throw you out of the reeves, no matter what Scar wants."

"Go, if you have to. Report if you must. I won't blame you. But I'm going up there."

She paused, shading her eyes as she squinted toward Ammadit's Tit. The black knob thrusting up at the height of the rounded ridge gave away nothing, although-just there-she thought a flash of light or metal winked as the sun rose just off to the southeast behind it. "The Guardians guard their secrets. Marshal Alard won't have to punish you. They will."

"The Guardians are gone. And if they're not gone, then maybe it's time someone kicks them in the butt." His voice was shaking but his hands were steady as he gathered up his harness. "I didn't tell you what else, Marit. I couldn't say it when it was dark out, I just couldn't. They had a Devouring girl at that woodsmen's camp. They tried to keep her hidden, but I saw her." Catching her eye, he held it. His gaze was bleak. "She was chained."


That was what decided it, really. The thought of any man chaining one of the Merciless One's hierodules made her stomach churn, but her heart's courage stiffened with anger. It was blasphemy to chain one who gave freely.

She was trembling as she harnessed Flirt, and the eagle caught her mood and pulled this way and that, fussing and difficult, scratching at the rock with her talons and slashing at her once, although not determinedly enough to connect. Marit thrust the staff up to the eagle's throat and held it there, pulling the hood back over Flirt's eyes. Her heart pounded as she listened for Scar's cry, for Joss departing impatiently, but she held the discipline for the correct thirty-seven count before easing the hold. Flirt gave her no more trouble. They walked to the rim of the bowl, she swung into the harness, and the raptor launched out into the air, plunging, then catching a draft to rise.

Scar and Joss were circling, waiting for them. Before departing, he had doused and raked the fire and split wood for kindling to serve the next reeve who camped out on Candle Rock. Now, seeing her catch the airstream, he rose higher as Scar caught an updraft. She and Flirt followed, up and up, gliding south before turning to come up along the high ridgeline. The mountainous mound of Ammadit's Tit was covered with pine and spruce but the actual black knob-the nipple itself-was as bare as the day the Earth Mother molded stone into mountains. The rock gleamed in the morning light, almost glinting. As she circled in more closely, she saw that it was pitted with crystalline structures-sacred to the Lady of Beasts-shot through the stone. She shivered, although the wind was hot and strong. That knot at the hollow of her ribs burned.

At first glance the knob looked too smooth for any creature as large as they were to find a landing spot. Relief flared, briefly, brutally; then Joss hallooed just out of her sight, and she and Flirt rounded through eddying currents to see him banking in toward a cleft situated below the summit.

"Great Lady, protect us," she whispered. "Don't be angry."

She followed him in.

The cleft was about as wide as the feasting hall in Copper Hall was long: forty strides. It was surrounded by a rim cut into the rock, then dropped an arm's span to a flat floor beneath, open to the air but with a sharply angled slope of rock offering a lean-to of shelter to the north. It was difficult to maneuver Flirt in, especially with Scar already claiming territory, but the raptor landed with a cry of protest, opened her wings to give Scar a look at just how big she was, then settled.


Marit sat in her harness as a chill whisper of air brushed her face, like fingers searching, like a sculptor's probing hands. To her left, the sun shone full on Joss. The floor of the cleft was level but scarred by the glittering path of a labyrinth scored into the rock. The pattern took up half the open space; Flirt's open wingspan brushed the path's outermost edge, but both eagles shied away from actually crossing onto the crystalline markings. The space was otherwise empty, just the ledge and the eddy of air swirling around the knob. The northern face ended in that angled wall that shadowed the deepest part of the cleft.

Joss coughed, then slipped down from his harness. He landed so softly she couldn't hear the slap of his feet. He paced the rim, and back again, as she looked about nervously, but she heard nothing but the bluster of the wind. She saw nothing at all, no offerings, no altar post, no Guardian's silk banner fluttering in the constant blow. He stopped at the curving edge of the labyrinth closest to the rim wall.

The outer shape of the path was an oval. Within those boundaries, the shining pavement twisted and turned and doubled back until it was impossible to know how to reach the center, where the ground dipped into a shallow bowl big enough to hold a man and horse together.

"This is the entrance," he said.


He set his right foot on the glittering pavement, then his left.

Nothing happened.

She let out all her breath.

He turned and spoke to her. She saw his mouth working, but the wind-or the magic of the Guardians-tore his words away.

"Joss!" she cried, but he turned away and with measured paces worked his way in on the tortuous branched path. All her worst fears choked her because with each step he seemed to recede, although he wasn't really getting any farther away from her: he was only fading. It was as if a veil thickened around him, as if mist seeped up from marshland to conceal the landscape. There was nothing quite seen, nothing tangible, but it obscured him nonetheless. Marit had never unduly feared the dangers of her task as a reeve, although she had walked into a hundred different knife's-edge situations with only her eagle, her weapons, and most of all her good instincts to guide her. But fear paralyzed her now.

We've broken the boundaries. We'll be punished.

The boundaries were all that kept the Hundred safe; every child heard the stories; every festival danced the limits; every temple to one of the seven gods was an icon in miniature, each in its own way, of the ancient laws. The master sergeants and the marshal at the reeve halls made the point ten times a day if they said it once.

He faded more as he walked deeper into the labyrinth, never coming closer or back toward her even when the path turned that way. The eagles neither moved or called; the silence daunted them. The ghost of his form, scarcely more than a shadow, reached the center.

He vanished. Just like that: a blink, a shimmer of light-and he was gone.

A gasp escaped her. She couldn't form words, couldn't cry out, couldn't do anything except stare. Her eyes were wet, her heart turned to dust. A thousand years passed while she gaped, too stunned to act.

"Marit! Marit! Come quick! Follow the path! Bring rope."

Where in the hells was that coming from? She slipped out of her harness and leaped down, skirted the gleaming path, and ducked into the shadowed throat of the cleft, but she could not find him. His voice carried to her on the wind.

She ran back to Flirt and awkwardly got the eagle up onto the lip as on a perch. Her acrobatic skills had saved her from bad falls more than once. Balancing on the rim with the world plunging away far down to spruce billowing below, she swung into her harness. Flirt opened her wings and fell into the sky. Marit shrieked with glee, forgetting all fears and creeping terrors as the wind pummeled her and the eagle dove and then, with that instinct for risk that had gotten the raptor her name, pulled up just in time, just before they would have slammed into the trees. Flirt caught a draft and they rose. Marit's pulse hammered as she squinted into the sun, up along the knob of rock, seeking, searching-

There he was! He was standing, impossibly, at the top of the rock, poised as on the tip of a giant spear. And indeed, somehow, unseen before but perfectly visible now, a metal post thrust up from the center of the knob with torn and fraying and sun-bleached banners in many colors snapping from the post. To this he held tightly with one hand as he waved frantically at her to get her attention.

"Thank you, Lady," she breathed, and added a hasty prayer to the Herald, the Opener of Ways, whom Joss had served for a year as a lowly message rider before the day he'd ridden into a reeves' gathering to deliver a summons from the arkhon of Haya, and Scar had changed the course of his life.

She circled, but there was no way to land, so she went back down to the cleft. Scar waited with his head beneath his wing, oddly quiescent. She shed her harness as quickly as she ever had, and grabbed her coil of rope. Knowing better than to stop and think, she jogged to the entrance of the labyrinth and put her right foot on the path, then her left. The pavement seemed pure crystal, as thin as finely thrown ceramic, but so thick, perhaps, that it cut down through the stone to the center of the earth. She took another step, and a fourth, and when she glanced up the world seemed to be slowly spinning around her, picking up speed as she walked in. With each revolution a new landscape flashed into view: surging ocean; a fallen stone tower above a tumble of rocks battered by foaming waves; dense tangled oak forest; a vast flat gleam of water-not the sea-and beyond it the pale endless dunes that she recognized as the western verge of the Barrens; an ice-covered peak shining under a bottomless hard blue sky; a homely village of six cottages set beside a lazily flowing river half overgrown with reeds. The visions made her dizzy. She looked down instead, kept her gaze fixed on the path whose windings confused her, except wherever she had to choose between one turn and another it seemed she could smell the memory of juniper, Joss's scent, and she therefore followed her nose.

A man's voice whispered behind her, questioning, urgent.

"… when night falls… to Indiyabu but only when the Embers moon sets… she betrayed them… beware the third blow… trust me…"

Don't turn your back, Marshal Alard would say, but she was walking on forbidden ground. She dared not look back for fear of what she would see. Indiyabu was the legendary birthplace of the Guardians, but no reeve knew where to find it, and none she knew of had ever dared seek for it.

The path took much longer to walk than it should have; she was sweating freely by the time she stumbled into the center bowl. A man waited for her. His long dark beautiful hair was unbraided, twisting around him in an unseen wind. He looked angry, but he was as handsome a man as she had ever seen, demon-blue outlander eyes in a brown face, taller than most reeves and with graceful long-fingered hands talking in signs, the secret language of the Guardians.

She walked right through him before she realized he wasn't really there; he was only a vision, like the landscapes. The pavement dipped. She slipped into the central hollow. Where her foot slapped into the ground, pain stabbed up through her heels. Light flared, like a lantern's door opened wide, and she was spun halfway around by an unknown force and staggered.


Joss grabbed her before she plunged off the side of the knob to her death. They stood at the very height, the sky a vast gulf and the sun glaring. Wind howled, trying to tug her off. She grabbed on to the metal post. Thank the gods it was well set into the rock. It didn't shift at all with her added weight. The silk of frayed banners battered her; she was drowned in their colors: blood-red, black of night, heaven-blue, mist-silver, fiery-gold-sun, death-white, earth-brown, seedling-green, and the rich violet of the twilight sky just before night envelops the last light of day.

"Look!" Joss shouted to be heard above the wind. "Look there!"

He pointed to a crevice just out of arm's reach along the curve of the rock but because of the wind and their precarious perch too far to get to safely. Something fluttered there, a banner torn off the pole, perhaps. It was hard to identify because it was so white and because there were pale objects jumbled beneath, caught within the crevice.

She was a reeve. She knew what it was with a gut knowledge that slammed down, no question-only a hundred questions. A thousand.

Joss hooked his elbow around the metal post and deftly tied and slipknotted the rope around the post. He'd grown up by the sea; he knew twenty kinds of knots.

"Let's get out of here!" he shouted. He was shaking, gray, frightened.


The bones of a Guardian were caught in that crevice. That was the Guardian's death-white cloak caught in the rocks, the cloth sliding and shivering with the purl of the wind as though a snake struggled in its folds. Those were the dead one's long leg bones rattling as the wind shifted them. That was his pelvis, if it had been a man, shattered on one side. Most reeves learned to identify human bones: in the course of seeking out lost shepherds whose remains were discovered beneath spring snowmelt; or runaway wives dead of starvation in forest loam; or miners tumbled under a fall of rocks who couldn't be recovered until the dry season made digging safe. She had exhumed the occasional murder victim buried under the pig trough or beyond the boundaries of a village's orderly fields. That pelvis told her something, even seen from a man's length away. That pelvis had been splintered in a tremendous fall, or by a massive blow.

Guardians couldn't die.

"Give me the rope," she shouted. "I'm going to recover the remains. We have to find out what happened, if we can!"

"Marit!" He almost lost his nerve. He clutched his stomach as though he would retch. He squeezed his eyes shut but opened them as quickly, and steadied himself, ready to aid her.

She tied the rope around her waist, fixed it, and turned round to back down over the curve of the rock, to reach the crevice. As Joss paid out the rope, she walked with her feet against the rock and her body straight out over the world below, nothing but air between her back and the trees. The wind sang through her. She was grinning, ready to laugh for the joy of it and almost down to the crevice when, above her, Joss screamed an inarticulate warning cry.

A fog shrouded her, boiling up from underneath to choke her. A roaring like a gale wind thrummed through her. Her bones throbbed, and it seemed her insides would be rattled and twisted until they became her outsides, all as white light smothered her.

I can't hear. I can't see.

I can't breathe.

She fought, and found herself ripping at cloth that had enveloped her, that seemed likely to swallow her.

An axe smashes into her hip, shattering it; the pain engulfs her like white light, like death.

" Go to Indiyabu! Beware the traitor… mist… I can't reach her."

Then she was free, feet still fixed to the rock wall. The wind tore the shining white cloak off her body, and it flew out into the sky rippling like light, spread as wide as a vast wing. The bones clattered down the curving slope of the knob until they reached the sheer cliff, and then they fell and fell, tumbling, and vanished into the forest. The cloak spun higher into the sky and was lost to sight in the sun's glare.

"Shit!" cried Joss.

He hauled her back up. She fell on her stomach over the rampart and lay there panting, trying to catch her breath. The wind screamed around them, tearing at their clothes, at the banners, at their hoods. She was grateful for the rule that forced all reeves to wear their hair short, since there was no braid to catch at her throat, and there were no strands of loose hair to blind her.

"What do we do now?" he asked.

"We've got to get down!" she yelled.

She turned, dead calm now, too stunned to be otherwise, and surveyed the rock face. She'd gone that way the first time. In her head, she mapped a new route to take them to the ledge below.

"Follow after I've tugged twice."

She eased out the rope between her hands, let herself lean backward into the air, and walked backward out over the curve of the rock. Down. She was compact and strong and always had been, her chest and arms made more so by ten years of weapons training, by ten years, especially, of controlling Flirt. Strangely, the wind eased once she was on the cliff, and she made it down to the cleft swiftly. There Flirt and Scar waited, heads down, dozing.

How strange that they should doze when the peculiar nature of their surroundings ought to have made them nervous.

By the time she slipped down hand over hand and dropped the last length, her right hand was bleeding and the left was bright red, rubbed raw from friction. Panting, she tugged twice on the rope. Blew on her hands. Pain stung. It would hurt to handle the harness with her hands like this. She pulled gloves out of one of the pockets sewn into the hem of her tunic, but hesitated, not quite willing to pull them on. The gloves would shroud her hands as snugly as that cloak had wrapped her. She shuddered.

No time to dwell on it. Must get on. Must act.

The rope danced beside her. A moment later Joss slid down, half out of control, and she caught him as he fell the last body length. They stood there, holding tight. He was crying. She'd known him almost two years, but she'd never seen him cry. She'd seen him at his first winter feast in the hall, and happened to be called in to assist when he'd found that poor mutilated girl who'd had her hands amputated by her husband's angry relatives. She'd cried that day, but Joss hadn't. Now he wept noisily.

"What about the rope?" she said finally. "If we leave it, they'll know we've been here."

He gulped down tears and spoke in a shaky voice. "I have to report, even if it means I'm flogged out. They have to know."

Since he was right, there was no answer.

He sighed heavily, stepped back, and wiped his eyes. He looked ten years older than he had that morning. "Best go," he said.

She nodded. "I haven't forgotten that woodsmen's camp."

"You can't go in there alone!"

"I won't! I won't, Joss. I won't go to the woodsmen's camp at all. But there's a temple dedicated to the Merciless One up at summit of the Liya Pass. I want to stop there, ask their Hieros if they have any hierodules missing. You fly ahead to Copper Hall."

"I think it's best if I go straight to Clan Hall."

She considered, nodded decisively. "That's right. Take it to the commander. He needs to know first. Once I've stopped at the temple, I'll follow you to Toskala without stopping anywhere else."

He was in no mood for kissing, though she was. She would have laid him down and loved him there on the stone floor of the forbidden altar, but he was too tense and too preoccupied, wholly absorbed in considering just what it all meant. It seemed that despite his talk he believed in the existence of the Guardians after all. An earthquake would have tilted those foundations less. He was unable to talk or to do anything except prepare to go.

As for her, she couldn't dwell on the horror of that cloak twisting around her, of that instant when she'd thought she would asphyxiate; of that noise; of that pain; of that voice.

She couldn't think about what it meant: A Guardian had died, although the Guardians were immortal and untouchable. Maybe all the Guardians were dead. Maybe the Hundred was thereby doomed to fall beneath an uprising of such evil as sucked dry men's hearts, lust and greed and fear chief among them.

She grimaced as she finally tugged on her gloves, wincing at the pain, at the fear. Joss ran back over to her, kissed her hard, then returned to Scar without a word and swung into his harness. She smiled softly, ran a gloved hand through the soft stubble of her hair, and crossed to Flirt, who blinked as if surprised to see her.

"Let's go, girl."

No use dwelling on what she couldn't change. Best to concentrate on what she could do. That's what she was best at. That's why she was a good reeve.

Joss headed due west and was lost fairly quickly among the hills, but Marit flew Flirt south up the cut of the road to its summit in the Liya Pass, a saddle between two ridgelines. Just east of the road lay a wide pool worn out of the hills by the tireless spill of a waterfall off the height. On the banks of this isolated vale the acolytes of the Merciless One had erected a small temple to house no more than a score of adepts in training. Obviously, with their holy quarters set in such a remote location, these were not hierodules who served the goddess by trafficking with passersby. Most who dedicated their service to the Devourer served as hierodules for less than a year before returning to life beyond the bounds of the temple; the Merciless One was a cruel and exacting taskmaster. Many of those who remained trained as jaryas, pearls beyond price, the finest musicians and entertainers in the Hundred. As for the few, they served Her darker aspect, and it was rumored they trained as assassins.

This was no jarya school, not up here.

They came to earth at a safe distance, right at the edge of the woods. The waterfall splashed in the distance, but the pool had a glassy sheen beyond the spray, still and silent as if depthless. Three buildings rose out of the meadow of grass and flowering lady's heart: a chicken coop; a long, narrow root cellar with a turf roof; and the temple itself, with its outer enclosure, entrance gate, and "lotus petal" wings surrounding an inner courtyard.

She waited in her harness, listening. Crickets chirred. Wind tinkled strings of bells hanging from posts set in the earth all around the outer enclosure. It rustled the silk banners draped over and tied to the entrance gate. She heard no voices and no music. Nothing. Flirt showed no nervousness. The vale seemed deserted.

She slipped out of her harness and ventured to the chicken coop. It was empty except for a half-dozen broken eggs, sucked dry, and a single bale of straw. She moved on to the root cellar, a building half buried in the earth. She pushed on the door, which stuck. Shoving, she opened it. Cautiously, she ducked under the lintel and stepped down into the shadowy interior. The stores had been cleaned out. That was suspicious, although at this time of year it was possible that was only because they had used up last winter's surplus and not yet received their tithes to carry them through the coming cold season. With the door open behind her, she knelt in the damp confines. The dirt floor had been raked clean. There were no distinguishing footprints; there was no evidence of passage at all except for the brick resting-cradles for two dozen missing storage barrels. Four barrels remained, rounded shadows at the far end of the cellar, barely discernible in the dimness.

Maybe thieves had stolen everything and covered their tracks. Maybe the Merciless One had abandoned the temple and all her people had left, tidying up behind themselves.

It was impossible to know.

A shadow covered the open door. Too late she realized the crickets had ceased their noise. She jumped farther into the darkness, drawing her short sword as she spun to face the door.

But they had already defeated her. They'd been waiting, as if they'd known she was coming and laid an ambush. A staff hit her from behind alongside her right ear. A second blow caught her in the breastbone, knocking the air out of her. Her legs went from under her. The earth slapped up, and she blinked and gasped and breathed in dirt, flat on her stomach, head scorched with pain. Dazed. Choking on dust.

Damn damn damn. If the Merciless One had abandoned the temple, then her hierodules and kalos would have removed the bells and banners before departing.


"Kill her now!"

"No, Milas wants her alive."

"Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Bet I know what for!"

A man snickered.

Her sword was trapped under her hips. She began to roll, but knees jabbed into her back and the weight of a second man, maybe a third, held her down as they stripped her of her bow and quiver, her sword, her dagger; her staff had already fallen uselessly. They didn't find the slender knife hidden between the lining and the outer leather of her right boot. They trussed her arms up behind her from wrists to elbows, hoisted her up using the rope until her shoulders screamed and one popped. The world spun dizzily as she came up, kicking.

The third blow exploded against the back of her head.

She plunged into darkness.

Came to, muzzy, as she was jostled from side to side in a wheelbarrow, banging first one wooden slat, then the other side. She was blind, a cloth tied tightly over her face, over both mouth and nose so that she choked with the fear she was smothering in white silk. Death silk.

No. Just a plain bleached-white linen cloth, maybe a bandanna of the kind worn by laborers to keep sweat from pouring into their eyes. The cloth sucked in and out with her breath. She heard the squeak of wheels on pine needles. She heard the soft tread of feet and the wind sighing through trees. No one spoke. She felt no sun, so couldn't guess at time of day or how long she had been unconscious.

She took stock of her condition: throbbing head, chest and ribs aching, and one heel stinging as though she'd been bitten. Her shoulders were bruised, but somehow the one that had popped was no longer dislocated. It just hurt like the hells. What hurt worst was her fury at her own stupidity and carelessness. Why hadn't Flirt warned her? Her assailants must have been close by, and those who closed in from outside would surely have been spotted by Flirt, who was trained to give the alert.


Some magic had veiled sight and instinct. She had to be ready. Most likely, she would have only one chance to escape and she had to prepare herself for the worst: rape, any kind of brutality, mutilation. She had to lock down her emotions. Thus were reeves trained to respond in emergencies.

" Your fears and passions must be set aside, placed in a treasure chest, and locked up tight. If you are ruled by fear or desire, then you will lose. Be an arrow, unencumbered by any but the force that impels it to its target. Do not let the wind blow you off course."

She stayed quiet as the barrow lurched and rolled along the forest path. She sorted out footfalls and decided there were at least ten men accompanying her. Because they stayed silent, they betrayed no knowledge of Flirt or her fate. She banished Flirt's fate from her mind. Until she was free, there was nothing she could do about the eagle.

At last she smelled wood smoke and the smoky richness of roasting venison. At a distance she heard the sound of many voices, the clatter of life, the ringing of an axe, the false hoot of an owl raised as a signal. She felt a change in the texture of the air as they came out of trees into a clearing. Silence fell. No one spoke, but she felt the mass of men staring. Her skin prickled. Certainly this must be the woodsmen's camp.

" Do not fear pain. Fear will kill you." So Marshal Alard taught.

A man coughed. Someone giggled with the barest edge of hysteria. Hand slapped skin, and the giggling ceased.

"Put her there," said a baritone.

The silence was ugly, made more so by the sudden glare of sun on her face so bright she blinked under the cloth. Just as her eyes teared, shadow eased the blinding light. Leaves whispered above her. A dozen thin fingers tickled her chest and face. The wheelbarrow jolted to a stop, and its legs were set down hard. A man cursed right behind her, and she heard him blowing through lips, maybe on blistered hands. He did not speak. The wheelbarrow raised up abruptly and she slid forward, awkwardly, and slithered down to land in a heap.

On a carpet.

Metal rattled softly, then scraped. Footsteps receded. A man hawked and spat, and she flinched, but a delicate finger touched her chin and carefully eased the corner of the cloth up over her mouth and nose. She sucked in air gratefully.

"Hush," whispered a female voice. "He'll hear. He's coming."

"Who are you?"

"No one. Not anymore." It was a young voice, its spirit strangely deadened.

"Let me see your face. Let me see this place."

"It was a trap."

"That's how they captured me?"

"It was a trap. Half of the hierodules had turned their back on the Devourer and given their allegiance to him. They gave the rest of us over, but he killed the others. All but me. All but me." The finger tickled her nose, pushed under the band of cloth, and eased it upward until Marit could-bless the Great Lady-see a bit of her surroundings and the girl beside her.

She was very young; she didn't even wear the earring that marked her Youth's Crown, although she had breasts and curves enough that she was no doubt meant to dance into the Crowning Feast at midwinter with the rest of the youths ready to don their Lover's Wreaths and enter halfway into the adult world. No more than fourteen years, then. The remains of a sleeveless silk shift that once had been gold in color draped her body. Over it she wore an embroidered silk cloak, the kind of elegant accessory jaryas displayed while riding across town to an assignation or performance. It was a spectacular orange, now ripped and grimy; she'd used it to wipe up blood, likely her own. But as shocking as the sight of her was, with her curling black hair unbound and falling in matted tails and strings to her waist, and her arms and legs stained with dirt and blood and worse things, Marit had seen worse; reeves always saw worse.

Yet she'd never seen a girl dressed in the acolyte robes of the Devourer manacled by the ankle. The chain snaked back to the base of a huge tree, where it was fastened around a stake driven into the ground. The trunk was that of a massive death willow, immeasurably ancient. The trunk had grown up around the head of a tumbled statue. Wood encased the stone so that the grainy face peeked out and the crown of the head and the sculpted ripples of its hair were swallowed within the tree. The stone face stared at nothing. Lichen blinded both eyes. Streaks of white-she couldn't tell what they were-mottled the chin. The lips were darkened with the residue of blood or berry juice. An awful stench boiled out of the ground at the base of the trunk, something stinking and rotten.

The willow's green-yellow canopy concealed the sky and shaded both reeve and girl from the sun. Marit lay on a carpet, and when she turned her head she saw the curtain made by the willow's drooping branches, many of which swept the ground. Beyond, out where it was light, figures moved, but although she opened and closed her eyes three times she could get no good look at anything out there, as though magic hazed her sight. Beneath the death willow, they were alone.

"Do you want to be free?" whispered Marit, sensing her chance.

"Please let me go," the girl whimpered. "Please. Please." The words sounded well rehearsed; she'd said them frequently. Her dark eyes, like those of the stone head, had a kind of blindness to them, although she tracked Marit's face and movements well enough.

"Is there another way out of here? What lies beyond the willow, that way?" She indicated direction with a jerk of her chin.

"No one goes that way," murmured the girl. "That's where he goes when he comes visiting."

"Does it lead into the forest?"

The girl stiffened, head thrown back, lips thinning, and she sniffed audibly, taking in the air like a starving man scenting food. "He's coming." She scrambled to the base of the trunk and tugged hopelessly at the stake, but it didn't budge. Finally she curled up like a turtle seeking its shell, trembling, arms wrapped around her chest.

Voices reached her from beyond the drooping branches.

"My lord! I did not expect you so soon."

"Have you accomplished what I asked of you, Milas?"

Marit knew that voice.

The baritone hemmed and hawed in reply. "Not as we expected, my lord."

"Leave off your excuses!" The curtain of branches was swept aside, and a man ducked in under the canopy. He looked, first, directly at the stone head and the girl cowering there, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, staring at him in terror. Marit got a good look at his face: that of a man in his early twenties, with broad cheekbones, a mustache and beard, and astonishingly long lashes above deep-set eyes. To her shock, she recognized him.

Radas, lord of Iliyat. He held one of the local authorities under whose auspices order was kept in the Hundred, and he was unusual only in that lordships-local chiefs whose right to office passed through a direct bloodline-were rare, an artifact, so the tales sang, of ancient days and even then known almost exclusively in the north.

His gaze flicked down to her. When he saw that the blindfold had been tweaked aside, annoyance narrowed his eyes.

"Have you touched her?" he said to the girl. Although he did not raise his voice, the change in his tone made Marit shiver and the girl quiver and moan.

With a snort of disgust he let the branches fall and vanished back into the light.

"She'll have to be killed," he said. "She's seen me."

"Right away, my lord," said the baritone.

"Nay, no haste. It would serve my purposes best to let the men do what they will. It's necessary that they understand that reeves aren't to be feared or respected. After that, if she's still breathing-slit her throat."

"Yes, my lord."

"Where's the eagle?"

"This way, my lord."

They moved away. In the camp, the noises of men at their tasks trickled back into life. Evidently the woodsmen feared the lord of Iliyat as much as the girl did-and yet, Marit could not fit the two pieces together. She'd seen Lord Radas at court day in Iliyat, a mild-spoken young man passing judgment and entertaining merchants. Less than a year ago, she'd brought in a criminal to Iliyat's assizes, a thief and his accomplices who had raided two warehouses. The ringleader had been sold to a man brokering for Sirniakan merchants; he'd be taken out of the Hundred into the distant south, into a life of slavery far from home with no hope of return. No worse fate existed. The accomplices were young and foolish; they'd been given eight-year contracts to serve as indentured servants, slaves of the debt they had created through their crime. It was a merciful sentence.

She could not reconcile that man and this one, yet they were clearly the same.

"Hsst. Girl."

The girl looked up. Her eyes were dry but her expression was that of a child who has given up crying because she knows comfort will never ever come. Her eyes were bruised with shadows; her cheeks were hollow, and her complexion more gray than brown.

"Come closer."

She shook her head. "I shouldn't have touched you. Now he'll punish me. He likes to punish me."

"What's your name?"

"I don't have a name anymore."

A stubborn one. "I'm called Marit. Reeve Marit. If I can free you, will you help me?"

"We are all slaves to the will of the Merciless One. There is only one road to freedom."

There wasn't time to be subtle.

"There's a knife hidden in my right boot. I can't reach it, but you can. Then you can free me." Marit wiggled her shoulders and hips and rolled onto her left side to display her bound arms. Her shoulders were aching badly, but that was the least of her worries. She knew better than to think about the problem posed by that chain and that stake. When she won free, she had to alert the reeve halls to this blasphemy and Lord Radas's treason. She wouldn't have time to struggle with the stake. It was a cruel decision, but necessary.

"A knife!" The girl crawled forward. Her expression changed, but the disquiet raised in Marit's throat by Lord Radas's frown tightened, and she had to cough out a breath as the girl tugged off Marit's right boot and swiftly, with strangely practiced hands, probed the lining. Faster than should have been possible her nimble fingers extracted the knife. It was a slender blade, meant for emergencies.

"The Merciless One has smiled on us." The girl kissed the blade. "She'll grant us freedom!"

"Quick! They could come at any moment."

Indeed, she heard a buzz of noise out beyond the willow's canopy as though a mob gathered, with stamping and hollering and wild laughter brought on by waste wine and khaif: men working up their nerve to indulge themselves in their worst nature; men being worked up by a chieftain or overlord as music is coaxed out of an instrument by a skilled musician.

As the captain's wife said in the Tale of Fortune: Make them ashamed of themselves and they will not betray you, because they will know they have stepped outside the boundaries and made themselves outcast by their deeds.

The girl mouthed a prayer of thanksgiving, then sidled closer, right up against Marit's torso. She spun the blade with the skill of an expert trained to handle knives and touched the point against the cloth of Marit's tunic. It rested just below the reeve's breastbone, nudging up the thick leather strap of her walking harness.

"We'll be free. They won't be able to touch us."

The prick of the blade bit Marit's skin. The reeve fell onto her back, startled and frantically reassessing as she stared up at the girl.

I've miscalculated.

That face was so young and so innocent, ravished by her brutal treatment, that Marit had overlooked what stared her right in the face. The girl's gaze had the fixed fanaticism of the Merciless One's most devoted followers, who did not separate war, death, and desire.

She's insane!

She pushed with her legs, scooting away on her back. "Wait! Cut the rope-!"

The thrust punctured skin and gristle with a smooth, strong, angled stroke.

She's done this before.

Right into the heart. There was no pain.

The last thing Marit saw, as the blood drained from her heart, as the white cloak of death descended out of the sky to smother her in its wings, was the implacable face of the girl who was in that instant the Merciless One Herself. Beyond, a lifetime away, men shouted and came running. The girl spun the blade, plunged it up underneath her own ribs and, with a gloating smile, died.


In the Year of the Silver Fox

(nineteen years later)

In the Hundred


Joss was drinking hard and had sitting on his lap a comely girl who served wine, cordial, and, if you were generous enough and to her liking, certain of her favors. A tremendous shout had risen up from the nearby playing ground, and the boy had just run in from the back to announce the current score on the game-dammit if his team wasn't losing again-when the door of the Pig's Bladder banged open. Light assaulted him. He shut his eyes, but opened them when the girl leaped to her feet. She grabbed her tray as a pair of swarthy men in reeve's leathers charged up to confront him.

"Commander wants you right now," said the first, a slender, nimble fellow as mean as a crate of starving snakes. He grinned mockingly at the young woman, who gave him a scowl in reply. "Not as handsome as him, am I?" he asked her. "Even though he is old enough to be your dad."

She flushed. "There are Devouring girls at the temple who make it a special holy duty to service men made ugly by the gods' mercy. Or like you, by spite." She tipped back her pretty chin and sashayed back to the bar.

Joss watched her hips sway as she walked away. The hells! He'd just spent the better part of the afternoon coaxing her away from the attentions of a much younger suitor. He downed the rest of his cup and slammed it down. "The Commander can stick it up-"

The barmaid glanced back at him, winked with a further, suggestive twitch of her ass, and turned to set her empty tray on the bar. There came the younger suitor, gods curse him, sidling up to her with a smile on his callow face.

Joss glared at the two reeves. "I agreed to work the entire festival in exchange for the first four days of the new year off. Ghost Festival ended three days ago. That means I'm still off duty for two more days. Free and clear. That was the agreement."

"She won't be free, a merchant like her, doing it for coin," said the Snake, nodding toward the bar. "But I hear Sadit has a thing for you and will give you a roll for nothing whenever her husband's not around."

"Shut up," said Joss, coming up off the bench with an arm cocked.

"You're drunk," said Peddo mildly as he pushed the other two men apart. He was by many years the youngest, broadest across the chest, and as placid as a well-fed lion. "Begging your pardon, Legate Joss. Commander's noticed that you've been drinking more lately. So have some of us others."

"I hear he has nightmares," said the Snake. "Most likely it's some lilu haunting him, for I swear to you that man cannot keep his cock from wandering into every henhouse. I hear he calls out a woman's name in his dreams-"

Joss shook off Peddo's hand and slugged the Snake. The backward stumble, the smash against the bench, the crash: those were good sounds. Peddo sighed, the barmaid laughed, and the Snake spat blood to the floor. Joss tossed a handful of coins on the table to cover the damage and staggered outside into the glare of the awful sun, which had it in for him today. From the direction of the playing field, the crowd roared appreciatively.

There was a neighborhood well in the middle of the humble square. He got his bearings, made it halfway before he realized he was veering off course, corrected three more times to avoid men bent under yoked baskets, and finally closed the gap and grabbed the lip of the well to stop himself falling over.

"Can I help you, ver?" The speaker was a remarkably handsome woman of middle years who had come with three children and eight sturdy wooden buckets slung two by two over stout poles. She had a hierodule's amorous eye and no doubt had served the Devourer in her youth. You could tell it by the way she looked him over with his reeve leathers and whatever else she saw, including the tattoos that circled his wrists and marked him as a child of the Fire Mother.

"Just water," he said hoarsely, noting the line of scalloped waves tattooed down the length of her right arm, marking her as a child of the Water Mother. With his best smile he added, "I thank you, verea."

"Oh, it sure is nothing," she said with amusement as she winched up a full bucket for him.

He upended it over his head. The cold water was better than a slap. She jumped back laughing as the children shrieked with delight and began to ask, clamoring, if they could do the same.

Peddo strode out of the tavern, rubbing his forehead as though to wipe away a headache, and stopped short when he saw Joss dripping. "Does it help any?"

"The hells! Does that sun have to be so bright?"

"Do you come here often?" the matron asked.

She had a pleasing figure, ample in all the right places and suggested to good effect in the worn but carefully mended taloos wrapped around her curves. The fabric was a soothing sea-green silk that did not hurt his eyes.

"Often enough," he said.

Peddo caught him by the elbow, made his courtesies, and dragged him off. Because he was still drunk, there was no point in resisting.

"Can you never stop flirting?" demanded Peddo.

It was a stupid question, which Joss did not bother to answer. Anyway, a khaif seller had set up his cart where the afternoon shadows gave the man some respite against the cruel sun. The fellow had a brisk business going, despite the heat. Joss made Peddo stop, and he downed two mugfuls before the buzz hit and he could begin to shake off the wine.

"It's healthier for a man to visit the temple when the Devouring urge takes him," said Peddo.


Peddo coughed, looking uncomfortable for the first time. "Yeh. Er. So I had heard. Sorry."

Nothing to do with those dreams, thought Joss sourly as the mud cleared and his sight and thoughts clarified. Neh, it's everything to do with them. Nineteen years of bad luck, and dreams to remind him of how one rash act in youth could destroy what you cherished most and scar your life forever.

They started off again through the tidy streets of Flag Quarter.

"What in the hells does the Commander want from me, if you don't mind my asking? Considering the Commander was the one who made the agreement that I would get these days off."

"Don't know," admitted Peddo cheerfully.

Despite the heat and the hour and the crowd gathered at the playing ground, the streets of Toskala were not at all quiet, not as they had been a few days ago during the festival, the ghost days that separated the ashes-end of the dead year from the moonrise that marked the beginning of the new. Everyone was out, eager to get on with their business after the restrictions of the ghost days. There were, indeed, more people than usual in the streets because over the last many months a steady trickle of refugees had filtered in from neighboring regions: mostly northeastern Haldia, the Haya Gap, north and west Farhal, and these days a handful from the Aua Gap and regions around the town of Horn. Come to think of it, that handsome matron at the well had spoken with a western lilt. Maybe she, too, was a refugee, fled from the plague of lawlessness that had engulfed the north.

And yet she had smiled and laughed. How could anyone smile and laugh who had seen the terrible things he had himself seen, or heard about? How could anyone smile and laugh who knew what was coming, everything his nightmares warned him of? Getting drunk gave him a moment's peace, but that was all.

Aui! The hells! Why shouldn't she laugh, if she wanted to? If it made her day easier? Folk would go about their lives once they had a measure of peace, even if they guessed that peace might only be temporary.

"Busy today," remarked Peddo, surveying the scene as they walked.

People stepped up onto the covered porches of shops, took off their sandals, and brushed past the hanging banners whose ideograms and painted representations advertised the nature of the shop within: bakery; sandals; bed nets; savory pies; candies; apothecary; milled and unmilled grains. A pair of peddlers trundled past pushing handcarts piled high with dried fish. The pungent smell hit Joss hard between the eyes like a kick to the head, but they were already gone beyond, turning down an alley. A young woman sauntered past. Over her right shoulder she balanced a pole from which hung unpainted round fans. Her twilight-blue silk taloos was wrapped tightly around exceedingly shapely breasts.

"Are you still that drunk," asked Peddo, "or do you just never stop?"

"What?" Joss demanded.

Peddo shook his head as they negotiated a path around the clot of servants and slaves that had gathered around an oil seller set up at the corner. Squeezing past, the two reeves swung out onto the main thoroughfare and headed toward the distant towers that marked Justice Square. Banner Street was lined with prosperous shops that wove, painted, and sold banners and flags of all kinds. Various side streets advertised dye merchants, paint merchants, ink merchants, paper makers, and fan makers and painters. Business was brisk. Walkways were crowded with customers ducking in and out of shops. Carts rolled past laden with bags of rice being brought in from the wholesale markets in outlying Fifth Quarter. Ideograms were stamped on the burlap: first-quality white; new-milled; on the stalk; ordinary yellow; first-quality yellow; old rice. A pair of surly chairmen pushed through, their customer concealed by strips of tinkling bells whose muted chiming alerted the people ahead to make way.

A pack of children wearing the undyed tabards common to youngsters attending one of the Lantern's schools sang in unison one of those tiresome learning songs as they padded down the avenue under the supervision of three elderly matrons. These are the seven treasures! Virtue! Conviction! Listening! Compassion! The silver-haired woman in the lead had a face to die for, much lived in, lined, and weathered; she possessed an astonishing grace and dignity. She must have stopped traffic in her youth and was doing a pretty good job of it today, too.

Generosity! Discernment! Conscience!

She caught him staring-women who had lived that long didn't miss much-and smiled with reciprocal admiration. She knew how to flatter a man with a look alone.

"By the Lantern!" swore Peddo. "That's my grandmother!"

Hearing Peddo's voice, she shifted her gaze. "Peddo!" she called with cheerful surprise, raising a hand to mark that she had seen him, but she did not leave the head of the line. The children's piercing voices-they were very young-cut off any other greeting she might have thrown their way. These are the eight children: the dragonlings, the firelings, the delvings, the wildings, the lendings…

"That was my grandmother you were ogling!" said Peddo, elbowing him to get his attention back as the children marched away down the avenue toward wherever the hells they were going.

Joss laughed. The headache was wavering; perhaps it wouldn't hammer home after all. Banner Street gave onto Battle Square, where about fifty refugees stood in line at one of the city's rice warehouses for their weekly allotment. Youths wearing the badge of the street sweepers' guild worked the margins with their brooms. There were a fair number of militia standing at guard. Joss gave the square a brief and comprehensive sweep with his gaze.

"Pretty calm," said Peddo, who had done the same thing. It was reflexive to do so. No reeve survived long who couldn't size up a situation fast.

Not unless the situation was a perfect ambush, impossible to predict or protect against, especially if you had gone in alone, without anyone to back you up.

"You okay?" Peddo asked. "Got a headache?"

"Just the sun," said Joss, blinking back the resurgent pain as they headed up Silk Street.

They passed weavers' workshops and drapers and a dozen side streets advertising fine netting, coarse netting, kites, festival streamers, ribbons and tassels, and there a pair of competing bathhouses on opposite corners. A lad was selling hot savory pies from a deep tray steadied by a strap slung around his neck. Next to him a man peddled still-slithering eels out of a pair of wooden buckets.

A line of firefighters tramped out from a side street on their rounds, their commander riding at the rear on a street-smart bay gelding. The men had their fire hooks and pikes resting on their left shoulders. They were sweating in fitted leather coats and brimmed leather helmets.

Now, after all, Peddo gave a couple of the younger, good-looking ones the once-over. "Whoop," he muttered under his breath.

"Can't you ever stop?" Joss asked.

Peddo had a sweet grin that gave him a mischievous look at odds with his normally sober expression. "You're the one with the reputation."

Silk Street dead-ended into Canal Street, the widest avenue in the city. The canal side of the street was cluttered with quays and modest piers, and there was more traffic on the water than on the paved avenues to either side. At the Silk Street gate, the two reeves cut across to the brick-paved walkway reserved for official business. Here they were able to stride along briskly. Joss had nothing to say; the headache had slaughtered his words. Peddo pulled the brim of his cap down to shade his eyes against the sun. Across the canal lay Bell Quarter. Orchid Square was visible, swollen with folk decked out in bright silks and cottons. There was some kind of singsong festival going on there, most likely prayers for rain. It was impossible to make out words over the noise of rumbling carts, tramping feet, shouting vendors, arguing shopkeepers, barking dogs, and the nerve-shattering whine of knives being sharpened on a spinning whetstone at the nearest corner.

Nausea engulfed Joss's stomach and throat, suddenly and overwhelmingly. He lurched off the brick path, ducked under the separation rail, shoved rudely through the traffic, and made it to the sewage channel before he was sick.

After he was finished, Peddo handed him a scrap of cloth to wipe his mouth. Folk had paused to point and stare, seeing him in his reeve's leathers, but Peddo had a pleasant way of smiling that caused them to disperse rapidly. Joss eased to his feet, tested his balance, and groaned.

"Better?" asked Peddo.

"I suppose."

"There are those among us who just never do seem to learn that wine and khaif do not mix."

"We're always hopeful," said Joss with a faint smile, "that this time will be different."

There was, after all, a water seller just a few paces away. Joss pulled a pair of vey off his string of cash and got two dipperfuls of water to cleanse his mouth.

"Come on," said Peddo. "The Commander didn't just ask for you. The Commander's waiting on you."

That didn't sound good. It didn't look any better when they reached Guardian Bridge at the base of the rocky promontory that marked the confluence of the Istri and its tributary. The approach to the bridge lay in the open space where Bell Quarter, Flag Quarter, and the canal running between them ended at the locks. Guardian Bridge spanned the central spillway pool and the deeply cut locks. As usual, there was a crowd waiting to get on the bridge, but reeves had free passage along a separate narrow corridor roped off over the high arch of the bridge. They could move quickly while everyone else waited.

Out on the spur, they climbed steps carved into the rock to the north-northwest corner entrance onto the wide-open ground of Justice Square, the largest open space within the five official quarters of Toskala. From here you couldn't see the river to either side because the view was blocked by four built-up complexes. Past Assizes Tower and the militia barracks to the southeast could be glimpsed the high prow of the promontory with its bright banners and the humble thatched-roof shelter that shielded Law Rock from the elements. When you were standing out there on that prow of high rock, ready to lift, it was like sailing, with the two rivers joining in a swirl of currents below.

Peddo turned left and entered through the gate into Clan Hall with its skeletal watchtowers, two vast lofts, and parade ground within. The reeve standing watch had a broken arm dressed up in a sling. Seeing the pair, he grinned, displaying a missing tooth.

"Commander is waiting for you, Legate Joss. I'm thinking you're in up to your neck."

"What's changed, then?" asked Joss, getting a chuckle from the other man.

Peddo shook his head with a frown.

These days Clan Hall stood mostly empty, with the overburdened and thin-stretched forces of reeves out on constant patrol of the beleaguered countryside. There was only one reeve and his eagle on watch up in White Tower, but when Joss shaded his eyes and stared up he saw an eagle spiraling in the updraft far above the promontory.

A young and quite attractive reeve was having trouble with her bating eagle out in the parade ground. Joss would have paused to help, but the hall loft master, standing back to advise with arms crossed and an amused expression, seemed to have the situation in hand. The young one wore long leather gloves wrapped up past her elbows, but she was wearing her sleeveless leather vest with no shirt beneath, laced up tightly over a slender but muscular frame. She glanced their way, tracking their movement until the squawk of her flustered eagle yanked her attention back.

"They do it on purpose to get you to look at them," said Peddo as they hurried past. "I don't mean 'you' as in men in general. I mean you in particular."

"Upset their eagles?"

"No, no! Dress like that."

"How do you know?"

"I'm the one they talk to," he said innocently. "You should hear the things they say."

"You won't get me to fall for that one."

The garden court was quiet except for the chatter of the fountain. The doors to the commander's cote stood open. An old reeve, retired from flying duty, sat at his ease cross-legged on the porch studying a half-finished game of kot. He looked up, saw them, and shook his head in wry warning.

They stepped up to the porch, tugged off their boots, and stepped up and over the threshold onto the polished wood floor of the audience chamber.

The Snake had gotten there before them. He was lounging on a padded bench, slouched back with legs stretched out and ankles crossed and resting on a single heel, arms folded over his chest, and a sneering grin on his ugly face. His lip was bruised, and swelling. Joss opened his mouth to comment, but when he saw the commander's grim look, he thought better of it.

The commander nodded at them from behind her low table. Her crutch had been set on the floor parallel to the pillow she sat on, which meant she expected not to get up any time soon. Definitely, yes, she was annoyed at someone, and when she indicated that Peddo was to sit, Joss guessed that Peddo was not the target.

"So nice of you to join us, Legate Joss," she said so kindly that he winced. "I've had a complaint."

Peddo hesitated, then went to sit on the bench beside the Snake. Joss was left standing, an awkward position now that the other four people in the room were seated.

"This is Master Tanesh."

"I remember your case, ver," he said politely to the merchant seated cross-legged on a brocade pillow to the right of the commander's desk.

"Considering the trouble you caused me out at my estate in Allauk, I should think you would." The man wore an overtunic of a florid purple brocade silk, embroidered with silver- and gold-thread flowers in case you were wondering how rich he really was. And if there was still then any doubt, it could be put to rest by admiring the strings of pearls adorning the loops of his threefold braid.

"I simply followed the law, ver.'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.' "

"In the ninth to go free," agreed the man, raising his forefinger as though he were lecturing an ignorant apprentice, "but there's nothing said in the law about additional debt run up in the meantime, which must be repaid in coin or in service, which all agree is fair. I was genuinely shocked by the decision. I don't mind saying that I was offended by it as well, bullying my factor as this reeve did, and humiliating him in front of the witnesses just because he could."

"The law is clear," said Joss, who was beginning to get irritated all over again although he could not show it. The merchant's factor had possessed just this same manner of self-importance. "Indeed, we can walk up to Law Rock and see that the law is carved in stone."

"Legate Joss!" The commander rapped the table with her baton.

"You'd think he was wed to a Silver the way he goes on," added the merchant. "If it were allowed, that is. And I don't mind saying I am not the only one who has gotten tired of those people putting in their petition every year at the Flowering Festival, although what right such outlanders think they have to change our holy laws I can't imagine."

"The Ri Amarah clans are not the issue under discussion," said the commander.

He backed down unctuously. "No, no, not at all. That's right. Let's stick to the business at hand. It's just one of my grievances that I'm sometimes on about."

No doubt he had a dozen wagonloads of grievances.

"The matter will go before the Legate's Council next week," continued the commander, "and I assure you that you will not be disappointed in the ruling."

"The law is clear," objected Joss. "I found according to the law that the man in question had served his eight years' servitude in payment for his debt and was unlawfully retained against his wishes past the ninth year."

"In truth, Legate Joss," said the commander, "the law doesn't say anything about debt compounding through actions of the slave which accrue further debt during the period of servitude. Master Tanesh, if you will, we'll send you a messenger when the case comes up next week."

The merchant rose and fussed and bowed. The commander, naturally, did not get up, and so he went on his way expeditiously. When the doors had slid shut behind him and a decent interval had passed in which the old reeve could escort him at least as far as out of the garden court beyond the possibility of overhearing any further conversation, she addressed Joss.

"We're already fighting what appears to be a losing battle, one that is spreading day by day, that might as well be a wildfire burning out of our control. You know that better than any person here, by the names of all the gods."

"You know he's wrong! These people pad out debts and assign frivolous fines and make arrangements with corrupt clerks to work debt in their favor. That's the beauty of the law. It's simple, and it understands how to get around some people's desire to take more than they ought just because they are greedy-"


"Is it any wonder there's been a rash of reports of slaves running out on their debts? Why shouldn't they, if they believe the law is being twisted to work against them? Indenture was meant to be a temporary measure, not a permanent one."

"Legate Joss! You have to fight these battles when there is peace to fight them in."

"How can there be peace when the shadows have corrupted even the law? Hells, it isn't the shadows that corrupted the law. It's us, who have allowed it to happen by making an exception here, and another there."

"Certainly it would be easier to abide by the law of the Guardians if there were Guardians left to preside at the assizes. But there aren't. As you know best of any of us."

In training, you learned how to absorb the force of a blow from a staff by bending to absorb the impact or melting out from under it, but this hit him straight on.

"That's silenced him, thank the gods," muttered the Snake.

He could not speak, not even to cut that damned snake to pieces. That Peddo was hiding his eyes behind a hand did not blunt the shock.

The commander studied him. There was not a hint of softening, not in her, not even though she had let him into her bed off and on for over a year about twelve years back, before he became a legate and she the commander. Before her injury. She was not a woman swayed by fond memories. She was not sentimental, not as he was. If nightmares haunted her, she gave no sign of it. She was cold and hard and in charge of an impossible situation.

The Guardians are dead and gone.

And the young Joss, that utterly stupid and bullheaded youth who had thought far too much of himself back in those days, was the one who had brought that knowledge back to the reeve halls while abandoning his lover and her eagle to be murdered at the hands of a band of criminals who had never been caught and bound to justice for the deed. Maybe, somehow, by breaking the boundaries, he was the one who had brought it down on their heads.

As if the commander knew the way his thoughts were tending, and because she would not have said those words if she hadn't meant to hurt him, she went on.

"So. That leaves us with a hundred towns, a hundred villages, a hundred arkhons, a hundred captains, a hundred lords and landowners, a hundred local guild masters, a hundred times over, according to the holy tales recorded by Sapanasu's clerks and chanted by the Lady's mendicants. Any of these towns and villages and lords and guilds may be governed by a wise or by a foolish council, according to what fortune or misfortune has befallen their leading clans. Any of these councils may support an indifferent or a useful militia, according to their custom and that of the surrounding clans. That leaves the holy temples, whose authority is unquestioned but diffuse. And that leaves us, the six reeve halls, over whom I stand as Commander. Which position, as you know, gives me no authority except that of suggestion and coordination. Not in the halls, and not in the temples, and not in the Hundred. This is the strength we possess against an enemy who may not even be an enemy, one who cannot be found or grasped."

"It's part of what's happened in Herelia," said Peddo suddenly. "Every village and town asking reeves to depart and never come back. No reeve patrols in Herelia now. The folk there came to hate us because they didn't trust us. Because they feared someone or something else even more. There's a power at work in Herelia, everywhere north of Iliyat and the Haya Gap. Yet we can't track it down."

Her gaze, bent on Peddo, caused him to sit back and grin nervously, as does a boy called out for whispering to his neighbor during recitation drill.

"This is the strength we possess," she repeated. "And it is failing us." She turned that gaze on Joss. He stood his ground, even under her harsh stare. "I need Master Tanesh. He has supported the city by providing triple rations of grain and meat, although he's under no obligation to increase his tithing, and a doubled complement of young folk to serve their rotation in Toskala's militia."

"All of which serve to protect his estates and investments."

"Nevertheless, it ends up protecting all of us as well. I need Master Tanesh's support. And I need you concentrating on the matter at hand."

"I thought a reeve's work to rule fairly and uncover abuses and bring criminals to justice at the assizes was the matter at hand."

"You are so damned naive. You know what they call you?"

Joss glanced at Peddo, but the young reeve shrugged to show he hadn't a clue what the commander was going on about.

"The incorruptible," she said with disgust.

"I take that as a compliment."

"I suppose it is one given your predilection," she said.

The Snake snickered. He was enjoying the free show.

"What I do when I am off duty has nothing to do with-"

She lifted a hand. He shut his mouth.

"I'm stripping you of your position as legate."

"Stripping me-!"

She lifted her baton; she knew how to menace with it, although he wasn't actually within reach. "I have already sent a messenger to Copper Hall asking Marshal Masar to appoint a new legate to Clan Hall. One who will replace you."

He cursed under his breath. Had the wall been close enough, he would have slammed his fist through it-

"Never heard of a legate being stripped of his position like that before," said the Snake. "That must hurt."

— Or into the Snake's face for the second time that day. But, thank the gods, the distance between them saved him from that folly. "This is Master Tanesh's doing, isn't it? You're doing this to placate that bullying, lying, greed-ridden bastard."

"No," continued the commander in the manner of the flood tide, unstoppable, "it's your own doing. You've forgotten that although the law is carved in stone, people are not. People are water, or earth, or fire, or air. They are not fixed and immutable. There must be room to maneuver, especially in an emergency. And this is an emergency."

"But it's just that kind of thinking that's caused us to lose so much ground-"

She thwacked her baton against her desk, cutting him off. "Also, bluntly: You drink too much. You're becoming unreliable."

He indicated the Snake, whose stare challenged him. "Reeves are often unreliable. In many different ways."

The Snake flicked up a little finger. Peddo, seeing the rude gesture, winced.

The commander either ignored the exchange or did not notice it. "Neither I nor the six marshals can unmake a reeve. However, I can ask for a legate to be withdrawn and replaced. As I have done. Because legates cannot be unreliable. Now. Do you want to know why I called you in today?"

"This hasn't been enough?"

"I'm hoping for much worse," muttered the Snake.

"Volias," said the commander in a tone so genial it seemed threatening. "Do not tempt me to start in on you and your manifold faults."

Peddo sucked in a breath, as if in pain. Then, amazingly, he laughed, and somehow his laughter released a bit of the tension in the chamber. Joss wiped his brow, chuckling. Even the Snake cracked a smile.

The commander nodded. "I have a mission of particular importance. It is customary for the merchants' guild to hold its grand conclave in Toskala at the advent of every Year of the Fox. The fox being a cunning animal beloved of those who take to the merchant's craft. And so the merchants and folk associated with the guild convened at the Guild Hall at the end of this last ibex year. Their meeting is now over. The first topic among them, I am reliably informed, was the safety of the roads. Roads are their lifeblood. Without safe passage, a merchant cannot arrange for the transfer of goods."

Joss's attention began to wander during this schoolroom speech. He noted how sparsely furnished the chamber was. Only last week a low couch had stood in the far corner, but now that space was empty except for a thin mat rolled up and tied with red string. The cupboard with its multitude of cubbyholes and small drawers remained, on the other side, but the fine glazed vase, normally filled with flowers and set atop the cupboard to give the room some color, was missing. A large gold-plated hairpin weighed down papers on the desk. The commander had served the Lantern in her youth; her ability to write and read was one of the reasons she had been elevated to the post. Her pen-and-ink case, lid firmly closed, sat by her right hand. A painted chest sat on the matting behind her, so she need only turn to get into it. An enameled tray had been shoved back, to the left; it held an orangeware ceramic pot suitable for brewing khaif, as well as two thin wooden drinking bowls small enough to cup in the hands. No doubt Master Tanesh had been offered the hospitality of the hall. Where had the couch and vase gone?

"According to the delegation who met with me this morning, the guild council in association with the guild of carters and transport compiled a list of roads along which caravans and wagons have been attacked in the last three years. These are attacks, mind you, in which both the attack and its aftermath were at no time witnessed by or in contact with reeves. The list is extensive, the danger widespread, and moving steadily into the southern regions of the Hundred. More importantly, of these attacks fewer than half were then reported to the local reeve halls, and of those reports, only a hand's count were traced to their origin and the criminals brought to the assizes to face trial. The guild, need I say, is not pleased with the reeves. They feel we are not doing our duty. They want reeves assigned to caravans as permanent escorts."

The Snake grunted. "Begging your pardon, Commander, but we're spread so thin patrolling the hinterlands and making sweeps along the roads and tracks that we can't assign reeves to act as guards for the merchants. Aren't the local militias responsible for the safety of the roads within five mey of every town? Can't the guild hire guards, like they do in the south when they travel over the pass into the empire? Or are they just too cheap for that?"

"As for hiring guards, I cannot answer for their quality, cost, or availability. But it seems the worst of the raids are carried out precisely to avoid the local militia, either by means of their speed or via misdirection."

"Ospreys," said Peddo. "That's what they call such outlaws in the south. Dive, and snatch."

Joss shook his head, raising a hand to ask for clarification. "Are you saying that the merchants suspect that some of these raids are carried out in coordination with local militia?"

She shrugged. "That remains to be seen. As a gesture of good faith-for I assure you that we must retain the good faith of the guilds or else the halls will not be able to provision and maintain themselves-I have agreed to assign you as an escort for those merchants departing the conclave who are traveling the main routes out of Toskala."

The Snake chortled. "Aui! That's a pup's chore, first-year reeve duty, escort along the roads. You've had your wing feathers plucked, haven't you?"

"You, and you, and you. All three of you on this escort duty." The commander did smile now, and the Snake choked on his laughter. Her smile was not a pleasant thing, after all. The Snake began to splutter a protest, but the commander's gaze cut him off. He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.

Joss's head was pounding so badly that he could not taste even a grain of pleasure from the Snake's discomfort.

"How does it happen," asked Peddo mildly, "that even the three of us can be spared just now? Given that we've lost fifteen reeves and four eagles to ambush and fighting in the last two years alone. Not counting the twelve reeves who asked to be transferred out of Clan Hall, and the twenty or thirty who have been recalled to their home clans by their marshals. Or all those lost in all the halls since it became clear many years ago that someone was targeting reeves and their eagles specifically. If you don't mind my asking, Commander?"

Even Peddo was taken aback by the intensity of her cold, frightening smile.

"I don't mind you asking, since we all know how serious the situation is. Or at least, how serious the situation is here in the north. Yet we must concern ourselves with the south, too. We must concern ourselves with this report from the merchants' guild's council, and from the carters' guild. We must work in concert, or we will not survive on our own."

"You're pandering to them," said Joss through his headache. "There are remote villages who rely on us to run their assizes. We provide the only justice they can count on. These guilds can afford to pay for their own protection. We have better things to do. More crucial ones."

"I'm doing this to placate the merchants' guild and the transport guild, it's true. I've told them you'll patrol as escort for five days out of Toskala, after which you're to return to Clan Hall with your report. I also want you three to range wide, keep your eyes open, and return each night to camp with the company you're assigned to. I want you to listen to what the guild masters are saying among themselves."

"You don't trust them?" asked Peddo.

Her smile vanished, and she bent her head, eyes narrowing in an expression that did, at last, soften her. The gods knew everyone liked Peddo, and for good reason. He had never stabbed anyone in the back, or gossiped in order to cause harm, or told tales out of turn to get a man in trouble, or intimidated witnesses and pushed around locals just for the kick of feeling his power.

"Oh, Peddo. My dear boy. You're a good lad, and a competent reeve."

The commander's instinct for trouble was legendary. Indeed, it was the other reason she had risen to her post: She had never gotten caught flat-footed. That instinct had allowed her to escape the hammer, the perfect ambush designed to slaughter her and her eagle which she and the raptor had instead survived. Not like Marit and Flirt. She touched the crutch beside her, without which she no longer could walk. She had survived, but not unscathed.

"No, I'm not feeling very trusting in these days. Nor should you."


They took flight at dawn from the prow of Toskala, riding the updraft high and higher until the city could be glimpsed as a whole below them. In days of old, Toskala had been founded on the promontory below which the muddy yellow-brown waters of River Istri, flowing inexorably down out of the north, met the bluer waters of its tributary, the Lesser Istri, rushing in from the northwestern foothills. The city had expanded beyond the original city wall onto the broadening spit of land between the two rivers, and was now protected by an outer wall and earthworks that spanned the ground from the western bank of the Istri to the facing bank of the Lesser Istri. The first ferries of the day had already started their crossings, men turning winches and hauling on rope as the flat vessels strained with the current.

Toskala was known as "the crossroads" because here a person had the choice of five major roads. Peddo and his eagle, Jabi, banked south, heading out over the Flats. The Snake, and Trouble, followed the Lesser Walk.

Joss was assigned to the fifth and least of the roads, the Ili Cutoff, which speared straight east through cultivated fields and orchards to the town of River's Bend on the River Ili, halfway between Toskala and the valley of Iliyat. He and Scar flew sweeps all morning, routine patterns over cultivated land that revealed nothing except folk out preparing fields for the coming rains.

The heavens shone blue, untouched by cloud. The landscape was open, cut by streams, swales, well-tended orchards, overgrown pastureland, and a few dense tangles of undergrowth and pockets of uncut trees. Fish ponds and small reservoirs dug for irrigation glittered in the hard sunlight, water drained low here at the tail end of the dry season. Twice he flew over the skirts of the Wild, an impenetrable forest so broad that no human had ever been known to traverse it on foot although several forester clans worked its fringes. The day was hot, as it always was in the last weeks before the rains, but not as hot as it had been in previous years. Not as hot as it could be.

At intervals he crossed back over the ridgeward Istri Walk, keeping track of a large guild caravan that had hired an entire cohort of guards for the journey to High Haldia, Seven, and Teriayne. Once, he glimpsed Trouble off to his left, on a sweep. A really beautiful bird, she had an especially golden gleam, which made it all the more annoying that she had chosen the Snake as her reeve nine years back after Barda's awful death.

Midway through the afternoon, as the heat melted over the land, he and Scar glided back over the Ili Cutoff. The caravan was pulling to a stop under the shade of a pair of ancient Ladytrees, a sweet resting spot beside a watering hole. Hirelings and slaves led the parched beasts to drink, and produced food and drink for the masters. Joss left Scar on a high rock towering over the far side of the pond, the kind of place he and his friends would have dived from when they were lads. The eagle settled on this perch and began preening. Joss strolled over to the Ladytrees. Distinct groups had already formed among the company: under the smaller of the Ladytrees gathered the apprentices and hirelings and slaves permitted to take a break while their brethren worked.

The elder Ladytree was, like a vast chamber, sufficient for "many families to gather in their separate houses under one roof," as the tale had it. The four Herelian merchants kept to themselves. When they saw him enter under the cloak of the tree, they turned their backs and sought the fringes of the shade offered by the vast superstructure of overhanging branches and boundary shoots rooted and growing thick like a fence.

A foresting master bound for the Wild and the cart master who supervised this train of wagons acknowledged him with a respectful touch of two fingers to the temple: I recognize you. He offered the same gesture in return. He would talk to them later.

He bent his path to where the other groups of masters had settled in three distinct clots. The first group was a trio of Iliyat merchants, two women and a man, wearing sturdy but plain traveling gear and deep in conversation. The second group rested apart from the others. Seated on a folding stool, a merchant wearing expensive silks inappropriate for travel was gesticulating as another man, also on a folding stool, listened with head bent and gaze directed toward the ground. This man's rank could be told not by his clothing but by the retainers hovering close by: a pair of armed guards, a servant holding a tray with a capped pitcher and cups, and a young man wearing slave bracelets and wielding a large fan to cool his master.

Joss halted beside the third group, five Haldian merchants seated on a single blanket. "Greetings of the day to you, Masters. I'm called Joss, out of Clan Hall."

The commander was the kind of person who kept digging into a wound long after the infection was cut out, just for the sake of probing. He meant to give her no satisfaction today by flinching from that which she guessed would cause him a pang. He nodded at the man he knew among their group of five. "Master Tanesh."

"Greetings of the day to you, reeve." That might have been a gleam of triumph in the merchant's expression, or else he was just perspiring from the heat.

"The journey finds you steady on your feet, I trust?"

"I've not much farther to go. I'll be home within my walls by sunset. But my guild-kin, these here, all live up by the highlands. They've an uncertain journey before them, eight or twelve days more."

His guild-kin introduced themselves: Alon, Darya, Kasti, Udit. A range of ages, they nevertheless had a tight bond: They were gossiping about the other members of the caravan. Master Tanesh magnanimously offered Joss a bowl of cold melon soup, and invited him to sit with them. Kasti and Udit moved apart to make room on the blanket. Udit, by some years the youngest of the group, measured Joss with the same eye she likely used to peruse goods available in the market. Then she smiled, a swift, inviting grin, and passed him a cup of cordial as a chaser to the soup. Joss sipped, listening as the conversation flowed around him in lowered voices.

"Those Herelians, I don't trust them."

"Did you see the bolts of silk they offered at the market? That was first-grade Sirniakan silk. How they'd get that, with the roads out of Herelia blockaded, eh? Or so they claim. Yet they got passage down for the conclave."

"They're shipping it in."

"Around Storm Cape? Unlikely."

"Out of the north, maybe."

"Nah, nah. It would be too dangerous. There's barbarians living in the drylands, beyond Heaven's Ridge, you know."

"How would you know? You've never been there. That's outside the Hundred. No one lives there."

"Someone lives there! These pasture men, with their herds, always wandering. The 'Kin,' they call themselves. And other tribes, too, farther out. Real savages those are. I heard there's a tribe out there that cuts up their women's faces, like marking a slave's debt, to show they are married."

The company hooted and laughed until the speaker, Udit, had to admit this detail was only marketplace gossip heard tenth-hand.

Tanesh shushed them. "Don't believe every tale you hear, Udit. But that doesn't mean there isn't a grain of truth where there's talk of trade. Even savages can be hired to guard merchant trains."

"Savages can't be trusted."

"Who can be trusted, these days?" Joss asked mildly, with a grin to take the sting off the words.

Not even Tanesh took offense at the words. He and his comrades considered them grimly. An aged slave filled their cups with more cordial.

In their silence as they drank, the loud voice of the well-dressed merchant of the second group floated easily under the canopy. "But I fear that the members of the Lesser Houses will not cooperate. Worse, we suspect they are ready to rebel against-" The man's voice dropped abruptly. The rest of his complaint was too low to hear across the gap.

Udit elbowed Joss. "I don't know who that merchant is, but the other man, the one with him, that's Lord Radas, lord of Iliyat. He came down with his retinue for the conclave. They say his family comes out of a merchant clan. He rules the guilds of Iliyat with a tight hand, I'll tell you."

"What manner of tight hand?" Joss knew his region well, all the local rulers, arkhons, captains, and hierarchs with whom he dealt on a regular basis as well as other community leaders, guild masters, and prominent artisans, and various local eccentrics and ne'er-do-wells. The valley of Iliyat was normally under the purview of Copper Hall, but he had flown there a few times in recent years because of the trouble in Herelia. He had seen the lord of Iliyat twice, in passing, but not to speak with. "He seems a quiet manner of man."

"Oh, he's as strange as the daffer stork," said Tanesh. "Never looks a person in the eye, too shy to talk. You're thinking he rules with the tight hand of an ordinand, sword or spear at the ready, Kotaru's Thunder well in his grip. That's not it. He rules with the hand of an accountant.'Every stalk of rice in and every one out is counted,' as it says in the tale." He sketched the accompanying gestures with a hand, counting and grasping and a reluctance to let go, and the others chuckled. "He must have served his apprentice year in the temple of the Lantern as a clerk, to be so tight."

Joss had to admire the graceful efficiency of Tanesh's talking-hand gestures. "And you served at the Lady's temple, I see," said Joss. "That's the real skill you have. The Lady's gift."

"Aui! So am I found out." Tanesh was a man who liked praise. All their past differences might be forgiven if Joss only threw fulsome appreciation his way.

"I spoke the truth, that's all," Joss said curtly. He hadn't the stomach for more. He rose and gave cup and bowl to a slave. "I thank you for the hospitality."

He made his courtesies and continued his sweep, hearing Tanesh's company fall immediately back into a buzz of gossip. The three merchants out of Iliyat greeted him courteously and offered him food and drink, the same as they were themselves eating.

"How was your conclave?" he asked them.

Like all merchants, they enjoyed talk. They described Toskala. The two women-dealers in oil and spices-had disliked the city, thinking it too large and loud and crowded and smelly and filthy with refuse. But the young man had found it exciting to wander in so many grand squares and marketplaces, to see such a variety of shops.

"Just to see Flag Quarter-for I buy and sell banners and flags and tent cloth and such manner of working cloth, not clothing, so it's of particular interest to me-where a person might have a shop selling just game banners or just boundary flags or only the ink for printing your mark on the fabric. That was something! I trade in all cloth, all in my one shop!"

"Was it your first time in Toskala, ver?"

"Oh, indeed! My uncle and cousins used to make the trip, but they died last year so I was handed the mantle." He tugged on his cloak; he wore a pale-blue mantle appropriate to the season, lightest weight cotton and only reaching to his elbows. Its hem was trimmed with the house mark, spades crossed with needles, something to do with digging and sewing.

"How did they die?"

The man dipped his head and sighed. The women shook their heads, frowning at Joss as though to scold him for asking the question.

At length, the older of the women gestured toward Lord Radas. "Things run smoothly in the Iliyat valley. We're well governed. But I'll tell you that we don't go near the northern border. We keep our distance from the hills and Herelia."

"Is there much raiding out of the hills or Herelia into Iliyat these days?"

"Oh, we think not," said the man at last, dabbing at his eyes. "The roads are blockaded. No one crosses the Liya Pass anymore, though there's a trading post up where the village of Merrivale was before it got burned down. There's plenty of militia to man the borders, even young men hired in from outside. One of my cousin's daughters married a young man who walked all the way from Sund just to get the work. We're well protected."

"From Herelia?"

The man shrugged. "My kin were not in Iliyat when they died. They'd taken the Thread north, to Seven. We told them to take the Istri Walk, but they didn't want to take the extra mey, all the way to the river, you know, and then north, not when the Thread is a decent track wide enough to handle sturdy wagons. You never could tell my uncle anything. He had a hasty manner."

Joss nodded. "May their spirits have passed through the Gate," he said reflexively, and they all touched right shoulder, upper lip, and left temple, drawing out the spirit's passage to peace. "I'm sorry to hear it, but the Thread's a dangerous road these days, up against the highlands as it is. Very rough country, heavily forested. Plenty of places to hide along there. We can't patrol it all."

"No, it's been seen you reeves can't," said the older woman, with a bite to her voice that ended the conversation. "Will have you more rice?"

It was cold and congealed and lumpy, but flavored with a generous mix of spices and a touch of nutty til oil. He ate gratefully. They watched him in a silence heavy with judgment.

They don't trust the reeves any longer. So the circle of distrust widens, grows, like the shadows as the sun sets.

He made his courtesies and walked to the second group. The well-dressed merchant was so intent on the sound of his own voice that he did not notice Joss approaching. "We of the Greater Houses spent so many hours arguing over it, but in the end we decided we had no choice lest we lose everything our houses had worked for and achieved. Which is why-"

The lord of Iliyat shifted his foot. The merchant glanced up, startled, and saw Joss. He flushed, then wiped at his chin with the back of a hand as though he thought he had a stain there that needed to be rubbed away.

"May I sit down?" asked Joss, stopping beside them.

The merchant coughed harshly. "I beg your pardon, reeve. I wasn't expecting you. I thought you were keeping your eyes on the road."

Lord Radas lifted a hand, as consent. His voice was soft, almost inaudible. "It was good of your Commander to offer us this escort. We've had a great deal of trouble out of Herelia in recent years." His gaze flashed past Joss, outward, toward the pond. Scar was visible through a gap in the leafy fence of branches. The raptor had spread his wings to sunbathe.

"Yes," said Joss. "So you have, Lord Radas. And so have we reeves." He unclasped his short cloak and spread it on the dirt, then settled down cross-legged upon it. "I'm called Joss, out of Clan Hall. I admit to some surprise, seeing a man of your inheritance at the guild meeting."

"Do you so?" asked the lord, with the ghost of smile, although he still kept his gaze fixed on the earth. The lack of eye contact made him seem awkward and ill at ease, or it might have been a vanity, a refusal to grant recognition. Hard to tell. He dressed plainly, loose linen trousers dyed indigo and an undyed tunic tied with cloth loops, nothing more ornamental than the clothing worn by his own servants. His hair was braided back into a single rope; he wore no head covering. His only affectation was a long gold silk cloak, although Joss was frankly shocked to see him sitting on the lower part of it, as though it were an ordinary ground cloth, not highest-quality fabric far too expensive for the everyday householder. "My family rose out of a merchant branch of our local clan. We still maintain those ties. It was the basis of our wealth and our later authority."

Joss turned to regard the other man. "And you, ver?"

"Feden. That's my name." He lifted an arm to display an ivory bracelet masterfully carved to resemble a series of quartered flowers linked petal-to-petal. "That's my house mark."

"You're not from Toskala. I don't recognize your mark."


"It's a long way from Olossi to Toskala," remarked Joss in a friendly manner, without mentioning that the Ili Cutoff certainly did not lead south.

"Oil," said Master Feden. "I'm seeking whale oil from the Bay of Istria. A fine quality oil, bright-burning, and of particular use in the manufacture of leather goods. Fortunately, I was able to bring oil of naya with me, for trade. I was thankful that I reached Toskala in one piece, for I don't mind telling you, reeve, that we in the south are having a great deal of trouble with our roads." Once started, he scarcely paused for breath, going on in the manner of a man accustomed to having his complaints listened to with exceptional attentiveness. "A great deal of trouble all around, if you ask me. Trading charters revoked. Terms of sale refused. Agreements that have held for many rounds of years stomped into the dirt just because certain people feel they've been hard used, as if we who are struggling to keep things in order aren't the ones being hard used, I tell you. I see many people in these days who insist on ingratitude."

He took a sip from the cup he held in his hands, then continued.

"Aui! It's bad times. I don't know who to trust. I hate to think of being close-hearted, for it goes against the Teachings, but there you are. I can't even send my usual factors south into the empire anymore. These past few years I've had to send one of my own slaves down to do what trading he can. That way he can risk his own stake instead of mine. It's a great opportunity for him, naturally, and I must say it's not every master would be so generous, as many of my colleagues have said to me. But of course I stand to lose even so, if he's killed, for he cost quite a string of coin to purchase and then of course the later investment in his upbringing, feeding, and training, but mind you, speculating with my own coin and goods in a larger venture just isn't worth the risk these days. You would think I could trust my own factors, some of them clansmen, but even some of them have cheated me and my house. I tell you! How can any person believe it's come to this? How can the gods have let this come to pass, I ask you? What can we do? What can we do?"

As he caught his breath to gain strength for the next volley, Joss cut in.

"Where are you headed now, ver? I'd have thought you would be with one of the other companies. There was a group headed west on the Lesser Walk and another traveling south on the Flats. You can't get to Olossi this way, unless you mean to take ship in Arsiya and sail the storms all the way round the Turian Cape and the roil of Messalia. Even then you'd have to put to shore and take some rough paths through the foothills of the Spires to reach Olossi."

He recognized his mistake at once. He'd thought Master Feden's bluster was born out of obliviousness mixed with arrogance and conceit, so his feint hadn't been subtle enough. The gaze turned on him now measured him shrewdly, eyes narrowed with a dawning distrust. Joss knew that look well. Reeves saw it all the time, though not from the innocent. Master Feden was smarter than he chose to seem.

"Where are any of us headed, in times like these?" mused the merchant. "We stumble in the dark hoping to find any light that may guide us to a safe haven. We are desperate, truly. Folk are none too careful what well they drink from if they've had no drink at all for many days. That's just how it is."

"True words," said Joss, thinking of the commander's agreement with Master Tanesh. He glanced at the lord of Iliyat, but the man made no polite reply to this heartfelt comment. He didn't even look up, as if bare dirt were the most interesting companion a man could have. Joss had an idea that Lord Radas was about his own age, more or less forty, although the lord looked younger. Some men had all the luck, although the lord of Iliyat did not seem to be the kind of man who coaxed women, not with those reticent manners. "And you, Lord Radas. How do you keep the valley of Iliyat at peace in these troubled times?"

"With a fence," said the lord curtly. "A wall at our borders, strong guards, a vigilant eye, and respect for the law. Within Iliyat, we hold to the law."

There was a passion in the lord's voice that surprised Joss, even pleased him, yet also, and all at the same time, the skin at the base of his neck tingled with an uneasy shiver, the way it did when his instincts warned him that something wasn't right.

"The Hundred is fractious," the lord went on so softly that Joss strained to hear him. "Too many fight, too many argue, too many look away because they have it well enough, although others struggle. Alone, each is frail and selfish. Each town, each clan, each hall lies separate, suspicious of the others, clutching tight to their own small field. Some hold to the law while others give themselves leave to do what they wish while justifying their actions by lying to themselves and to others. Some have already stepped into the shadows." He looked up, and met Joss's gaze.

Hammered as by the sun. A vivid flash of memory: Five years after Marit's death, Joss stands under the humble thatched awning that shelters Law Rock. Drunk, grieving, and angry, he stares at the first lines, hewn long ago into the pillar of granite:

With law shall the land be built.

The law shall be set in stone, as the land rests on stone.

The rock into which the law is bound shall be set aside, in a separate precinct. A bridge shall guard access to this precinct. Both rock and bridge shall be inviolate.

Here is the truth:

The only companion who follows even after death, is justice.

The Guardians serve justice.

The reeves serve justice.

The reeves serve justice, and so he would. He had nothing else to hold to. Then Lord Radas's soft voice tore him out of the memory.

"While some, for all their weakness, remain incorruptible."

Joss blinked, fighting back dizziness. The filtered light cast all things sheltered under the Ladytree in a gentle glow. Feden was sipping at his tea, as though he'd noticed nothing. From all around murmured the sounds of folk at rest, eating, chatting, burping, chortling, while farther out beasts lowed and whuffled, a dog barked, and-there-Scar called out an interrogatory yelp, as if the raptor had been caught in that vision and needed to know Joss was safe.

Lord Radas was staring at the dirt again, eyes half closed, as though he were about to fall asleep. Behind, a youthful slave raised and lowered the large fan like the steady, hypnotic beat of a wing. The air stirred by that fan stung Joss's eyes, raising tears.

Shaken, he made his courtesies. He went out beyond the Ladytree to let Scar see him, then walked aside to take a piss, to collect himself, to breathe the air although the heat was itself a hammer. No wonder he'd gotten dizzy.

At length, he retreated back to the cooling shelter of the Ladytree and approached the forester and cart master with some trepidation. The cart master had a pair of medium-sized dogs who, as Joss walked up, pulled back their lips to display big teeth. Their ominous growl rumbled so low that he barely heard it, although his neck prickled. But when their master made his greetings, the dogs shimmied over at once for a friendly rub. They had expressive ears held at point when they were alert and flopped over when they relaxed, and their short gray-wire coats were unexpectedly soft.

He and the two men visited for a while, sharing rice wine and dry rice cake, all of it musty, the remnants of journey food. The wine was good, and he nibbled at the rice cake for courtesy's sake as they discussed the day, the season, the dead year and the new one, and the lands all around.

"Nah, I haven't seen nothing of raids where I'm from." The forester had a clipped accent and a strange way of pronouncing some of his words. He was human, though. Not everything that came out of the Wild was. "My fields are the forest. I keep to my place there in the skirts of the Wild, and the wildings keep to theirs in the heart. I've never gone farther north than Sandalwood Crossing, for that matter. Once a year I do walk down into Toskala to the Guild Hall on behalf of my clansmen in the Wild. We keep a steady harvest of logs coming out of the Wild, according to our charter. We keep to the boundaries, as the gods did order when the world rose out of the sea."

"I have a hard time thinking that outlaws would shelter in the Wild," said Joss.

"If they did, they'd not come out again," said the cart master with a laugh. He patted his dogs. They wagged their tails.

"What about the Ili Cutoff?" Joss asked.

"She's safe enough. I run this route every month. I've not had trouble, not compared to other tales I've heard tell, but I keep my eyes open and you can see also that my good dogs do keep the alert." He pointed. Two others of the same breed stood guard, almost hidden in the outer branch-roots of the Ladytree, watching over the wagons and the road.

Under the Ladytree, folk dozed as the heat grew more stifling. Joss yawned, and caught a quick nap. Shade Hour drew to a close; the heat lessened as the angle of the sun shifted.

At length, the cart master got to his feet. "We need to get another mey of journey in before sunset, if we want to make River's Bend in five days."

Joss drained another cup of wine, made his courtesies, and returned to Scar. A pair of local lads were sitting in the shade of a mulberry tree, watching the eagle from a safe distance. He paused to chat with them; they had more questions than he could answer, and in return they chattered freely about their village and the habitations nearby. Master Tanesh, it transpired, was well known in these parts as a wealthy landholder who treated his hirelings well and his slaves poorly, a man you didn't want to cross who tithed generously at the local temples and had even set aside land for a temple dedicated to Ilu, the Herald, on his own estate.

Behind, the wagons rolled. Joss made his courtesies, and the boys tagged after until Scar, seeing them coming, raised his proud head and stared them down. The boys stopped dead.

"Nah, come on," said Joss. He whistled Scar down from the rock, then coaxed the boys forward to stroke the raptor's copper plumage. This attention the bird accepted with his usual aloof resignation.

"Best go now," said Joss, and the boys scampered back to the tree, to watch as Joss fastened into his harness. Scar lifted heavily, beating hard with slow wing-strokes, seeking an up-current. Finding it, the eagle rose swiftly. The ground dropped away.

As the eagle began quartering the ground, Joss's thoughts quartered the afternoon's conversations. Talk refreshed him as much as drink and food and a nap. He turned the words over and over, seeking patterns, seeking hidden meaning, seeking that which was not meant to be said aloud, but he found nothing yet beyond that strange hammer of memory that had briefly shaken him. Anomalies would come clear in time; they usually did. You just had to be patient, let them work free in their own manner.

No one crosses the Liya Pass anymore.

It had become a land of shadows. He'd known that the morning he and the others had found Marit's gear and clothing, the very clothing she'd been wearing when she and Flirt had flown away from him, the last time she'd been seen alive. He'd known that when they'd found the remains of her mutilated eagle, and months later when he'd flown Flirt's sun-bleached bones to Heaven's Ridge and scattered what was left in the valley of silence. Gone altogether. Gods, he'd been so young.

He turned his attention, again, to the lands below.

This region of Low Haldia, still close to Toskala, was well cultivated and closely settled, villages and hamlets strung along trackways. Seen from the height, the many trackways interlaced across the land, reminding him of the nets he'd cast into the sea when he was a lad, living on the coast. Those days seemed dream-like, seen from the height of his life now, many years later. The cordial made by his aunts had tasted sweeter. His mother's rice porridge had never congealed into lumps. No one had ever gotten hurt, except that time when he and the blacksmith's son had gotten into a fistfight over pretty Rupa. They'd all been-the hells! — just twelve, celebrating their first return to their birth year. Those days sparked so clear and bright in his memory; all days did, until that day he and Marit had met in the Liya Pass and he had talked her into breaking the boundaries. After that, the curse had settled; he knew it for a fact, because his life had become dulled as with a stain, changed, lessened, corrupted, shadowed. Nineteen cursed years. Better he had stayed home and married pretty Rupa, who had been pretty enough but with a decided lack of interest in anything except her clan's fish ponds along the bay. For her, the rest of the Hundred might just as well never have existed. No doubt she was still wading thigh-deep in seawater, with a grandchild tied in a sling to her back.

Gods, he was getting old. And inattentive. Scar was circling, waiting for him to make some signal, choose some direction. The commander was right. He'd gotten unreliable. Too much drink. Too much anger. Too much regret.

A company of men marched briskly along a track off to the east. They had weapons enough that the glint of metal gave away their position.

"Come on, old boy." The eagle took the signal eagerly; he was always keen to go.

They glided on the wind. A man in the company lifted his head and saw them. Others pointed. As they passed over, Joss saw a flag painted with Master Tanesh's mark and, behind it, the master himself, riding a rangy bay gelding. Ahead lay the tidy fields of a splendid estate, ranks of orchard, a tea plantation, dry-field rice being dug for sowing, mulberry trees, flower beds, and a string of ponds like gems surrounding the whole. This was evidently Tanesh's original holding, not one of his satellite estates like Allauk, which lay farther north. The temple dedicated to Ilu, the Herald, was sited in a hillier area, unsuitable for agriculture. Skimming over the temple, Joss spotted apprentices striding across the temple grounds and a few envoys in sky-blue cloaks. Strange, now that he thought on it, that there had been no envoys traveling with this train. Normally every merchant train had an envoy of Ilu alongside, carrying messages according to the ancient charters that designated a holy task to each of the priests of each of the seven gods.

With dusk closing in, he returned to the road and followed it west until he found the company, lanterns lit and the wagons arrayed in a closed square, a fence against the night. Landing, he sprung Scar's harness, examined his feathers, then released him to hunt. The eagle would find his own roost for the night and return at dawn when Joss whistled.

The cart dogs greeted him first, barking happily and pushing in to get pats on the head. The cart master waved to him, but the man was busy with the evening's settling-out, so Joss strolled through the encampment as it set up for the night's rest. Nothing of interest. Folk greeted him, he greeted them, and passed on. There was one face he did not see.

"What happened to that merchant out of the south?" Joss asked the cart master later. "Feden, his name was."

"He turned back after Shade Hour. He didn't go any farther than those Ladytrees where we took our rest. Did you not see him go?"

"I did not," said Joss, taken aback. "I flew straight east, I admit to you. Then north. I didn't cross back that way except the once, and saw nothing on the road then, but I might easily have missed him. Did he go alone?"

"He had a ten of guards with him. They had the look of ordinands. Disciplined, well-trained lads."

"He left, just like that? What did he come for? It's a cursed strange thing to travel along all this way, and then turn around without even having reached a market."

The cart master scratched his chin. "Well, now, that I don't know. He sealed some bargain with the lord of Iliyat, for as we made ready to leave, he turned right around and announced himself satisfied with the bargain-whatever it was-and was going home. It seems he got what he came for, and so he left."

At river's bend, reached midway through the fifth day of the journey, a cohort of armed men who had marched down from the valley of Iliyat met Lord Radas to escort him the rest of the way home. After some negotiation, the Herelians paid to accompany them, and Lord Radas allowed it. The cart master had already been hired to go all the way to Iliyat, and he was eager to continue on while there was still daylight. Stopping only to water the dray beasts and purchase provisions, the main portion of the caravan moved on.

Across the river lay the vanguard of the Wild, the towering forest that engulfed all the land to be seen on the other side of the River Ili. Figures on the far shore greeted the forester and his pair of apprentices with a wave, then got back to work lashing together logs for the float downstream. The forester made his courtesies and took the ferry across to join them.

That left Joss with a much smaller company, the four merchants headed north and northwest into western Low Haldia. With the Iliyat contingent shorn away, the company had a much more vulnerable look, and it was clear that the remaining merchants were nervous. They had a dozen local lads out of Low Haldia to guard them, but any experienced band of thieves could make short work of this crew. In truth, Joss had no obligation to go farther. The commander had ordered him to return after escorting the company safely to River's Bend. But he had come to like the way the foursome gossiped without much malice, just in the way of trading information. They were generous with their food and drink. Udit had been looking him over with increasing interest and making the kind of jokes that indicated she might be willing to indulge in a little night play. He wanted to get a good look at the hinterlands, anyway. He might hope to meet another reeve on patrol, exchange news, trade intelligence. There were many villages and hamlets in these parts that waited patiently for a reeve to fall out of the sky so they might put to that reeve certain complaints and questions that the local officials were unable to deal with.

It was the task he was best at, the one he craved because out there in the isolated hamlets was the one place where he felt he was doing some good.

"I'll travel a bit farther with you," he told them.

Udit smiled. She had a pleasing figure, if a little thin for his taste. They decided to rest for the night within the safety of the town's palisade rather than risk an extra night on the road. The foursome sat him down in the local inn and plied him with cordial, as their thanks.

Later, after nightfall, the innkeeper in River's Bend gifted him with a soft corner in the hayloft over the stables for his rest. As he stripped off his reeve leathers and lay down on his cloak, his head reeled from the many cups of cordial he had downed with the evening's meal. Strange, now that he thought on it: Master Feden had offered him no hospitality, nothing to drink or eat. Nor had Lord Radas. It was cursed rare for a reeve to be refused hospitality.

The air under the stable roof was stale, and the scent of musty hay tickled his throat. It was entirely black, no light at all even where he could see through the gaps between the boards in the loft. No flame burned, no lamp illuminated the night. He had been in the last group of drinkers, a passel of middle-aged and elderly locals who had done nothing but jaw on about a recent marriage between a local girl and a lad come from Farsar because, he'd said, there was no work to be had in Farsar, no apprenticeships open except binding oneself to the temple past the usual youth's year of service. In the north, he'd heard, you could get work, but the locals considered this statement at length and found it lacking, except that it was true that a young man might hire himself out as a guardsman to a well-to-do clan. That was what the world was coming to. No one to do the real work; all those young men lounging around with spears in their hands, some of them with the debt mark tattooed by their left eye and no proof they'd served out their debt. Meanwhile, they pretended to be ordinands dedicated to Kotaru the Thunderer without taking on the true dedicate's responsibility.

Weren't old men and women always complaining about how much better the old days were? And hadn't they been, truly? Eyelids drooping, body growing heavy, he sank under, sliding into sleep.

The dream always unveils itself in a gray unwinding of mist he has come to dread. He is walking but cannot see any of the countryside around him, only shapes like skeletal trees with leafless limbs and branches-cold-killed, as they call them in the Arro highlands, where, beyond the kill line, the trees wither in the dry season and are reborn when the rains come. In the dream he is dead, yet unable to pass beyond the Spirit Gate. He is a ghost, hoping to awaken from the nightmare nineteen years ago, but the nightmare has already swallowed him.

The mist boils as though churned by a vast intelligence. It is here that the dream twists into the vision that is agony, the reason that even after all these years he cannot let go. The mist will part, and he will see her figure in the unattainable distance, walking along a slope of grass or climbing a rocky escarpment, a place he can and must never reach because he has a duty to those on earth whom he has sworn to serve.

It begins. Wind rips the mist into streamers that billow like cloth, like the white linen and silk banners strung up around Sorrowing Towers where the dead are laid to rest under the open sky. He begins to sweat, waiting for the apparition.

Waiting to see her. Gods spare him this! But the gods never listen.

A shadow moves along the hill. As though harnessed to his eagle, he swoops closer. There she is!

A hand brushes his thigh, turns into a familiar caress.

He shouts in surprise, for he has never before reached her, touched her.

He sat up, startling awake. His forehead slammed into a jaw.

She fell back, thumping onto the planks. "Eiya! The hells!"

The pain in his forehead lanced deep.

"Shit!" she added. It was Udit. "That's cut my lip! I'm bleeding!"

His stomach heaved. Barely in time, he flung himself to the corner and threw up all the cordial and that good venison and leek stew. The taste was vile.

"Begging your pardon," she said coldly, her humor turning fast into disgust. "You stink!"

He gagged, retched, and coughed up the leavings.

Scrabbling in the dark, she took her leave. Through his pounding headache, he heard her feet scrape on the ladder as she climbed down. He was shaking so hard he could not call after her. Nor did he want to. He groaned, shifting back to his cloak, but the hay poked and irritated him, and the smell of his vomit rose rankly in the closed space, and the throbbing in his temple would not let up enough to let him rest. At length he pulled on trousers and vest, then crept outside where he sat on a bench on the porch of the inn, sliding in and out of a light doze. The Lamp Moon, rising, had just ghosted above the palisade. River's Bend was a prosperous town with six avenues and six cross-alleys to link them. It had a permanent covered market, unusual in a town this size, and an exceptionally fine temple dedicated to Sapanasu, the Lantern.

The inn's porch overlooked the square fronting the main gate. A Ladytree had rooted there; it was a good place for it, just inside the gates, although no one was sleeping there tonight. It was very quiet, not a touch of wind. If there were guards posted in the watchtower, he could not see them from the covered porch because although the palisade was a simple pole structure, the gate itself had a doubled entry-way: You had to enter through the outer gate into a small, confined area, where you waited for the inner gate to be opened to admit you to the town. The watchtower spanned the outer gate, and his view of it was in any case half blocked by the lush crown of the Ladytree.

A scuffling sound caught his ear. He banked from drowsy to woken without moving. He watched as a figure sneaked out of a dark street and up to the palisade, right at the edge of the open ground. The figure leaned against the palisade, as though listening, then turned around to scan the entire open area fronting the inner gate. It did not discern Joss in the shadows of the porch. A moment later, a second figure appeared at the top of the wall, heaved itself over, and dropped, landing with a soft thump. A third and fourth followed.

Joss carefully pulled on the leather thong at his neck and got his fingers on the bone whistle. He set it to his lips as a fifth and sixth topped the wall, lowered until they hung by their fingers, then let go.

The bone whistle had three notes: one that hurt human ears, one that the eagles responded to, and one other, that on occasion served reeves well without drawing attention to them. Tapping that highest range, he blew. No human could hear that sound. But, by the gods, the dogs in town surely could. They erupted in a frenzy of barking and howling, coming from all quarters.

The figures at the palisade froze. Although it was too dark to see them as more than shadows against darkness, he saw by their movements that they were drawing weapons. He did not move except to blow a second time on the whistle, to keep those dogs howling. He had not even brought his knife. Shouts rose in reply. Lights flared on porches.

Unexpectedly, the sally door set into the inner gate scraped open, and five of the figures raced out through it. The sixth faded back into the shadows of the nearby buildings just as the sally door was dragged shut, and the first townsmen appeared on the streets, sleepy, annoyed, and carrying lamps and spears and stout staffs. One man brandished a shovel. The innkeeper stumbled out onto the porch. His comic gasp, when the nimbus of light from the lantern he carried caught Joss's still figure, was enough to make Joss chuckle, and then regret it.

"What's this? What's this?"

"I couldn't sleep," said Joss, rising. "I saw five figures come over the wall, and a sixth meet them."

The town arkhon strode up. She was a woman of middle years, with an expression on her face that would turn wine to vinegar in one breath. "So you say! Where'd they go then? We can't have missed them, coming so quickly as we did. We knew somewhat was up with the dogs howling."

The dogs were still clamoring, but the noise had begun to die down.

He walked them over to the spot. "See. Here it's scuffed."

"Anyone could have done that," said the arkhon with disgust. "You could have done it. Where'd they go, then?"

"The gate was opened, and they ran out."

Folk muttered and cast him ugly looks.

"Then why didn't they just come in by the gate, if they could open it?" she demanded. "Here, Ahion, go take a look."

Everyone followed the innkeeper as he shuffled over, still half asleep and grumbling as well, like a man talking through his dreams. "Can't trust damn reeves. Make such a fuss. Cursed troublemakers."

He held his lamp at the gate and studied the clasp with eyes half shut. At that moment the iron handle lifted, and the sally door was opened. A young man with tousled hair looked through. When he spoke, his words were slurred, and he seemed woozy.

"Why are you all out here? What's that clamor?"

"Gods, Teki! Aren't you on guard? Were you asleep again?"

The youth lifted a chin, attempting defiance. Then his lips thinned, seeing those cold and angry faces. He hunched his shoulders defensively. Abruptly, he yelped as if he'd been kicked. A young woman pushed past him, her expression as stormy as the season of Flood Rains. She wore only a robe, loosely belted and ready to slip and reveal all. It already revealed plenty, and she knew it, and expected every man there to stare at her.

"You promised me a quiet night!" She slapped the lad, turned-flashing a ripely rounded breast before she yanked tight the gaping robe-and strode off through the crowd, swearing at anyone who got in her way.

"Sheh! For shame!" exclaimed Ahion. "That's the last time that'll happen, my lad."

"I know. I know. I promise. I won't do it again."

"No," said the arkhon. "That's the last time it'll happen, because you're stripped of guard duty. For shame!"

In a town like River's Bend, everyone knew everyone, and all business was the town's business. The folk gathered began to scold and berate the lad, for drinking, for being distracted, for being a cursed fool led by his cock and not what little straw he might have between his ears.

Joss stepped in. "I beg pardon, but what of the men I saw come over the palisade?"

The young man gaped at him, blinking fast. "What men? I saw nothing. I was awatch since sunset."

"You were atilt, more like," said Ahion with a snort.

"You were asleep, I'd wager," said Joss.

The boy's breath stank of soured cordial, and in the lamplight, his eyes didn't track properly. Joss pushed past the boy into the small enclosed court, but naturally no one was hiding there and the outer gate was locked tight with a chain drawn through its rings and bolt. Ahion accompanied him to the gatehouse atop the outer gate, but the narrow room was empty except for a lamp, an unrolled mat, and a spilled flask of cordial. Most of the folk hurried back to their beds, but the arkhon and the innkeeper followed him in, pushing the hapless guard before them.

"Where's your night raiders?" the arkhon demanded. "What in the hells did you think you were seeing, reeve? You rousted us for nothing."

"What do you think the dogs were barking at?" Joss peered out through the slatted window but naturally he saw no one on the road. "Folk came over the wall. I saw them!"

"You drank heavy this night," remarked the innkeeper. "Not unlike the lad, here. It wouldn't be the first time that a man thought he saw shadows that were only the drink leading him places that don't exist."

"I'll stand gate watch the rest of the night," said the arkhon, giving the lad a look that made him flinch and begin to blubber. "Oh, shut your mouth, you useless clod! Just go home. I can't sleep anyway, now." She turned a harsh look on Joss, shaking her head. "To think reeves have come to this!"

Ahion grunted and, taking the light, forced Joss to follow after him to get down the stairs.

"You'll be leaving at dawn, then," said the innkeeper as they closed the inner sally door and paused on the porch to catch their breath.

"With the company."

The merchants and a few of the other guests had come out on the porch to inquire over the rumpus. Udit did not look at him. Her upper lip was swollen. As Ahion told the tale, Joss came over looking like a drunken troublemaker. Grumbling, the guests returned to their beds, all but the eldest of the merchants, the one called Kasti. He was a man with scars on his neck and a broken nose long since healed crooked; he'd seen brawls in his younger days. He lingered on the porch, with a lit taper in his hand.

"Do you still claim you saw those figures? And the gate opened, by someone who gained access from the gatehouse, or outside?"

"I do. Here." Joss led him down the steps and over to the spot along the palisade where the figures had dropped to the ground. Kasti bent, grunting a little-he was also a portly man, well fed-and traced the ground with the light of the candle. The pressure of bare feet on dusty ground was plain, but it was perfectly true that in these last days of Furnace Sky, waiting for the rains, earth might get scuffed up and no wind or rain come for days to erase those traces.

"Look, there," said Joss quietly. A piece of flotsam had fetched up against the palisade, partly caught where dirt was tamped in between the curve of two logs. He got his fingers round a leather thong and tugged free a flimsy medallion of hammered tin, meant to resemble an oversized coin with the usual square hole through the middle but with an unusual eight-tanged starburst symbol crudely stamped onto the metal.

Kasti whistled under his breath.

"You recognize this?" asked Joss, handing it over.

Kasti examined both sides. "I've seen this mark before. Just the one time. My house deals in skins and furs. I do a fair bit of traveling up-country, to the Cliffs, to trade with the folk living there. Good hunting in the wild lands, you know. There was a little hamlet, called Clear-river, where lived a family that was well skilled at getting the best-quality hammer-goat pelts off the plateau. Those bring a good price, I'm sure you know. Three years back-no, four years now, for it was the Year of the Brown Ox-I went up there just after the whispering rains did run their course to take my look at their catch. Cursed if the hamlet was burned to the ground and everyone gone. I suppose they must all have been kilt, for we never heard whisper nor shout of them after. I found such a medallion in the ruins of the clan house. Made me wonder, for it seemed to me that it had been dropped atop the cold ashes of what was left, not that it had been in the burning itself."

"Best we let the arkhon know."

The merchant nodded. "Let me do it. She's taken a dislike to you." He slipped the medallion in his sleeve. Without looking at Joss, he cleared his throat. "Udit is my cousin's daughter. Nothing wrong with her, mind you, but she's skittish, and can be troublesome."

Joss sighed. "Thanks for the words, ver. But I fear I've already chased off that ibex."

Kasti chortled. "Heh. That's right. And she's born in the Year of the Red Ibex, to add to the trouble of it. Nah, you're well rid of her attentions. She's quick to fall in that snare, and quick to leap out, if you do take my meaning."

Quick to leap out, indeed. At dawn, when their company assembled for the last leg of the journey, Udit greeted Joss curtly and then ignored him.

Joss pulled Kasti aside before they moved out. "What did the arkhon say?"

"I'll tell you, she was curdled from the night's mischief. Seems that lad who was on guard duty and caught with his trousers undone was her own son. Whew! Anyway, I gave her the medallion and told her my tale. That's all I can do."

Sometimes you just had to go forward, because you'd done all you could do. In the first few years after Marit's death, he had broken the boundaries again and again, seeking out every local tale and hint of Guardian altars, most of which could be reached only if you could fly in. He had eventually found ten, all abandoned, all empty, lost, dead, gone, before old Marshal Alard at Copper Hall had found out what he was doing and called him down so hard he thought he'd never stop falling. He'd been grounded for months, whipped three times, and finally transferred to Clan Hall, where the old hands had treated him with disdain and, even, contempt, for a time. Well, all but a few of the women. They'd come around first, and in time he had earned respect by sticking to his duty and working harder than anyone else. By serving justice, which was all he had to hold to. But it was so cursed hard to keep going when it all seemed to be slipping away no matter what you did.

These thoughts accompanied him as he flew sweeps into up-country Low Haldia, as the company labored along the track called the Thread through increasingly rugged country with ten wagons, their carters, guards, hirelings, and a few slaves to be sold in the up-country markets. It was a difficult region for reeves to patrol. Woodland blocked his view; ravines cut through the hills, all easy to hide in. Where folk had built their homes, handsome settlements spread out with the houses clustered in a central location and fields draped around. Every one of these villages and hamlets had a palisade, recently constructed or recently repaired and reinforced. The fields provided open ground in all directions, so the locals could see who was coming.

Unlike some eagles, Scar was naturally reticent, not at all fond of attention, so the eagle minded not that Joss camped off by himself every evening and went into camp only to consult about the next day's route. After three days, Alon split off. Two days later Darya reached home to great celebration. The road twisted north; to the east rose the Cliffs, the spectacular escarpment running on and off for a hundred mey where the land lifted pretty much straight up to become the northwestern plateau. In two days more they came to prosperous if isolated country, a haven full of fields, orchards, villages, hamlets. In the town of Green-river, along the banks of a stream tumbling down off the plateau, Kasti and Udit made their farewells.

A job well done, Kasti told him.

That was something Joss didn't hear much anymore. He was grateful for the words, and for the sack of provisions Kasti's clan house offered him for the return. He didn't need much. A path on earth that ate twelve days of walking and riding might easily be traversed by a healthy eagle in two or three days at the most, depending on the winds and the weather. He and Scar sailed along parallel to the striking escarpment of the Cliffs, rising on thermals, gliding down, rising and gliding. This mode of travel was effortless for the raptor. At times such as this, Joss scanned the scenery below but counted on Scar to note any small movements out of his weak human range of sight. Scar was an old and experienced eagle. According to hall records, Joss was his fifth reeve. He had courage, combined with a reticent temper, and was intent on his task in a way few younger eagles could be.

Thus, when Joss sensed Scar's restlessness, a series of aborted stoops at some flash of movement in wood or clearing below that Joss could not discern, he thought it best to make an early night's camp. The eagle sensed danger, was hungry, saw prey or some movement that caused him to react, yet Joss never saw a damned thing in the trees and the shadows and the rugged landscape, and he was not going to explore into an ambush without his eagle at his back.

At length, he spotted a quiet village tucked into the shadow of the cliffs, about thirty structures including the distinctive "knotted walls" and astronomical tower of a small temple to Sapanasu, the Lantern. They skimmed low, then thumped down in the cleared space beyond the village's earthwork, among the rubble of old straw in a field not yet prepared for planting. There was a single fish pond, a straggle of fruit trees, and several empty animal pens. This was a hardscrabble place, one just hanging on because of the presence of the temple, which could accept tithes from neighboring villages.

He unhitched, sighed as he rubbed his joints, and turned to give a quick check to Scar's harness and feathers before approaching the village. Scar lowered his huge head. His head feathers were smooth and flat, his eyes as big as plates with the brow ridge giving him a commanding gaze, and his beak massive. Folk would focus on that head, when it was the talons they ought to fear most.

"You'll need coping soon," he said, examining the curved beak.

Scar's head went up. He spread his wings, flared his feathers, fanned his tail.

Joss spun.

A trio of armed men had emerged from the village. They strode halfway to their visitors, then halted just out of arrowshot. Scar called out a challenge. The eagle's entire posture had shifted. He expected the worst. Joss caught up his staff and walked over to meet them, scanning the palisade walls, the surrounding fields, but he saw no threatening movements, no flash of hidden bows, no mass of men waiting to strike.

"Greetings of the dusk to you," he called when he got close enough.

None smiled or offered greetings.

"Go back!" said the spokesman. "Leave this place. We want no reeves here."

"I'm just looking for a night's lodging. A place to shelter my head. A quick study of your assizes court, if you've need of an outside eye to look over your cases."

"No. Just leave us. You know what they'll do to any village that harbors a reeve."

"What who will do?"

The eldest among them, whose head was shaved in the manner of one of the Lantern's hierophants, croaked out words. "They promised we would not be harmed if we let no reeve enter our village."

"Who promised this?"

"By the seven gods, just leave us alone and go your way."

The sun's lower rim brushed the tops of the trees.

"I'm not your enemy," said Joss.

They stared at him with closed gazes. They refused to utter another word, despite his calm questions and pleasant manner. So he retraced his steps, never turning his back to them in case they decided to toss those javelins.

That night they camped outdoors, in a rocky clearing. Scar was restless. The trees tossed in a rising wind as Joss sought relief under an overhang. Of course the first kiss of rains blew up from the southeast that night, a brief downpour that soaked him through. By dawn the wet had all dried up, and the humid quality to the air portended another hot day. Knotted by doubt and anger, and with a growing headache, he retraced his flight along the Thread. By midday he saw a telltale spire of smoke far ahead. They glided in.

The town of River's Bend had been burned to the ground.


"They were so frightened," he said. "I see that now. I didn't recognize it at the time."

"The folk in River's Bend?" asked the commander.

"No, those three men outside the village that turned me away. They were so frightened."

"Just like in Herelia," said the commander, pouring more cordial into Joss's cup. "That's why we reeves had to leave Herelia, in the end."

"Their fear? Or the burned villages and murdered villagers?"

"The one made the other. We reeves are not an army to impose our authority by force. There was nothing we could do, and the villagers in Herelia soon learned it. Thus are we cast out. Now, I see, the contagion is spreading out of Herelia. And we are left with the same dilemma. If we do nothing, we blind ourselves and undercut our own authority. If we interfere, the local folk die. This is what comes of the death of the Guardians. Indeed, I expect it is their loss that has seeded the plague."

Joss toyed with his cup, turning it round and round as the red liquor lapped the rim, never quite spilling over. His left hand was bandaged; he'd cut it badly searching for survivors among the ruins of River's Bend. He'd found none, although it was true he'd not found nearly as many corpses as he ought to have done. People were missing, and as of yet, neither whisper nor shout had been heard of their whereabouts or their remains.

"I thought sure some of the foresters might have witnessed, and survived," he went on, "but when one pair of them did venture out of the Wild to get a look, near dusk, they told me it happened at night and not a one of their clan saw anything or heard anything."

"Think you they were lying?"

He shrugged. "I couldn't tell. They none of them sleep the night at the river's shore. They all hike into the Wild to their clan houses. That's where they feel safe."

"Now we see why."

The entry bell out on the porch rang to announce visitors. The door was slid open, and the legates filed in. Joss began to rise, seeing his meeting was over, but the commander gestured for him to remain seated.

He lifted his hands as a question.

"While you were gone, I received word from Marshal Masar that he is shorthanded and has no one to replace you as legate. It seems I acted in haste when I dismissed you. Allow me to say that I was, on that one occasion, mistaken."

He almost laughed, but he swallowed his moment of amusement because of the serious expressions worn by the other five legates. They made no comment. All seemed too preoccupied with their own grievances and worries even to have heard her rare joke. Indeed, they had a difficult time paying attention when, as the first order of business, the commander had Joss recount the scene at River's Bend.

"That's all very well," said Legate Garrard, "and a terrible thing, as I need not go on about, but I must return to Argent Hall. I've received an urgent message from Marshal Alyon demanding my return. Urgent."

"On what matter?"

Garrard shook his head. "We've had trouble, as I've spoken to you about on many occasions these last seasons. Too many troublesome reeves are being allowed to transfer into Argent Hall from the other halls."

"We're well rid of those who left us," said the legate of Iron Hall, a stocky man boasting two stark-white scars on his broad, dark face.

"That may be," said Garrard with heat. "I don't blame your masters for letting them go. I blame Clan Hall for not blocking all this moving about."

The commander merely shook her head. "Clan Hall has no mandate to block transfers that are agreed to by the marshals of the six halls. Marshal Alyon must stop the transfers. Why hasn't he?"

"It's true we're shorthanded, and we need every reeve and every eagle. But Marshal Alyon is old, ill, and easily pressured by certain factions within the hall. It's too much for him, all the territorial squabbles to be resolved, the gossip, the tempers, the fights-"

"Fights?" asked the commander coolly. She beckoned to the old reeve who acted as her chamberlain, and he brought in a tray of cups and poured cordial all around.

Legate Garrard was normally an even-tempered man, with the black coarse hair and creamy brown complexion common in the south. But he was so agitated now that the other legates stared at him. "He thinks he's being poisoned."

"Poisoned!" cried the legate from Iron Hall. "Poisoned? Who in the hells would want to poison that old man? He's as harmless as a mouse. Now, if it were my old marshal, what passed the Gate ten years back, any one of us would've done it, and gladly, for she were the worst-tempered person I ever did meet in my life."

This comment brought silence. No one laughed. From the parade ground, an eagle screamed a challenge, but there came no answering call.

Taudit, the legate from Horn Hall, stood. "I'm leaving," she said. "My marshal has recalled me, together with all the reeves posted here from Horn Hall. A reeve flew in this morning with the message. We've all been recalled. I'm sorry."

The commander sipped at her drink. Then she nodded. Joss was stunned. He hadn't seen this coming, but it was obvious from the commander's response that she had not been taken by surprise.

"I'll expect a report, Legate Taudit," the commander said.

Legate Taudit nodded crisply. She was a dry, reserved, uncommunicative individual, impossible to get to know. "You'll get one. Trouble in our region. Marshal wants all of us back, to be one group to face it. We're leaving now, while there's still an afternoon's flying to be had. The heavens are clear. No telling when the rains will start getting hard. We'll send a report when we can." She made brusque courtesies, opened and closed the door, and was gone.

"I must leave, too," said Garrard. He gazed at the blank door, the unadorned walls, the quiet room, the commander, and the other four legates. His fingers tapped his knees, making him seem quite nervous. "I am sick in my heart," he added, more softly. "There are shadows everywhere, and I am blind. I can't see through this to a time of peace and order."

"What of your halls?" the commander asked, looking at the other three legates: Iron Hall, Gold Hall, and Bronze Hall.

The proper strength of a reeve hall was six hundred eagles and six hundred reeves, but no hall was ever at full strength. By tradition, each sent a small contingent together with a legate to Clan Hall, switched out at intervals. Eagles departed for months or, in rare cases, years to breed in the unclimbable and vast wilderness of the Heaven's Ridge mountain range, where their nesting territories lay. Reeves too old to fly regular patrol must be accommodated. Old eagles died, and fledglings needed training and the long process of accommodation to the presence of other eagles in overlapping patrol territories. New reeves must train as well, a laborious process in its own right. Eagles must recover from injury, molting, disease. When its reeve died, an eagle would fly off, and none could predict when it would return to choose a new reeve-or if it would return at all.

No hall ever stood at full strength, not even now when full strength was so badly needed. Yet even at full strength, they would not have been able to do everything that was now needed.

"We're holding," said Bronze Hall's legate. "We've had little trouble in Mar, I must tell you. But we hear rumors. We're patrolling the coast and our borders, and keeping our eyes fixed. For now, we need not recall our contingent that's here in Clan Hall." She smiled at Joss. She was a twelve-year younger than he was, another Ox. Two years ago, when she'd first come, they'd spent a lot of time together in bed and out before parting amicably at her request.

Gold Hall's legate shook his head. His hair was cropped almost to the skull, in the style of the delvings, although he himself was human, a short, thin man who was much stronger than he looked. "Beyond the borderlands of the Arro Mountains we have trouble. Within the mountains, none dare threaten us. Zosteria lies at peace, for the moment, but there have been incidents along the coast and in the hills. Half of Herelia was under our watch and we don't fly there now, so we know how the worst can spread. We remain vigilant. Nothing has changed since my last report."

Iron Hall's legate was a man who, like Joss, had been made legate to get him out of the hall, in his case-so rumor had it-away from the friction of personal relationships gone sour. "I've had my orders. Iron Hall will keep a half contingent here, but the rest have to go back."

"Why?" asked the commander.

"Because they're needed at Iron Hall! You're not the only ones with trouble! We've lost reeves to transfer, or to death. Even a pair who went missing and never returned, them and their eagles both, yet we have had sightings, and we don't think they're dead. Just… fled, more like. Run away. Cowards. There's strange goings afoot up on the plateau, although we've had no particular trouble in Teriayne yet. Some trouble in the upper reaches of High Haldia. Outlaw bands thieving and causing other trouble. The worst of it is bands of young men traveling from one place to another, scrambling in groups out of Heaven's Ridge and vanishing up into the plateau, or back again, not whisper or shout to be heard from after. You can't bring a man to trial who's done nothing but walk along the roads seeking work, not if he's caused no trouble and had no complaint brought against him. So-that's that. That's my orders, and my report."

"Very well," said the commander. "Copper Hall has recalled five of its reeves but leaves me the rest. That leaves Clan Hall with-" Like most of those who had served their apprentice year as clerks in one of the temples dedicated to Sapanasu, the Lantern, she could calculate on the page. She freed a scrap of paper from an untidy stack on her table, turned it over to the rough side, and brushed marks to calculate numbers departing, numbers staying, and, it seemed, a few stray reeves actually being sent to Clan Hall.

"Under strength," she said. "We'll be able to fill out only three flights, including our retired and our fledgling reeves."

"Don't look at me!" cried Iron Hall's legate. "It isn't my fault!"

But of course she wasn't looking at him. She was looking into the unknown, gauging risk, danger, certainty, the angle of the wind, the timbre of the air.

"I do fear," she said, looking at each legate in turn, "that we are not yet facing the worst. Oh no. This is only the beginning."

" Pleasant of her to say so," said Peddo that evening at the Pig's Bladder after Joss recounted the whole of the meeting.

"You saw nothing unexpected on your escort duty?" Joss asked.

"Eiya! I did indeed. I saw a farmer who had the handsomest chest I have ever done seen, I will admit to you."

"You're drunk."

"He rejected me! I need more wine to drown my sorrow. Whoop! Look there!"

A trio of young men with the brawny shoulders and flat caps of the firefighting brigade pushed into the room.

"Can't you ever stop?" Joss asked.

The serving lass brought a pitcher, and poured a new round for the two reeves.

"You're new here," said Joss with a smile, admiring her fresh youth, her lithe body, her light bearing and pretty eyes.

"So I am, Uncle," she said, shifting herself just out of range of his hands, not that he was moving a finger.

Peddo snickered, miming an elderly man leaning on a cane.

"Where's Mada?" Joss asked the girl, feeling stung.

She settled the pitcher on her hip, took a good, long look at the young firefighters, then returned her attention politely to Joss. Exactly the way a well-brought-up girl would tactfully oblige a garrulous but boring old uncle.

"You didn't hear? Her parents made a good bargain. She's getting a legal contract, marriage to a lad out of Wolf Quarter, although they won't be living there naturally. His aunts and uncle are in the building trade, roofers. She'll join the business. It's a good bargain for her. If you know her, you might have seen him around. Nothing splendid to look at, I'll grant you, but decent enough, and a good business to work in. That's worth a lot more than looks."

She went on awhile in this vein while Peddo ogled the firefighters, and Joss sipped at his drink. In honor of the young year, the cordial had been flavored with the dried and crumbled petals of baby's-delight, which made it ever sweeter. Too sweet, really. In the last few days, since he'd crawled through the ruins of River's Bend, he'd lost his craving. The smell of stew bubbling wafted in from the inner court, melding with the eye-watering smoke of pipes, and he blinked back a tear. After a while, the young men called to her, and she sashayed over, a little too obviously, swinging those hips as though to smash errant chairs out of her path. Whew.

"There was one thing, though," said Peddo, staring with sudden interest into his empty cup. "I spotted areas that were trampled, as though a company had camped there. But cursed if I ever saw any such groups roaming. Jabi would see things off in the distance, beyond my sight, but by the time we got there-and he's fast, you know how fast he is-there'd be nothing to see. But cover to be had, if you take my meaning. Once I surprised four lads, who were hiding from me in the scrub. Jabi flushed them out, could see them moving, and they got nervous and tried to bolt. But they were only laborers, out looking for work. It puzzled me. I felt there was always something going on just out of my range of vision."

"Me, too. I felt the same thing. So did Scar. He was restless, stooping as at prey and then giving up on it. I go over and over those days in my mind. I just sense I overlooked something, that I missed the sign spread in my path, but I don't know what it is." He'd been missing too much. The commander was right: He'd been drowning himself in cordial, rather than doing his duty. He'd lost his edge. He wasn't keen set. But he couldn't say that out loud.

"You know what the tale says," added Peddo." 'Forest and cavern and mountain and lake and ravine and every village, too, all these hide crime from the reeve.' Nothing to be done about it. We find what we can. We do what we can."

"That's not good enough. The Guardians are dead. We're the guardians now. Who else is there?"

Peddo scratched his head. "Well. Any person who seeks to do what is right. Neh?"

Joss watched the lass flirting with the firefighters, who were boisterous, vibrant, and so very young, full of wholesome energy, the gift of the gods. They walked about their patrol every day, and when they saw smoke or flames, they ran to meet their trouble. "I met a southern merchant. You didn't run across him, did you? He called himself Feden." Wetting a finger, he drew the man's clan mark onto the table-top.

Peddo burped, considered, shook his head. "No."

The heat from the candle dried up the mark. Outside, it began to rain.

"He was from Olossi. He said he sent his factors, and later a slave factor, down into the empire to trade. It just got me thinking. There must be women in the south, just like there's women in the Hundred."

"Did it hurt that much when the lass called you 'Uncle'? That you think you have to go looking for women outside the Hundred? Don't mind her, Joss. She's not that much of an armful. Shame about the other lass, though. She did like you."

Joss shrugged. "It's not the worst day of my life. I'll miss Mada, though I'm happy for her good fortune. No, it's just, after a while, you do wonder, don't you?"

Peddo was eyeing one of the firefighters, the one who seemed just ever so slightly to be eyeing Peddo back. "I always do wonder, but I rarely find out."

"That's not what I meant! I wonder… what it's like. I wish I could go south."

"South? To Olossi? Why can't you? I mean, with the Commander's permission, of course. You'd have to have some patrol in mind, some mission. A message to carry to Argent Hall or-"

"No. I mean south, over the Kandaran Pass or across the Turian Sea."

"Out of the Hundred? You're crazy, my friend. You can't leave the Hundred. No reeve can. Break those boundaries, and you will be dead."

"I'm half dead anyway."

"Aui! Stop being maudlin. What do you know about the south anyway?"

"Nothing more than what the merchants tell me, and they're all liars."

"So they are."

"The fields are always green, the fruit is always ripe, the lands are always at peace, and the women are the most beautiful in all creation."

"You have had too much to drink," said Peddo. He emptied Joss's half-full cup into his own empty one.

"You've downed twice as much as I have. Anyway, I'm sure of it." Abruptly, taken aback by how badly he wanted it to be true, Joss leaned forward and fixed Peddo with a glare. "There must be a place where the shadows haven't fallen. Somewhere folk go about their lives in a measure of peace, like they used to here. Don't you think so?"

Peddo sighed. He bent closer, and pinned Joss's wrist to the table with the pressure of his hand. "You know what it says in the Tale of the Guardians.'Corruption and virtue wax and wane within the heart. Yet it is the dutiful strength and steady hand of those who live and die while about the ordinary tasks of the world that create most of that which we call good and harmonious.' If you give up hope, if you give up trying, you'll never find peace. No one will."

He sat back, released Joss's wrist, and drained his cup. Glancing toward the table by the door, he suddenly sat up straighter. "Whoop. He's coming this way."

"You're blushing," said Joss, unaccountably cheered by the sight, as if Peddo's blush of itself could banish shadows. "Do you want me to get out of your way?"

"Yes, but stick around long enough to open up the conversation and make me look clever and funny."

"That won't be easy!"

"Maybe not, but it can't be any harder than tracking down the most beautiful woman in all creation. If such a thing even exists, which I doubt."

"Best get my practice in, then." As the young firefighter paused beside their table and offered them a sweet, if tentative, smile, Joss lifted a hand to indicate the bench beside Peddo. "Greetings of the day to you, ver. Can we buy you a drink?"


In the South: Kartu Town, on the Golden Road


It began with such a small thing. Who could have known?

"I'm thirsty, Mai! My throat is dry dry dry!"

Mai loved her half sister and cousin Ti; she really did. But despite being the same age as Mai, Ti could not sit still for more than five breaths at a time. On the days when Ti came with her to sell produce at the marketplace, it wasn't very restful.

"Go and get a bowl of kama juice, then. We'll share it. Here." She unhooked the wooden measuring bowl from the handle of the cart. "But hurry. I can't sell almonds without the bowl."

Ti grabbed the bowl out of her hand and bounced off into the swirl of the marketplace, all bright awnings, swarming buyers, and gesticulating sellers. Kartu Town's main marketplace was actually one long street that emptied into the main square. Folk brought their carts and set up their stalls on either side of the street most days, raising awnings or parasols depending on the season and time of day to ward off the sun's glare. The marketplace used to be in the square itself, but not anymore, of course. That had all ended twelve years ago.

Kartu's residents had adapted. As Grandmother said, Kartu Town thrived because the townsfolk were reeds, able to bend when the wind blew.

"Ah, Mai'ili, such a fine day!" Mistress Zaldra swept up to Mai's cart with her youngest child in tow and a slave boy carrying her purchases.

"A fine day, indeed, Mistress Zaldra. I hope you are well."

"I'm not well!"

"I'm sorry to hear it. What troubles you today, Mistress?"

Her catalogue of troubles was lengthy and detailed, but Mai asked her questions each time she paused for breath and it was the widow herself who finally brought her complaints to a close. "Enough! I have need of peaches, dear."

"The market rate is one zastra a peach today. That's what everyone is charging."

"I can't afford that today! Not after the Qin commander took those two bolts of linen at half the price they're worth! I'll give you three zastras for five peaches."

"Mistress Zaldra, my father would beat me if I came home and told him I'd undersold by such a price. But since you are such a faithful customer, I can offer you five peaches for four zastras."

She smiled. "I'm sure I can get a better price farther down, but you have a good heart, Mai'ili. I'll have five, then." She handed over four zastras and pointed to the fruit she wanted, then turned to the slave boy. "Don't bruise them, Orphan, or it'll be a beating for you!"

The child limped forward. Mai gently placed each one in the basket he carried and, when he glanced shyly up at her, she smiled at him until she saw a flush darken his cheeks. "Go on, Havo," she said in a low voice, calling him by the name he had once had, back when he had had a family. Poor little boy. "Just walk softly. You'll be fine."

His lips trembled. He wouldn't be fine, but it didn't hurt to show him kindness.

"Orphan! How slowly must you move?"

He hobbled after his mistress.

Mai watched him go, then greeted another customer. "Ah, Master Vin. You are well today?"

"Always well when I see your pretty face, Mai'ili. I see you have peaches but I am also needing a melon. What's the market rate?"

"One zastra a peach today. That's what everyone is charging."

"Okay. What about the melons?"

He took his time choosing, smiled at her, flirted a little although he had a perfectly nice wife who often bought fruit from Mai's cart as well. Still, what harm? He made only the barest effort to haggle, enough not to shame himself, so she always got an excellent price. She was settling his produce into his market basket when Ti returned.

"Why? Why? Why?" Ti swung the empty bowl in a circle. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were round with indignation. "Why do they have to come into the marketplace? Can't they just stay in their fort? Every clan has to deliver supplies there anyway, so why do they have to come out here?"

"Hush, girl!" exclaimed Master Vin, now pale and nervous. "You know what they do to folk who speak against them!" He grabbed his basket from Mai and hurried away.

"You didn't get any kama juice, Ti?"

"Hu! Those Qin soldiers! Walking through the market like they own the place!"

"The Qin rule us. Of course they can walk anywhere they please."

"I hate it! Don't you hate it, Mai?"

Mai sighed and rearranged the peaches now that she had lost the ten best off the top of the pile. A different pattern of stacking would display those remaining to better advantage. "Hating doesn't change things, Ti. Remember what happened to Uncle-"

"Don't say his name! His ghost will haunt us! It'll spit at us when we're not looking!"

Mai finished with the peaches without replying, knowing Ti could not stay still for long.

"If I go around through Spice Alley I can get to Abi's stall without running into them again. I'm so thirsty. If I don't drink something now I'll die die die! Here they come." Ti flounced off in the other direction as Mai, startled, looked up.

Five soldiers strolled down the middle of the dusty street. They wore the typical dress of the Qin military: knee-length black silk tunics that tied down the front and were slit for riding, belt and sword, baggy trousers, soft boots, and their hair up in a topknot in the back. It was actually kind of amusing to watch. Although the four soldiers and one officer strolled rather than marched, although they paused now and again to survey the contents of a blanket laid out over the ground or to point at bowls or pots or fruit arranged in a handcart or wagon, they did not swagger, much, or shove their way through the market throngs like bulls. Yet folk melted away. Conversations faded to silence. Market women trembled, and one old man offered the Qin captain a melon, which the officer refused.

They were not monsters. In truth, although strict and ruthless, the Qin ruled more fairly, Grandmother often pointed out, than had the corrupt Mariha princes who preceded them. Taxes and more taxes and yet more again! That was all the Mariha princes had wanted.

"A good morning to you, Mai'ili! I see the overlords are come to sniff at the orchid."

Mai jumped. "Widow Xania! I didn't see you coming."

Widow Xania had a grin that was more like a grimace. She meant well, but no one liked her. "Careful how you look at them, child. They'll notice you. You know what happened to Clan Bishi's daughter, that one that got taken off to the brothel three years ago because she caught a captain's fancy. I don't know why your father displays you in the market like this when there's already talk of a marriage between you and the Gandi-li clan boy. But I suppose men like Master Vin don't haggle much. I imagine you get the best prices in this market! What man can haggle when faced with such beauty?" She cackled.

Mai smiled patiently. "How can I help you today, Widow Xania? I hope your son is well?"

"Thank you for asking. You seem to be the only person who remembers him! I just received word from him yesterday, by way of some shepherds, out of the Gandi clan, in fact, who had been up to the temple and spoke to him there. The discipline has given him peace."

"It was very sad about his wife and son."

"Yes, indeed." She touched an eye. "The wind's blown some dust in. There, it's gone. I'll need two melons. Just pick out two for me. I trust your judgment. And some sword-fruit."

"Green or ripe?"

"Green, for frying. But the melons ripe. My sister's son is coming today, so I have to feed him. I suppose he hopes he'll inherit the house when I'm gone."

"Surely not!"

"You know what people are! Always grasping. Always wanting more, and not caring how much pain others suffer! If only my daughter hadn't died-if only my daughter-in-law and the baby-well. How much?"

"Twelve for everything."

"Twelve! No one else in this market would rob me like that!"

"It is the going price, Widow Xania."

"Surely not! I can't give you more than seven."

"Seven is very low. My father would beat me-"

"As if your father would ever beat you! You are the flower of his household. Seven!"

"I really can't sell them for seven, but for you because of your recent sorrows I will make an exception and let you have these for eleven."

"That's robbery! Eight."

"No less than ten."

"I'll consider nine if you throw in a peach."

"With two peaches, for ten."


Being particular about how things were arranged, Widow Xania always packed her market basket herself. Mai looked past her only to discover that the Qin officer had paused at the vendor beside them. He was standing in front of the blanket where old lady Tirza sold tomatoes and cucumbers, but he was looking right at Mai. His soldiers waited on the street behind him, arms crossed, bored. Widow Xania finished her packing, straightened up, and saw them. The widow's eyes widened and her mouth pouched in a way that would have struck Mai as comical if she wasn't just now thinking of the fate of that Bishi girl. A Qin captain who lusted after that girl had walked right into the women's baths one day and hauled her off to the brothel and done what he wished since there was no one to stop him. The Qin commander had made him pay a handsome price to the family, and no respectable family had suffered such an indignity since, but they all knew it could happen again.

It was only a matter of time.

Widow Xania clutched her basket and tottered away. All around, the market fell silent. Probably every soul in sight of Mai's cart and the handsome parasol that shaded her was recalling the Bishi girl and her stained honor. The Bishi family had lost face as well, and the girl had eventually been hauled away by some merchant or another who had hired her on as a temporary wife along the Golden Road. It was the best a ruined girl could hope for.

But I am not a ruined girl. I am Mai'ili, eldest child and first daughter of the Mei clan. I have no need to cower before these men.

Although it was always wise to be respectful.

She touched her lips to her wolf ring, sigil of the proud Mei clan, as she bent to retrieve a few melons from the box beneath her feet. When she rose she faced the captain, who had moved to stand before her cart. He smiled, just slightly, as she stood there with a melon in each hand. Taking in a firm breath, she arranged them with the others before turning to him. He had a graciously oval face and a pleasingly dark complexion, with deep-set eyes and a light beard, unusual among the Qin, and a mustache. Only his hooked nose seemed out of place, as if it had come from somewhere else. The sun was not brighter than the golden silk of the tabard worn over his black tunic; only officers were allowed to wear that particular intense color.

"How may I help you today, sir? As you can see, I have peaches, melons, sword-fruit, and almonds today."

He did not look at her wares, but his gaze did skip up above her head.

"That's a distinctive amaranth pattern on your parasol. Does it come from Sirniaka?"

She laughed out of surprise, then touched fingers to lips to stop herself. That would teach her to think so well of herself! "I'm not sure," she admitted. "My father bought it for me last year when I celebrated my sixteenth year. He bought it from a merchant who had come from the east. Isn't Sirniaka a great kingdom in the east, beyond the eastern Mariha cities?"

"The Mariha cities are all under the rule of the Qin var now," he corrected, "but otherwise you are right. It's an unusual parasol, quite beautiful. In the Sirniakan Empire, that pattern is reserved for girls of marriageable age. By displaying it, they indicate they are available for an alliance."

She flushed. Her heart raced. "An alliance?"

"Marriage. A wedding. You have such customs here, do you not?"

"Of course we do."

He smiled again. He looked like a man who had seen a fair bit of the world. He was perhaps ten years older than she was, not that that would ever make the slightest bit of difference to her, who was going to marry that boy from the Gandi sheep-herders clan whom she'd known all her life and who was a perfectly nice young man about Uncle Shai's age, not more than two or three years older than she was. Perfectly nice.

"Almonds," he said, as if repeating himself. "Two bowlsful." He beckoned to one of his soldiers, who sauntered up with a small leather sack.

"Oh! Yes!" But Ti had taken her measuring bowl to get juice!

"No bowl?" he asked. "Two handfuls will do as well."

She scooped, and he held out cupped hands so she had perforce to pour the almonds into his waiting hands, and by one means or another he brushed her, or she him. His skin was cool, although the sun was hot. Yet she hadn't lost her wits. She named as an opening price twice what she would charge to a local.

He paid it without haggling.


Shai never spoke much. He didn't see the point of speaking, since no one ever listened to him, and those who did then usually snapped at him for having the temerity to speak. Best to keep your own counsel under those circumstances.

So it was a wonder to him when his niece Ti'ili came running on the path that led from town up the gentle, grassy slope of Dezara Mountain to the base of the spring pasture. Here, beside a copse of very young birch trees he'd planted and watered himself, he had set up his woodworking shed so he could work in peace without four elder brothers and their five meddling wives and the truculent ghost of his sixth brother plaguing him. Ti's black braids flapped as she ran. He set his attention back to the work before him as she pulled up, gasping, under the shade of the open shed.

"Uncle Shai! You've got to come! You've got to speak up for Mai!"

He finished the stroke of his adze and ran his hand along the grain of the pine log he was planing down to make a fine bedstead for the wedding. Good and smooth, ready to cut to length. When he was done, he looked up at Ti.

"But you've got to! She's been crying all day. You know it isn't right that they marry her off to a Qin, even if he is an officer!"

He studied the log, the second of two precious trunks his elder brothers had traded three ewes for so that the family wouldn't be embarrassed when it came time to stand up at the law court and seal the marriage. The legs, out of the other log, were already carved and oiled. He was preparing the last of the supports, although he wasn't going to have time to carve as elaborate a frieze into the wood as he would have liked, not with the date already chosen and written into the law court's record. Seventeen days from now.

"He'll beat her! He's buried one wife already. He admitted it himself! We'll never see her again! Never! Never! Never! He'll get tired of her and sell her into slavery and there'll be nothing we can do to stop it! His masters will be overthrown and he'll be killed in battle and then-!"

"Hush!" He stood, casting his gaze about, but his two younger nephews-Ti's cousins-were out of earshot tending to the sheep.

She kicked at wood shavings with her pretty red slippers, knowing she had gone too far. While it was perfectly true that the Qin had ruled Kartu Town for only the last twelve years, and that shifting alliances, a death in the var's family, or an unexpected push from the eastern cities might cause the Qin horsemen to retreat and some other power to take their place, it was still treason to speak of such a thing. Ti was only two years younger than he was. She knew as well as he did what the Qin did to their enemies or even to those who only spoke ill-considered words against them.

She looked back down the path, following his gaze. Kartu Town was not much to look at, a dusty bee's hive of compounds surrounded by an inner wall which was itself surrounded by startlingly green orchards crisscrossed by slender irrigation canals. Beyond the orchards lay a thick mud-brick outer wall studded with watch-towers and guardposts. The wall was wide enough to allow Qin guardsmen to ride their rounds atop it instead of walking. They hated to walk. The citadel, a circular structure of baked brick, rose at the northwestern corner of the inner town. In the square fronting the citadel rose the gallows, and today three posts were decorated with remains. A vulture circled.

Like all of the inhabitants of Kartu Town, he'd learned to look away. In truth, it was not the sight of the citadel and its square that made him climb every day in good weather to the peace of his shed. It was the vista beyond: endless, open, yawning wide to the west, all sky, the rocky plateau of the desert looming on the southern horizon, and the mountains rising heroically to the north. So beautiful. They were all stark lines and pale slopes with the memory of winter in their snowy peaks.

"I hate it up here!" cried Ti. "Too much air! Too much sky!" Abruptly, she burst into tears. "I know I shouldn't have said it-but he's Qin. What will happen to Mai? How could Father Mei have agreed?" She sobbed like a tempest.

"He's decent enough," said Shai finally as this storm began to die down.

"Who is?"

"Captain Anji."

"How can you say so?" she shrieked. "A dirty barbarian! You're a Qin-lover!" Then she clapped a hand over her mouth and began sobbing noisily again. He waited until the worst subsided before scooping up a handful of shavings and handing them to her so she could wipe mucus from her upper lip.

"He doesn't have to marry her. He could have just taken her as a concubine. Branded her a pleasure girl and dragged her to the brothel for his use. We couldn't have stopped him."

She hiccoughed, sucked in a watery breath, and gave a bleating moan as she pounded her belly with a fist as if she were mourning. "I know it's not as bad as it could have been. But I can't bear to be parted from her! Ei! Ei! Ei!"

"She'll just be across town, at the citadel. You can see her every day."

"No! No! No! The news just came this morning, by messenger from Captain Anji. The garrison is being pulled out and sent east on the Golden Road. There's something going on there, I don't know what. Maybe there's war on the border. War! They're going east and she'll have to go with them, and we'll never see her again! Ever! Ever! Ever!"

He set down the adze on the bench, considerably startled by this news. "How soon?"

"In two days! The wedding is tomorrow, not next month! That's why you have to speak to Father Mei. Maybe they'll listen to you. All the other uncles… you know them! They always do what Father Mei says. Chicken-hearts! All but Uncle Hari. If he was here still, he'd put a stop to it."

"For shame, Ti!"

"I'm not sorry, even if no one else will talk about Uncle Hari! He was your favorite brother, too! You know it! You know he was the only one tough enough to stand up to Father Mei! He'd tell Father Mei to postpone the wedding. Wait 'til the garrison comes back. But they'll never come back. That's what Captain Anji knows. He knows they're never coming back and he's taking Mai away forever and ever and ever!" She once again fell to bawling.

Ti's outbursts were usually like cloudbursts in summer-frequent but short in duration, causing brief floods and then getting all that moisture sucked away as soon as the sun came back out-but this time she was truly upset. She and Mai were close as twins, born the same day in the same month in the same year to his eldest brother's first and second wives, who were themselves sisters. The two girls had never been apart in all their seventeen years.

No use trying to get any more work done today. He gathered up his tools into the cedar tool chest.

After a bit, when she could hear him, he said, "You could go as second wife."

"He won't take me!" she wailed. "I already asked, but Captain Anji told Father Mei he can only have one wife. And Father Mei won't let me go as her maid because it would be dishonorable, and anyway, Captain Anji said he won't take me even as a servant."

He'd be a madman to take you as wife or servant, Shai thought, although in truth he was shocked that Ti would suggest such a thing. A servant! Someday Ti's impulsive and stormy nature would get her, and the family, in big trouble.

A slender shape toiled up the path and resolved into the slave girl everyone called Cornflower, for her blue eyes. Ti saw her and got that look all the women in the house did whenever Cornflower appeared in a room. She wiped her eyes and nose before the slave halted twenty steps below them with hands clasped and body bent in a half bow. No need for Cornflower to say anything. Wind tugged at the slave's wool tunic and her trident braids of uncannily white-gold hair. Her bare feet and calves were burned a pinkish brown, but everyone knew she had unusually light skin beneath her clothes, not like that of normal people but more like that of ghosts, and there was something about the way she stood there so quietly, a well of stillness, that made him always think about what it would be like to…

"I better go," said Ti.

Shai started, unaware he'd been wandering. Cornflower served the two senior wives-Ti's mother and aunt-so her presence here was a summons for Ti. Her presence was unwelcome to any young man whose greatest ambition was to be left undisturbed.

"Promise me you'll come right now." Ti started down the path at a fast clip, Cornflower trotting behind, head lowered. Ti looked three times back over her shoulder, mouthing words, gesturing almost comically, trying to get Shai to hurry up.

He didn't see the point. He was the last person his eldest brother would listen to. But he whistled for his nephews and finished stowing the tools. His flush receded. His thoughts sank back into an orderly flow. The wind tugged at his sleeves, tied back to leave his lower arms bare. It wasn't warm enough to work bare-chested yet, although he preferred it when it was. He hated to go back down to town, back to the family compound, where sleeves had to be tied down to the wrists and any work you did or comment you made was overseen, overheard, and overruled by others.

Mai was fortunate. She was escaping.

Not that she would think of it that way.

His younger nephew came running, looking important and annoyed. "What is it?"

"I have to go down," Shai said, gesturing toward town. "I'll be back this afternoon."

"You better be. I don't want to sleep out here worrying about thieves!" He scuffed his feet among the wood shavings and sat down hard on the bench.

Not that there were thieves anymore, not since the Qin took over. Still, no one left good tools and precious wood unguarded, even so.

"What do you have to go down for, anyway?" The boy shaded his eyes and squinted toward town. "Uh!" He grunted and rolled his eyes, seeing his older cousin far down, retreating on the path. Because of Ti's way of walking, she could not be mistaken for anyone else: all bouncing sleeves, a spring like that of an antelope in her step. "That Ti! Just a big boiling teakettle, that one! It must be about Mai and the wedding, eh?"

Shai shrugged.

"Make sure you're back here soon. No shirking!" His nephew was eldest son of second brother and, therefore, had more clout than his young uncle Shai, but not enough to overrule Ti's request, because she was daughter of Father Mei. If Ti asked, Shai must go.

So Shai left. An ugly scene would no doubt ensue once he reached the compound, but there was no reason to worry about that on the walk down with the day so fine and the sky so merry and blue. The wind skated up from the east, which meant it was clear of dust torn up from the desert. The tips of the mountains to the northwest could be seen, three deep; that was unusual, quite striking. He thought he heard a hawk's piercing call but when he paused and spun slowly he saw no speck in the sky, nothing flying except one wispy cloud spinning out along the ridge of Dezara Mountain. The slopes still had a hint of spring green in them although they were fading to summer gold. The sheep were hidden above in a fold of land, but he heard a second flock bleating off to the right. That would be the Gandi clan's herd. There had been talk about a marriage between Mai and an elder Gandi boy, but of course the attentions of the Qin captain had cut those right off.

Poor Mai. No wonder she was crying. Still, it wasn't really a surprise. Mai had been doomed from the start.

He stared east, into the wind. Because it was so clear, he could see the old road winding along the mountains for an unexpectedly long way before haze and distance cloaked it. No clouds of dust betrayed a merchant train or travelers. All was quiet and at peace. Shai liked things at peace.

It wouldn't last.

He started down again and soon enough was nodding to the guards at the gate-two grizzled veterans of the town militia who had survived the Qin takeover-and crossed into the verdant oasis of the orchard gardens. The noise of the town was audible but muffled by green leaves and the laughter of the orchard workers. He crossed the Merciful Prayer bridge, passed under the arch of the inner wall, and came out into the sun-blasted citadel square, where no one walked at midday. By the commander's quarters, two stocky Qin soldiers rode patrol, their heads covered by felt caps whose tilted brims shaded their eyes.

The gallows and the posts cast almost no shadows. Widow Lae's remains, dangling from the middle post, clattered in the wind. Keeping his head low, Shai twisted his clan ring three times around his middle finger and walked, trying not to look at the strands of black hair fluttering from the widow's skull and the tattered remains of her red silk tunic, her best garment. Most of her flesh had been picked clean by wind and vultures and sun, leaving these strings of tendons that bound together her bones, the last remnants of hair and clothing, and her ghost.

"I did it!" she shrilled. She was a wraith, more mist than form, a handsome young woman of about twenty although she'd been three times that age when she'd died. "I'll get my reward soon enough! Then you'll all be sorry!"

The entire town had been forced to assemble to see Widow Lae put to death after she insulted a Qin officer, although everyone knew that she'd been condemned for a more serious offense. A foreign merchant had testified that the widow had asked him to smuggle a letter, whose contents betrayed Qin military secrets, to Tars Fort on the eastern border. At least, that was what the merchant had told a drinking companion at the brothel when they were both drunk. When he'd refused to take the letter, the widow had sent one of her grandsons instead. The young man had never been found or seen again nor had anyone managed to trace his trail, and after the execution all the widow's dependents had been sold into slavery and her possessions confiscated by the Qin commander, who had given the merchant a percentage of the profits. Her distant kinfolk weren't even going to be allowed to bury her bones. So shameful!

No wonder her ghost clung stubbornly to her anger, even though that anger chained her ghost to the earth, to this very citadel square where she had died.

Shai often wondered what had been in that message, in part because naturally he was curious and in part because Widow Lae's death had altered the course of Mai's life. On the day of the widow's execution, with every man, woman, and child of Kartu Town assembled in citadel square, Captain Anji had first spoken to Father Mei about marrying his beautiful daughter.

The walls of the town's many residential compounds closed around him as he left the square and its ghost behind. He whistled under his breath. Father Mei's second wife, the younger of the two sisters, the one who was also Ti's mother, hated whistling. He'd learned to amuse himself softly.

Five turns left, past the town baths, two turns right, and one final left turn down an alley brought him to the servants' entrance to his family's compound, just around the corner from the main entrance. He shook the bell. The peephole opened to reveal two suspicious dark eyes that crinkled up as the unseen mouth smiled.

"Master Shai!"

One Hand let him in and barred the door behind him, the movements smooth with long practice despite the slave's disability.

"Lots of trouble indoors?" Shai asked.

The old man shook his head with a wry smile. "We are all sad to see the flower leave us, Master. She bears the Merciful One's gentle disposition in her heart, and holds mercy in her hands."

Shai sighed. No doubt the household slaves would miss the extra food Mai slipped them when she thought no one was looking, and the ointments and infusions she smuggled into their sleeping room when one was sick. It would have been easier to stay up on the mountain than face what lay within. It was tempting to enjoy the sun and the quiet of the courtyard and pretend the rest of the world had gone to sleep.

"Not a lot of people in the streets today," he said. "No one out on the Golden Road, either, not as I could see from Dezara Mountain. I wonder if this talk of troubles on the eastern border is scaring people. If merchants won't travel, the markets will suffer."

"Storm is not going away while you wait out here, Master Shai," said One Hand.

Shai sighed again, but delaying changed nothing. He crossed the dusty courtyard, pausing twice to savor the shade, once under a peach tree and once under the grape arbor. He went into the house past the whitewashed slave barracks, past the tapestried halls that led to his married brothers' suites of rooms, past the curtained alcove where he and his nephew Younger Mei slept-

He stopped and stuck his head in. Mei had thrown himself down on the bed they shared. He was weeping, trying to mute his noise in his wool tunic, which was wadded up and squashed against his face. Startled, the boy lifted his head. His entire body shook with a gasp of relief.

"It's you! Don't tell Father Mei."

Shai let the curtain fall and sat down at the end of the bed. The rope base sagged under him, cutting lines into his buttocks; the servants had taken the mattress out to re-stuff it with new straw just this morning.

"I can't believe she's leaving. My dearest sister! We are twin souls! Born together! Now I'll never see her again."

Since it was probably true, Shai didn't murmur reassurances. He listened for the tread of hard feet, keeping Mei company while he sniveled. Slaves passed twice, but they walked with light footsteps and none were foolish enough to tell tales on the youth who would one day be head of household, should he live so long. Poor Mei. Father Mei and any of Younger Mei's other uncles would whip him for crying if they heard. In a way it was better to be least and superfluous, seventh of seven sons, an unlucky position certainly but one without expectations and demands beyond remaining silent, keeping out of the way, and doing what you were told.

"All right," said Mei finally. He sat up and wiped his face dry with his tunic. "I'm ready." He stood, straightened his knee-length silk coat, and examined his spotless nails. "They've already gathered in the fountain court."

The Mei family compound had the same layout as most every family compound in Kartu Town. First you would see the massive outer wall built of earth or bricks. Behind this wall, and usually ringing the inner portion of the compound, lay a buffering outer courtyard where livestock and chickens could be quartered, a garden and fruit trees could grow, and the servants could launder, cook, clean, and take care of the necessary chores that none of the household kin desired to smell or listen to. The inner compound had a barracks built on the eastern end and a maze of rooms for the family, the most recent added on only four years ago. Some compounds in town were smaller, scarcely more than hovels erected within a corral of sticks; others were palatial and boasted marble floors and second stories.

Unmarried men like Mei and Shai slept in alcoves; unmarried daughters slept in their mothers' suites with the other children. At the center of the house lay the fountain court where Father Mei entertained guests or negotiated contracts. Although a painted, windowless corridor led from the main gate to the fountain court so that visitors would not glimpse the secret heart of the family's private life, Shai and Mei took the slaves' hall that wound through the warren of rooms. It let them in behind the hedge-like screen of flowering bitter-heart from which they might first observe before revealing their presence.

Everyone was assembled. Father Mei sat in the black chair, facing the splashing fountain. Grandmother-Shai's mother-sat on Father Mei's left. She was tiny, frail, and half asleep but otherwise quite magnificent in a gold silk woman's coat, the extraordinarily long, square sleeves embroidered with red leaping antelopes. The uncles sat to Father Mei's right, all in a line. The wives stood a step behind them, and there were at least a dozen children kneeling with heads bowed and hands resting on thighs off beyond the uncles. From this angle Shai could only see the top of Mai's head; she was seated on a pillow halfway between Father Mei and the fountain. In this same way he would present a valuable item to be admired and examined before the haggling began.

Captain Anji sat on the fountain bench with spray wetting the back of his gold silk Qin tabard and the peculiar braided topknot that all the Qin officers made of their hair. Remarkably, he had come alone except for two attendants standing with arms crossed back by the gate. The Qin were famous for their arrogance.

Cornflower was offering rice wine to each of the uncles. Someone had put her in a concubine's revealing bedroom silks so that every time she bent at the waist to proffer the cup, a flash of pale hip was revealed. Despite this provocation, Captain Anji kept his gaze fixed on Father Mei. He was a man of powerful control.

Shai could not stop peeking through the bitter-heart. Her braids had a caressing way of sliding to and fro over her shoulders and upper arms. They were fastened at each tip by tiny nets sewn with lazulite beads as blue as her eyes. Shai shut his eyes.

Thank goodness the ceremony of receiving had almost reached its conclusion! The family had been out here for a while, while Shai was dawdling.

The sigh that escaped Younger Mei's lips was as fragile as the ghost of a wind passing through scattered rose leaves. Shai looked at him, squeezed his arm, and lifted his own chin: Hold firm! Mei gave Shai a look, like that of a frightened rabbit determined to bite the hawk that has cornered it but not sure it will survive the altercation. Then he stepped out from behind the hedge.

The heir's place, of course, was to stand at his father's right hand. Mei did so, taking up position smoothly and without a sound. Captain Anji flashed the merest glance Mei's way but did not otherwise betray that anything was amiss or that another man might have taken insult at the heir's belated arrival. Shai waited behind the hedge, partly because he was so aroused by the sight of Cornflower in her bedroom silks but mostly because no one had bothered to place a chair for him with the rest of the uncles and he refused to kneel with the children. Ti was seated first among the children, her hands clenched and her round face streaked with dirty tears. She looked as if she'd rubbed her face in the dust. But she kept her mouth shut.

The last glass was sipped dry. With an annoyed gesture, Father Mei's elder wife Drena sent Cornflower back inside. It hadn't been the choice of the women, then, to see if Captain Anji could be embarrassed by revealing Cornflower's charms.

"I apologize that we must speak in such haste," said Father Mei, although the ceremony of receiving always took at least an hour and the usual opening negotiating formalities might take an equal amount of time. "I had thought the negotiations done and the contract sealed, Captain Anji, but now it appears otherwise. What brings you to us?"

Captain Anji had a soldier's bluntness. "I sent a messenger ahead to inform you of my situation. You already know my predicament. I've received a change of orders. My company rides out in two days. I would like to marry tomorrow so my bride can journey with me. It is the fondest desire of my heart."

Now he did smile, nodding at Mai. Shai could not see Mai's reaction because he could see only the back of her head, but he thought her shoulders tightened slightly; it was hard to tell because she was so heavily draped in the layers of blue silk appropriate to an affianced bride. Then again, lots of things were hard to tell with Mai. All loved her for her accommodating, placid nature. She was beautiful, but a little stupid.

"It will be a hardship for my clan to hurry the rites. It will cost us to pay the law courts to move the day, and to make room tomorrow in their schedule, and we won't have ready the many fine luxuries we wish to dower her with."

"I have some resources. I can pay the law court what they need. I ask nothing of you except your daughter, Father Mei."

How coolly he said those words! Shai was impressed. Father Mei would inflate the costs and keep the difference for the family, but Captain Anji was apparently no merchant or bargainer and thereby, according to the rule of the marketplace, ripe for plucking. Or else he simply did not care. Beauty in women captured men that way sometimes.

"We will sustain a loss by having her torn from the house before her time."

As if on cue, Younger Mei sniffled, then stiffened, knowing he must show no emotion. Emotion gave the opponent a bargaining chip.

The captain slipped a hand into the folds of one sleeve, searched for something, and withdrew his hand, now cupped. "I possess nothing to recompense you for your loss, which is extreme. However, two days ago I purchased an item which I think might be of interest to the Mei clan."

He unfolded his hand to reveal a ring. It was silver, shaped to resemble a running wolf with its mouth biting into its tail. A rare and perfect black pearl was inlaid as the wolf's eye.

Grandmother bolted upright in her chair. Her hands gripped the arms like a hawk's talons. "Girish, bring it to me!" she said querulously.

The wives whispered, horrified. The uncles coughed and hemmed. Ti giggled nervously. Father Mei's big hands closed, opened, and with his right thumb and middle finger he made the warding sign, but because he did not speak, no one spoke. No one dared correct Grandmother.

Captain Anji raised an eyebrow, puzzled by the exchange.

She seemed to collect herself, and her memory. "Shai!" she snapped. "Nothing-good boy! Hu! I don't know why Grandfather thought you so clever! Come quickly. Get it and bring it here."

He padded forward from behind the hedge. The uncles and wives and children seemed surprised to see him. Father Mei grunted, a sign that he was holding his legendary temper in check. It always exploded afterward. But as soon as Shai got between the captain and his eldest brother, blocking Father Mei's view, Captain Anji winked at Shai as if in sympathy before dropping the ring into his hand.

"Hari," breathed Shai, not meaning to talk, but the touch of the ring actually hit so hard that he rocked back on his heels and struggled against a wave of dizziness.

It was Hari's ring. No doubt of that.

He took in a breath to steady himself, then walked back to his mother and placed it gently in her right hand. She slapped him hard with her left, the crack stinging and bitter.

He choked back his surge of anger. He'd gotten so good at doing it that it had become reflexive. The bitch would be dead soon, and he wouldn't miss her. Anyway, her slap-her dislike of him-didn't hurt nearly as much as contact with the ring had.

Hari was dead.

He'd known it as soon as the ring had touched his skin, just as he knew that no one else would feel it. Hari was dead. He'd been wearing the ring when he died; he'd been angry in an amused kind of way-the anger lingered in the ring. But surely Hari's spirit had already fled earth through Spirit Gate. There was nothing to hold him here, after all. Anger and bitterness hadn't chained him in Kartu Town. He'd not waste time lingering on earth as a ghost when there were adventures to face in the afterlife. Not Hari, the boldest and handsomest and most delightful of brothers.

"Fool boy," muttered his mother sharply. Her hands shook as she struggled to hide her tears, and Father Mei finally took the ring and examined it. As soon as it was out of her hands, she hid her face behind a sleeve.

"This belonged to my younger brother," Father Mei said. "Hari marched east as a mercenary with one of your regiments six years ago. We have never heard from him. Where did this come from?"

Shai shuffled to the side, turning, to see Captain Anji shrug.

"Certain peddlers have a license to travel from fort to fort selling small wares, curiosities, such things. I found this yesterday among the goods offered for sale by a man who had come from the east along the Golden Road. He said it came from a place called 'the Hundred,' which lies north of the Sirniakan Empire. He bought it from a Hundred merchant, traveling in Mariha, who said it was found near a town he called 'Horn.' There'd been a battle there. Internal matters, lord fighting lord or some such. I'm not sure of the details. The Hundred folk are barbarians, it seems. They've never had a var-a king-to lead them. Scavengers will always pick clean the fields of battle, and it seems it was no different with this ring. I don't know how many hands it passed through to get this far from the place it was found. But I recognized the ring at once. Mai has a ring like it."

As did every blood member of the Mei clan.

"Does it bring joy or grief to your house?" the captain asked.

"I cannot know," said Father Mei. "Is Hari dead, or alive? He cannot rest if his bones do not rest with those of his ancestors. We can never rest, not knowing what became of him." His lips were thin, a sure sign of anger.

Lots of anger in this house. Shai waited for the blow. It came quickly.

"When my beloved and precious daughter goes with you, she must have servants, familiar ones who have served her for many years."

"Of course." Captain Anji nodded.

"She will be alone, who has never been alone. I ask you, Captain Anji, let my young brother Shai accompany her."

The words struck, shivering like lightning through him. He stood, stunned, as his brother droned on.

"He is still unmarried, so he leaves no obligations behind, and he is almost twenty, old enough to be considered a man. We'll send a slave with him and provisions and traveling gear, so he'll be no burden on you. Once he reaches the eastern border, he can make his way north to this place called the Hundred and look for this battlefield near a town called Horn. If he can find our brother's remains, he can bring them home."

"A long journey," mused Captain Anji, "and far beyond the boundaries of the lands the Qin claim."

"Merchants go there. Peddlers go there."

Anji grinned as at a private joke. From this new angle, Shai could now see Mai's face. She was pretending to look down quiescently at her folded hands but in fact she was studying the captain. Her eyes widened slightly; her lips twitched. Although she and Shai had grown up together, lived in the same compound all their lives-she as the cherished, pampered daughter, and he as the unwanted and despised youngest brother-Shai did not understand her. What did this flash of emotion portend? Impossible to say. Mai was as sweet to him as she was to anyone. She had no hidden depths, no reserves of deep feeling. Most likely she was frightened out of her wits.

But Shai wasn't, not as the first shock faded.

"Merchants travel where soldiers fear to ride," said the officer. "Shai is welcome to come, but I cannot guarantee his safety after he leaves my protection."

"If you set him on the right path, that is all that I ask," said Father Mei, pompous and condescending as always. "Then we will be square, our debts equal and canceled. Do we have an agreement?"

"We have an agreement."

With those simple words, Shai was released. Unchained. He was free.


Leave-taking turned out to be a troublesome business. In the last three generations the only person in the Mei clan who had left Kartu Town by any road other than Spirit Gate was Hari. Everyone knew what trouble he had caused.

Ti had left off clinging to Mai indoors and come outdoors, where she was now yanking on Shai's left arm and crying while trying to speak. Her sobs gusted up straight from her belly. Shai admired her capacity; she'd be a natural for one of the touring acting companies that plied the Golden Road.

"Oh! Oh! Oh! You didn't even try to talk him out of it! You just hid! What will become of me, all alone? Hu! Hu! Hu! I can't bear it!"

Captain Anji had arrived at dawn with the same pair of soldiers who had accompanied him last time; his officer's escort were gathered outside the gate. He waited with apparent patience in the shadow of the arbor although it was by now almost noon. The wives had been in an uproar all morning and had repacked Mai's trunk twice even though Mai had packed it herself yesterday with only the aid of her slave Priya. That linen shift isn't nice enough; the yellow of that silk doesn't go well with her complexion; she'll need thread and her embroidery frame; she'll need a prayer silk; she can buy thread at any town market; cooking spices. No! Hairpins! Shai and Younger Mei had retreated to their alcove and huddled there while the storm raged. In the end, a rare vase was thrown and broken, and Father Mei had intervened with slaps and shouting.

Now they stood in the courtyard waiting for Mai to be escorted out by Grandmother. Captain Anji was seated on a stool. He was smoking terig leaf, dried leaves rolled up in paper to make a burning stick whose smoke you sucked into your lungs. Periodically, he handed a stub back to his attendants, who were standing behind him, and they finished it off. Shai had never tried terig leaf because it was one of many things forbidden to those who weren't Qin. The smoke stung in his nostrils, laced with a faintly sweet afterburn. The wisps drifting over to the entrance gate made Girish's ghost even more irritable than usual, and his wraith-like form danced and gibbered by the hanging tree to the right of the gate, so furious that for once Shai couldn't understand what he was saying.

Poor Girish. Mother had spoiled him after Hari's departure, and, as Mai had once said in a moment of startling and unexpected clarity, he had fermented. He'd never forgiven the family for his death, although it had been his own selfishness and cruelty that had gotten him killed. His anger had chained his ghost to the gate for almost a year.

Shai caught Captain Anji's eye. The Qin officer smiled ever so slightly at him, like a conspirator, and all at once, so strongly that the feeling almost knocked Shai right off his feet, the last two days of tempest focused into a single thought.

I'm glad to be rid of Girish! And the rest of them, too!

Glad! Glad! Glad! None of them could peer into Shai's mind. He'd made sure of that ever since he was old enough to think twice about keeping his mouth shut. They'd never know the truth of his impious thoughts.

He was free!

Until he found Hari's bones and had to come back.

The door opened. Father Mei appeared in his best clerk's silk jacket, flowing to the ground and clasped with intricate knots in three places across the chest. Grandmother tottered beside him, leaning on her eldest son, who was ever burdened with the knowledge that he had never been her favorite. Behind them, Younger Mei escorted his twin, Mai. She wore a blue silk robe fit for display but not traveling; her hair was done up in a complicated series of loops and braids festooned with slender gold chains and tiny brass bells.

Younger Mei was a homely boy; the contrast with his twin sister always astounded no matter how many times one saw them together. The round face, thick lashes, exotic eyes, and flawless bronze-dark complexion that made Mai the best-looking girl in Kartu Town had a doughy lack of firmness in Younger Mei, like bread left to rise too long. Tears streaked his face; he'd get a beating once the cavalcade left. Shai had already said his good-byes to his favorite nephew, the only person he would miss. Younger Mei looked at him despairingly. Ti sniveled; an almost inaudible moan escaped her.

They kept silence while Father Mei made a long speech about the Mei clan's honor and the exceptional value of its most precious orchid, Mai'ili. Captain Anji remained seated throughout, which in any man but a Qin officer would have been a deliberate insult. The entire household stood as Father Mei declaimed. Everyone's eyes were red, even the uncles'. They all loved her. Mai was the flower of the clan, and it had shocked them all when the captain had claimed her.

Now they would lose her. They all knew it was unlikely they would ever see her again.

Even Shai would have to leave her once the captain's regiment reached its new garrison posting, wherever that was to be. Mai's expression, as Father Mei wound down his speech, had the placid good nature of a cow's. Her eyes were a tiny bit red, but the only people in the courtyard as composed as she was were her new husband and his stolid attendants.

At last, Father Mei finished. Captain Anji rose while, behind him, one of his attendants folded up the stool and tied it to the back of a packhorse. The girl was handed from one to the other, the contracts, signed yesterday at the law courts, were exchanged, and Ti crumpled to the ground in a dead faint. Mai looked back toward her. Captain Anji, who already held her hand, turned as well, alerted by her movement. There was a pause. Mai's eyes were very wide but as she came up against Captain Anji's grip, she stilled and did not tug.

The officer released her hand. She glanced at him with a look of astonishment, lips parting, then spun and returned the few steps to kneel beside her half sister and kiss her brow. But Shai, beside Ti, saw this out of the corner of his eye; he felt Mai's gesture more than watched her because he was studying Captain Anji. The Qin officer had a peculiar quirk to his lips, unfathomable, as he surveyed the pretty scene of Mai comforting poor Ti, whom grief had silenced. Father Mei began to speak, but caught himself short. Mai was no longer his to scold and discipline.

Ti stirred, regaining consciousness. The girls kissed one last time. As Mai returned to her husband, Ti buried her face in her hands. The captain gestured, the attendant went to the gate, and four slaves entered carrying the palanquin in which she would journey. He twitched the curtain open. Mai ducked inside without a word and without looking over her shoulder, and the curtain slid down before Shai could get a glimpse of the cramped interior. Her chest was hauled away to another packhorse. Mai's slave Priya waited beside the palanquin.

Ready to go!

Shai gestured to Mountain. The middle-aged slave earned zastras by hiring himself out before dawn hauling night soil to the fields for other families, and five years back he had been given the choice between buying his freedom or using his zastras to pay for a marriage contract between him and Priya. He'd chosen Priya. Now he was being sent with Mai into the unknown. As part of his duties he would attend Shai, until Shai left the company. The big man knelt, fastened the carrying strap across his forehead, and rose with Shai's small chest of belongings balanced across his shoulders.

Captain Anji beckoned to one of his attendants, who brought a horse forward.

"Uncle Shai." He gestured toward the saddle. It was not a request.

Panic struck as an eagle might, plunged straight down and gripped him by the throat. He lost his voice.

Father Mei said, "But it's forbidden, Captain. You know our people are forbidden to ride horses, by the law of the Qin. It's a hanging offense."

Captain Anji nodded. "Among the Qin, only slaves walk. If he does not ride, my soldiers will treat him as a slave. It is up to you, Uncle Shai."

The formal mode of address calmed Shai. Anji was about ten years older, but he used the honorific appropriate to Shai's station relative to the captain's bride, not to the captain himself. The kindness was similar to that Anji had shown Mai by letting her give Ti a final kiss good-bye. Whatever man Anji was, he was not a simple one. He was not a faceless triumphant conquering overlord grabbing what he most coveted. Or he was playing a very deep game.

"Thank you." He forced the words out and stepped up to the horse, which was absolutely massive and terrifying, and of course he hadn't the least idea what to do.

The captain leaned close enough to whisper. The terig had a musty, sharp smell, not displeasing. "Loop the reins around the pommel, that post there. Hold on as well as you can. The horse will follow the rest. Trust me."

No one else heard. Ti had started to wail again, and all the wives were crying, with the children sniffling and coughing and blowing their noses on their sleeves.

Be a brave man, like Hari. Hari wouldn't have balked! A soldier came forward and gave him a hand up. He had a moment of disorientation, up so high; then Captain Anji left his side and went to his own mount, held by one of his escort.

Father Mei approached. For the first time in his nineteen years, Shai had the satisfaction of seeing his eldest brother look daunted as he walked up beside the horse, which mercifully stood perfectly still. He pulled a suede bag out of his sleeve and handed it up to Shai, who almost overbalanced as he took it. It was heavy, filled with coins and other valuables; he recognized their heft and shape through the pliant leather.

"Take this," Father Mei said in his softest and most menacing voice, switching daringly to banki, the local language, which they were forbidden from using in front of the Qin. "But use it only for an emergency. To bring Mai home if things don't go well. If he beats her. If he gets tired of her and tries to sell her into slavery. Use that gold to bring Mai back. If you use it for anything else, knowing she is suffering, then you aren't my brother any longer. I'll turn my face away from you and in this house it will be as if you were never born."

Shai nodded. If he spoke, he would fall off. It was difficult enough to get the pouch safely into his long left sleeve, and Father Mei had to help him tuck it into the thief-pocket sewn into the lining.

"There is one other thing I am giving you for the journey," added Father Mei.

Shai's heart skipped and stuttered. Cold fear tightened his gut. Now what?

"For the sake of peace in my house I should have got rid of her earlier, but you know how it is."

Merciful One! Worse than he had thought!

Father Mei gestured, looking toward his senior wife, Drena. She smiled, victorious at last, and snapped her fingers. Cornflower padded forward out of the crowd of servants and slaves. She wore a sturdy linen knee-length tunic over loose trousers, undyed; slave's clothing, suitable for hard work. She wore her hair, as always, in a trident braid-one by each ear and one running down her back. She did not look up. Shai broke into a sweat more drenching than he had suffered waiting out under the midday sun. He couldn't go against Father Mei's orders. He hadn't been bound legally into another man's jurisdiction; Father Mei remained his head of household.

On the street beyond, the captain's escort was moving out. The slaves hoisted the palanquin and carried it outside, where packhorses and soldiers fell into line. Captain Anji lifted a hand as a signal and led them forward through the gate, and without any effort on his part Shai moved after them. As they passed the hanging tree, Girish's ghost screamed in fury, knowing he had lost the only family member who could hear his complaints.

"She'll get you, too! She'll kill all of you, just like she killed me! Bad luck! Bad luck!"

As Shai passed under the gate, he heard Father Mei scolding Younger Mei in a loud voice. "Strong blood! That's what you have inherited. You must keep the family strong, marry the girl we pick for you, and have strong sons and pretty daughters like Grandfather Mei did. Like I did. Remember only: Don't make the overlords angry, don't do anything dishonorable, and don't lose the family's money. None of this simpering. Mai is gone now. We all knew she was too good to keep. That's what comes for girls as pretty and good-natured as she is. Nothing but grief!"

The cavalcade passed out of range, but those last words ran round and round in Shai's head. Although meant for Younger Mei, the force of Father Mei's anger crashed down on him as well, as it always had no matter how carefully he had kept himself separate and silent. He clutched the pommel of the saddle, swaying this way and that. It didn't matter. He was free of him, now. Free.

He ended up with the rear guard, able to survey the entire procession as they kicked up dust on the broad avenue that led out of the town and onto the Golden Road. Captain Anji rode at the head, surrounded by soldiers who had waited outside on the road with the rest of his group. They were laughing and talking, their seats on these impossible animals as casual as if they sat on a bench by the fountain. Mai's palanquin followed behind, and behind that the packhorses attended by mounted men. Cornflower slipped into the group of slaves trudging behind the palanquin; she was easy to see because hers was the only pale head among the six score folk in the captain's company. She glanced back at him, eerie blue gaze unwavering, then pulled a cap over her hair to protect herself from the sun.

Nothing but grief.


Mai'ili had learned her most important lesson in life by observing her twin brother Mei and nearly twin half sister and cousin Ti'ili as they thrashed their way through life.

The only place to find happiness is inside.

When she was very young she had once made the mistake of sharing this wise pronouncement with her uncle Girish, the swine, and he had laughed at her, called her stupid and shallow, and told everyone else about her sage comment in such a ridiculing way that they had either chuckled outright without any concern for her feelings or, patting her on the head, patronized her. Alone, she had cried, then wiped her eyes, and after that, for she couldn't have been more than seven, she had set a clear gaze forward and never looked back, not for the last ten years.

Mai wanted to be happy. Not for her Ti's storms or Younger Mei's sulks. She didn't care for Uncle Girish's tantrums and whining, Father Mei's controlling angers, her mother's jealousy and competitiveness, her aunt's scheming, and her grandmother's favoritism. Even quiet Uncle Shai just withdrew and avoided everyone, although it was obvious he was boiling inside. She loved them all, of course, but she didn't always like them very much.

She had measured the extent and firmness of the walls that bounded her and set out to make a little garden within them, the one thing she could control. She knew that in that way she was like her father: He too liked to control things; it was just that he held the lash of life and death over the entire household. Her scope was much smaller, but she was determined to live life in her own way and on her own terms while at the same time not making anyone so mad at her that they disturbed her tranquil sanctuary.

She had done her best, but it hadn't worked. Anger wasn't the only emotion that made people act rashly and tramp in where they weren't wanted.

Seated cross-legged on a plush mattress ringed with a waist-high padded rim to cushion her from unexpected shocks, she fingered the palanquin curtains as the mattress rocked under her. The slave bearers had a remarkably smooth gait, in part because they chanted in a soft rhythm that regulated their pace. Ahead, she heard men talking and laughing. Behind she heard the shuffle of feet and the crunch of wheels on dust as the grooms, slaves, and servants followed with the packhorses and a pair of wagons. Farther back, a blast blew on a horn to signal that this force of soldiers had just left the garrison at Kartu Town. Which meant she too had left, that they had passed the gate and were venturing into unknown country, as in the old song.

Past these gates live ghosts only;

Stay here in my warm embrace.

Past these gates live ghosts only;

Stay here with your chair and lamp.

Past these gates live ghosts only;

Stay here where there are friends and drinking and song.

There is no song out there but that of the demons, shrieking.

There is no drink out there but the drink of one's own tears.

There is no friend out there but the arms of oblivion.

Past these gates live ghosts only.

Do not go, my child, my parent, my lover.

She flipped her long sleeves back up past her elbows, put a hand over her mouth, and let the tears flow.

She didn't fight them, but she did lean forward from the hips far enough that no moisture would stain the expensive blue silk of her bridal gown. The mattress was a wool batting covered with a dark red linen cover, well-made and practical traveling equipment since the wool wouldn't mildew easily and the color of the linen spread would disguise dust and other stains.

She wept silently, not even shaking. After a long while the tears slowed and ceased of their own accord. By not fighting sorrow she allowed it unimpeded passage through her body.

" Of course we all suffer," Priya often told her. " But if you cling to suffering or fight it then it will hold on like a rat. If you accept its existence and the pain it causes you, then you can release it."

When her tears dried, she fished a linen handkerchief out of her sleeve and carefully wiped her cheeks and blew her nose. Scooting forward, she placed her hands on the front wall of the palanquin. The front and back walls were wood from top to bottom; a breeze managed to sneak through the side curtains, cut cleverly to conceal her while not stifling her. A narrow sliding panel was set into the front wall a little below her eye level. She released the lock, pushed it aside, and looked out. Outside seemed much brighter now that her eyes had become accustomed to the interior's dim light. She blinked until her eyes adjusted.

She counted thirty-two riders visible; there were many more out of sight to either side, but she couldn't be sure how many by the amount of dust they kicked up. All were outfitted in similar fashion-the Qin mostly looked alike-but she recognized her husband's back immediately: the set of his head; the blue, white, and gold of the captain's ribbons braided into his topknot; the brilliant gold silk of his tabard.


She considered the word. She had observed husbands. Father Mei and two of her uncles were husbands. Husbands like Master Vin often came by the fruit stall. Although it was slightly shameful for Father Mei to put his own daughter out in the stall now that he was a bigger man in town than Grandfather Mei had been, it was still perfectly normal for an unmarried daughter to spend the long hours from dawn to dusk sitting in the shade of a parasol or awning while selling peaches and almonds and melons and other produce. She made better money at the little stall than anyone else in the family could. Men rarely bargained with her, and women were always kind, although shrewder-but why shouldn't they want their money's worth and get in a good gossip at the same time? Mai herself did not gossip, but she asked harmless questions, so folk liked to talk to her and, she had discovered, told her many things they never told anyone else.

People were generally pleasant, and often good and well meaning, but they certainly did a lot of trivially cruel things while meanwhile fretting and gnawing at their troubles and their envies and their annoyances until, in the end, it killed them or turned them sour. Like Girish, who had gone bad before he died. She pitied Girish a tiny bit, because he'd been so bitterly unhappy, but he'd done worse to others than to himself, so in the end she was sorry to think that he might actually have deserved such an ugly death.

Girish would have made a bad husband, and Father Mei had known it, which is why he hadn't let Girish marry when he'd turned twenty, the usual age for men to claim a first wife. He'd bought a slave for Girish instead, so he wouldn't keep going to the brothels. Look where that had led!

To Father Mei, honor mattered above all things. He wanted no dishonor brought down on Clan Mei's head. She fingered the ring on her left middle finger, the running wolf that was the sigil of their clan. She, too, had to uphold that honor. So she would. She'd do nothing to shame the Mei clan, not like her uncles Hari and Girish had done. She would be a good wife to the Qin officer with whom she had not exchanged more than twenty words beyond the meaningless pleasantries that were the hallmark of trade in the marketplace.

How much for these peaches? A big storm yesterday out of the desert, wasn't it? That's quite a distinctive amaranth pattern on your parasol. Does it come from the Sirniakan Empire?

She had never been alone with him, but she would be tonight.

Tears came again. They flowed like a spring stream swollen with snowmelt, just kept coming and coming as she watched the men ride. As she watched her husband ride. He did not once look back toward the palanquin. He didn't need to. He had acquired her as he might a bolt of handsome silk, all signed and sealed with a contract so he couldn't be accused of stealing. At least he had been kind enough to take her as a wife, thereby allowing her certain legal protections not available to slaves or concubines.

Who would have thought there were so many tears? Soon she'd be like Ti, flooding at every word. At last, when the tears had dried, she wiped and blew just like before and felt at peace enough to twitch aside one of the side curtains and stare out at the landscape. She had never been more than an hour's walk out of Kartu Town, up into the hills where the Mei clan had their wet-season pastures. In the interval while she had cried, the familiar silhouette of Dezara Mountain and its companion hills had fallen behind. She wasn't sure she could see them at all. The hills were a mix of shadow and sunlight, almost golden in the westering light, but their jagged slopes had no recognizable peaks or saddles, not from this angle.

Panic swept her. It raced through her skin; she broke out in a sweat and yet her neck felt clammy and cold.

She didn't know where they were going, or what they would find when they got there.

Anything might come next.

Fear rose, like the tempest. She imagined every worst possible thing that could happen: her husband would be cruel to her in the bed and laugh while he hurt her; bandits would sweep out of the hills and kill them all; she would be abandoned and sold into slavery and raped repeatedly; a sandstorm would hurl itself out of the desert and swallow them alive; a ghost would pinch her; rats would eat her toes and fingers and nose; she would eat spoiled meat and throw up until her insides burst, like Girish had, only he had been poisoned; someone would say something hateful and mean to her; she would die and pass through Spirit Gate.

That wasn't so bad, as the rush poured out of her. All those terrible things ended in death, so eventually she would find peace. Only angry ghosts were restless.

She had another handkerchief. As she mopped the sweat from her skin, reached up her sleeves and under her robe and patted herself dry, she wished she had some perfumed talcum powder to sweeten herself. She had packed some, but Aunt Sada had taken it out because, she said, good talcum was expensive and if the Qin officer had so much cash, then he could supply luxuries for his new wife because it could be bought anywhere.

Anywhere but in the middle of the road after you've been sweating and have started to stink! What a way to come to your wedding bed! She let the curtain fall and, carefully, so as not to upset the rhythm of the slave bearers, who surely must be exhausted by now, sidled back to the front panel and stared out at her husband's back.

Was he a good-looking man? Ti thought all the Qin were ugly ugly ugly, but Mai didn't think so. They looked like people, some better-looking than others, some with pleasant faces and some with closed-up, cranky ones. Anyway, Captain Anji didn't quite look exactly like the other Qin. He was a little bit taller and a little bit less stocky, and his hair was wavy, not coarse and straight. He had that interesting nose, which none of the other Qin had; they had blunter, shorter noses, more like those of Kartu people. He was rather old. The one thing she'd learned about him was that he was born in the Year of the Deer, which would make him thirteen years older than she was. Still, he had a graceful way of moving even though he was bow-legged like all the Qin soldiers. He had clear, honest eyes, good teeth, and humor in the way his lips would twitch, maybe suppressing a smile, and he had shown her that astounding glimpse of kindness when he'd allowed her to turn back and give a final good-bye kiss to Ti. Was he a kind man? A cruel one? Honest or false? Grasping or open? Brave or a coward?

Suddenly he looked back over his shoulder. That glance struck as might an arrow. He knew she was watching him. She recoiled and fell onto her back, and then felt the slave carrying the right back corner of the palanquin stagger and swiftly right himself.

She couldn't breathe. It hit like a sandstorm, smothering her. He was just like those sloe-eyed princes in the old stories, who rode out of the desert and kidnapped pining dark maidens and took them to palaces built of rosy-colored stone in the midst of a beautiful oasis. Sometimes those stories ended happily and sometimes sadly, but the middle part was always so good and exciting and gratifying.

I am afraid. I am afraid that I want to be able to love him but that he will never love me, not like in the old stories. I'm just a glittering jewel, a prize carried off by a bandit. I've been ripped from my garden. I can never go back.

This time, despite everything, despite all her efforts, she sobbed helplessly and awkwardly until she was hoarse, heedless of her fine silk gown and her running nose. The noise of the cavalcade drowned the betraying sound of her weeping. Only the slaves in attendance-the four who carried the palanquin, the five bearers to alternate places as they tired, and the three slaves who had come from Kartu Town and walked alongside-could hear her. They would never tell.


Because of their late start they had to halt just before sundown at an old ruin that had once been a village. It was a quiet place, so long abandoned there were no ghosts left. Captain Anji argued with his chief of staff, won, then beckoned to Shai, who handed his mount over to the soldier who had helped him dismount.

"We won't make the posting house tonight so we'll camp here. If you will, dine with me. You may prepare, wash, whatever you wish."

"Of course, Captain. The honor is mine."

Shai tracked down Mountain among the men already bustling to their tasks, lighting fires, preparing food, digging a trench for waste, and drawing water from the abandoned well.


The slave was talking with one of the soldiers, a lowly tailman by the look of him, but he excused himself and hurried over to Shai.

"Set up my tent in whatever place the master of this caravan deems appropriate."

"Yes, Master Shai."

"Can you demand help from these other slaves?"

Mountain cleared his throat suggestively. "Master. Except for the bearers, and we three from Kartu Town, there are no other slaves. These are camp men or grooms. They are part of the army. Most are Qin. Some are respectable free men, hired for the work and well paid, so they tell me. No Qin military company travels with slaves. They say it slows them down."

Shai studied the movements within the camp. Now, he saw that the soldiers took care of their own horses and tack, and that the grooms and "camp men" were either youths not quite old enough to be regular army men, men with a minor disability that might prevent them from fighting effectively, or foreign men who tended to their work with the brisk efficiency of those who are proud of what they do. No idling slaves here. No one lounging while others waited on them.

"Oh. Can you do everything yourself, then?"

Mountain gestured toward Cornflower, who waited about twenty paces away, hands clasped and head lowered in perfect submissiveness. "That one will help me."

Shai shut his eyes, making a face. "Hu! What am I supposed to do with her?"

"She is commonly used by Father Mei and the uncles, Master Shai."

"I know. But I am not my brothers. I have not forgotten what happened to Girish." He spat on the ground for the offense of saying the dead man's name. "Even if they pretend they have forgotten."

"Forgive me, Master."

"Just set up the tent, if you will. I want a blanket. She can start by massaging me. After that, she can sleep outside."

Mountain unrolled a blanket on the ground and Shai sat down, wincing. No wonder the Qin soldiers were tough, if they had to endure this every day!

"Cornflower, work on my legs. They hurt."

She came over, slung her pack onto the ground, and pulled a flask of oil out of the pack. He slipped off his trousers and, in only his loincloth, let her massage some of the ache out of his muscles. Her hands were strong and sure. If they only strayed a little farther up..

"Enough!" He grabbed for his trousers. With no change of expression, she scooted backward and bowed her head. Mountain scratched his bald head, then fanned himself with his cap.

"If you do not want her, Master Shai, then perhaps I can sell her services to the soldiers. She and Priya are the only females out of a hundred or more men. It would be a way for you to make a few extra zastras on the journey. It never hurts to have a little extra coin. Just in case."

Shai looked at Cornflower. Like his brothers, Shai found her sexually attractive and utterly fascinating, and it annoyed him. He was stirred by her touch, and it didn't help with her kneeling so submissively a few strides away, with pale skin and ripe breasts concealed beneath her slave's shift, knowing she could not say no if he took her. Indeed, he could do anything to her at all, but he hated to be like his brothers. Mountain's suggestion had merit. It was wise to plan ahead, cultivate a nest egg. Mountain would take a cut, and the rest would fill Shai's sleeves. Just in case.

"Find an out-of-the-way place, then. Charge a reasonable rate, and not too many men any one night."

Mountain nodded. He was a big, big man, a little stout with middle age, and missing his left eye and two fingers on his left hand. "Not more than five a day. I hear from Tailman Chaji that it's twenty-five days' or so ride to the border, if we run into no delays. If every man in the company wants a piece of her, they'll each have one try. That'll keep the price high, if any wish to outbid the others for a second chance."

Shai nodded. After a glance toward the silent Cornflower, he put on trousers and his best silk knee-length jacket and walked over to the awning where Captain Anji sat on a three-legged stool, on a rug, studying a scroll. A low camp table inlaid with alternating strips of ebony wood and ash-blond wood sat before the officer; a narrow, cushioned divan about an arm's length long stood to his right, with two stools folded up and leaning against it. A black flag trimmed with gold streamers fluttered from each corner of the awning. Two soldiers stood to either side, arms folded, surveying the camp. They tracked Shai's arrival with flat gazes as the captain looked up.

"Sit down," he said. "My men will bring food."

One of the men opened up a stool, so Shai sat down. "Where is Mai?" he asked.

The old village had about a dozen structures remaining, all built out of mud brick and mostly intact except for the roofs. Captain Anji's escort numbered over one hundred soldiers and two dozen grooms and hired men, together with the slaves who accompanied Mai. The soldiers had set up an outer perimeter, with their precious horses clustered in the innermost protected area of the village and the captain's awning and rug beyond that. The old well and two crumbling houses stood directly to his west. Listening, Shai heard Mai speaking to Priya from within the sheltering walls of one of the those houses, where his niece had sought privacy.

Maybe the Qin didn't allow women to eat with men. Better not to ask. He hoped his question hadn't been taken as an insult. The Qin were notoriously easy to insult.

Captain Anji's chief of staff arrived and opened a stool for himself. He was ten or fifteen years older than Anji-well into middle age-and the two men had an easy relationship; even their arguments gave them pleasure.

"I still don't like it, Anjihosh. The road is flat enough and there'll be moonlight late. We could have made it the entire way. Out here-ghosts, bandits, sandstorms, scorpions, demons, witches. Leopards. There could be anything."

Anji scanned the darkening village with narrowed eyes. "No ghosts, anyway, Tuvi-lo," he said so casually that Shai's heart stuttered and seemed to skip a beat. No ghosts? "If we got in late, the horses and bearers wouldn't get a full night's rest. They'll need it at this stage, to get accustomed to the travel. I want them well rested. They'll need strength to manage the worst part of the journey."

"So you say." Chief Tuvi rose from his stool abruptly as Mai halted at the edge of the rug. She looked calm and composed. Priya waited behind her.

Anji stood, took Mai's hand in his, and led her to the divan, a queenly seat, certainly, and far more comfortable than the men's utilitarian stools. He released her; she sat; Chief Tuvi whistled, and four young Qin soldiers-tailmen, all-came forward with platters of dried fruit, yoghurt, and strips of sizzling meat just now roasted over a campfire.

Shai waited for the captain to begin the conversation, but they ate in silence until the platters were empty. Only when hot da was handed round in painted bowls did the captain speak.

"You have traveled well, Mai'ili?" he asked.

She nodded, glanced at Shai, and after a sip at the sharp da ventured a few words. "My heart is the only part of me that is bruised, Captain. It is difficult to leave your family behind."

"So it is," he agreed. "Is it well that your uncle Shai accompanies you?"

"It is well." She bit her lower lip, took in a breath as she glanced at Chief Tuvi, and tried again. "Will we always camp like this? What can be expected?"

He had a steady gaze, kept on her but not intrusive and greedy, more watchful. "Mostly we will stay at posting houses, which have corrals for livestock and some fortification. We should have traveled farther today, but I don't want to push the horses and bearers at this stage. We'll have to take some night journeys once we reach the borderlands."

Mai laughed suddenly. Her laugh could charm water out of sand. "I had my chest packed, but my mother and aunts insisted on repacking it. There was nothing I could do. I'm sorry we left so late. I know you came at dawn. Would we have reached a posting station if we'd left earlier?"

Anji exchanged a glance with Chief Tuvi. "We would have. No matter, Mai. The Qin have a saying: When the river changes its course, get out of the way or drown. This is not the first time my plans did not go exactly as expected."

Mai blushed abruptly, responding to a certain passionate tremor in his voice, to his ardent gaze, and she looked away from him. No doubt she was afraid.

Shai cleared his throat and groped for a topic of conversation to draw attention off of her. "Have you made this particular journey many times, Captain Anji? You seem to know the way well."

"Only once, and that traveling west," said the captain. "But every troop such as mine takes scouts. They're soldiers trained to know the routes and water holes and landmarks along every road our armies travel. Chief Tuvi has been this way before."

"So I have," said Tuvi, an entire world of implication flowering in three words.

"May we know where we are going?" asked Shai, feeling bolder as the conversation unfolded so amiably. "Where we are traveling so far?"

"No. Not now." Anji's tone did not invite further questions on the topic.

There was an awkward silence, broken by Mai. "How could you only have traveled once, and that west? The Qin come from the west. You would have to have gone east and come back."

"Ah," said the captain with a pleased smile. "You have caught out the flaw in my story." He offered the barest nod to Chief Tuvi, whose answering frown seemed resigned and amused.

Mai had a most charming way of looking puzzled, eyebrows drawn together, cherry lips pressed together winsomely. Much of her beauty was her lack of self-consciousness. Other beautiful women could not compare because they arranged their faces to suit the needs of their audience. "Will you explain it to me, or is it something I'm not meant to know?"

"Not now. Uncle Shai, have you traveled well?"

"I am a little sore," he said, rubbing his thighs.

"It will be worse tomorrow," said Chief Tuvi with a laugh. "But you stuck it out well for a flatfoot."

"You must learn to ride as well, Mai'ili," said the captain. "The palanquin slows us down, but it was expected by your family."

"Learn to ride? A horse?" She stared at him. "But that's forbidden! There was a man in Kartu Town who was hanged for riding."

"So there was, but you and your uncle are under my command now. I need you to learn to ride."

"Do Qin women ride?" Shai asked.

Anji's smile had a pleasant tilt. He seemed an easygoing man in some ways, and yet Shai did not think he was. "They do. My mother taught me to ride. It is a mother's duty to teach her children to ride. When we have sons, Mai'ili, you must be the one to teach them, not me."

She put a hand to her mouth and glanced toward the palanquin, racked across parallel rows of fallen stones to keep it off the ground for the night. The twilight shadowed her expression, but Shai guessed that she was frightened, thinking of what normally passed between man and woman on their wedding night.

"Ah. "Anji raised his forefinger. Chief Tuvi set his da bowl on the table and retreated, strolling out into camp. "Uncle Shai, stay please." He rose and went into the dusk.

Priya crept forward and knelt at Mai's feet. Mai clutched her hand and wiped away a tear, and the slave whispered into Mai's ear words Shai couldn't hear.

"Is it wrong of me to be frightened, Shai?" Her voice was so steady, but her hands, gripping Priya's, shook. "How will he treat me? I'm afraid, but I know I have to endure whatever happens. He is my master now. I will not shame Father Mei and our clan."

Shai did not know what to say. No one ever asked him for advice.

"Shhh, Mistress," hissed Priya. "He returns."

Her hiss lengthened strangely. From out of the night erupted a shout of alarm and a series of sharp slaps. An arrow skittered over the ground, coming to rest at Shai's feet. He gaped. Mai's eyes widened. Calls and shouts rousted the camp, and men went running out of sight but well within hearing. That whistling hiss was the song of arrows rushing out of the dark, and Qin arrows-white death-streaking outward in reply.

"Down!" Priya pushed Mai down between couch and fire. "Crawl over to the house! The walls will give protection."

Captain Anji appeared at the edge of the fire's light. "Mai! Take shelter!" He tossed a glittering object toward her, and it smacked into the dirt beside her. A knife in a sheath, curved at the tip. Jewels studded the hilt, catching the firelight. "That's for you, Mai. Shai! Come with me!"

Shai grabbed the arrow and staggered after Captain Anji. His thoughts were disordered; he couldn't think straight. The captain brought him to a mud-brick wall eroded to chest height, where Chief Tuvi oversaw the chaos. Out in the gloom, figures circled on horseback, keeping just at the edge of the distance arrows could reach. At intervals one would ride in, shoot, and turn hard to dash back out again. It was impossible to judge how many there were, but surely there were more than twenty, and less than fifty.

"Can you use a bow?" asked the captain.


"A sword?"

"It's forbidden."

The captain snorted. "A staff? You shepherds haven't even sparred with your staffs up in the hills where we can't catch you?"

Shai burned with shame and anger. "It's forbidden, Captain. Men were hanged for weapons training."

"Sheep!" said Chief Tuvi with a bark of laughter. "No wonder they were so easy to fleece."

"Take this spear." Captain Anji thrust the shaft into Shai's hands. "Don't disgrace my bride by showing yourself a coward."

Then he was gone, moving off into the ruined village to direct the fight elsewhere.

Shai found he had moisture enough in his mouth to speak. "Are they bandits?"

"They're not ghosts, but they might be demons." Tuvi lifted his bow, tracked one of the circling horsemen, and released the arrow. It flew, its white fletching visible as it streaked through the dusk and buried its point into the breast of one of the riders. The man reeled but did not fall.

Arrows hit all at once around them. Shai ducked down behind the wall as a half-dozen arrows struck the uneven top, flipped end over point, and slid down to land at his feet. Chief Tuvi didn't move but calmly sighted with his bow again and loosed a second arrow. Shaking, Shai rose to his feet in time to see a second man take the impact. This one fell, but his foot caught in the stirrup. His body flopped and dangled from the stirrups as the horse galloped out into the night.

Behind them, on the other side of the village, Captain Anji shouted a command.

His soldiers, all together, cried out: "Hu! Hu! Hai!"

The shout resounded; it echoed off distant hills. Shai shivered down to his feet. The Qin were the fiercest warriors in the world. They had swept in from the west as a wave of black banners and white death.

Now that shout faded into the night, but surely it had given the bandits a better guess at their numbers. The riders circled once more before vanishing into what was now night. The moon's glamour illuminated the hills and flats, but the shadows swallowed the bandits so quickly that Shai would have doubted whether they had ever been there at all, except for the evidence of the arrows scattered throughout camp.

Captain Anji appeared beside Tuvi, holding a bow and a lantern.

"They hadn't more than thirty men," said the chief. "But we'll keep a double watch for the rest of the journey. I'm surprised that group hasn't been tracked down and slaughtered like the wolves they are."

Anji shook his head. The wind fluttered the ribbons in his hair. "They weren't bandits. They were demons, pretending to be men. I saw at least ten take hits, but we'll find no bodies in the morning."

"If they are demons, then why would arrows stop them?" Shai demanded, finding now that he was shaking as relief hit. Still alive! He would see the new dawn! "How can you tell the difference between men, and demons pretending to be men?"

"Demons fight silently. Sometimes they use bone whittled down for the shafts of their arrows." He picked up one of the bandits' arrows and twirled it through his fingers with the ease of a man who has long familiarity with weapons. "But this is common sapwood, a little heavy for arrows but one of the few woods that can be found up in the northern hills. Maybe there were a few men among them."

"Men ride with demons?"

Anji glanced back toward the tidy row of tents set up as the night's camp. "Your concubine is demon's get."

"She's not my concubine!"

Chief Tuvi laughed. "If not now, she will be soon! Or else what's that stirring in your drawers?"

Nothing to say to that! Why should even talk of Cornflower get him hardening?

"Tuvi-lo," Anji said gently, "demons' get are difficult to resist. They have their spells and charms, a perfume to them, that tugs a man even if he doesn't want to go that way. But they're poison in the end. I can have the creature killed, if you like, Shai. Leave the body at the edge of the desert. Her kinfolk will collect her at the full moon."

It was tempting. Just thinking of how easy it would be to let Captain Anji remove the burr that chafed him made him sweat. But he couldn't do it.

"No. It's not her fault she's demon's get. My brother bought her in the marketplace two years back. Just like any other slave. He even had a holy man cast a seeing over her, and the holy man said she was as human as you or me."

Chief Tuvi shook his head, exchanging a knowing glance with the captain but addressing Shai. "These demon get are good at disguise. They look just like humans, but they're not. There's a whole tribe of them who live west of my ancestors' lands. Out there demons rule. No one dare ride past the sunset. No man who rides that way ever returns."

"What about women?"

Tuvi hesitated, glancing toward Anji, but the captain just nodded his head, giving some kind of permission.

Tuvi shrugged. "The demons fear human women, but they'll sleep with them just the same and spawn their demon get in their bellies. Some women go that way to capture a lover. Hu! I suppose the demon males pull women by their jewel the same way the demon women catch us men by the cock."

Shai flushed. To cover his embarrassment, he bent to pick up arrows. Among such men, he would always be at a disadvantage. After a moment he straightened. "Is it true you would teach me to fight? That I'd not be executed for it?"

Chief Tuvi gave his amused bark.

Captain Anji was distracted, looking toward the main fire, but he turned back now. "Yes, we'll teach you. Come. Mai will be wondering what has happened." He gave both bow and lantern to Tuvi and walked away.

Amazingly, Mai was already sitting out by the fire on the divan, hands clasped over the knife in her lap. Shai was taken aback to see spots of color high in her cheeks. Priya stood behind her, touching her mistress on the shoulder as if in warning as the two men approached out of the darkness.

"I have something to say," said Mai in a cool voice. Only the tension in her hands betrayed her agitation. "What is the custom of your people, Captain? Am I meant to kill myself with this knife if bandits overtake our party and attempt to rape me?"

Anji raised both eyebrows, pausing a body's length from the divan. His hands betrayed nothing; they hung loose at his thighs. "No. I gave you the knife so you could kill any man who attacked you. In time you will learn to shoot a bow as well, I hope, if you feel you are willing to try. No need to hide when you can kill your enemies instead."

She blinked three times, as much surprise as she ever commonly revealed. "Do Qin women kill their enemies?"

"When they can."

"What if they can't? What if you'd been killed and those bandits had overrun the camp? Should I kill myself then?"

"Why? A woman as beautiful as you wouldn't be killed. She'd be taken prisoner and hauled off to become concubine of their prince."

"Even if he is a demon?" asked Shai boldly.

"Especially if he is a demon. Women have survived rape before and gone on to prosper, or even to regain their freedom."

"But the shame…" said Shai.

Mai waited for Anji to speak.

He shrugged, as Qin often did. "What shame is it to be taken against your will when you have no power? Those who were meant to protect you are shamed, certainly. You survive if you can, and pray for a merciful death if life and freedom are denied you."

"There is shame!" Mai rose and tossed the knife at Shai's feet. "There's shame on the head of the man who attacks a helpless woman. During the fighting I heard noises from the walls next door to the place I was hiding-just there!" She pointed to the dark slope of a wall beyond the irregular outline of the ruined house just behind them. In the silence that followed, with Mai's arm outstretched and her sleeve swept gracefully toward the ground, they all heard huffing and grunting.

"I looked! And there was one of the Qin soldiers raping Cornflower! Right in the middle of the battle, when he should have been fighting. Will there be any punishment for him? Or will you allow your slave to be abused, Shai?"

Anji looked at Shai. "Uncle Shai?"

Shai had a blinding insight: Anji already knew about the arrangement. Either Mountain had consulted him or the captain had discovered it on his own. But he gave no sign in any wise of his opinion of the matter. No use trying to hide it.

"It wasn't rape, Mai, although I admit I'm surprised Mountain started so quickly and in the middle of the skirmish! It was a business arrangement. There's only the two women with the troop. I agreed to let Mountain hire her out-no more than five men a night-for a little extra money. It's always wise to keep some money in reserve. I don't want her for myself anyway. I didn't ask for her to come along. Father Mei just gave her to me to be rid of her. Your mother's been wanting her out of the compound ever since she came to us."

She lowered her arm, still looking toward the shadows. The grunting quickened, then spilled over into a drawn-out gasp and sigh. Mai's expression did not change, but her hands were fists.

"What? Isn't it my turn next?" a man's voice asked. "Aren't you done yet? How long does it take you, Chaji?"

Mai still would not look at either man. "Do you think she doesn't cry herself to sleep every night?"

The words were like kicks, slamming into his chest. "How would you know?" Shai demanded. He was hot everywhere, but not from lust.

Now she did turn to look at him, and he wished she hadn't. Never in his life had he seen such a glare from that normally placid and sweet face. "Blind men don't have to see what they wish to ignore! I thought you were better than Father Mei and the other uncles, but now I see you are not. Just because you have power over someone doesn't mean you have to use it. I'm ashamed of you!" She spat toward Shai, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and with a swirl of silk ran to the palanquin and crawled inside. The curtain slithered down behind her. Priya stood in shocked silence behind the divan.

Shai picked up the knife. The jeweled hilt seemed to burn his fingers. Maybe he should just drive it into his heart and be done with this misery at once. Mai had never spoken like that in her entire life. Never. Never. Never.

"Some miasma from the demons must have gotten into her," he said, breathless as he hadn't been with arrow fire raining over him. "That's not Mai!"

Anji laughed. "Have you and your family been so blind all these years that you don't know what she is?" He raised his voice. "Mai! Come back."

"About time, Chaji!" said the man's voice. "How is she?"

"A little dry. But her peaches are just right-not too soft, not too firm. Ummm!"

The curtain parted. Mai walked back with stately grace, head high and hands hidden in her sleeves. Her expression was as smooth as an untouched pool. Was this the real Mai, so calm and composed? Who was that other person who had spoken through her lips?

She sank to the ground and knelt submissively before Captain Anji, hands on knees, head bent. She said nothing.

Anji crossed her arms and studied her. "I don't talk to women who are on their knees before me. Stand, or sit, but do not act as a slave must. You are my wife."

She rose. Her chin trembled, then stilled. A single tear slipped from an eye. "Forgive me if my behavior has shamed you."

"It has not dishonored me, nor has it dishonored you. Have you other things you wish to say?"

She was brave enough to meet his gaze. "Will you put a stop to it?"

"No. Uncle Shai is my companion but not under my command. The slave's life belongs to him."

"What about your men? Doesn't it shame them?"

"My men visit brothels. I see no difference."

"I'll buy her from Shai."

"You will not because I won't have her in my household. There is no argument on this point."

The look she cast at Shai was meant to murder.

What right had she to stand as judge over him?

"I never knew you were so troublesome, Mai! Now you've shamed me with your meddling." The rush carried him on as the words spilled out. "Very well, then. I'll tell Mountain to stop all the arrangements. She can do something to earn her keep, groom horses or dig trenches. No man will touch her again. Is that good enough?"

The hot, provocative words poured out of him because he hadn't control enough to keep them inside. His big brother Hari used to talk like this. That's what had gotten him led off in chains with the other recruits, so they were called, to fight for the Qin. Gone forever. Missing, but never forgotten.

Shai had been about thirteen that day, now six years past. He'd sworn to himself never to talk as much as his bold, bright, brilliant, beautiful, and much admired big brother Hari did. Talking got you noticed. Talking made people angry, it trapped them. And it made people cry, the ones who got left behind.

Now he couldn't stop himself.

"But if there are any problems, we don't have many resources to fall back on. You're not thinking about me, are you? I've got a longer road to travel than you do. You have a husband. You're protected. You've got everything you need. I'll have to leave this company, and then every zastra will count. I don't even know what land I'm going to. I could end up anywhere, dead by bandits, eaten by demons, sucked dry! Will you care then if I'm the one weeping at night?" Panting, he battled himself to a stop, shamed and embarrassed and still burning so hot.

"I'm sorry to have shamed you, Shai," she said, and because it was Mai saying it, he knew it was sincere. It sounded so. She looked sorry. "I'm sorry Father Mei and Grandmother never liked you, too, because it made you into a turtle, always hiding. I'm sorry I said you were just like the uncles, because you aren't. Just look, Shai. I know you see what others can't. Just look."

"I will go now," said Shai, sweating, furious, and his fingers in claws that he could not get to uncurl. The air made him dizzy; his head reeled. I know you see what others can't. In Kartu Town, they burned as witches any person who could see ghosts. Is that what she meant? Was she threatening him?

Captain Anji raised a hand to show he would make no objection to Shai's departure. His gaze seemed sympathetic, but who could tell? People were turning out so different than they first appeared.

Shai stalked away to find Mountain, who was standing beside a small fire next to the ruined house out of which a second man's noisy attentions serenaded them. This one hummed instead of grunted, a melody of rising arousal: Hmm. Heh. Hoo. Heh. Hmm. Mountain had meat on a stick, roasting it to feed the three men waiting their turn.

"That's the end of it, Mountain. No more hiring out Cornflower."

"But Master Shai! These men have already paid handsomely." He shook a pouch; it jingled merrily. Leaning closer, he whispered, "It wouldn't do to anger them."

Hmm. Hmm! Hoo! Heh! Heh! Hhhhh!

"Enough! No more of this, Mountain. She'll have to earn her keep some other way, but there's to be no more hiring her out. Do you understand?"

Mountain stared at him as if he had turned into a demon. He dropped to one knee and lowered his gaze to stare at Shai's feet. "No need to shout to make this one's ears burn, Master. I hear what you have said. I can see you have changed your mind. There will be no more of these arrangements."

"No more!"

It was dark, so he went to his tent and lay down on the blankets Mountain had unrolled. The temperature at night was chilly, but he wasn't cold. Nor could he sleep. As he lay there, his legs began to stiffen up, his thighs felt as though red-hot pokers were pressing in and out to torment him; his buttocks ached and his back was so sore it hurt to shift. It was no better here than it had been in Kartu Town! With a grimace, he got to his knees and crawled to the entrance, pushing aside the flap. The tent opened to the west. It was late. The camp was quiet, bathed by the last light of half moon, which almost touched the western horizon. Did the demons rope the moon every night, as the old stories claimed, and let it escape every morning?

Where were they going, truly? Would Captain Anji deal fairly with them? Or would he rob Shai of his money and abandon Mai in the wilderness?

Will I ever find Hari's remains? And if I do, will I have to go back?

He heard a sound like the tickle of mice scrabbling on dirt. He leaned farther out of the tent. Cornflower had curled up to sleep on the dirt against one side of his tent, huddled there as though the canvas might give her shelter. She had pillowed her head on one arm, and her face happened to be turned toward him. Her eyes were shut. The moonlight spilled across her face, washing it so pale that he knew Captain Anji was right. She was demon's get, no matter what the holy man had said. Obviously the holy man had been mistaken or in the pay of the merchant trying to sell her. No real person had hair that pale gold color, or eyes that blue.

At first he thought she was sleeping because she lay so quietly, but the night-veiled camp was utterly still, the only sound the footfall of a sentry's shifting. The tickling mouse sound was her breathing, almost swallowed within her. The glitter of moonlight on her face came not from magic but from tears.

Did it matter that she wept? Slaves were like ghosts; they didn't count as living people. They had lost their families and their honor. They had lost, and others had claimed their lives. That was the way of the world.

So Father Mei would say.

He crawled back in and lay down on his back, but still he couldn't sleep. He couldn't stop thinking about Cornflower, about her tears. Maybe the demons had won the skirmish after all. Maybe they had only pretended to flee, but their souls had flown into camp and brought with them the wind that sometimes spills down out of Spirit Gate to unsettle the world of the living with the sorrows of the dead.


Mai waited in silence. She heard Shai yelling; she heard the discontented muttering of the Qin soldiers as O'eki, which was his real name even though Father Mei had renamed him Mountain, returned their money. Captain Anji listened with no sign of agitation. He seemed ready to stand here all night. A servant came to stoke the fire with two dried dung patties, then retreated. Priya said nothing, but Mai heard her even breathing.

It was all gone, every part of the round of life in Kartu Town to which she had become accustomed and to which she had accustomed herself. It was dead. In a way she had passed through Spirit Gate and gained a new kind of freedom, and although she remained silent, her heart was pounding and her throat was full, her eyes brimming, her cheeks flushed. There was exhilaration, of a kind. She had made a demand, used her authority. But, oh, she feared what might come next.

Finally, as the soldiers settled down for the night and the ring of sentries paced out their places, Anji spoke to her.

"Is there anything I should know about this slave? I am troubled by the disruption she has already brought down on my troop. I wonder if those demons who attacked us came looking for her, knowing she is one of them."

She gathered her courage. If she did not defend Cornflower, no one would. No one ever had in the Mei compound. "She's not a demon."

"Is she not? With that coloring? Have you seen the western demons, Mai? The ones who live in the country beyond the lands ruled by the Qin? Most of these demons are pale-haired and blue-eyed, just like her. That's where she must have come from, out of the west."

"If they are demons, how can they be taken as slaves?"

"They can be captured. Or, if she's demon's get, then her dam might be human born. Her mother might have sold her, to be rid of the shame. Where did she come from?"

"The marketplace in Kartu Town, about two years ago. My father said he bought her to appease Uncle, the one who is dead now, but he also bought her because he lusted after her himself. All the uncles did, all but Shai. Shai never touched her. Everyone suspected she poisoned my uncle, the one who is dead now. He did die horribly, so all the wives wanted to be rid of her. That, and because they were jealous of her. All of the uncles used her. Some nights they would take turns. They couldn't keep away from her. My mother wanted her out of the house but the men couldn't bear to let her go."

The captain folded his arms across his chest and stared thoughtfully at the fire. "It sounds like she's demon's get. They have that pull on men."

"Do demons weep when they are sad?"

"I don't know."

"It was cruel of my father to send her with Shai."


"Because Shai never got anything he wanted but plenty he did not want. Because he's unlucky already, being a seventh son-"

"A seventh son?" To Mai's amazement, the captain looked startled, and his startlement gratified her strangely. Warmly. She hadn't thought she could surprise a man like him. "Does he have the second sight? Can he see ghosts? Seventh sons can always see ghosts."

"You must ask him yourself. I don't own his secrets, if he has any."

He smiled, and she realized, startled herself, that he knew she had already answered him. "The Qin don't usually see ghosts. There aren't many ghosts out in the ancestors' lands. But I see them all along the Golden Road. Do you see ghosts, Mai?"

His comment and question punched all the air from her. She could only mouth the word "no," stunned at his casual admission. Shai would never ever admit he saw ghosts. She had figured it out by herself because of certain inconsistencies that cropped up now and again when he spoke.

"It's bad luck to see ghosts," she murmured. "In Kartu, people who see ghosts are burned as witches or banished from town, which is the same as being burned, because you'll die anyway."

"It's bad luck to see a swarm of bandits riding down on your position when they have twice as many armed men as you do, but at least you're forewarned. Since ghosts are there, isn't it better to be able to see them than to wish you were blind?"

"Do the Qin burn witches?"

"There are no witches among the Qin. Some among the clans have power to see into the spirit world. A few have climbed the axis of heaven and returned to tell of it."

"What is the axis of heaven?"

"It's the center-pole of the world. Just as in a tent."

"I've never been in a tent."

"Ah. Of course not. When we set up our wedding tent, I will show you."

She thought of Cornflower's silence as that Qin soldier had worked at her, hump hump hump. "When will we set up our wedding tent?"

"I went to get this," he replied, as if he hadn't heard her. She bit her lower lip, noticed she was doing so, and relaxed her mouth shut as he went on. Be like finest silk, Grandmother had told her, be smooth and without blemish. "Just before the demons attacked us. It's the custom among the Qin for a man to give his bride a black banner with her clan's sigil on it before they race."


"Race, on horseback. If he can catch her, then he has earned the right to marry her. He captures her banner. I had this made."

Mai watched as the captain unfolded cloth. He had a neat, efficient way of moving without being fussy. He was a man at home with himself, not self-conscious but not self-effacing either. Perfectly balanced.

Unfurled, the banner extended from fingertip to fingertip. It was all black silk except for a few odd silver highlights sewn into the cloth, and it took a moment for her to accustom herself to the fire's light and by its glow see that those silver highlights depicted an eye and strands of hair. The banner was embroidered with the sigil of the Mei clan, the running wolf created in precise detail but in black, on black, so the wolf wasn't easily seen. Such a banner couldn't be finished overnight or in one week. Such a banner had to be planned well in advance, and even a Qin officer would pay dearly to hire a master craftsman able to complete it.

When she did not speak, could not speak, he carried on. "I have wondered why sheepherders chose the wolf as their clan sigil."

She found all her breath caught in her lungs, and she let it all out in one gust and after that discovered she could talk, at least to answer the implied question. "Because our fortune rests on sheepherding, we bind the spirits of wolves into rings to protect our herds and make our family prosper."

"A wise precaution. Here." He stepped forward. "Take it, Mai. It's our custom."

She extended her hands, heart racing as he came closer. Once he draped the banner over her open arms he advanced no further but studied her with a serious gaze, open and clear. He really did have lovely eyes, and lashes any woman would envy.

"You are not a Qin woman, and I am not a Kartu man, so we will have to come to some accommodation."

"We will?" Her cheeks were so hot! Yet she couldn't stop seeing Cornflower lying there all limp, like a corpse, eyes staring sightlessly at the heavens.

His gaze held hers. She knew better than to look away or shrink back. She had a good instinct for people, honed in the marketplace. This man wanted flirting with his commerce, while this other preferred to be treated with reserve and respect; this woman wanted a friendly ear and this other a spirited and not entirely amiable disagreement over the price of windfall peaches. Captain Anji did not want a wife who cowered before him, so she would not be such a wife. He encouraged her to speak forthrightly, so she did. He hadn't even been angry when she had scolded Shai. He was not like Father Mei at all, and maybe that was what she had feared more than anything else in the world: that she would end up married to a man just like her father.

"I married you not just because you are beautiful, as this was obvious to any man with eyes, but also because of your graceful manner and because you observe beyond the surface of things. And because you overcharged me for those almonds."

She flushed.

He smiled. "Since my first wife is now dead, I could suit myself with my second marriage. However, the last thing I promised my mother, fifteen years ago, is that I would take no woman into my bed unless she possessed the rights given to Qin women upon marriage to a man of the Qin. I promised I would treat no woman as my father treated her. For although they were married according to the laws of his land, she had no more rights than a slave concubine. This banner is my promise to you. When you fly that banner, then I will know that I am welcome in the marriage bed. I will not force myself on you, and I do not expect you to invite me until you are ready."

He flicked a lock of hair away from one eye, and walked away out of the fire's ring of light. A shadow met him; Mai recognized Chief Tuvi's stocky form and sharp gestures. They vanished into the night, heading toward the sentry lines.

Mai stared after him, mouth aflop like that of a fish tossed out of water. He had known market prices! She didn't know whether to laugh or to berate herself for foolishness. She had been complimented many times, even for her skill at bargaining, but no man had ever complimented her for seeing "beyond the surface of things." It was one of the ways she had kept up her garden of tranquillity. By learning to see beyond the moods and day-to-day comments of her customers and of her family, she had discovered that most of the anger or envy or sorrow or pain we bleed onto ourselves is just a wound cut into our own selves. The blood of another that splashes onto you can be washed off. You only suffer, as Priya would say, when your own injuries hurt you.

"He is not what I expected," said Priya softly.

"What did you expect?"

"Women are like silk. The finest cloth is reserved for the noblest man."

"Or for the Merciful One and Her avatars and temples."

"How soon will you invite him into the marriage bed, Mistress?"

"Do you think he meant what he said? That I could choose the time?"

"I don't know. Yet why else would he speak so? He can have you when he wants. It is clear he desires you."

"Does he?"

Priya laughed, a liberty she took only with Mai, certainly never with any of the aunts. "You are wise but innocent, Mistress. He feels a strong desire toward you. I don't know why he does not take what is now his to possess. Most men would. Perhaps like us he follows the teachings of the Merciful One and understands it is better not to let his desires overmaster him."

"There was no other reason for him to marry me but desire. The Mei clan is not an important one. We have no particular wealth. We bring him no advantage even if he weren't Qin, but he is, so an alliance with Father Mei brings him nothing at all. He said so himself."

"Why do you fret so, Mistress?"

"I fret because I don't know where we're going, or what will happen when we get there."

"It is out of your hands, Mistress. He has given you the banner. Do not wait too long. But do not offer him what he desires too quickly, either."

"Why must each choice be weighed as in a game of spirals? Is there no honesty to be had between men and women?"

"Honesty is a pearl, Mistress: rare and precious. Walk this path cautiously."

"Do you remember that song about the bandit prince and the gold merchant's daughter?" She sang the refrain. " 'Your eyes speak to me of love, but I remain silent. It may be I am in love, but how can I know?' " The words always made her cry. She wiped her eyes, wondering how foolish she looked. "I just want to be happy, Priya."

But when Mai looked into her face, she thought Priya looked sad, and even a trifle anxious.

The slave rested a hand on Mai's shoulder. "Be careful, Mistress. The gods may hear your wish and grant it."

AT DAWN, SHAI refused to speak to her as he tottered to his horse. He was so angry! Yet if he would not comfort her, hold her up when she was frightened, then who would? Priya coaxed her with soothing words. Captain Anji brought her a placid mare, helped her mount, and rode beside her. At the steady pace they took it wasn't so difficult, since she didn't need to do anything but hang on. Midway through the morning, with the sun well up above above the dusty horizon, he kindly suggested she rest in the palanquin.

"You must work up slowly and gain confidence," he said.

Her thighs and back were already hurting from the saddle, so she agreed, but sitting in the palanquin, isolated, closed off, gave her time to fret. Fear is a demon, and will gnaw. Where were they going? What would they find there? What would happen to her? Over and over, with no respite, not even Priya to chant prayers to the Merciful One that she could then repeat.

By the time they stopped in the worst heat of the day, midafternoon, at the posting station, her stomach ached and her throat burned. As night swept down she became really sick, emptying her stomach and bowels and then panting in silence as Priya sat beside her with a cool cloth to wipe sweat from her face and neck.

"I don't want him to see me," Mai whispered. "He won't want me now. He'll abandon me."

He did come, but only to assure himself that she was resting and that the proper charms were hung around the room. The next day they remained at the posting station. Mai was confined to a cool chamber with immensely thick walls that muffled the world beyond. The room was quite plain, with only four beds and one chest and a dirt floor. Priya spent the hours singing the blessings for health and ease from worry. Captain Anji came by three times but only to speak, outside the door, with Priya. No one else, not even Shai, came to see her. And why should they? She had nothing left in her stomach yet liquids still made her heave. Still, as evening fell, she began to feel less wretched and was able to sleep fitfully.

Before dawn Priya woke her. "The captain says we must continue on, Mistress. Can you move?"

"I will," croaked Mai.

Anything was better than being left behind. She got down a little yellow sword-fruit and a sip of spring water brought down from the northern mountains by a party of the captain's soldiers who had gone to look for a missing patrol. Or so Priya said. Mai was still woozy as O'eki helped her into the palanquin. Over in the courtyard, Shai was laughing with Chief Tuvi. Quite at home with the Qin now! She caught a glimpse of Cornflower's pale hair as the company gathered for the march; then the curtains closed around her. With a sigh, she lay down, bracing herself for an uncomfortable day.

She did endure it, and the next day as well as they traveled at the steady pace which was evidently their usual speed, not too fast but eating ground because they never flagged. She was weak, but as long as she ate only bland, boiled foods, and those sparingly, she managed. They stopped the first night in the garrison fort beside a town but on the other nights at posting stations. Most of these were little more than a mud-brick bastion surrounded by a thorn corral within which the men set their tents or simply slept on the dirt. She rested and slept in the palanquin. Shai avoided her. He seemed to spend most of his time with a group of young soldiers who were teaching him to use both sword and spear. She was lonely for Shai's company, but she wouldn't go back on what she said. She saw that awful scene in her mind's eye every single day, every time she noticed Cornflower walking through camp on some errand or chore. Men watched the slave, and almost every one of them licked his lips or scratched his crotch when Cornflower passed by, but no man touched her.

Shai must walk his own road. She had Captain Anji. Each day in the hour between the time they halted and when it became too dark, he read to her from his scroll, which contained the thirty-seven threads of the Merciful One as related to certain teachers commonly known as the Ones Who Unveil the Treasure.

"Can you read?" he asked her.

"No. I can do sums. Only scholars learn to read. Are you a scholar?"

She thought his smile wistful, or cloaked. "No, I'm an army officer. I can teach you to read if you wish to learn, but you'll have to learn one of the two languages I can read in."

She leaned closer to him to study the letters on the scroll. "Are those markings not the language we speak together?"

"They are not. The var forbids his officers to learn the writing of arkinga, which is also the speech used by traders. Everyone speaks it up and down the Golden Road and in the empire. In the old days, there was no writing at all among the Qin. The letters for arkinga were taken from those used by the traders, together with many of their words. Now only the var's court officials are allowed to set down contracts and letters."

It was true that the holy masters who served the Merciful One in Kartu Town had memorized the discourses and blessings, and never carried scrolls. It hadn't occurred to Mai to wonder if they could read as did the scholars who ran the var's law courts.

Unexpectedly, the captain looked past her to Priya. "Can you read this scroll?"

The silence made Mai nervous. She turned to look up at her slave, whom she trusted perhaps more than any other person in the world. That bland, pleasant face had not changed expression, but a single tear slid down Priya's cheek.

"I can read it," she said quietly.

"How can you?" cried Mai. "Are you a scholar, Priya? How could you not have told me?"

Priya did not answer. She was as old as Mai's mother, a robust woman of no particular beauty but a core of inner strength and a well of calm that had always seemed bottomless. Mai admired her. It was true that her complexion was so similar to a dark red clay that Father Mei had named her Clay, but Mai's persistent and public use of her real name had won the day in this single case. She was the only slave in the Mei clan called by her free name.

"The holy women of the Yari are taught to read," said Captain Anji. "It is part of their worship. They read the thirty-seven discourses and the eighty-nine narratives from dawn to dusk all the way through the cycle and then begin again. Is that not so?"

"It is so," murmured Priya.

"How are you come here?" he asked.

Mai stared, caught speechless. Mai had picked her off the auction block seven years ago, and in all that time Priya had never revealed any part of her past!

"Raiders came to our holy pavilion," she said simply. "They killed some and marched the rest of us away, north over the pass. The mountains are so high that half the slaves driven across the pass died with blood foaming on their lips. We kept marching north until we came to the Golden Road. I was sold in Kartu Town. I survived because of the teachings of the Merciful One. Death is nothing to fear."

"No," he agreed. "We are all dead men."

"You don't look like a ghost!" cried Mai more strongly than she intended, still stinging from the realization that she didn't know as much as she thought she did. Then she took a breath. How stupid that comment sounded! And bad luck, too, maybe.

As he began to smile, she recalled bitterly how Girish had belittled her and how the family so often patted her head and called her "little orchid" and "plum blossom" as though she were no smarter than a flower. He saw the shift, perhaps even the anger, in her expression. She had betrayed herself. His smile faded as his gaze grew more intent. "I don't mean that I'm dead, only that we will all pass Spirit Gate in time. There is no point in fearing what is inevitable."

"I feel that I have passed Spirit Gate already," she said. "I am not what I was before, nor do I want to be."

Priya bent and took her hand. "Any great change is a Spirit Gate, plum blossom," she said fondly, and in her mouth the pet name did not cloy. "I crossed through a gate when I was stolen from my land and my people. I am dead now."

"Would you go back, if you could?" Mai asked, fearing to hear the answer.

Priya looked at Captain Anji, and they seemed to speak to each other in a language Mai did not understand, one that made her feel terribly young and naive. "The road that passes under Spirit Gate runs in only one direction, Mistress. There is no going back."

Because there was no going back, she had to go forward never knowing where the path led. By the tenth morning after they had left Kartu Town she was able to mount her horse and ride for half the day before the effort tired her. That night they camped within the ruins of a fortress so old that the wind had sculpted it into a complex beast half buried in the sand. A constant whistle sounded from the many holes where the wind sang through, changing only in pitch and loudness. They set up tents in the middle of the ruin for some relief from the sting of sand. Chief Tuvi made a shelter for himself in one corner and to Mai's surprise brought out a one-stringed musical instrument from a long leather case which she had all along thought contained a hunting bow. Yet the case proved to carry a slender instrument as well, which he used to draw music out of the string. A few of the men carried rattles or bells. With the wind as accompaniment, they played and took turns singing.

The bay mare rode down to me from out of the sky

She rode down to me from out of the sky.

A celestial horse! Best among horses!

The lord wants her for himself.

But I'll keep her for myself.

A celestial horse! Best among horses!

With the bay mare I rode east along the Golden Road.

This is what I saw along the Golden Road.

This particular song went on for a long time, with men adding verses as they pleased, describing sights they had seen in their journeys, north into the dry hills or south into the stone desert, west into demon country or east along the Golden Road. Mai sat on her divan beside Captain Anji on his stool. She sipped at yoghurt.

When she bent toward him, he, alert to her least movement, turned to smile at her.

"Why are you called east?" she asked daringly, aware of how close he was. If she swayed forward, she could kiss him!

He raised an eyebrow, always a sign of amusement in him. "I can't say."

"You can't say because you don't know or because you aren't allowed to tell?"

He laughed. She flushed, embarrassed, pleased, excited, too many feelings thrown together. It made her giddy, and she withdrew-just a little-to give herself breathing space.

"Shai," he said in a louder voice, still looking at her. "Come here."

Shai had been outside sparring with his weapons partners. When he appeared, sweating and dirty, he sat on a stool beside the captain. Anji signaled for the music to stop. The men put away their rattles, and Chief Tuvi sealed up his instrument in its case.

"We are come about halfway," said the captain, "the easy part of the road. This place was a town once, on an oasis, but the desert creeps close. The demons are hungry. They've eaten many towns that used to stand here, like this one, and even swallowed the old wells. We'll finish filling our water pouches tonight and press on as soon as the moon rises. We'll rest from midday to a hand's breadth before sunset and travel at night and into the morning. You'll be thirsty but must not drink more than your share. Any who fall behind will be left. Beware demons. They hunt here."

He stood. "Rest now. You'll hear the chief's whistle when it's time to ride out."

The men dispersed, but he stopped Mai as she rose. It was the third time he had ever touched her. His fingers on her wrist were cool, his grip light. "You must ride, Mai'ili. The slaves cannot carry you on this part of the road. We'll break the palanquin down and bring it as baggage as far as we can. But you must ride now. Do you understand?"

She looked at him carefully. His eyes seemed more lovely to her than they had eleven days ago when they had stood at the law court while the proper contracts were signed and sealed. He was, just slightly, breathing to an unsteady beat as he watched her. His lips were parted just enough that she might slip the tip of her little finger between them, and as if he had heard her speak such words, as if she had actually touched him so intimately, he flushed along his dark cheeks but did not release her.

"Will you leave me behind if I falter?" she asked.

A peculiar expression passed swiftly across his face: pain or anger or a smothered laugh. Something deeper and more complicated.

"You hide yourself," she said, bolder now. "Let me see you."

It was gone, fled as if on the wind. He smiled with that mild look of amusement he often wore. "You need only ask," he murmured, and she was burning, all a-tumble, overmatched.

Mercifully, he released her.

She slipped inside the palanquin, lay down on the wool batting, one last time. But she could not sleep. He'd not answered her question, and by not answering, he had answered.

He will leave me behind, if he must. He does not love me.

Yet her wrist burned where he had touched her. She had seen the light in his face, the flush in his cheeks. The story was still being told. Anything might come next. Was this not the truth of life, that until we pass beyond Spirit Gate we live always on the edge between desire and loss, joy and pain, necessity and regret?

Only as Priya sang to her, rubbing her shoulders and back, did she finally relax and sleep.


The company rode on at moonrise.

"The locals call this stretch of wasteland the Wailing Sands," said Chief Tuvi to Shai. "Demons roam here. If you hear your relatives calling to you from the desert, don't follow their voices. That's how they trick people into wandering out to where they can eat them."

Shai laughed bitterly. "I wouldn't follow my relatives anyway, if they called to me."

"They treated you badly?" Tuvi was a pragmatic man, entirely devoted to Captain Anji because of kinship ties Shai hadn't yet puzzled out. "If you aren't loyal to your kinfolk then they won't be loyal to you in return."

"I'm the youngest. There were plenty of other sons. I was just an extra mouth to feed."

"An extra mouth? No Qin commander scorns another warrior. Your people aren't fighters but farmers. That might account for it. Only so much land to divide up between you. Lots of quarreling, I expect."

"Isn't there quarreling among Qin brothers?"

"Why?" He gestured toward the road ahead, tracks cutting across a wide expanse of dry land with little more than tumble brush and rocks strewn across it. The hills rose terrible and dark to the north, and to the south lay the wild lands where the desert demons roamed. "There's plenty of land where my people come from. Good land, lots of pasture. If brothers quarrel, then the one can pack up his tent and herd his flocks elsewhere. But quarreling brothers are like single arrows, easy to snap in two. It's only when they hold to each other that they are strong."

"The Qin are strong."

"We are. The var's father united his clan and his clan united the Qin."

"What will do you in the east?"

Tuvi smiled without taking his gaze off the road. The moonlight blended with the dusty color of the land to give the night a ghostly feel, as though spirits hovered everywhere except along the sandy track they followed. "We do what our commander tells us to do."

"Will you return to Kartu Town?"

"That place? I hope not. We've been promoted, which is no more than Captain Anji deserves, after everything he's been through."

"What happened to his first wife?"

Chief Tuvi looked at him, then bent his gaze back to the road.

"Sorry," said Shai hastily.

The chief grunted.

"Have I offended?"

The horses ahead of them kicked up so much dust that Shai had to wipe his eyes, but he was comfortable enough on horseback now that he could ride with reins only, not clutching the saddle to keep from falling off. For a long time Tuvi said nothing, and Shai knew he'd gone too far. The Qin were friendly enough, so it was easy to forget that they could kill him if they wished, simply for one wrong word.

But the chief did nothing, examining the landscape with a gaze that never stopped long on any one landmark. Shai had never seen him get angry, but he'd seen him whip a soldier for taking more than his share of rations.

"You talk a lot," said Tuvi at last. "There are troubles in the west. The grass demons keep pushing east into lands we've always used as pasture. We need a strong var, and we need other things in order to fight them. We've horses to trade to the Sirniakan Empire east of here, and to Yari down south, and even the Vidi over the Sky Pass. Hu! A man can't breathe up so high, they say."

"The merchants say the Sirniakan Empire is as broad as the desert, but rich and green. They make silk there, and that parasol my brother gave to Mai last year. Good spices, too. The merchants who travel that way value our hill-fed wool for trade. They say the empire is the greatest and most powerful of all kingdoms."

"Any kingdom is only as strong as its king. We'll see. Look there."

Tuvi had better night vision, so it took Shai a while to realize that the shadow the chief was pointing toward was a post. A skeleton dangled from it. Bones murmured as wind stirred them. Someone had tied it together with wire and string, to give it a haunting look. Skeletons didn't scare him. They were as empty as the stones that littered the land, and this skeleton's ghost had long since passed out of the world. Maybe that man, like Shai, had wandered far from home. He mumbled a blessing to the Merciful One, praying that the dead man's soul had felt the breath of mercy before death.

"That skeleton was here last time I rode this way," said the chief. "It marks the edge of the stone lands."

"Why are they called the stone lands?"

Tuvi smiled.

By dawn, they were riding through the most desolate land imaginable, flat on all sides except where the northern hills rose off to their left, too far away for the heights to bring the relief of wind and in any case obscured by a haze rising off the desert. Already, as the sun pressed up over the horizon, it was hot. The red dust stung eyes and lips. The Qin soldiers wrapped cloth around their faces, leaving only their eyes visible, so Shai followed suit. He rode with the last group of riders, a dozen tailmen including the one called Chaji, who had been first to take up Mountain's offer. Ahead, Cornflower plodded stolidly along with the other slaves, hanging to the back, away from Mountain.

Nothing grew here. There were not even sand dunes; only these stony flats that went on and on. The sun rose higher and baked them. They kept on at a steady pace. Near midday, Chief Tuvi called a halt beside a bold outcropping of rock that thrust right up out of the earth and rose to a height of five or six men standing one atop the next.

The horses were watered. The men waited in line for their own ration of water, poured by Mai's hand. Captain Anji stood beside her but said nothing as the men came forward one by one. Mai's eye was sure and practiced; each bowlful looked exactly the same, no man favored with more or scanted with less. Shai had to wait his turn with the others. He came after the scouts but before the tail-men and the slaves. Mai offered him a sweet smile, like an apology for the scolding she'd given him days earlier, and he tried to speak, to thank her, but his throat was parched. He gulped down the sweet water with a sigh, but it barely cooled his throat.

"Move along," said Anji. "More behind you."

The horses were given what little true shade skirted the northeastern side of the outcropping, while the soldiers made makeshift tents out of tunics and took relief from the sun in that way. Mountain made a clever lean-to under which Shai could shelter. He dozed on a blanket. He dreamed, but all he saw was hills rising and falling below him as light and shadow shifted over trees, open meadows, a winding river, and trees again, as if he flew above the land like a bird.

Hari's bold voice haunted his dream.

" I'm of no use to you. Release me. Let me die."

" Only when you have tracked down the man wearing the cloak of sky, and brought him to me."

He started awake to find Cornflower staring at him with such a peculiar expression that he shuddered. Those demon-blue eyes suddenly scared him. He sat up.

"You stay here. I'm going to check on Mai."

Out of the shade of the lean-to, the sun's light struck. The land shimmered. It was so hot his lips cracked. Likely they'd be bleeding by tomorrow if they didn't get more water. He staggered into the shade cast by the outcropping. Mercifully, there was more shade now as the afternoon lengthened, but even so soldiers were offering water to the horses again. Precious water was not to be wasted on men, who without their mounts would certainly die and who could in any case drink blood from their horses when necessary.

Mai was asleep right up against the rock, curled on her side, head pillowed on a rolled-up blanket. Even in sleep she was lovely; a little thin and pale because of the rigors of the journey, but unwilted. Captain Anji sat against the rock beside her, not touching her but with a proprietary interest in her presence. His eyes were closed, and he breathed steadily and slowly as though asleep, but his eyes snapped open as Shai neared. He put two fingers to his lips: Silence.

Quietly he rose and gestured for Shai to follow. His faithful attendants, Sengel and Toughid, padded after them, staying at a discreet distance. They walked to the edge of the shade, a cruel line between shelter and death.

Anji indicated the camp. "Is there a problem?"

"No. I was just wondering how Mai is holding up."

"She is stronger than she looks. It's hard to see because her beauty blinds, like this sun."

The sun did blind. The heat made a man light-headed. "Do you love her?"

"You talk too much." Anji wiped sweat off his brow with the back of a hand. "If there is nothing else, I'm going to rest again. I recommend you do as well." But as he turned away, he paused, squinting south into the dusty haze.

A scout stationed atop the rock whistled thrice. Men scrambled up, weapons drawn, bows ready. Many fell back to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, while others ran for the horses.

"Hold!" cried Anji.

Chief Tuvi echoed him. "Hold! Hold!"

The wind moaning over the huge rock was the only sound. The horizon along the south glowered, all black.

"Sandstorm," whispered Shai, washed with a rush of faintness. His legs buckled, but he caught his weight on the rock face beside him.

Tuvi was already giving orders as Anji strode away from the outcropping and, conferring with two scouts, tested the direction and strength of the wind. The soldiers shifted the herd around to the sun side of the rock, opposite the prevailing wind. The horses moved with restless vigor, stamping, neighing, mares nipping as geldings were forced in close. Tents were raised. Spears were thrust deep into the sand as supports for larger windbreaks of silk-as strong as steel, so it was said-and canvas. Some men clambered up into the outcropping itself to take refuge in holes and overhangs. The two wagons were tipped over and arranged in a square with cloth fastened over them, to protect the water and other supplies. Mai knelt, with Priya beside her, and crawled into the shelter of one of the wagons. Farther away, Mountain shepherded the slave bearers into the safety of a tent.

In the lee of the rock the wind wasn't as strong, so Shai circled, staying as close to the rock as he could, until he came to a low ridge, the tail of the outcrop, on which he could lean. He stared toward the south as the haze grew thicker and he began to breathe dust into his lungs. The old stories told of the zaril-dar, the black storm, that swallowed whole cities in a single night. As the wind rose in intensity he heard voices on the wind, calling to him.

"Shai! Shai!"

Ghosts always seemed to know his name.

"I don't know you," he said into the wind, not fearing to speak out loud since no one was near enough to hear him. "Why do you call for me? What do you want?"

"I am looking for my husband. Have you seen him?"

"I don't know your husband. I'm sorry."

"Have you seen my sister? My lover? My child? Can you help me find the one who poisoned me… who abandoned me… who betrayed me.. so I can get my revenge?"

"I can't help you," he said to each in turn. "You're dead."

Their voices laughed and wept. They knew they were dead, but they were so angry; they just couldn't rest.

The wind had loosened his covering veil. He tightened it, but sand leaked in nevertheless. The light dimmed, died. He could barely see the outlines of the camp behind him, horses and men hiding behind cloth and inside wagons, hunkered down in the hope that the storm would not bury them. He was the only man visible.

"How bad is the storm?" he called as the ghosts swirled past him on the wind. "Will it kill us, too?"

Some were kind. "The heart of the storm lies south of here, where the demons walk. It's moving east and south, not north."

Most laughed cruelly, pale forms teasing him as they flashed past. "Dead! Dead! Dead!" they cried, as if in mockery of Ti. "It will crawl right over you and eat you all! Hai! Hai! Hai! Unless you have magic to shift it. To survive, you must offer a sacrifice to the demons!"

So many ghosts! Had they all died out in this wasteland, like that skeleton hung from the post to mark the boundary of the Wailing Lands? Did spirits congregate here because of some innate quality in the land? Or were they, like he, only passing through?

Who was lying and who telling the truth?

"Shai! Can you hear me?" The old familiar, beloved voice came from so close, just at his shoulder.

"Hari?" He clutched at rock, almost falling. "Hari! I can't see you!"

"Help me, Shai." It moved away into the storm.

"You're dead."

"Help me! Find my bones, Shai. Release me from this torment. Bring me home. I can't rest."

He staggered along the ridge of rock, having to use it for support because of the battering wind. He could barely see an arm's length in front of his face. Wind pummeled him as he stumbled after it. "Hari! Wait!"

Out of the storm, a solid figure emerged, and grabbed him. "Shai!"

He'd not realized the wind screamed so loud that another's voice, even shouting, might sound like a whisper. This was no ghost, whose voices need not compete against earthly noise, but rather Captain Anji, materialized like a spirit out of the howling storm

"Back to camp! If you wander out here, you'll die."

"But I heard Hari-I've got to go-"

"Demons ride this wind. They're the ones tempting you. Come back!"

Shai was not weak. He had found solace in carpentry since he was a child whittling scraps into fantastic animals, and he fought now, breaking free of that grasp.

A white-skinned figure walked out there, moving into the black storm, unbowed by the terrible wind. The wind pressed her clothing hard against her front, revealing a woman's form. Her pale-gold, shining hair streamed like a banner, unbound, and it seemed that she had wings with the silver gossamer fineness of a moth's, dazzling as they rippled. Nay, those were not wings. That was cloth, a vast cloak driven by the wind, enveloping the pale figure, swallowing her, before he could see her face. He stepped toward her, drawn by a malevolent yearning.

"Wait!" he cried. "Who are you?"

"Shai!" A hand caught his belt and tugged him backward. He strained for an instant against that grip, but Anji's will subdued him, as did the abrupt realization that he was half choking on all the sand filtered through the folds of cloth wound around his head. He stumbled in Anji's wake. The vision was lost. Demons walked abroad, beautiful and deadly. His heart was hollow, sucked dry.

Anji shoved him into the shelter of the wagons and crawled in after him. Within, the air was stifling, thick with dust but breathable. Men coughed. One lit a lamp.

"Ah, there you are, Captain," shouted Chief Tuvi, who was holding the tiny lamp cupped in one palm. The light shrouded the cramped cavern made from carts and cloth. Wind thrummed in the canvas, rumbling like thunder.

Mai reached out, eyes wide. "Shai. Anji! "

Anji crawled over to her. Before he could quite arrange himself cross-legged beside her, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest, shaken but not weeping. Priya sat quietly, head bowed, lips moving in her singsong prayers, but if she was singing out loud the wind's howl drowned melody and words. Anji encircled Mai with one arm, leaving the other free near his knife. He shut his eyes, seeming content to endure the storm and even death in this pleasing manner.

Tuvi blew out the light.

The wind increased in pitch until the sound of it hurt. The spray of sand and dust and rocks was louder than a driving rain, obliterating everything until they huddled in a netherworld in which all substance was caught betwixt and between, neither air nor earth, neither day nor night, neither living nor dead. Shai couldn't even hear the ghosts, or perhaps the storm had scattered them.

The demons screamed, but silk was proof against their kind.

It was too hot and frightening to sleep although now and again he dozed off, only to jolt awake as whispers throttled him.

"Beware the third blow… I betrayed her, but only after she betrayed the others. She betrayed all of us. And I aided her, out of fear. I cannot bear my shame any longer. Let the wind take me. Let this burden pass on to another… "

Yet it was only the heat and sand stifling him, after all, and the close-packed bodies, and his parched throat.

In time the wind lessened and, at last, hours or days later, ceased.

When they dug themselves out and Chief Tuvi called roll, they had lost not one man or horse, although a few were having trouble breathing, and it was clear they would need more water and that soon.

"Not so bad," said Chief Tuvi. "The heart of the storm didn't pass over us. It stayed to the south."

But Cornflower was gone, vanished entirely. Mountain had thought she had taken refuge with Priya and Mai; Priya had thought she was with Mountain and the nine bearers. Shai hadn't thought of her at all.

Captain Anji shaded his eyes to examine the red haze that blanketed the southwest. The sun was setting, although it couldn't be seen through the retreating storm. "The demons took her," he said.

Shai hid his tears.


All that next morning as they pushed eastward across the dusty flats, Mai thought obsessively of the feel of Anji's arm around her as the storm had raged. She had turned to him without thinking. He had the experience and foresight to shelter all of his people, and somehow that made their intimacy more precious by contrast. Her heart outraced her head. He was so strong. He was clever and imperturbable. He wasn't like anyone in the Mei clan, not at all. He had chosen her, out of all people.

Surely the heroine in the old songs had thought as many ridiculous things about the bandit prince she fell in love with!

She laughed and he, hearing her, turned with eyebrows raised as their horses plodded along. She blushed. How much more intense this feeling was even than the sun's punishing light! The old songs were silly and sentimental, but that didn't mean there wasn't a grain of diamond truth hidden in the sand.

By midday it was too hot to ride. Ahead of them the way was cut by rugged ground, and Chief Tuvi led them into a ravine formed by a dry riverbed. There was no surface water but there was shade to be had right up against the cliff face. The slaves set to work digging, but by the time they had got down a man's height, two of the slaves had fainted and there was still no water and not even muddy sludge. A third slave lay in the shade, clutching his stomach and moaning.

"May I go see what I can do, Mistress?" Priya asked. "They will leave them behind if they're too weak to talk. It would be a terrible way to die. At least in a storm you die quickly."

"Do you think so?" asked Mai. "Do you think Cornflower is dead?"

"I hope so."

Mai shuddered. Swallowed by sand, flesh scoured from bone by the screaming wind. Yet how much more terrible to be snatched and tormented by demons. "She was so unhappy. Do you think she wanted to die?"

Priya's mouth twitched. Compassion, perhaps, might cause the lips to form that particular angle. "You are the only one of your family who would ask that question, Mistress."

The words made her uncomfortable; she was no champion of Cornflower. She'd turned her gaze away, just as the rest had. "Go help those men." The words came out more sharply than she'd intended, but Priya bowed and hurried away to the sick man.

Mai sat on a pillow in the shade of the cliff, sweating and tired but not exhausted. She hadn't had to walk, or dig. Down the ravine, soldiers offered their mounts water from cupped palms. Nearby, Anji and Tuvi consulted a pair of scouts.

"How bad is the road?" Anji was asking. "Can we negotiate it in darkness?"

"We'll have a bit of moonlight. There's hills and dunes for the next two days or so before we get back to flatter country near to Mariha. That's if we don't lose the trail, and if that storm didn't wipe away the caravan markers."

"How much of a risk?"

"Better to ride it during the day. But if we delay too long here and can't get more water, we'll lose horses first and then men."

"Let me think on it."

Anji walked over to stand beside her in the shade. For a while he thought, and she waited. In the marketplace, one learned patience. She felt comfortable with him and, indeed, relieved to be alive. The storm had shaken her. Truly, demons haunted the wilderness; that was why folk kept to their towns and didn't wander. Anji offered her a swig from a finely tooled leather bottle. The slap of rice wine, gone a little vinegary, burned her mouth and soared straight to her head.

"Hu!" She giggled. "That makes me even more thirsty."

"Thirst is a powerful goad," he agreed, smiling. He had a particular way of looking sideways at her that made her shiver with anticipatory pleasure, but when she shivered like that she always, the next instant, thought of Cornflower's blank expression. Hump hump hump.

Enough of that! Cornflower was gone. Yet the image wouldn't flee and refused to be chased away.

"What are you thinking?" he asked abruptly. He'd never asked such a question before. Husbands didn't care what their wives thought. They didn't need to, so her mother and the aunts often told her.

She was taken aback, caught off guard. Lie, or be truthful?

She shook her head, impatient with herself. She had often held her tongue, but she'd never outright lied to anyone. "I'm thinking of Cornflower. I-" After all, she could not go on. It was too intimate; it was too humiliating. He might misunderstand, or he might understand, which could be worse. Her cheeks were hot. She gritted her teeth, trying to untangle her thoughts and her tongue.

Sand pattered on the ground as the wind eddied, then died. It was a clear day, without haze, and the sky was as blue as Cornflower's eyes and as empty of joy.

"Her death, or her life?" he asked. "Aren't they the same? She must have run out into the storm seeking her freedom. That would be her death. Her life…"

"You think she did not live well in your father's household?"

"How could anyone do so?" she asked bitterly. "Used like that?"

"Was she beaten?"

"Not after Uncle, the one whose name we don't say, not since he died. The aunts wouldn't touch her. That was the strange thing. They wanted to be rid of her but they didn't hate her even though she had bewitched all the men." None of the women had hated Cornflower. It was peculiar, when you thought of it. You expected women to be jealous in such a situation, but instead they had all pitied her while just as strongly wanting her gone. Their silence was their shame. "They didn't hate her even though the men couldn't leave her alone. But she didn't bewitch you." She wasn't sure how he would respond. It was a risky comment.

Anji wasn't a man who frowned much. He did so now, causing lines to crease his brow. "No. She didn't bewitch me. I've seen demons face-to-face before. I know what they're capable of. Mai…"

He looked away from her, studying the red-brown horizon to the south, as if seeking storms. He wasn't shy, just considering his next words. He rubbed at his lower lip with a dirty thumb. Like all of them, he was astoundingly filthy, hands and face coated with grime, officer's tunic gone to a color that could not be described. She rubbed at her own hands as she waited, but the stuff was caked on. She could feel sand in every most intimate crevice, and every time she blinked, her eyes stung from the residue.

"No," he said firmly, to himself. And to her: "It was nothing."

"It was something." She stared at her hands and then, with as much courage as she could muster, she looked at him, and stumbled on heedlessly. "I saw her face when that man was on her. She just lay there. She looked like she was dead, all limp. There was nothing in her eyes or her expression. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" She burst into tears.

His mouth had become an "o" of surprise. He rocked back on his heels as if struck. For ten gulped sobs-her sobs-he stared at her. It took him that long to collect himself, and maybe it was his surprise that soothed her crying, because she could suddenly swallow the rest of her tears and dry her eyes. Her cheeks were slimy with dirt and moisture.

"I need a bath," she finished, and hiccoughed once.

He handed her the leather bottle, and she drained its contents in one slug and braced herself for the jolt as the alcohol hit.

"Mai." The captain took one of her hands and looked at her closely. "I am not those men. I never wanted Cornflower more than I wanted you. Never never never." He had Ti's diction down perfectly.

She laughed, and hiccoughed again, and he released her hand and strode away toward Chief Tuvi. She wondered if it was better that he misunderstood her after all. She wondered what it was like to take a bath with a naked man, and if a man and woman might wash each other in all their secret places and be pleased to do so, for of course she and Ti had peeked at a certain book kept in one of the drawers of Father Mei's desk that had contained all kinds of drawings depicting what a man and a woman might do with each other. The uncles had looked at that book a lot, and then afterward padded down the hall to the slave barracks.

She wondered why Cornflower had vanished during that terrible storm. Could demons die? And if so, what awaited them beyond Spirit Gate?

"Mistress?" Priya returned, O'eki limping beside her.

"I hope you are not hurt?" Panic flared.

"Just sore, Mistress." The big man slipped a hand inside one sleeve and drew out three small items, which he offered to her.

She took them without thinking and studied them with confusion: three tiny beaded nets, the kind of gaudy cheap ornament women used to tie off the ends of braids. "What are these? They're very colorful."

"Cornflower wore them," said Priya. "She always wore her hair in a trident braid. These were hers, the only thing she possessed."

Mai shivered, wondering if ghosts could reach out through the material goods they had left behind to throttle those they had hated during their lifetime. Yet if that were so, all of Uncle Girish's little treasures would long since have poisoned the Mei clan, which still prospered. She looked up at O'eki. He had a broad face and dark eyes, no different from anyone else; it was only his unusual stature that set him apart. He'd come from the southwest, from an area conquered by the Mariha princes when he was a boy. He'd spent most of his life as a slave to the Mei clan, bought by Grandfather because of his size and placidity. But he wasn't stupid.

"How do you have these?"

"I found them. At dawn, just before we left that cursed place."

"Where?" She glanced toward Captain Anji, but he was exploring the ravine, involved in an intense conversation with Chief Tuvi and the scouts. Tuvi was gesturing with expansive circles; Anji had his arms crossed, a skeptical frown on his face.

"Right up by the big rock where we were camping when the storm hit, Mistress. Just lying there, like she'd torn them off. Or they'd been torn off her."

She closed her hand around them. The mystery of Cornflower's disappearance troubled her, and the evidence she held in her hand suggested that the story might be more complicated than it had at first seemed.

"What will you do with them, Mistress?" asked O'eki. "I can sell them, if you please, at the next market."

"No. I'll return them to Shai. What she had belongs to him." She slid them into the pocket sewn into her sleeves. The expensive blue silk gown she had worn so proudly at leave-taking was soiled beyond repair. She had left her other silks closed in the chest in the hope they would survive the journey without being ruined. Unlike linen and wool, silk fought sand better. It might become dirty, wet, and stained, but sand could be shaken out because it couldn't get as much purchase in the smooth, tight weave.

The men had walked close enough that she could overhear them.

"It's too risky to ride this path at night!" Tuvi exclaimed, voice rising as his hands dropped to his side.

"If you're afraid, don't do it," said Anji. "But if you do it, don't be afraid. I'm more concerned about water and the heat than the road. We have lamps, and moonlight for part of the night. We'll depart a hand's span before sunset. I won't sit and wait for events to overtake me. There might be another storm. Best to move on. It always is."

"So you would say!" said Tuvi with a laugh, but he made no more protests.

In late afternoon they made ready to leave. About a hand's span before sunset, they headed up the twisting path, riding swiftly until the light faded. Then, with the moon already in the sky, they dismounted and walked along the trail, such as it was, with Chief Tuvi and the scouts in the lead bearing lanterns.

"You can ride," Anji said to Mai. "I'll lead your horse."

"No. I'll walk with the others."

"Very well." It was difficult to see his expression, whether he was pleased or irritated, and she didn't know him well enough to interpret his tone. "But if you feel yourself tiring, you must ride."


They walked on, east-always east. It was slow going. The way was dim and the world shadowed, and she had no idea where they were or where they were going. Yet as long as she kept her gaze fixed on Captain Anji's straight back, as long as she glanced frequently at the track, gleaming slightly in the moonlight, she managed. They reached the crest of a barren hill and paused to survey the vast wilderness and the impossibly depthless sky. The stars burned each one as brightly as the chief's lamp. The heavens were a field of dense flames, each one the shard of a soul released from its earthly suffering, so the Merciful One taught. So many, without counting. The land on all sides was a ghost land, intangible under moonlight, like gauze and darkness. Only in the north was there any solidity, and that because the far horizon was black where mountains rose.

It was as if she had wandered into the landscape known in song, a place present on no map, reached by no true road, where the daily round of life had no meaning. She shivered.

"Are you cold?" Anji asked softly.

"No," she whispered, afraid to speak in a normal voice. "It's beautiful."

"Ah." Nothing more than his sigh.

Her cheeks blazed with heat. She reached and found his hand, surprising him as she twined her fingers between his. He did not speak, but his breathing shifted and quickened, as did hers.

Chief Tuvi whistled the advance.

"Oh!" she murmured, annoyed.

Anji chuckled, brought her hand up to his lips, turned it over, and kissed the inside of her wrist, then let go and set off again. She followed him, but with that brief kiss the night had come alive. The curl of wind teased her. The movement of his shoulders as he walked drew her on. Once he looked back over his shoulder and grinned, and she burned burned burned. They walked across the land in silence broken only by the jingle of harness, the fall of hooves and feet, and the occasional mutter of one of the soldiers to a comrade; broken by the many soft noises made by the desert, which seemed dead but was alive in a hundred hidden ways. The path was rugged, and twice they had to backtrack when the trail Tuvi picked led them into a dead end up a gulch, but they never faltered nor did any horse take a fall or man stumble.

As the moon set and it became too dark to keep moving, the chief picked out a sheltered overhang for a temporary camp.

"We'll rest here until just before dawn," he told the soldiers. "We'll move on again before dawn, and rest again during the heat of the day, and leave again before dusk. Any man who violates rations will be killed."

They watered the horses and each drank his measured allotment before lying down to rest, careful not to disturb tufts of vegetation and scatters of rock that might shelter poisonous slumbering creatures. Shai sat with head on knees, arms wrapped around bent legs. She was still angry with him for the way he had treated Cornflower. Maybe if he had been nicer, the girl wouldn't have run into the storm. And yet, why cling to anger? There was no way to change what had happened. Poor Shai looked so miserable.

Mai went over. "How are you holding up, Shai?"

He looked up. All she could see of his face was pallor. His voice scraped, dry and anguished. "Will we ever come free of this place? Or will we be carried off by the demons as well?"

She touched him gently on the shoulder. "Captain Anji knows what he's doing."

"Does he?"

"Of course he does! How can you doubt him?"

"We've not been told where we're going. They tell us nothing at all. You're not scared? Not at all?"

"No," she said. Then thought about it, hard, closely. No poisonous worm ate away at her insides. Her hands didn't tremble. She shook her head. "No, I'm not afraid. We can trust Anji."

The simple words, like a torch, led her footsteps to the long-awaited destination. She left Shai and found Priya settling down to sleep on stony ground. She knelt beside her. "Priya! Hsst! Where's my chest?"

The slave sighed sleepily. "The chest, Mistress? O'eki took it off the packhorse, over there, you see where the luggage is stacked. Mistress?"

"Go back to sleep."

She found it more by feel than by sight, opened the mechanism that locked the clasp shut, and had just tipped up the lid a hand's span and reached inside when she heard him walk up behind her.

"Mai? You should be resting."

Her breath caught in her chest. Her heart hammered. The silk slipped smoothly under her hands, cool and lovely. She caught hold of one edge and eased the banner out of the chest. It unfolded as it emerged, draping over her knees. Even in darkness, with only the stars to light them, the silver threads picking out the eye and mane of the black wolf shone, perfectly visible although there was no reason they ought to be.

There is never any reason for happiness. Yet it exists. It shines.

For an eternity he did not move: not to touch her, not to speak, not to glance around the camp and the soldiers and slaves and horses who surrounded them. At last, she let the lid close and the clasp catch. Its snick jolted him. He caught her hand and drew her upright with the banner caught under her left arm. Quickly, he led her through camp, pausing only to fish a rolled-up length of heavy cloth from his saddlebags.


"Keep the camp quiet, Chief."

"Hu!" said Tuvi, but he didn't laugh. Sengel and Toughid faded back toward camp, and Tuvi's form receded into the night, vanishing in the shadows that were everywhere, except in her heart.

They climbed out of sight of the camp to a bare swell of ground mounded among the many hidden clefts and river washes. The brilliant heavens were their roof, and the unrolled tent their bed. They were both filthy, and their kisses tasted of grit, but desire and the night wind cleansed them. The immensity of the empty lands sheltered them, who were alone in the whole wide world, no one else, not even ghosts or scorpions, daring to disturb them, they two, who were now one.

Such a small thing, really, to mean so much.


Two qualities Shai possessed in plenty: He had endurance, and a high tolerance for physical pain. Father Mei had never been able to beat the stubborn anger out of him. One quality he sorely lacked: He'd never gathered enough courage to stand up to his elder brothers. Not as Hari had. Bold Hari, best of brothers.

In the early-morning twilight as he trudged along at the rear of the company among the silent tailmen, his thoughts returned doggedly to the subjects he didn't want to think about: We're out of water. We're all going to die if we don't find water soon. Dead like Cornflower. No. Nothing to be done about that. If Hari is dead, then why didn't he pass Spirit Gate? Why is he still chained to earth?

With a stumble and a quiet, sad whuffling noise, a horse collapsed. The company halted. The grooms examined the horse, shook their heads. While life still breathed in it, they opened a vein in its shoulder and drained its blood. It was a salty brew, invigorating. Everyone got a swallow, even the slaves. When Mai drank, the blood stained her lips with red, like a cosmetic meant to beautify.

As the beast failed, and died, they made ready to move out.

"Aren't we going to butcher it?" Shai croaked. "For the flesh?"

"Take too long, need water more, oasis ahead," said Chaji, his voice cracked and ragged. Then he cackled. "You can stay, fight the vultures and demons, if you want."

His feet must rise and fall, rise and fall, but he was by no means the weakest. They all struggled. The bearers were strong men, but at length some were aided by the others; they refused to let any of their number falter and fall behind. Mai walked alongside Anji. Everyone walked, to spare the horses, who suffered most. Over the course of that morning, two more horses failed, and the blood of those horses gave strength to the living. Thus, Shai supposed, did demons feast on their victims, sucking the spirit out of them. Was that what had happened to Hari?

The sun rose higher, but the air changed. He felt it as a kiss on his cheeks, as an ache, an exhilaration, in his chest. Long before they could see it, the horses smelled it and pulled eagerly, anxious to move faster. The people inhaled its promise through nostrils and parched mouths.


Discipline held. They marched in good order into an isolated oasis guarded by a surly group of twenty Qin tailmen.

"How long will you stay here?" the chief of the garrison asked them as they filed in.

"Two days," said Anji. "We all need a rest and the horses must be well watered. There are a couple too weak to go on so we'll slaughter them and feast tonight. If you send a few men back on our trail, you'll find two dead horses, not too far, to add to the feast." He walked away to where Mai was seated, washing her hands and face in water Priya had brought from the pond.

"At least we don't have to feed your men, just the horses," grumbled the garrison chief. "You don't know how hard it is keeping supplies out here!"

"The worst assignment," laughed Tuvi, slapping the man on the shoulder. "When I was a young lad just come to the army, I had a posting like this."

"Did you?" replied the chief, whose frown curved upward at this companionable talk. "We've enough to eat and drink. I think it's the boredom that kills you. All this rock and sand! No women and no pasture to admire!"

"Let me tell you about a posting that near did me in!"

The two men walked away, taking turns sucking at a pouch of an alcoholic brew, to make a circuit of the low fortifications that surrounded the well, the pool, and the scattering of vividly green trees and vegetation.

Shai waited his turn to drink with the rest of the men. The horses went first and so sullied the pool that what he drank tasted more like mud than water, but like the rest he made no complaint. Water was life. Life was better than death. He lay down in the shade of a frond tree and fell asleep at once.

" Shai. Shai." Would Hari's ghost never leave him alone? It had been weeks since the day Anji had given Hari's wolf's-head ring to Father Mei, since Shai had touched that ring and sensed Hari's fate. Now it seemed that Hari, like Girish, meant to plague the only person who could still hear him.

"Shai. Wake up."

The hand pressing against his chest had weight. It was insistent, plucking at his clothing.

"Eh. What? Mai!"

"Hush. Shh." She displayed a yellow globe of fruit, twisted it so it split open, and showed him how to scoop out the seeds so he could eat the succulent flesh. As he ate, the juices dripping down his chin, she whispered, "I'm still very angry about Cornflower. You treated her badly. But Shai, you're my uncle. We're kin. We can't fight like this. We have to hold together, don't you think?"

Hu! Who could resist Mai when she was in this mood? He could!

"I'm riding with the tailmen. Cornflower was my slave. You had no right to interfere."

"Don't be so stubborn!"

"You don't want me anyway. Look at you, flying that Qin banner now. Don't think the others don't talk around me just because I'm not Qin. I know what it means."

The blush on her cheeks brightened her. Even worn and exhausted, she had a shine that made the world a more pleasing place. No one could stay mad at her.

"Are you happy?" he muttered.

"Oh. Shai."

She was happy.

He sighed. He grasped her hand with one of his own, now sticky with juice. "We won't fight."

"Good." The plum-blossom softness vanished, and she bent close, fixing him with a gaze as sharp as that of any merchant bargaining hard in the marketplace. "Listen, Shai. I may only have this one chance to tell you this. Do not breathe a word. Now that-well-now that-well-" She flushed. She hid a smile behind a hand. She giggled, shut her eyes, sighed heavily, smiled again, and finally sucked in a deep breath and fixed him with a remarkable glare. "I asked. And he told me."


"What! Where we're going! It's because we're past the desert now. We can't possibly go back, or tell anyone."

Or he offered knowledge as payment, thought Shai, but he said nothing.

"Anji is to be a general. He's been promoted. We're riding all the way to Tars Fort, on the eastern border between Mariha and the Sirniakan Empire. Anji will command the fort and an entire border garrison, an army, much larger than this small company. What do you think?"

The muddy water and sweet fruit churned uneasily in his stomach. He felt a little sick. "Isn't the border a dangerous place to be? Now that the Qin have conquered the Mariha princedoms, that border lies right up against the most powerful and largest empire known. What if there's a war?"

"Why would there be a war?"

"Mai! Don't be stupid. Why do the Qin need an army and garrisons along the border if they don't think there'll be a fight? I would bet that the Mariha princes didn't think there was going to be a war twenty years ago, when the first Qin rode out of the west. The Mariha princes are all dead now."

"The Qin can defeat the empire if they want to. Don't you think?"

"Now you are being stupid."

Defending her husband, she looked positively fierce. "It's no more than Anji deserves!"

"No. No. Of course not." Indeed, Tuvi had told him as much, in almost the same words, although he thought it better not to mention this to Mai. "He must be an important man, to be promoted to such an important position."

Her anger faded, and she looked thoughtful instead. "Yes. I suppose he must. I wonder who his kinfolk are. He's never told me."

Shai squeezed her hand in warning. "Be cautious of asking. Don't ask too much, too quickly."

In that moment, as their gazes met, understanding flashed. She smiled, and a knot that had been tangling in his heart, eased.

"I'm not stupid, Shai."

That connection still flowed between them. He glimpsed, then, how much it bothered her to be thought of that way. "No, of course not. Of course not, Mai." He saw, then, that he and the rest of the family might never have understood her at all, that he didn't know her, not really. She was a mystery. She had hidden herself well.

A shout interrupted them. "Hai! Hai! Rider sighted!"

"I'd better go." Mai let go of his hand and walked swiftly away.

Shai got up. A soldier waved his banner at the top of the watchtower. The tower was set about one hundred strides out from the old stone-built livestock wall that surrounded the oasis and its stone-built houses. The villagers had long since fled or been driven out, and now the tiny Qin garrison used the houses to store grain for scouts and long-distance travelers. A dusty rider trotted in toward the oasis from the east. Shai wasn't sure how long he had slept. Checking the angle of the sun, he noted that the sun's position hadn't changed appreciably; it still rode high overhead. Over with the other slaves, Mountain raised his big shoulders up and looked toward the gate. Priya lay beside her husband, head pillowed on arms, sleeping.

He looked around. Mai had joined Captain Anji and walked with him to the wall. Anji had a hand cupped under her elbow. Best not to disturb that pair. Instead, he trotted over to Chief Tuvi, who was reeling from the strong drink he'd shared with the other chief.

"Hu! Is that two men or one riding in?"

"Just one, Chief. Do you need an arm to lean on?"

"Pah! You can't keep up with me!"

Shai hurried after him. They got to the gate at the same moment the rider did. The man swung down before the captain, shedding dust as his feet hit the ground. He was a typical Qin, stocky, mustache but no beard, with a handsome grin and a cheerful laugh.

"Hu! Glad to see this place. It's dry as bleached bone out that way." He gestured toward the east, red dry flat desert country all the way to the horizon. "I'm called Tohon."

"I'm Captain Anji. Are you a message rider? How can I help you?"

"Anything good to drink?"

Chief Tuvi offered him what remained of the stuff he'd been drinking, and the man gulped it down, then wiped his mouth. "Whew! That's done, then. I've come from Commander Beje, and I'm looking for you, Captain Anji. An important message. Most important, so Commander says. More important than anything else."

"Commander Beje!" Captain Anji looked stunned.

"Oof!" said Tuvi.

"You know him yourself?" asked the rider.

"Who is Commander Beje?" The words leaped out of Shai's throat before he knew he meant to say them. Curiosity had got him by the throat. He had never seen the imperturbable Anji taken by surprise.

Anji wiped sweat off his brow and shook droplets off his hand. He glanced at Mai. "My first wife's father. My father by marriage, back then. What message?"

The rider tugged off his cap and fanned himself with it. "Whoof! Hot today! A strange message, truly, Captain. You're not to go on to Tars Fort. I'm to lead you northeast in a circuit around Mariha City and up into the hills, where you'll meet with Commander Beje in private. He said this: Your life depends on no man or woman knowing where you've gone, or that you've gone. And this, too: Any troops you meet take with you, even if you leave a posting abandoned."

"Ah," said Anji. No more than that. Only his narrowed eyes revealed the whirl of his thoughts. The wind kicked up, rustling in the fronds, but it said no more than the captain did, not really.

They left at dawn, absorbing into their troop the twenty tailmen who had been garrisoned at the oasis. In fact, now that Shai took the trouble to really start measuring, he began to think that Anji's retinue was two score or more men greater in number than it had been when they left Kartu Town. But he'd been preoccupied then. He hadn't actually counted everyone. He was probably mistaken. It had been a confused time.

Mai rode beside Captain Anji and the scout, Tohon, at the van. Shai crept his mount forward through the irregular ranks-the Qin were disciplined but not rigid-until he moved up alongside Chief Tuvi, who noted his arrival with a sour burp.

"Hu! My stomach just won't settle after all that drinking and eating last night!"

"Where are we headed?"

"To see Commander Beje!"

"Was he really Captain Anji's father by marriage?"

"That he was." He patted his stomach. "Whew! Not so hot today, eh?"

It was possible that today's sun was not as baleful as yesterday's, but Shai doubted it. He knew when he was being told to shut up, however, and so he dropped back to the rear guard and rode in silence until the noon break. Tohon knew the route well. He led them off the main trail to a scatter of rocks where they found shade in which to rest through the hot hours. In late afternoon, they started on their way again and rode into the night before breaking. Four more days they traveled at this ground-eating pace. On the fifth, midmorning, they spotted dust in the east.

"Soldiers," said Tohon, shading his eyes. "We'll cut north now."

"Aren't those Qin?" asked Anji.

"Qin, yes."

"But no one we want to meet."

"Not according to my orders, Captain."

"Is there war in the east?"

"No war. Not yet. But there might be, once the weather is cooler. So we've heard. I don't know the truth of that rumor." Tohon grinned. He was a man of mature years, a tough veteran who hadn't lost his sense of humor. "Rumor is like a pretty girl flirting with ten different men. You never know which one she really prefers."

"Are the Qin going to war against the empire?" Mai asked softly.

Anji shrugged, meeting her gaze. "Commander Beje will tell me what I need to know."

The smiles Mai and Anji exchanged excluded Shai and, indeed, everyone else. This demon was jealousy, gnawing at his gut. He fought against it, but he couldn't stop himself. Mai looked radiant and strong, but he felt weak because he was lonely. All he could do was tag along after Chief Tuvi and play at weapons with the tailmen, who respected him for his strength but ridiculed his awkward attempts to shoot a bow; they could hit a marmot from horseback. He was a little better with a staff, not hopeless at any rate, so they let him carry a spear as he rode to get accustomed to its heft and length.

The Golden Road was not actually a single trail leading west to east. It had many paths and roads, some preferable in winter while others suited summer or autumn travel. Tohon led their troop on a northeast spur at a steady clip for the rest of that day, halting at intervals to rest, water, and feed the horses. The beasts were almost as tough as their masters.

They camped that night at a water hole. In the morning they rode east until midday and then pushed north again into the foothills until sundown, when they halted by a dry streambed.

Shai was sore and nervous. Mai was laughing at something Anji had just said to her.

I hate happy people, thought Shai. Mai had confided in him, but he hadn't the strength to return the favor. He watched Mountain and the other slaves digging into the streambed. They struck water about an arm's length down and widened the hole to accommodate as many horses as possible.

All at once, Mai walked up beside him, hands cupped before her. She opened her hands to reveal three tiny beaded nets. "O'eki found these. I forgot to give them to you before."

"Who is O'eki? That's not a Qin name."

"It's Mountain's name, as you should know," she said tartly. "He found them. Here. They belong to you." Anji called to her. She pressed the objects into his hand and walked away.

Cornflower had tied off the ends of her braids with these tiny beaded nets. He had wondered often enough what it must feel like to touch her hair, as these once had, to feel the texture of those fine strands as a caress on the skin. He shut his eyes and listened, wondering if he could hear her ghost in the objects once worn by her.

She had not been dead when these had come off her. They'd been discarded, like ruined clothing. Her pale gold hair had been unbound, just like that of the figure he'd seen taken by the storm.

With a groan, he cast them onto the ground, then picked them up and tucked them into the lining in his long sleeves next to Father Mei's gold. What good was he, who was no better than his brothers, all but Hari? He had lusted after her just as they had, and it hadn't been kindness that had stayed him from pressing his body onto hers. It had been simple stubbornness; he didn't want to be like them. He didn't want to follow in their dreary footsteps and do the predictable things they did. He didn't want to want what they wanted. So he'd pretended not to want her, and by ignoring her, had left her waiting under the lean-to, easy prey for the storm and the demons that rode it.

Nothing-good boy. That's what his mother had always called him.

"Hu!" Chief Tuvi strolled up to him. "That's some good-tasting water once the dirt is filtered out of it! There's a hand of daylight left, Shai. You want to see if you can hit anyone with that spear? We'll make a soldier of you yet. You're a challenge, sure enough, but we're not afraid of anything, not even your clumsiness!"

His particular companions were waiting-Jagi, Pil, Seren, Tam, and Umar-with their usual hearty grins, calling him names as they taunted him to come over and get the wits beaten out of him.

What a fool he'd been, moping all those years for the reward he'd never get, his family's love and respect. A better prize lay within his grasp. These soldiers teased only when they liked you.

He was one of them now. He found his staff and joined them. He got the wits beaten out of him, and enjoyed it even as they mocked his clumsiness.

Only later did it occur to him to wonder where Mountain had found the bead nets and, once he'd asked him, how unsatisfactory Mountain's answer was.

"Right up by the big rock where we were camping when the storm hit, Master Shai. Just lying there, like she'd torn them off. Or they'd been torn off her."


Midmorning the next day they rode out onto an escarpment from which they could view the spectacular Mariha Valley sprawled below. Irrigation canals cut the land into a bright patchwork beyond which the lush colors faded quickly to a dull yellow-brown. The old city was a vast honeycomb seen from above, ringed by stout walls and graced by a lake at the center where, Tohon said, priests had once worshiped their ancient god and now the Qin watered their horses. There was a holy tower dedicated to the Merciful One, recognizable by its tiered rings, and a second monumental building concealing a courtyard within a courtyard which Anji told her was a temple for the worship of the god Beltak, one of the manifold names given to the Lord of Lords, King of Kings, the Shining One Who Rules Alone. Next to the Beltak temple lay another palatial structure.

"Is that a second temple?" Mai asked. "It has two courtyards, too, but they're separate, side by side, not one nested inside the next."

"That's the royal palace, built in the Sirniakan style," said Anji. "The larger courtyard is where men congregate and the separate smaller courtyard is for the prince's women."

"How strange," said Mai. "Do you actually mean to say that women cannot go where the men congregate, and men cannot walk in the women's courtyard?"

"I mean to say that in Sirniaka, the palace women-a dozen wives, a hundred concubines, and all their serving women and slaves-are sequestered, kept completely apart. Only the master, his sons, and his slaves can visit the women's quarters. Any other man who tries to walk there would be killed. Executed."

Mai laughed. "That's a good story! It's quite a big palace, though. There must be lots of people living there in order to need two courtyards that big."

"You don't believe me?" Anji raised an eyebrow in that sweet way he had of showing amusement. He was so handsome!

"How could people live that way? Women kept apart! And so many that they need a place that big! How could one man keep so many women? Two wives is plenty, as the old song goes."

"You don't believe me," repeated Anji, shaking his head. "It seems strange to me now, I admit, because I've lived among the Qin for so many years, but it didn't seem strange at all when I was a child."

His words caught her up short. She'd been about to laugh again, but he was perfectly serious. He was, briefly, a stranger, looking at her through eyes whose glance had recently become so very intimate.

Tohon whistled. "Captain! Best keep going. I think we're being followed."

"They'll see our dust."

"True, and our tracks. We need only reach Commander Beje's posting before they reach us."

Anji signaled. Chief Tuvi whistled, and they set off again, riding at a bruising gait that jarred her up through her teeth. Now and again they would reach a vantage point from which they could get a good look behind them, and always there rose that telltale haze of dust, moving as they moved, hard on their trail.

In midafternoon they rode down into a green vale watered by three streams trickling down from the heights. An old stone watchtower on one slope had been abandoned and replaced with a fortified villa on lower ground. It was a one-story compound surrounded by a small orchard, a garden, a single field of grain, and an inner wall of stone and outer palisade of logs ringed by a ditch. Sheep grazed between the two walls. A black Qin banner flew from the gate. They crossed a narrow bridge, single-file, and the gate was closed after them by a silent guardsman.

"This way." Tohon led them across the pasture and through a second gate, guarded by stone dragons.

Inside lay a stableyard, dirt raked in neat lines. Captain Anji dismounted and gave his reins to Sengel.

"Come," he said to Mai. "Bring Priya."

No one else-not even Sengel and Toughid, who shadowed Anji everywhere he went-was invited to accompany them. There were guards on the walls and a score of soldiers lounging in the stableyard, all armed. The captain's troop dismounted but did not otherwise disperse, as if they expected to have to leave at a moment's notice.

"Are we safe?" she whispered to Anji as Tohon led them into the shade of a long porch. "Who do you think is following us?"

He paused before entering. The terrace was floored with sandstone, recently swept, but the pillars, eaves, and roof of the porch were all of well-polished wood. A youth knelt at the far end of the porch, not even looking up as their footsteps tapped on stone; he rubbed at one of the pillars with a linen cloth.

"We are safe with Commander Beje," Anji said. "Look. There are faces in the pillars."

The subtle faces of guardian animals peered out from the wood. They leered or snarled or smiled, each according to its nature, and as they crossed the porch and entered the interior, Mai had a fancy that one of the guardian beasts winked at her. Inside they crossed an empty room to a wall of screens that, when slid aside, revealed a quiet courtyard. Their shoes crackled on gravel. Like the first room, the courtyard lay empty except for a quartet of low benches surrounding a dry fountain shaped like a tree with bells hanging from the branches. No wind disturbed the bells. It was utterly silent. A sliding door led them into the dim interior of another immaculate room with wood floors and no furniture whatsoever. All the windows were shuttered, filtering the light through white rice paper. The air smelled faintly of cloves.

Tohon slid a screen to one side, and they emerged under an arbor roofed by vines and surrounded by a net of trees, some flowering and some boasting the small green bulbs of early fruit. A multicolored carpet had been thrown down over flagstones, and in the shade a stout man sat on a camp stool, his back to them, whittling. He set knife and carving on the carpet before rising to face Captain Anji.

He was a good ten years older than Father Mei, a robust man with a face red from too much drinking, and the typical Qin smile, generous and quick. "Anjihosh!" He wore slippers of gold silk embroidered with red poppies. On these he padded forward to slap the captain on either shoulder. Anji placed his right hand atop his left and bowed respectfully.

"Good you came." The commander's arkinga was a little different from Anji's. He voiced some of the words in a new way and sometimes used a phrase Mai had never heard before. "Who is this lovely orchid?"

"My wife, Mai'ili."

"Not concubine? She's not Qin."

"No. She is my wife."

Beje studied Mai for what seemed an interminable time. He had black eyes, and laugh lines that betrayed humor, but he looked her over in the same way a discriminating buyer handles peaches and melons, knowing which are ripe and which not ready for sale. She did not flinch, although she was desperately uncomfortable.

The father of Anji's first wife, of whom she knew nothing except that the woman was dead. Some of the aunts had speculated the Anji had beaten his first wife to death because the Qin were known for their violent temper as well as their hearty laugh, but if that were the case she couldn't understand how the father of that woman could greet Anji so affectionately.

"She can stay, then. If she's your wife, I'll treat her as if she were my daughter." He pointed to Priya. "No wife, this one. Why is she here?"

"She is educated. She can read and write."

"A woman of value! Bring khaif for everyone, Sheyshi."

The young woman stood so still within the curtain made by drooping vines that Mai actually didn't notice her until Beje said her name and she padded away through the trees on a white gravel path.

"Is she your concubine?" asked Anji, looking amused.

Beje looked confused. "Concubine? Sheyshi? No, just a slave. I don't like these Marihan girls. They smell funny, but Cherfa likes to be surrounded by pretty things, birds and kits and so on, and she likes pretty slave girls, too. She may sleep with them. I don't!"

"Who is Cherfa?" asked Mai.

"My chief wife. A good woman. She takes care of me. You take care of Anjihosh here, and he'll make you a good husband for all your days."

"Yes, sir," she said automatically, because he was the kind of man you addressed with respect. Then she flushed, thinking of lovemaking.

He chuckled, but turned somber as Tohon brought stools, unfolded them, and they all sat down. There was still no wind, and the air was warm but not unpleasantly sticky. It was so quiet that Mai could not even hear the noise of Anji's troop.

Beje sighed as he settled his bulk on the stool. "I'm sorry, Son. I'm still ashamed. You could have shamed my whole clan and harmed our position in the var's eyes, but you did not."

"It was not your fault," said Anji. "There was nothing you could have done."

"Maybe so. Maybe not. She was a headstrong girl."

Anji's smile ghosted, and vanished. "Precisely her charm." He glanced at Mai but said nothing more.

Beje looked at Mai, too, and nodded as if in answer to an unspoken question. "Truly, this one is a beautiful woman. I have seen many handsome women in my time, but this one I can see has been kissed by the Merciful One with grace of spirit. Still, no need to have married her as she is not Qin."

"A man may keep a knife hidden in his boot in case he falls onto hard times and needs to defend himself when attack is least expected. She is my knife."

Mai flushed again as Beje examined her, frowning.

"Is she? Hmm." They sat in silence.

How odd that it should be so very quiet, as if a spell veiled them. Mai kept her hands folded in her lap and examined first her husband and then the old commander, who after a bit picked up his knife and began to whittle. The whit whit of the knife strokes sounded like a bird's cry, heard from a distance. She couldn't tell what shape was emerging from the wood. Anji sat so still that she would have thought him asleep except his eyes were open, though he didn't precisely seem to be looking at anything. Lost in memory, perhaps. Surely he was thinking of his first wife, whoever or whatever she had been.

Headstrong. She had shamed her family.

That didn't sound promising.

I will never shame him or the Mei clan.

A bug tick tick ed. Leaves rustled. Beje set down his carving just as Sheyshi reappeared, bearing a tray with four painted bowls on it. Now Mai got a better look at her. Her complexion had a richer brown color than that of Kartu people, whom the creator of all had admixed with the clay and sandstone of the desert, and she had a more prominent nose, in some manner resembling Anji's. She had pretty eyes and pretty ways and a pretty smile as she offered Mai a pretty little bowl filled with steaming khaif, a real luxury, which Mai had only ever tasted once in her life at Grandmother's double-double anniversary four years ago, when she had counted four rounds of twelve years. Even Priya was handed a bowl, out of respect for her learning.

They sipped as the servant girl waited, kneeling, by the sliding door. Priya nodded appreciatively, but said nothing.

When they had each emptied their bowl and the heady aroma and flavor had quite gone to Mai's head, making the world seem large and pleasant indeed, Sheyshi collected the bowls and departed through the trees.

"So," said Beje. "So, Anjihosh, you are wondering."

"I am."

"Do you know why you were sent east?"

"Yes. To take over command of the garrison and army at Tars Fort."

"A lot of transfers, troops being moved along the border, and to the border."

"Yes. I have wondered about that also. The var is too wise to attack the empire. We can't defeat them."

"It seems unlikely. I can now tell you that all this movement is part of a larger plan, one the var has only recently unveiled to his regional commanders. We are massing an army along the border to ride to the aid of the emperor."

Anji blinked but otherwise revealed no emotion. "Why would the Qin act as servants, as hired soldiers, for the emperor?"

"The var wishes to maintain stability. No way to trade with the empire, or collect tribute from their outlying towns, if they're torn apart by civil war, is there?"

"Why would the empire have civil war? Emperor Farutanihosh is a strong administrator. The empire is at peace, and well run."

Beje reached inside his blue silk tunic-only Qin commanders were allowed to wear that particular shade of heaven blue-and withdrew a pristine folded-rice-paper message sealed with the stylized horse-stamp sigil that every merchant recognized because it represented the authority of the Qin var. Only the var's officials carried such seals. With a manifest bearing that seal, any officer could requisition a family's entire stock of grain or their best ram or bolts of silk hidden away for weddings and prayer offerings.

He held it up now. "Emperor Farutanihosh is dead."

Anji paled. The words struck him hard, but he said nothing.

"The emperor's eldest son Farazadihosh has become emperor. However, another claimant seeks the throne. There is dispute, and there is fighting in the southern provinces. The var has offered to help Emperor Farazadihosh put down his rival in exchange for the Qin receiving certain trading privileges. The new emperor has, it seems, not as many troops as the claimant, who seeks to oust him."

Anji seemed struck dumb. Mai stared. She had never seen him at a loss. Never. Never.

"The new emperor is interested in the var's offer. Of course. He'll lose without our support. Even a fool can see it. But he has one demand. Just one, before he allows our troops into the empire. He wants proof of your death." He waved the message. "This message, here in my hand, is an order. For your head. By order of the var himself."

"Ah." The sound escaped Anji on an exhale.

Beje waited, but the captain said nothing more. His hands were in fists, his gaze sightless, and he did not move.

"Why does the new emperor, this one called Farazadihosh, want you dead, Anjihosh?"

Mai had gone hot, arms tingling, as though fire burned nearby. She held her breath, waiting.

Anji found his breath, and she breathed again as he spoke, his voice so low she strained to hear him. "Because I'm his younger brother."

Beje waved the message dismissively. "I know you're the new emperor's brother. Why does he want you dead?"

"Ah. Ah, well." Slowly, he recovered himself, like a man pulling himself by rope out of flooding waters: hand over hand. "It is the custom of the emperor to kill all his half brothers when he ascends to the throne. Usually his full brothers as well, if he has any."

"Half? Full? What does this mean?"

"The same man sired us. We had different mothers."

"But surely your father the Emperor Farutanihosh had a chief wife. Her sons would always take precedence over sons by secondary wives and concubines."

"No. The emperor may elevate any of his wives or concubines at any time he pleases. He may disinherit, or give preference to, whichever son is his favorite, or the favorite of whichever wife grips his staff most firmly."

"Tss! That's no way to be strong. Brothers should support one another."

"Not in the royal court of the Sirniakan Empire. Azadihosh's mother tried to have me murdered once my mother fell out of favor. That's when my mother had me smuggled west to the Qin."

Beje scratched an ear. "To her brother, the var. Then if princes are so ruthless in the empire, how comes there to be a claimant to rise against the new emperor?"

"My father the Emperor Farutanihosh has always been a canny and ruthless administrator. No one contests-contested-that. No one who contested that survived. But the noble clans consider-considered-him to be a softhearted, weak man, because at the request of his mother he left alive his younger full brother, Ufarihosh. He even let him marry and govern the southern provinces. The brothers were on good terms, if royal brothers can ever be said to be on good terms in the empire. Azadihosh and his mother must not have been able to murder Ufarihosh's sons before a claimant rose out of their ranks."

"Yet these would be the nephews of the emperor, not the sons of the emperor. Surely that would damage their claim."

"Perhaps. The southern provinces are populous, and traditional, old-fashioned. The son of an emperor known to be weakhearted, like Farutanihosh, might not receive their support if a better claimant raised his spear. Anything could happen there. I don't know. My mother hoped to keep me out of palace politics by sending me away to her own people, to the Qin, where it would never matter what happened to me. I would be an exile. I would be dead to the court. But now they've come to find me, just as she feared. She meant to keep secret what had become of me. Do you know how my brother found out where I was?"

"I do not."

"Hu. A mystery, then." He kept his gaze on Beje, each man watching the other intently, as if waiting for a knife to be drawn. "What do you mean to do, Commander?"

Beje tucked the message back inside his tunic. He scratched one ear again, pulling on the lobe. Mai remembered to breathe. Anji nodded at her to show he hadn't forgotten her, before looking back at the commander.

"It's too bad that you never arrived here," said Beje. "After that terrible storm in the desert some days ago, I sent out a scout. We found dead horses, dead men, and your banner, torn and dirty, but recognizable. Your ring, too, that gold lion given to you by the var when you were twelve and first come to court. A shame! The storm must have caught your troop unprepared."

"It never would! That's a slur on my competence!"

The commander smiled sharply. "You must choose between incompetence or death, Anjihosh. This is the chance I will give you, because I am shocked that my cousin the var would betray his own nephew to the Sirniakans. But then, this is the same man who gave his sister to their emperor as a plaything. It's like spitting at the gods to treat a woman of our people in such a way. I hold to the old ways."

"None better," said Anji with a brief smile.

"None better! But shamed anyway, because of my daughter." He picked up the carving and tossed it to Anji, who caught it deftly. "You'll have to take all your men. Those who won't go with you I will kill. I can't take any chances."

Anji glanced at Priya. "They'll all go with me."

"Any men who know you came to me will have to go with you as well, including Tohon. He's the best scout I have. You can trust him. Your wife can take the Mariha girl as an attendant. I don't know what use she is except for pouring khaif."

Anji had an amused smile back on his face. "Where am I to go, Commander? If my uncle the var will not have me, then I cannot ride west. I cannot ride east into Sirniaka. South lies desert and, beyond that, mountains whose passes are so high that travelers die with their own blood boiling on their lips."

"North," said Mai. "You said yourself there's a place that merchants speak of, like that one who found Uncle Hari's ring. Shai is going there anyway. We'll go with him."

Anji laughed.

"There is one pass running north, through high mountains, to this land of a hundred lords," said Beje. "But it's said the land there protects its own with ancient magic. That any folk who travel that way with malice in their hearts cannot survive the journey. The road vanishes. Blizzards drown them."

"Merchants go there," insisted Mai.

"Merchants travel where soldiers fear to ride," said Beje with a laugh that sounded uncannily like Anji's: amused, resigned, ironical.

"Merchants travel, but every merchant travels with a guard," said Anji. "Mai is right, of course. We'll go north, if you can put us on the proper road. We can hire ourselves out as a guard to some merchant caravan heading over the pass."

"These Sirniakans are fiends for official chits and seals. I hear they arrest any person who hasn't a pass to account for his whereabouts. Heh! Even their dead must have a permission chit for their ghosts to depart for the other life!"

"I still have the palace warrant my mother gave me. We'll go swiftly."

"That you must. You'll have to ride into the northern reaches of the empire, but I think you'll be safe if you move fast, before anyone suspects the truth."

"We can leave at once."

"No baths?" Mai asked, feeling all her dirt, every grain of it.

Anji chuckled. He met her gaze, and she laughed, suddenly not caring. Dirt was the least of it. Dirt was nothing, not if he loved her. "I promise you a bath. When it is safe."

"Why not now?" asked Beje, eyeing her with the glint of lechery in his expression, nothing she hadn't seen a thousand times in the marketplace. She smiled, in the way she'd learned to acknowledge men without encouraging them, and he laughed and slapped his thigh.

Anji rose, sobering. "There was a troop of riders on our trail."

"It's true you'll need to leave before they see you," said Beje, "but you need have no fear of them. They are the men who came from the desert, the ones who found your remains. I'll need your officer's tunic, your banner, and your ring."

"Once I give you the banner and the ring I am no longer Qin."

"Yes," agreed Beje. "You are a dead man now, Anjihosh. Try to stay alive, if you can."



After they climbed out of the Mariha Valley, they traveled east and north for ten, twenty, forty, sixty and more days along the eastern slopes of the spine of the world, that interlocking chain of mountains and massifs that formed the northern boundary of the world Shai knew. The southern and western deserts-Kartu Town itself-lay three or more months' journey behind them. Dusty trails led them along grassy hills and through sparse woodland. This late in the year, well into the dry season, the streams falling out of the highlands were running low, although there was still enough water for horses and soldiers alike. In Kartu Town, where water came from a trio of precious springs, water cost a tidy price. Here in the wilderness, water was free.

Tohon took Shai under his wing, as an uncle might. They rode forward to scout every day.

"You're not skilled enough to be a tailman," the soldier explained to Shai, "but you're cousin to captain's wife, so the men humor you. Better learn a few things."

"My friends are teaching me to fight," said Shai, embarrassed by this talk.

"They're just having fun, beating you up. I'll teach you a few tricks. Then they'll respect you."

Had they been making fun of him all along, in the guise of friendship? Was he that great of a fool, just like his mother and elder brothers-all but Hari-had always said? Had he mistaken all the signs?

"Herdsmen," said Tohon, pointing toward distant slopes.

Shai saw nothing. Escarpments limned the sky, although there were never any mighty peaks to be seen glittering on high. But the landscape kept no secrets from the scout.

"That cliff. Track, down. Here, now, follow my hand. Those aren't a field of stone. Those are sheep. Captain will send Chief Tuvi up there to trade. We'll eat mutton tomorrow night. You try that throw I taught you on Jagi and Pil. You'll see."

The Qin loved to wrestle. When Shai threw Jagi the next night, catching his ankle behind a heel and upending him flat on his rump, the soldiers hooted and hollered in a way that shamed and pleased Shai.

"Didn't think you could do that," said Chief Tuvi. "We'll make a tailman of you after all."

Having bet on the outcome, Tohon won a cupful of millet, which he shared in halves with Shai. "Not much of this left," he said. They washed the thick porridge down with pungent fermented mare's milk. He seemed unconcerned that the field rations they'd been issued by Commander Beje were, at long last and after being carefully rationed, running out. Mostly, they ate meat killed on the march.

They were camped beside a stream. Mai, with Priya and Sheyshi in attendance, had gone a little ways upstream. Shai could see her scrubbing at her arms and face, although the water was snowmelt, gaspingly cold. In the last light, men set snares, and one of the foreign camp men netted for fish. Anji was seated cross-legged, repairing a harness while chatting with a pair of veterans as easily as if they were family.

"Why are you teaching me?" Shai asked Tohon.

"Eh? Because we Qin respect a man who can fight."

"No. I meant, why are you willing to teach me?" If it's true that the others were doing nothing but beating me up. But he didn't want to speak that thought aloud.

"You're tough. You don't complain. You have the hands of a man who works, not like those soft-handed Mariha princelings. Anyway, I miss my sons."

"What happened to them?"

"One is dead. Another is a soldier. The youngest tends the herds in the range given to my clan by the ancestor gods. Anyway, these here are Itay men. I'm Vasay."

"I don't know what you mean."

"The ancestors. It's an old feud between two clans. I give glory to my Vasay mother by teaching you to win a few rounds and get their respect."

The next day Tohon paused to eye a pair of hawks hanging on the winds above the long ridgeline to their west. Although this land was tough and dry, it was still handsomely fertile with tall grass and copses of birch, pine, pipe, and thorn-brush trees. Game animals were plentiful.

"Deer. See. There."

With Shai hanging back, out of the way, Tohon went after the herd, and killed three before the rest scattered out of range. Shai retrieved a few of the arrows that had missed their targets. He'd been given a knife big enough and sharp enough to butcher with, and he set to work as Tohon studied the eastern horizon.

"Smoke," said Tohon now, but although Shai squinted, he saw nothing except tender wisps of high cloud strung along the reach of sky above the endless rolling hills. The wind was pushing up out of the southeast, and it eddied here where the higher ridge fell away into the broken hills through which they rode. "Must be coming into empire's territory. You can see how the line of trees begins to break into denser growth. That means the land falls away pretty quickly up ahead, into some kind of valley. There's another pair of hawks riding the wind where the secondary ridge falls away."

Shai didn't see them, but he nodded.

"You ride back. Let captain know. It's a decent-sized place up there, forty hearths at least. He'll want warning. Decide our tactics."

"Who lives out here? There's been no one for days. Except those herdsmen."

"We've stayed in the wild lands for a reason. Any farther east, and we'd be in the empire. Now, the mountains are pushing us there, so we have to go."

"Do the Sirniakans think of the Qin as enemies, or as friends?"

"Best hope the official who rules the lands out here got the news that the Qin are allies now. Maybe he didn't. Anyway, even if they treat us as friends, they'll have orders to kill Captain Anji. If they can catch him. If they figure out who he is. Go on. Send Jagi up to finish the butchering."

The hooves of Shai's horse kicked up dust as he rode back the way they had come. Captain Anji deployed many layers of scouts. Soon enough Shai hailed the second rank forward, and sent Jagi ahead to join Tohon while Pil headed off the path to signal the two men riding singleton as rangers, one to either side. As he rode up to the main company, he saw Chief Tuvi call a halt. It was an impressive group that made a lot of dust with a big herd of horses and over two hundred mounted men, Mai, and the slaves: Mai's two female attendants, Mountain, the nine bearers, and a youth who had seen them at Beje's villa and been given a choice between death or exile.

"What news?" asked Anji as Shai came in.

Mai bent close to listen. Her cheeks and forehead were powdered with dust, and she had wound a cloth tight around her hair to keep it as clean as anything could be in these conditions.

Shai repeated Tohon's words. There came after this a silence as the captain considered.

"Avoid, or confront?" asked Chief Tuvi.

Anji shaded his eyes. He was scanning the heavens. His gaze had caught on the same pair of hawks that had gotten Tohon's attention. Shai could see them now. "No choice, I think. The highlands will pinch off these high trails and leave us stranded. We have to dip into the lower lands to reach the road that leads north into the Hundred. There will be some smaller towns, but we aim for the market town of Sarida. That's where we'll find our caravan."

"How do you know this?" All looked at Shai, who had rudely interrupted the considerations of the captain.

"You talk too much," remarked Chief Tuvi.

Anji replied with no change in expression, watchful as he examined the raptors. "A boy in the palace is trained in an exacting manner. The palace priests command a map room with every temple and way station marked on a vast table sculpted in the manner of a model of the land itself. Every mother of a royal son would whip her boy if he answered a question wrong."

"Were you whipped?" asked Mai with a laugh. She was the only person bold enough to ask, and not be scolded for asking.

Anji did not smile. He did not frown. The hawks interested him more than the question. "Never," he said, absently. "Never would I have given my mother any reason to be disappointed in me. Tuvi. Pull in the scouts. Mai. You must play a part."

"Yes." She agreed without asking what part she must play.

Shai envied the trust and loyalty she granted her husband. Yet what choice had any of them? They were riding into the enemy's country now, and Anji was the only one among them who knew the lay, and the law, of the land.


In the Sirniakan Empire, women of rank did not appear in public.

For weeks now Mai had ridden in the open air, and she had come to feel comfortable on horseback, breathing the wind. The palanquin had been carefully broken down into pieces and loaded onto packhorses. The bearers, now accustomed to riding rather than bearing, must regain the strength to carry the palanquin all day without faltering.

As soon as they entered the empire, Mai became blind and soft. Off came the sturdy trousers and calf-length felt coat worn by the Qin. In silks and pillows, she became a royal concubine being sent to the north for unspecified reasons and escorted by a band of slave mercenaries from the palace guard who carried a palace warrant. All this she heard secondhand, or strained to hear through beaded curtains at the many toll stations where Anji's credentials were challenged and, inevitably, accepted.

She listened to the empire and heard many things: the bark of military commands at each checkpoint; the rattle of wheels on stone as they passed carts and wagons; the pounding of hooves and the slap of feet on dirt; the lowing of cows and the bleat of sheep. Water wheels slurped and spat; hammers beat in passing rhythms; laboring men sang working songs in gangs whose melodies rose and fell in volume as she came closer and then was carried away. Towns, she recognized for the clatter of stone beneath them, and because of the incessant clamor of male voices. It was loud even in the market district where an inn could be bespoke for a midday rest or a night's sleep. According to Priya, they never went in through the inner gates of any town they passed. The royal warrant bought all, yet Mai saw nothing except the inside of the women's quarters. These consisted most often of a courtyard surrounded by whitewashed walls and paved with polished white pebbles. Here the palanquin would be set down, and a simple room prepared, stripped of all furniture and its rice-paper-covered windows nailed shut.

"You must not be seen," Anji had said to her before they left the ridge trails and rode down into inhabited country to set foot on the imperial roads. "Not even by the Sirniakan women who will serve you. They must deal only with your slaves. You must use only your own utensils and bedding. No royal concubine would touch any item handled by commoners."

White rooms and white courtyards, and herbs whose perfume leavened the stark gardens; scent was all that relieved the monotony of her days. The food was simple, tinted red and green and yellow with spices she had no name for and whose aroma made her queasy. Usually they had for their drink only a hard wine that left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth and a sour feeling in her stomach, but sometimes there was also a sweet juice, the best thing she had ever tasted and which she could never get enough of. More rarely, she was offered a comforting cup of khaif.

Anji did not come to her. He was merely a captain assigned to escort her, and they could not chance that someone might suspect that the truth was different than the tale he spun. Spies were everywhere: children giggling behind unseen peepholes; female voices murmuring on the other side of closed doors; more distantly the shouting and arguments of men and often the boisterous song of drunken men out on the streets just after sunset, following by the ringing of bells and the profound silence of night's rest. Priya and Sheyshi went about with heads and necks and mouths and noses covered, only their eyes left to them. Otherwise they were hidden in vast shawls that covered them to the ankles.

"The most beautiful silks," Priya reported. "Inside the home, the women are most beautiful and dressed as richly as queens. Loose silk trousers and long silk jackets that reach almost to the floor and are clasped with braid across the torso. I wish you could admire the fashion here."

"No one will ever believe I am a royal concubine if I am not dressed in the proper manner. These jackets and robes from Kartu are well enough for a woman of the Mei clan. Yet I wonder if they would seem poor to a royal concubine. You must say we met with some manner of trouble on the way, my wagons lost in a ford when we crossed. When we come to a town with a proper marketplace, it will be necessary for me to replenish my wardrobe."

Through Priya she sent this message to Anji, and soon thereafter, at each stop, silks arrived, gifts from local lords and magistrates hoping to curry favor.

Here were colors to delight her-marigold yellows as intense as sunlight, coral reds and blood reds and rust reds, joyous oranges and plangent blue-greens-and patterns to astonish, blossoms and vines and bulbs and leaves, every manner of floral gaudery both woven and embroidered in the style proper to a woman of rank.

"I will die of boredom in this seclusion," she said one evening to Sheyshi as they sat in a narrow room whose white walls and papered windows oppressed her. "How soon will we come free of the empire?"

"I do not know, Mistress." The Mariha girl was combing Mai's hair in long strokes. She seemed content enough. Mai thought it possible the girl was a little stupid. No fault of the girl's, of course. Sometimes things just worked out that way.

"When does Priya return with our supper?"

"I do not know, Mistress."

"It seemed to me this might be a larger town than the others we've come to," she added, because the rumble of traffic had been so loud together with the rattle and shrill of pots and laughter, the barking of dogs and the cackle of fowl, and the drone of myriad voices. As she had rocked along the thoroughfare, she had heard the scrape of carpenters' adzes and had smelled wood shavings, as if they passed through a carpentry district. She thought of Shai, who loved to work wood, and wondered what he thought of all this. Had Uncle Hari seen similar scenes when he was marched north out of the empire with whatever doomed troop he had fallen in with in the end?

A door slammed shut with a sharp report. Footsteps drummed erratically on wood. A woman shrieked a protest.

The door into her seclusion opened with the same quick spasm as of a gasp drawn inward in surprise. Two men pushed in. One held a long knife. The other drew his sword. Sheyshi screamed and fell flat to the floor, covered her eyes with her hands.

Mai stared at them for a thousand years, it seemed, although in that space of time they did not move more than one step each. They had complexions not darker but different from Kartu folk, and they had also sharper faces, while Kartu folk had broader cheeks and gentler eyes.

They are coming to kill me.

She had been kneeling on her pillow, but smoothly she rose, and faced them. It was her training, honed in the market. Even in her early days, no customer had ever torn her facade, not even the ones who had surprised her.

"Who are you?" she said in the cool voice she might use to a matron who offered a deliberately insulting price for her wares.

They faltered. Sheyshi moaned in fear at Mai's feet. The two men exchanged a glance, speaking without words. Their smell, like everything in this country, hit her strongly: straw and stables and leather and a hint of piss and a spice that made her nose itch. Her instincts were good. Even in this extremity, she could see into them, men determined but not subtle.

They are surprised by what they find. This is not the face and form and reaction they expect.

The man on the left raised his sword. The other one tightened his grip on the knife hilt. So slowly it all transpired: they took another step, while she considered the strength of the walls behind her and whether it was likely she could smash through them.

A rush of footfalls swept up the corridor. Chief Tuvi burst into the room with Anji behind him as the assassins turned to meet them, but those who wished to protect her had a kind of rare fury to aid them. With a few strokes the men were cut down. They fell to the floor, and they bled and bled, croaking and gasping, until Tuvi cut their throats.

Anji looked at her from the other side of the corpses. "Can you speak? Can you move?"

"Yes, but Sheyshi is having hysterics."

"We're leaving now. If she does not get up, then Tuvi will kill her and leave her with these." He paused, cocked his head as he listened, and dashed out of the room. On the heels of his exit, Priya ran in, tears on her face.


"I'm unharmed."

Priya knelt, gathered up cup, pillows, bedding, and carried these out into the corridor. Mai took in a breath, aware suddenly that she had not breathed for forever. She knelt beside the sobbing Sheyshi.

"We must go now. Now. Do you hear? Come. Stand up."

The girl pulled her hands from her face, saw a trail of blood oozing toward her, and wailed. She rolled backward to get away from it.

Mai took hold of her shoulder. "Close your eyes. Do it. Close your eyes and get up."

"Leave her," said Tuvi. "I'll kill her after you're gone. Not worth dying for, that one."

"Sheyshi! Close your eyes. I'll lead you."

Tuvi leaped over the corpses. The stink of fresh blood became overpowering, and Sheyshi began to retch, although nothing came up.

"It's very bad, Mistress," Tuvi said reasonably. "Some local agent has guessed the truth. We are a day's ride from Sarida. We must get there before those who suspect the captain's identity get news back down the line to a commander who can do something about it. Leave this one. Go!"

"Sheyshi!" Mai was angry now. It was so stupid to die this way. "Come now, or I'll have to leave you. Come now!" She hooked a hand under the girl's armpit, and tugged, and at last, spitting and groaning, the slave staggered to her feet. Limp and passive, eyes squeezed shut, she allowed Mai to lead her along the wall and out of the room, across the corridor, through the women's courtyard where a huddle of women crouched on the ground under the guard of four of Anji's men. Mai could not see their faces. They had thrown their colorful shawls up over their heads to cover themselves. A toddling boy crouched between two of them, bawling, until one of the women slapped him, and then he bawled louder and was wrestled under the tent of her outer shawl, where his cries were choked off.

The gate that led out of the women's courtyard stood open. Hesitantly, she stepped through. The late-afternoon shadows stretched across the large inn courtyard, but despite the late hour, Anji's men went about their purposeful business, saddling horses, tying on packs. The palanquin stood to one side, sliding door open, interior stripped and empty. Anji led a horse to her.

"You'll wrap yourself as Priya shows you, covering your face." He did not look at her; already he scanned the wide gates that let onto the thoroughfare. Despite the imposing blockade of a dozen of his soldiers, passersby had gathered to gawk and point and comment. Some, seeing Mai, gave up a shout, and Anji called, and his soldiers pushed into the street by laying their whips about them viciously.

"Aren't we making a stir?" she asked, looking toward the palanquin.

"Too late now," he said. "One of the red hounds got away. We must outrun them. Cover your face."

He thrust the reins into her hands and strode off. Priya ran up and wrapped a shawl tightly around Mai's head and neck and shoulders, twisted it, knotted it, tucked it; gave Mai a pair of hands to boost her into the saddle. The first rank of mounted soldiers pressed forward through the gate. Chief Tuvi came up beside Mai.

"You stick with me, Mistress," he said. "You're never to leave my sight."

Fear clenched like a fist in her stomach. Priya had tied the shawl so tight that the cloth flattened her nose, making it hard to take in a full breath, but Mai was afraid to adjust anything in case it fell off. Already they were moving; the transition occurred without her awareness, only that her muscles tensed as her mount trotted forward alongside Chief Tuvi. She looked for Shai over the heads of the men around her, but she could not see him.

As they pushed through the gate she saw, in the distance, a flower of smoke blooming in the hard bright sky. A high-toned bell began to ring, joined by a second and a third. The noise of crowds of men in a panic swelled like the boom of gusting wind in a storm. A racket of clattering sounds-like sticks striking stone-echoed from out of the streets. She smelled smoke, and turned in the saddle with the shawl almost blinding her, cloth rucked around her eyes. Flames leaped from the steep roof of the inn where she had just sheltered. She stared, unable to comprehend it, because the roof was formed of planks of wood. No one had that much wood, to waste it on roofing! Runnels of fire coursed along the pitch. Smoke poured out from under the eaves.

They turned a corner and, riding fast, hit the outskirts of the town along a series of tenements and hovels fenced into corral-like compounds by waist-high plastered walls. Open fields stretched ahead. Farther out, terraces heavy with crops and, above them, wooded slopes marked the limits of the valley. They turned north, whipping the horses into a jolting run. The road was paved but the roadway itself was much wider than the central stone corridor, which was paralleled on either side by dirt tracks fuzzed at their verge by wisps of grass and weeds. Men straightened from their labor in the fields to stare. Workers toiling over stinking tanning vats leaped up in surprise as the troop raced past them. Folk trudging in toward town with burdens balanced in baskets on their heads or slung along their backs fell backward to get off the road. Glossy orange and red fruit spilled and rolled and was trampled under hoof. Uncannily, no one screamed imprecations after the troop as they scrambled to get out of the way. Theirs was the silence of obedience. Only dogs yipped and chased them. Behind, more bells joined the clamor.

Mai's eyes stung with tears. She gripped the pommel to keep herself steady, although in truth the Qin saddles were built to keep the rider stable, able to stay on the horse while handling bow or spear or sword. They rode at a draining pace through a countryside whose lands were in fields out to every available cranny and corner. Compounds plastered to a gleaming white stood in the midst of grain fields.

Soon it grew too dark to observe the surrounding landscape. Torches were lit, and tailmen took them up, riding at stages within the troop, lighting their way. Naturally, their pace slowed, but the road was smooth and level, nothing like the haphazard tracks whose intertwining threads made up the Golden Road, the route along which trade flowed east and west along the northern shore of the vast desert.

The stars made a brilliant ornament above them. The moon rose, adding its handsome light as they pushed on into the night. Very late, they stopped where an irrigation canal cut close to the road. Here Anji allowed the horses to be watered while the soldiers switched mounts, saddling up those horses that hadn't borne weight on this first leg. They worked in a disciplined silence. Now and again a murmured comment surfaced and was tersely answered.

"This strap has broken."

"Here's a cord to replace it."

"This mare is blown."

"Cut her loose. She'll follow if she can."

"Let me use your knife."

"Lost yours?"

"Stuck in bone. Didn't have time to get it out."

"Huh. Clumsy of you. Chief 'll send you back to be a tailman!"

The horses were tough, and the men showed no sign of strain, but she was weary and her thighs hurt and her hands ached. O'eki brought fresh horses. Sheyshi crouched on the ground, rocking obsessively. Priya stood beside Mai, saying nothing, watchful and alert, although the darkness around her eyes betrayed her exhaustion and fear.

"Where are the bearers?" Mai asked. "Where is Shai?"

"I don't know," Priya whispered. "There were fires. Fighting in the rear guard."

"I heard it too," Mai said, recalling now the rhythm of the clattering sounds she had thought were sticks.

A short distance away, Chief Tuvi was conferring with Anji. Horses stamped. A soldier jerked a gelding away from the water, where it had been drinking too long. Mai wanted to go looking for Shai, but the urgency of their flight pinned her to this one place, even though she had to pee. If she wasn't ready to go, they would leave without her. Shaking, she reached under the long silk jacket, undid her loose trousers, and squatted right there while Priya swiftly unwound the shawl that covered her head and torso and held it up to shield her.

"This is so hard," Mai whispered when she was done, and standing again. "What happened?"

"Some kind of agents from the palace," said Priya. "I have seen many strange things in these few days, Mistress. Everything in this land is done one way only. The gates are locked at night and unlocked in the morning. Women live in one place and men in another. Each town has fields laid out in the same pattern, allowing for differences in the lay of the land. Each town looks alike. There is a temple in the center of each town, but the women told me that women are not allowed to go there. They were shocked I should think so. I! Who served the Merciful One as an honored acolyte! That's not all. There are spies everywhere, that is what Captain Anji said. He told us to keep watch for them, and for their scat. He calls them the red hounds. I think they must be like the demon dogs who chased the Merciful One across the bone desert. Their eyes are red with blood and their bodies are feathered with dust and iron shavings."

"It was men who tried to kill me."

"They can appear in any guise. They are not earthly creatures like you and me. They are born out of sparks of anger and despair. The whirlwind twists them into a material form." Priya shuddered. "You were very brave, Mistress. You stood up to them."

The memory of that moment did not disturb Mai. It was sealed as in glass, separate from her. But she was still shaking from the rush of the ride, and the stench of smoke in her nostrils. Had those women crouching in the courtyard, with their hidden faces, gotten out of the burning courtyard in time?

"I didn't see," said Priya. "We left too quickly. But it would be better for them if they did die."

"How can you say that?"

"The red hounds will question anyone who survives the fire. It would be better to be dead than to suffer their questions."

"What about Shai?" she asked Priya. "I don't see him. What of the bearers?" Where were the nine slaves who had borne her so faithfully for so long?

Priya cupped her hands in emulation of the Merciful One's offering bowl, and dipped her face toward her hands, to show the spilling of sorrow, tears unwept. "They guarded the entrance to your suite of rooms. The red hounds slaughtered them. That's how we first knew something was wrong."

Tears unwept, Mai heard the call to mount. She touched Priya's hand, to give comfort, to get comfort. O'eki returned, leading four horses, and without further speech-for what was there left to say? — they rode on.


"With me," said Tohon, jerking Shai's attention away from the open shopfronts where carpenters worked. The street was lined with workshops. The smell of wood shavings brought a sense of peace, the memory of honest industry on the slopes of Dezara Mountain, but Tohon was already riding off and Shai had to follow.

Tohon balanced two sealed jars on his thighs. A pair of tailmen-Jagi and Tam-came with them, Tam leading a packhorse with six or eight jars bound in netting and slung over the beast and Jagi with a bundle of greasy sticks clutched under his left arm and a slow-burning torch held in his right. Down the main avenue they rode. Men paused to watch them pass, curious or suspicious, then turned away with a passivity in the face of the unusual that made Shai feel both safe and queasy. In Kartu Town, folk treated the Qin that way, too, looking away because to question brought punishment. Now he was one of them. Not above the law, but holding the law with the sword in his hand.

This town like all towns in the empire was laid out in an orderly octagon. Fields and orchards gave way to stockyards, tanning yards, construction yards, threshing yards, smithing yards, any kind of activity whose stench or fire danger or need to sprawl made it inappropriate to the orderly and narrow lanes. Next came compounds of humble dwellings with plastered walls surrounding each one and a single gate for entry. Then they came into the market, where they always halted for the night at a compound flying the orange banner stamped with an unreadable blot of lines and circles that, Shai had worked out, denoted an inn. They were not allowed to ride farther in, to the larger residential compounds with their higher walls, the military garrison, and the spires marking the precincts of the holy temple.

Turning right and right again on the narrowing streets, Tohon cupped a hand under one of the jars and flung it into the air. It fell in a long arc and broke, smashing on the roof of a carpenter's compound. Potsherds skittered into pipewood gutters. Oil glided down over the plank roof.

Shai stared, then urged his horse after Tohon. A man shouted in protest. A bright flare flashed behind him, and he turned in the saddle. Behind, Jagi had lit one of the sticks on fire. He tossed it onto the roof.

Spilled oil exploded into flame. They turned right again, rode on, turned left. Tohon flung another jar while Tam, with the skill of a born horseman, extricated a third jar from the netting on the back of the packhorse. Tohon drew his sword and nodded at Shai, a signal to draw his as well. How strange it was to push through the streets with death in your hand. Always, before, he had stepped out of the path of passing soldiers. Now folk fled from him. He grinned, although the expression fit his face strangely. Their fear gratified him, but the pounding of his heart and the flush of excitement along his skin made him uneasy. Should he like this so much? When he looked at his comrades, they looked like men about their everyday business, nothing thrilling or horrifying about it, just doing their job.

They moved through the outer streets, tossing jars and flaming sticks. Bells began to ring an alarm. By the time they circled back to where they'd started, the inn was on fire, roaring and snapping with sheets of heat pouring off it. Tohon rode past without stopping, making for the countryside. Shai slowed down as they passed the open gates. Corpses sprawled in the courtyard, but the smoke made his eyes water, hid their faces from view. He thought some might be Mai's slave bearers. Some were women. Wisps of ghostly fabric were only now oozing from the bodies, cowering over the severed flesh. They were not yet aware that they were dead.

The streets were mobbed with men running in a panic, some hauling buckets, others desperate to save anything they could from the fires. A child screamed. The distinctive incense of cedar and sandalwood burning penetrated the acrid taint of smoke. Then they pushed out beyond the streets and turned north on the road, following the trail of the main troop. Behind, the southern quarter of town was going up in flames, serenaded by the clangor of the alarm bells.

They rode hard to catch up with the others, rode at intervals all night, rested in the hour before daybreak when the moon had gone down, and as soon as it was light moved on. The road pushed upward at a steady incline, enough to really strain the horses. Five more were blown and their blood drained into cups to strengthen the men, but the rest pushed on with the same placid tough-mindedness as their riders. Maybe the horses knew what fate awaited them if they faltered. Although Shai did not know the details, they had lost two tailmen, a young groom, and all nine of the slave bearers in the conflagration. No one spoke of the dead men.

The valley broadened but the heights beyond grew higher and more rugged. They came at midday to a spectacular overlook. Beyond, the valley split into three forks, each one plunging into the most impressive highlands Shai had ever seen, steep hillsides so green that the color burned the eye. Slopes blazed under the hot blue sky. Terraces of ripening grain stair-stepped down steep hillsides. Streams coursed down from every height. He glimpsed waterfalls like hidden ribbons caught among the crags.

Below, the road split, like the valley, into three distinct paths. Just north of this crossroads lay a startlingly blue lake and beside it a town.

"Sarida," said Captain Anji.

Mai was haggard and tense, with her head wrapped in a shawl to leave only her face exposed.

The town had the usual octagon shape but fewer spires in its central temple and an untidy growth on its southern walls: a mass of wagons and livestock seemingly disgorged from the market quarter but not in motion. Any person who lived on the Golden Road could recognize, even from a distance, the caravan quarter. It was the lifeblood of a town, where merchants, carters, drovers, and guardsmen seeking a hire met, mingled, and made mutually advantageous bargains. No one traveled any distance alone.

"It may be that fortune favors us today," Anji went on. He pointed. "There's a caravan gathering in Sarida's caravan market. A large one. Let's hope it's traveling north toward the Hundred, and not south back into the heart of the empire." He conferred with Chief Tuvi, Tohon, and a pair of older men. The three women were directed to change into Qin clothing. Behind a blanket, they did so. When they emerged, they had tucked their hair tightly away under cloth bindings. Tuvi gave the signal to move. Mai pulled an end of cloth to cover her mouth and nose, as against dust, with only her beautiful eyes exposed.

Tohon move up alongside to Shai. "You stay with me, lad."

They rode on.

"Empire towns have walls, but they are not fortresses," Tohon explained as they followed in the dust of the main troop, riding rear guard with six tailmen behind them to sound the warning should the emperor's red hounds catch up. The busier Tohon was scanning the landscape to either side, the likelier he was to get to talking. "They're not built to repel an army. We hit one once. That was many years ago, before the first treaty was signed between them and us, the one that sent the captain's mother to the Sirniakan court to become the emperor's concubine. I was just a groom, not yet old enough to ride as a tailman."

"I thought the new treaty with this new emperor made the Sirniakans and the Qin allies. Why did they need that, then? If they were allies before?"

"There was trouble, fighting and raids, along the border after the var's sister-that is, the captain's mother-lost favor in the imperial household. Now there's this new treaty."

"Then are they building walls in case of war?"

"No. They build walls because their god tells them to. He likes things orderly. Some things inside, some things outside, these things here and those things there. All I know is, never talk to one of their priests. They'll chop off your head just for a wrong word. And, never put a foot into their temple grounds. They'll do worse."

"What can they do worse than chop off your head?"

Tohon chuckled. "Tss! You're young!"

"What do their priests look like, so I'll know not to talk to one?"

"I don't know. I never saw one."

The hillsides were covered with terraces. Men moved barefoot through those small plots, but the work they stooped to in those wet fields made little sense to Shai, who had grown up among the wood shavings and pastureland of his ancestors' holdings. Tohon seemed to take it in with the same interest he would take in the flights of birds and the venture of animals through the grass: only that which might threaten him interested him.

The road came down onto the valley floor among fenced pastures and orchards in strict ranks. They rode in and out of morning shade. Four towers could be seen in the distance, though trees hid the rest of Sarida. Clouds had piled up along the northern horizon, hiding the mountains. Above them, the sky was clear, and the sun growing hot. Bees buzzed where flowers bloomed in parallel rows beyond the roadside paths. A little girl wearing a long blue dress and a gold apron, with her hair tied up in a gold scarf, stood among the golden flowers with a mass of flowers heaped in her arms. She stared as they passed. A man wearing a leather apron and a dirty tunic knelt beside a wheelbarrow half filled with fruit. He shouted at the girl. Hastily, she dropped to her knees and bent her head. A bird sang a five-note song; red wings flashed in the trees. Tohon scratched his nose, sniffing as if he smelled smoke.

Where the road curved past a bristling hedge, they broke free of the ranks of orchard to find themselves right up against the outlying districts of Sarida. Fenced gardens growing herbs, vegetables, or flowers competed for space with stinking tanning yards and the beaten ground around smoking kilns. Off to the right Shai saw a spectacular lumberyard, all kinds and sizes of stacked logs, but Tohon slapped him on the elbow to get his attention as they rode up to the outskirts of the outermost district: the caravan market, where merchants and strangers were permitted to bide.

The caravan market had overflowed its corral-like wall, and the town guards were too busy trying to keep order to prevent the entry of a troop of soldiers bearing a palace warrant. Many wagons had gathered on the field beyond the corral. Drovers and servants loitered there, holding just about anything over their heads to get some shade as the sun rose toward the zenith. Qin grooms held the main herd tightly grouped out beyond the low walls, but the rest of the troop pushed in past the gates to an open plot of ground where the men who ran the market took their tolls and taxes. As Shai rode in at the rear, beside Tohon, local men gave way: porters bearing sacks of meal or carters pushing barrels that smelled of oil; slaves clad in little more than a loincloth, with scars lacing their bare backs; merchants borne in chairs, who shouted at their bearers as they lurched to one side; a pair of dogs with ears and tails down; a pack of boys in short tunics, hair pulled back into braided horsetails, who slunk away after the dogs.

The men who ran the market conducted their business on a raised plank deck sheltered by a plank roof. Anji rode right up onto that deck, the hooves of his horse a hollow thunder on the wood. He had his whip in his hand, but no sword. The market officials rose, outraged, but in the face of about two hundred armed and dangerous men, they did not speak hard words. Many glanced elsewhere, as if seeking reinforcements, someone else to draw the soldiers' attention. Mai was lost among the centermost knot of the troop, while the rest of the riders had fanned out to cover the open ground. Shai pushed forward with Tohon.

"Is there a caravan headed north today?" Anji's voice carried easily. "We've come with special instructions from Dalilasah, from the Compassionate Magistrate of the Fourth Army, and the Eleventh Warden of the Eighth Pack out of the Glorious Red Hounds. We are to ride north and clear the North Road and the pass of the recent infestation of robbers and heretics."

"We've heard no such tales, of robbers and heretics!" objected one of the local officials. The man blanched as Anji turned a stony gaze on him and drew the whip through the fingers of his opposite hand as tenderly as he might caress the hair of a woman.

"Surely you have not heard any idle talk of heretics," said Anji in a voice that made every man there cringe. Other officials stepped away from the fool who had spoken up. "We do not speak of such things openly, except in deadly times, such as these. Heresy is a plague that kills swiftly. Be wary. Be alert. Meanwhile, I ride with a special dispensation, a warrant from the palace. We leave at midday, after we've watered our horses. Any caravan master looking for protection may journey with us. But they must make ready at once. We do not wait."

It seemed unlikely to Shai that any merchant would ask for the protection of such a threatening crew. No one spoke up, but a whisper passed through the assembly. At the verge, the crowd melted away in the manner of boys and dogs.

Anji turned his men aside. They set to the task of watering the horses and stealing-they called it commandeering-grain, portable foodstuffs, da, and terig leaf from the storehouses. They provisioned themselves with a dispatch that Shai admired, considering how hungry he was. He himself pilfered sacks of oranges and dates, and slung a pair of these sacks over the withers of his own horse, with the other sacks over a spare pony. Jagi and Pil made fun of him; they didn't know what dates were, and the oranges, they said, would be mashed to pulp after one day on the road.

As the sun kissed the zenith, the troop assembled outside the gates of the caravan market. Astoundingly, a long line of wagons, slaves bound by rope, outriders, and peddlers pushing handcarts waited in marching order. The caravan master presented a hastily drawn-up manifest of merchants and goods to Captain Anji. They were ready to go, and eager, it seemed, to travel under the protection of such a menacing company.

"I can't believe they're agreeing to the captain's terms, just like that," muttered Shai to Tohon. "Aren't they suspicious? They have no idea if he's really what he claims to be."

Tohon chuckled. "A piece of advice, lad. When you talk, people hear that you don't understand what you see. Best to keep your eyes open, and your mouth closed. Look at them. They're scared. Fear tramples prudence. The captain tells them to obey, and they want to believe that if they obey they'll be safe, so they obey." He grinned in the friendliest manner possible, twisting the wispy strands at his chin that were all he had of a beard. That smile almost took the sting out of the words. "Are you any different?"

Chief Tuvi lifted the banner that signaled departure. Shouts and cries rose from among the merchants and wagon drivers. The vanguard pushed out, and the front of the caravan lurched after them as men and slaves all along the line braced themselves, getting ready to move.

North, to the Hundred. There, surely, they would find a safe haven.


"I'm sure we're not yet facing the worst," said Peddo with a rare look of disgust.

"That's what you said yesterday."

Joss had climbed up a stunted pine tree, scraping his hands in the process, and now angled his body out over the edge of the drop-off. Yes, indeed, the pack of men who had started shooting arrows at the two reeves yesterday at dusk had tracked them down and assembled at the base of the rock on which Peddo and Joss and their eagles had taken refuge for the night. The company below had rope, axes, and plenty of arrows. They had torches and, here in the tail end of the dry season, more than enough parched vegetation to get a conflagration going.

"I said it yesterday," said Peddo. "And I was right, wasn't I? But I was only thinking of what the Commander said-when was that? The hells! That was almost a year ago. Do you remember it? We had to do that escort duty along the roads for the first time, and then the town of River's Bend was burned down. 'Not yet facing the worst.' Truer words were never spoken."

Joss shinnied back, scraping his hands again on the bark, and jumped down beside Peddo. "Good thing they didn't find us while it was still night, or we'd be smoked with no way to fly out. Anyway, you weren't at that meeting. That was for legates only. How do you know she said that?"

Peddo had lost weight over the course of the Year of the Silver Fox. He looked hunted, harried, and worn, but when he grinned, you just had to grin with him. "I got you drunk and you spilled every word said in the meeting."

"You didn't get me drunk."

"That's true. You talked without being drunk. It must be part of your charm. Not that I can see it, mind you."

The first soft tendrils of smoke rose on the updrafts swirling around the huge rock formation. Peddo shaded his eyes and scanned the heavens, east against the rising sun, north, west, and south, but neither raptor-perched well away from each other at opposite ends of the highest spur-had seen anything in the hard blue sky, so that meant no reeves from Iron Hall could possibly be within human sight.

"What do you think?" Peddo asked more softly. "Those Iron Hall reeves swore to meet us near this landmark. Think they ran into an accident? I fear me-" He hesitated, rubbing his left shoulder where he'd taken an arrow wound two months ago. Glancing toward the edge, he did not attempt to look over at their assailants. "I fear me that they might have."

"Best move out, and fly upland. See if we can spot them, or they us."

"How far?"

Joss shrugged. "All the way to Iron Hall, if we must."

"Eagles are getting touchy. We might be attacked by one of our own for flying into their territory."

"We have to try. Anyway, that accident-four months ago, was it? — with that Copper Hall eagle was completely unexpected. That's the first time in years one eagle has attacked another for flying through its territory. Everyone-reeve and eagle alike-we're all agitated. We have to try, Peddo. We haven't had a messenger out of Iron Hall for a month."

And they'd been too overwhelmed to send a messenger of their own, just to trade reports, get up to date on the worsening situation across Haldia and the lowlands. Not enough reeves, and far too much violence.

We're helpless, but we have to try.

Below, enough brush had caught that the sound of fire crackling could be easily heard. The two raptors were getting anxious. Scar yelped. Jabi shifted restlessly, and as soon as Peddo fastened into the harness, the eagle thrust upward, beating hard. Arrows spat up from the ground below. Joss unhooded Scar, but then stepped away to the opposite side of the rock, to the lip where it tumbled straight down. He scanned the landscape, splendid to survey but pitted with traps for the unwary eagle: copses in which folk could hide, gulches into which a man could duck, clearings in which archers could raise their bows, sight, and loose, as they were doing now, knowing they had the shelter of trees nearby. There were many more men out there than he had first imagined. He sucked in smoke, coughed, but held his place, watching as arrows sped up from the ground in the wake of Jabi's flight. Jabi had served through three reeves; he was smart enough to gauge his distance, and keep clear, but those men would keep shooting and it was obvious to Joss that there were at least a hundred men scattered within eyeshot of the outcropping.

Scar kekked. Joss spun just as a scrape and rattle of stone betrayed the man scrambling up and over onto the height. Some damn fool had climbed, risking everything for the chance to kill a reeve.

Scar was a big bird. But that didn't mean he couldn't move fast.

The man shrieked, seeing that massive form as it struck. He stumbled backward. Scar's foremost talons raked over the thigh, hung in the flesh. Then, as the man slipped, flailing, into the gulf of air, the flesh ripped free, and he was gone over the edge, screaming.

"The hells!" swore Joss.

He heard the crash of the body as it smashed into rock and rolled over dry brush, and then a shout from wherever the fallen man had come to rest. A yammer rose from the men below like that of hungry dogs circling in for the kill. It was definitely time to go.

Scar was furious, head lowered, feathers raised along the back of his neck. He was twittering angrily, and although the sound seemed incongruous, coming from such a huge bird, Joss knew what it meant: A blooded eagle who had lost his prey was a bad-tempered eagle, roused and dangerous.

But the smoke was getting thicker. Others would climb, or were climbing. He had to act. He put the bone whistle to his lips, and blew the command meant to rouse any eagle to return to its reeve.

Scar lifted his head and opened his wings. Joss fastened into the harness. Up! Arrows rose, like rain falling upward, sheets of them, but Scar had grabbed an updraft with the first beat of his wings and kept rising, out of range. Far above, Jabi circled. Below, men scattered into hiding places, making it impossible to get an estimate of their numbers. Scar spiraled up on a thermal. Below, the fire began to spread. Joss and Peddo, keeping their distance, traded flag signals, then flew north in parallel tracks, within human visual range of each other. Gliding and spiraling, gliding and spiraling, the effortless flight of the healthy eagle. For a long time they could see black smoke from the fire, spreading as the blaze got out of control. No doubt, thought Joss sourly, the men who had started it would flee with no concern for what damage the fire would cause. But then, the Year of the Silver Fox had lived up to its worst characteristics: a contentious, difficult, dangerous year colored by ashes and gloom and death, one setback after the next.

As the day rose, they passed over empty tracks and roadways, flew above villages and hamlets where folk turned their fields or trimmed their trees and field shrubs to ready them for the rains due to arrive next month, after the turn of the year. What folk they saw who were out or abroad stuck close by the often pathetic palisades thrown up around every habitation; in many cases, people were raising or repairing walls.

They'd been aloft most of the morning when Jabi screamed an alert. Scar answered him. Both sets of raptor eyes fixed on a sight beyond human range. Soon enough Joss-and Peddo-saw it, too: another eagle and its reeve, circling high, riding a thermal but not really going anywhere. Plumes of smoke cut up from the land. Had they somehow swung around and were returning to the outcropping they'd started from? Or, the hells, was this a new conflagration?

They had flown well north into the uplands of Haldia. The River Istri, no larger than a stand of blue-green ribbon, snaked along the ground off to the west. The foothills of Heaven's Ridge swept the north and northwest; the upland plains to the east were lost in heat haze, although at this height the high plateau could be guessed, even at a distance of tens of mey, by the yellow shimmer smearing the eastern horizon. Just a few mey ahead lay the city of High Haldia, one of the Thirteen Bannered Cities in the Hundred. And it was the city, surely, that the smoke surrounded. As they flew closer, he caught sight of a second eagle, then counted four. Ten! More like vultures than eagles, circling as if waiting for the death throes to cease.

Whenever Scar shifted his wings, the movement of the raptor's breast muscles bunched and eased against Joss's back. After so many years, Joss could anticipate the changes. The muscles tensed, Scar dipped, then pulled up; Joss scanned the ground to see what Scar had seen and brought to his notice.

Files of men, everywhere.

Sometimes, when you were on patrol, the sights you observed hanging in harness at the breast of your eagle seemed absurd, unreal, a tale unfolding in the movements of tiny carved toys on a rumpled blanket. A mob was converging on High Haldia, whose attendant villages and fields were abandoned and whose gates were shut. Ants might swarm toward a nest of sweets in this same manner. Men were coming from all directions, grouped in companies and ranked by banners to mark their leaders and cadres. Every village claimed a rough and ready militia of thirty-six able adults; every town boasted a militia and guard of one hundred and eight who would run to serve if needs must. Every Bannered City paid a permanent guard to patrol its walls and streets and in addition organized a militia of folk able to stand up with weapons if they were called for, a full six companies if they could manage it or more in the largest population centers like Nessumara and Toskala. But such massed armed forces had become rare in recent times, in the days of Joss's mother and grandmothers. Even in the north, in Herelia, Iliyat, and Vess, where the ancient custom of lordship still held sway, a lord ruler could rarely afford to house and feed more than a single company of one hundred and eight.

There was a name, rarely used, for the creature pulling its net tight around the fields and walled precincts of High Haldia: an army.

An eagle dropped down to their elevation and sheared off toward the southwest. Joss flagged Peddo, and they both banked, and followed the Iron Hall reeve ten mey at least, an unexpected distance. The reeve brought the eagle down on a narrow ridge, the last outthrust of a bank of hills. The River Istri churned below, forced to bend sharply here on its seaward course. A ferry banner marked a crossing point below the stretch of whitewater, but no one was out on the river or waiting at the shelter. The Istri Walk, that wide road that ran the length of the River Istri from Nessumara to Seven, was entirely deserted; at this time of day it ought to be alive with the flow of traffic. As Joss and Peddo circled in, testing the air currents, the Iron Hall reeve hooded the eagle and trudged to the far end of the ridge to wait.

"The hells!" cried Peddo when he'd landed a safe distance from the other two eagles, and unhitched. Joss beckoned, and together they walked over to the Iron Hall reeve.

"The hells!" said Peddo again, as they came up to a tall, rangy woman with shadowed eyes, a chin scarred and twisted as though it had been broken but healed crooked, and silver streaking her black hair. "What's going on? How can it be Clan Hall has heard nothing of this?"

The reeve's expression tightened. A muffled chirp came from the other end of the ridge, her eagle sensing trouble. It was a big, big female, the kind who could cause a lot of damage.

Peddo barreled on. "Why aren't you reeves doing anything but riding the winds and just cursed watching it all happen?"

She raised a fist. Joss stepped forward before she could slug Peddo.

"I'm Joss, out of Clan Hall. This is Peddo. Mine's Scar, and his is Jabi. Greetings of the day to you. I don't mind saying this looks like a rough one."

She lowered her hand.

"Sorry," muttered Peddo.

She relaxed infinitesimally. Not that she looked like she remembered how to relax. "I'm Veda, out of Iron Hall. Mine's Hunter, there. Give her a wide berth. They gave me the duty of calling you Clan Hall reeves off, when you came. So now I've done. Best you go back to Toskala and tell the Commander-" Her voice, on that word, came edged with scorn, but Joss wasn't sure who or what she was aiming at. "-that the council at High Haldia has sworn to hold out against the attack for as long as they can. How long that will be, I couldn't say. But they've dug in. They're expecting to be besieged. They're as scared as any folk might be. They've heard the stories of villages burned and folk murdered or disappeared. High Haldia is a fine prize for a ruthless thief to grab."

Peddo opened his mouth, but Joss pressed a hand to Peddo's elbow to shut him down.

"This is all a shock to me, I'll tell you," Joss said, careful to mix geniality and genuine outrage. "Where did all those armed men come from?"

"Where did they come from? Out from under our noses, that's where! The first cadre came marching down out of Heaven's Ridge two weeks ago. Then the floodgates opened."

"They'd been hiding there and you never spotted them?" demanded Peddo. "That's a lot of men to hide."

"Where the hells are you from, boy?" snapped Veda. "Do you know those mountains? That's a lot of mountain to hide in, all the way from where the Fingers clutch at the northern seas down to the south where the Barrens kiss the Spires. Hundreds of mey, and with caves and crevices and overhangs and box valleys and scarred heights aplenty. There's a reason they call it the graveyard of runaway slaves. That's a lot of cursed mountains to hide in! And die in. Not that you and your cursed eagle could likely fly that far!" Her voice rose on the words.

Joss had heard men turn hysterical in just this same way.

"That's right," he interjected hastily. "That territory is far too much ground to cover, and impossible to track given all the places a man could hide himself away."

Given rope, she kept hauling. "We're shorthanded. We've had to concentrate on settled areas. People demand protection. Arkhons demand protection. Councils demand protection. The cursed guilds demand protection. They want the fields patrolled, the roads patrolled, their stinking outhouses patrolled. And then when an attack like this comes, they're after us for not having spent enough time searching the wilderness for signs of trouble!"

"Neh, neh, don't think we're criticizing you. We're in no better order. Clan Hall is down to three flights, including the retired and fledglings."

Her wild look eased slightly, although tears had begun to flow. "Three flights," she muttered. "Not that you have much area to cover."

"We know what you're up against. The town of River's Bend was burned at the beginning of the year. That was just the beginning. We've lost control of the upland reaches of Low Haldia. Almost all trade has ceased with the valley of Iliyat. Oh, I could go on, but I won't. Tell me what's happened at High Haldia. Who is attacking? What do they want?"

She sucked in air between gritted teeth, then wiped tears from her cheeks. "That's the question," she said. The wind whined, here at the height of ridge. Reeves became accustomed to the incessant growl, moan, howl, whine, flutter, and roar of wind, but for some reason the way this wind whistled over and through the rocks grated on Joss's nerves. His headache was back.

"What's the question?" said Peddo, looking ready to pop with frustration.

She glared at him, the only target she'd had in days, maybe. "The question we can't answer. We have captured a couple of stragglers. Did you think we hadn't done even that much? Some had debt marks and no accounts bundle to prove they bought their freedom under the law. Others were free men, the usual scum. Anyway, those who would talk under pressure spouted nothing but nonsense: any desire may be had in exchange for pledging loyalty to the cause; all the bad things done to them would be avenged. They would babble on so about the gaze that burns and the shadow flung down from the sky. Then would come stories of proving themselves worthy, such cruel and nasty things they claimed to have done as would turn your stomach. I don't know how much of them were true. As likely understand the barking of dogs as learn anything from their gabble. They have this medallion they wear like an amulet, to protect them from evil, but it's a flimsy thing, hammered tin. I could fold it with my own hands-" She mimed the action with her hands, front back front back. "-until it snapped in two."

Joss grunted. "A tin medallion? By any chance, an eight-tanged starburst?"

"That's right! You've come across it as well."

"Only in the ruins of burned villages. What of the other men, the ones who wouldn't talk under pressure?"

"They didn't talk, did they? Tough bastards, I'll give them that. They died, rather than talk."

Dropping down over Toskala, skimming over the rooftops, Joss saw the truth that could no longer be ignored. Within the five quarters of Toskala, in every neighborhood, every courtyard and spare arm's span of space in and around the warehouses or along back alleys was woven with a network of ropes over which were slung heavy canvas roofs and walls to build makeshift shelters. The neighborhood watches patrolled a tight web, working the streets and alleys to stop problems before they spread and to control garbage and pick up night soil. There were a lot of scared people here, torn out of their homes.

The reeves were helpless against this threat.

Everyone knew it. That's why they were all building walls and running to walls. It was the only thing left to hide behind.

" We can see now that River's Bend was simply the opening attack in a careful strategy," said the commander. "They're encircling us."

Like all reeve halls, Clan Hall's architecture included a small amphitheater. In this case, the curved tiers were cut from the rock at the edge of the promontory, and offered a view beyond the proscenium to the river flowing past below, the wide Istri Walk on the far shore, and fields and orchards opening out to the horizon. The commander was seated on a chair, on the proscenium. Reeves sat in the lower tiers; in a former time, they would have filled the tiers, but not now. Joss sat in the front row with the other three legates who remained. Peddo had slipped in beside him. The rest of Clan Hall's reeves who could be spared from patrol or who weren't fit for patrol held the other seats. Their tension was a presence of itself, a huge beast, waiting to rip them apart. Fear is its own challenge, the first battle that must be won. And after that, the war on despair.

Naturally, on top of all that, he had a pounding headache.

"In the eleven months since the burning of River's Bend, we can see the pattern emerging."

At the base of the curve of seats lay a huge rectangular low-sided box in which was molded a large map of the Hundred as seen with an eagle's sight, from the air. Normally covered, it sat glittering in the sun with canvas rolled up to either side. With a half-length field staff, her baton, the commander pointed here, and there, showing the growth of the rot as it crept out over the land.

"At first I thought our situation was the same as that in Herelia, fifteen years ago, when isolated villages began throwing out any reeves who came to stand at their assizes. There were targeted attacks to disrupt trade and disturb normal patterns of interaction between settlements. Both Copper Hall and Gold Hall had to withdraw their reeves from one area after another when it became clear that if they continued to interfere, then hamlets would be razed and innocent folk murdered. Well. They're moving more quickly now. And it seems we now know why."

She looked up, noting first Joss and then Peddo in her audience. "They have more forces at hand than they did fifteen years ago. That is how they've spread so quickly this past year. That is how they've increased their attacks on reeves such that we've had to combine patrols, send out two reeves as a unit, which limits how much territory we can cover. It limits the ability of the halls to communicate with each other, since we are each one of us so overwhelmed by local problems. These are not random attacks, a spasm of angry young men casting stones where they may. These attacks are carried out with a clear understanding of the limitations of eagles and the reeves. They hide in deep cover during the day and move, or attack, at night. The only calm periods come at the days of the Lamp Moon, when certain eagles are able and willing to patrol even at night if the skies are clear. Yet now, with the new year coming and the rainy season bound hard upon it, the cloud cover will leave us helpless always at night, even when the moon is at his brightest."

Like the wide Istri, she poured on relentlessly. With one metal-capped tip of her staff, she indicated the location of each of the six halls.

"Copper Hall's territory has shrunk. Gold Hall has confined its patrols to the Arro Mountains and the central Zosteria Plain. As we speak, Iron Hall contends with a siege on High Haldia, and the northern reaches of Haldia are in chaos. The northern plateaus remain silent, difficult to patrol in the best of years and as good as closed to us now. Herelia and Vess and the northern coast, as we know, we lost years ago. Of the southern halls, Bronze Hall and Horn Hall remain in communication. We trade a messenger with Bronze Hall twice a month. Mar has suffered no incursions, but in the last four months they've dealt with some troublesome elements pushing down out of the Beacons. Marshal Dessara at Horn Hall sends a messenger at the first and the middle of the month, always the same report: No change in our circumstances; we can spare no legate or reeves for Clan Hall at this time. I admit, however, that their latest messenger is four days overdue. As for Argent Hall, Legate Garrard departed eleven months ago, at the advent of the Whisper Rains. At first we received regular messages from him regarding his concerns about the health of Marshal Alyon and the difficulties besetting Argent Hall and the southern roads, but we've heard nothing in six months. The one reeve I sent south to the Olo'o Sea did not return. I've not had the luxury to send another, under similar risk."

She raised her head and studied the faces of her reeves, one by one. Joss nodded, to acknowledge her, but she merely touched on him and moved on along the row of legates, the experienced reeves, the cripples and retirees and fledglings. Clan Hall had a higher percentage than other halls of reeves who could no longer fly, men and women who transferred in to help with the recordkeeping, mapmaking, and other administrative chores with which Clan Hall was burdened. Gods! And there sat that rancid spot of pus, the Snake, whispering in Sadit's shapely ear. Sadit caught Joss looking, and flushed, and grimaced with anger, and looked away, which movement caused the Snake to note her action and glance Joss's way. With a smirk, the Snake rudely flicked a finger.

Joss's whole body went rigid, ready to smash that slithering sack of shit's nose down into his ass… and then he thought of the reeve-Veda-who had lashed out at Peddo only because she had no one else to be angry with. Volias was a snake, all right, and Joss had seen him at his poisonous worst, but this situation was not Volias's fault. He rubbed his head, but the pain did not go away. It was always worst in the season of Furnace Sky, in the last month before the rains brought relief.

The commander smacked her staff on stone. The crack resonated in his skull, making him wince. Her voice was sharp, cold, and flat. "They're tightening the net, and drawing it closed around us. And we don't even know who they are, or what they want."

She stared for a long time at the map of the Hundred. It was a crude thing, really, once you had flown over the land with all its glorious variation, viewed it aloft from the vantage of the eagle: a prize beyond any other. Once chosen as a reeve, you were, in a way, a slave to the halls. No reeve could turn away from the eagles. The eagles did not allow it.

Yet for all that, he craved no other life. Not even the quiet routine of the Haya fish ponds.

"So," the commander finished. "What do we do now?"

Joss stood immediately. A man snickered; certainly that was Volias, but he refused to notice him. "I have said for months that we need to investigate the situation at Argent Hall."

"So you have," said the commander in her kindest and thus most dangerous voice. "That's why I sent Evo south. Evo never returned, and is presumed lost, and dead."

Joss sat heavily. The Snake coughed like a man trying not to vomit. Others whispered, scratched their heads, shuffled their feet on stone; someone was crying softly. The river rushed on. The late-afternoon sun dragged shadows across them, a mercy in this heat.

"But." The commander's voice cut through their restlessness, their uncertainty. "The siege of High Haldia has changed all this. All my accounting must alter. If High Haldia falls, and in the face of such numbers I cannot imagine it will survive for long, then everything changes. The nature of what we are up against changes. The power that works against us has chosen to move out into the open. We are helpless to act as we have done. We reeves must find another way, or we will be destroyed, for that is surely their plan. The Guardians are dead. And the reeve halls, indeed the very sanctity of the laws and the Hundred, are under attack."

Such a beautiful, hot, clear day, to hear such bitter words.

"I've selected three reeves to fly south, to investigate the situation at Horn Hall and at Argent Hall. Joss."

"Of course," muttered some wit in the audience. "They always choose him."

"Peddo. And Volias."

"The hells!" cried the Snake.

Peddo scratched his chin thoughtfully, then patted Joss's knee in a brotherly fashion. "This doesn't sound good," he said in a low voice.

But Joss smiled. His headache had vanished, and for the first time in years, he felt an upsurge of recklessness overwhelm the long slide of despair. Exhilaration tugged at his heart as it had not done since the old days.

"I'm ready to go," he said.

The commander nodded. She'd known that was what he would say.


They took flight at dawn from the prow of Toskala. Folk were already at work along the outer wall and earthworks, strengthening the defenses. There were reeves on patrol out in the countryside where villages and estates lay vulnerable to attack. For a person with keen eyesight, they appeared as specks circling in the sky.

People were moving on the roads and paths, headed out to their fields or pulling out carts laden with night soil. The road commonly called the Flats, which struck south into the lush farmlands of the Istrian Plain, was crowded. But traffic thinned out where the wide road known as the ridgeward Istri Walk pushed into the north alongside the great river. When the three reeves banked to head downstream along the great river for the first part of the journey, Joss noted how quickly traffic turned sparse on the seaward Istri Walk as well.

No one wanted to be far from the safety of the walls.

At length they gained enough height that they were ready to turn more or less due south onto the plain, the eagles gliding and losing altitude until they found another thermal radiating up from the ground as the earth warmed under the morning sun. Fields, hamlets, and villages dotted the plain. This time of year, stubble dried to yellow on harvested fields, in places already mulched and turned into the earth. Here and there dense white smoke rose up from fields being burned clean in preparation for the coming new year's rains. Farmers repaired irrigation ditches, mended fences, and restored the embankments that protected against flooding. Artisans gathered around smoking kilns or arranged bricks in ranks to dry in the sun. Everywhere folk worked on fortifications, digging out and raising earthworks or fragile brick walls around the ten and thousand villages of Istria that had for as long as anyone remembered lived in relative peace.

Now and again a person looked upward and lifted a hand in greeting. No red eagle banners were raised on signal poles. All across the plain it seemed that today might be a calm day, and yet perhaps their good fortune came at the expense of the folk living in High Haldia.

Wind rushed past Joss's face. Scar's wings flapped as the big eagle caught the hint of a shift in the airflow and cut left to find a better current. Strapped in the harness, Joss felt the breathing of the raptor as his own. After twenty-two years together, they communicated in ways that at some times seemed like mystery to Joss and at others no different from the simple understanding granted to two creatures who knew each other very very well and trusted each other absolutely.

He scanned the landscape as the regular pattern of village and fields shifted, and the ground itself changed character. This is what had altered the current: They had reached the Ascent, the slow uplift that marked the end of the Istrian Plain. Hills like bubbles broke the surface; streams cut gullies like lacework through the soil; stands of uncut trees gave way to woodland and then forest. By noon they met up with the main road, still known as the Flats although here it pushed steadily upward through pine, beech, and sour-sap trees. This was also good farming country. Here in clearings bloomed a thousand tiny reservoirs, although the water levels had sunk low. The berms surrounding the reservoirs were planted with mulberry trees. Cows rested in the shade. Terraces stair-stepped down steeper slopes into broad cotton fields or into tea plantations and fenced vegetable gardens. There was no traffic on the road except, once, a caravan of ten wagons with an escort of about thirty men armed with what looked like staves and spears and wearing round leather caps.

To the southwest, the rocky peak of Mount Aua thrust up through the heat haze. The western spur of the Ossu Hills painted a yellow-brown line to the east of the mountain. Between these highland escarpments lay the high, wide saddle of the Aua Gap, entry to the high plains grassland of the south.

It was really getting hot as the afternoon dragged on. Joss was itching with sweat under his leathers. He was sorry he'd worn his short cloak. Usually it was much cooler up high, with the winds tearing at you. Overland, of course, it normally took anywhere from six to ten days to travel from Toskala to Horn, but the eagles, pushed hard, could make it in one day. Joss was just mulling over whether it would be best to set down for the day before the eagles got too hot when a flash caught his peripheral vision. He looked west to see Peddo, who was flying on the west flank of their formation, waving the "Alert!" flag. Out to the east, the Snake swept wide in a larger circuit so as to scout the greatest amount of ground.

Joss banked, and flew over the road where it worked its way up through soft-shouldered slopes not quite rounded enough to be hills. Ahead, Peddo circled a thin thread of smoke. Joss was soon close enough to identify a hamlet of no more than a dozen structures set beside a stream. The fields lay a short distance away, in stubble this late in the year, but there was also tea and mulberry and the bright gold of jabi bushes. Two altars tucked up one end of the hamlet: a neat, square hut to honor the Thunderer, and an open-sided altar with green tiles on the steep roof and painted green corner posts that held up that roof.

A mob had gathered by the Witherer's altar, twenty men or more, no women in sight, no children. A pair of men had been trussed up against one of the corner posts, arms tied back so you couldn't see their hands. A blade flashed. Peddo swooped low, and a shout burst from the crowd, many voices raised in surprise as they pointed and shouted.

Joss pulled Scar down. While the mob was staring at Peddo's antics as the reeve circled back, Joss landed in the middle of one of the fields and slipped out of the harness. Scar yelped his booming call to draw attention. Joss walked forward, tapping his baton against a palm.

It wasn't a mob, after all, because they fell back into a reasonably disciplined unit, shy of Scar's fearsome gaze and the really intimidating span of his wings as he fluffed up to show his size. There were over thirty, a full cadre, a surly-looking bunch of men wearing the plain costume of laborers but holding real weapons: spears, woodsman's axes, long knives, and a single sword in the hand of the man the rest looked to for a response. One man carried a red banner marked with three black waves enclosed in a black circle.

Joss's ears were burning as though they were on fire. Scar scraped a talon against earth, a sound to warn Joss that the eagle sensed danger.

The two men tied to the post were unconscious, or dead. One had the gray hair of an elderly fellow; the other was probably about Joss's own age, a mature householder. He smelled a tincture of blood and the harsher stink of excrement and urine, but there wasn't any sign of a wound on their tunics, though their leggings were stained. Dead, then; they had voided their bowels, and the ground was moist beneath them, buzzing with flies, so it seemed likely they had been alive when they'd been bound.

He wondered what had killed them. And who had chosen to desecrate the With-erer's altar with the act, and the display. No one shall defile a temple.

"A good afternoon to you," said Joss in his kindest voice, the one that put Scar on heightened alert. "We couldn't help noticing that you have a bit of trouble here."

"You're not wearing the badge of Horn Hall," said the man with the sword. He wasn't any older than the others, but he had that kind of flat look to his eyes that reminded Joss of men who have killed and gotten a taste for it.

"So I'm not," agreed Joss in his most amiable tone, one that made most of the other men shift uncomfortably. He noted those who did not. "We're out of Clan Hall."

"This is out of your territory," said the swordsman.

Joss halted about thirty steps from the group and, with his baton resting lightly and at the ready on his forearm, scanned the scene. This was a reasonably prosperous farm. There was a shelter for the family cart, and a storehouse set up on posts, as well as a few smaller huts and an outdoor fire pit where the last flare of a dying fire smoked out, a signal fire, maybe. A path led upstream through trees to the nearby pond, visible as a wink of water just above the jabi bushes. A pair of cottages were backed by a tidy vegetable garden fenced in with latticework. The dirt yard between the two cottages had recently been raked and was disturbed now by a single set of child-sized footprints.

All the doors were closed and windows slid shut, but although folk might have been hiding within, he knew they were not. The place was deserted. Emptied.

"In fact, Clan Hall supervises the six eagle clans," Joss said. "In the manner of a commander supervising her marshals, if you take my meaning."

The swordsman had a thin smile. His hair was shaved down tight against the skull, almost in the manner of one of the Lantern's hierophants but with a thicker nap, yet still not enough to grab hold of in a fight. He wore lime-whitened horsetail ornaments dangling from his shoulders, like a badge of rank that made up for his shorn head. The rest dressed their hair in various lengths: horsetails streaked with yellow or red; short beaded braids; rich men's loops woven with bright ribbon. None possessed leather caps or boiled-leather helmets, as militia would have. None wore even the leather coats that protected city firemen from flames and sparks. Some wore silks, and the rest wore cotton tunics or long local-silk jackets over kilts, or loose trousers, or bare legs; every one wore sandals or boots, though, which was unusual. They all seemed to be wearing a similar medallion at their necks, but he wasn't close enough to see if it was marked with the starburst. Most had a crude copy of the red and black banner pattern sewn onto their clothing.

"Think of us as a cadre of sworn brothers, then," the swordsman said. "Bound to our clan father. I didn't think you were out of Horn Hall."

Joss gestured toward the dead men. "What's this?"

"Just what we were asking ourselves. We have a foot patrol we run out here along the Flats, because of the trouble there has been. This is what we found." He gestured. "This hamlet, deserted. These two men, dead."

There was no single word, or cough, or movement from those assembled, as though they were all holding their breath to see how he reacted. Peddo circled overhead again; he had his bow ready, its length tucked against his side, hard to see unless you knew to look for it. The Snake was nowhere to be seen.

They were lying.

The reeves were well trained and well armed, but they could not fight a pitched battle.

A powerful cry split the air. All of the men leaped and startled as Trouble swooped in low. The Snake had his orange flag in his hand: Danger. It was time to retreat.

Aui! How it burned to have to do so. The dead men were farmers, likely grandfather and adult son. This was their place, for all he knew. But Volias, while a snake and bastard of the first water, would not give the signal to retreat lightly.

"We're on our way to Horn Hall now, as it happens," said Joss, stalling as he gave the gesture with his baton that would call Scar up behind him. He knew better than to fall back; that might provoke a burst of frenzied bravado from the men, who were strung tight enough already, quivering with it. "What's your name, ver, so I might mention it to the marshal at Horn Hall when I bring her a report of this crime?"

" Him, as it happens," said the swordsman. "It seems you're a bit behind the weather, reeve. What's your name?"

The assembled men shied back a few steps as Scar walked right up behind Joss. The harness brushed his back, and he hooked in one-handed. The swordsman lifted the tip of his sword. A pair of men in the crowd fumbled with bows.

Jabi stooped, pulling up so late that most of the men hit the dirt. The Snake pulled a wicked fast turn to get back around to give cover, passing over low, as Joss blew one blast on his whistle and Scar thrust. The draft from Scar's wings actually beat down some of the other men. Then they were up and climbing over the trees. He heard a shout, but no arrows raced after him.

The Snake was pointing with his baton. There, to the southwest and not too far away, a cadre of armed men pushed along on a trail through open woodland. They were in a hurry, sure enough, and as they trotted down the path their banner unfurled. Its colors were red and yellow. The Snake had tucked his flag away already, and with hand gestures Joss indicated that they should move on back to the road, continue their journey toward Horn Hall. They had no possible way to make a good outcome in the middle of that: either this new group were allies to the others, or they were enemies, and no matter which it was, three reeves were too few.

Too few, as always. It was a nightmare.

Behind, smoke billowed upward; a larger fire had been set. How he hated this, every effort twisted until it came out the opposite of what the gods intended as justice. Maybe those men had just set fire to the Witherer's altar. Any terrible deed was possible, in these days. He had seen it all, and more, and worse.

When he spotted a rocky hilltop suitable for landing, with a pair of streams coursing along lower ground below, he flagged a halt. The high ground was set above a steep defile, difficult to climb but wide enough in the trough that the eagles could come and go easily. He released Scar, and the Snake released Trouble, but Peddo hooded Jabi as the other two eagles circled down to a spot where the stream widened, for a cooling bath. Trouble was not only an exceptionally beautiful bird but the best-natured eagle Joss had ever encountered, never ill-tempered, never a bully, never needlessly aggressive. Entirely unlike her reeve.

"Why are we stopping?" asked the Snake irritably. "There's still time to make Horn Hall today, if we push. I don't see a soft bed on this rock."

Joss arranged sticks in a crevice, wondering if it was worth risking a fire. "I don't want the eagles blown when we come in."

"You think there will be trouble?" Peddo was standing on the edge of the cliff with his back to them, a hand raised to shade his eyes from the sun. He was gazing north-northwest, but if he was looking for the column of smoke, they had long since lost it in the hollows and rises of the land.

"Just a feeling that it would be prudent to be able to leave quickly if the need arises."

The Snake, remarkably, remained silent. He set down his pack in the shade of a gaggle of pine and settled cross-legged atop his folded cloak.

"I can hear that Volias agrees with you," said Peddo with a laugh, turning back to survey the way the other two reeves had placed a goodly distance between themselves. "How do you mean to proceed tomorrow, when we come to Horn Hall?"

"Cautiously," said Joss.

The Snake took a swig from his wine sack.

"Who do you think killed those two men?" said Peddo, wiping grit off his hands. "The folk who lived in that hamlet? The men who were there when we got there? Or some other group altogether?"

Joss broke a few sticks over his knee. It felt good to snap something, but he had already decided against lighting a fire. They didn't need fire except to boil water for tea.

"Most likely, we'll never know."

The dream always unveils itself in a gray unwinding of mist he has come to dread. He is walking but cannot see any of the countryside around him, only shapes like skeletal trees with leafless limbs and branches-cold-killed, as they call them in the Arro Highlands, where, beyond the kill line, the trees wither in the dry season and are reborn when the rains come. In the dream he is dead, awaiting rebirth. He is a ghost, hoping to wake up from the nightmare twenty years ago, but the dream has swallowed him.

The mist boils as though churned by a vast intelligence. It is here that the dream twists into nightmare. The mist will part, and he will see her in the unattainable distance, walking along a slope of grass or climbing a rocky escarpment, a place he can and must never reach because he has a duty to those on earth whom he has sworn to serve.

It begins. Wind rips the mist into streamers that blow and billow like cloth, like the white linen and silk banners strung up around Sorrowing Towers where the dead are laid to rest under the open sky. He begins to sweat, waiting for the apparition. For Marit.

A foot scuffs on pebbles.

He jerked awake, rolled, grabbed his baton, and came up to find the Snake crouched beside him with his knife out.

"So it's true," said the Snake in a murmur. "You do have nightmares. You do murmur a woman's name in your sleep, only not the one you're sleeping with."

The stars were brilliant, filling the heavens like a ripe field of glittering grain. Peddo was snoring softly, and the wind was loud in the trees.

"What-?" began Joss angrily.

The Snake touched his shoulder to hush him. "Someone is climbing up the ridge."

Joss couldn't hear anything over the shurr of wind among branches. Even the eagles were silent at their rest, all three hooded. It was long past the middle of the night, coming toward dawn if he measured the position of the constellations correctly: The Weeping Boy was falling out of the zenith toward the west, and the Peacock with his spangled tail was rising in tandem with a quartering Embers Moon.

Volias uncurled gracefully to stand. He cocked his head to one side, the motion visible against the faint backlight of the night sky. And there, just there, as the wind died off for a moment, Joss heard a scuff off to the right where the slope dropped steeply away. Then a gust rattled leaves, and the sound vanished.

He rolled up to his knees and drew his knife. Volias nudged Peddo gently with a foot, and damned if the waking reeve didn't cough and snort and startle like a drunkard.

"Eh? Whazzit?"

The noise might as well have been drums and bells and horns, because after all that, although they stood watch in the interval until dawn, there came no further sound, nothing at all. In the morning when it was light enough to see and they explored a bit down the steep slope and afterward flew a pair of full rings around the area, they saw nothing and no one. No one at all.


Horn Hall was eldest of the eagle clans, thus "horn" for the first substance turned into tools, according to the Tale of Fortune. Its eyrie had been built into the rugged cliffs at the rim of the Aua Gap, about three mey from the town of Horn that sat athwart the juncture of three major roads: the Flats, West Track, and East Track. From its high vantage, Horn Hall's reeves were well placed to patrol north onto the Istrian Plain, south into the high plains grassland, or east and west into hill country. The place was impossible to storm on foot or horseback because it was cut into a daunting escarpment, and laid out atop the windswept height, which no person could reach unless she could fly.

So they came circling first at a polite distance, waiting to be marked by the watchers on the towers. When no reeves flew out to inspect them, they tightened their circle until at last Joss signaled the others to remain in the air while he went in.

Reeves got used to the wind, but this buffeting swirl of updrafts and eddies and cross-currents made landing tricky, so he shied away from the broad ledge just below the lip of the cliff, which let onto caves, and set down instead on the wide and windy open space along the top of the ridge. Here watchtowers creaked under the onslaught of shifting gusts, and hydra-headed wind vanes spun. This was the parade ground, the whole damned ridgetop. There were a couple of lofts suitable for housing travelers out of other clans, but the constant noise of the wind battering those walls would drive any reeve crazy. A pair of open-sided shelters with sturdy roofs provided shade. Latrines had been built over a crevice split into the rock. Many stone cairns were piled up at the edge as well as a dozen squat perches fixed at intervals along the parade ground, all places for eagles to land. A huge hole gaped in the rock, off to one side; it was roped off so a person wouldn't accidentally fall in.

The place was deserted. Scar shifted, head up, looking around without any of the hackling or flaring he would have displayed were there unmet eagles nearby. The wind vanes slowed, halted to point west-southwest as the wind steadied. Grit skittered along the rock. A moan came from the forward watchtower as the wind found a voice within the framework.

Joss left Scar on a perch, with his beak to the wind. He walked a circuit, checking first the open shelters and then the lofts. They weren't stripped bare. Each of the shelters housed a pair of benches pinned down with screws into the rock so they wouldn't blow loose. The lofts included a dozen perches as well as tiny sojourning rooms, each tidily set to rights with a rope bed, a low table, hooks to hang clothes and harness, and the closets with their doors neatly slid closed and, inside, containing one folded mattress, a sitting mat and thin sitting pillow, and a bronze pitcher and bowl for washing up. He wiped a finger through dust, and judged that no one had stayed here for a while.

Like most reeves who had survived twenty years, he had a finely honed sense for trouble, for unseen watchers, an instinct for ambush, the things that made the back of his neck prickle, but the flavor here was all dead. He returned to the open space and signaled to Peddo and Volias to hold their positions. They signaled back the all-clear.

A stairway, cut into the side of the cliff, led to the wide ledge beneath. There was no railing, and despite his head for heights he got dizzy descending the stairs. He kept his hand on the rock to steady himself. He didn't look down. He could have flown down, of course, but he just didn't like the situation. He didn't want Scar on that ledge with those tricky winds; best risk only himself, because Scar would chose another reeve, although preferably someone with a better personality than the Snake.

The ledge was itself as long and wide as the parade ground in Clan Hall, the shape of a huge oval. A rock wall, rimmed with perches, ringed the outer edge. According to the Tale of Struggle, this rock eyrie had always been here, but he wondered how such a thing had been hewn out of hard rock, and especially how the work could be done so high off the ground. His footfalls clapped on the ground; there was some kind of echo off the cliff face, subtle and confusing.

The place looked recently swept. At any instant, he expected a reeve or hireling or hall slave to walk out of one of the five gaping cave mouths, the entries to the eyrie within. But no one did.

He walked to the wall and stood with hands on the grainy surface. Morning shadows darkened most of the ledge, but the rising sun was now high enough that it kissed the leading edge. Soon the whole place would be flooded by sun, and by midafternoon in this season, Furnace Sky, it must be hot enough to bake flatbread out here.

The view was tremendous. Only the east was closed to him by the cliff at his back and, of course, the Ossu Range behind that, running east all the long mey to the Istrian Bay and the ocean. Here at Horn Hall, facing west-northwest, he looked across the broad saddle of the Aua Gap to the magnificent face of Mount Aua some ten or fifteen mey distant, visible this morning in the clear, bright air. South onto the high plains there was already a haze, but a couple of mey to the north under the shadow of the last spur of the Ossu Range lay the whitewashed walls of the city of Horn, barely visible from this angle.

Peddo dipped down, flying past through the gulf of air; it was a drop of at least a hundred batons to the scree-laden slope that marked the base of the cliff. Off to either side the ridge fell into folds and ravines, just as deadly. To the south, out on the rolling grasslands, grazed a herd of beasts, hundreds of them, but from this distance he couldn't mark what kind they were or if they were being shepherded by human agency.

Joss turned away from the view and walked in through the highest mouth, into the high hall where he had jessed and hooded Scar years ago on a visit to Horn Hall, then busy with reeves and eagles and hirelings going to and fro. The big hole on the height opened into this chamber, flooding it with light; he'd forgotten about that. He walked on into adjoining passages, all carved out of the rock by hands that must have labored for endless years. Most likely they'd been delved; no one else could do this manner of work. In a nearby chamber, a vast space lit by arrows of light that shot down through slits cut into the air-facing wall, the reeves and their guests had taken their feast. There were lofts for the eagles, quiet and dim. There were three chambers linked into a row given over to the care and manufacture of tack and harness. Next to them, with its own entrance onto a smaller ledge actually on the other side of the ridge, lay the kitchens. The hearths were cold. The pots were stacked neatly. No one had cooked here this morning.

He explored down a corridor lit by cunningly angled shafts along which lay rooms for Horn Hall's reeves. Every one had a blanket folded at the end of the bed, and a table with a lamp or whittling knife or spoon or cup set on it, or the other little things that marked something of the character or habits of the reeve who slept here: a half-sewn glove; a set of ceramic bowls painted with scenes of acrobats; a leather vest hung from a hook, stained at the underarms and with a musty smell; a basket covered with a striped cloth, beneath which he discovered a cache of handsome dolls gotten up to represent each of the fourteen guilds; a set of dancer's wristlets and anklets tucked beneath the two wool blankets folded at the end of the bed; a whip, left right out in the middle of the floor; a forgotten loaf of bread tucked in the back of one of the freestanding storage closets, quite desiccated now and almost as hard as stone.

It was as if they'd all grabbed their traveling cloaks, packs, and weapons, and left at dawn, for there wasn't any dust to speak of. Horn Hall was well kept and well supervised. Even the sliding doors on the closets moved effortlessly, recently oiled. He felt like a ghoul, desecrating the body of the dead.

The master's cote had a separate entrance, but it was a place so bare of any personal touch-there wasn't even a change of clothes in the tiny closet-that he could make no guess as to what kind of woman, or man, it was who was now marshal at Horn Hall. If that swordsman hadn't been lying about that, too.

Farther back lay storerooms and the stairs that led down into the depths of the cistern, but it got dark too quickly and he'd left his lantern tied to the harness. A cursory search did not turn up the halls' store of candles, rushlights, or oil lamps. The air moved softly through hidden vents, and the whole place breathed an uneasy peace, the calm of a spot where the storm has just passed, maybe, and has swept everyone away, or one where the folk have abandoned their home to escape the storm they know is coming.

Gone altogether beyond.

That line from the Tale of Struggle, in the episode of the cunning outlander, had always stuck with him. He had no idea what it meant-or at least, what the cunning outlander had meant by using it-but he felt now that he understood it in a way meaningful to him, at this moment. Maybe he was crazy, and probably he was, but it seemed to him stepping at last back out onto the ledge, now half covered in blinding sunlight, that the soul of Horn Hall had fled together with its inhabitants.

This time Volias and Peddo were both circling within sight of the ledge, watching for him. He gave them a wave and trudged back up the stairs. This time, the lack of a railing did not bother him. He could have tumbled forever into the gulf of air, and then he would have sprouted wings, and come safely home.

" There's something altogether strange here," he said after the other two landed on the parade ground. "It's deserted."

"All gone out on patrol?" asked Peddo. "That doesn't fit protocol. There should be three duty reeves left on hall at all times."

"Best we ask at the town," said the Snake.

"Best we do," said Joss.

Horn was named after the hall, or the hall after the town. No one was sure.

This was sure: The folk working in the fields ducked and scattered when the three reeves approached overhead, and the militia standing at guard on those whitewashed walls took up their bows and loosed warning arrows.

No arrows came close, but the shock of having arrows shot after them at all hit Joss so hard that he spent some wasted time circling high over Horn's sturdy walls and knotted streets trying to sort it out into any pattern except the obvious one: The people of Horn did not trust reeves. And how in the hells had that come about?

At last he set a course out to the crossroads where the Flats, West Track, and East Track met, not more than half a mey from Horn's gates, and circled there over the wreckage of a line of wagons that, by the look of them, had been burned and upended recently. Folk in the nearby fields retreated, bunching into groups for safety or grabbing their tools and running back toward the gates.

He wanted to investigate, to see if he could estimate how long ago those wagons had burned, but they were still visible to the militia's watchful eye since the town lay upslope with no woodland to break the line of sight. Instead, he turned south with Peddo and Volias off to either side, and they flew along the empty road and fields that, out of eyeshot of the walls, had been left fallow. This was a landscape of smooth ridges and hollows that rolled like sea swells out beyond the breakers. They had flown for not more than a mey when they crossed over a tumble of old boulders and outcrops where the soil had worn down to expose ancient seams of rock. Peddo's whistle blasted within moments of the Snake flagging an alert.

Among the rocks lay scattered remains, skulls and leg bones and scraps of cloth visible. A dark shape moved within a shadowed crevice, difficult to make out from this height. They circled low. The remains spread beyond the outcrop into mixed grass and scrub woodland. Where a stream wound along somewhat upslope, another dense scatter of remains lay strewn along the bank.

It was a battlefield, easy to read: the first engagement had taken place where the stream afforded cover, and then the losing side had retreated in a straggle through heavy growth to the greater defensive position offered by the rocks. It was by no means clear who had won, and who had lost. Wind, rain, and animals at work among the dead had taken their toll of the evidence.

As had human agency: Four figures picked their way along the stream's bank, overturning skulls, using a spade to pry loose rib cages overgrown by grass. They were so intent on their task that they didn't notice the eagles passing overhead.

Peddo stayed aloft. Joss sent Scar down. The eagle fanned his tail and threw his legs forward. They thumped home. Trouble came down right beside him, and both reeves were out of their harness and scrambling as the children-for they were children-gawped up at them with their scavenger's tools hanging forgotten in grubby hands.

The eldest among them, a girl, began to cry without audible weeping, just a smudging trickle on dirty cheeks. She was that scared. The littlest was a scrap of a thing, and it took off only to be grabbed by the Snake and slung roughly back to stand with the other three. There it cowered, hiding its left arm behind its back. Looking them over, Joss saw that one of the middle children was lacking an ear and the other had a twisted hand broken somehow and healed all wrong. The younger two had swollen bellies, and all four had various sores on crusted lips, swollen redrimmed eyes, flies buzzing around pus-ridden blisters on their bare arms and legs, and besides all that an unhealthy stink in addition to the obvious stink of children who haven't been taken to the baths in months.

They stood in the midst of tumbled remains, which were scoured until nothing but bone and scraps of decaying cloth was left. He was surprised that none of the Lady's wandering mendicants had gathered the bones and burned them in order to properly complete the rites to placate the restless dead.

"What you going to do, ver?" asked the eldest. She had a squint that made her look defiant, but in fact it came from a cut at one eye that had scarred and pulled her lid tight. Like the others, she was as thin as if she'd been constructed out of sticks, with a hollow face and deep-set eyes.

"I'm Reeve Joss," he said gently. "What are your names?"

She looked at him as if he were crazy, and did not answer.

He tried again. "Where is your family? Kinfolk? Parents?" But he knew what the answer would be before he heard it.

She shrugged. "Gone," she said as her hand dropped down to brush the shoulder of the earless one. With her good hand, Broken Hand took hold of the elbow of Littlest.

"How came that about?"

She shrugged.

"What of other kin? Aunties and uncles? Anyone to take you in?"

She shrugged. The others stood stock-still with well-practiced silence. They had been alone long enough that they knew the routine.

"The temples take in such as these little criminals," said the Snake.

"We're not going there!" she said fiercely. "They just make slaves of us, and split us apart. City folk are that way, willing to make slaves of themselves, that's what my dad says. But our people don't do that. We're doing okay. We're doing good enough."

The Snake chuffed a laugh. "Doesn't look that way to me."

"What are you doing out here?" Joss asked before he lost her, for he knew how some clammed right up when faced with scorn.

She indicated the rib cage she'd been trying to pry up. "There was a battle here, oh I don't know, a year or two ago so they say."

"White Lion year," chirped Broken Hand. "During the Flower Rains."

"That's right," said Eldest. "We got rights just like anyone to come see what we may find, ver."

"Looters!" said the Snake with his habitual sneer. "Grave robbers."

"Shut it!" snapped Joss. He looked back at the girl, who appraised this exchange with a raised eyebrow and a nudge of the foot to Earless. "Looks like this field is well scavenged already. As it would be, since it's coming on three years since the battle happened. What are you finding?"

"You going to try to take it from us, ver?" she asked, not with any sort of challenge.

"If I was, I wouldn't say so at first, would I?"

He thought to crack a smile from her, but she just looked at him and considered what he had said with the flat stare of a child who has long since hunkered down to the serious business of survival and is doubtful she will make it. She might have gotten on better without the littler ones, but people often made that choice because they could make no other. Sometimes they even made it because it was the just thing to do.

"You're reeves," she said.

"So we are, as I said."

"Those reeves out of Horn Hall, they don't come around no more. You from Horn Hall?"

"We're not."

"Didn't think so." She shrugged again, as though ridding herself of a weight. "We none of us know why-that they stopped coming round, I mean. It just is that way now, and were that way from before."

"From before what?"

"Before we come to Horn."

"Where did you come from?"

The Snake moved off upwind, wrinkling his nose against the stink, but Joss held his position despite the strength of their sickly sweet-sour smell.

She looked away from him, blinking rapidly. "Dunesk Valley, up in the Ossu. We come from there. Can't live there now."

"What happened?"

She shrugged.

"Where do you live now?"

"Horn. At least, the folk mostly leave us alone if we bide in the alleys and bother no one. If we find something or other, maybe we can sell it."

"Found a ring," piped Littlest proudly. "I did!"

"Hush," said Broken Hand, pinching Littlest's skin until it whimpered.

"That was last month," said Eldest hastily. "Lest you're thinking it was just now."

Which, by the nervous set of their chins and the way her gaze flicked toward Earless, made him understand that in fact they had found something just now. In fact, they believed that two reeves might likely steal what they had. That's what they thought of reeves. It made him want to shout in frustration.

"You need to tell me what happened in Dunesk Valley," he said instead, because understanding a thing was often the only way to solve it. "I need to know, because I'm a reeve. You know it's our job to set things right."

"That's what we used to think, but them at Horn Hall just stopped coming."

"When was that?"

For a long while she was silent. Earless let go her hand and edged a few steps away, crouched down at the bank, and ladled some water into his mouth. The Snake had backed up and was staring toward the distant boulders. Peddo was nowhere in sight.

Then she started talking in a voice as flat as her gaze, as if all emotion had long since been crushed out of her. "Dunesk's about a day's walk, by the trail, and one time we come down to Horn a few years back-"

"Snake year it was," said Broken Hand.

"— that's right, just after that one made his second year." She pointed to the littlest. "Four years ago," Joss said.

She nodded. "We came down because Dad and Uncle had hides to trade. But then the raiders came. There was all kinds of things they were doing, so our dad he sent us into town because it isn't safe up there no more. We sleep on the street. Mostly folk leave us alone, not always."

That not always made him wince. She was old enough, if a man had a fancy for veal, which he did not, and anyway any child was old enough for those who had a taste for that manner of cruelty.

He asked, "What of your dad? Or your uncle? Are they still living?"

She choked. "I hope so."

"It sounds awful, living in Horn as you do. You ever thought of going back home?"

She would not meet his eye. "Awful is what they do in the villages, if they catch you."

"What do they do?"

She shuddered and would not speak, and when finally he offered some dry flat-bread out of his pouch, she pointed at Littlest, who lifted his left arm out from behind his back to display a scarred and seamed stump. For a moment Joss couldn't figure why he was doing it.

Volias said, with real revulsion, "Lady's Tit! They cut off the little wight's hand!"

Earless scrambled back from the stream's edge, and Eldest broke the bread into four pieces. They inhaled it, so it seemed, because it vanished in a blink.

"Look there!" said Volias, pointing to a spot behind Joss's back.

On occasion Joss found himself confused by the way the ground changed when you were standing on it as opposed to when you were flying above it. Angles of sight shifted; blind in one place, you found you could see in the other; unexpected vistas revealed themselves because of the curve and elevation of the ground or when mist hid from the sky what, with feet on the earth, you could see perfectly well.

The woodland scrub had seemed, from the air, to separate the rocky ground from the stream, but in fact the land sloped down into a hollow where the densest growth took advantage of damper ground to flourish, and rose again to the stony ground. Seen from the ground, the rock formations were taller than they had seemed from the air, with a hundred hiding places and defensive posts. Seemingly oblivious of the reeves, their eagles, and the four children, a person bent, rose, walked the ground, bent and rose again. The figure was dressed in some manner of loose, black robe. From this distance, Joss thought it must be a woman, but he couldn't be sure.

"That's another like us," said Eldest, seeing how they were looking that way.

"You've seen that person before?"

"Yes, ver. So we have."

"She's a scavenger, like you?"

"So she must be, ver. We come out here all the time. We saw her first time a few month back-"

"It was Fox Month," said Broken Hand. "It was so cold at night, beginning of Shiver Sky. That's the first time we saw her out here."

"That's right," said Eldest. "We see her now and again. Not all the time."

"You ever talk to her? Have any trouble with her?"

"Nah, she don't talk, except one time she stopped us and asked us if we saw any strange thing that had an outland look to it. She's looking for some dead person, maybe her lover or her son. I don't know and wasn't thinking to ask."

"Someone she got to missing," said Earless abruptly in the hoarse voice of a boy about to break into manhood. "Someone she want desperately to find."

"How often do you come here?" Joss asked.

"As often as we need to," said Eldest, who was relaxing a little. "Gleaning is all we got, you see. No law against it!" she added hastily, looking at the Snake, but he had a frown on his ugly mug and wasn't looking at the children at all. He was tracking the movements of that other person up among the rocks.

"Then you sell what you've found."

She shrugged. "We pretty much found everything I expect there is to be found. Sometimes a hand got cut off and rolled into a crevice. That's how-" She almost said a name, but bit her tongue. "That's how that one found the ring." She nodded toward Littlest.

"Those dark holes could have snakes and biting things in them," said Joss uneasily.

She rolled her eyes and said nothing. Snakes and biting things, obviously, did not concern her much compared with her other troubles.

"What'll you kids do now?" he asked.

"What you think?" she demanded. "We told you all. Can we go now?"

They were skittish, and Littlest kept wiping away the green snot leaking from his nose.

"Have you nowhere else to go?" asked Volias suddenly.

"You ain't been listening," said Eldest. "Or you would have heard. You going to take us somewhere on those eagles? And then who will take us in? We got to wait here by Horn until Dad come to get us. That's what he said. When it was safe again. That's what he said."

Joss shook his head. "You go on. You've got a long walk back to Horn."

They lit out as if fire had been kindled beneath them.

Volias settled onto his haunches beside the rib cage, studying it without touching. "Is that it?" he demanded, glaring at Joss. "They cut off that kid's hand!"

"What else can we do for them?"

"That's why we keep running from fights? Because we can't do anything else for them? What about those two dead men at that farm? Seems we reeves do a lot of looking, and a lot of squeezing available women, but we don't do any fighting anymore."

"You're right," said Joss.

The words took the Snake so off guard that he rocked back, lost his balance, and sat, kicking out reflexively. His foot jostled the rib cage, ripping it half out of the covering of debris that had begun to bury it. The mat of debris beneath it included decaying hempen cloth dyed a clay-red color that the Snake shied away from touching.

"This must be some manner of outlander," said the Snake. "Wearing death cloth like regular clothes. Look here. His belt's still in good shape." He peeled the strip of leather out of the soil, whipping it away from the rib cage. A heavier object went flying to land on the nearby grass with a thud.

"Best we go talk to that woman," said Joss.

"Why for, if we mean to do nothing about any of it?"

"Listen, Volias. The rot's set in deep. We can get ourselves killed, or we can find the source of the rot and kill it. I don't see any other way. But of ourselves, just us three, out here where we've no allies apparently and no idea who is our enemy and who regards us as enemy, what are we three to do? Or did you want to take on two cadres of armed men?"

The Snake ignored him, most likely because there was no answer. Joss trudged down into the hollow, pushing through brush, noting the way the battle had whirled and eddied into clumps of fighting, marked by collections of disturbed bones, and then streamed out again over open ground as one group fled toward the rocks while the other group, presumably, pursued. Why in the hells had a group of outlanders ridden into the Hundred? Who would have hired them? The other reeves ought to have passed along to Clan Hall news of such an unusual occurrence, but they hadn't. Clan Hall had never heard about any battle fought in the Year of the White Lion near the city of Horn.

And it really was strange that the dead had been left out here, stripped and looted, just because no one could be bothered to carry the corpses to Horn's Sorrowing Tower. Outlanders, bandits, clanless orphans might be abandoned in death. Just like those kids who, if they died in the fields beyond Horn, would no doubt be left lying with no one but that missing dad and uncle to care if their bodies ever received godly treatment. Yet it went against the law, not to mention simple decency.

The kites and vultures and bugs would scour them all to bone in the end, in any case. There were worse fates. In a way, to be left dead upon the earth was to be left on the gods' most ancient Sorrowing Tower, because the rock that was the scaffolding of the earth had been erected long before the gods' towers.

Just as Joss reached the outermost stretch of rock poking up out of a gaggle of thorn-flower bushes, the woman came around the pile of weathered boulders. She stopped, although she did not seem surprised to see him.

"I was just looking for you," he said with his best smile. "I saw you from over there."

She was dressed for riding in stiff trousers, light shirt, and sleeveless jacket, with a dark cloak of an almost weightless fabric curling down from her shoulders and wrapped over one arm. In one hand, she held an old spear that she used as a walking staff on the uneven ground. She wore a grave expression on a pleasant face whose years were difficult to count; she was probably his age, or older. Yet she did not look him over the way many women did, with an appreciative eye. She didn't frown either. She wasn't unfriendly. She looked past him, shading her eyes. "You're a reeve."

"So I am, verea. I was wondering what brought a respectable householder like you out to search a battlefield."

That twitch of her lips was not as much a smile as a secret. "I was looking for something."

"Did you find it?"

"As it happens, I just did. Who is that following you?"

He looked back over his shoulder to see the Snake scrambling over the rugged ground to catch up to him. "My comrade."

"There are three of you," she said, tilting her head back to survey the sky.

"These days, it's best to travel in the company of those you trust."

Her gaze slipped to his, and away as quickly, but even so that glance caught him off guard. Funny, when you thought of it, how difficult it could be to know why you trusted some folk and not others. He trusted Peddo. He thought of how much he disliked the Snake, who was a bully, who made suspects cry for the fun of it, who liked to push around locals to see them cringe; who had lied more than once; who had ratted him out when he was trying to woo that merchant's daughter, just because he was jealous. It wasn't his fault that the Snake had no luck with women. The man ought to look to his own behavior to answer for that lack. And yet, Joss knew Volias would cover his back in a tight spot. Aui! He himself was the one who couldn't be trusted. He'd gone wild after Marit's death. He'd been reckless, crazy, defiant, impossible, even dangerous to himself and others. He'd fanned the flames until they got too hot. No wonder Marshal Masar had tossed him out of Copper Hall. He'd been named legate later to keep him away, not from any worthiness on his part, even if people had given him that nickname, calling him incorruptible when really it was only about doing your duty as you had agreed the day the eagle chose you, just trying to make right everything that had gone wrong.

How had the sun gotten so bright all of a sudden? He was staring right into the glare, eyes watering.

"Hey! Look here!" Volias walked panting up the slope and stopped beside him. "It's a belt buckle." He had wiped away some of the dirt encrusted in the wrinkles and crevices of the thing. When he held it up, metal caught sun and winked. "Good quality. A wolf's head, I think. Never seen this manner of pattern before. What were outlanders doing here, do you think?"

"Come to fight, I suppose," said Joss, looking around for the woman.

"Then they got what they come for. Unlike us."

"Where'd she go?"

"Where'd who go?"

"I was talking to that woman, the one we saw."

"You're always talking to women."

"Didn't you see her?"

"I did, but it seems she took fright of your ugly face and crept off while I was coming up from behind those rocks. I lost sight of you for a bit. Serves you right! You're not used to them rejecting you, are you?"

For once, the Snake's taunting did not disturb him. Wind skirled through the rocks and spit dust at them. They tramped through the maze of outcrops and boulders, stuck their heads into shadowed overhangs, and poked their batons into deep crevices. Birds flitted around them, anxious at their presence, and various animals-rats, mice, rabbits, coneys, a veritable feast-scurried in the undergrowth or down into slits and cracks where they could not reach. Once, Joss saw a fox's clever face peering at him out of a thicket, but when he blinked, it was gone. There were bones aplenty; Joss estimated that hundreds of people had died here, but the remains really were stripped out and there was nothing except skeletal remains and bits and pieces of useless scrap.

They found no sign of the woman.

At length, Joss scrambled to the top of the highest boulder, where he stood at a sheer edge about three body's lengths off the ground. Searching the sky, he saw Peddo and Jabi approaching from the south. That was strange, too. Hadn't Peddo been out of sight, too far away to mark as anything except an unidentified bird? How had the woman known he was there?

He set his whistle to his lips and called Scar, and signaled with the flag for Peddo to come down, but instead Peddo flew low overhead and, banking tight, blew the three short blasts on his whistle that made Joss's whole body jolt just as a fire bell would, heard clanging within the city's vulnerable streets.


He and Scar leaped aloft, Volias and Trouble not far behind. There was a slight updraft over the rocks, but the raptors strained, pushing hard, for they recognized the whistle call as well as their reeves did. Jabi flapped past, pushing hard back the way he had come, and Peddo whipped his flag in the up-and-down motion for crime in progress.

By the hells, it would be good to be able to act for a change.

He looked back over the outcrop as they lifted, but he still saw no sign of that woman. She could not have walked away so fast. She must have heard them, and hidden in the rock in some hidey-hole they had not noticed. How had the people of this region come to fear and hate reeves?

He did see the four children walking across abandoned fields in the direction of Horn. They hadn't gotten far. They even looked up and one pointed their way while the others paused to stare.

Peddo glided alongside as close as any of them dared get to the other, and shouted across the gap. "Osprey attack! Merchant banners. On West Track. Looks bad!"

They found thermals and rose, and from the height the eagles immediately spotted movement a mey or more ahead of them on the road.

Scar and Jabi and Trouble put out a burst of speed. Only as they got closer could Joss make sense of the scene: a pair of wagons flying household banners marking them as respectable merchants, a dozen plunging horses, and men on the road striving mightily against a larger attacking group mostly on foot and directed by a pair of riders hanging back at the rear out of danger. One of those captains was carrying so much gear on his horse that the baggage distorted the animal's frame, making it seem bulkier about the body than a normal horse. The other captain wore lime-whitened horsetail shoulder crests, and carried a banner strung with four narrow yellow and red flags.

For those on the road, who couldn't have counted more than fifteen or so, it was clearly a losing battle against attackers who boasted over twice that number. Already about half of the merchants and their armed escort had fallen, while the others gave way until they were backed against one of the wagons.

This time he wasn't going to walk away.

The eagles glided in silence and, when the angle was right, they stooped.

You never got jaded to this. The air screamed past; the ground leaped up at you, ready to punch you in the face and then flatten you. And yet your eagle would put on the brakes at just the right instant. Scar came down with wings wide and talons extended. The laden horse was already bolting with its rider clinging to its back, but the other man and horse did not react as quickly. Scar knocked him right off the saddle, and the horse reared back in a panic, shied, backed up, and broke for safety, following the other horse, which was already racing north along the road.

Joss unhooked his harness and jumped free, hitting the ground with legs bent to absorb the impact. He had his short sword drawn. Peddo punched back a pair of men with his spear's stout haft while Jabi went at a clot of bandits who had pushed the beleaguered merchants up against their wagons. The raucous kek-kek of the huge eagle was a terrifying thing, wings beating and talons ripping. The bandits shrieked and cried out and scattered.

Where was Volias?

Scar yelped. Joss shied sideways, an instant before the blow hit him. His shoulder took most of it, but the tip caught him just behind his right ear. Then the man coming at him fell forward onto his own face, and Volias yanked his short sword out of the man's back and shoved the body aside.

"Thanks," grunted Joss, stung and shocked as he struggled to his feet.

"Doesn't mean I like you any better," said the Snake.

The fallen man was writhing spastically, blood spitting from his mouth. Joss's head throbbed as a swell of nausea clogged his throat, but he gulped down the bile and tried not to blink, which made the pain worse. Volias yelled, but Joss's ears were ringing and he couldn't sort out the words. Then Scar was there, tearing into a man who had somehow gotten right in front of him. The eagle's talons punctured the flesh, and the man screamed and screamed. Volias, glancing past them, got an awful look on his face and ran as if demon-ridden toward the mess by the wagon.

A pair of men leaped past Joss, having crept up from the left, and swung with halberds at Scar, but Joss spun up and met them blade-to-blade, holding them off until Scar pounced. Their fear killed them, because they hesitated. Scar tore the head off one while Joss stabbed another. The hot scent of death and blood flooded him, and the ache in his head, in that instant, cleared.

He swept the scene with a quick look to identify the danger spots. The last eddy of fighting had caught around the wagon. Peddo was on the ground curled up as into a ball with eyes forced wide by pain. Volias battered back the last two men standing, the ones who wouldn't give up and run. A furious Jabi struck and struck and struck into the torso of one of the men, whose hideous shrieks hurt the ears. The other bolted, but Volias grabbed him from behind, jerked him back, and stabbed him, then shoved him away.

Joss ran, and dropped down beside Peddo. "Heya! Heya! Peddo! Let's see it. Come on, now. It can't be that bad."

Volias appeared, his shadow giving them a brief respite from the sudden impossible weight of the heat. The sun was dizzying.

"Ah, the hells." Volias stalked away to see if anyone was left alive.

"Eh! Eh! Eh!" gasped Peddo, trying to speak, trying not to cry out.

"The hells," said Joss. "Just scream, damn you. Let me see it." Jabi was circling; he hackled, and opened his wings impatiently. He was so damned big, a hundred times more intimidating than any twenty men and their weapons because of his ferocity and high courage. "He's going to bate, Peddo. He's scared for you. Don't let me face that alone. He'll rip my head clean off."

Peddo set his jaw and with a roar flopped back. Blood pumped from the cut that had sliced just above his hip and down into his groin. Joss slit the leathers, pulled strips of linen and silk from his own rig, and set to bind it as tightly as he could, to stem the bleeding. All the while keeping up an idiot flow of commentary.

"Damn it but that was a close one, Peddo. Lucky thing that blade didn't just whack your good friend there right off. Else you'd have no reason to visit the Devourer again, but then, I don't suppose that would have bothered you any."

"Peh. Uh. At least I'm choosy about where my friend takes his festival. Ayuh!" Without warning, Peddo passed out. Jabi settled, crouching over his reeve and spreading his wings to shelter him.

Volias came back. "Not good. We didn't get here in time. Cursed wolves got them all. There's one merchant who can still talk, but his gut's laid open. No mendicants in sight, so I don't see how we can save him. The rest are dead or unconscious, and the wolves are already circling. They're gathering out beyond range, but they won't stay out there long. We're badly outnumbered, despite the ones we killed."

Joss rose to survey the scene. The two wagons were rigged to run rugged and fast. The horses had bolted; a few were already being rounded up by those bandits who had fled off to a safe distance. The other two eagles were hackling, strung tight, ready to go at it again.

"Get Peddo in his harness," he said to Volias.

The dead littered the ground, merchants and bandits alike. Some were still alive, but in that passing way, blood bubbling from their lips or dribbling from puncture wounds in the torso that could not be healed, not even by the Lady's mendicants had there been any here along the road. A couple of the bandits were whimpering, lost in pain, all bloody and torn enough to make you wince until you remembered that they had attacked. The fortunate ones were unconscious and dying, or already dead. One of the merchants had dragged himself into a half-sitting position, propped up on the body of another man. His head was wrapped in cloth, in a turban. A strip of that cloth had come loose, and the entire elaborate structure of the headdress looked likely to unravel. His arms glinted under the weight of a sheath of silver bracelets. His silk jacket was cut through and, as the Snake had said, his gut had been laid horribly open to expose the glistening insides. It was a terrible wound made worse because it did not kill quickly.

"Will he live?" Volias asked.

Joss began to shake his head, and realized that Volias was asking about Peddo. "If we get him back to Clan Hall before he bleeds to death, and if there's no infection, he just might. That man there, he's a Silver."

"Yeh. I didn't touch him. He's the only one of that kind in the group."

"Strange. Usually they travel together with their own kind."

Joss tossed an extra coil of rope to Volias, then strode over. The wounded man saw the movement and tracked him with his gaze. He even tried to smile as Joss knelt beside him.

"Ah-ah-thought no one would come."

"We did, but it didn't help much."

"It is enough," whispered the Silver valiantly. His face was sheened with sweat, and his lips were losing color. A stink roiled out of his exposed guts. Behind, Peddo's whistle shrilled as Volias blew it to get Jabi to settle and come in.

"Must get the message through," croaked the Silver.

Joss took one of the Silver's hands between his own. The man's skin was cool, and getting colder as the life drained from him. "What message?"

"Shefen sen Haf Gi Ri. My house-sent me with these others. The four of us. Sons of the Lesser Houses-in Olossi. And these eight guardsmen-brave men."

Joss looked the man in the eye to aid him in keeping his focus as he struggled for words. He did not interrupt. The dying man didn't have much time. Nor did the reeves. Out beyond the watchful eagles, the wolves were circling.

"Dissent, disagreement, in the council. The Greater walks hard upon the Lesser, although there are more of us-among the Lesser. We should be heard. Trade to the north has stopped. The Greater Houses say-to be patient-but we-the others of us-the Lesser Houses-we wonder-what is going on. So we sent this group-we four to carry the message. Nokki from Three Rings. Myself. Two from the guilds, Kavess and Aden. Also the eight guardsmen, brave men." Like the wolves, he was circling, back to words he had already spoken.

"What is your message?" Joss prompted. In this moment, the world was dead to him, all emotion fled and the wind and the smell of battle fading away because he must hear the words that this man was trying so desperately to speak.

"Two. There are two messages. Why has trade stopped? Where are our caravans sent north last year? Why does no trade come out of the north? Show us support."

"Have you asked the reeves of Argent Hall to help you?"

"They can't hear us," said the Silver cryptically, and he went on so quickly that Joss dared not stop him to ask that he explain himself. "Two-the second message. Emergency! There are ospreys hunting on the Kandaran Pass, and along West Spur. Attacking caravans, this season. Now. Right now. Captain Beron of the border guards is no help. He claims he needs more guardsmen. He claims… he needs support of Olossi council, of Argent Hall. We of the Lesser Houses… we would give aid, more guardsmen, pay for it… but the Greater Houses remain silent. They refuse to listen to our voice. They no longer trust us. The wolves are circling, cutting us off at both ends. They mean to choke us. Who?"

His hand clenched Joss's hard, as though a jolt had passed through him, as though he had found his strength and might actually live. "Who wants to choke us? Who will help them? Who will help us?"

The hells!

The effort of speaking had sucked the man dry. He went limp as the breath of life fled. His destiny, his fortune, to end here, on the West Track, about five mey from safety. If the town of Horn would have offered these men a safe haven.

And the wolves were closing in, damn them all to the hells.

Joss released his hand, tucked in the fraying ends of the man's headdress, and twisted the bracelets off both arms. He cut a length of silk off the man's jacket and wrapped the bracelets up with a twist knot. Rising, he checked the positions of his allies and his enemies.

Jabi had his wings spread wide, and he wasn't happy, but he held still as all the eagles were trained to do when their reeves were wounded. Volias hooked Peddo into the harness and tied him in tightly with Joss's rope, checked the bandage, all with a remarkable lack of concern about that vicious beak and those talons a mere kiss away from his head.

The wolves were circling, getting bolder, and one man seemed to be lining up a trio of archers far enough away that they could pester the reeves with arrows. Joss counted his dead and dying: all twelve of the Olossi men, and fourteen scruffy outlaws. He searched through the corpses for the guildsmen and the other merchant, who would wear an identifying mark on their clothing.

"Joss!" called Volias.

"Go on!" called Joss to him. "Take Peddo north to Clan Hall."

"We've got to get back to Clan Hall!" yelled Volias. "Now. Those damned wolves are going to come after us in about three breaths."

Joss lifted both hands. "We've got to follow this up. Bandits on the Kandaran Pass. The West Track unsafe for merchants. Something's definitely wrong at Argent Hall. I'm flying south to see what I can see. Tell the Commander to send a flight south to meet me at Olossi."

"Stupid shithead," said Volias. "Don't you get tired of it?"

"Tired of what?"

"Always having to be the one who goes in first. Ah, the hells! Never mind." He let Jabi go, and leaped back. The big eagle lifted with a shriek. Volias gave a call with his own whistle and, when Trouble fluttered over to him, hooked into his own harness.

"You got a good haul off that Silver!" he called, as a parting shot. "The dead will make you rich!"

"Go devour yourself," shouted Joss, "since no one else will!"

There, at the end, with the nub of their dislike spoken baldly, Volias actually laughed. "I hate men like you, so easy with the women!" He said something more, but the words were lost as Trouble lifted in a gust of wings.

An arrow skittered over the ground. The wolves were testing their range. Joss counted ten that he could see, one limping. Five had bows, always the greatest danger to the eagles. Joss stuck his bone whistle to his lips, and the blast of sound shuddered over the carnage as if it might shiver all those ghosts to rest. Scar, already strung tight by the presence of the lurking bandits, by the fight, and by hunger, flew straight at him, leaving Joss barely enough time to turn his back as the eagle landed with a massive thump just behind him. One-handed, he fastened into the harness, and then they were up, Scar beating with powerful strokes until he found a thermal and caught it.

Up and up they rose. Below, the scatter of wagons and dead and dying men looked like a child's toys thrown carelessly about. The wolves dashed in to ransack the wagons and the dead men. After them would come the vultures; a pair glided past, already on the hunt for fresh carrion. Tomorrow or the next day, perhaps, those four children would come to glean through what remained.

The other two eagles were already high above, slipping into a northward glide. Far off to the west, Joss spotted another creature in the sky. At first he thought it must be a vulture, but it moved with the wrong motion. It was not even flying as an eagle did, rising and gliding, but beating steadily. Scar kekked, seeking direction.

Joss considered the distant flyer, already fading from sight. Scar took no heed of it, and Joss hadn't time to investigate a bird that Scar deemed unworthy of notice. Anyway, he had to keep his attention on the urgent matter at hand.

"South," he said to himself, and signaled with the jess.

They left the battle scene behind, quickly out of sight within the rolling, golden landscape, the high plains grasslands that stretched to the southern horizon. That was the way of a reeve's life. You had to leave it behind. If you did not, it ate you up from the inside out.

He is walking but instead of skeletal trees he sees the long rise and fall of the slopes that make up the grassland countryside where he and the eagle bedded down that night. Grass rolls away on all sides. There is no horizon. Mist boils up out of the ground as though the earth itself has exhaled. He strains to see through it into the veiled distance. Are those merely shadows on the slope ahead of him or is that a figure climbing toward the crest? Those fingers on the back of his neck are the wind. He tries to move forward, to chase it down, but he cannot shift.

Then, on the wind, he hears her voice as faintly as if she is speaking to him across a vast distance, or in a whisper just behind his head.

"The ospreys raid on the West Spur. Their leader is Beron, captain of the border guard. Break them first, before they take the treasure that the Hundred needs most. The carters and merchants will help you, for they suffer the worst depredations. Hurry. The shadows are spreading. Beware!"

"Marit!" he cried, sitting bolt upright.

It was dawn, and he was sweating, and after all he was awake and there was nothing to see except the dregs of his campfire, his pack and weapons set on the ground beside the bedroll on which he had slept, and Scar rousing himself with the rising of the light. He buried the last embers, and made ready. The sky was cloudless, utterly clear, bound to the flat eastern horizon and still purpling dark where it met the distant Soha Hills to the west. His thoughts, too, were clear, sharp, naked. He thought of murdered reeves and mutilated eagles, of River's Bend burned to the ground, of High Haldia under attack, of farmers tied to the posts of the Witherer's altar, of Horn Hall abandoned, of the four children, of the dying Silver and his murdered companions. He thought of the voice in his dream.

You had to leave it behind, because if you did not, it ate you up from the inside out.

But not this time. This time he wouldn't walk away. He would fix something, serve justice somehow, or by the hells he would die trying.


The road north toward the Hundred ran long, and through steep, impossibly high mountains. Shai listened to the chatter of merchants and hired men as he rode through the ranks of the caravan.

"I knew it were not good, the way that other caravan did racket out yesterday."

"What caravan? I didn't get to the market that early."

"It were at Sarida before us, you know, readying to go. A smaller group of Hundred merchants they were, anxious to get home. They did bolt at dawn whilst we were still bargaining with the caravan master for places. I bet they did hear something of these bandits and heretics, and hoped to outrace the troubles."

"The market magistrate said there's been no caravan come south from the Hundred for two months. Not a one, not since our company came five months back before the really cold weather."

"Might still be snow up on the pass."

"No. I'm sure it must be these troubles. I hadn't finished with my last trades, I had a few deals to make, but I let them go. Better safe than dead, I'm thinking. I'm that glad we lucked into these strong guards."

"May the gods watch over us."

"Hush! No talk of the gods in the empire. You'll get us killed!"

The Hundred merchants had a strange way of talking; many of the words were the same as the language spoken up and down the Golden Road and in the empire, but they shaped the sounds differently. They had also a peculiar manner of dressing, men wearing loose robes that left their calves bare, or knee-length tunics and sleeveless jackets over baggy trousers. Instead of heavy jackets to protect against the cold, they wore lengths of cloth, cloaks voluminous enough to wrap around their bodies, falling down to their ankles and fastened in place at the shoulder. The complexion and arrangement of features on their faces weren't like anything Shai had seen in Kartu Town, either, where one saw a variety of folk passing through as merchants or soldiers or priests or slaves. They hadn't the red-brown clay coloring of Kartu people, or the dusty brown complexion of the Mariha and desert people, or the mulch-brown features of many of the Sirniakan people, nor the richly brown-black skin of Priya, who came from far to the south past desert and heaven-high mountains both, close to the sun. Most of these northern men had a complexion with a golden-brown shine, black hair more commonly curly than the coarse straight black hair known in the rest of the world, and the brown eyes that marked all human folk.

Not like Cornflower's demon-blue eyes.

Why must he still think of her? Those memories made him flush, made him itch. They shamed him. Chief Tuvi rode through, casting orders as to the winds, and in his wake Tohon dragged Shai away to ride point.

Out ahead of the rest, they pushed their faces into the wind that ran down off the tremendous height piled up before them. Tohon rode in a concentrated silence, his gaze roaming over the unfolding road and the narrowing vista of the land, but Shai sucked in the flavor of the wind and mumbled to himself in a low voice. By breathing in air that tasted of far places and unknown destinations, he hoped to thrust her ghost out of his mind, because she would not stop haunting him. Yet she ought to stop, here in a land where women were not permitted to walk abroad alone and uncovered. She ought to stop, because there were no ghosts in the Sirniakan Empire. Not one.

"Tohon, the Qin soldiers and that groom who died. What happens to them? To their bodies and spirits?"

"To die in battle is a good death. The gods take the dead man's spirit into the heavens, and their flesh is scattered by the animals, returning to the earth."

"But don't you keep their bones with the ancestors?"

Tohon burst out laughing. "Hu! You folk with your feet stuck in the bricks of your cities. I've seen those tombs where you bury the bones of your ancestors. How are we Qin to carry so many bones with us? I've my weapons, my saddle, my string of horses, my field rations. Back in my home country, my son tends the family herds. I'd a daughter once, but she died, and my good wife died of grief at the losing of her. It was a bad death. The girl drowned. When the water takes you, the demons capture your soul." He shook his head, face creased with a frown. Shai had never seen him look so downcast.

"I–I'm sorry to hear such a sad tale. May the merciful heart of the Holy One ease your burden."

"Huh. That's why I rode east with Commander Beje. I'd done my years in the army, I could have stayed in the home pastures and raised my grandchildren, but the burden was too great. My daughter's ghost haunted me. I wonder in what land my bones will be scattered. This north land, this Hundred land, perhaps."

"You don't just leave everyone behind, do you? Like those men who died. We just left them behind. Isn't there shame in having no remains to bury with the ancestors? Is there nothing their family has of them, in the end?"

"How is a person to stop in a battle, or on the trail? You talk too much, Shai. I told you before. Once the spirit is fled, the body is just meat. The spirit can be born again and again, and travel on the winds. You can meet them in another life."

"Not once they've passed Spirit Gate. The Merciful One teaches that once you pass Spirit Gate, you can be free of the world, free of suffering, gone altogether beyond."

"Why would you want to be free of the world?" asked Tohon. "I'll never understand you people."

" What happens when folk die, here in the empire?" Shai asked Anji that night as the captain waited for his tent and awning to be set up. They were standing by a freshly kindled fire. In the hills, there was plenty of wood to burn.

Anji considered, as if searching the question for traps. Finally, he shrugged. "The Sirniakan magistrates investigate every death and determine its cause. The guilty are punished. Those responsible for the corpse pay the death price. Afterward, the body is taken to the temple and burned. The ashes are plowed into special fields to nourish the living. Everything is always tidy in the empire. Not like in the rest of the world. Ghosts dare not trouble the priests of Beltak, Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the Shining One Who Rules Alone."

Shai flushed as though the fire had washed over him. Why would Anji mention ghosts? Had he betrayed himself somehow? He had tried so hard to keep his secret. Maybe Mai had whispered the truth to Anji, as pillow talk. Best he not talk about the dead at all, lest folk got to wondering how he knew so much about ghosts.

"Who is Beltak?" he asked, hoping to throw down fresh scent to muddy the trail.

"That's the short name of the god. He has a longer one, but it takes an hour to say it all." The shifting dance of the flames played on his face. The world was an inconstant place, so the flames might have told him. Anji was a man who appreciated irony, and gave away little else.

"What of the Merciful One?"

"The priests of the Merciful One are executed if they're caught. Or any of their worshipers. Hamstrung, and burned alive."

Shai shuddered. The awning was settled. A lantern was lit, and a carpet unrolled. Shai excused himself, claiming he had to take a piss, but he was simply too nervous to sit. He walked a circuit of the campsite.

Six fires burned to shelter this consortium of thirty-one anxious merchants, ranging in grandness from long-distance solo peddlers pushing handcarts piled with silks and spices to one grand entrepreneur and his managers shepherding ten wagons of fine goods and forty or more healthy young slaves destined for the markets of the Hundred. No one sang or chattered. They watched the darkness, waiting for bandits or heretics to strike.

One man dressed purely in white sat alone, on a mat, with only an oil lamp for company. He held a wooden bowl in front of him and murmured words as he touched water from the bowl to his forehead. The Sirniakan carters and drovers knelt on the ground behind this man, mimicking his movement with bowls and water of their own.

Shai paused to watch. After a moment, a slender man of mature years slipped in beside Shai. The man wore a voluminous cloak, dark pantaloons whose color could not be distinguished, and a tunic that in the moonlight appeared as pale as butter.

After a moment, the man touched him lightly on the elbow. "Best not to stand watching, they don't allow it," he whispered. He flashed a kindly smile, then strode away, cloak swirling around his legs.

Startled, Shai moved on. As he continued his circuit, the Qin sentries nodded at him. These days they seemed polite more than friendly. He had taken their politeness for companionship before, having known so little companionship in Kartu. Now that he understood them better, he recognized that they were bred, or honed, to a manner with a sheen of smoothness that rarely betrayed extremes of emotion. Tohon was asleep, rolled up in a blanket and snoring, his weathered face as peaceful as a baby's.

The sentry closest to the forest's edge whistled sharply. Men leaped up. Torches were lit. The merchants scattered to their wagons and carts. Out in the night, branches snapped and whipped as unseen stalkers scurried to get out of the way. Qin soldiers dashed after them and, in the distance and hidden by darkness, a melee exploded. It settled quickly, fading into a few shouts and a cheery laugh.

The man in white appeared at the edge of camp, holding his oil lamp in his left hand and his bowl in his right. The soldiers reappeared, mocking the tailman who limped in. They dragged a body, a ragged creature who once might have been a man, although he was filthy, skinny, and quite dead now. Shai watched from a distance. It was difficult to see threat in the dead man, but the merchants were as ecstatic as if they had been saved from a marauding army.

A wisp of ghost substance spun out of the man; a face of bitter regret and pain began to form its familiar cry. The man in white lifted lamp and bowl, chanting words under his breath like a prayer over the dead. As he spoke, the ghost substance was pulled and pulled like thread unraveling, and drawn inexorably into that simple wooden bowl, sucked clean into it, until it was all gone.

All gone. Given no chance to pass through Spirit Gate. Trapped in the bowl.

No one else noticed. No one else saw.

Shai broke into a sweat. His hands were shaking as he turned away. The man in white-whatever he was-must not suspect what Shai had seen.

Hamstrung and burned alive.

No talk of the gods in the empire. You'll get us killed!

The man in white moved away. The body was searched and afterward dumped into the bushes like so much garbage. The camp fell quiet again. It took him a long time, but he fought to breathe evenly. Once he thought he could speak without stammering, he circled back around to where he had started, at a spot overlooking the captain's awning.

By the light of a lantern, under the sole awning erected for the night, Anji had settled in to confer with Master Iad, the caravan master, a keen and cunning man for whom no detail was too small to ignore. Together they examined a knife that had been taken from the body of the dead man.

Mai appeared beside him, as if she had been waiting for him to show up. "What's wrong, Shai? You look worried."

"There is a man, dressed in white, who travels with the caravan. The drovers and carters mimic him. What is he?"

"He is a priest of Beltak. That's what Anji says. Every caravan traveling through the empire must employ a priest to guard."

"To guard what?"

"I don't know. To guard against evil, I suppose. I think they're sorcerers. Do not speak to him. He'll leave us and go back into the empire, once we reach the borderlands."

The caravan master glanced up, seeing Mai, and away again with guilty swiftness.

"He knows you're not a boy," said Shai. "Do you think the merchants suspect the captain lied to them?"

"Wasn't Anji magnificent at Sarida? He told them what they most feared to hear, so they believed him."

"That's not an answer."

"I don't think they care," she said coolly, "not as long as they're safe."

"Are we ever safe?"

She shuddered.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong, Mai?"

Shaking herself, she touched his hand. "I didn't see how it happened, in Sarida. How we lost all the bearers, who walked so faithfully all this time, never complaining. And that poor lad forced to leave Commander Beje's villa only because he saw us on the porch. He's dead, too. And poor Cornflower, lost in the storm. How can we be safe when we never know who we're going to lose?" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "What if Anji is killed? Then what happens to us? We've been on the road for four months. We're so far from home we can never go back."

Footsteps crunched on dirt. Mountain's hulking shape appeared out of the night bearing wash water. "Mistress? Priya says she has your wash ready."

She forced a smile before hurrying away.

Why should the merchants care that Mai was not a boy, as long as they were safe? If the caravan master had his suspicions, he did not confide them to Beltak's priest. No doubt he'd be twice a fool to protest now, and a dead fool at that. They were all far from home; best not to take chances.

Their company pushed higher and higher into the mountains. The few weak souls in the merchant train who couldn't keep up were left behind. At the order of the priest, one female slave was executed for an unspecified crime. A young slave gone lame was granted clemency and allowed to ride on the back of a wagon until he could walk again. None of the merchants complained about the grueling pace. Possibly this was because they were to all intents and purposes now at the mercy of their guards. Possibly it was because they were eager to push beyond the range of the Beltak priest's absolute power. Or possibly they were happy to have to pay so little, nothing more than feed and provisions, for this magnificent captain and his wolf pack of soldiers who quietly and efficiently guarded the merchants and peddlers and their laden wagons and chained slaves.

At a tiny walled village high in the mountains, at the last registered toll station, the Beltak priest turned aside with no word to anyone and walked away south, downhill. Yet even though his departure brought a certain sense of relief, the most difficult part of the crossing lay ahead. For days, they passed no other villages or indeed any sign of habitation except for a few isolated shepherd's shacks. On several occasions they observed men along the ridgelines, following and observing their march, but no one approached them.

In time, they had to dismount and lead the horses because of the steady upward incline of the road. Anji pulled the scouts in, and guarded the caravan before and behind with ranks of his most experienced men. In these high reaches, they saw only birds and rodents and deer. At length, in the mountains with white-capped peaks towering above, it became difficult to suck in quite enough air as one trudged along. They were walking in a no-man's-land where only clouds and rain held sway. They had truly left behind the grip of the empire and its priests.

Shai knew it for sure because one morning he saw a ghost, a wisp caught among rocks where a slide had half obliterated an old sod shack. The ghost was beckoning to them, its substance bent in a passionate come come come, and its mouth opening and closing with exaggerated desperation.

What did it want? It was too far away for Shai to hear what it was saying.

Seeing the remains of the shack, a peddler called cheerfully to one of his fellows, "See, there! That's the old way station, where that orange priest used to take alms and offer up that holy water of his. Not far now to the border! Only two or three more days, though most of it downhill! Whew! Downhill is the hard part!"

"What became of him?" huffed his companion, whose legs were as stout as tree trunks from years of pushing a loaded handcart up and down these steep trails. "That orange priest, I mean."

"Eh, who knows, up here. Anything could happen."

They both caught breath, then called out to a slender man of mature years who was striding past them, the very same man who had warned Shai off watching the Beltak priest. In daylight, Shai could admire the extremely bright, even gaudy, colors of the man's clothing: a voluminous cloak of peacock blue, wine-red pantaloons, and a tunic of an intense saffron yellow hue.

"Greetings of the day, holy one. Greetings of the day."

"Greetings of the day to you, friend. And to you. Almost home, neh?"

"Almost home! The gods be praised! You in a hurry there, Your Holiness?"

"I hear there's another caravan a half day's journey ahead of us. Thought I would catch up to them, get the news." He kept walking, making for the front of the caravan. Amazingly, the peddlers did not guffaw at this astounding statement. Indeed, the man's stride seemed tireless; as far as Shai could see, he wasn't even breathing hard despite the thin air and a bundle slung over one shoulder.

Shai trudged alongside the peddlers for a bit, watching the other man's bright blue cloak recede up the road. When, in the happenstance of moving along, he caught the eye of one of the peddlers, he spoke up.

"What manner of holy man is he?"

The two men looked him over, measuring him, and then nodded at each other as if to agree that they could speak freely.

"That one? Can't you tell by the sky cloak? That's an envoy of Ilu. Though what he was doing walking down into the empire I can't imagine. They kill priests there."

"Silk," said the other peddler wisely, nodding toward the well-wrapped goods in his own hardcart. "Sometimes the temples send a holy one south to buy silk for the temple. A dangerous task, mind you. Like a test of their courage and wit. Or to see if they're ready to move up in the temple hierarchy. I'll wager he's got silk in that bundle, two bolts of highest-grade quality. Not anything I could afford."

The holy man reached the van and just kept going, advancing past the forward guard and along the road until he was lost from sight. No one tried to stop him, a traveler moving into the unknown. Would he return home unscathed? Would something terrible happen to him?

But after all, Shai realized, he was really only wondering those things about himself.



Just before sunset a man appeared on the road, entirely alone, walking up out of the south. He was a holy man, and he wore the gaudy colors of an envoy of Ilu: a voluminous cloak of peacock blue, wine-red pantaloons, and a tunic dyed the intense yellow gotten only from cloth dyed with that dearest of herbs, saffron, whose value in the markets of the Hundred Keshad knew down to the last vey. Along with the rest of the small merchant company, Kesh stared as the man strode to the spot they were settling in for their night's camp, cheerfully greeted the caravan master, and began chatting as though he'd been traveling with them all along. The envoys of Ilu were known to be insane, not mad in their minds but willing to endure hardships and risk dangers that no ordinary person would get near. This certainly proved it.

But Keshad had his own business to attend to, a wagon, mules, driver, and most crucially the goods he was transporting north over the Kandaran Pass to the Hundred. He had a very particular and complicated routine he must follow at night to keep his goods safe. So he dismissed the envoy of Ilu from his thoughts, and did no more than glance his way once or twice, until midway through the next day when the envoy, pacing the caravan, drew up alongside Kesh where he walked at the front of the line.

"Greetings of the day, nephew."

"Greetings of the day, Holy One."

As the two men walked along the ancient trading road, they talked. It was a good way to pass the time. Their feet scuffed up dust with each step. The rumble of cart wheels and the clop of pack animals and the laughter of a quartet of guards striding out in front serenaded them. Behind, the rest of the caravan clattered along. That ensemble of noises always seemed to Keshad the most reassuring of sounds when he was out on the road. If safety could be found in the world, then surely it was found where folk banded together to protect themselves from predators.

"In ancient days," the envoy was saying, "the Four Mothers created the land known as the Hundred with its doubled prow thrust east and north into ocean and two great mountain ranges to the south and the west to protect the inhabitants from their enemies. The Mothers joined themselves with the land, and in that transformation seven gods emerged from the maelstrom to create order."

Keshad shrugged. "So the story goes, at any rate."

"Ah. You're clearly born and bred in the Hundred." The man touched his own left eye, as if to bring to Kesh's attention that he had noticed the debt scar on Kesh's face. "Yet you don't believe the Tale of Beginning?"

"I believed it when I was a child."

"You've gone over to the Silvers' way of believing?"

"The Silvers? No, I don't know anything about that."

The envoy was old enough to be Kesh's father, had Kesh still had a father; a man beyond his prime but not yet elderly.

"Something else, then. Hmm. Keshad is your given name, so you say. That means you were dedicated to the Air Mother at birth. Too much thinking. That's often a problem with Air-touched children. In what year were you born?"

Kesh brushed his elbow, where his tattoo was. "Year of the Goat."

"Even worse then! 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. Look at you, a young man, in the prime of your strength, good-looking, all your teeth-oh, no! missing one, probably from a fight."

"That's right. But the other man lost more! And he started it!"

"Happy is Ilu when he hears of those who gain justice!" The envoy grinned, and Kesh laughed. "Good eyes, not bloodshot or yellow or infected. Strong limbs, open stride. Health in order. It must be your Goat's heart that is distracting your Air-touched mind."

Kesh rolled his eyes, but he did not want to insult a holy envoy, who was a nice enough fellow, cheerful, lean, strong, and with an amazing set of white teeth that made his grin contagious. Obviously, the man was crazy.

"So, then, lad, you are born to be skeptical. How do you think the world came into being, if you don't believe my tale?"

"I hadn't given it much thought. I'm too busy wondering if we'll be attacked on the road, and if the guards we hired will protect us. Or run."

"That's always a distraction," agreed the envoy amiably.

Still, as the small merchant train and its armed escort trudged down the hip-jarring slope of the Kandaran Pass, Keshad studied the terrain of the rugged foothills where bandits lurked. He cast his gaze up at the spires themselves, shining in the afternoon sun. Light splintered off the snowy peaks. Clouds spun off into threads where they caught on summits and pinnacles. It was easy to imagine the fiery eye of a god glaring those formidable mountains into being as a warning to mortal man: Do not cross me.

"The way I see it," Keshad continued, "it doesn't matter how the world came to be. It matters what path a man takes as he walks through the world."

"A fine philosophy! Did you serve your apprenticeship to Ilu, perhaps? You sound like a Herald's clansman."


"One of the Thunderer's ordinands, perhaps? I see you carry a short sword and a bow. That's not common among merchants."

"I am not," he said curtly, and was then sorry at his sour tone. The envoy had treated him with good humor and deserved as much in return. "I have spent a lot of time thinking about journeys, because of my own. For instance, a merchant has a choice of three paths to reach the markets of the Hundred."

"Three paths? I would have thought only one." The envoy indicated the road on which they walked, but his sharp gaze never left Kesh's face.

"He can brave the seas-"

"And their treacherous currents! The roil of Messalia! Reefs and shoals!"

"That's right. Or the desert crossing to the west over Heaven's Ridge."

"And thereby across the Barrens! There's a reason they're called that, you know!"

"That's so. But it can be done, and folk do it."

"True enough." The man coughed. "So I hear."

"Or he can pass this way, as we're doing. Paying a tax to the empire for right-of-way on the Kandaran Pass, because it's the only route leading over the Spires that we know of."

The envoy's steady gait did not falter, but his eyebrows rose in surprise and his voice changed timbre. "That we know of? You think there's another way over the Spires?"

"If there was, and you knew about it, wouldn't you keep it hidden?"

The envoy snorted and lifted his walking staff, letting its crest of silk ribbons flutter as he waved the staff toward the heavens. "That I would, lad! If I were a merchant, and prized profit above all things. Or one of the Lady's mendicants, desiring secrecy. How comes it that you know so much about traveling into and out of the Hundred, if you're not heart-sworn to Ilu the Herald, as I am?"

"I'm a merchant, and therefore I prize profit, so I've tried all three in my time-"

"Ah. As well you might, being an Air-touched Goat. Still, you're yet a sprout. Young to be so well traveled!"

"Not so very young!"

"Three and twenty seems young to a man of my years!"

Kesh laughed. "Do you want to hear what I've concluded about the three paths?"

The envoy's expression was full with laughter, although he did not laugh, and for some reason Kesh could not explain, the holy man's amusement was not condescending but warm and sympathetic. "I've heard a great deal about you so far! Why stop here? Go on!"

"Well, then. I've concluded that while Death might find tax collectors amusing, She doesn't often masquerade as one. Therefore: I choose taxes."


"Best to risk taxes now, and death later."

"As they say, both are certain. Still, I can't help but think they're gouging us."

"Who is? Death's wolves?"

That grin flashed again. "Death's wolves aren't greedy. They only eat when they're hungry, not like the wolves among men. I mean the Sirniakan toll collectors, the ones we've left behind. Double and triple toll they charged me! Even a man such as myself who is only carrying two bolts of silk. Just because I'm a foreigner in their lands."

"It's true their tolls cut down on profits, but taxes are still preferable to death. A man can't work if he's dead."

"So it's said. Is that all life is for you? Work?"

Kesh looked back at his cargo. He'd rented the wagon, mules, and driver at great expense in the south, and spent yet more to rig up scaffolding and waxed canvas so his treasure would be concealed from the eyes of men, although naturally every person in the wagon train believed they knew what he had purchased. If he listened closely, he heard the two chests shifting and knocking together and the two girls whispering as the wagon juddered along. Otherwise, his cargo was silent and seemingly ignored by merchants and guardsmen and travelers alike, but he saw the way they glanced at his campsite in the evenings, every man of them. Wondering.

The envoy said nothing, waiting him out.

Kesh discovered he'd tightened his hand on the hilt of his own staff so hard his fingers hurt. He shifted the staff to his other hand and opened and closed his fingers to ease the ache.

"Work is the road I must take to reach the destination I seek," he said finally, knowing the ache would never ease.

"Ah." Again, the envoy brushed a finger alongside his own unscarred left temple. If he wanted to question Kesh about the debt mark, he kept his curiosity politely to himself.

"What of you, holy envoy? That's a long way to walk just to buy silk, when you can buy Sirniakan silk in the markets of the Hundred. Had you no other purpose? Sightseeing?"

"As if any priest would wish to risk execution in the south just to see the fabled eight-walled city," replied the envoy with a chuckle, easily falling in with Kesh's change of subject. "Silk, it's true, can be bought anywhere, but I was looking for a particular… grade and pattern. "His frown was startling for being so swift and so dark, but it passed quickly, and Kesh wondered if he'd mistaken it. "I did not find what I was looking for. Did you?"

The riposte took him off guard. "I'll only know when we reach Olossi."

"Who will you sell the girls to?"


"The two girls."

Keshad smiled nervously. "Whichever man will pay the most."

The envoy glanced back at the wagon. His gaze burned; for an instant, Kesh thought the man could actually see through the canopy and mark the treasure Kesh had hidden all this way by using the time-honored method of illusionists: distract the gaze with the things that don't matter so that your audience doesn't notice the one thing that does. Ilu's envoys were notorious, seekers and finders who noticed everything in their service to Ilu, the Herald, the Opener of Ways. They were always gathering news and carrying messages; the temples even sold information to support themselves.

Still, this was none of Ilu's business. Kesh had come by this treasure as honestly as any man could. It was his to sell and profit by, his to use to get what he needed most. After so many years toiling, this trip promised to be the one that would at last bring him what he had worked for, over twelve long years.

It hurt to think of it, because he wanted it so much: Freedom.

"Look there." Perhaps the envoy meant the distraction kindly, seeing Kesh's distress, but even if this were so, it was just as obvious that the sight relieved him. "The first mey post. We have reached the Hundred at last."

The white post had carved on it the number one, being the first mey of the road. Above that was engraved the name of the road, written in the old writing, more picture than letter, and recently repainted in the grooves with black ink: WEST SPUR.

The envoy padded to the side of the road to cover the top of the post with his palm. The mey post stood chest height. It was square at base and top but tapered so that the base was larger than the squared-off top where, in time of peril, the base of a wayfarer's lamp could be fixed into a finger's-width hole drilled deep down into the wood. At first the envoy stared north along the road, which began here its most precipitous drop out of the mountains. Then he shut his eyes and bowed his head in prayer as the seventeen carts and wagons of the merchant train trundled closer. When he looked up, he gazed toward the nearest prominence. A rugged mountain rose just off to the east with forested slopes and a bare summit surrounded on all sides by bare cliffs. Keshad thought he saw light winking up there, as if caught in a mirror, but when he blinked, the illusion vanished.

"Home," said the envoy with satisfaction. He removed his hand and began walking again to keep ahead of the wagons. Kesh hurried after him. "And hope of a dram of cordial at the Southmost."

Brakes grated against wheels as wagons hit the incline. Kesh looked back. The black mey marking, which had numbered one viewed from the south, numbered sixty-four seen from this direction: the distance of the road called "West Spur" from founding post to founding post. The other end of the West Spur lay a few mey outside the market city of Olossi, their destination. For him, this was the last road he would walk as the man he was now.

He felt sick with determination, with hope, with memory.

"I will let no obstacle bar my path," he muttered.

"What? Eh? Forgive me, I didn't hear."

"It was nothing. Just thinking out loud."

"Like the winds, to whom voice is thought, and thought voice."

"No, more like a mumbling madman who doesn't know when to shut up. There's the border gate."

Stone walls stretched east and west as far as Kesh could see, with miniature towers anchoring each side of the road. Armed men leaned on those narrow parapets, eyeing the approaching caravan. Below, by the log barrier, a pair of young ordinands lounged against the fence, laughing as they traded stories with those of the caravan's guards who'd been walking point.

"Heya! Heya!" shouted their captain from the east tower. "Get you, and you, to your posts!"

The ordinands scampered back across the ditch on a plank bridge to take up their places at the second fence, this one gated and closed.

"The guard force has doubled since last time I came through here," commented the envoy.

"Are they expecting trouble?"

"It's always wise to expect trouble in border country."

Kesh grunted in reply as he dug into his travel sack for his permission chits, his ledger, and the tax tokens he had received from the Sirniakan toll stations they had passed.

"If you'll excuse me, holy envoy. I must see to my cargo. If you would be so kind as to share a cordial with me at the Southmost, I would be honored."

"Indeed! I thank you. I'll drink with pleasure!"

The envoy strode ahead. His staff, tattoo, and colors were chit and ledger enough. In the Hundred, the servants of Ilu could wander as they, and the god, willed. Only Atiratu's mendicants had as much freedom. Kesh certainly did not. He dropped back. The forward wagons creaked and squealed as drivers fought against brakes, beasts, the weight of their cargos, and the steepening pitch of the road. It was a good location for a border gate. Any wagon that did not slow to a stop would crash into the ditch, and charging horsemen who cut off the road to avoid fences and ditch would shatter themselves against the stone walls.

Farther back, a wheel, stressed to its limit by the wear of the brake, wrenched sideways and broke off its axle amid curses and shouting. The wagon tipped sideways and with a crack and a shudder blocked a third of the road.

"Out of the way! Out of the way!"

"You cursed fool!"

Kesh jumped back as his hired driver, Tebedir, barely swung past the wreck; then Kesh got a toe on the boards and leaped up beside him.

"I replace wheels before they is too weak to take the strain," said the driver without looking at Keshad as the wagon rocked with the shift in weight. "No savings in scanting on repair, if you ask me."

"It's why I hired you," said Kesh, "despite the cost."

"No savings by hiring cheap."

They jolted to a stop behind the third wagon, to wait their turn. Ahead, a pair of Silver brothers or cousins-identifiable by their pale complexions, slant eyes, turbaned heads, and the silver bracelets jangling from wrist to elbow on their arms-were arguing with the clerks checking off their ledger. Kesh chewed on his lower lip. Tebedir chewed a cylinder of pipe leaf, spat it out, thumbed a new leaf from the lip of his travel sack, and rolled it deftly before slipping it between parted lips. His teeth were stained brown, but he had a nice grin.

After a while, rubbing his stubble of black hair, Tebedir said, "Slow today."

Kesh wiped sweat from his forehead, although it wasn't unusually hot. "The guards are expecting trouble."

"Rumor in camp tells it no merchant can travel north past a town the Hundred folk call Horn."

"It's hard to imagine, although I've heard those tales, too. That would mean the markets of Nessumara and Toskala are closed to every merchant trading out of Olossi."

"Still, young master, we are only going this far as Olossi. It is no matter to us."

"That's right. No matter to us."

As the second wagon moved through, Tebedir gave the reins to Kesh and clambered down to take the beasts and guide them over the plank bridge. Kesh didn't like heights-they made him dizzy-so he didn't look over the edge and down into the ditch, although he'd heard that the ordinands cultivated adders in that trench. It always seemed when he crossed that he heard hissing, but that might have been the wind scraping through the pines and tollyrakes that grew in the highlands around them.

No, that was hissing. Aui! Had she taken it into her head to waken now? He turned. One of the girls was peeking through a gap in the canvas sheeting tied over the scaffolding.

"Tsst! No! Not allowed!"

She saw him. One dark eye, all he could see, flared as she startled back. The cloth was pinched shut. A voice murmured, too soft for him to hear syllables. Anyway, they didn't speak a language he knew, nor had he taught them words beyond the most basic commands. That way they couldn't talk to anyone.

Tebedir pulled the wagon to a stop where the guards waved him down. Keshad tugged his sleeves down to conceal his bronze bracelets. The captain strolled up, examined Kesh's face, and held out a hand.

"Let's see your ledger, ver," he said in a friendly way which suggested he preferred cooperation to belligerence.

And why not? A captain at this border station could turn back any man to whom he took a dislike. The Silvers' wagon had been released and was rumbling down the road toward the village that waited two mey farther along. Where the dust settled, the envoy walked along briskly in its wake, his arms swinging. He seemed to be singing, but he was too far ahead for Kesh to hear. The second wagon, piled high with bolts of silk wrapped in burlap, was under assault by a pair of shaven-headed clerks who laboriously matched each bolt to what was written in the merchant's accounts book.

"How slow they are," said Tebedir, indicating the clerks. "Why you Hundred people allow women perform the work belonging to men?"

"No use arguing against the gods of the Hundred," said Kesh.

Tebedir merely grunted in reply, then led the beasts off to a generous patch of shade, beneath trees planted long ago for this purpose. He sat down on a log placed there for drivers, sipped from his ale pouch, and settled back to wait as Kesh handed the ledger over to the captain. The man paged through it. Naturally he couldn't read, but a man in his position knew the old ideograms well enough to mark if everything was in its proper place. As his arm moved, Kesh glimpsed the tattoo on his wrist: the Crane, resting between the clean squares and angles that marked an Earth-born child.

"Looks in order," he said to Kesh, handing the ledger back, "but the clerks will have to set their stamp. What's this?" Kesh offered him the tangle of chits, and he plucked the rare one out of the group and dangled it. "Two ordinary, one exalted. What have you got in there?"

"I call on the law of Sapanasu," said Kesh, "to ask for the veil of secrecy. You check yourself, Captain, and see that all is in order. I've no contraband, no weapons, no goods not accounted for in my ledger. I'll pay extra for the veil. It's my right."

"It's not cheap."

"I've these tax tokens to prove I've paid the worth of my cargo all the way north out of Sirniaka."

"I see it. This ledger is stamped with Merchant Feden's seal. We know his mark here. I'll accept your call for the veil. Now let me look."

Kesh gave his two-note whistle and called, "Moy. Tay."

The curtain at the back of the cart parted, switched sideways by a brown hand, and the older girl peeked out. The captain eyed her as she unfolded the step and cautiously descended to the ground. She was small but well formed, if too slender for the taste of most men. The younger followed her out, keeping her gaze lowered. She was plumper but not quite ripe. Under Kesh's gaze, they lifted out the two chests and opened them to display their contents.

"Sisters or cousins," said Kesh.

"Umm," agreed the captain. "Too skinny. Might not be bad, though, with a few more years and more flesh. Where are they from?"

"I picked them up in eastern Mariha, along the border country there. I was hoping to sell them to one of the jarya houses in Toskala or Nessumara, but I hear it's not safe to travel so far."

"It's true. You've been out of the Hundred for some months?"


"Roads north out of Olossi aren't safe. That's the word. It would be a shame to lose a good cargo like that to a pack of filthy bandits. But what's this veil you're wanting?" He picked carelessly through the contents of the two chests. "I see nothing unusual here. Vials of saffron, clove oil, mirrors, a basket of shell dice, ivory combs-very handsome! — and so on. You're not even carrying silk."

"Go in, if you will. Here come the clerks."

The captain paused with a foot on the step.

"This one next, Captain Beron?" asked the male clerk.


Moy and Tay kept their gazes fixed on the ground as the clerks moved in with their charcoal pencils, carved wood stamps, and ink. The clerks wore the nondescript, undyed robes common to those who labored for the Lantern of the Gods, Sapanasu. Like most of Her hierophants, they had shaved their heads, and their brown skin had a pleasing gleam from being oiled. They poked and prodded the girls delicately, and in their efficient way tallied each least item in the two chests and checked it against his account. They were so tidy that they packed everything back in just as they had found it, not a corner's fold of fabric out of place.

The captain ducked inside the wagon, which rocked under his weight. Tebedir dozed. A fly crawled on one of the driver's eyelids, and without seeming to wake he lifted a hand to brush it away.

"All accounted for." The female clerk dipped a stamp in ink and pressed it to the appropriate line in the ledger while the male clerk copied down figures in the record book he carried. "Or was there something else? What's this chit for?"

She held up the rare oblong, carved out of shell into the shape of a leopard.

The curtain trembled. The captain pushed out, wiping his brow, then the back of his neck. He stumbled as he came down that one step. He was flushed and sweating, and looking a little ashamed and yet at the same time a little amused at his own shame, but only a little.

"Tsst! Where'd you get such a thing?"

"I found it. Unclaimed. Mine by finder's right. You know the law."

He took a long look at Kesh. What passed in his mind was unfathomable.

"Anything we must know, Captain Beron?" asked the female clerk.

"No, set him his tariff and let him go on. He's invoked the veil."

"Very well." She and her fellow clerk consulted. They were no older than Kesh, but experienced and swift. They named the tariff. Kesh sorted through his coins, paid them into the locked coffer, and got his border chits to add to his collection. He was now almost broke, except for his trade goods, and paying for food and water would take the rest of his coin over the sixty-four mey of West Spur. It all depended on the price he could obtain for his trade goods once he reached Olossi. Everything depended on that.

"I've seen you before, last year," said the male clerk. "You're out of Merchant Feden's household, aren't you?"

"I am."

"Come on, Denni!" called the female clerk, who had already moved on to the next wagon. "The envoy said there was a bigger caravan coming up behind this one. We'll be stuck here all week if we stand gawking."

"Aui!" The male clerk looked Kesh over with a sneer. Boldly, he grabbed Kesh's elbow and rudely twitched back a sleeve to reveal a bronze bracelet. "Pretending to be what you aren't, as if you'd already bought your accounts bundle and cleared your debt! Don't think we can't see what's marked by your eye." He let go, and went after his companion.

The captain raised his eyebrows. "Isn't there a law against you slaves wearing sleeves that cover your wrists?" Recalling the ledger, he added ten to ten, as merchants did, and got twenty. "You're Feden's slave, aren't you?"

"I am." He felt how his ears burned, how his cheeks burned. How the shame took him, but also the anger and hope, because he was so close. "Do you know him?"

"You look like a good Hundred boy to me. What happened?"

Keshad wanted to say "none of your business," but the first rule of merchants, and slaves, was never to insult those who might have the means to harm you, or help you, later.

"Family debt. I was a boy. I never knew the details, only the amount."

"Eiya! If anything should clear your slate, young man, then this cargo should do it."

Kesh made the traditional gesture, hands to chest, the formal bow of not more than thirty degrees' inclination to show respect rather than submission, and turned to go.

"Whsst! In!" he said to the girls.

They clapped the chests shut and loaded them into the back while Tebedir yawned and got to his feet, stretching, flexing his big hands, clucking as he got the beasts out of their stupor.

"Coming up, Master?"

"I'll walk," said Kesh.

"If you ask me, a man can wear his feet out, walking too much. Women walk."

"I'll walk."

The captain watched them go, his gaze as sharp as the touch of a blade to Keshad's back, but in the end one of his men called to him and he went back to his task. He hadn't even demanded a bribe, but there were men like that. "Beron" was an Earth-touched name, and he'd worn the Earth Mother's tattoos. No doubt the envoy of Ilu would have a few words to say about the honesty of a man born in the Year of the Crane, dedicated to the Earth Mother at birth, and serving Kotaru, the Thunderer, as one of his holy soldiers, his ordinands.


By the time Keshad paid a half leya as toll to pass the palisade gate and walked beside his wagon into the village of Dast Korumbos, the envoy was already seated and drinking at the inn called Southmost. The village's eight rectangular houses were sturdily constructed of halved logs, and in the manner of the southern Hundred were not whitewashed. Chimes tinkled from every eave. The inn's shutters were open under the peaked roof to air out the loft. In the fenced forecourt, a trio of locals sat on stools around the envoy's bench, laughing as he told a story.

"So he said, 'No one wants to live so far south, right up into the mountains where anything might happen. But where else will folk pay double price for my sour cordial?' "

The innkeeper trotted out, cast a sour glance at his customers, and went back inside the house. The courtyard boasted two awnings and a grape arbor that also provided shade. The kitchen smoked out back. A chicken wandered past the benches, scratching and pecking. A dark-haired child stuck its head out of the loft where Kesh had slept once on a straw bed, the one time he had had Merchant Feden's coin to pay for lodging. The other times in Dastko he had slept on the ground beside the village well, under the branches of the Ladytree, where no one was allowed to charge rent.

The envoy saw him and lifted a hand in greeting. Kesh handed five vey to Tebedir. "For the well," he said. "See they drink deeply."

"If you ask me, they overcharge."

"That they do. You come have a drink, and we'll see what the inn is offering at a reasonable price for supper."

"We stay here tonight?"

Ahead, the wagon with the two Silvers trundled on through the far gate, headed down West Spur into the north, but the second wagon had already pulled up along the commons. Kesh squinted at the sky with its lacing of clouds and a peculiar purpling blue to the east, what could be seen of that horizon with the hills piled so high and the mountains crowded so close behind.

"It's a half day's journey to Far Umbos. We can't make it by dusk."

"That wagon goes on."

"Silvers have some kind of sorcery that protects them. Me, I don't want to sleep out under the trees tonight with any wild beast coming to eat us up. For free!"

"Lot of cold road here in the north," remarked Tebedir as he got down and hooked the leads onto the beasts' harness. "Lot of cold road and only wild forest and demon beast on every side. Not like in the empire. In the empire, there's always some person or village in spitting distance. Don't know how you folk stand it."

"I might say otherwise, wondering how you southern folk can stand to live all crowded together."

"Not crowded at all!" he retorted with a chuckle. "Lonely. Brrr." He shuddered as though troubled by a chill wind, gave a flip to the reins, and guided the team toward the well at the northeastern corner of the palisade.

The Ladytree was an old one, situated to the left of the well between the high outer palisade and the lower ring of stone wall that protected the well. A waist-high corral marked the limit of the Lady's generosity. The top of each post was carved into a representation of her sigil, the double axe, so no one could mistake this for anything but holy ground, but also to provide a hitching post for a traveler's mounts, dogs, or livestock. The Lady was practical in that way. The branches had grown out over the fence and had been twined in with it, and in spots he noted white scars where they'd been hacked back in defiance of the law.

Children loitered by the narrow entrance to the encircled well. Several sat on the high posts that jutted up from the wall. One man and one woman waited by the well gate to exact toll from anyone who needed to water a team. Keshad hoped Tebedir would not kick up a fuss about the woman wanting to take coin out of his hand, but the Sirniakan driver had worked the Kandaran Pass into the Hundred before; he knew the custom here. The wagon came to a halt under the sanctuary of the Ladytree. Tebedir unhitched the beasts with practiced skill and led them around the curve of the inner wall to the gate. The man put his hand out, not the woman. No doubt they'd seen plenty of Sirniakan drivers come through.

"Keshad!" The envoy beckoned. "Come sit, nephew. My friends here have already bought me a drink in exchange for news from the south."

The locals moved aside to let Kesh sit beside the envoy on the log bench. As a draught of cordial was placed before him by the smiling innkeeper, he glanced back toward the well, but Tebedir and the animals had vanished behind the inner palisade. One boy stood up on one of the high posts and, balanced there like a bird sentry, turned to watch what was going on at the trough, which was not visible from outside the little palisade.

"What about you, lad?" asked the locals. "What news from the south?"

Kesh shrugged. "Not much news you haven't already heard. The old emperor died. It's whispered there's a rebellion brewing in the south against the new emperor. A cousin thinks he has more right to sit on the throne, so there might be fighting."

"Oom. Hem," muttered the locals, nodding wisely. "That bodes poorly for custom, don't it?"

"It might," said Kesh, "if fighting reaches so far north no one dares trade from the Hundred into the empire. As for the western markets, the Mariha princes have fallen to an army from farther west, barbarians called 'Kin.'

"You traveled that far west?" asked the envoy, surprised. "All the way to Mariha lands?"

"I did. That's where I got the two girls. It was strange, though. Not one merchant I spoke to complained about their new overlords except that they have a habit of hanging thieves as well as murderers."

"That can't be all bad," said the older local, twisting greasy fingers in his beard. "Good riddance."

"Unless they call thieves and murderers those they want to hang, even if they didn't steal or kill!" said the younger as he rubbed a scab on his nose.

The trio talked for a while of their own expeditions into the south, though Kesh soon wondered whether these men had stirred more than a half day's walk from Dast Korumbos in their entire lives. Their stories sounded like such a tangle of tales that he suspected they might have heard them from others, and they could never verify details, but the envoy merely smiled at their stories, and nodded at Kesh as if to warn him that there was no harm in letting them spin their fantasies as long as they wished. Other wagons trundled in at erratic intervals. After two marks the traffic ceased. This late in the day, no one else continued north. By arriving early, the first wagons had gotten the prime spots under the Ladytree, up against the net of branches that, having grown into the fence, gave them a second wall of sorts at their backs. Other wagons had to pay for space on the commons or along the outer palisade, and soon most of the open space in the village was littered with a confusing maze of wagons and carts and a few tents being raised.

Tebedir took his time watering the beasts and getting things settled to his liking. After he hobbled the pair beside their wagon, he sauntered over to see about drink and taking a meal. The locals squinted at the driver, sketched hasty fare-thee-wells, and departed.

"I hear tell there's another caravan coming up behind this one," said the innkeeper as he brought Tebedir a cordial and all of them a pot of lovingly spiced barsh, a green mash of rice, chopped onion, and liver liberally sprinkled with pepper and sharp kursi, which was grown in the eastern marshlands.

"What's this?" Tebedir asked, making a face at the pungent barsh.

The envoy took in a deep breath and smiled broadly. With two fingers he dipped into the mash and tasted it. "Ah! A better flavor than your cordial, Master Innkeeper. Very good!"

The man grunted, both irritated and gratified. "The berries were sour this year. I can't afford to throw it out and buy elsewhere. No one wants to live on the pass, right up into the mountains where anything might happen. Heya! I was born here, and here I'll stay, but we have to pay rent and food to the ordinands who patrol the wall and control the gate, and to the clerks who account the trade and taxes. And it's a high toll ourselves to bring in any goods we want that we can't grow here. I don't like serving sour cordial, I'm proud of my inn and my service, but sour cordial's all I've got this year."

"Heya! Innkeeper!" a merchant called from another bench.

He sketched a gesture of leave-taking and hurried away. Kesh hitched the tripod holding the pot of barsh closer to the bench. They set to it eagerly.

Tebedir ate more slowly than the other two and was first to break the silence. "Not that tasty, if you ask me."

"What of your girls?" asked the envoy.

Embarrassed to be be taken to task in public, Kesh called the innkeeper over. "I want two tey of your second-grade rice, and a tey of beans-whatever kind-mixed in. I'll bring the bowl back when they're done."

"That's a lot of food for two young girls," said the envoy. He stared toward the Ladytree. Clouds had crept westward, making the late afternoon hazy. The wagon was half lost in the shadows under the spreading branches, but the envoy's gaze had a piercing quality that made Kesh nervous. What if the man could see through cloth?

Kesh forced a grin to his lips. "They're my merchandise. I'll get a better price for them if they're healthy and plump. No profit to me if the girls get sick or starve on the way to the block, is it?"

"No, certainly not. Nor is it any shame to hire folk who worship He Who Rules Alone when there are no good Hundred folk who can make the journey."

"The Shining One Who Rules Alone," corrected Tebedir genially. "King of Kings, Lord of Lords. You Hundred folk will all burn in the fire if you don't change your ungodly ways like Keshad here did."

The envoy raised an eyebrow but said nothing, and Kesh winced, thinking it would have been better had the envoy spoken his thoughts out loud. Anything would be better than that measured gaze turned on him now that seemed to eat him alive.

"Have you turned your back on your clansmen?" asked the envoy curiously, although no hint of anger tarnished his voice.

"They turned their back on me! Sold me into slavery to pay their debts!" He touched the crudely worked debt mark, more scar than tattoo, curving from his left brow and around the outside of his left eye.

"A sad tale heard all too often in the Hundred, I grant you. But under the rule of Beltak, once a slave you are a slave forever." He turned to the driver. "Is that not true?"

"Of course! No man become slave by the law of the Exalted One if he do not fall into disgrace." He nodded toward Keshad without embarrassment. "Is different here in the north. Tsst! First become slave, then buy free, and so on. But that is your way. Maybe it will change when Beltak's priests come."

"Maybe," agreed the envoy politely, "but in the Hundred, the gods and the land are as one, not to be separated." He looked closely again at Kesh as if trying to tease the strand of memory out of Kesh's mind that would explain to him why a good Hundred boy would betray his gods.

Kesh scratched the back of his neck, wondering how he could excuse himself without insulting the envoy. Whatever pleasure he'd taken in the day had vanished. Fortunately one of the innkeeper's lads bustled up with the boiled rice and beans.

"Best get the girls fed and settled down for the night," he said as he took the big bowl. "We rise before dawn. Get a brisk start to the day. Olossi Town beckons."

He tossed enough vey on the table to pay for everything.

"I thank you, nephew." The envoy smiled. "Rest well."

"Crazy priests," muttered Tebedir as they walked back to the wagon. "Best they all die in the burnings. Better for your people to worship the Exalted One and not these wrong things they call gods."

"Leave it, if you will," said Kesh sharply. The conversation had rattled him. He handed the rice inside.

After the girls had eaten, he returned the bowl to the inn, paid a pair of vey to empty their waste bucket in the inn's latrines, and returned to his little camp. Yet as he knelt in the shadow of the wagon, set a bowl of water before his knees, and said his evening prayers with palms turned upward to face the heavens, he found the words meaningless.

"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 dipped a thumb in the water and traced that cool touch across his forehead. "Increase all that is good. Increase life. Increase wealth. Increase the strength of your devoted. Increase the power of your holy emperor, beloved among men." He dipped his little finger in the water and traced a line on each cheek. "Teach me to hate darkness and battle evil. Teach me the Truth, Exalted One, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. You are Beltak, the Shining One Who Rules Alone. Peace. Peace. Peace."

Wind shushed in the branches of the Ladytree, as if the Lady Atiratu Herself overheard him and muttered Her displeasure among the leaves. His thoughts wound away like the wind, seeking north. The town of Olossi beckoned, sixty-two mey from Dast Korumbos, more or less eight or ten days' journey depending on weather, road conditions, the state of the wagon, and the likelihood of accidents or obstacles as yet unknown.

Nine days! It seemed both far too many and so blindingly few. He could feel the taste of freedom on his tongue, as sharp as the blend of kursi and pepper that had spiced the barsh. His freedom. Her freedom. Both of us, soon to be free.

"Hei! Hei!"

The slap of feet on the ground startled him so badly he knocked over the blessing bowl. Water stained the dirt. He jumped up, but his view beyond the Ladytree was obscured by branches. A commotion roiled the commons. A youth came running from the direction of the southern gate with his broad sleeves fluttering back like bird's wings.

"Hei! Hei! 'Ware! 'Ware! Ospreys comin-!" He stumbled forward and plunged headlong into the ground. An arrow stuck out of his back. His arms jiggled crazily as he tried to crawl but could not make his legs work.

"Osprey?" Tebedir had heard the words but from his angle closer to the trunk of tree had not seen the lad fall. "What is that?"

"Trail robbers. Named for birds-what swoop down and grab their prey. But they never attack into a town…"

"Robbers!" exclaimed Tebedir.

"Close the gate! Close the gate!" rang the frantic call.

Already out in the commons, a hand of men in guard tunics ran toward the southern gate. A pair of guards leaped on horses and headed toward the northern gate. A crowd converged on the inn, each man, and they were all men, yelling and gesticulating as they cried for protection, for news, for safety. Kesh grabbed his sword and slung it over his back, then buckled his quiver over it and with a quick tug and pop strung his bow. His stomach had fallen into a pit so deep he couldn't measure it.

"Tebedir, you can run, or stick with me, whatever you will, but if you run now I can't pay you your delivery share and you'll be taking your chances with robbers out among the trees."

He backed up until he pressed into one corner of the wagon, scanning with each step, and called out to Tebedir again, but the driver had vanished as if consumed by a stroke of lightning. Even the driver's blessing bowl was gone.

There were four vehicles under the Ladytree, crammed to fit: three wagons and one handcart. A sleepy lad draped along the driver's bench of the second wagon raised his head and stared around without comprehension. The others had been abandoned by men gone over to their supper who had, no doubt, paid their companion's lad to stand watch over all. Another merchant, less trusting, leaned against his handcart waggling his hands in fear as he stared at Keshad and his weapons.

"What to do? What to do? That boy just fell down with an arrow in his back! Os-preys never dive into a walled village! Everyone knows that!"

"Run for safety," advised Kesh roughly.

"And leave my cart? That's all my clan's savings tied up in silk-"

A bell jangled, twice, three times, and then the alarm was cut off by a shrill scream that went on for so long that Kesh realized it wasn't a dying man making that horrible noise but a living one. It was a battle cry.

The other merchant bolted out from under the Ladytree's canopy, but the fool ran for the mob gone into hysterics at the inn rather than seeking the sanctuary offered by the well. The two horses gone north returned at a gallop. One was riderless. The other, shot in the hindquarters, dragged its rider behind, but the fellow was dead or unconscious, his body turning and tumbling as the pain-blinded horse tried to shake him loose.

How could this be happening? How, when he was so close? Were the gods punishing him for turning his back on them? Yet he'd done that years ago and walked unmolested in the Hundred enough times that they'd had plenty of time to dissolve him with the blast of their angry gaze if that was their intent. No, no, it must be now, when he was so close that the taste of freedom had made him at last admit his hunger. The gods were cruel, that was it, and delighted in mocking his hopes.

He reached back and slipped an arrow free, set it against the string. "Curse you all," he muttered. "I won't lose all this now!"

"Kei? Kei?" It was the older girl, peering out from between the walls of cloth. "What go, Master? What go?"

"Down!" he snapped. "On the bed of the wagon. Down flat!" He heard them rustling, but he hadn't the leisure to look inside to make sure they obeyed. Just what he needed! A stray arrow piercing that precious neck and robbing him of all he'd worked for, for so many years. God, he was so furious at those damned robbers he could kill them and eat their hearts and savor the tang.

"Whass going on?" asked the lad.

"Robbers, you thick skull!"

The lad whistled. He was, it appeared, thick in understanding. He scratched his shaved head and wiped his nose. "Now what?"

"Run to the well. That's refuge."

"Can't leave the wagon. Boss said so."

"If they catch you, they'll kill you."

"Boss said so. Stick by, he said. Watch these other two, not just ours. Gotta do what Boss said. Plus there's a sticky bun in it for me. When we get to Old Fort. He promised."

"Hide under the wagon. You've got good position back here with me. Hard to come through these back branches, like a wall-" He pointed with the bow, and the lad nodded wisely. It was obvious that the boy didn't comprehend the danger they were in. "There's the cart, and that other wagon there, on the other side where it's more open. That's like wall, too. A bit of safety. The Lady's palisade, they call it."

"Eh," said the lad, squinting. "Eh! See there!" He pointed with his elbow, not that Kesh hadn't already seen and felt his insides go from falling to twisting into a tight, tight knot.

Where the caravan guards had got to he did not know, but the men now riding into the commons from both north and south were no raggle-taggle bunch but two dozen men armed with bows, spears, and swords and dressed in good silk. Not the best quality. He had a finely honed eye, and even from this distance he recognized that the shades of crimson, apricot, and azure were decent but second-rate. This was the kind of silk a well-to-do crofter might buy his young bride for her wedding price, or a rich merchant might clothe her servants in for a festival party to impress her rivals.

Behind, branches rustled. He spun. Tebedir pushed through the wall of hanging branches, holding an unlit torch in one hand and a shovel in the other.

"Tsst!" the driver hissed in disgust. "No robber in my land. God keep order!" He had tied his blessing bowl back onto his belt but now set down shovel and torch and set to work with flint and tinder to start a fire in the bowl. "Fire scare evil ones," he explained. "Burn them."

"My thanks for coming back," said Kesh, heartened by his reappearance.

"Never left. I swear my time of service according to the Exalted One. To break a swear-an oath-makes a man a slave! In my country, Master," he added. "Not yours. No such honor in yours."

Kesh grinned wryly but kept his gaze fixed on the way the robbers were closing in around the inn. A few of the merchants bore walking staffs or droving whips, but those that held them aloft did so more as if to say they were ready to surrender. The innkeeper emerged from the inn on his knees, hands clapped to his forehead, palms facing outward in the traditional gesture of submission.

"Mercy!" The man's voice carried easily over the commons. "By the mercy granted us by the Witherer's Kiss, take what you will and go on your way."

"Think they'll see us?" whispered Tebedir.

A strong voice called out from among the robbers.

"Move swift! Hurry! Find the treasure, and ride!"

They wheeled, scattering like a flock of chickens after thrown grain. One jumped his mount over the fence surrounding the inn and rode through, whip flashing to either side as men screamed and stumbled out of his way. Another cantered back toward the northern gate and a third toward the southern. Six dismounted and began to tear through the wagons parked all through the commons as that same voice called, "No, you slackabeds! A wagon with canvas walls! Yes, like that!"

The man giving the orders remained in the road, surveying the chaos, watching avidly as a wagon surmounted by a canvas cabin had its walls slit by spear point. The leader's mouth and nose were masked by a black scarf tied up behind his ears. His dark hair was short, like a laborer's, and streaked with enough gray that Kesh could make out the speckling from here. Two men turned their horses and trotted toward the Ladytree.

Streamers of colored ribbons broke out of the innyard as the envoy used his staff to help himself vault the fence. He cleared it easily and landed with remarkable agility for a man of his advanced years. He trotted through the chaos with a peculiar lack of concern, following on the trail of the two riders moving in on the Ladytree.

"Not much chance fighting these odds," said Tebedir. "If you ask me."

"I'm not asking you! You're free to escape, if you wish."

"Seems to me Hundred folk like killing southern folk. As good odds here as out on my own. I stick."

"With my thanks, then. If we survive this, I'll give you a bonus."

"Hei!" cried the lad, pointing toward the two riders.

Tebedir jammed the base of the torch into the dirt, held the shovel between his knees, and flicked open his tinderbox. Keshad sighed, nocked an arrow, and took aim. Once the first arrow went, he'd be marked and doomed. He could still surrender. The two riders closed. The envoy gained ground behind them, darting through the chaos. Kesh noted him grimly. Was it the envoy who had betrayed them to the bandits?

He loosed his arrow. It missed so wildly that in truth the two riders didn't even notice it, so intent were they on looking back over their shoulders at the fortunate men now looting the wagons out on the commons where merchants sobbed and slaves cowered.

The torch flared beside him, a wash of unexpected heat. Tebedir hoisted the shovel in two hands and gave it a test swing as Keshad set another arrow to the string. He loosed it, only to see it veer wide yet again. Beltak had cursed him, or the gods had chosen to punish him for his apostasy now that he was back walking in their Hundred.

The lad had come up with a bow from somewhere. With a blinking look of confusion, he drew and aimed and shot and the lead rider of the pair toppled off his horse with an arrow buried deep in his belly.

" 'Eir! 'Eir!" cried the second, waving and hollering until he got the attention of the leader. He drew his sword. "Got trouble over here."

The leader gestured. Three more riders turned to ride that way as the second rider bent low in his saddle, letting his mount's neck cover him. The lad fumbled for a second arrow. Keshad swore under his breath and made ready.

The envoy fell to his knees as though hit, but more likely he was only cowering as the new riders swept up beside him, ignoring an unarmed man dressed in the colors of a god. His arms shifted, and without warning he stuck his staff parallel an arm's span above the ground, right in the path of one of the horses. The creature tripped and tumbled and screamed as it went down with all that weight, slamming hard. The rider spilled forward over the horse's neck, hitting head and shoulder on the earth, and lay there like a dead man, although the horse struggled up at once.

"Beware!" said Tebedir in a sharp voice at Keshad's left ear.

Kesh stepped back, and loosed an arrow into the face of the first rider, who was just now ducking under the Ladytree. The man screamed and flailed as his horse swung sharply back the way they'd come to get out from under the branches. The turn and the scrape of branches toppled him from the horse, and he lay writhing in the dirt and moaning and bleating and clawing at his face. The horse trotted away.

Two riders still pounded toward them. Tebedir dashed forward to the cover of another wagon, holding both torch and shovel. The lad had strung another arrow, but the sight of the wounded man struggling and bleeding in the dirt distracted him as did the cries and shouts from the commons and the inn.

The envoy dashed after the riders, toward the Ladytree, only to stumble and fall. An arrow stuck out of his back.

Kesh loosed his arrow as the pair of bandits ducked beneath the tree, but it missed. The lad was still staring at the injured man and the arrow stuck in his eye with blood and matter smearing his cheek.

"Heya! Heya!" shouted Kesh, but the lad turned too late as the lead rider stuck him through the belly with a spear. Choking, the boy collapsed and was then spun sideways as the rider yanked his spear clean. Tebedir thrust the smoking torch into the face of the second horse, and as it shied back he swung hard with the shovel. Its edge cut deep into the second rider's ribs. The man shrieked and grunted; his sword caught Tebedir in the thigh, but only because he was already falling. He staggered as the rider landed at his feet, then battered the man's face with the shovel, cursing as he swung his arms. Blood stained the fabric of his leggings.

Keshad leaped back as the other rider advanced. The man's arm was cocked back with the bloody spear dripping and pointed straight at him. Kesh's hands shook so badly he could not get an arrow free from the quiver, and when his back slammed up against his cart he dropped the bow and drew his short sword, however stupid and hopeless that was. The bandit tried a thrust, but Kesh slapped it aside desperately. Beyond, more riders approached. Tebedir shifted to get a better position in the shelter of the foremost wagon.

"Here! Here!" shouted the lead man, keeping his distance now that he'd seen Kesh would fight back. "I've got them! Two armed, one wounded. The wagon's here!"

Although trapped against his wagon, Kesh could still see a portion of the commons. The bandit's captain raised his voice, and all heads turned toward the Ladytree. Every man of them reined their horses aside; they had seen their quarry and now moved, like ospreys, for the swift catch.

"It's all over," called the rider, sneering. "Throw down your sword and we'll kill you quick. Keep it, and we'll take longer."

"Is that meant to persuade me?" answered Kesh. "Can't you do better? Offer me a share in your company? Compliment my skills to your captain? Promise to lay waste to my clan house if I don't cooperate? Neh! You can't even finish me off before the rest of them get here to back you up! You probably need them to help you swive the goats, too-"

He expected the thrust, caught the haft on his blade and shoved it aside. While the man was recovering his balance, Kesh jumped up against the horse's withers, grabbed the rider's belt, and yanked him off the horse.

"Tebedir! Back to me!" he called as he skipped sideways. The rider hit his head hard enough to wind him, and Kesh stuck him up under the ribs with no more mercy than the man had shown to the poor lad, who was still gurgling.

"Not looking good," said Tebedir as he limped over, leaning heavily on the shovel.

A dozen men trotted over the limp body of the envoy as more came up from behind, converging on the Ladytree.

"You can give yourself up and beg for mercy. I won't mind."

Tebedir's breathing had gone raspy with pain. "Better to die with honor than surrender as a woman. I give my word to drive, to keep silence, to bring you and the cargo to Olossi. I keep my word."

A wind stirred the branches, as though the Lady were whispering. A strange prickling charge made Keshad's skin tingle. He looked around, expecting to see the Lady's servants leap out of the air to protect those who sheltered under her sacred boughs, but it was only the wind and a distant ripple of thunder, a change in the weather.

Too late for him. Too late for her.

"Now would be a good time for Beltak to show His power," muttered Kesh angrily, feeling tears sting and a vast crashing wave of despair and fury and hopelessness. From behind the canvas walls of the shelter he heard one of the girls sobbing with fear. He, too, wanted to weep, but he'd be damned if he would give in.

The thunder grew louder, and the riders toward the back of the group turned their heads to look south. He could not see their expressions, precisely, but he saw their postures alter. Elbows were raised, pointing, and then came an explosion of shouting and curses as they tried to shift direction.

Too late for them. They could not move quickly enough, having been too intent on the fish beneath the waters. A tide of black-clad riders swept through them, scattering them, cutting them down. What fine horsemen! This new company turned sharply and with ease and took from behind those who had been spared the first assault. It was a slaughter. Not one of the bandits, not even the captain, survived.

Tebedir took his shovel and beat in the heads of the men still moaning, until they stopped. He halted beside the lad, whose eyes were open and whose face was white with agony and terror. "Kill him?" he asked.

"No. No." Kesh could barely grip his sword's hilt, he was trembling so hard. Saved! Just as he had asked! "There may be a real healer here. Praise the righteous ruler of all! Who are those men?"

Unexpectedly, horses neighed shrilly, and some reared, only to be ruthlessly reined down and held hard by their riders. Those horses who had no riders scattered in a panic. At the command of their captain, the mounted company withdrew from open ground, back among the wagons. Merchants and slaves pointed overhead, yelling and exclaiming, and most sprinted for the inn as though a squall was about to hit. All this movement cleared a space in the commons beyond the tangle of wagons and carts.


The beast came down fast, body almost at the vertical and wings in a wide curve, and yet with such beauty that Kesh shouted aloud and Tebedir swore in the name of the god. It was a huge eagle with a gruesome healed scar above its piercingly bright right eye. The man hanging in the harness unhooked himself with a speed born of long practice and leaped out with reeve's baton raised and cloak swirling dashingly at his back. But as he surveyed the scene, he relaxed, then grinned, then lifted the baton toward the waiting horsemen as a salute. He turned to the eagle, spoke a word, and stepped back as it fanned out its wings with primary feathers and tail raising. With unnatural power, it thrust with its legs and lifted with its wings and took to the air again. Its wake fanned the air, and lifted the ends of the reeve's cloak. A man actually shrieked in fear, followed by a chorus of anxious laughter and a sudden gabble as all the merchants swarmed the reeve.

Tebedir grunted and sat gingerly on the tongue of the cart.

"Let me see that wound," said Kesh, but the driver waved him away.

"Best go, first. Talk and see. I not die with this cut."

"But without you… you stuck with me, beyond everything… I can't repay you-"

"Oath is worth more than coin. No believing man go against his oath." Tebedir meant what he said; it was no use arguing.

Kesh sheathed his sword, picked up bow and quiver and slung them over his back, then headed out to the mob. It was true what Tebedir said: As a believing man, a true follower of Beltak, the Shining One Who Rules Alone, he could not forswear his oath to see the task through to its end. Of course, not every Sirniakan who claimed to be a believing man really was one, but in this case fortune had favored Kesh, and he murmured a prayer of thanks.


There was a lot to take in besides the twenty or so corpses, the stray horses, and the baggage that had been strewn on the ground around the carts as they were ransacked. Merchants and servants hurried to gather up those wares not spoiled or broken in the assault. One wept over a roll of golden silk that had been trampled, but surely the idiot could see that silk, at least, could be cleaned and repaired and sold at a reasonable discount; it was better than being dead. Other merchants crowded around the reeve, demanding aid or explanation or simply pouring out their fear and anger, but Kesh remained mindful of the force of men that waited off to one side. He estimated their number at about one hundred, all wearing black gear. They showed remarkable discipline, lined up in tidy ranks with a trio of men, their leaders, in front. They appeared foreign in both dress and facial features. He had never seen anyone who looked quite like them, except in Mariha.

He elbowed into the mob surrounding the reeve and, finding the innkeeper, grabbed him by the arm. "Heya! Heya! Pay attention! We need to bring in wounded men, maybe a dead one. An envoy of Ilu needs our help! Quick!"

Kesh's fierce words cowed the man, and the reeve looked his way with the calm expression of a man completely in his element.

"Go on," said the reeve to the innkeeper. "You heard what he said. Bring in any wounded at once. Find that envoy! If there are any innocent folk these ospreys killed, I'll need their name and clan, so we can make an accounting and see that any death tithe is offered correctly."

Kesh tugged the innkeeper after him. The reeve, meanwhile, gestured to the others to move back to their wagons. Afterward he walked to the black-clad guardsmen. Kesh saw the envoy's bright blue cloak on the ground and he broke away from the innkeeper and ran to kneel beside him. The arrow had an ugly look to it. The shaft had broken four times and it was clear that the envoy had been tumbled when the horses were ridden over him.

"Is there a healer here?" he asked the innkeeper.

The man gave a groan of despair and shook his head. "Nay! Nay! It's many days' walk to the closest temple devoted to the Lady! We haven't seen a mendicant in weeks."

"What about the Merciless One? Sometimes there are healers there."

"The closest temple is all the way north by Olossi."

"I know that place," said Kesh grimly.

"Eiya! Horrible!" wailed the innkeeper as he stared at the body. "To have it known that an envoy of Ilu died here! No one will want to bide here or sup and drink at my inn. It's an ill omen! We're ruined!"

"Get a flat board-a tabletop-a door-something! We must carry him inside." He looked up at the sky. "It might rain, and it will soon be dark."

The innkeeper needed no greater encouragement. He bolted back the way they had come. Kesh pressed a hand gently to the envoy's neck. He breathed still, if shallowly. Life pulsed in his body. The breath of the gods had not yet left him.

Kesh curled his hand around the arrow as close against the envoy's back as he could and tested its grip by slowly twisting it. To his surprise, it slid free easily. Amazingly, the point had not pierced the fabric of the cloak but only driven it deep into the body. He cast the arrow away and swiftly pushed the cloak to one side as blood gushed up through the yellow silk of the tunic. He got out his knife and slit open the back of the tunic to expose the wound. The tumbling by the horses had done the most damage by disturbing the point, but it was remarkable how the silk had not torn despite the speed and force of the missile. He pressed the heel of one hand on the wound to stem the flow of blood and closed his eyes, trying to sense the pattern of the body's humors beneath the skin, as it was said true healers might do who could breathe and smell and even hear the whispering complaints of illness or injury.

"Ssa!" came the whisper. "Sshuu!" And then, "Where did they come from? Who set them on us?"

Kesh opened his eyes to see that the envoy's eyes were open. One of them, anyway. He couldn't see the other since the man's face was turned to one side because he was laid out on his stomach.

"Please lie still," said Kesh. "Don't talk. I got the arrow out. Hang on. We'll get you to the inn. You'll rest there."

The first winds heralding dusk sighed down off the mountains, and the cloak rose and sunk into ridges and hollows as if something living were moving inside it. The envoy did not reply, but perhaps he had passed out again. His left arm lay at an awkward angle, and bruises were purpling all along his back where hooves had struck him.

"How badly hurt?" The reeve crouched beside Kesh. He was younger than the envoy but a fair bit older than Kesh, a good-looking fellow with short black hair teased by a few strands of white. He stood at medium height, lean but very fit, and he moved with the strength of a man who has confidence in his ability to stick it out in a brawl. A dangerous man, in his own way, and not unlike his eagle in the way he examined the envoy with a keen gaze, without actually touching him, as predators seek from above the sign of their prey by studying the ripples in grass and the flash of sudden movement along the ground.

Kesh eased the heel of his hand off the wound. Blood oozed, but the gushing had stopped. He pushed the envoy's cloak off the body and into a heap at one side, then slit the tunic from neck to base and opened it like wings.

"Trampled and shot," mused the reeve, "but still breathing. Good thing those os-preys are all dead, as it's more merciful than the death they'd receive for killing a holy man."

"He's still breathing! He spoke to me."

The reeve grunted and glanced over his shoulder. Kesh looked, too, and saw that the black-clad guards had dismounted and spread out, and were hauling the corpses of the bandits into rows the better to tally, identify, and dispose of them. Locals and servants hovered close by, hoping to strip the bodies of second-rate but still precious silk.

"That's one band," remarked the reeve, more to himself than to Keshad, "but it won't be the end of it."

"The end of what?"

"These attacks along the roads. I came south from Clan Hall to investigate."

"I heard there's been trouble. I've been south some months. You'd think Argent Hall would have been patrolling."

"So you would think. Worst, it turns out it's the captain in charge who has made common pact with these ospreys."

"The captain? The one in charge of the border post? Captain Beron?"

"The same," said the reeve. "How do you know him?"

"I heard the clerks speak his name as I passed through earlier today. He seemed a decent man."

But the thought struck him hard enough that he fell silent: It was my treasure the ospreys sought. He saw it, and let me pass, and sent these men after.

He said nothing, although the reeve waited, as if sensing that Kesh clutched a secret to his heart.

"Beron?" The envoy stirred. His voice had the hoarse gurgle of a man talking past blood. "Dedicated to the Earth Mother at birth. Crane-born-did you see his Crane mark? Sworn to Kotaru the Thunderer. Well. It's no wonder." That wheeze was, perhaps, meant to be a laugh, but it sounded more like a death rattle.

The reeve regarded the envoy with a look of mild amazement.

"What's no wonder?" demanded Kesh. "Yet if you would be silent, uncle, we might save you!"

"Cranes are orderly… Thunderer likes discipline… Earth Mother arranges all things but… can be rigid. Overturn these.. "He gargled on blood as he tried to suck in air.

"Overturn these," said the reeve softly, "and you have chaos."

"It is easy to subvert a man… who is in all parts desiring order… imposed from without. Eh! Eh! Any envoy of Ilu would have advised against… dedicating this child… to Kotaru."

"Uncle! Keep still! You must spare yourself."

The reeve looked fixedly at Kesh as the innkeeper trotted up, gasping and grunting and leading a pair of men who carried a tabletop on which to bear the wounded man. The envoy closed his eyes. They shifted him over and hurried off, but Kesh grabbed the innkeeper by the sleeve.

"There's a pair under the Ladytree. A poor brave lad who I fear is dead. And my driver, who needs his wound washed and bound with a salve. If you have any starflower or soldier's friend, they are good for such injuries. Or Bright Blue, which stems bleeding-nay, it's too far south for that."

The innkeeper gave him a fearful grimace and tore away, shouting at a pair of untidy lads loitering by the gate to come and give a hand, and he lumbered off toward the inn after the envoy while his servants, or slaves, ran toward the Ladytree.

"You know something of the healing properties of plants," said the reeve, who had not once taken his gaze from Keshad during this exchange. He rose, brushing the dust from his knees, and when Keshad looked past him at the black-clad foreigners tidying the field, he looked, too, to see what caught Kesh's interest.

"Where did those come from?" asked Kesh. "Were they patrolling? I've never seen such a company of guardsmen in Olossi."

"No. They're the hired guard for another caravan. It was running about half a day behind yours. I saw them coming down the pass. As a reeve, I have the power to deputize folk when I need their aid."

"They're not Sirniakan."

"Are they not?" The reeve sat back on his heels with a look of pleased interest. "What are they, then?"

"I'm not sure, but I think they're Kin. Qin. I can't say it right. Grass eaters. That's what they're called in Mariha."


"That's a princedom west of the empire. They were ruled by five princes for a long time, so I was told, and none were happy except those who ruled. Then these Qin people came out of the west and killed the ruling princes. Now the Qin rule in Mariha."

He was about to say more, but he faltered, seeing too late that the reeve's pleasant interrogation had been meant to draw him out.

"Beyond the western edge of the Sirniakan Empire?" mused the reeve. "Well, I've seen no maps nor have I patrolled those lands, so I can't say I understand it. These men and their captain claim to be mercenaries. They hired themselves to the caravan as guards."

For a while that seemed drawn out far too long, the reeve smiled at Kesh as Kesh squirmed, shifting his feet and berating himself in his thoughts. This reeve was a truly dangerous man, for all his cordiality. He must start to wonder why the ospreys had attacked in such numbers and into the village rather than waiting and raiding along the road. He must start to wonder what it was they were after so urgently.

"I'd like to talk to you further," said the reeve.

"I have to leave at dawn."

"As must I. Come see me in the inn later, when you've a chance. Don't forget your accounts book and tallies." He said the words with such a benevolent smile that Keshad knew he absolutely would be rounded up by those grim-faced guardsmen and marched before the reeve as before the assizes if he did not present himself before the man this very night. When a reeve said such words, in that tone of voice, a man had to obey.

"It's getting dark," he said, to escape.

He fled to the Ladytree to find Tebedir arguing with the lads from the inn. The driver had already poured a dram of his potent brew onto the cut and bound it with a strip of linen, and he refused any other aid.

"Best see to the boy," he said.

"He must be carried," said Kesh to the lads, who bent to grab the youth by ankles and wrists. "Nay, not like that, you fools. His guts will fall out."

"What matter?" asked the shorter lad. "He's dead, this one. Just not yet."

"Wish he'd stop squealing," said the taller one. "Makes a lot of noise for a dying man, don't you think?"

"No one can survive a plug to the guts. Gah! He smells!"

"Go get something to carry him on!" shouted Kesh.

They fled as Kesh cursed after them.

The lad was whimpering and keening, and the sound did grate the ears, but Kesh felt pity for him, and anyway the lad had probably saved Kesh's cargo with his stalwart defense of his master's wagon. He crouched and smoothed the lad's forehead and talked to him as he would talk to an injured dog, letting the sound of his voice act as a focus as the lad's breathing caught, ceased… and gasped again as he fought back to life.

Tebedir offered a bowl of water and a cloth to Kesh, who wiped the lad's brow as he mewled and cried for his mother. Flies gathered on the dead ospreys, and flies buzzed around the lad's ghastly wound, all pink and gray with oozing blood draining his life as it dribbled onto the ground. Wind whispered in the Ladytree, and between one breath and the next the lad escaped into the air, slipped away on the breeze, his breath following the shadow path toward home. A sprawled hand lay open; the mark of the Ox decorated his wrist.

Tebedir murmured a prayer. Kesh sank back on his heels as the pair of lads trotted up empty-handed. A stout man wearing a stained merchant's coat labored along behind them. When he saw the dead boy, he slapped a hand to his forehead.

"Not under the Ladytree! Now I'll have to pay the death offering to the Lady, too!"

Tebedir raised an eyebrow and looked at Kesh.

"This boy saved your cargo," said Kesh sharply. "He defended your wagon with selfless courage. I can't say the same for you."

"This is none of your business! Move aside! Oh, by the Witherer's Kiss, you fools!" he shouted at the lads. "You should have dragged him out from under the tree! Now I'm stuck with the cursed Lady tithe."

Kesh rose and turned to Tebedir. "Watch the cart, if you will. If I have to stand and listen to this any longer, I'll hit him."

"Please hit," said Tebedir. "That boy fought like brave man."

"Pissing foreigners!" snarled the merchant. "Get out of my way!"

Kesh lifted a fist, and such a tide of loathing swept him that he hauled back-the merchant shrieked-and from the cart a female voice said words in a language Kesh had never heard before. It was like a bucketful of icy spring water splashed over him. He recovered; he remembered: Hit a man beneath a Ladytree, violating the Lady's law, and you paid a fine to her mendicants. They always knew; you could never get around it. Pay a fine, and it was that much coin thrown away. He could afford to lose none of his profit, not now, not this time. Not because he was disgusted by a self-important, selfish jackal of a man who paid his lackwit servant in sticky buns since the poor boy was too ignorant and too stupid and now too dead to demand better pay.

Shaking, he lowered his hand, gave the bowl and cloth to Tebedir, grabbed his ledger and pouch, and strode away. The merchant began yapping after him, but Kesh walked fast and didn't listen.

Dusk lay heavily over the commons. A cheerful fire burned in the outdoor hearth of the inn's courtyard, and men gathered there, drinking, but no songs warmed the twilight and the talk looked intense but muted. No one laughed. Other merchants hunkered down beside their carts. A half-dozen hirelings prowled around the ranks of corpses, but a quartet of black-clad mercenaries guarded the dead men, and Kesh guessed that no one would strip those bodies, not tonight, not without permission from the mercenary captain or the reeve. He paused by the gate to look over the mercenaries from a safe distance, not so close that they might feel he was challenging them. A few were setting up crude tents, canvas stretched out as a lean-to over bare ground to provide shelter against rain and wind. A pair rode off toward the south gate. Others moved among the horses, unsaddling some and stringing their spare mounts along a line for the night. They watched the movement of merchants and hirelings and slaves in the commons in the same way that wolves study the behavior of deer in a clearing. They ignored the corpses, though Kesh could not. The souls of dead folk begged for release, and the longer they lingered here, the more likely they would get up to some mischief.

He touched fingers to forehead and lips, and patted his chest twice, remembering the words of the Shining One Who Rules Alone: Death is liberation.

"There are no ghosts," he said, as if saying it would make it true.

Too late he noticed a young man coming up to the gate carrying a full kettle of steaming barsh. He halted and stared at Kesh strangely, as if he'd heard the comment. Kesh opened the gate for him, and the young man nodded in thanks and hurried toward the mercenaries, looking back once. He was dressed differently, in loose trousers and a short kirtle bound at the waist with a sash. His red-clay coloring and pleasant features reminded Keshad more of his two Mariha slave girls than of the stocky riders with their flat, broad cheekbones, sparse mustaches, and predator's gaze.

Inside the inn, the reeve had set up court. He had drawn up a table parallel to one end of the long room. Here he sat, stripped out of cloak and sleeveless vest and down to shirtsleeves, on a bench between table and wall, and seated beside him the man who must be the mercenary captain. The contrast between the two men made Kesh pause beside the door as he tried to decide whether to get in line with the other merchants being interviewed by the reeve, or grab a drink first to fortify himself against the coming interrogation.

The reeve had an easy way of talking to the merchants who laid out their ledgers and tallied their chits in response to his smiling questions. His manner suggested this was merely an inconvenience between friends. The other man was a stranger, reserved, removed, but aware of every action within the smoky interior. He glanced at Kesh, noting his scrutiny, and marked him with a nod before looking elsewhere. That he understood the words flying back and forth Kesh guessed by the way he would cock his head at intervals and glance sideways so as not to seem to be paying too much attention to the talk of cargoes and tallies. He had much the look of the Qin soldiers, but a striking nose and the shape of his eyes gave him the look of a man who has been twisted out of different clay. Kesh wasn't sure which man made him more nervous: the genial eagle or the silent wolf.

The innkeeper sidled past, on his way to the door, and Kesh caught his sleeve and tugged him to a stop.

"Here, now, you old toad. Those two lads you sent were useless. There's a boy dead beneath the Ladytree-"

"Thank goodness!" wheezed the innkeeper, trying to pry his sleeve out of Kesh's grasp. "That's none of my trouble, then. I have enough as it is!"

"As sour as your cordial! Where is the envoy?"

"Lying as peaceful as he can, out on the shade porch." He recoiled, although Kesh did nothing but give him a disgusted look. "He's under a shelter! If he dies under my roof it'll cost me half my season's profit for the purification ritual. I am not a cruel man, ver, but it will not help me or my family if I lose everything we have, will it?"

Kesh scanned the room. An elderly man was filling wooden mugs. A lad not more than ten was cleaning the floor where someone had sicked up. The rest of the staff, evidently, was outside clearing up from the attack.

"Can't get good help, anyway," continued the innkeeper as he weaseled his sleeve out of Kesh's grip. "Used to be my good wife and a niece and daughter helped me instead of these cursed useless hired louts, but after the midnight raids of four year back we moved all the women down road by Old Fort. I was lucky. I know a man lost both his strong daughters that summer to the raids. The gods alone know what became of them, poor lasses. Something awful. If you'll kindly let me get to my business, ver, I'll see you get a cup of cordial."

Kesh let him go as the reeve caught his eye and gestured, smiling as if they were old friends just now reunited. The innkeeper scurried away. Kesh pushed past a trio of grousing merchants and came up to the table as another man gathered up his ledger and chits, thanked the reeve profusely and, with an innocent man's flush of honest relief, headed for the door with a mug of cordial in one hand.

"I forgot your name, ver," said the reeve. "Sit down."

"You never asked it."

"In the heat of the moment, courtesy gets lost in the fire. I'm called Joss."

"Fire-touched," said Kesh, thinking of the envoy as he noticed the mark on Joss's wrist: like the dead boy under the Ladytree, the reeve was born in the Year of the Ox. Kesh's ken for numbers figured it up, unbidden. While the lad must be sixteen, this reeve was likely two cycles older, so he was forty.

Joss smiled. " 'A Fire-kissed Ox! You'll drive me to drink, lad!' That's what any one of my dear aunties always said. I don't think I was that wild. This is Captain Anji, who commands the guard of the caravan that was traveling behind you on the road. We're all fortunate they happened to be close enough to help us out. I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name again."

"I'm called Keshad." It was best to set all his chits on the table immediately. He opened the ledger to the current page. "I'm a debt slave bound to Master Feden of Olossi."

"Master Feden of Olossi," murmured the reeve, gaze fixing on the tabletop as though to seek answers there, or to remember a thing he had forgotten. "Feden."

"Do you know him? He's a member of the Greater Council of Olossi. One of the most prosperous and influential merchants in Olossi, in fact."

The reeve blinked, as though shaking awake, and he looked hard at Kesh. "How long have you been debt-bound to him?"

"Twelve years now."

" Twelve years? Did you know that on Law Rock it states that '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.' "

He shrugged. "Everyone knows that covers only the original debt. Not any debts accrued in the interval."

"Is that what your master tells you?" asked the reeve in a tone Kesh couldn't interpret.

"That's the usual way. Have you heard different? Is it different in the north?"

The hard look on the reeve's face made Kesh nervous, but the man shook it off quickly.

"No, I don't suppose it is." He ran a finger down the neat column of the ledger, turning back a page or three. Kesh doubted he could read, but any educated person knew the ideograms for common market goods, the directions, numbers, and so on. "A trusted slave, I see, running your own trip south and even into lands where Hundred folk don't normally trade. Like Mariha."

"I like to find goods that will make a profit."

"For your master?"

"I must clear a certain amount for each trip. After that, I keep the rest of the profit for myself."

The reeve glanced up at him, then touched each of the chits. "Getting close?"


"After twelve years." He was clean-shaven like a lot of the men north of the Aua Gap: Toskala-chinned, people called it. He rubbed his smooth Toskala chin against an arm, sighed, and scooped up the rare chit. "The Sirniakans call this an exalted token." He tapped the last line of the ledger. "I see you invoked Sapanasu's veil for your cargo. Care to tell me anything about that?"


The reeve drew his finger up to the top of the page. "Whatever it is, it seems to have come your way in Mariha together with-" He clicked his tongue, studying the writing. "Females-two, young, unmarried. What's this?"


"Ah. Oil…"

"Clove oil."

"These here-mirrors. I don't know what that is-"

"Shell dice. This one is ivory combs-thirty-two in number."

"No silk! That's unusual." His finger slid back to the last line. "Isn't that the mark for a bouquet of flowers? Or herbs of some kind?"

Kesh did not look at either of them. He kept his hands open, and was able to speak normally. "An aphrodisiac."

The reeve nodded, with a hearty grin and chuckle that suddenly struck Kesh as so entirely false that he shuddered and found he'd curled one hand into a fist. All this time, the mercenary captain had watched and listened and made no sound or reaction, like one of those stone monuments so old that any distinguishing marks have long since been worn off its face. This time he raised an eyebrow and said, in a cool, elegant accent, "Have the men of the Hundred need for such medicine?"

"We haven't any women as beautiful as your wife, Captain," said Joss, "or we should never want for desire."

The captain smiled blandly to accept the compliment. He did not deny it.

"Where are you come from, Captain?" Kesh asked.

"I have come from the south. I hire my company out as caravan guard. This is our first trip to the Hundred." Anji looked sidelong at Joss. "Maybe Hundred folk need guards to hire."

Joss shrugged. "Maybe so. Times are hard."

"I hear things are very bad in the north," said Kesh, happy to see the conversation flow into safer channels.

"So they are," said Joss with the merest flicker of his eyelids as he considered the north and what it meant to him.