Kate Elliott

Traitors Gate




Late at night a fight broke out beyond the compound's high walls.

Keshad sat up in darkness. At first he thought himself in the Hundred, in the city of Olossi, still bound as a debt slave to Master Feden. Then he smelled the rancid aroma of the harsh local oil used for cooking. He heard shouts, jabbering words he could not understand.

He wasn't in the Hundred. He was in the Sirniakan Empire.

He groped for the short sword he had stashed under the cot.

'Eh? Keshad?' A bleary voice murmured on the other side of the curtain.

'Quiet. There's trouble.'

The cloth rippled as Eliar wrestled with clothing, or his turban, or whatever the hells the Silvers were so cursed prudish about. Bracelets jangled. There came a curse, a rattle, and a thump as the cot tipped over.

'Where's the lamp?'

'Hush.' Kesh wrapped his kilt around his waist, approached the door, and, leaning against it, pressed an ear to the crack. All quiet.

'Nothing to do with us,' he whispered. 'Yet.'

The cot scraped, being righted. 'The Sirniakan officials have locked us in the compound, won't let us trade, and hand over a scant portion of rice and millet once a day so we don't starve. One of their priests told you the emperor is dead, killed in battle by his cousin. They've locked down Sardia and are restricting all movement. These troubles have everything to do with us. We have to get out of here, return to Olossi, and report these developments to Captain Anji.'

'Say it a bit louder, perhaps. That will help us, neh? If everyone figures out we're spies?'

'No need to constantly criticize me-'

Aui! No matter how much he disliked Eliar, he had to make this expedition work or he'd never get what he wanted. And to get what he wanted, he had to stay on Eliar's good side.

'I beg your pardon. It's hateful to be stuck in this cursed compound day and night.'

Eliar grunted in acknowledgment of the apology, which Kesh knew was gracelessly delivered. 'We've got to do something.''

Kesh jiggered the latch and cracked the door. It was strange to deal with hinges instead of proper doors that slid, but in the empire things were done one way or not at all, and if you didn't like it, the priests would condemn you to the fire. In the courtyard, a lamp hanging from a bracket illuminated the storehouse gates, but the far walls with their set-back doors into other storerooms and sleeping cells remained hidden in shadows. Trumpets, shouting, and the clash of weapons swelled in the distance, well away from the restricted market district where foreign merchants were required to reside and carry out all their trade. A whiff of burning oil stung his nose as a flame flared behind him.

'Pinch that down, you fool!' he whispered. 'We don't want anyone to know we're awake.' Nothing stirred in the courtyard. If anyone had seen that flare of light, they weren't acting on it. 'Listen, Eliar, you stay here. Make sure no one goes after our trade goods. I'm going to the gate to see what the guards will tell me.'

'The guards never tell us a cursed thing.'

'They talk to me because I worship at the Beltak temple.'

That shut Eliar up.

Keshad sheathed his sword and slung the sword belt over his back. He eased into the courtyard and padded cautiously past the open inner gate to the forecourt. The double gates had been barred for eight days, since the night when trumpets and horns had disturbed the peace and all the markets had been closed. Several figures huddled by the ranks of handcarts. One raised a lamp.

'Master Keshad? Maybe you can get these cursed guards to talk to you, since they favor you so much.'

The other Hundred merchants didn't like him any better than he liked them. They thought him a traitor for abandoning the gods of his birth for the empire's god, but what did it matter to them what god he chose to worship or what benefit that worship brought him? There were a pair of outlanders as well, a man out of the Mariha princedoms and one from the western desert whose slaves, languishing in the slave pens, he hadn't seen for days. For that matter, the drivers and guardsmen he and Eliar had hired in Olossi were confined in different quarters altogether, and he'd had no contact with them since the citywide curfew was imposed.

He rang the bell at the guardhouse. A guard in one of the

watch platforms above turned to look down into the forecourt. Bars scraped and locks rattled. The guardhouse door opened and the sergeant pushed into the forecourt, a pair of armed guards at his back and another guard holding high a lamp.

'Get inside!'

His angry words drove the merchants back into the main courtyard.

Keshad held his ground. 'Honored one, may I ask if we are in danger here?'

The sergeant's expression softened. 'I know nothing. Men have broken curfew. Best you get inside until the storm passes.'

The storm roared closer. A clatter of running feet in a nearby street was followed by a chorus of shouts so loud the sergeant flinched. Kesh took a step back from the double gates. The distinctive clamor of clashing swords and spears hammered the night, the skirmish racing as though one group was chasing another. The guards drew their swords; a fifth man popped out of the guardhouse.

'All ranks at the ready,' snarled the sergeant, and the man vanished back into the tower. 'They may try to break in.'

The skirmish flowed along the street outside as Kesh gripped his sword so tightly he was shaking. The noise reached a pitch and abruptly subsided.

The sergeant exhaled. He spoke to his guards in the local language, but Kesh was too rattled to catch more than a word here and there. Foreigners. Market. Fire. Traitors to the emperor.

Kesh glanced through the open door into the guardhouse, which snaked through the compound wall; there was a small gate for the guard unit on the street side because the guards watched both ways, keeping locals out and foreigners in.

As though slapped by a giant hand, the gates shuddered. The sergeant swore, signaled to his men, and bolted inside, swinging the door shut. A struggle erupted outside. Several merchants came running from the main courtyard, but Kesh shoved past them and ran to his cell, where Eliar waited by the door.

'These gods-rotted empire laws have us caged like beasts,' Kesh snapped, 'not a chance to get in or out nor anywhere to hide or escape to. Curse them.'

'Maybe we can get out over the roofs. I've had plenty of practice getting in and out of tight places in Olossi. My friends and I, we smuggled goods over the river.'

In the forecourt, merchants shouted, 'Block the gate!', 'Block the guardhouse door!'

Kesh began to laugh, because there wasn't anything else to find funny in their situation. 'The hells! Were you part of that gang the Greater Houses were constantly chasing?'

He felt the sting of Eliar's smile as though he could touch it. T was.'

'Aui! You didn't really get up on the roof, did you?'

T did. One night when you were sleeping. I used rope tied around the lamp brackets. But there's a walkway around the entire roof. They patrol it all night.'

'Keeping us in, or others out. Grab rope. And whatever you can carry that's too valuable to leave behind.'

'Climbing out of the compound is easy. But how can we get out of the city without being killed?'

'The hells!' Kesh collected the pouches of local spices, best-quality braid, and polished gems he'd brought south from the Hundred; he slung them over his back, buckling tight the straps so the pouches wouldn't shift as he moved. Then he grabbed rope coiled against the door that led into a small storeroom accessible only from this chamber. None of the goods he and Eliar had stored in there were worth his life.

'I'm ready,' said the Ri Amarah from the door.

Eliar's bulging packs brushed Kesh's arm. 'What in the hells are you carrying?'

'All the oil of naya.'

'Aui! Don't drop it by a flame.'

Kesh shouldered past and led Eliar to the archway of the inner gate. A few merchants were frantically shoving carts and benches in front of the closed double gates, but the rest were hiding in the storerooms. A struggle raged within the gatehouse, and outside the gates a crowd screamed words Kesh was pretty sure meant something like 'Kill the foreigners! Kill the traitors!'

'They haven't given us up,' said Kesh suddenly.

'What do you mean?'

'The sergeant and his guards could let that mob in. But they're defending us. Eiya! We'll need oil of naya.'

He expected Eliar to protest, but the other man swung down his bulky packs. Keshad ran to the cistern in the middle of the courtyard and climbed up.

'Heya! Heya! Get your weapons! Move! Our guards are

defending us against a mob that wants to kill us. If we don't help them, we're all dead. I need rags. Anything that will burn easily. Hurry, you cursed fools!'

He ran to the forecourt. The guards had abandoned the watch platforms that flanked the gates. Access to the platforms and the wall walk was from inside the guardhouse, now being fought over.

Merchants came running with weapons, with rags, one dragging a thin pallet. Two carried lamps. Eliar brought three leather bottles. Muffled crashes and shouts came from the guardhouse. Someone was taking a beating.

Keshad indicated the platforms above. 'We'll splash oil of naya over the crowd, light rags, and throw them down on top. That should drive them away'

'Heh. Just like the battle over Olossi,' said one man.

'I'll go up,' said Eliar immediately.

As Kesh slung a bottle over his shoulder he called the other merchants closer. 'Those who can fight, brace yourselves. Form up around the inner gate. Tip carts over, under the arch, to make a bottleneck. One of you roust out the cowards. We need everyone. Now, hoist me up.'

Kesh and another man climbed up on a cart. The man laced his fingers together and, when Kesh set a foot into the makeshift stirrup, raised him up so he could throw rope around one of the poles making the scaffolding of the platform. He clambered up and crouched on the platform as Eliar was helped up on the other side. The mob below hadn't yet spotted them. Men surged past the guardhouse door, pushing inside only to be cut down by the armed guardsmen. But the mob was growing, howling and barking like animals, or so it seemed to his ears. Working men who had, Kesh supposed, filled up with fear and now had to take it out on someone else, they were armed with torches, sticks, tools, and other such humble implements. None seemed to have bows. He licked his lips, tasted smoke. Elsewhere in the market district, compounds were burning.

The top of the twinned gates was broad enough to walk across if you didn't mind the height. Eliar hauled up a basket and crouched beside it, lifting out a burning lantern. Below, within the mob, a face looked up. Down along the street about ten men came running carrying ladders.

Keshad unsealed the first bottle. This was the dangerous part! He shook the vessel, oil spraying on the men crowded up below.

Eliar set fire to a rag and flung it outward, but it fell to the ground and was stamped out. Men threw sticks and debris up at them. The first ladder was pushed up against the gate. Keshad emptied the first vessel on top of the men at the base of the ladder. He unsealed the second and ran out along the top of the gate, flinging oil out as far away as he could. Men cursed at him, wiping away the oil that splashed on their faces. Spreading it. A second flaming rag fluttered down, and a third-

Fire touched oil on skin.

Shrieking, the man staggered, slamming into the men around him, half of whom had been splashed by oil of naya. The conflagration spread. The mob disintegrated as men fled in terror. The stench was horrible, and the screams were worse. But the street was clearing fast.

Keshad ran back to the platform, swung his legs over, and paid out the rope to let himself down to the forecourt. When he touched earth, his legs gave out. He pitched forward as the merchants babbled and cried.

Eliar bent over him. 'Keshad? Are you hurt?'

'Neh.' His speech was gone. His limbs were weak. He still heard screams.

'That saved us,' added Eliar.

'For now.'

'Clever of you to think of it. Just like at Olossi.'

The door to the guardhouse scraped open and the sergeant stumbled out, blood splashed all over him. Seen past the sergeant, a whitewashed room looked like a slaughterhouse, with tumbled corpses, the hazy smoke of torches, and a guardsman kneeling beside a fallen comrade.

'What do you? What do you?' The sergeant loomed over him, swiping smears of blood from his beard with his left hand while he extended the right. 'Good, good.'

Hesitantly, Keshad reached out, and the man clasped elbows in the grasp of kinship seen in the market among believers but never extended to foreigners.

Soon after dawn, a squad of mounted soldiers resplendent in green sashes and helmets trimmed with gold ribbons clattered up to the closed gates. Smoke drifted over the rooftops. The merchants who had sat the rest of the night on watch on the roofs hastily clambered down as the gates were opened.

The sergeant genuflected before the squad's captain. As the sergeant kept his head bowed, they exchanged a running jabber in their own language. An older merchant murmured a translation.

'There was trouble all across the market district last night. There is to be an inquiry anywhere local men were killed.'

'Against the mob, or against us?' Kesh muttered.

Worry creased the sergeant's face as he surveyed the merchants. The captain snapped a command that made the sergeant wince. With an apologetic grimace he pointed' — quite rudely, as out-landers always did, using the fingers — at Keshad.

'Bring him.' The captain's gaze paused on Eliar, with his butter-yellow turban. 'You come, also.'

Eliar took an obedient step toward the squad, but Keshad held his ground.

'What about our trade goods? What surety do we have they'll not be stolen while we're not here to guard them ourselves?'

The captain raised a hand, and soldiers drew their swords. 'You come. Or I kill you.'

Keshad wiped sweat from his eyes as his throat closed over a pointless protest. He shrugged, pretending calm. Eliar looked as if he'd been struck.

They walked under the market district gate and into the main city, a place no foreign merchant was ever allowed to enter. The empty streets were broad and clean-swept, walled on both sides, with gates opening at intervals into compounds. The hooves of the horses echoed in an eerie silence. Once Kesh saw a face peeping over a wall, dropping out of sight when their gazes met. Their procession wound inward and upward as the sun rose, and just when it was beginning to get really hot they arrived at a vast gate that opened into a grand courtyard lined with pillared colonnades carved of finest white marble.

The captain indicated a bench in the shade. 'Sit there.'

They sat. Four soldiers settled into guard positions while the captain rode into a farther courtyard glimpsed through a magnificently carved archway.

'Look at the figures carved on the arch,' whispered Eliar. 'There is the sun in splendor, the moon veiled, and the stars assembled in ranks to acknowledge the suzerainty of the god they worship here.'

' " The god they worship here"? That kind of talk will get you burned.'

Eliar shrugged. 'I'm saying it to you. Not to them. What would they do? Force me to worship at their god's temple?'

' How naive are you? Don't you know anything about the empire? They could tell you to say the prayers to Beltak, or suffer the punishment meted out to those who don't believe. Who in the I lundred could do a cursed thing if they killed you, eh?'

Eliar's smug smile infuriated Kesh. 'I am a faithful son of the Hidden One. That is all that matters. Look there!'

Kesh looked up and their guards came alert, then relaxed, tossing remarks to each other as he sank back on the bench. Eliar had just been pointing to a different section of the arch.

'There, the different officers of the court pay homage before the emperor's throne.'

'There's no one sitting in the throne.'

'He is holy, like the god, not to be pictured.'

'How do you know?'

'I read it! I know most of you in the Hundred don't read-'

'"You in the Hundred"! I thought you Silvers keep claiming you are simply humble Hundred folk just like the rest of us.'

'That's not what I meant-'

'If the emperor's not to be pictured, then why is there a statue of the emperor in the marketplace?'

'That's not the emperor. It's a statue of a male figure representing Commerce, richly clad and adorned with gilt paint to remind all those in the marketplace that through trade the empire becomes wealthy.'

Kesh puzzled over the vacant throne. Sure enough, there were the officers of the court attended by an array of half-sized men, meant perhaps to represent their underlings, and certain animals that evidently had some significance to each officer's mandate. At the height of the arch, above sun and moon and stars, was carved an elaborate crown ornamented by wavy lines most likely representing fire.

Mounted soldiers clattered in and passed through the open gates. Their garments were splashed with blood, and they looked grim.

'Did you really learn all this from books?' Kesh asked finally. 'How can you know it's true?'

Deep in Eliar's answering smile rose a glimpse of the sister, Miravia, seen once and never ever to be forgotten: a reckless, bold spirit, unquenchable. 'Of course I can't know it's true. Someone

thought it was, but that doesn't mean the one who wrote it was correct, does it? The person might have been wrong. Or might be right.'

'How do you Silvers-' As Eliar's mouth twisted in disapproval, Kesh caught himself and changed course. 'How comes it that you Ri Amarah possess books with so much detail about the empire?'

'Many of our houses — our clans — lived here for six generations, as it says in the prophecy, until they were driven out by the Beltak priests for not worshiping the empire's god. It's said in our histories that some among us renounced the Hidden One and stayed in the empire, because they prospered here, but I don't believe that.'

'You don't believe they prospered here? That any foreigner could?'

'I don't believe they renounced the Hidden One. How is it possible to renounce the truth?'

Keshad laughed. The guards turned, and he clamped his mouth shut.

Eliar fulminated. 'Are you laughing at me?'

'You've never been a slave. People renounce the truth all the time if it will give them an advantage. Then they convince themselves that what they wish to be true is the truth. Think of Master Feden, who once owned my debt. How could he have allied himself with that cruel army out of the north? He told himself he was doing the right thing even when everything he saw must have told him otherwise. Olossi is fortunate he's dead and that the army was driven away. Otherwise, where would you and I be?'

As soon as the words left Kesh's mouth, he was sorry he had spoken them, and yet not for Eliar's sake. Where would he be now? He and his sister Zubaidit would be somewhere in the north, starting over as free people unencumbered by debt slavery or obligation to the temple. If the defenders of Olossi had lost the battle, then they would not have been able to track down him and Bai and haul them back to stand before the Hieros of Ushara's temple in Olossi. There, Kesh had been condemned for a theft he had committed without knowing what he was doing was a crime.

Folk claimed a man could expect to be rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad ones if he made the proper offerings. The temples said so, and the Beltak priests said so, and no doubt the Hidden One said so. The only god he'd run into who didn't

seem to say so was Mai's god, the Merciful One, who offered shelter in times of trouble, of which there were plenty. Yet had the gods cared for him and Zubaidit after their parents had died?

And yet. And yet. If it all had not fallen out as it did, he would never have seen Miravia.

A man dressed in a red jacket hurried toward them. The four guards kneeled. There was an extended consultation in the local jabber so quick Kesh could not pick out words. The red-jacket guard gave an order and gestured at Kesh and Eliar in trade sign: Rise.

They followed him into a courtyard bustling with movement as soldiers assembled in ranks while others, dismounting, handed their horses over to grooms. The red-jacket guard led them through a second pair of gates into a dusty square where several hundred riders loitered beside saddled mounts, with a train of laden packhorses and a herd of spare mounts besides.

'You go.' The red-jacket guard indicated two sturdy geldings before moving away to exchange words with a young captain resplendent in green jacket, helmet adorned with gold plumes.

'Where are we going?' Eliar whispered, but Kesh shrugged. What use to speculate?

And yet he could not stop wondering, thinking, sorting. They rode out through the city on a wide avenue empty of traffic and thence out a handsome stone gate into the patternwork countryside, everything tidy, nothing out of order.

Only the empire was not truly in order. The emperor had been killed in battle by his own cousin as they fought over the throne. Which faction had taken them prisoner? What did they mean to do with them? Because there was another thing blazingly obvious about the soldiers who escorted them. Half wore green jackets to mark them as underlings of the gold-plumed captain, a man who did not over the course of that first day speak a single word to Kesh or Eliar. But the rest were Qin, with their phlegmatic expressions, unadorned armor, and scruffy little horses that were nothing much to look at but as tough as any creatures Kesh had ever encountered. And that raised a cursed uncomfortable question, didn't it? Where had these Qin soldiers come from, and why were they riding in company with Sirniakan troops?

'Heya, Kesh!' Eliar called to him from a nearby campfire where he sat with a gaggle of junior officers, all quaffing from brass cups. 'This poocha's so strong it'll make your eyes water. Come try some?'

The junior officers looked nervously toward Kesh, and then, politely, back at their cups. How like Eliar not to notice their discomfort, although it pranced right in front of his face. Keshad glared, but the cursed Silver could not see him well enough in the dusk to be properly stung and instead went back to his drinking and chatting and laughing, although how he could understand half of what the locals jawed on about Kesh could not imagine.

'You do not approve of your companion.'

Kesh jumped to his feet. 'Captain Jushahosh.'

A slave opened a camp stool, and the captain sat.

'I have no wine or poocha to offer you, Captain.' Kesh sat likewise.

Slaves approached bearing trays laden with cups, pitchers, eating utensils, and platters that they placed on a camp table. The captain murmured a blessing over food and drink before continuing. 'As you are my prisoner, I cannot expect you to offer hospitality. I see, Master Keshad, that you have remained aloof these ten days from the junior officers, who are merely warrior-born. Your companion seems easy with them. He is one of the heretics, is he not?'

'I'm not sure what you mean.'

'There is a story taught to educated men of a tribe of men who came by sea out of the east to settle in the empire. In our own tongue they were given the name, the men with silver arms. They lived with proper comportment for six generations, as it says in the holy books, but then their error was revealed and the priests were shown the truth of their hidden ways, that they spat upon the commands of the Shining One inside the walls of their own compounds. Out of respect for a kindness shown to the emperor by one of their number — or, as I consider more likely, because of a massive bribe paid to the temple — they were allowed to depart the empire without molestation, leaving behind all they could not carry. This they did. Some went north over the mountains and some west into the desert and some south into the forest of choking vines, but none sailed back east over the ocean to the place they had came from. You are a believer. You pray with us morning and night. Do you trust this man Eliar, with his silver arms?'

The captain stabbed a slice of spiced meat and popped it into his mouth. Keshad copied him, gaining a respite while he chewed and swallowed. The meat was moist and peppery.

'Have you some reason not to trust him that I should know of?'

The captain was sleek in all aspects; dressed and shod well, he carried a fine sword and rode a string of beautiful horses with roan coats like enough in texture and color that Kesh supposed them bred out of the same stable. 'He might be a spy.'

'So might I, then, as we are business partners.'

'One partner may not always know what the other plots in the shadows.'

'True enough. Eliar is decent enough, for a Silver.'

'A Silver?'

'That's what we call them in the Hundred, Captain. For the silver bracelets they wear on their arms. It seems your chroniclers called them the same.'

'He's like a creature out of a story walking into your father's palace. Does he have horns?'

The captain looked very young, and Kesh realized they were of an age but separated not by their lives as men of different countries but rather by the circumstances of their birth. Kesh was born to a humble clan whose kin had seen fit to sell him and his sister into slavery when their parents died; Jushahosh was born into a palace, son of a noble lord with many wives and slave women and therefore many such lesser sons.

T don't know,' Kesh said confidingly, leaning closer, 'for he clings to his privacy, as his people do. I've never seen him without the turban covering his head.'

They shared a complicit smile.

A prisoner who is a foreigner pretending to be a legitimate merchant only while being in truth secretly a spy and who fears he is being taken south to be burned as a spy must yet attempt to gather information, in case he gets out of his current situation alive.

'Strange to see the Qin soldiers here,' he added, nodding to-

ward the circle of fires where the Qin had set up their own encampment. 'Are they under your command? Do they take your orders? Don't they speak a different language?'

'Their chief can talk the trade language, just as I can. What they jabber about otherwise I don't know, but I suppose they mostly talk about sheep and horses.' He flashed a grin, and Kesh laughed. 'You're familiar with the Qin, eh? Seen them up in the Hundred?'

Sheh! Caught at his own game.

'I've heard of them, all right. Did I tell you the story of the journey I made into the Mariha princedoms? Two years ago, it was. I never saw so many strange creatures as out on the desert's borderlands. Didn't think I'd make it home. The Qin were the least of it!'

'What did you see?'

Kesh could embellish a story as well as anyone, for tales were the breath of the Hundred, exhaled with the beat of the heart and a lift of the hand. 'Demons, for one thing. Maybe you call them something else here.'

'No.' His gaze flicked, side to side, as he twisted his cup in his hands. 'What did they look like?'

'Ah. One was a woman-'

'Of course!'

'Her skin was as pale as that of a ghost. And her hair was the color of straw.'

'Truly a demon, then!'

'Her eyes were blue.'

The captain had just taken a mouthful of poocha. He spat it out, coughing and choking, as Kesh sat rigid. But the man waved away his slaves and laughed through his coughing. 'Horrible to look upon! Go on.'

Kesh dropped his voice to a murmur as the captain bent closer yet. 'She was enveloped in an enchanted cloak of demon weave, like cloth woven out of spider's silk. And beneath that cloak… she was unclothed. That was the other way I knew she was a demon.'

The captain's eyes flared with shame and heat; a flush stained his cheeks. 'What did she looked like, underneath?'

'Exalted Captain!' A junior officer, wearing his watch duty sash over his green jacket, came running up, his face slicked with a sheen of sweat although the evening was only moderately humid

and warm. 'There's a company of men upon the road. Imperial guards.'

A blast from a horn brought the captain to his feet. He strode off toward the lines, where lamps bobbed along the length of the road. In his wake, slaves gathered up tray and stool with the same swift grace they'd shown in setting it up. Kesh speared meat off the platter before they could whisk it out of his reach, and a slave waited impassively until he'd gulped down the strips before taking the eating knife away from him and following the others to the captain's tent. The junior officers set down their cups and charged off, chattering excitedly. Kesh hurried over to the fire and plopped down beside Eliar.

'Is there anything left to eat or drink here?'

Eliar rose, stepping away from him as if he bore a stench. He stared toward the lights half seen along the distant road. 'Do you think there might be a skirmish? How can you possibly think of eating when-?'

'You eat when there's food. No telling when you'll get more.' He hooked a triangle of flat bread off the common platter and crammed it in his mouth. He managed to down more bread and a crispy slice of a white vegetable, still moist and a little peppery, before servants descended to collect the trays and cups. Eliar was bouncing on his toes as if movement would help him see over the ranks of soldiers gathering amid the tents. Out by the road, men shouted, so much tension in their tone that Kesh rose likewise to stand beside Eliar.

'If they start fighting, make for our tent. We might have to run for it…'

Eliar grabbed Kesh's forearm, the touch so unexpected that Kesh flinched. 'I know you don't like me, but promise me this. If we die here, you'll tell the truth of it to my family.' He released him.

'If I'm dead, I can't tell anyone the truth, can I?'

'You seem like the kind of person who can get out of anything,' said Eliar, his voice as hoarse as if he'd been running. 'Even if it means abandoning others to do so.'

'At least I know what you truly think of me. You think I've got no cursed honor, don't you?'

Eliar shook his head stubbornly. 'If I die, Kesh, don't let them sell my sister into marriage with the Haf Ke Pir house in Nessumara. Promise me.'

From the road, the voices continued. The Qin soldiers had melted away to their horse lines.

'Don't you think it's too late? By the time we get back, won't they already have delivered her to Nessumara?'

'How could they? The roads aren't safe.'

'Reeves could fly her there! Or did that never occur to you?'

Eliar groaned. 'Aui! But no. Reeves aren't carters.'

'Is there one single thing in this world that isn't for sale if enough coin is offered? And if you get back safely and she's still at your home? Will you escort her yourself to Nessumara, to her new husband? The one she doesn't want to go to? It'll be all right then, knowing you've had your adventure?' Kesh knew how the words must sound, greasy with sarcasm, but cursed if Eliar was too caught up in his own writhing discontent to notice.

'If I die, I'll have cast her into misery for nothing. She in her cage, I to be burned. What have I done-'

What charged the air Kesh did not know, but before Eliar could draw another breath everything changed, as if lightning had struck. A trio of Qin soldiers, swords drawn, trotted out of the ilarkness masking the horse lines. Screams and shouts broke from the road. A flame — one of the lamps — arced high into the night sky as if flung heavenward, and then an arrow shattered it. The horn stuttered, answered by a call from down the road, a triple blat blat blat, and cursing and shouting and swords clattering like hooves in their staccato rhythm.

Kesh grabbed Eliar's wrist. 'Let's go!' He tugged, and yet Eliar would stand there like a dumbstruck lackwit gazing on the dance of festival lights.

Suddenly, that trio of Qin soldiers trotted up beside them with the unsmiling but not precisely unfriendly expressions of men come to do their duty. One hooked a thumb to indicate they should move away from the altercation. Kesh yanked harder until Eliar stumbled after him, gaze turned toward the skirmish whose color and sound made the camp seem as bright as day and twice as fearsome. Kesh's heart was galloping, like distant horses. Orders rang in a voice remarkably like Captain Jushahosh's, lilting high as with fright. A rumble spilled an undercurrent through the clash of arms. A woman's scream cut through the tumult.

As Kesh sucked in a startled breath, the world fell silent. For one breath there were neither questions nor answers, only the shock of hearing a female voice where none belonged.

The fighting broke out anew, redoubled in intensity. The Qin soldiers pressed them toward their tent. Eliar was so pale Kesh wondered if he would faint, while meanwhile he was himself looking in every direction, trying to figure out how and where he could run, how far he could get, and if it was worth trying to get the Silver to move with him lest he have otherwise to explain to Eliar's beautiful sister how Eliar had gotten abandoned with their enemies. And yet, how thoroughly impossible it was to hope for escape through a countryside where he would be known for a foreigner at first glance.

A swirl of Qin soldiers appeared out of the darkness, carrying on a running commentary with their fellows, words like the scraping of saws, all burrs and edges. They ran with choppy strides and corraled Kesh and Eliar. Movement roiled through the camp, a second wave of black-clad Qin soldiers driving the enemy before them like so many sheep.

Captain Jushahosh limped, his face smeared with blood and his sword mottled.

'Hei! Hei!' he cried. The Qin soldiers stepped away from their flock as more green-jacket guards streamed in and two aides brought forward lanterns. Four men had fallen to their knees, faces pressed into the dirt. The other figure was veiled, and she clasped a small body against her own, shielding it as the captain approached her. He gestured, and one of the junior officers stepped forward, grasped the little child, and ripped it out of her arms.

Her silence was worse than a scream would have been.

The Qin soldiers stared like dumb beasts as the junior officer cut the silk wrap off the child to reveal his sex. The child could not have made more than two years, a plump, healthy-looking boy with a strong voice exploding into a terrified howl.

The captain gestured. The junior officer slapped the child so hard he was stunned, splayed his body on the ground, and stepped back. The veiled woman flung herself forward, but before she reached the child, the captain hacked off the boy's head. She scrambled on hands and knees, a keening sound rising, and as she crawled to the body her veil and outer robes were wrenched into disarray, split to reveal an underrobe heavily embroidered with gold and silver thread. Her head, exposed as the veil ripped away under her crabbed hands, was that of a young woman of exceptional beauty; her eyes were dark, wide with stunned grief, and

her hair, falling loose from its pins and clasps, was as thick and black as a river of silk.

The Qin soldiers shook their heads, frowning.

The captain raised his sword again.

The Qin chief stepped forward, a man of easy competence who reminded Kesh of the scout Tohon. 'Captain Jushahosh. No need to waste this young woman. I will take her as a wife if you do not want her.'

But the motion was already complete, her fortune long since sealed. The cut drove deep into her neck, and she slumped forward, twitching, not yet dead, mewling and moaning. As the captain stepped back with a look of dazed shock, as if he'd thought to kill her in one blow, the Qin chief calmly finished her off but with a wry smile that Kesh took at first for cruel amusement. A murmur swept through the Qin soldiers like breeze through trees, but the Qin chief raised a hand and all sound ceased. The chief turned his back on the dead as a look of pure disgust flashed in the twist of his mouth and the crease made by narrowed eyes. Then he caught Kesh watching him, and his expression smoothed into the solemn look the Qin normally wore, as colorless as their black tunics.

Perhaps the captain had seen. 'A woman of the palace! She can have no honor left, her face exposed in such a manner. And her hair, seen by every man here, even by barbarians! Death honors her, although she disgraced herself.'

'She's dead now,' said the Qin chief, facing him with the same deadly smooth expression unchanged. 'Why kill the child?'

'That was one of the sons of the Emperor Farazadihosh.'

'A boy can be raised as a soldier, useful to his kinsmen.'

Servants brought canvas and silk to wrap the bodies. 'Why do you think we found a palace woman on the road at all? Escorted by a contingent of palace guards? With Farazadihosh's death in battle, the palace women who have borne sons of his seed have scattered. If even one survives, a standard can be raised against the new emperor. With a few such deaths, we bring peace. Isn't peace to be preferred to war?'

'This seems settled then,' said the Qin chief. 'Are these slaves to be killed also?'

'Slaves belong to the palace, not to the emperor. They obey those who rule them.' He handed his sword to an aide, who wiped it clean. 'Master Keshad, will you continue our meal?'

Eliar stumbled away, collapsing to all fours as he heaved. Kesh looked away from the bodies being rolled up, from the slaves awaiting their fate. He studied the Qin chief, but the man's gaze made him nervous, like staring down a wolf who might be hungry and thinking of you as his next meal or might recently have fed and finds you merely a curiosity. It was not that the Qin were merciful, but rather that they valued their loyalty to their kinsmen above all. For that, Kesh admired them.

But he was in the Sirniakan Empire now, and the Qin were, presumably, mere mercenaries. He turned to Captain Jushahosh.

'Yes, certainly, Captain. I hadn't finished my story, had I?'

They walked back through camp to the fire where they had first sat. Here, the slaves had already set out folding table, tray, cups, a fortifying wine warmed with spices. The white-robed Beltak priest who accompanied their troop was being helped by a pair of underlings toward the road, his priest's bowl hanging by a strap from his right wrist.

'The skirmish did not last long,' remarked Kesh as he settled onto a folding stool opened for him. The stool marked, he thought, new status in their eyes.

'They were desperate, but few in number. Still, there are dead, and the priest must oversee the proper rites. Those who fought must be cleansed at the next temple.'

'You're wounded? I saw you were limping.'

'No, not a scratch.' His grin was lopsided, a little embarrassed. 'Turned my ankle jumping out of the way of a man trying to stab me.' He sipped at the wine, and made a face. 'Eh. It tastes of blood.'

It tasted perfectly fine to Kesh, and when the captain had not the stomach to eat, Kesh finished off the spiced meat and freshly cooked flat bread. Slaves never knew when they would next eat. Not even the smell of blood and the memory of the little boy's headless corpse could put him off a good meal like this one. Anyway, ten days from now, or tomorrow, he might be dead, and it seemed a cursed waste not to enjoy such pleasures when offered.

The captain sighed. 'I wish I had your stomach, eh? I admit, that's the first battle I've been in. We missed all the action before.'

'You've never killed a man before?'

He waved a hand. 'I've had to kill disobedient slaves on my estate. But that's more like killing animals.'

'Ah.' Kesh swallowed bile. A man in a position as precarious as his must not risk offending his jailkeeper. 'How is it you come to this duty? Your house was an ally of the new emperor?'

'That's right. My grandfather went to the palace school with the younger brother of Farutanihosh for two seasons. They never cut that bond, the two men, even through all the years that followed. And of course the Emperor Farutanihosh never had his younger brother killed, as he ought to have done. It's always a disruption of God's order to raise the flags of war, but everyone knows that a woman who has birthed a son born of the emperor's seed will rouse her relatives to war on that son's behalf even though war is evil. That Farutanihosh did not foresee and prevent this by killing his younger brother was a sign of moral weakness, one that would be passed into his sons. Therefore, his sons must be corrupted by his failure and unworthy for the throne.'

'Yet now Farutanihosh's son Farazadihosh is dead, and it is his nephew, the son of the brother he left alive, who will become emperor.'

'That's right. Ujarihosh will be seated on the gold throne in the eight-gated palace, and the priests of Beltak will anoint him as I'arujarihosh, he who has gained the favor of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Shining One who rules alone.'

'How far are we riding?' Kesh asked, wanting to lick his fingers but taking a fine linen cloth from a slave to wipe his hands instead.

'I'm not sure.' Jushahosh glanced toward the road, not visible from here, although they could hear the talk of men at the grisly task of clearing the road and the singsong chant of the priest. 'Until we meet the one who has summoned you.'

'Who is that?'

The captain sipped at his wine. 'I'm only a messenger. The truth is, I don't know any more than you do.'

With each day they rode deeper into the heart of the empire, traveling south through countryside so densely populated there was always at least one village within view, and more commonly three or four. Farmers laboring in their fields paused in their work, bent with hands on knees, heads bowed, as the company passed. Kesh wasn't sure if they were showing obedience, or praying that the beast would ignore them rather than ravage them. But the captain and his soldiers took no notice of the common folk. Life went on

unmolested. Whatever war had been fought between the noble heirs of the imperial house did not affect those who must bring in the crops. Not like in the Hundred, where the strife had precisely ripped through the houses and fields of the humblest.

'We'll never see home again,' said Eliar every morning as they made ready to mount and go on their way.

'Speak of your own end, not mine,' replied Kesh every day, and every day he found a way to fall in beside Captain Jushahosh, because Eliar's morose company had become unbearable. To risk so much and then grouse about it! Death was a small price, compared with his betrayal of his sister!

But Jushahosh was a man like Eliar in many ways: son of a wealthy house, one of many such sons accustomed to a life of sumptuous clothing and platters piled high with food, who in his life had seen little enough hardship and so craved the excitement he kept missing out on. A civil war! How exciting! Yet his company, backing the eventual winner, had seen no action beyond that encounter on the road, which was nothing to be boasted of although they had pickled the heads of the woman and the child in a barrel of wine so the new exalted administrator of the women's palace could make an accounting of who was dead and who, therefore, was missing. He never tired of hearing Keshad's tales of his travels. It seemed never to occur to the captain that a man could embroider a small tale and turn it into a large one. Kesh found him lacking in imagination.

At night, in the privacy of their tent, Kesh forced Eliar to go over and over the basic tale of their partnership, their trade, their expedition south. 'So they can't catch us out in contradictions and decide to burn us.'

'Maybe I'd be better dead,' whispered Eliar.

'Maybe so, but I wouldn't. I intend to survive this interview, give a good account of myself, and go home with a decent profit.'

'Yet if we fail — eiya! — when I close my eyes I see that poor little child with his head sliced off. And that woman — his poor mother — cut down like a beast. Doesn't it haunt you, Kesh? Are you so unfeeling?'

'Yes, I am. There's nothing I can do for them. They're dead. I concern myself with the living.'

The living — like Eliar's sister. The woman he could never discuss, whose face he ought never to have seen. That face — her glance — haunted his nights and his days.

They rode ten days after the skirmish on a road marked at intervals with distance markers, just as in the Hundred, only the empire measured not in meys but in a measure known as a cali, about half the distance of a mey. Kesh was careful to count off their distance, and every night he had Eliar record the cali traveled in the accounts book Eliar had brought.

'It's a good thing you're useful for something,' Kesh said, watching the young Silver slash marks by lamplight. 'Did you make note of the two crossroads we passed and at what distance we reached them?'

'Do you think I'm a fool?'

Kesh did not answer.

'Yes, you do. I did note them. I noted the letters marking the posts. They indicate which towns and cities lie along that road. I also recorded the number and density of villages we passed today, and the water wheels and forges that I could be sure of. All in a script which no one but the Ri Amarah can read, so we can't be caught out if my book is taken from me. Unless, of course, the act of writing in a book is seen as suspicious, which I must suppose it will be.'

'What are those?' Kesh asked, pointing to a secondary column of odd squiggles falling on the left-hand side of the page.

'I'm recording the words and sounds of the Sirniakan language. Why do you think I talk so much with the officers? They're not particularly interesting. We have in our archives a record of the language from our time of exile here, but we no longer know how to pronounce things properly and what certain words truly mean. That's what you don't understand, Kesh. All you can think about is how much coin you'll get from this expedition. If we survive it, which I doubt. But there are more valuable things than coin. There is knowledge.'

information to be sold-'

'No. Knowledge in itself- Why do I bother?' He broke off and cleaned the brush and without speaking another word boxed his writing tools and lay down on his blankets with his back to Kesh.

Kesh wondered what would happen if he grasped the cloth of Eliar's turban and ripped the coiled cloth from his head. His hands twitched. With a laugh, he crawled out and paced to the central watch fire, where he found Captain Jushahosh still awake and conferring with an officer in a red jacket holding a fancy stick like a reeve's baton, plated as in gold.

The captain looked up sharply at Kesh's approach, and without interrupting his flow of words to the other man, lifted his left hand and gestured with a flick of the fingers that seemed to say go away. Kesh stepped back, then took himself over to the pits as if that was where he'd been heading all along. He lingered, hearing scraps delivered too quickly for him to sort out what words he knew. In time, the stranger made his courtesies, and Jushahosh his own in response, and the man strode away. Kesh crept back toward the central watch fire and was rewarded with a cup of the spiced wine that was the only thing in the empire he had come to love.

'In the morning, you'll ride with Captain Sharahosh,' said Jushahosh. 'We part here, for I'm sent on a new assignment, hunting down another infant son of Farazadihosh, if you must know. No glory there.' He sighed. 'I was hoping for battle, but it seems most of the troops loyal to Farazadihosh have surrendered. There will likely be no more fighting. I was hoping for at least one battle.'

'It seems the southern prince had more support than expected. He won quickly, did he not?'

'The Lord of Lords, King of Kings, has showered His favor on the deserving. Now we will have peace.' He sketched the gesture signifying obedience to the god's will, and Kesh copied it. The captain smiled, an odd light in his eyes that Kesh recognized, after a moment's doubt, as admiration. 'I thought all barbarians were brawling drunks with hot tempers, ready to fight at any excuse, like those Qin riders.'

'Do the Qin get drunk and brawl? I've never seen — ah, one of these — lose his temper.'

'Maybe not these, since they are under our command, but you know how barbarians are. Still, you're different from the others, I suppose because you are a believer. You've walked fearlessly into the wilderness, stalked the desert's edge, battled with naked demons, ridden over the snow-choked pass, bargained with deadly — what did you call them? — with deadly lilu. Is it true they have the bodies of women and the skin of snakes?'

'Oh. Eh. Some of them.'

'Whew!' The captain grinned. 'I wish I had your cool. Having seen such sights as you have, and survived such dangers! My thanks to you, truly, for being generous enough to dine and drink with me. You being such an important man in your part of the world.'

'Yes. Eh. And my thanks to you, Captain, for sharing your food and drink. You've shown me hospitality. I won't forget it.'

The awkward parting accomplished, Kesh took his leave.

In the morning, he rose to find Captain Sharahosh in command with a new troop of Sirniakan cavalry. Captain Jushahosh and his troop were gone. The Qin company remained.

Captain Sharahosh was an older man uninterested in conversation, and he held his soldiers aloof from prisoners and Qin alike. They rode for another day, following a.road so wide that four wagons might roll abreast. Fields, vineyards, and orchards crowded the landscape, no scrap of land unmarked by human industry. The next morning a vast wall rose out of the earth. They entered a city through gates sheeted with brass and rode down an avenue bounded by high walls. At intervals, bridges crossed over the avenue, but Kesh never ascertained any traffic above, although he heard and smelled the sounds of men out and about in the streets beyond the walls. The rounded dome of the city's temple grew larger as' they rode into the heart of the city.

The sun rose to its zenith before they reached a second gate, which opened into a courtyard lined with a colonnade, pillars hewn out of rose granite. The structure resembled in every detail the palace court in Sarida where he and Eliar had first been taken into custody. There was even a farther gate into a farther courtyard, spanned by an archway carved with reliefs celebrating the reign of the emperor: the officers of the court approaching an empty throne, the sun and moon and stars in attendance on the crown of glory that represented the suzerainty of Beltak. The temple dome could be glimpsed to the right, the sun glinting off its bronze skin. Maybe it was the same in every cursed Sirniakan city, the palace supported by the temple and the temple supported by the palace, one unable to exist without the architecture of the other.

'Sit here,' said Captain Sharahosh, perhaps the tenth and eleventh words he had spoken to them in their days together. He dismissed his soldiers but left the Qin riders waiting in the hot sun in the dusty courtyard as he vanished beyond a more humble gate.

In the Hundred, of course, the temples of the seven gods were the pillars that supported the land, and the tales wove the land into a single cloth. Or so the priests of the seven gods would say. And they had to say so. They had to believe, just as the priests of Beltak had to believe. What were they, after all, if the gods meant nothing?

Kesh had all along prayed at dawn and at night with the empire men while Eliar and the Qin soldiers had stood aside in silence. But he did not believe, and Beltak did not strike him down, and the priest accompanying the soldiers did not see into his heart and know he was lying.

'Do you think they will kill us now?' Eliar muttered.

'They could have killed us before, if they meant to kill us. Anyway, we are simply merchants, traveled to Sarida to turn a profit.'

Eliar wiped sweat from his forehead. 'You're right.'

'Right about what?'

'Don't you recall what you said when we were waiting in the courtyard in Sarida? It looked exactly like this one, didn't it?'

Would the cursed man never stop chattering about his own gods-rotted fears?

'You said people will renounce the truth if it will give them an advantage to do so. And then they convince themselves that what they wish to be true is the truth.' He twisted his silver bracelets as though twisting his thoughts around and around. 'Folk tell themselves what they want to hear. I traded my sister's happiness for my own — or what I thought would be my own happiness. Now I'm ashamed.'

The tone of his voice seared Keshad. If they could join together and find some way to free her from the unwanted marriage, then surely they would be allies, not enemies. 'Eliar,' he began, but faltered, not knowing what to say or how to say it.

Eliar brushed at his eyes with a hand.

In the shadows off to the right, tucked away in an alcove unnoticed until now, a door opened. Captain Sharahosh beckoned, his face impassive. Kesh cast a glance toward the Qin soldiers. He had a crazy idea of calling to them for help. Surely if he invoked Captain Anji's name and lineage — the nephew of your var! — they would sweep him and Eliar up and gallop away to safety.

But these were not Anji's men. These men belonged to someone else, perhaps to the var, who had according to Captain Anji's account tried to have his nephew murdered over a year ago. That very plot had precipitated Anji's journey to the Hundred.

Over a year ago, the Sirniakan civil war had not quite yet begun, although surely it was then brewing. The Qin var, it seemed, had chosen to back Farazadihosh. But that being so, then why

was a Qin company riding like allies beside troops loyal to Farujarihosh, the prince who had rebelled against and killed his cousin, wresting from him the imperial throne?

'At once,' said the captain.

They crossed under the lintel into darkness. A lamp flared. By its light, they descended a long flight of stone steps and, reaching the limit of the lamp's illumination, halted. The lamp sputtered and died, and a second lamp bloomed ahead. They walked down a corridor, lamps flaring and dying at intervals. Blackness unrelieved by daylight dogged them before and behind. The walls were painted in an elaborate hunting scene, but Kesh glimpsed only snatches of color, of a white hare, a gold lion, a red deer, and a green bird, each transfixed by an arrow. They walked thus a full ten lamps of distance. Captain Sharahosh uttered no words, nor did he deem it necessary to defend himself against them or even once look back to make sure they were following. After all, what could they do? If they drew their swords and cut him down, they were still trapped in the midst of — or underneath! — a building so vast Kesh could not visualize its proportions. Anyway, there might be traps. He tried to observe what he could see of the long scene, perhaps a representation of a tale unfolding along the walls, yet his thoughts turned and turned Eliar's words. How deep ran Eliar's regret? Could Keshad suggest to Eliar that his precious sister might be released from the marriage into which she had been forced? That they could work together to save her?

Or was Eliar one of those who spoke words of regret but didn't really mean them if it meant he had to give up the privilege that came from another's sacrifice?

A line of light appeared ahead like a beacon. They crossed under a lintel and into a round chamber faced with marble. Kesh looked up into a dome whose height made him dizzy. A balcony rimmed the transition from chamber to dome; red-jacketed soldiers stood at guard beneath lamps hung from iron brackets. The amount of oil hissing as it burned made it seem as if a hundred traitorous voices were whispering in the heavens.

A person dressed in a plain white-silk jacket and the loose helled trousers common to wealthy empire men sat in a chair carved of ebony. He was a man, but odd in his lineaments, his face looking not so much clean-shaven as soft like a woman's, unable to bear the youthful burden of a beard. Yet his posture was

strong, not weak, and his hands had a wiry strength, as if he'd throttled his enemies without aid of a garrote.

He said, in the trade talk, to the soldier in the red jacket, 'These are the two?'

'Yes, Your Excellency.'

His voice was a strangely weightless tenor, but his words rang with the expectation of authority. 'I've interrogated four others already this morning, and they were not the ones I am seeking.'

The captain frowned in a measuring way, not an angry one. 'What are your names?'

Eliar opened his mouth, and Kesh trod on his foot.

The soldier smiled, just a little.

The man in the chair spoke. 'You are perhaps called Keshad? Sent to spy in the empire at the order of my cousin Anjihosh, son of Farutanihosh out of the barbarian princess?'

All the market training in the world, all those years as a slave, had not prepared Kesh for being called out deep in the bowels of an imperial palace by a man he did not know but who was, evidently, one of Captain Anji's royal cousins.

His surprise and silence was its own answer, even as his thoughts caught up with his shock and he cursed himself for a fool. He'd been warned about the empire's secret soldiers, known as the red hounds, fierce assassins and spies in their own right. Anji had warned him, yet it appeared their intelligence gathering was more formidable than anyone suspected.

Too late now.

When cornered, you can choose submission and surrender, or you can leap to the attack and hope the fierceness of your resistance will give you an opening for escape.

'Begging your pardon, Your Excellency. But if you and your brother have only recently defeated the Emperor Farazadihosh in battle, how comes it that you are privy so suddenly to the secrets that could have been brought south only by agents of the red hounds? Who are sworn to serve the emperor? Not his rivals.'

'An interesting question,' agreed the man, with a nod of acknowledgment.

'And furthermore,' continued Keshad, feeling really borne up now on a high tide of reckless anger at being trapped so cleanly and easily, all his hopes wrecked, 'if it is true that the cousin of Farazadihosh has taken the throne, and therefore the right to be named as emperor, through victory on the field of battle, then

how comes it that a brother of that man — as you imply yourself to be — remains alive? The heir of the ruling emperor has all his brothers and half brothers killed in order that none shall contest his right to the throne.'

Captain Sharahosh made a gesture, and four of the guardsmen on the balcony raised bows with arrows nocked. 'You are imprudent in your speech,' said the captain, 'more bold than is fitting.'

'Nay, let him speak,' said his master. 'I would like to know how a man posing as a simple foreign merchant knows of the existence of the red hounds. For surely they are only known to those raised in the palace, and those who oversee the temple.'

"What is it worth to you?'

The prince's smile was brief and brutal. 'What makes you think it is worth anything to me? It might be worth something to you.' His gaze flicked to Eliar. 'These questions are meaningless, because a Ri Amrah walks beside you.'

'Ri Amarah,' said Eliar.

'Ri Amrahah? Ama-ra-ah? A-ma-rah. Ah. Is that the way your own people speak the word? It is recorded otherwise in our chronicles. Is it true you have horns? And sorcerous powers brought with you from over the seas beyond which lies your original home, from which you are now exiled? Is it true the women of your people keep your accounts books, which as you must know goes against the will of the Shining One Who Rules Alone?'

'We do not worship that god.'

'There is only Beltak, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Shining One Who Rules Alone.'

'So you say.'

The prince's amusement reminded Keshad startlingly of Captain Anji's way of smiling: he was not one bit flustered by those who contradicted him. 'I do not "say so." I am repeating the truth.'

'Why on earth,' demanded Kesh, 'would it be against the will of God for women to keep accounts? Women keep accounts as well, or as badly, as men do. How can anyone imagine otherwise?'

The prince clucked softly, still deigning to look amused. 'No wonder the Hundred is in chaos. Can it be otherwise, with the rightful order turned on its head, and what should be forward facing backward?' He turned his gaze back to Eliar. 'Unwrap your turban.'

'I will not!'

The prince gestured, and the other eight guardsmen raised their bows, targeting Eliar. 'Unwrap your turban so I may satisfy my curiosity, or I will have you killed.'

Keshad wanted to take a step away, but he feared exposing himself as a coward.

'No.' Eliar lifted his chin, jaw clenched. 'Kill me if you must. When I am dead you can assuage your curiosity, if the Hidden One allows it.'

The prince laughed, and the guardsmen lowered their bows. 'You are the ones I seek. You are Keshad, without patronymic to identify your lineage, and you are Eliar, a son of the Ri Amarah, son of Isar, son of Bethen, son of Gever. Sent as spies into the empire, which is ruled by the rightful heir, my elder brother, Farujarihosh, may his reign be blessed by the glory of the King of Kings who rules over us.'

There followed a moment of complete silence, punctuated once by a drifting lilt of some kind of stringed music, cut off as quickly as if a door had closed. The prince studied them. Eliar wiped his brow. Kesh was panting. How could it be he had come so far and risked so much, only to have it all snatched out of his hands?

Aui! Captain Anji had warned him. He'd understood the empire better than anyone, because he had spent his boyhood in the palace. He'd been willing to gamble with the lives of Keshad and Eliar, and the drovers and guardsmen, because it cost him nothing personally to make the attempt should it fail, and offered him benefit if they succeeded.

Fair enough. Kesh had accepted the bargain. No use blaming anyone now that disaster sat in a serviceable chair and stared him in the face, mulling over how best to use him.

To use him, not to kill him.

The prince nodded. 'I am not the enemy of my cousin Anjihosh. His mother made plain her intent to remove him from the battles over the throne when she smuggled him out of the palace and sent him west to his uncle, the Qin var, the year Anjihosh gained twelve years of age. But that does not mean my brother and I can pretend he does not live and breathe. He remains the son of an emperor. You may see that this presents a problem for us. Yet we are peaceable men, seeking order, not war. Our father taught us that it is better to be prosperous than to quarrel. Thus, when my brother sired a son, I accepted the place

foreordained for me, so that we could work together rather than sunder what would otherwise be strong.'

'You've been cut,' said Eliar, going pale about the mouth. 'I've read such stories, but I didn't think-'

Cut? What on earth did that mean?

The prince whitened about the mouth but spoke mildly enough that Kesh wondered if he were a man trained never to show overt anger. 'We do not use such a crude term.'

'I beg your pardon, Your Excellency,' said Eliar. 'I know no other. There is no word in the Hundred that describes…' He blushed.

'In the trade talk they might say gelded, but we have a more honorable term in our own language, which is more sophisticated than the crude jabber used in the marketplace.'

Gelded! Kesh had to actually stop his own hand from reaching down to pat his own privates, to reassure himself they were intact. 'Captain Anji isn't the kind of man to accept a knife cut so as to live.'

'We have something else in mind. And you, Keshad of no patronymic and Eliar son of Isar of the Ri Amarah, are the ones who will deliver our offer to our cousin. You will accept the assignment?'

Kesh looked at Eliar. Eliar lifted a shoulder in a half shrug.

'What choice do we have?' Kesh said.

The prince lifted both hands. 'You can be brought before the priests and accused and convicted of being spies. It is a choice. An honorable one in its own way, since an honorable man speaks truth at all times.'

'What punishment would we then face?' Kesh asked.

'A merciful one. A swift execution, rather than burning such as heretics and nonbelievers suffer. You, Keshad, in any case. I am not sure how the Ri Amarah would fare as those of his people who lived in these lands were banished from the empire one hundred and eighteen years ago because of their heretical beliefs. He might merit burning.'

'Yours is a cruel law,' said Eliar.

'Hsst!' Keshad kicked him.

'Men are cruel,' observed the prince without heat. 'The law binds them in order to mitigate their cruelty. Such is the wisdom of Beltak.' He folded his hands on his lap. He was as sleek and well groomed as any treasured gelding, a strong workhorse, and a

handsome person in his own way, better-looking than Anji if measured by symmetry alone. 'So. I have found you, and made my proposal. Do you accept? You two, to carry our offer of peace across the Kandaran Pass to our cousin in the Hundred.'

'This is no trick, no hidden poison or sorcery meant to kill him?'

'No trick, no poison or sorcery meant to kill him. It is an honest offer, the best one he will get.'

'What else can we do?' muttered Eliar.

Kesh had spent too much time as a debt slave to trust masters and merchants who, given a monopoly, did not exploit their advantage. But that didn't mean a clever man couldn't gain advantage for himself on the sidelines as the powerful wrestled. 'Very well, Your Excellency, we'll take your offer to the captain. What is it?'

The prince nodded at the captain, who gestured. The guardsmen on the balcony backed up out of sight. The captain crossed to a door set on the far side of the chamber. He opened it and went through, leaving the prince — apparently unarmed — with Kesh and Eliar and their swords.

'So do you have horns?' asked the prince in a pleasant voice. 'I've always wondered.'

Eliar flushed.

The door opened and a woman entered the room. She was veiled, perceived mostly as cloth obscuring both face and form, yet she walked with confidence and carried a short lacquered stick with a heavy iron knob weighting one end. She was short and, it seemed, a bit stout, but vital and energetic. As soon as the door was shut behind her by an unseen hand, she pulled off the veil that concealed her face and tucked it carelessly through her belt.

The hells!

She was an older woman, not yet elderly, and she had a face so distinctively Qin that Keshad at once felt he was back riding with Qin soldiers. She circled the two young men as a wolf circles a pair of trapped bucks as it decides whether it is hungry enough to go to the bother of killing them. Then she turned on the prince.

'These are fearsome spies?' The trade talk fell easily from her lips.

'An exaggeration, I admit,' the prince said with a careless smile that had something of a scorpion's sting at its tip. 'Do not trouble me with your contentious nature.'

'You will be glad to be rid of me.'

'I need have nothing to do with you. From what I hear, the women's quarter will be glad to be rid of you after all these years. My brother has thankfully decreed there are to be no more foreign brides, only civilized women, admitted to the palace quarter.'

'He says so now. But wait until your brother, or his heir, or that heir's son, sees benefit in contracting a foreign alliance. When the gold, or the land, or the horses, are too tempting to refuse. Then your words will change and your hearts will turn, and some poor young woman will be ripped from her family's hearth and thrust into a cage, as I was.'

Eliar gasped, as if the words had been aimed at him.

The prince rose, his eyes so tightened at the corners that Kesh supposed him to be very angry. But he spoke in the blandest of voices, addressing Kesh and Eliar. 'This woman carries our offer to Anjihosh. You will escort her and those attendants she brings with her. Be assured that agents of my choosing will ride with you over the Kandaran Pass. If you do not deliver her safely, they will kill you.'

Kesh looked at Eliar; the young Silver was his only ally. 'Yes, Your Excellency. Can you tell me who we have the honor of escorting?'

'And idiots, too, in the bargain,' she said. She walked to the door, rapped on it with the iron knob of the stick, and, as soon as it was opened, vanished within.

'You claim to be a believer,' said the prince, 'because of which I will offer you a piece of advice. That woman is a serpent, with a poisoned tongue and a barbarian's lack of honor. Do not trust her.'

'That's Captain Anji's mother, isn't it?' As soon as Eliar spoke the words, Keshad realized she could be no one else.

'The palace is rid of her at last,' said the prince. 'As for you two, should either of you set foot in the empire again, you'll find your lives swiftly forfeit.' He clapped his hands thrice.

The door opened, and the captain strode swiftly out, posture erect and shoulders squared, like a man about to take his place in the talking line and perform one of the tales, a martial story told with defiance and bold gestures. These people knew what they were doing, entirely unlike Kesh and Eliar, their expedition begun as a toss of the sticks and exposed so easily Kesh felt the shame of it. Now they were delegated to be mere escorts to a bellicose woman being returned in disgrace to her son.

The prince sat in his chair as the captain led them away. Yet as they walked the length of the underground corridor with its hunting stories faded in the dim light, Kesh considered the last time he had brought a woman north over the Kandaran Pass into the Hundred. He'd believed one thing about her, but he'd been entirely wrong; Cornflower had turned out to be quite different from what he originally thought she was, not a helpless mute slave at all but rather a terrible demon bent on vengeance. Aui! There was really no telling what would happen when Captain Anji's mother arrived in the Hundred, was there?



In the Year of the Red Goat


Don't open the gate.

Those were the last words Nekkar had said to the apprentices before he had slipped out of the temple to get a look at the army that had occupied Toskala eight days ago. Reflecting back on their frightened faces and anxious tears, he knew that leaving them had been a gods-rotted foolish thing to do. He should have stayed in the temple grounds to keep some order in the place. Make sure none of the young ones panicked.

Aui! Too late now to fret over what he couldn't change.

He had reached the front of the line.

A sergeant caressing a long knife finished his interrogation of a thin man, a farmer by the look of his humble knee-length linen jacket and bare legs. 'So you admit you are a refugee, come to Toskala from the country in the last six months?'

'We had to flee our village because of the trouble-'

'No refugees allowed in Toskala. You'll be marched to the gates and released. Return to your village.'

A bored soldier beckoned to Nekkar, a gesture meaning You next.

The farmer didn't budge. 'I've children waiting in the alleys. I have to get them.'

'You should have thought of that before you left your gods-rotted village.' The sergeant nodded, and soldiers grabbed the man by either arm. As he'd done numerous times before, seen by everyone standing in line, the sergeant sliced three shallow cuts into the man's left forearm. 'We cleanse those who sneak back into the city after they've been marked.'

'But they'll starve!' The man's voice rose shrilly as his desperation mounted and the pain of the cuts stung into tears. 'Their mother is dead. We lost track of our clan-'

The soldiers dragged him out by a different door. Aui! The refugees who had flooded into Toskala over the last year had put a strain on the resources of the city and caused a great deal of hard feeling, but to separate a man from his children in such a way was beyond cruel. Yet none dared protest. Soldiers lined the main room; an inn called the Thirsty Saw had been cleared of

customers and set aside for their use. Many more folk besides him waited in line, some wringing their hands or rubbing unmarked forearms, others weeping. Most stood in silent, bitter dread. Eight days ago, on the cusp between the days of Wakened Ox and Transcendent Snake, their good city had been overthrown by treachery and fallen into the hands of thieves and criminals.

The bored soldier's voice sharpened. 'I said, You next.''

Nekkar limped forward.

The sergeant looked him up and down without smile or frown. 'What's your name?'

'I'm called Nekkar.'

'What's your clan?'

'I'm temple-sworn.' As any tupping idiot could see by his blue cloak with its white stripe sewn over each shoulder! Those who wore the blue cloak marking them as servants of Ilu the Herald, patron of travelers and bringer of news, became accustomed to being addressed as 'Holy One.' That the sergeant had not used the customary honorific was a deliberate slight. He swallowed angry words as he glanced uneasily around the chamber. The other detainees, swept up like so much detritus by the soldiers now patrolling Toskala's streets, stared, trying to gauge what questions they might be asked and what answers would serve them best.

'What clan in Toskala marks your kinfolk?' The sergeant's impatience edged his tone. He wore a silver chain from which hung an eight-pointed tin star, a cheap medallion compared with the finely wrought chain likely obtained in the first frenzy of looting.

'Why, no clan in Toskala!' he replied, surprised. 'Why should it? I was sent to Fifth Quarter's temple at sixteen as an apprentice and transferred five years later as an envoy to Stone Quarter's temple. I have lived here in the city the last thirty years, and never regretted one moment of it.' Until today. 'My kin are hill people from the Liya Pass, if you must know, a day's walk from the town of Stragglewood on the Ili Cutoff.'

'I know the place. Go on.'

Faced with the soldier's unrelenting gaze, he cleared his throat nervously and went on. 'Most of my people follow the carters' or woodsmen's trade. Easy to work together, then, you see, cousin hauling logs for cousin. Never had a badge, like they do here in the city. Honest country folk don't.' The sergeant didn't blink at that jab, nor rise to the bait, nor touch his own ugly star badge, if

that was what it was. 'I haven't been back there for over twenty years. My life is here in the city now.'

'What clan?' the sergeant repeated.

He wiped sweat from his brow with a hand made grimy when the soldiers who had cornered him had shoved him to the ground. His wrist hurt, and his twisted ankle was swelling. 'Tumble Creek lands, mostly. Some granddaughter branches that range the roads and paths, as carters do. We're a daughter branch long split from the Green Sun, call ourselves Tumble Sun, if you must know.'

The sergeant blinked, as if the names meant something to him.

Dread opened its maw and swallowed Nekkar in one gulp. He had the horrible feeling he had just betrayed his entire clan, who had never done one wrong thing to him even for all he had been thrilled to leave the quiet hills for the glories of the finest city in all the Hundred.

The sergeant pointed to the white trim on his cloak. 'You're wearing an ostiary's stripes.'

'Yes, I'm ostiary over the temple of Ilu that's located here in Stone Quarter. We're well known as the most minor of the five temples dedicated to Ilu in Toskala.'

'An ambitious person raised to a high position might feel slighted to be called "minor." Maybe you were hoping for a better place.'

He was very irritating, and Nekkar was anxious about his charges and sick of seeing unoffending refugees cut like debt slaves and dragged away. Standing in line half the day with hands and ankle throbbing and without food or drink had made him light-headed enough to kick him into incautious speech, that sarcastic way he had of lecturing youth when they were being idiots. 'I'm perfectly happy with an orderly, unambitious existence. Keeping to my place and serving the gods as I am sworn, and leaving others to go about their lawful business. In peace.'

The soldier's hand flicked up. A gasp voiced behind was his only warning. A blow cracked him across the shoulders and he dropped to his knees, too stunned to cry out. His gaze hazed; lights danced. He sobbed, then caught a tangle of prayer and chanted under his breath to take his mind off the pain blossoming across his back and the fear sparking in his mind.

'Hold him for questioning.' The sergeant's voice faded.

They dragged him out to the back and dumped him on the ground. Pain paralyzed him. He tried to imagine what Vassa

might be cooking for dinner tonight, but his parched mouth tasted only of sand. It was easier to let go and close his eyes.

He came to with a start, his back throbbing as if a herd of dray beasts had stampeded over his body. Voices staggered back and forth, fading, growing louder, and fading in a slide that made him dizzy although he was flat on his stomach and sucking in dust with each nauseated breath.

'Just these two outlanders in the last eight days?' a woman asked. 'That's all you've rounded up, Sergeant Tomash?'

'My apologies, Holy One. I have been searching according to the orders given out by the Lord Commander Radas and Commander Hetti, Holy One. Every household and guild is required to open their compound to my soldiers and present a census of their household members and their wealth. These two slaves are the only outlanders I've found in Stone Quarter.'

Someone was weeping, desperate and afraid.

'Release them, or kill them, as you wish. They are useless to me.'

'My apologies, Holy One.' The sergeant, whose contemptuous tone inside the inn had made folk cringe, sounded as near to tears as a whining boy dumped by uncaring relatives on the auction block. 'I've been diligent. I am interviewing compound by compound throughout this quarter, just as I was ordered. Anyone unlawfully on the streets is brought before me. These folk I had dragged out here all need further examination, Holy One.'

'Look at me!'

The sergeant whimpered.

Nekkar opened the eye that wasn't jammed up against the ground. At first he thought his vision was ruined; his open eye scratched as if scoured by sand, and when he blinked, it hurt to open and close. Then he realized that actually it was dusk, and also that a few paces from his head floated a cloak of rippling fabric like the night sky speckled by stars.

A person in travel-worn sandals wrapped over dusty feet was standing not three steps from his nose; it was this person who wore the cloak.

'You've spoken the truth about the outlanders,' said the cloak.

The sergeant sobbed with a gasp of relief. 'Yes, Holy One.'

'You've done as well as anyone could.'

'My thanks, Holy One.'

'Bring the prisoners before me one at a time.' She moved away to a trellis.

Nekkar eased up onto his side. He was lying in the inner courtyard of the Thirsty Saw, where he and other folk in Stone Quarter often drank under the shade of an awning green with vines. Soldiers lined the compound wall, staring at their boots. Prisoners were tied to the posts that supported the massive trellis, and more were stuffed doubled over and in evident pain into livestock cages. Many had soiled themselves from being confined for so long, their reek mixing with the sour stench of spilled wine.

The sergeant designated a pair of reluctant soldiers to haul the prisoners forward one at a time. The first man had been beaten so badly he could barely walk, and his head swayed on his neck as if he were not quite conscious.

The woman held a writing brush and a neatly trimmed sheet of mulberry paper. Her cloak's hood was thrown back to reveal a nondescript face, pleasant enough in its lineaments and near in age to Nekkar, who had at the turn of the year made forty-seven and counted his thirtieth year in service to Ilu, the Herald. The prisoner's gaze was forced to meet hers.

She marked on the paper like a clerk. 'Veron, son of the Ten Chains clan of Toskala. You have committed a terrible crime.'

The man collapsed. After a moment, it became apparent he was dead. Just like that. His spirit had fled through the Gate, leaving its husk.

A soldier retched. Two others grabbed the dead man's ankles and dragged him out of sight as another prisoner was shoved forward. This one, a woman Nekkar knew by sight from the market square, sobbed noisily as she confessed that her clan had hidden its gold beneath the planks of their weaving house.

'Were you not commanded to reveal all coin and stores in your household's possession, as well as provide a full census of household members including any outlanders or gods-touched residing there?' asked the cloak, her tone calm. 'Why do you not obey when you know there will be a punishment?'

'We cleanse them who disobey our orders so flagrantly, Holy One,' said Sergeant Tomash. 'As an example.'

The woman began to scream, pleas for mercy, anything but to be hung by her arms from a post until she died of exposure and thirst, but the cloak gestured and she was dragged away. Another was hauled forward in her place.

So went the weary round. The sergeant was a cunning man in his own way; every person here had triggered his suspicion, and every one now confessed either to some petty crime or to concealing valuables or in one case an outlander slave. A merchant babbled about how he cheated on his rice measures. All were condemned to the post.

One frail old fellow fell to his knees as he begged her pardon for having killed another laborer back in his youth.

'You killed him? You confess it?' She lifted her brush, touched it to the rice paper.

He croaked a gasp, or perhaps it was meant to be a word, but like the first man he tumbled forward onto his face. Dead.

Nekkar shut his eyes as the corpse was dragged away.

'This man turned himself in to spare his clan,' the sergeant said. 'He confessed to hoarding nai-'

'Look at me,' said the cloak. 'Sergeant, lift his chin-'

Nekkar opened his eyes just as the sergeant wrenched the man's chin up. The prisoner was young, hale, and with the thick arms and powerful legs of a laborer. He struggled, keeping his head down, but his eyes flicked up anyway, as though gauging his distance.

She took a step back. 'Kill him.'

As soldiers drew their swords, the young man fought free and tugged a knife from his boot; he leaped toward the cloak, but spears pinned him before he reached her.

'He concealed no nai.' Her tone remained even as she watched him thrashing, still fighting forward despite flesh pierced and his blood flowing. 'He came to attack me. That is why he hid his gaze.'

'No heart can be hidden from you, Holy One,' murmured the sergeant. 'Cut his throat.'

The young man screamed; his failure was worse than the pain, no doubt. At least this one had fought back instead of waiting passively, too fearful or too shamed to stand up.

'Enough,' Nekkar said aloud.

What a gods-rotted fool he was, knowing he was responsible for the temple and yet staggering to his feet because he could not bear to watch this perverse assizes any longer. He straightened, grimacing at the stabbing pains in his abused body.

'Heya!' barked the sergeant. 'Stop, or you'll be cut down likewise.'

Nekkar faced the woman in the cloak. 'Enough! Why do you do this? Are you not a Guardian? For by your look, and your power, you seem to be one of those who wear Taru's cloak and wield the second heart and the third eye to judge those who have broken the law. The orphaned girl prayed to the gods to bring peace to the land, not cleansing.'

'Does cleansing not bring about peace?'

'As well argue that fear and terror bring about peace. Guardians are meant to establish justice. Is that what you call this? Justice?'

'Stay your hand,' said the cloaked woman before the soldiers could rain blows down upon him. She captured his gaze.

Aui! There it all tumbled as she spun the threads out of his heart: the mistakes he had made, the harsh words he had spoken, his youthful temper and rashness and the fights he'd gotten into, breaking one man's nose and another's arm, the girl he'd impregnated the month before he had entered the temple for his apprenticeship1 year. He had afterward lied outright, saying it wasn't his seed, to avoid marrying her, and afterward taken seven years of temple service to make sure they couldn't force him, although many years later after being humbled and honed by the discipline of envoyship, he had made restitution to her clan. And what of his twenty years bedding Vassa? Yet what had he and Vassa to be ashamed of, he an ostiary forbidden to marry and she a young widow who had preferred her widowhood to a second marriage arranged by her clan? They did nothing wrong by sharing a pallet; he served the temple as he had done for thirty years and she cooked in her family's neighboring compound as she had done her entire life.

Enough! The cloak's gaze pierced him, but it did not cripple him. He had made peace with his mistakes and his faults.

She regarded him with a sharp frown. 'The gods enjoined the Guardians to seek justice. People suffer or die through a recognition of their own crimes, in their own hearts.'

'It looks to me like you kill them. Or hand them over to your lackeys to be cleansed. If you believe that to be justice, then you are no Guardian!'

The sergeant snarled. The soldiers hissed with fear.

'You are bold in your honesty, Ostiary Nekkar,' she said, having gleaned his name from his thoughts. 'You provided a census of your temple to the authorities, I see. Know you of outlanders in

this city? Know you of any man or woman, outlander or Hundred folk, who can see ghosts, as the gods-touched are said to do?'

He did not want to tell her, but his thoughts spilled their secrets and she lapped them up however he struggled to conceal what he knew of Stone Quarter's clans and compounds. He wept furiously, hating how he betrayed them: He knew of eight outlanders who were slaves in Stone Quarter, and he'd glimpsed others in Flag, Bell, Wolf, and Fifth Quarters as well. They came from foreign lands and usually served out their days with the clan who had purchased them. There was a young envoy stationed in Flag Quarter known to be gods-touched. Some years ago he'd met another at the Ilu temple up on the Ili Cutoff, an older man. A pair of gods-touched mendicants were said to wander the tracks and back roads of lower Haldia, aiding troubled ghosts in crossing away under Spirit Gate. Shouldn't such holy ones be left in peace to do what the gods commanded?

She released him by looking away to pinion the sergeant. 'Sergeant Tomash, you will accompany me to Flag Quarter. I must search out this young gods-touched envoy. After that, I have a new assignment for you. Collect all the census records. I want a hostage taken from every compound and handed over to the army.'

'But my work in Stone Quarter, Holy One?'

'Is no longer your concern. There are two cohorts marching down from High Haldia to take over administrative duties here once the army marches on Nessumara. You will report directly to the main command as my personal adjutant, with your rank raised to that of captain. I'll call on you and your company as I have need of them.'

'You honor me, Holy One. Shall we cleanse the ostiary, Holy One?'

'No. The gods will dispose of an honest ostiary as they see fit. Come. My errand is urgent. The gods-touched are our enemies. All must be brought before me.'

The soldiers shrank back as she skirted the bodies of the fallen to reach a gate that led into the alley separating this compound from an adjoining emporium. She opened the gate and walked through.

The new captain paused under the lintel, a malicious smile slashing his face as he contemplated his enhanced authority. 'Dump that one in Scavengers' Alley like the rubbish he is. Then we'll see how the gods choose to dispose of an honest ostiary.'

The blow took Nekkar from behind. A second smashed into his shoulders as laughter hammered in his ears. Distantly, a man sobbed. He toppled dazedly to the dirt, wondering why there was a salty taste in his mouth. What had Vassa cooked tonight for supper?

With the third blow came oblivion.

How to describe what you grew up never having words for? Nallo had been born and raised in the rugged Soha Hills, where a person might stand on a ridge path and survey higher slopes where rock broke the surface of the soil like old bones, and deeper gullies where streams ran white. But to fly! To hang in the harness below an eagle, as the land unrolled beneath you like so many bolts of multicolored cloth!

That was something.

She had never seen a river so wide that a shout might not carry across it. To the north, forest tangled the earth. To the south, on the far side of the river, neat rectangles marked densely packed fields, and every village boasted a flagpole and one or two small temples, each one easily identifiable from the air. There lay a quartered square, a temple built for Kotaru the Thunderer, the god she had served for one year as an apprentice. Here rose the three-tiered gates holy to Ilu the Herald. Roofs thatched with fanned leaves from the thatch-oil tree covered altars raised to Taru the Witherer, their bright green color withering as the rains faded. She spotted a walled garden sacred to Ushara the Merciless One, a few people loitering in the forecourt, too tiny to distinguish male from female; in the Devourer's garden, such distinctions did not matter as long as you brought clean desire to the act of worship.

She glanced toward her companion reeves. Kesta led while Pil flew the west flank. Ahead lay the ocean, a seething expanse of water that fell into the sky far to the east.

Tumna chirped, jerking Nallo's attention to a discoloration lying athwart land and ocean dead ahead. It was hard to fathom until the eyes began to identify the multitudinous strands of water plaiting the land and the rank upon rank of wood and stone buildings rising on islands within the delta as though they were a crop of stone being raised out of the earth. Was that Nessumara, the jewel of the sea, the city of bridges, the largest city in the Hundred?

I'm just a hill girl born to goat herders! I'll never get used to this!

Following Kesta's eagle, Arkest, Tumna dropped toward one island among many within the branching arms of the great river. Nallo laughed with the blend of fear and thrill she'd not yet gotten used to. The wind rumbled in her ears. The city flew up to meet her, and Tumna banked to overfly the largest parade ground, where Kesta and Arkest were just setting down. Nallo counted four parade grounds, separated by a maze of walls and lofts, as Tumna veered toward an empty one. Jessed eagles concealed in lofts called out in challenge, but Tumna ignored them. Extending her wings to their greatest extent, she raised her talons to make a perfect landing on a massive wooden log set horizontal to the ground.

'Whoop!' Nallo shouted. Tumna chuffed, shaking herself as Nallo unhooked from the harness and dropped to the ground. Two fawkners jogged out from the lofts.

'Heya! I'm Nallo, out of Clan Hall. Greetings of the day.'

'Yeh, yeh, you're new, aren't you? Your eagle did all the work, that's for sure. What's your eagle's name? Anything we should know?'

The brusque voice brought her up short. 'She's called Tumna, and' — she paused to get their attention — 'she ripped off the head of her last reeve.'

'Deserved, no doubt,' said the stouter one, who did all the talking. The wiry one nodded with a sneering grin.

They were experienced fawkners and she a novice reeve, not even yet able to steer her eagle properly. Sparring with them was not a battle she could win. 'We're here to pick up rice and nai for the siege.'

'So we heard. You can't possibly ferry enough sacks of rice and nai by eagle flight to feed Toskala.'

'We're not feeding Toskala, only the defenders up on Law Rock.'

'Why stay in Clan Hall at all? Why not evacuate? Copper Hall could use reinforcements at our main hall on the Haya shore. And Horn Hall is abandoned.'

'We can't abandon Law Rock and Justice Square to those who mean to overthrow the law.'

The fawkner shook her head. 'Maybe not. But we're overrun with refugees from Istria and Haldia. We're starting to see hungry and sick refugees out of Toskala, and for sure there are more to come, eh? Our reeves are buried under fights and altercations all along the roads, even with the militia out patrolling.'

The wiry fellow spoke up for the first time. 'Seems selfish of you Clan Hall reeves not to disperse to reinforce the other halls. Work together. Be of some use.'

'We're not giving up Law Rock,' snapped Nallo. 'Now, can you show me where we're to pick up the grain? I hope the merchants of Nessumara are more polite than you.'

'Whoof! Don't cross this one, eh, Arvd?' said the woman before she hawked and spat on the dirt. Hostility was easy to see in the creases of her mouth. 'You've got that gods-rotted old Silver to bargain with. He'll suck you dry.' As one, they took a step back as Sweet pulled up neat as you please to land on the other side of the parade ground. 'The hells! We heard rumor an outlander had jessed, but we didn't believe it. Is he human?'

'As human as I am,' Nallo retorted. 'Although I wonder about you two, not even giving a proper greeting and then speaking ill of some old man I've never even met.'

'Whew! My ears are burning!' They sauntered away to get a look at Pil.

She turned back to Tumna, awkward with the hand signals. 'Remain' was easy enough, a sweep and clutch sketched in the air. Then she ran after the fawkners. 'Heya! Where am I supposed to go?'

Copper Hall's island was larger than Argent Hall. To make it all more confusing, this parade ground was rimmed on all sides by buildings, lofts, barracks, storehouses, even a smithy roiling with smoke and noisy with beaten strokes, wang wang wangl Her head hurt already, and in addition to the iron sting wafting from the smithy, there crept into her nostrils a slimy fragrance that dwelt in the air the same way a winter byre full of goats has a smell as much texture as scent.

'To the docks,' they shouted back before they approached Pil. He had climbed up the ladder to the fawkner's board just below the perch to examine Sweet's wings. Sweet was a good-tempered bird, less territorial than most not so much because she was friendlier but because she seemed bored of going to the trouble of posturing over each least perch. Nallo suspected that

things wouldn't go so smoothly if you really crossed the old bird.

Pil satisfied himself on the matter of the wing feathers — how he fussed over that eagle! — and descended the ladder. His exchange with the fawkners was briefer than hers had been; then he jogged to meet her, gesturing toward a gap between the smithy and a warehouse.

'That way,' he said.

The experienced reeves assured her she'd eventually get the hang of retracing, on earth, ground she'd flown over. Pil could already backtrack easily. She hurried after him, the fawkners staying with the raptors.

He stopped short, and she barreled into his back.

'Oof! Aui, Pil, what's-?'

Few things surprised Pil, but right now he was gaping like a dumbstruck child. A creature, human in shape but stout and hairless, had backed out of the enclosed smithy to slop a bucket of steaming water over the paving stones. Its skin, like coals, was charred black and broken with veins of fiery red.

'A demon!' murmured Pil.

With the clamor hammering within the smithy and the distance between them, no ears should have been able to catch that muttered comment, but the creature swiveled its head as if identifying distance and direction.

'Heya! Are you two the other reeves from Clan Hall?' A steward came running down the alley between smithy and warehouse. She wheezed to a stop beside them, bent to rest hands on thighs as she caught her breath. 'Hunh! Eie! Your other reeve…' A spate of coughing calmed her. 'She needs a hand there at the dock. Old Iron-goat-shanks is in full spout.' Excitement gave air to her voice. 'Despicable man! We hear a rumor he's getting a new bride from Olossi. Poor lass. They're already running bets in the hall over how long she'll survive his beatings. Two years, maybe; five if she's strong. I'm Ju'urda, by the way. I hope those cursed fawkners Arvi and Offina weren't rude. My apologies on behalf of the hall.'

'What is that?' Nallo gestured toward the smithy.

'Eh?' She looked around in the manner of someone who can't see anything except what she expects to see. 'What?'

'That, uh, that — oh, the hells!' Cursed if the creature wasn't already looking in their direction as if it could hear every word

over the boom and hammer coming from inside the confines of the smoky forge. 'It's a delving, isn't it? Just like in the tales.'

'A delving?' asked Pil.

'Country cousins, eh?' Ju'urda laughed in a way that stung, but immediately she tipped back her head and spoke past them, not shouting as a normal person would have to, to have a hope of being heard above the racket. 'Heya, Be. These are reeves visiting from another hall. One's an outlander and the other has never seen your kind before. Their apologies.

It raised an arm to acknowledge her speech and glided back inside the smithy carrying the empty bucket.

'The delvings can be cursed touchy, not that I blame them,' said the steward. 'It doesn't pay to insult them. Your grandchildren might find themselves with a ban still held against them when they least expect it.'

'What is a delving?' asked Pil.

'No time.' She glanced at Nallo. 'How in the hells did an outlander get to be a reeve?'

'No time,' said Nallo with a grin meant to have an edge, but Ju'urda laughed with real amusement, then set off at a trot, leading them down the alley. Nallo could see nothing of the hall grounds or the city beyond because they were hemmed in by buildings, none more than two stories tall and all with railings along the flat roofs and canvas set up over bare roof beams as if folk lived up there, too.

Ju'urda was soon flagging, although the jog seemed easy enough to Nallo. Pil, of course, was as tough as any man she'd ever met. Born, raised, and trained as a Qin soldier, he would die rather than show weakness.

Which made it all the more curious, Nallo supposed, that when he saw a creature he did not recognize, he immediately identified it as a fearful demon. Maybe they had more demons in the lands outside the Hundred. The gods had ordered the Hundred; naturally they had desired variety, for weren't there three languages spoken in the Hundred, and weren't there Four Mothers, and eight 'children' — thinking creatures — shaped by the Mothers? Weren't there five feasts, six reeve halls, and seven gods?

That's what made this marauding army all the worse. They all wore a medallion they called the Star of Life. They didn't respect the gods. They burned altars and ransacked temples, and worst of all, they flouted the law on which the Hundred was built. It was

like digging out your foundation from under your house without concern for what would happen afterward.

They emerged onto a clear area of docks emplaced along a channel of murky gray water. The slimy stench made Nallo flinch. The water heaved with sludge and garbage. On the far side of the channel, buildings crammed the far bank. Boats and barges and slender canoes clogged the waterway.

A barge lodged at the dock had disgorged a pair of men wearing the distinctive wrapped turbans that marked them as Silvers. The elder was arguing with a furious Kesta.

'-bare-faced and parading around half naked-' The Silver was very old but vigorous despite the wrinkle of years on his face. He spoke in the loud voice Nallo associated with people who, having lost their own hearing, assume no one else can hear well.

'You might as well throw swill in my face,' said Kesta, a flush darkening her cheeks. 'How dare you speak to a reeve-?'

'Throw swill I would, for it's the only fitting punishment for a woman who flaunts herself-'

'Here, now, Grandfather,' said the weedy grandson with a fluttering gesture.

The old man whacked him across the back with his cane. 'Shut your mouth, pup!' He looked up, seeing Pil. 'Here, now, ver. You're one of those Qin outlanders I've heard story of, aren't you?' The women might as well not have existed. T brought rice and nai to feed one hundred adults for one month, a generous allotment, if I must say so myself. Five cheyt for the lot. To be delivered in an even split of unhusked rice and whole nai. Nai flour will spoil, so you'll have to pound your own.'

Pil looked at Kesta, but she was too choked with anger to speak. He looked at Nallo and lifted a hand, palm up: What do I do?

Nallo was no clerk of Sapanasu, to add up such staggeringly large numbers in her head; she had never even seen a gold cheyt coin, not once in her twenty years of living. But she'd fed a household. In the village, a tey of rice sold for ten vey and was enough to feed one adult for one day. Nai was more filling, and cost less. Sixty vey equaled one leya, and sixty leya one cheyt… 'It seems like a fair price.'

'I–It's — cursed — generous,' huffed Ju'urda in a low voice. 'Just — cursed — clasp — agreement — so — his — hirelings — can — unload.'

Pil looked uncomfortable as he addressed the old man. 'It is agreed to be a fair price, ver.'

'It's not a fair price! It's a bargain, a steal, a quarter of what I could get on the open market, and no doubt in these dire times I could raise my prices to gouge the desperate if it weren't forbidden to make a profit from the suffering of others.'

'Yes, Grandfather, you're as generous as the sun. Everyone knows it. Especially since you're expecting a favor from the reeves in return.' Silver bracelets ringed the grandson's forearm halfway to the elbow as he extended the arm.

As senior reeve, Kesta took a step forward in response.

The old man's forearms were entirely bound in silver rings, jangling and flashing every time he shifted, as he did now, thwap-ping the lad on the rump. 'Touch her, and you'll never be allowed to marry, stupid pup. I'll toss you out the door and you'll have to live on the street.'

Nallo nudged Pil from behind, the movement unseen by the older man but in clear sight of the younger, who had the grace to look embarrassed. Pil knew how to obey orders. He and the other young man exchanged the traditional clasp of agreement.

'It's no wonder this unholy army is stampeding across the Hundred,' shouted the old man, stabbing at the air with his cane. 'Where are all the men, if they are not in their proper place?'

He stomped to the barge and shouted across the gangplank. Laborers swarmed up, hauling sacks off the boat and dumping them on the dock.

The young Silver released Pil's hand and blushed, easy to see on his paler skin. 'The old goat is in a particularly foul mood. My apologies.'

'What gives him leave to think he can talk to a reeve that way?' Kesta said.

'He calls it an affront for women to stand in authority in public,' said the youth.

'An affront to women, you mean! Him talking like that!'

'He's gotten worse as the gout has ailed him, and his hearing has gotten very bad, so he tightens his hold on his memories of the past, although I admit to you I'm sure the old days weren't as he pretends to recall them.'

Ju'urda pressed a hand on Kesta's arm. 'No use digging into this wound, eh? Say nothing more of it, Yeshen. It's a cursed generous offer, well under market value.'

Kesta whistled. 'It'll take us some time to haul it all north, one sack per eagle.'

'What will happen now the commander of Clan Hall is dead?' asked Ju'urda. 'There's no one in charge.'

'We've sent messengers to the other halls.' Kesta's gaze drifted to the sacks piling up in rows. The hirelings worked efficiently despite the old man throwing comments like knives.

'Don't drop that, you clumsy nit! Aren't you strong enough? Move faster!'

Kesta shook her head. 'Is that scrap of coin all he really wants? Hard to see him as generous.'

Yeshen frowned. 'He's got an affianced bride in Olossi he wants flown up here.'

'Reeves aren't carters whose services can be purchased with coin!' objected Kesta.

He shrugged. 'I'm just telling you what he expects. Anyhow, verea, three houses of Ri Amarah in High Haldia were killed, every man, woman, and child they got their hands on, and their holdings looted and compounds burned. A few escaped to Nessumara to tell of it. Whatever else, he knows what will happen to us if Nessumara falls.' He rubbed a sweaty forehead with the back of a hand as if that could wipe away the fear. 'Even so, I don't see how the enemy can hold High Haldia, Toskala, and the countryside, and attack Nessumara as well. No one can have that big an army. Can they?'

Nallo snorted. What a gods-rotted pampered youth he was!

He flushed.

Ju'urda flashed an annoyed glance at Nallo. 'It does seem impossible, doesn't it? But we've got every reeve out on patrol and our hirelings detailed to build barriers and strengthen the gates on the causeway. Better to be prepared than taken by surprise, eh?' She nodded at Kesta. 'So it falls to me and you to deal with old goat-shanks besides.'

'His ill temper is worth enduring to get these provisions. I've dealt with worse-tempered mules.' Kesta considered the sacks. 'We'll need to store these in your warehouses until we can haul them north.'

The young Silver gestured. 'My hirelings will move them wherever you'd like, verea.'

'My thanks.' Ju'urda left with a hireling to show him the warehouse, while the young Silver retreated to the boat and the shadow of his glowering grandfather.

Kesta stalked over to Nallo and Pil. 'Grab a sack and let's get moving.'

'There's more than five hundred people trapped on Law Rock,' said Nallo. 'Is there any chance we'll lift some of them off to get them out of the way?'

'It's not my decision to make,' said Kesta. 'There's a hundred children, and another two hundred adults useless for defense and hard to feed. We need a commander, but Peddo and the other messengers aren't back yet.' She loosed a, glare at the back of the old man, for all the good it did. Then she grinned. 'You kept your mouth shut tight, Nallo. That's a wonder!'

'I was too shocked to say anything. I just kept wondering if he has horns under that turban! Seems like he would, doesn't it?'

Kesta snorted.

'Anyway, Pil and I, we saw a delving. It was working in the smithy.'

The news did not cause Kesta to gasp or goggle. 'Copper Hall has a dispensation from the delving assizes, as repayment for an ancient favor done to aid the delvings. I think it's in one of the tales. They get seasonal work from a chain of delvings out of Arro- Here now, why am I babbling on? Grab a sack, you loafers. You've got the hauling harness with your eagles. Make sure it's bundled tightly. Let's move.'

As Nallo shouldered one of the heavy sacks, she caught a glimpse of the old man looking her way with a grimace so ugly a spark of anger flared and she found herself taking a step toward him. There was a man who needed a few blunt words shouted in his griping face.

'Nallo,' said Pil in his soft way.

With a sigh, she followed him. Toskala could not wait. He was just one cranky, selfish, old, and very rich man. Maybe all Silvers were like him, or maybe he was an unpleasant old coot whose wealth had purchased him the right to bully those within reach of his cane. She'd been mean to those in her care a time or two, just because she let her temper and her resentment get the better of her. Who was to say she couldn't become like him, if she wasn't careful?

It was a sobering thought.


Nessumara and the delta fell away behind and below as streaming air wicked away the stench of brackish water and too

many people crammed onto too many islets. The smithy had smelled a cursed lot fresher, nothing fetid or decomposing where metal was forged. Nallo kept seeing the delving in her mind's eye, the way its head had turned at the sound of their voices. You could tell if someone was looking at you across a distance; eyes had a way of holding and meeting, or maybe it was jvist the way bodies tensed and shoulders straightened or dropped. It had heard every word.

About forty mey separated Nessumara from Toskala, as the eagle flew. It was difficult to get used to flying in half a day a journey that by river or road might take as many as eight days. The huge river wound a convoluted course, with the wide roadbed of Istri Walk cutting a course more or less parallel to the main channel of the river. The road below was clogged with traffic: people in wagons, pushing carts, trudging with children hoisted on their shoulders. Folk were fleeing from the army that had betrayed and conquered Toskala.

At the sight of those cursed helpless refugees, it was as if a hand reached right into her heart and squeezed until tears like blood oozed up out of her eyes, she who prided herself on being too tough to cry no matter what was thrown at her. She'd had plenty of cause to cry, growing up as a daughter more tolerated than liked in a large clan that couldn't afford to keep so many children, especially one burdened with such a foul temper. They'd been thrilled to marry her off to a much older man she'd never met. For her part, she felt the gods had been kind in sending her to a gentle man whose patience had been as wide as sky and as steady as earth. Her clan hadn't cared what manner of man he was; they'd gotten a better bride-price than they expected.

Now he was dead, killed by the Star of Life army, and she was a reeve, safe up here while others trudged vulnerably down there, not knowing who might clatter up from behind and rip the breath out of their bodies. Wasn't the entire point of being a reeve to be able to help those in need? In the tale, hadn't the orphaned girl begged the gods for a way to restore justice?

The hells! She'd lost track of both Kesta and Pil. She didn't know how to hasten Tumna along, and the cursed lumpy sack of nai was bumping her knees to bruises. Tumna did not like the extra weight, and she was not a raptor to cooperate when she was disgruntled.

As they got closer to Toskala, the traffic fell off to a trickle.

Soon, no movement stirred at all, although hamlets and villages lay everywhere on this rich land. Paddies lay close to harvest, un-tended. No one was turning the fallow fields for the dry season.

An orange flag flashed to her left. Pil and Sweet hung above the river. She tugged on a jess — the wrong one — and cursed as she corrected. Tumna beat in a long curve toward the river. As they flashed over the muddy gray-green current, a barge was being poled away from the west bank while a gang of men pursued it along the shore with swords and bows.-jCargo in tidy rows took up much of the barge, and passengers — children! — cowered among the sacks, barrels, and chests as arrows rained over them.

The river fell behind as she overshot. She tugged until Tumna with the greatest reluctance began a sweep back around while Nallo could not even twist to get a look because of the heavy sack of nai. By the time she got the river back in view, Pil had vanished. But then Sweet appeared from downriver, beating straight up the central current. Pil was loosing arrows, and at least one man on the bank went down. The barge had caught the current; men on its deck had their own bows at the ready. A man clad all in black loosed, his arrow flew, and a man on the shore staggered and fell into the river, the waters taking him as his companions grabbed hopelessly after him.

Pil and Sweet cut hard around as the black-clad man, below, raised a hand in acknowledgment. The enemy dropped away, no longer a threat. Tumna set her head north, following the river and, perhaps, Kesta's Arkest, by now out of Nallo's sight.

'Cursed bird,' muttered Nallo, but it wasn't Tumna she was angry at. She knew what it was like to flee on the roads as a refugee. Months ago she'd walked homeless and hungry and scared, and sold herself into debt slavery besides in order to get a meal. She had rejected the reeves once, but in the end, as that cursed handsome Marshal Joss had warned her, the eagle had gotten what it wanted: it had wanted Nallo. She had come to Clan Hall to be trained as a reeve, but there'd been no time or thought for arms training in the confused days after Toskala's fall. Without training, she was useless.

'You're going to have to help me out, you ill-tempered beast.' Her knuckles were white as she gripped her baton, surveying the earth for any sign of enemy whether on the march or sent out as strike forces to harry the countryside south of Toskala. Maybe they saw her from their hiding places; she did not spot them.

This region of lower Haldia was rolling plain, and soon the distinctive rock marking the prow of Toskala like an upthrust fist came into view and grew until it loomed huge as Tumna glided in, extended her wings, and pulled up short for the landing. The sack whumped down so hard Nallo feared it might burst, but it had been bound with heavy leather belts in a doubled sacking.

Fawkners came running together with stewards to carry the sack to the storehouse, but as soon as her harness was shucked, Tumna warbled her wings and walked in her clumsy way over to a rope-wrapped perch to preen, ignoring the fawkners.

'I like the bloom on her feathers,' said one of the fawkners. 'She's beginning to grow out those fret marks. Have you coped her beak? Or talons?'

'I have not. I don't know how to do anything!'

'Aui! No need to snap at me! It was just a question.'

'My apologies. I'm hungry.'

'If you're sharp set, then go eat.'

Still no sign of Pil. The promontory of Law Rock was an astounding physical formation, with its sheer cliffs and flat crown wide enough for an assizes court, a militia and firefighters barracks and administration compound, and four grain storehouses and the city rations office. Clan Hall was built along the northern rim. Beyond the reeve hall lay a tumble of boulders surrounding a string of ponds running the curve of the northeastern rim, where raptors liked to bowse and feak.

Law Rock, the actual stele, stood near the prow under a humble thatched-roof shelter. The rest of the space was dusty, open ground suitable for drilling, assemblies, festival games, or eagles landing in waves. Four new perches had been erected in the last eight days, the logs hauled up from distant forest by the most experienced reeves and strongest eagles. The fresh-cut smell, the litter of wood chips from shaping and sawing, lingered as Nallo raced past the newest one and headed for the promontory's prow, where she could scan for Pil.


Nallo turned as Kesta ran up.

'Where's Pil?' the other reeve asked, wiping sweat from her neck and brow.

'He must have turned back. I saw soldiers — an enemy strike force — attacking a barge. It was so far behind the main flow of

refugees that I'm thinking they were folk who escaped Toskala after the siege was set. There was a Qin soldier on that barge.'

'What would a Qin soldier be doing all the way here? They're all with their captain in Olossi, aren't they?'

'Except for Pil.'

'Pil's a reeve. He's no longer one of them.'

A reeve who knew what he was doing. Who could sweep and turn and yank on the right jess to go the right direction; who could shoot arrows and kill men from harness. Who could actually do something.

'What's wrong?' asked Kesta, grasping Nallo's wrist and leaning toward her with lips parted in alarm.

This close, Nallo saw clearly the scar on her chin and another on her neck, as if she'd caught an arrow or blade in the flesh. Trembling, she thought, I should kiss her.

Eyes flaring, Kesta said, 'Nallo?' But her gaze skipped up from Nallo's face to the sky, and whatever else she meant to say was obliterated by a grin of relief. 'Cursed outlander. Look at him come down at such an angle!'

Pil and Sweet plummeted down over them. Shrieks of alarm were followed by whoops of laughter as the old raptor came down with a flourish right out in the open rather than in the more isolated parade ground.

'For such a quiet lad, he's turning into a bit of a show-off, eh?' Kesta hadn't released Nallo's arm. 'What's troubling you?'

Nallo had never before had trouble speaking her mind. Indeed, it had been the thing people had liked least about her. But a horrible swell of uncertainty — about being a reeve, about Kesta, about their hopes for succeeding stranded up here — strangled her tongue. 'I'm just hungry.'

She shook free of Kesta and hurried to meet Pil, while Kesta dogged her steps in a most annoying way. Yet the other reeve said nothing as they greeted Pil; as they checked in with the fawkners; as they sat down over an afternoon bowl of rice flavored with the last of the dill weed as Pil described in his endearingly awkward accent the brief battle on the river shore.

'It was Tohon,' he said. 'The Qin scout.'

'The hells,' muttered Kesta. 'So that's what Volias was on about. Why would folk from Olossi risk sending scouts up here, when they know if they're captured they'll just be interrogated and executed?'

'They prepare an attack by scouting ahead into the territory,' said Pil with a shrug, as if the answer was obvious to him.

Kesta's laugh was edged with a despairing anger. 'We think the enemy may have as many as ten cohorts spread along the River Istri. That would be six thousand men. As good as the Qin may be, they have — what? — two hundred men? There is no army to save us!'

'Not yet,' said Pil, scooping up more rice.

'We don't have to be useless!' snapped Nallo.

'What's eating you?' Kesta waved her spoon.

Nallo leaped up and strode away as other reeves stared. She found a shaded corner deep in the compound, slammed her back against a wall, and stood there breathing and trembling for a while. It was the cursed sense of helpless uselessness that ate at her.

After a while Pil walked around the corner and leaned back beside her, settling in as though he meant to wait all night if need be. In truth, it was getting dark.

'Ah, the hells!' she said with a bitter laugh. 'Let's go look at the cursed city, eh?'

Silence was assent. He walked companionably, saying nothing as usual, until they reached the big balcony that jutted over the cliff face. Off to the right sat the huge winches for the provisions baskets, safely roped up. A wooden barrier fenced off the stairs so no idiot child could go climbing down and get trapped in the rubble that blocked the steps.

The sun had already set as they leaned on the railing and stared over the city turning to shadow below. Before, twilight had been a bright and busy time in Toskala, lamps bobbing along the avenues as carters and porters made their final deliveries, the night markets coming to life as the day died. Now the city lay dark except for the army camp beyond the outer walls where campfires flickered, and lanterns that lighted the sentry and curfew stations in the main squares and central thoroughfares.

With Pil she could say what she wanted without being judged.

'How can I be a proper reeve when I hardly know how to fly, can barely handle my raptor, and haven't the least idea what to do in a fight? I lost sight of Kesta and you. I would have been lost except for the river. I came to Clan Hall to get training. Now there isn't time. At least you know how to fight.'

'The commander makes this decision, how to train new reeves.'

His calm words smoothed the turbulence in her heart. Someone would have to take charge, and then things would change. 'Flying provisions up from Nessumara might not seem like much, but it's something. As long as we hold Law Rock, the people of Toskala have a hope that we can overcome the enemy. That matters, doesn't it?'

Since she expected no answer, she was content to lean on the railing as stars came out between the patchwork clouds. The voice of the river blended with the steady wind in her ears. After a while, a lantern bobbed toward them, and Kesta walked up.

'I wondered where you had gotten to.' She hooked the lantern over a post and leaned on the railing next to Nallo. 'Did you ever figure out what's troubling you?'

'I just feel cursed useless, that's all, but maybe once the halls choose a new commander we can get some kind of order and routine restored.'

'So we can hope.' Her hand was curled invitingly close to Nallo's on the railing.

Nallo sucked in a sharp breath.

Pil took a step back. 'Fire!'

One moment it was like a lantern's light flaring in a distant quarter; the next, flames rippled skyward.

'That's in Stone Quarter!' Kesta ran to the fire bell, grabbed the rope, and swung the clacker back and forth.

The noise rose skyward like the blaze, and a cadre of firefighters came running from the barracks to crowd on the balcony and watch, but of course there wasn't a cursed thing they could do except to wonder what in the hells was going on in the occupied city.

The touch of a hand roused Nekkar, and he flinched.

'I'm here to help you, Holy One,' said a female voice softly. She spoke with an odd way of rounding her e's, and she stank so badly he gagged. 'Can you move?'

A horrible taste coated his mouth. But when he twitched his feet, his legs, his hands, his shoulders, nothing seemed broken, although shifting the twisted ankle made his eyes tear.

'I think I can walk. Was I beaten?'

'Alas, you were, Holy One. I saw it all from the rooftop. But then they were called off to some other task before they could finish the job, fortunately for you.'

'Who are you, verea?'

'Let's get you out of this rubbish.'

The ground slid beneath them as she hauled him out of a pile of stinking garbage. He could barely put weight on his left ankle; pain ripped through his shoulders with each movement. She led him to a ladder propped in the gap between gutter and eaves and, after looping a rope around his midsection, supported him up to the roof of a low storehouse. There he sprawled, spread-eagled and fearful he'd slide and plunge over, back into the rubbish heap. She pulled up the ladder.

'We've got to move you away from this alley, Holy One, before the soldiers come back looking for you. Can you move?'

The pain made tears flow. 'Yes.'

She patted his forearm. 'You've got courage, Holy One. Follow me.'

They wedged the ladder into a higher set of eaves to get from the storehouse up onto the warehouse roof proper. He tried not to let his weight drag on the rope, but as they bellied up to the peak of the roof, he slipped twice and she dug in her toes and halted his fall. Once at the peak it was easier to move sideways to the far end of the warehouse.

Like the other quarters, Stone Quarter was laid out in blocks, each block made up of compounds, one vast architecture of roofs crammed in against each other except for the occasional courtyards associated with artisans' and guild workshops and the six temple grounds. Tonight, not even one paper lantern was hung out under eaves to illuminate the walkways below. No street vendors sold noodles or soup; no apprentices staggered drunkenly down the avenues roaring popular melodies.

They reached the warehouse's edge just above an archway whose span bridged the avenue below to reach the roofs on the other side of the street. 'Hold on, ver. This part is tricky.'

'We're going across?'

'We are. I'm taking you to your temple. But you'll have to help me find it once we get down on the streets.'

'The soldiers will arrest us for being out after curfew. You're not local, I can hear it. They'll cleanse you.'

'They won't catch us.'

She let herself down the pitch, then helped him negotiate a pair of drops that brought them to the span. It was a festival arch, sturdy enough. In daylight it would be seen to be painted a brilliant yellow, but the shadows were kind and it was not difficult to

scoot across with a leg on either side of the peak. They were about halfway across when the woman slumped against the tiles. Feet shuffled and slapped on the street below. He flattened himself as lantern light bobbed into view. Soldiers drove a mob of folk down the avenue. Many of the prisoners were sobbing; others trudged silently, heads bowed. A few called out.

'At least allow us to gather our belongings before you expel us! We never did anything wrong!'

'Please let me return and get my children! They'll starve. You can't be so heartless.'

'Sheh!' The swaggering man at the front barked a laugh. 'They break curfew, and yet they complain about usV

'They could have stayed in their villages instead of running to the city, eh?' agreed another soldier. 'Makes 'em look like they have something to hide, I reckon.'

A man broke, making a dash toward the alley snaking away behind the warehouse compound. While the forward contingent of soldiers pressed the rest of the group onward, three others went running after the fleeing man. So no one looked up as the crowd passed under the arch and down the avenue into a night illuminated only by the lanterns carried by the soldiers.

From the alley, a man's screams rose, then failed abruptly.

After a moment, the three soldiers trotted out of the alley and hurried under the arch after the others, chortling and boasting as if they hadn't just killed a man.

'So I said, "You've not fattened up that veal yet." Heh. That's when I called you two over. We'd have given that foreign slave something to trim his pinched face, eh? Thinking he had the right to say no to us, eh! If sergeant hadn't called up formation just right then, I'd've bust him down.'

A comrade answered. 'You report him? That you saw an out-lander, I mean?'

'Sure I did, but I got no coin because their tent wasn't there no more when I led the captain over that way. I wonder what happened to that lot of young whores.'

'If they tried to set up in the city, they'll just be thrown out, neh? Like the rest of these gods-rotted refugees.'

Their laughter faded into the gloom.

His shoulders throbbed and his ankle burned, and he was furious and shaking, but he crept after his companion to the next roof and after that to another, the huge rations warehouse

overlooking Terta Square. There, arms hugging the roof ridge-line, they rested.

The square was lit by lanterns fixed on poles. Directly opposite, the temple dedicated to Kotaru was flanked on one side by a militia barracks brimful with enemy soldiers and on the other by a fire station left without a night guard except for its loyal dog. The rest of the square's frontage was taken up by several large inns and substantial emporia now shuttered and dark. There were four wells sunk into the center, guarded by a contingent of soldiers. A long line of people still waited outside the Thirsty Saw, guarded by yet more soldiers. Several shuffled in through the door while, from the alley that led into the back courtyard of the inn where he had seen the Guardian, ten or more hapless folk came staggering out into the square clutching their left forearms. These refugees were prodded into line. Over in the gloom by the alley entrance lay a pair of discarded bodies.

'How do we get to your temple from here? Which street?'

'Lumber Avenue. Who are you?'

'I am a spy. Not from around here.'

'That I can hear in your speech. Yet there are people who sell information or their services to the army, in exchange for coin or preference or safety.'

'True enough, Holy One. But I'm not one of them.' He sensed a smile from her tone. 'I need something from you I can't get from the army.'

'This reminds me of an episode from a tale, verea. Cruel soldiers. A chatty, attractive spy. A decrepit man of middling years.'

'How do you know I'm attractive, Holy One?'

'You've held me close a time or two as we've made our way here. I know the feel of a shapely female body. I'm not dead. Yet.'

Her body shook with suppressed laughter. 'Then we'll hope for a happy ending as in the tale, eh?'

He smiled but could not sustain it. 'How can I trust you?'

'How can any of us trust, in days like these with an army rampaging down the length of the River Istri, burning and killing as they go? Just like in ancient days, as it says in the Tale of the Guardians: "Long ago, in the time of chaos, a bitter series of wars, feuds, and reprisals denuded the countryside and impoverished the lords and guildsmen and farmers and artisans of the Hundred."'

Nekkar mumbled the next line reflexively, overcome with bit-

ter memory of the Guardian he had met. ' " In the worst of days, an orphaned girl knelt at the shore of the lake sacred to the gods and prayed that peace might return to her land."'

Below, soldiers whipped the detainees out of the square as those in line watched helplessly, unable to flee or to fight.

'I'm a hierodule,' whispered the spy. 'An assassin, sent from the south. I mean to kill Lord Radas, who walks in the guise of a Guardian wearing a cloak of sun. He commands this army. If we can cut off its head, then we can hope the body will die. Will you and your people help me?'

Her words struck him harder than the blows that had felled him. 'Is this even possible? Guardians can reach into your mind and heart and know what it is you intend. I have faced one. I could hide nothing from her.'

'I will do it, because I must.'

She was so sure of herself! Not in a boasting way, but in the way master carpenters surveyed roofs and made pronouncements about what it would take to fix them.

'And when Lord Radas is dead, the soldiers and their captains and sergeants will run away and we'll go back to how it was before?' he asked wryly.

For a while, the assassin remained silent. When she spoke, her words weighed heavily in the humid night air.

'There comes a time when change overtakes the traveler, as it says in the Tale of Change. Hard to say what lies beyond the next threshold. We must be ready for anything.' She brushed her fingers over his hand as a young woman might greet her uncle, not sexually but affectionately. 'I'm called Zubaidit.'

The gesture sealed his heart. 'Very well, Zubaidit. Our resources are limited, but if you can get me back to the temple alive, I'll do what I can to help you.'

'My thanks. Tell me one thing, Holy One. Have you heard they are searching particularly for anyone?'

'Indeed, yes. I heard it from the mouth of a Guardian, wearing a cloak of night. She seeks the gods-touched, and outlanders.'

Her body tensed. 'Would you hide a gods-touched outlander, Holy One? If I brought such a one to you?'

He thought of the man killed in the alley because he had tried to run away to find his children. He thought of the dead in the courtyard of the Thirsty Saw and those being dragged away for cleansing. He considered his apprentices and envoys, whom he

must protect. The army would come round and take a hostage soon enough. But his temple had no protection if they thought to trust to the whims of those who held the whips.

'I will do what I can. That's all I can offer. I'm Nekkar, by the way. We can't climb roofs all the way to the temple. How do you mean to get me home when I can barely limp along?'

'Wait here for as long as it takes to chant the episode of Foolish Jothinin from the tale of the Silk Slippers. After that, move down to the alley behind this warehouse. You keep the rope. Stay on the lowest roof. Do you see it, there?'


'Be ready to move.'

She slid backward. Nekkar heard faint scrapes, and even that slight noise faded beneath the buzz of soldiers chatting and folk shifting and coughing and crying in despair. A guard slapped a kneeling woman until she struggled to her feet. From off over in another quarter of the city, dogs started barking, and an outcry rose into the night like so many wildings on a howl, as it said in the tales. Soldiers tensed. A man trotted out of the inn and cast his gaze toward the sky, but not — thank the Herald! — toward the rations-warehouse roof.

After an intense shower of noise, the storm of distant trouble quieted, the soldiers relaxed, and the man shook his head and strode back inside as the people in line extended hands toward him like beggars hoping for a handout. His soldiers used the hafts of spears to push them back.

The tale! He murmured the chant under his breath. Wind breathed over the square, marred by a tincture of smoke.

'The brigands raged in,

they confronted the peaceful company seated at their dinner,

they demanded that the girl be handed over to them.

All feared them. All looked away.

Except foolish Jothinin, light-minded Jothinin,

he was the only one who stood up to face them,

he was the only one who said, "No."'

It was one of his favorite episodes, even if it took place in the city of Nessumara, which claimed to be most important of cities in the Hundred when everyone knew Toskala was the holy crossroads of the land, keeper of Law Rock itself. All those

apprenticed to Ilu loved the tale, since Jothinin had been an envoy of Ilu, although not a very good one. His hands twitched, wanting to sketch the tale as the words flowed, but he dared not move, not even at the dramatic conclusion when Jothinin's brave stand was all that prevented the innocent girl from being slain as, with his lengthy speech, the envoy roused the populace into the revolt that would overthrow the rule of brigands and restore the law. His final silence, the gaps in the chant where his words would have gone were he not dying from stab wounds, always made Nekkar's eyes mist over.

The wind turned. He licked his lips, feeling the greasy taste of scorched oil on the air. What was he thinking, to put the apprentices and envoys at risk? How could this self-confessed 'assassin' possibly get him back to the temple with the city under curfew?

Screams burst as fire blazed up in the upper story of the closed emporium on the opposite side of the square. He stared in awe and horror as the people in the square cried out, as soldiers grabbed buckets stored in the fire station. Stone Quarter could burn down! Everyone was running, most for the fire station, setting up lines at the wells, while others dashed away into the darkness of back streets, escaping while they had the chance. The fire bell atop Law Rock clanged in the distance.

Obviously this was a diversion! Time to go.

He scraped palms as he scrabbled for purchase on the tiles, jamming his right leg as he barely caught the gutter instead of tumbling over the drop. Pain stabbed through his left ankle, blinding him. Then he breathed out of it and found the strength to heave himself onto the lower roof and roll to lie precariously along the edge.

'Holy One?' Her voice drifted up from the alley below him.

His anger blazed. 'It could burn down the entire quarter. What of the poor folk who own that shop, whose entire livelihood is going up in flames?'

'Their goods had already been looted.' The assassin's voice was staggering in its calm intensity. 'Anyway, that fire is nothing to what I've seen this army do, and what worse things they'll do if they're not stopped. Now is the time to go, if you mean to come with me, Holy One.'

She was right.

When he threw his legs over and eased himself down, bruised

arms and shoulders screaming at the effort, she caught him. He showed her the way, and she supported him through the empty night streets as the fire drew the attention of the army. Past Lele Square, they reached the temple gate, locked and barred, but the dogs whined to alert the night guard and the small gate was cracked open to allow him in.

She waved him on.

'You're not coming in?'

'Neh. I must retrieve my comrade. We'll return tomorrow night or the next. Watch for us, Holy One.'

Then she was gone into the night, and the gate was closed and barred behind him. As he limped into the dark courtyard, all the envoys and every apprentice flooded out of the sleeping house, crowding him, touching him, weeping with relief, until he thought he would faint for needing to sit down. He was bereft of speech. The fire bell had ceased ringing. Smoke scented the air. One of the night guards called down from the sentry post: 'Looks like it's stopped spreading!'

Vassa pushed her way through the acolytes with sharper words than he had ever heard from one who was always gentle. When she shone lamplight in his face, everyone gasped.

'Gather a few things and sit out here in the courtyard until we know the danger is passed,' she said to the envoys and apprentices. 'Kellas, haul out the litter in case we must carry the ostiary.'

'I can walk-' Nekkar croaked, and put his weight on his twisted ankle. The light hazed. The world spun. Many arms took hold of him and lifted him.

'You'll take a wash and some poultices for your injuries, some food and tea, and then you'll lie down.'

'I must talk to you-'

'Yes,' Vassa agreed, and he realized in a distant way that she was trying not to cry. 'Here, you lads, carry him.'

He was too weary and too much in pain to struggle. Tomorrow or the next night, the assassin had said. Tomorrow would be soon enough to see what trouble he had called down on the temple. They had to be ready for anything.


Don't open the gate.

That was the last thing Zubaidit had said to Shai before leaving on her spying expedition yesterday. Now it was dawn, Bai hadn't returned, and someone was rapping hard on the nailed-together planks set against a gap in the abandoned storeroom in which he had slept.

'Open up!'

'The whole compound looks abandoned to me.'

'The dog thinks otherwise.'

A dog snuffled along the exterior of the planks. Shai tucked his sword along his torso and slid a hiltless knife into a sheath cut into the leather of his boots just as the soldiers kicked down the planks. Shards Splintered.

He pretended he was just waking up. He'd successfully played stupid before. 'Eh, ver. Eh. You frightened me.'

Burly soldiers prodded spears in his direction. 'Heya, Sergeant! Got an outlander here. Whew! He stinks.'

'That's because we're in an old tanning yard, you imbecile,' came the reply. 'Bring him out.'

'Out!' They treated him as they might a dog whose temperament was chancy.

'Eh, ver, Mistress told me to wait here for her. She'll whip me if I leave.'

'Our orders are to kill anyone who disobeys.'

'Maybe he can't understand you,' said the second man.

Shai had already cut a hiding place for his sword into the foundation. He rolled over the sword, shoved it into the gap, and covered it as he kept talking. 'Please don't hurt me, ver. My mistress, she said she would whip me. Please don't.'

He crawled on hands and knees, feeling the points of the spears like stinging scorpions along his back, but once he got outside into the colorless dawn, the soldiers drew a step back and let him stand. He shook out his loose trousers, flicked dust from the sleeveless leather vest that covered his chest, and wiped a smear of dust from his lips. This tannery compound hadn't been used for some time, and lay far enough away from Toskala that Bai had

thought it safe to use as a hiding place. But every structure in this entire area where the camp followers had set up days ago was being searched and their occupants driven outside and rounded up. Women were arguing, children crying, old men fumbling as they tried to keep their bundled possessions slung over thin shoulders.

As they came into the disrupted camp, a sergeant trotted over to look him up and down. 'An outlander, all right! Look at those arms!'

'Mistress said to wait for her here, ver.'

'And where is she, your mistress, eh?' demanded the sergeant.

'Out in the camp, ver. She always goes out at night.'

'A whore, eh?' cackled one of the soldiers. 'I wonder what she wants a slave for, if she can get men to pay for it?'

The other soldier poked Shai with the haft of his spear. 'He's got no slave mark. What if he's concealing a weapon beneath that vest or trousers.'

'Fancy a look, do you, Milas?' said the first soldier.

'Shut it,' barked the sergeant. 'Milas is right. Get that vest off.'

In the Hundred, folk walked about with a great deal of skin uncovered, while Shai still felt awkward about his bare arms. So his embarrassment made him slow, and the soldiers got more threatening, others circling in, attracted by the commotion. The light rose from gray to a pearly pink. Overhead, clouds chased the wind north.

Shai was strong from years of carpentry, and lean from the recent weeks of privation. He kept his head bent, knowing he was blushing as he stripped off the vest.

'Sheh! Reason enough, neh?' Milas laughed once Shai stood with with vest hanging from his right hand. 'Cursed if those camp women aren't staring and licking their lips. You want us to strip him all the way, Sergeant? A nice show for the lasses and such lads as are fashioned that way, neh?'

The sergeant had already turned away. 'This is taking too long. A cloak will sort this out. Bring him.' He raised his voice. 'Let's get this camp cleared.'

Shai pulled on the vest as he shuffled over to join the rest of the detainees. He kept his head deferentially lowered as he scanned the encampment: canvas tents and lean-tos, tiny huts precariously assembled out of scraps of wood. A few abandoned structures like the old tannery in which he had slept gave the temporary camp a look of ruined permanence, and the clotheslines where rags

Happed and the stink of the crudely dug refuse pits reminded him of certain neighborhoods in faraway Kartu Town where the outcast and the poor had barely scraped by living in their own filth. The Qin conquerors had forced gangs of townspeople to raze such compounds and build blocks of more sanitary housing, easy to police and control.

But he had left Kartu Town. He no longer lived under the suzerainty of the Qin. He had come to the Hundred together with a troop of exiled Qin soldiers only to find himself in the middle of a chaotic internal war. He and Zubaidit had been sent north with five others to spy out the enemy, and now, of course, he'd gotten himself captured.


The soldiers herded the group along a barrier of wagons that marked off the edge of the army's main camp. An early wind teased trampled ground where draft beasts and horses grazed. In the days since Toskala had fallen, much of the army had taken up stations within the city, leaving the camp followers to starve because the soldiers could get food and miscellaneous goods as well as repair work done elsewhere. Some had drifted away into the countryside. Now, it seemed, the commanders of the army meant to sweep up and dispose of the rest.

'Heya! I walked all the way from Walshow, feeding the army. What am I to do?' called a man hauling a cart laden with the pans and tripods of a movable kitchen. Beside him, a boy bent double under the weight of a bundle of goods, his left eye scarred with the mark of a debt slave.

A young woman, red-eyed from weeping, kept trying to get the attention of a pair of soldiers who resolutely refused to look her way. She held an infant wrapped in a decent piece of cloth that matched the green scarf she had wrapped around her hair. 'Where's Joran? Why hasn't he come back for me and the baby, like he promised?'

Shai hung back until he was at the tail of the crowd, the dust kicked up by their feet smearing his tongue. After months of regular rain, it had not rained in three days, and the churned-up ground had dried. Off to the left sprawled the city, too big to comprehend in one glance. It was marked most obviously by a huge rock outcropping thrust up where the River Istri and the Lesser Istri had their confluence. There, during the day, the giant eagles ridden by reeves landed and took off. A pillar of smoke drifted

above one quarter of the city, losing coherence as the wind tore at it.

'Keep moving!' A soldier prodded Shai while speaking to his own comrade. 'Milas says this one's got muscles like you wouldn't believe. A real woodchopper!' They both laughed, as if the word meant something different.

'Where's the outlander?' Shai recognized the sergeant's voice. 'Move him out separate.'

'What are we doing with the rest of them, Sergeant? That poor lass. Joran did promise to take care of her and the baby, but I hear he got assigned guard duty at the lord commander's headquarters.'

'Not our problem. Our orders is to clear the camp and cleanse those who give us trouble. Anyway, the girl was stupid for leaving her village to follow him. She can walk home. If Joran cares about her, he'll fetch her when the campaign is over.'

By now the detained camp followers numbered in the hundreds, and those at the front began wailing as they neared the road. Poles lined the road up to the city gates, bodies strung up by their arms on at least a third of them. Living people, some still struggling as they tried to relieve the pressure on their arms, some with broken legs unable to carry any weight. Flies swarmed on the faces of hanging folk helpless to swipe them away.

Hu! Not even the Qin conquerors were that cruel. They had executed criminals and traitors and, indeed, anyone they deemed a threat for whatever reason they cared to name, but they killed them first and hung their bodies out as a warning after.

A captain rode his horse along the road, surveying the poles, both the unadorned and those ornamented with the dying and the dead. Shai could not help but criticize his uneasy seat in the saddle, a man come late to riding to whom the gelding was merely a badge of authority. He lacked the Qin grace on horseback. He preened, relishing his power, as he looked over the frightened faces gazing up at him.

'Orders have come down from the commanders,' he shouted, his voice raspy. No doubt a captain of an army that is imposing its control over a hostile city had good reason to go hoarse from shouting. Shai held his position at the back of the crowd, but the sergeant kept staring right at him. 'You lot are to return to your homes. The army has no more need of you.'

A chorus of protests rose: 'You can't dump us-!' 'We walked all that way with you-' 'How are we to live-?'

The captain rode to the front of the crowd, drew his sword as folk shrieked and pressed back, and cut down the lass with the infant. She died without a sound, collapsing into a heap with the baby in her arms. Her ghost emerged with startling swiftness as a mist exhaled from her nostrils. Her ghostly fingers plucked at the squalling baby as she cried in a voice only Shai could hear.

'Help my baby, please! I beg you!'

Ghosts may be warned by senses other than sight and hearing. With a terrible shriek she flung her essence uselessly at the captain as he casually leaned down and stabbed the infant, like piercing a haunch of uncooked meat once, twice, and a third time.

Folk scattered away, screaming, but the soldiers drove them back together like so many stampeding sheep rounded up and confined before slaughter. The cursed sergeant grabbed Shai's arm, his smile that of a man who has seen his dinner waiting and knows it'll be tasty.

'Don't try to run, ver.'

'Silence!' shouted the captain. Soldiers plied the flats of their swords like clubs until the crowd huddled in submissive fear. Many had dropped their goods, leavings scattered: a ladle here and a sieve there, a tangle of leather cords crushed into the dirt, and a forlorn dog cowering. In the turmoil, the ghosts had vanished.

'You were allowed to follow the army from Walshow on sufferance. Now you are no longer needed. Go home. Any found by day's end within sight of the city will be cleansed, I promise you.'

He reined aside as the soldiers formed a barrier between the city and the crowd and waited sullenly for the camp followers to accept the inevitable and start moving off.

The sergeant hailed the captain. 'Captain Dessheyi, we found an outlander.'

The captain rode over, the horse skittish with the crowd seething so close by. 'So I see, Sergeant. Good work. I'll take him.'

'There's a reward for outlanders, Captain. If I might say so. I found him.'

'Did you? Or did some of your men roust him out, and now you take credit for it? Very well. There's a cloak at the city gates. Take him there.'

He should have run at the first sign of trouble. Now it was too late. Some called the cloaks 'Guardians,' saying they were holy guardians of justice sent to the Hundred by the gods long ago. But

Shai figured they were demons. Of the four he had encountered, one was a horrible pervert. Another had taken on the form and face of a dead slave girl Shai had once owned, and she had easily killed an entire cadre of the enemy before allowing Shai and the children he was caring for to walk free. The third had seemed harmless enough, a middle-aged man dressed in a blue cloak who talked too much. The fourth had been his dead brother Hari's ghost.

The commander of this army, Lord Radas, was one of these demons, the very man Zubaidit had been sent north to assassinate. So this was Shai's chance to be more than the least and last of seven brothers, the least and last of the Qin tailmen. This was his chance to prove himself.

'Glad it's not me has to face a cloak,' muttered Milas as the cadre marched Shai up onto the road toward Toskala. Outside the city walls, houses rose in village blocks linked by paths to the city, although the folk who lived there had fled. Every patch of ground was cultivated, rice fields, vineyards, vegetable gardens, wheat. Mulberry trees lined the irrigation ditches that crossed the area. Farther out along the Lesser Istri spread compounds like the abandoned tannery he had hidden in, anything that stank too much to be allowed within the environs of the city.

Gangs of workers tended the fields under guard by cadres from the army. Ten heavily laden wagons rolled past. A steady stream of people trudged out of the city on footpaths, more refugees to join the banished camp followers. It was a pleasant morning for walking, as long as you didn't think about the dead and dying people hanging from posts.

When their cadre reached the gate, they found a line of detainees waiting beyond the gatehouse under the supervision of bored soldiers.

'Heya!' called the sergeant, seeking out the captain in charge. 'I've got an outlander. Can I take him forward?'

This captain had a lean, watchful face and enough arrogance to make you blink. 'Get in line with the rest.'

'These lot aren't outlanders!'

'I'm pleased you can tell the difference. Everyone here has to be judged for one reason or another, so get in line. You're not the only one who's brought in an outlander. I'll call you forward in due time.'

They waited the rest of the morning. Shai measured the height

of the walls, the speed and frequency of traffic — all as Tohon had taught him — but after a while he began to think his efforts pointless. The soldiers stood, or sat, or went to relieve themselves; two mounted an expedition for food and returned some time later with a heaping bowl of noodles that they shared out between them. Shai got nothing. His stomach rumbled with hunger, but he'd endured worse and, even so, he had never suffered the abuses forced on the children he'd been held captive with for many weeks. Had Eridit and the others found Tohon? Had their party reached Nessumara safely? He murmured a prayer to the Merciful One: Shower mercy over them; protect them; grant them refuge. But he had no offering gift except the pain and fear and grief in his heart.

Clouds gave intermittent protection from the sun. It was not as steamy as it had been earlier in the year. The season was changing. Having grown up in a distant land where the round of the year was utterly predictable, he could not hope to know what this new season would bring. He considered the knife concealed within his boot and offered a brief prayer to the Merciful One: Let them not search me.

Was Lord Radas himself conducting interrogations?

'Heya!' The familiar voice jolted him. 'What are you lot doing with my slave, eh?' Zubaidit strolled up in her tight sleeveless vest, her kilt swinging with each twitch of her shapely hips.

'So you're the whore,' said the sergeant with a laugh.

'I'll thank you not to use that insulting word, Sergeant. I'm an honest merchant.'

'Taking coin for sex is not honest work,' said Milas with a sneer.

She looked him up and down until he blushed. 'Like you never paid? Just how long have you been marching with the army, ver? Or do you sharpen your tool yourself?' His comrades laughed. 'You lot scorn the Devouring temples, so I figure that gives us something in common.' A medallion in the shape of an eight-pointed star hung by a leather thong around her neck, just like the ones worn by all the soldiers. 'Can I have my slave back? I'll make it worth your while.'

The sergeant placed himself between her and Shai. 'Listen, verea. You look like a tasty morsel, that's for sure. You've got the look of a hierodule.'

'I was a hierodule, truly, until I left, because the old bitch of a

hieros kicked me out.' She was a bold woman who knew how to attract the eye, but Shai recognized the strength in her shoulders and the taut muscular grace of her legs, signs the soldiers ignored in favor of the sexual charms she flaunted to put them off their guard.

The sergeant grinned in reply. 'Well, lass, I don't like to be the one bearing bad news, but all you camp followers have been told to get out. Any one of you found within sight of the city by day's end will be cleansed.' With a jerk of his chin, he indicated the poles lining the road, an avenue of death.

Zubaidit did not even look at the suffering. 'Whew! That's cold comfort for those who served the army all this way. You lot figuring to settle in here? Else who will help you on your further campaigns?'

'Not my problem. It may be those bed warmers who have pleased the officers get dispensation to stay with the army, but I wouldn't take my chances even on that. We saw a soldier's favorite lass with a baby born of his getting, cut down by Captain Dessheyi just for being in his way. Why don't you get on, then? No cause to get yourself in trouble, eh?'

She regarded him with a quizzical look, a moment of sympathy, perhaps, or something more complicated. Then the expression vanished, and the mocking smile reappeared. 'I'll just take my slave and get out of here.'

'Neh, can't let you do that. How'd you afford a brawny lad like this, anyway?'

'He was cheap. He's dumb as an ox. That's what I call him, anyway. Ox.'

Shai took the hint. 'Mistress, I waited for you. Then they made me go. They're taking me to see some fancy cloth. I tried to wait, Mistress. Please don't whip me.'

The soldiers snickered.

Bai's smile was its own whip. 'Are you sure it's worth wasting the time of your, interrogator, Sergeant? You see what I mean.'

'There's a reward if we bring in outlanders.'

'Eiya! I thought no one cared for outlanders here. I've been trying to hire him out for the novelty of it, but he's too cursed stupid to know what to do with women, or with men, for that matter. I think he can only tup sheep.'

That got them roaring. Shai was just grateful there were no sheep around, lest they amuse themselves by suggesting he perform.

'Heya!' The captain in charge of the line beckoned. 'Sergeant! Come.'

'You can't just steal him from me like that,' objected Bai.

'Go back to your village and get yourself a respectable shop or a respectable husband,' said the sergeant in a manner meant to be kindly. 'You don't want to find yourself like that lass and her infant babe who are dead.'

Bai did not protest as they led him away. She could not. Anyway, they both knew he had to take a chance at the cloak.

At the gatehouse, coin changed hands, and the sergeant and his cadre took off, happy to be rid of him. He was shoved down a corridor and fetched up in a spacious courtyard between high walls where a horse grazed on a patch of grass. Cloth had been strung along rope to conceal one half of the courtyard. The sun's light revealed three figures against the cloth: one kneeling abjectly and one waiting with a soldier's alert posture over to the side, half turned away. The third man stood with a slumped tilt to broad shoulders Shai thought he recognized.

'Please, I beg you.' By the motion of clasped hands, Shai guessed it was the kneeling figure who spoke. It was painful to hear a man reduced to such wretched sobs. 'You've seen into my very heart, you know all my secrets. It wasn't my choice to hide those barrels of wine, nor the ale. It was my sister. It was her idea!'

The third man slapped a hand to his head in an exaggerated gesture Shai had seen before. 'Of all things, I detest folk who betray their own to protect themselves. Sniveling, selfish bastard.'

The sound of that voice knifed into Shai's heart.

'I might have seen fit to show mercy to a merchant who, not unreasonably, sought to salvage some of his goods rather than see them looted. But to blame your own sister, when you and I know perfectly well that you told her to do it — sheh!'

The Hundred word — for shame! — fell easily from those lips, and Shai shuddered as, his strength failing him, he dropped to his knees.

'Captain Arras, take this one away for cleansing. Quickly. He stinks.'

'Can't we just execute him, my lord?'

'I have to throw them a few bones, you know that. He disgusts me. Just take him.'

The condemned man shrieked and struggled as soldiers entered

from the other side and dragged him out past Shai. Past the briefly opened curtain, Shai saw a trim man of military bearing, the same watchful captain from the line. The captain lifted hands to shield his face, turning to face the third figure, still concealed as the cloth slithered down to seal away the area.

'They've brought the outlander, as you commanded, my lord.'


A brown hand pulled aside the cloth. A man emerged from behind the curtain, dressed in the local fashion and wearing a cloak for the rains. Shai had been little more than a boy when, six years ago, his favorite brother had been marched in chains out of Kartu Town, a prisoner of the Qin conquerors.

Hari was dead. Yet here he stood, looking at Shai with a well-known and much-loved sardonic smile on his blessedly familiar face.

'Hello, little brother,' Hari's ghost said, smile lingering. 'You've grown up.'

Nekkar was slumbering fitfully when Vassa woke him, her worried expression illuminated by the lamp she carried.

'She's here.'

A deep bruise in his right hip made it difficult to stand, even leaning on a crutch, the effect made worse because his swollen left ankle throbbed if he rested any weight on it. But he limped out to the porch to find one of the night guards standing nervously behind the assassin. She was younger than he had imagined.


'Holy One.' She assisted him with strong arms to settle onto a pillow.

Vassa sat down on his other side, smiling in a way he knew meant she was reserving judgment. She set down the lamp on the planks. 'Kellas, bring what remains of the warmed khaif.'

The lad, hovering since Nekkar had fainted the night before, ran off.

'A humble cottage for an ostiary,' remarked the assassin pleasantly as they waited. 'Another person of your rank might insist on more ostentation.'

Vassa snorted, but she unbent slightly.

'I serve Ilu. Not wealth and the fickle opinion of those who care about such displays.'

She chuckled in a way he found endearing. 'An honest acolyte! Not as common a treasure in these days as we might hope.'

'That's as may be, verea. We could chatter on in this vein for half the night and would be considered polite for doing so. I beg your pardon. You said you had an associate. A gods-touched out-lander. Where he is?'

'Taken prisoner.' Her words were clipped.

'How did it happen?' asked Vassa sharply.

'I blame myself. I should have sent him away when I had the chance, because he lacks training, but he is gods-touched and therefore I thought I could use him to fulfill my mission. While I was here exploring Toskala, the army decided to send away the camp followers. He was caught in the sweep.'

'Saving me, you lost him.'

She shrugged with an angry lift of her chin. 'We can't know it would have fallen out differently had I not saved you, Holy One.'

Kellas appeared out of the darkness with a tray. Vassa served the spy with her own hands, a courtesy Nekkar observed with interest. Something in the woman's confession had earned Vassa's sympathy, and he trusted his lover's instincts for people more than his own.

He took his cup, sipped at the pungent sludge that had come from the bottom of the pot, and set it down with a grimace. 'We have seen many troubling and terrible things in recent days.'

She drained her own cup without answering.

'Bring nai porridge as well, whatever's left in the pot,' said Vassa to the lad, 'and make sure Odra keeps the rest of the apprentices down on their pallets.'

'Yes, Auntie.' Kellas trotted off. The night guard remained out of sight in the darkness.

'What will you do?' Nekkar asked.

'Go on with the mission. I waited as long as I could by the city gate after they took him inside, but I never saw him brought out and hanged. So maybe he is dead by other means. Or maybe he has succeeded beyond my expectations. I may never know. Such is war.'

'What do you want of us?' Vassa asked, and in her tone Nekkar heard a tincture of weariness: it got so tiring to have to be suspicious of everyone. Sometimes you had to trust as an act of hope.

'Is there any possible way you can get me up to the reeves on rhe rock and back down again without being caught?'

'Up to Law Rock and Justice Square?' The words startled him. 'No. The thousand steps are blocked by a rockfall. If you don't have wings, there's no other route beyond the provisions baskets, and I'm sure they're winched safely up top. The army must have a blockade at the base of both routes — basket and steps — to guard against folk down here sending weapons or food up in aid of the reeves.'

Vassa folded her arms over her chest. 'What message have you for the reeves? Or for us, for that matter? We're forced to abide by curfews. We're promised the markets will be allowed to open under strict supervision if we obey. Yet this morning word came by street crier that every house, clan, and guild compound will be required to give up coin and storehouse goods to the army, and a hostage as well, one from each household, clan, guild, and even the temples.'

'Just as the Guardian commanded,' murmured Nekkar.

Zubaidit whistled. 'That's a heavy tax.'

'Theft can be weathered, if one is willing to tighten one's belt through the lean months to come.' Vassa broke off as Kellas hurried up with a covered bowl, set it down in front of the assassin, and retreated. Zubaidit set a hand on the cover and, trembling, drew it back.

'Go on,' said Vassa, voice gentling. As a cook, she could not bear to see people suffer from hunger.

'My thanks, verea.' She dug in with a will, devouring half the porridge before she forced herself to stop and let it settle. 'My apologies.'

'How long has it been since you've eaten?' demanded Vassa.

'It doesn't matter. Listen, Holy One. Verea.' She gestured with the spoon in the direction of the gates. The wick whispered as it consumed the reservoir of oil. 'The army intends to march downriver and attack Nessumara. They'll leave a garrison to defend their interests in the city.'

'We could fight them if there are only a few!' cried Kellas from the end of the porch.

'Apprentice, it will be bed for you if you can't keep silence,' said Nekkar, although it was difficult not to chuckle at the lad's enthusiasm. Her words likewise set his own heart hammering. He turned to the assassin. 'Could we fight?'

'It is a risk to leave Toskala with only a garrison to control it. That must be why they are taking hostages to march south with

the main army. Such hostages can be cleansed if anyone in Toskala rebels.'

'The hells!' murmured Vassa.

The pain in his body swelled tenfold, as if he were thrown once again into the courtyard of the Thirsty Saw to face the Guardian's penetrating gaze. 'Of course no one will dare attack the garrison if they fear for the lives of their kinsfolk. Aui!'

'I need to let my allies know of this, as well as other observations I've made. Can you get me up the rock?' She looked at Vassa. 'For I think you know something, verea, that you're not saying.'

'Vassa?' he said, indignantly. 'Do you know something you've not shared with me?'

She patted him on the knee. 'You are not my husband, to be privy to my clan's secrets. Nor are you local, Nekkar. You've only lived in Toskala thirty years. I was born here.' She leaned forward to regard the assassin with a stare from which the other woman did not flinch. 'To help you puts us in deadly danger. We must live here while you will leave.'

'A fair concern, verea,' replied the spy, 'so I'll offer you a trade. Help me get a message to the reeves. When it comes time for your clan, or this temple, to hand over a hostage to the army, I'll go in place of one of your own. If I can't reach Lord Radas here, I have to go with the army. This is my chance. What do you say, verea?'

'Eat the rest of that porridge before it congeals,' said Vassa, in that way she took with the apprentices, to whom she was devoted although she lived in the compound next door and spent most of her day cooking for her clan of mat makers.

Zubaidit ate slowly with an effort that made it clear she was starving.

'They'll notice her southern way of talking at once,' said Nekkar, not sure whether to laugh at the thought of sticking one in the eye of the army, or weep at the chance of disaster that might engulf them were they to be caught.

'I served Hasibal for my apprentice year with a troupe of festival entertainers,' Vassa said with a sweep of uplifted chin that captured their attention. Nekkar smiled to see her brightness come alive after so many days smothered in anguish. 'We'd have to stage it, like actors do over in Bell Quarter. My clan could let her pose as the southern bride of my nephew, gotten in a trade deal. We'd hold her back when the army comes round, make it

seem like he and all of us are besotted. Get them to choose you as if against our will. It would be tricky. Not least due to his charms. He's a handsome lad.'

'I'll take that risk, if I must.' Zubaidit grinned in a way that made Nekkar laugh softly.

'A hierodule, indeed,' he murmured.

'I serve the Merciless One,' she agreed. 'And the reeves?'

'I'll talk to my people,' said Vassa. 'And they'll talk to other people. It's dangerous, with this curfew, but there is one hidden path. Can you be patient, verea?'

'I can be as patient as I must be.'


Stuck all day up on Law Rock because Tumna was out on her hunting day, Nallo had had enough.

'Sit your stinking ass down and keep your mouth closed, ver.' The snap in her voice made the cursed merchant take a startled step backward, out of her face. 'I'm tired of hearing you complain, and so is everyone else, neh? You'll have your turn to get your rations and make your complaints when it comes to you.'

'I'm a respected guildsman! You've no right to talk to me in that way, some village girl thinking she's as good as me just because-'

'Just because I have an eagle that can rip your head off? End of the line, ver.'

Nallo signaled to the firefighters who made up what passed for a militia atop the rock. Using their fire hooks as prods, the young men chivvied the furious merchant out of his place and to the back as he protested in an obnoxious voice while onlookers smirked. He'd made no friends with his demands for special treatment.

She surveyed the folk waiting in line for their daily rations. 'We mean to hold Law Rock. So you've got to bide your time, do your part, accept your rations, keep calm. Those of you who can train to fight, will train. Those who are hoping for a lift off the rock will have to wait your turn.'

At the head of the line, on the long porch fronting the militia barracks where many of the stranded people slept, a shaven-

headed clerk sworn to Sapanasu the Lantern made a mark in her accounts book as the fire captain ladled out a ration of rice porridge to a woman with two children hanging on to her taloos. The clerk called for the next person in line, and bent forward to hear his name.

We're Toskala's last defenders, Nallo thought, and a sad herd of bleating goats we're proving to be.

The cadre sergeant beckoned. 'Heya, Nallo! You're called to a reeve's meeting.'

'Hold the line,' she said to him. 'Anyone who bawls out of turn gets sent to the back like that one. Better we had a sack of mildewed nai than him. At least we could dump the rotten nai on anyone trying to clear the steps.'

'Heh, that's a good one.' The firefighters liked her irritable temper and sharp tongue, although few others she'd known in her twenty years had appreciated it. 'Wish I'd seen your eagle rip the head off those men who killed the two eagles on Traitors' Night.'

But Nallo remembered how her friend Volias had dropped dead beside her in the instant his own eagle had expired. That her own eagle, Tumna, had slaughtered the murderers didn't make her feel better. 'I'd have ripped off the heads of those gods-rotted, hells-bound traitors if I'd gotten to them first.'

'Aui! I'll bet you would have!'

She trotted over to the gate that led into the reeve compound, where she found Pil waiting. She paced beside him into Clan Hall, an impressive complex with its skeletal watchtowers where eagles could perch, the two vast lofts for shelter, a long, narrow parade ground for training, and a sheltered garden tucked away behind it all near the edge of the cliff where the commander of Clan Hall had her office and chamber. The commander was dead, of course, murdered with so many others on the night they were all now calling 'Traitors' Night.' Odash, the old reeve who had acted for years as hall steward because he was too crippled to fly, had taken the cote's porch for his headquarters as he tried to keep Clan Hall functioning.

The forty-eight reeves remaining, not counting the four who were on patrol and the thirty-three who were in some stage of flying individual refugees down to Nessumara and returning with sacks of rice and nai, gathered in the commander's courtyard. Seventy-two fawkners, stewards, hirelings, and slaves were also

stuck up on the rock. Odash sat on a three-legged stool, looking as exhausted as ever.

He raised a hand and everyone quieted. 'We've held this rock ten days. We're helpless to stop the murders going on below. However, we've now established communications with the city, via the auxiliary basket on the north cliff. Yesterday a message was left in the basket. Here's the news: There's been extensive looting. The army is forcing all refugees to leave the city. Anyone who speaks out against the army, and people who have ties with militia or specific clans are executed immediately. A governing headquarters has been set up in Flag Quarter. Taxes are being levied compound by compound. Wherever weapons are found, they are confiscated. A curfew's been established. The markets are closed, and people are hungry.'

Pil made a gesture that caught Odash's notice.

'What is it, Pil?'

It wasn't easy for Pil to speak up, but he managed to force out words. 'The army wants to rule the city. If people have hunger and have fright, they then will obey the ones who rule, if they fear them.'

'That something your people used to do, out in foreign lands?' demanded one of the older reeves, a man named Vekess. He eyed Pil with suspicion.

'It is an effective method.'

Some of the reeves hissed, but Kesta moved closer to slap Pil on the shoulder. 'Cursed glad you're here with us, Pil. Gives us some insight into what these gods-rotted criminals might be doing.' She bent her fierce gaze on Odash.

The old reeve made a business of clearing his throat to focus attention back on himself. 'My contacts want to send a person up here to meet with us.'

'Could be a trap,' said Vekess.

'Cursed well could be, but there's little danger for us if we haul the contact up in the auxiliary basket. The one in the basket and those who must set him there are the ones who might be caught.'

'That's fair to let them take the risk,' said Vekess. 'They're more expendable than eagles.'

'Reeve Vekess is right,' said Pil unexpectedly. 'There are few eagles, and many people.'

At Vekess's flush, some chuckled. Pil's mouth quirked, as it did

when he was practicing archery and scored a solid stream of bull's-eyes.

'It's a fair argument,' agreed Odash. 'I'll give the signal. Expect someone to come up in the basket tonight.'

The meeting dissolved into the usual chorus of indignant comments and exchanges of angry recriminations, not for any of the assembled reeves, of course, but for the army, the traitors in Toskala who had opened the city gates to let in the enemy without a fight, the other reeve halls that had not responded to their pleas for help. The general disorganization of it all. A wind wafted the smell of rotting waste off the city; as the breeze turned, Nallo caught the sweet scent of the late-blooming vine roses growing in the troughs that rimmed the commander's cote. The sliding doors were closed tight. Odash slept on a pallet on the covered porch, like a dog waiting for its master to return. She couldn't decide whether she found it touching, or idiotic. Sheh! What was she thinking? He was doing his best, accustomed to carrying out the orders of a leader who had been horribly murdered just ten days ago.

'Heya!' Simultaneous shouts rose from the watchtowers. 'Eagles coming in.'

Reeves ran for the parade ground.

Kesta said, 'That's Peddo and Jabi. Aui! There's Scar!'

The eagles came in with wings outstretched and talons lifted, thumping onto the big perches in the middle of the parade ground. Unhooking, the reeves dropped from their harness and stepped out from under the shadow of the eagles.

Peddonon, grinning as usual, called out. 'Heya, Kesta! How'd you fare at Copper Hall?'

Her shrug was a negative. 'They arranged for us to get supplies off the local merchants. But they wanted us to retreat from here and reinforce them. So, we're on our own.'

'Iron Hall? Gold? Bronze? Are the reeves who flew there back yet?'

'Bronze Hall wouldn't even let our messenger meet with the marshal, just said they'd consider sending a legate, typical brush-off. Iron and Gold said they were too overstretched to spare even a single reeve to meet with us — but we're welcome to keep them up to date on our situation.'

Peddonon's grin widened. 'So I win! I told you he would come himself. What do you owe me?'

'A kick in the ass, just like always.'

The reeve sauntering forward beside Peddonon Nallo knew well enough, for he'd been the one who had first tried to coerce her into becoming a reeve, back when she'd been a refugee out on the roads. She had not understood then that no person chosen by an eagle had a choice about becoming a reeve. Nevertheless, he had handled it poorly, for all his charm.

He made a big show of greeting everyone, and truly everyone did know him; he'd left a posting at this hall to become marshal of Argent Hall in the southern Hundred less than a year ago.

'How are you faring?' He strolled up to her with an irritating smile on his handsome face. How she hated people who assumed you would be happy to see them just because they were so good-looking, even a man as old as he was, fully forty years if he was a day. 'It's Avisha, isn't it?'

'It's Nallo. Avisha is my stepdaughter. The pretty one.'

He blinked. 'That's right.' He laughed at his awkward words. 'I meant, that's right that you're Nallo and she's Avisha. She got married.'

Nallo flushed, thinking of poor Avisha, orphaned and kinless with two small siblings to protect and thereby having no better option than to marry one of the Qin soldiers because they were rich and without wives. 'I hope he'll treat her well.'

Pil said, 'Who chose her?'

'It doesn't work quite that way,' said the reeve, scratching his clean-shaven, noble chin. 'I've forgotten your name.'

'It's Pil, Marshal.'

'Pil. That's right. Men can offer, but it's the woman who must accept or refuse.'

'How likely is it that a woman will refuse if her entire clan insists?' asked Nallo curtly. 'How much of a choice does a poor woman have if she has only one offer?'

Marshal Joss's glance at her was keen. 'That's right. In this case, your pretty stepdaughter had more than one suitor. One was Chief Tuvi.'

Pil whistled under his breath, but said nothing.

'However, she chose a tailman. A decent fellow, everyone says.'

'Jagi,' said Pil, and an unexpected grin flashed.

Joss shrugged. 'I don't recall the name.' He smiled winningly again and walked over to greet Odash. The two men moved down the alley between barracks and storehouse toward the

commander's cote, and most of the reeves followed in a shuffling, uncertain crowd, not sure what to expect or what to do now that help had come from the south in the form of a single reeve known to be a drunk and a womanizer. Nallo walked to the gate, Pil pacing alongside her.

'Will he treat her and the children well?'

'He will.' The certainty in his tone brought tears to her eyes.

'Good, then. Good.'

She settled against one of the gateposts and, crossing her arms, stared out at Justice Square. The rations line had gotten shorter; about forty people, including the fuming merchant, waited to receive their portion. Others had retreated to the porches to sit in the shade. From the direction of the militia barracks came the call and clap of drill.

'Heya, Pil.' Kesta smiled, and settled in beside Nallo. 'They want you to report on the incident you observed on the river.'


'Now.' Her smile collapsed into a brooding frown as Pil strode off toward the commander's garden. She looked at Nallo. 'So here we stand, surrounded by countless enemies, plagued by self-important merchants, and hoping we can fly in enough food to keep us going while we stick it out here more for the show of the thing than for any purpose. Does Clan Hall even serve a purpose? Do the reeve halls want to work together to battle this army, or are they only going to look after themselves?'

'If they do that,' said Nallo, 'we'll fall one by one.'

'You don't need to tell me that. When the commander and senior reeves were murdered on Traitors' Night, I felt like the reeve halls were murdered, too. She did her best for all these years to be a fair and effective commander. Yet who now listens to Clan Hall? Why should they? We're as barren as a woman without a basket, as impotent as a man with no plow.'

'There has to be something we can do!' But in swiping strands of hair off her sweaty forehead, Nallo measured the fragility of her words, how they might penetrate the air with seeming force only to dissipate as if they had never been uttered. 'Maybe Marshal Joss can do something.'

Kesta mopped her own brow as in imitation of Nallo. 'So here we all wait to see what Joss will say and what Joss will do! Eiya! I don't know whether to laugh or to cry'

'We've been fortunate so far with the provisions from Nessumara,' Odash was saying as Joss picked up his cup of rice wine and, with a grimace, set it down without drinking. 'But it can't go on forever. We'll need another source of rice and nai. We've flown off forty-eight refugees, mostly children, but that still leaves us with one hundred and fifty-seven in the reeve hall, ninety-eight firefighters, militiamen, and ordinands, thirty-eight clerks of Sapanasu, and four hundred and sixty-three refugees from Toskala of whom two hundred and three have stated they are able and willing to join the defense of the rock.'

Joss turned the cup around. 'I'm not sure reprovisioning is our biggest problem. We can continue to delegate less experienced reeves to fly supply and take off the remaining refugees. As long as we are careful to ration the food strictly and control what numbers we allow to remain up here, we can hold the rock. The cisterns and the deep well will supply water indefinitely.'

'What do you think is our biggest problem?' Peddonon's earnest expression reflected all their worries.

'The top leadership and all their years of experience were wiped out ten days ago. Not to mention Volias dying like that. He may have been a prick, but he knew what he was doing.' He downed the rice wine in one gulp, feeling the burn, then wiped his mouth. 'That's one thing. The other is that the army took Toskala through treachery. We don't know who we can trust. Finally, setting aside the matter of what the enemy intends to do next, these demons who call themselves Guardians can fly onto this rock and kill any of us.'

'Do you think they're demons?' Odash asked.

'Captain Anji does. He's the outlander captain who saved Olossi. But I'm not sure he means the same thing by the word as we do. For myself, I don't know what to think.'

'It was swords killed all the men and women in the council hall on Traitors' Night,' said Odash.

'You're sure? In the tales it's said Guardians can kill with a word and a look alone.'

'The only survivor of the massacre was one of the traitors. She said the cloaks promised order and wealth to anyone who aided them. Afterward, the cloaks turned on the traitors who had done the dirty work of actually murdering the council, and killed them — with a look and a word, like in the tales.'

'Used and discarded! So the question is, why didn't the cloaks kill the council themselves? Can I interview this survivor?'

As Odash hesitated, all the others drained their cups. 'She threw herself off the promontory.'

'Eihi! Just like in the tale. What did she tell you?'

'Nothing but how if she'd known otherwise she wouldn't have done it, useless apologies, if you take my meaning. All I know is that she's from the Green Sun clan, and they all cleared out before the attack. If we can get more information from the city about what other clans cleared out, we might know who betrayed us.'

'We'll send that message as a warning to Nessumara,' said Joss as folk nodded.

'Why, just so!' cried Odash as the others looked at Joss and then at their empty cups. 'That's why we need a new commander.'

'Commander of Clan Hall? Over all the reeve halls? Are you asking me?'

Odash bent a baleful glare on Peddonon. 'Surely Peddo mentioned-'

'I thought he was joking!'

'We didn't kriow who else to turn to,' added Odash.

'I'm the only one who answered the call?' He rested his forehead on fists, his head so heavy he thought he might never again raise it. 'Let me sleep on it. I'm cursed tired from the journey and everything we've had to deal with down south.'

'Allies from Toskala are sending up a messenger tonight.'

'All the more reason to sleep now.'

Peddonon hung back after the others had gone. 'I wasn't joking. We need you, Joss.'

'Let me sleep first!'

Peddonon grinned. 'Can't keep your looks without enough rest, my friend. Wise of you.'

'I wouldn't want to end up looking like you, true enough. Say, how are the two recruits doing? The young Qin reeve gave an excellent account of the encounter on the river.'

Yet he wondered: had Zubaidit been on that barge Pil had seen on the river? Was she still alive?

'He's exceptional, it's true.' Peddonon scratched his chin. 'What's his story? Can we trust him?'

'Eh?' Joss slapped a hand down on the table so hard Peddonon startled. 'Has he caused trouble?'

'Not at all!'

'Neh, I meant nothing bad by it. I just wondered because Captain Anji specifically asked me to move him north to get him

away from the other Qin soldiers. I'm not sure if it's considered ill luck that he was chosen by an eagle… or a disgrace… or if Anji means him to serve as a spy in our midst-'

'Think you so?'

'Does he behave suspiciously?'

Peddonon grinned in the way Joss had come to associate with his admiration of certain firefighters. 'No. He's cursed good with his weapons and his eagle, and he's very shy. That Nallo is like his older sister, always ready to tear your head off if you even look sidewise in the wrong way at him.'

'Is that how it is? What way have you been looking at him?'

Peddonon sat down again. 'He's fashioned like me, not like you, I'm sure of it.'

'You're usually right.' -

'In this matter, I'm always right. But-'

T knew there was a but.' Joss stifled a yawn. 'No luck there, I take it.'

'Maybe I'm feeling cheated out of a bit of flirting, but I think it's more than that. A young person is shy about these things. That's to be expected. That's what Ushara's temples are for. But he's of age, plenty old enough.'

'The Qin aren't like us, that's true. Captain Anji has forbidden any Devouring temple to be built out at his settlement in the Barrens west of the Olo'o Sea. Maybe it's just inexperience, as you say.'

'Sheh! Maybe. Yet I wonder if there's more to it. It's almost as if he's ashamed of looking at a man, and he sure as the hells never looks at women in that way.'

This time when the yawn rose, Joss could not hold it in. He raised both hands in apology. T don't know. Keep an eye on him. Report anything suspicious. Otherwise, we have to assume he's just what he is, a young outlander suddenly harnessed to an eagle and torn from the company of his familiar comrades. Fortunate for him he has Nallo, eh?'

Peddonon laughed. 'She scares me!'

'That Tumna chose true, neh? Listen, post a steward to wake me when we get the signal.'

Peddonon slid the door closed behind him. With some trepidation, Joss ventured into the sleeping chamber behind a screen of doors. He'd known the commander of Clan Hall for many years; they'd been lovers for a short time, not that she'd gone any easier

on him for it afterward. Exploring the sparsely furnished room now, he wasn't sure if Odash and the hall steward had already cleaned out her belongings or if she simply had never accumulated anything. The pallet was rolled up along one wall. The shelf held two neatly folded jackets of the kind that could be wrapped around any size body and a pair of loose trousers. An alcove in which an ornament appropriate to the season might be displayed sat empty. A pitcher had been recently filled with water and placed beside a bronze basin. He poured water, then washed his face and hands. Afterward, he unrolled the pallet and lay down on top of the coverlet in his clothes.

Yet he could not relax. Zubaidit's scorching gaze and shapely form kept intruding. Pil had seen Tohon. Tohon had ridden out with Zubaidit. The last time he'd seen her, she had slapped him. Aui! Why should that memory arouse him so?

He fell from uneasy waking into unsteady sleep, sinking into an old dream whose contours had become an achingly familiar landscape: a woman wearing a bone-white cloak walks away into a veil of mist, and he cannot help but run after her although he knows he will never catch her.

Twenty years Marit had been dead, and yet she still walked and spoke in his dreams. She called herself a Guardian now, although he could not understand why his dreaming mind, or the gods, made her do so. Yet strangely, her warnings to him in dreamtime always bore fruit.

'Marit!' he called after her fading form. 'What should I do?'


He startled awake to find Peddonon jostling his shoulder, a lamp shining behind his broad body. 'Heya, Joss. You're mumbling in your sleep. Signal's come.'

Reeves learned the knack of waking to alertness. Joss rolled up to his feet as Peddonon stepped back, and they hurried outside, slipped on sandals, and followed the steward and his lamp through the darkness. Clan Hall had been built along pretty much the entire northern rim of the rock, with various launching points over the drop from bare scaffoldings that also served as secondary watchtowers. Where clouds parted, a half-moon appeared low in the west. They hurried along the wall walk. Fires glimmered where the enemy had set up guard stations along the Istri Walk. They descended a ladder into a pit hewn out of the rock, musty with damp and mold. A gate was set ajar.

The steward halted. T can't go out on the ledge with the lamp. Be careful.'

Joss and Peddonon paced along a stone-walled corridor, the echo of the river's voice murmuring around them. They emerged cautiously onto a ledge with the wind tearing along the cliff face to their left, upriver. Downstream and curving away to the right, the prow rose to its peak. A pair of burning lamps marked the humble shelter protecting the stele for which the promontory was named. Four reeves lowered a big basket over the edge and eased out the ropes.

The ledge was a sheer drop to the water many hundred baton-lengths below, where a sliver of rocky shoreline was hidden behind broken boulders. The shoreline was pretty much impossible to reach, since you either had to battle the nasty shoreline current in a boat and cut a treacherous angle in among the rocks, or climb out along the lower face of the cliff.

Of course there were folk so reckless and stupid as to enjoy the challenge; he'd been one back when he was young. One time he'd dared a particularly fabulously defiant lass, a banner clan girl, to meet him there at sunset. That had truly been a memorable night.

'Thinking of that banner clan girl?' Peddonon whispered.

'Aui! How'd you know about that?'

'Everyone knows all about your adventures. They're famous in Clan Hall. They'll make a cycle of stories from them someday, the tale of the Handsome Reeve.'

'A comic tale, no doubt.'

Peddonon snickered.

The reeves handling the rope tensed. 'Got it. Hauling up.'

Peddonon grabbed the safety rope and braced himself against a pair of stakes hammered diagonally into the rock face. Joss stayed out of the way, rubbing his chin, enjoying the feel of the bristles. He needed a shave. How in the hells could he sort out the complications that dogged him?

Last year, a huge army had swept down out of the northern wilderness under the command of Lord Radas. The army had overwhelmed cities and villages across Haldia and now Istria, throwing the land into chaos; they'd even sent a second army south to attack the city of Olossi. In the south, Captain Anji's out-lander Qin soldiers had, with the aid of the reeves of Argent Hall, defeated that second army. At the behest of Olossi's new council, the captain was training an expanded militia to protect the entire

region of Olo'osson. Meanwhile his soldiers were beginning to marry local women under the supervision of his beautiful and extremely clever wife, Mai. Who had ten days ago given birth to a boy child over whom Joss now stood as uncle.


The reeves and eagles of Horn Hall had vanished. Folk claimed to see Guardians walking abroad, while others called them demons or cloaks and identified them with the leaders of the marauding army. His own work as marshal at Argent Hall had become complicated by the arrival of numerous unjessed eagles seeking new reeves, so many that they'd had to establish a secondary training hall. Naya Hall had been raised on the western shore of the Olo'o Sea near the settlement founded by Captain Anji on land deeded to him and his wife as part of their payment for aiding Olossi. Elsewhere in the Hundred, folk burned out of their villages wandered the roads. Children went hungry. Half the people Joss met while on patrol no longer trusted reeves. And now the desperate reeves of Clan Hall, blindsided by the murder of their most experienced reeves, wanted him to sit as commander over all the reeve halls. Yet the other reeve halls were beleaguered and uncooperative. Why should they agree to a new commander, much less Joss? He rubbed his head, wondering if he was going to get a headache.

It was difficult to imagine how his life could become more tangled.

'Here we are,' muttered a male voice.

They heaved the basket up over the edge and dragged it back from the brink. A single person sat inside.

'Eh, that was a ride, I'll tell you,' she said as she clambered out. 'I thought I was going to pitch right over and fall to my death. And I'll tell you — that path out along the rock isn't a path at all! It's not even a goat track. I slipped into the river twice. I'm soaking wet.'

Joss sagged against the rock as his pulse hammered in his ears.

'Best we know who you are first.' Peddonon stepped out from the wall.

She chuckled, as Joss knew she would. 'I'm called Zubaidit. I convinced some brave clan folk within Toskala to get me up here. I've a message from them. But truly, I come from the south, from Olo'osson, at the behest of the Olossi council and their allies. I have news to pass back to Olossi, if you reeves will carry it.'

'Do you know about this, Joss?' Peddonon asked.

'Surely not Marshal Joss of Argent Hall?'

'The same,' Joss said, surprised at how smoothly his voice came out, not much of a croak at all. 'Well met, Zubaidit. What of the other scouts?'

'I'd be happy to give my report. But must I stand here in these wet clothes, with the wind chilling me?' she asked, the curl of her voice such a blatant tease that his ears burned. 'Or is there somewhere I can take them off?'

Cursed if every gods-rotted reeve standing there didn't start snickering, trying to hide the sound beneath hands clapped over mouths.

Smothering his own laughter, Peddonon said, 'It seems you two know each other. But if you don't mind, can we get off this cursed ledge before one of us falls to his death? I mean, the one who hasn't already taken the plunge.'

Snorting and chortling, the other reeves hurried away through the arch and down the corridor, leaving Joss to follow Peddonon and Zubaidit. The glow of the steward's lamp illuminated the assassin as she looked over her shoulder at him.

It wasn't that he'd seen her so cursed many times in his life, since that first day less than a year ago when she had flirted with him and afterward tried to kill him. It was just that he remembered so well every curve, the way her hips tilted as she walked, the lift of her chin. The way you knew she knew how to use her body, trained in Ushara's temple as the most deadly of assassins. Her vest and kilt were soaked, the cloth clinging to her like a second skin. Whew!

She grinned.

He was like a man staggering after a blow to the head.

'You're the messenger?' asked the steward, drawing her attention.

'I am.'

'You fell in the river?' Neffi asked with an appreciative grin. 'I did that once, climbing the same route.'

'Does every local in this city know it?'

'We here in the reeve halls do, obviously. We try to keep quiet about it.' He winked past her, at Joss. 'Some managed better than others.'

The reeves clambering up the ladder were laughing, bolder now inside, where there was no chance they'd be spotted by the

enemy. 'Trust Joss to know every adventuresome female…' one was saying as his voice broke into guffaws.

'Let's get on with this,' said Joss curtly. 'Neffi, can you get her dry clothes?'

'I was joking about the clothes.' The jesting tease molted right out of her tone. Her brows drew down as Neffi, frowning in confusion, lowered the lamp. 'Best I deliver my report right here and then you lot lower me back down to my contact so I can return to the city before daybreak.'.

Peddonon called to the reeves. 'Heya, boys. Go get Odash and the other seniors. Then get back here yourselves, or get fresh muscle. Move!'

'We can fly you back to Olossi,' said Joss.

She shook her head. 'I haven't completed my mission.'

He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest, trying to look nonchalant. 'Go on. What of the other scouts?'

'What other scouts?' Peddonon asked.

'Seven scouts walked out of Olo'osson. We were delayed by lendings for a few days and lost our horses to them, but carried on, on foot. One of your reeves spotted us outside Horn and flew down to deliver a message to Shai. Now I don't know if it was him coming down with that cursed eagle, or if we had already been seen anyway, but a cadre of outlaws attacked our encampment on his heels. They killed Edard and captured Shai.'

'Edard was the censor.'

'That's right. One of Kotaru's Thunderers. Pretty cursed useless, if you ask me, but Tohon and I managed despite his clumsy attempts at leadership. Anyway, our lad Shai was captured and we had to follow that cadre lest they hand him over to one of those cloaks. As it turned out, we weren't the ones who rescued him. The outlander demon the reeve came to warn us about, an ugly pale girl with demon-blue eyes, she killed the whole cursed cadre with her magic and left us with Shai and the children the cadre had taken as slaves.'

Peddonon whistled, and the steward shook his head.

'Those children were badly misused.' Her expression darkened until she looked as if she'd have been happy to cut the throats of every one of those outlaws. Which, no doubt, she'd have done, given the opportunity. 'I'll cut the rest of that tale short. Eridit, the two militiamen, and Tohon went south with the children to Nessumara, which we thought would be safe.'

'They were spotted, safe on the river.'

She smiled, then lifted her gaze as her smile faded. 'As you know, I was given another mission.'

'A mission that will almost certainly lead to your death. Why go on?'

'Because I'll die anyway, whether today, or tomorrow, or when I've reached the venerable age of eighty-four, having seen seven rounds of the year cycle. It's necessary to take the risk to achieve the ends. Things are worse than you know. The news I bring from Toskala tonight is that the army is marching south on Nessumara.'

'The hells!' exclaimed Peddonon and Neffi in unison.

'They're driving out all the refugees from Toskala. They've ruthlessly cut loose all the camp followers who marched with them from Walshow and sent them away. They intend to take hostages from every clan and family and guild compound in Toskala. Those hostages will serve the army on the march through Istria. The hostages also will stand as surety for the good behavior of the Toskalans. The army will leave a garrison behind, but the threat to the hostages will be what keeps the population in order. I hope to go with the army as a hostage. Once with the army, I'll keep my eyes open, and strike when opportunity arises.'

'A dangerous venture,' said Peddonon with an admiring whistle.

'What do you think, Marshal?' Her gaze challenged him.

He wasn't about to show how much it bothered him to think of her risking herself like that. 'What about the seventh scout? What did you say his name is?'


'Isn't he the uncle of the captain's wife? He's an outlander, but not Qin.'

Her lips quirked. 'Those outlanders all look alike to me, Marshal.' But she didn't mean it; she was just goading him, because sometimes a person took you that way, that you had to constantly be poking at them to get a reaction. It was not quite, and not only, lust, and it wasn't truly love; sometimes two bodies just fell out that way, impossible to explain why.

They'd had no chance to act.

Maybe they never would.

'It's gotten cursed hot in here,' muttered Peddonon.

Neffi said, without anger, 'Oh, shut up, Peddo. This is cursed serious, you idiot.'

Joss pushed away from the wall as he heard voices. Odash, Kesta, a fawkner, and another senior reeve climbed down the ladder. A flurry of questions filled the dark chamber. Zubaidit restated her news about Toskala. He could not look away from her as she talked in that forceful, silky voice.

'What help do you want from us?' he asked when she was done.

'I was told the commander of Clan Hall is a woman. Where is she?'

Haltingly, Odash relayed the tale of Traitors' Night, and as he related the story of betrayal and the murder of Toskala's council and all the senior reeves, her gaze flicked from Joss's face to each shadowed face of the others listening.

When Odash had finished, Zubaidit looked at Joss. 'So. All the witnesses counted six cloaks departing from the rock after the murders. It seems the ghost girl has joined their ranks. Some call them Guardians, and they ride winged horses, as it says in the tale. But I also hear people call them demons. What are they?'

Witnesses had reported that one of the demons seen in Justice Square wore a cloak that gleamed in the night like polished bone; it could not have been Marit. She walked in his dreams, not on earth. Yet the strange words she spoke in his dreams haunted him: I see with my third eye and I understand with my second heart that they are corrupted, so I dare not approach them. They will destroy me if they find me.

A person can be destroyed in many ways, not just through death.

His clenched jaw was going to bring on another gods-rotted headache. 'How can any of us know what a Guardian is? Or what they want. A cloaked man called Lord Radas commands this army, that I am sure of.'

'Lord Radas is the one I mean to kill, but if Clan Hall's commander is dead, then who stands as commander over all the reeve halls now?'

All looked at Joss.

'You?' she demanded.

He sighed.

She made a noise rather like a chuckle and something like a

cough of disdain. 'Have you any plan other than holding out up here as kind of a stick poking them in the eye?'

'HeyaP objected Kesta furiously. 'If we hold this rock, then we give hope to others.'

Zubaidit's grin caused Kesta to settle. 'It's a brave choice, and the right one. But you'll need a plan.'

'What do you suggest?' drawled Joss, annoyed at her way of blowing in like a strong wind and expecting everything to bend before her. 'Since you seem so cursed sure of yourself.'

Her grin sharpened as with anger before it curved into a frown. 'I don't know what's to be done in Toskala, with hostages being taken and none to stop it. If the city folk rebel, their relatives will be killed in retaliation. I don't know what you here on the rock plan to do, and I'll thank you not to tell me in case I'm caught out and forced to stand before one of the cloaks. For you know they can see into our hearts with their third eye.'

'That's what it says in the tales,' said Joss. 'But what does it really mean?'

'It means what it says. They can see into our hearts. You can feel them walk into your mind.' She shuddered, the movement so subtle he stepped forward, thinking to reassure her with a touch, but he stopped himself and wiped his brow instead.

'Don't try to face them,' she added. 'You've no shield. Not even the strongest of you.'

Yet Anji had faced one of the cloaked demons and not flinched. Anji's soldiers had suffered the same reaction described by Zubaidit, and Joss had taken the testimony of numerous other witnesses from the day the ghost girl had invaded the Qin compound in Olossi and killed two men there; her demon's gaze had brought even Chief Tuvi to his knees. Why was Anji not affected, if everyone else, even other outlanders, had no protection against the third eye and the second heart?

'Locate Tohon, and fly him back to Olossi,' she went on. 'He has valuable information for Captain Anji. He's surveyed the land and the army. His report is crucial. Get Eridit, Ladon, Veras, and the young ones out if you can, too, lest they betray my purpose if they are captured when the army takes Nessumara.'

'You think the army will defeat Nessumara?' Joss asked.

'How can they not? We in the Hundred have no militia that can stand against such an organized force.'

'They're a formidable enemy, but surely they can be defeated, as their secondary army was at Olossi.'

'The soldiers sent to Olossi were the dregs. These are real soldiers. Not so easy to defeat. You've seen how many there are.'

'Is there anything else we need to know? Or that you need from us?' Joss asked her.

She shut her eyes, thinking it through. 'The demons are looking for outlanders and the gods-touched in particular, taking them into custody. The army shows little respect for the gods, and there's a cursed lot of talk among the soldiers about how the cloaks have defeated death. The soldiers fear the cloaks, but they also want what they believe the cloaks can give them: wealth, life, land, power. Sex.' When she opened her eyes, her hot gaze seemed to burn him to ash.

Peddonon said, 'Heya, Kesta, get this lot out to ready the basket, will you? Odash, we'll need to assign someone to go after these scouts that went to Nessumara. Warn the other halls about this business with the gods-touched and outlanders. And the Green Sun clan, the traitors.' He grabbed the lamp out of the steward's hand. 'You go, too, Neffi. You're getting cursed old. You need your sleep, neh? I'll keep the light until she's down safely.'

'Eh, yes, Peddo. Right away'

They went, Kesta down the corridor with the other four reeves while Odash and Neffi climbed the ladder.

'I've got to take a piss,' added Peddonon, setting the lamp on the floor. 'Be right back.' He scrambled up the ladder.

Joss hadn't known that stone breathed, but he swore he could hear its exhalations in the silence that followed, or maybe it was his own breathing gotten cursed irregular as he became exceedingly aware of how very alone they were, caught within the glow of light and with folk busying themselves nearby but out of sight.

'Are these soldiers really our enemy, or only the worst reflec-tion of our own selves?' she asked in a low voice. 'We made them. We have to unmake them, not just defeat or kill them.'

'What do you mean?'

She shrugged, looking angry. 'It seems to me that when an army can recruit so many discontented men and convince so many of them to act in ways they would once have considered criminal, then it is only building with bricks already formed and

baked by others. Why do so many men march with the army? Spit on the gods? Steal what they could earn by their own labor? Rape when they can walk into Ushara's temples and worship? Why didn't they just stay home in their villages and towns, marry, tithe, and sire children? The Hundred has let itself rot from within. Now the contagion of discontent and anger is spread by those greedy enough to encourage the worst in those too weak to resist.'

'Harsh words,' he said.

'True words. We must all take responsibility for the troubles that engulf us.'

He did not know what to say because every word seemed meaningless compared with her presence as she stood there with wet cloth stuck to her skin and her body balanced with deadly grace. Her glare forced him a step back, and he bumped against unyielding stone. He was trembling with the effort of staying where he was, as his pulse throbbed and his breath caught in his throat.

She shook her head, no smile, no frown. 'A woman can look a long time before she finds a man who can really take his time.'

'A woman can look a long time if she never pauses long enough to try this man.'

She laughed.

'Aui!' He pushed away from the wall.

She met him, and for a glorious moment he held her as they kissed, and kissed.

And kissed.

Just when he thought they might have to do something very reckless despite knowing how close all those other reeves were in the covering darkness, a discreet cough interrupted them.

She broke away. Riven of contact, he swayed, and as Peddonon caught his arm to steady him, she vanished down the corridor toward the ledge.

'You've got it bad, my friend,' murmured Peddonon.

Joss brought a palm to his face. 'Am I crazy?'

Peddonon snorted.

'She's leaving!' He pulled out of Peddonon's grasp and stumbled after her.

'Don't go over the edge, Joss.'

Too late. She was sworn to the goddess, a trained assassin, fixed on her mission. She'd already been lowered over the cliff,

the reeves letting out the rope hand over hand. He stayed out there in the night and the wind until they received the three tugs that indicated she'd gotten down safely. Until they hauled up the empty basket and stowed it under the overhang where it couldn't be spotted in daylight by an enemy patrolling the far shore. Until they'd all gone away, leaving Peddonon and Kesta waiting for him in a patient silence that hurt more than the hollow feeling in his gut.

The cooling breeze off the water reminded him that the dry season lay ahead. He rubbed his arms, but the ache did not go away.

'Heya,' said Kesta softly. 'Come on, Joss. Let's go have a drink, eh? We've missed you these past months. It's not the same without you here at Clan Hall.'

'I might never see her again.'

Peddonon whistled under his breath. Kesta sighed. The river rushed toward the distant sea, just as the army would, marching south through fertile and heavily populated Istria toward Nessumara, said in the tales to be the second-oldest inhabited place in the Hundred and certainly its largest city now. He must do what was required of him, just as she would.

'The first thing we must do,' he said, 'is warn Nessumara's council and Copper Hall to seek traitors in their midst. And get Tohon and his group out of there.'

Only then, as he turned to go with his companions, did he realize she had never said what had happened to the outlander, Shai.


'You're not the boy I remember, Shai.'

Hari lounged on a silk-covered couch, the kind of furniture found in the houses of the rich in Kartu Town. The florid couch looked out of place inside a campaign tent otherwise furnished with only two rugs, a folding table holding a pair of cups and a ceramic bottle with an unbroken seal, and a single lit lamp. Two objects rested on the table: the Mei clan wolf ring and wolf belt buckle Hari had been wearing the day he'd been marched out of Kartu Town as a prisoner of their Qin overlords.

Shai pointed to them. 'I went through terrible things to get that ring and buckle back. Will you put on your ring?'

'No. I'm no longer a son of the Mei clan.'

Shai displayed the wolf ring he wore as a child of the Mei clan, although his ring wasn't anything like as fine a quality as the one that had been given to Hari by Grandmother when Hari had reached manhood. After all, Hari was the favored third son, while Shai was merely the excess seventh. 'Who are you, if not a son of the Mei clan? Father Mei sent me to bring your bones back to the clan for proper burial.'

As a boy, Hari had perfected the ability to raise a single eyebrow; he could mock you while looking so exceedingly clever that you found yourself smiling in sympathy, wanting him to approve of you. 'Here I am.'

Today, Shai wasn't smiling. 'You're dead.'

'Harsh words, little brother. Yet you would know, you who can see ghosts.'

Shai flushed. 'Have you forgotten that in Kartu Town, they burn people who see ghosts?'

T never told anyone you could see ghosts. I would never have betrayed you.'

'Yet here I am, your prisoner.' He walked to the tent flap and twitched the entrance curtain aside to stare over the camp, where soldiers worked into the dusk breaking down tents and loading gear into wagons in preparation for a dawn departure. Guards surrounded the tent.

Behind him, Hari sighed. 'You're not my prisoner. I'm sheltering you. Don't you trust me? You used to.'

Shai let the cloth fall as he turned. 'You were the best of my brothers, it's true.'

'As if that's saying much!'

'It's why I came all this way to find a dead man. Yet you're no ghost. You live and breathe.'

'Maybe it just seems to you that I live and I breathe. Maybe I am a ghost. The soldiers call us cloaks. A few whisper that we're lilu. Some name us as Guardians, the ones who bring justice.' His crooked smile made his expression bitter.

'This army brings no justice.'

'I never said it did.'

'Yet you ride with murderers and rapists and thieves. You command them.'

'I am a prisoner of those who command me.'

Furious, Shai walked over to the couch. 'You don't look like a prisoner! You look like a lord, who with a gesture of his hand marks who will live and who will die. You sent a man to be hanged from the pole. How can you do it, knowing what he will suffer?'

Hari shrugged, his expression masked. 'I'm not the brother you think you remember.'

'You can't have changed that much! You were the bold one, the bright one, the one who always spoke his mind!'

'Maybe you didn't know me that well. You were young. You saw what you wanted to see. Maybe I was the drunk one, the stupid one, the dissatisfied one. Maybe I pushed our Qin overlords too hard not out of a sense of righteous anger, but as a prank. Or on a dare. Or because I was bored. Or wanted to impress my reckless idiot friends.'

'I don't believe it!'

'You want to believe I am something I never was. Now listen, little brother. We've got to get you out of here before Night or Lord Radas discover you-'

Shai grabbed one of his brother's wrists and squeezed it; it was shocking to feel he might overpower the older brother who had once been able to sling him over a shoulder, run down to the pond, and toss him into the water howling and laughing. He tightened his grip until Hari winced. 'How did you get to the Hundred?'

Hari lifted his chin defiantly but in the end looked away. He addressed words to the sloped end of the couch, the fabric a saturated dark purple similar to the hue of the cloak he wore carelessly flung over his shoulders. 'Will you let go?'

Shai let go.

Hari rubbed the wrist. His forehead was beaded with sweat. I'm done speaking of it. What use is there in me speaking? All my words are tainted, because I'm a demon.'

The tone of self-loathing hit Shai hardest. The Hari he knew had never hated himself. 'You aren't a demon.'

Hari grasped Shai's shoulders. Years ago, Hari had grabbed him so, stared into his eyes, and scolded him: Stand up for yourself, Shai. Speak up, Shai!

Best of brothers!

But now he looked leached at the edges, as if sickness had drained his vitality.

'Aren't I? I can't see into your heart to know what you really think of me. What if you scorn me, and I would never know?'

'I would tell you what I think.'

'People say so, but they never do.' Hari laughed mockingly. 'People say what they think you want to hear. But now, their hearts and thoughts are laid bare to me, and I can see what's true. All their pain and greed and rage and selfish lust cuts me, just as it cuts them. I can't rest for thinking of all the horrible things I've seen in people's hearts. And yet I can't look away. I want their secrets and their shame. Then I don't have to think about my own.'

'Stop it!'

'Why are you hidden from me, Shai? No one else is, except the other cloaks. And you're not a cloak.'

Shai clasped his hands. 'I'm just your brother, Hari. We'll go home together. It's what we're meant to do.'

Hari broke free and leaped to his feet, pacing to the entrance and back again. 'I can't go home! Night will hunt me down, or Lord Radas will. If I don't obey them, they hurt me. And since I can't die, then I just suffer and it hurts so badly. We've got to get you out of here. If they know I have you, they'll force me to betray you. And I'll do it, because I'm a useless selfish coward. I've always been one. What do you think I've been running from all my life?'

Voices from outside startled them both. Shai began to stand, but Hari grabbed his arm and shoved him down on one of the rugs, gesturing for him to lie flat. He rolled Shai up inside the rug. From within the stifling confines, Shai heard Hari plop down on the couch as several people entered.

'Aren't you ready to go yet?' demanded a coarse voice bleeding with raw rage. 'You're such a cursed lazy ass, Hari.'

'Yordenas, control yourself.' The other voice was also male, as sharp as poison. 'Harishil, I expected you to be ready to depart. There are slaves who can collect these furnishings.'

'I thought I was going back to Walshow with the camp followers to make sure they disperse,' said Hari, his voice more like a sullen lad's than a grown man's. 'And then afterward set up as commander over the northern region based in High Haldia with Captain Arras as my administrator. That's what you promised me.'

'That's what Night promised you,' sneered the one called

Yordenas. 'Because she favors your sorry, rotten hide despite you running the second army into disaster at Olossi.'


'My apologies, my lord.' The cringing tone sounded real enough, as slimy as scummed water. 'I would have done better, had I been given the chance. I was a reeve. Marshal of a reeve hall. I know how to command.'

'You are to be given your chance now, Yordenas. As for you, Harishil, may I remind you that promises are not coin, they are contingencies. Our plans have changed. We've pulled most of the forces out of the far north and Haldia in order to quickly subdue Nessumara and the delta region. Surely you understand that under the circumstances, given your complete failure to direct the southern expedition against Olossi, you will have to prove yourself to us before we can possibly allow you a new command.'

The other man sniggered.

'Furthermore, there is the matter of the woman wearing Death's cloak, the one called Marit. You may not have betrayed us, precisely, but we can't be sure you are reliable. You may have mixed loyalties. I would be rid of you if it were up to me. Yet Night has insisted you be given a second chance. Therefore, I have a special assignment for you.'

'I should have had it,' groused the one called Yordenas. 'I wanted to go.'

'I thought you wanted to command an army,' said Hari. 'But if you can't make up your mind, you're welcome to take my new assignment, whatever it is.'

'Don't be hasty, Harishil,' said the poisonous voice.

'What is it you want, Lord Radas?'

'Neh, what is it you want? Do you want your staff?'

Felt even through the muffling layers of thick carpet, a shift of tension tightened the air like the taste of a coming storm. Weight pressed on Shai's left hip as one of the men rested his foot heavily there.

'Maybe I do,' mumbled Hari. 'Maybe I- don't care. Maybe I don't want to judge people, as you do.'

The poisonous voice grew silkier, killing with a sweeter flavor. 'You know Night wishes to interview all the gods-touched, but we're seeking in particular an outlander Bevard captured not far west of here, a young man who was veiled to his sight. He should have reached the army by now.'

'He'll talk when I get my hands on him!' Yordenas had a mean edge to his voice that Shai imagined was accompanied by a grin, rather as Shai's awful brother Girish had giggled when he contemplated the nasty things he could do to helpless children.

'Sure he'll talk,' drawled Hari, 'after one whiff of your foul breath, Yordenas. What's to say the cursed outlander isn't dead already? Or fled? Or that Bevard wasn't so drunk that he mistook his vomit for a man?'

The pressure of the foot eased abruptly. The sounds of a scuffle ended with Yordenas's yelp.

'Harishil, you do not amuse me,' said Lord Radas. 'That such an outlander exists I do not doubt, nor should you. Now and again a rare individual is gods-touched, able to see ghosts. Such individuals are veiled to the sight of Guardians. Therefore dangerous. Able to commit crimes and lie about it.'

The dust in the carpet made Shai's eyes itch, or perhaps it was the memory of ghosts that stung.

'Dangerous to justice,' Hari asked, 'or merely dangerous because we can't bully them by ripping out their hearts and fears and shames?'

'Your gods-rotted outlander ass is just waiting to get itself whipped, isn't it?' said Yordenas.

'You're one who loves to bully, aren't you, Yordenas?'

'Enough!' The voice of Lord Radas cut deep. The weight of the foot returned, pinching Shai's skin, but he sucked in the pain and did not move. 'As it happens, Bevard encountered another such outlander, at Westcott. A man veiled to his sight. Do you suppose all outlanders can see ghosts and are therefore veiled, Harishil?'

'I wouldn't know. I'm not "all outlanders."'

'Be respectful, you ass.'

'Quiet, Yordenas. Harishil, I want you to track down this outlander captain Bevard encountered at Westcott. We have reason to believe he may be related to, or the same man as, the one who captained Olossi's militia to victory.'

'What about Yordenas and Bevard? What will they be doing?'

'Their duties are not yours to inquire after, but as it happens, I am willing to tell you so you can see what rewards you can expect if you succeed. Bevard will accompany the camp followers to Walshow and afterward take temporary command of the northern region and assizes. He'll be scouting Haldia for signs of

the two cloaks who ran from us — obviously we can't trust you with that task given your relationship with the woman called Marit. Yordenas will take part in the attack on Nessumara, to improve his command skills.'

'I'd rather go to Walshow,' said Hari.

Yordenas snorted. 'I'm surprised they're letting you go off on your own at all. They don't trust you, Hari. Nor should they, you being a cursed outlander and all.'

'Then why don't they release me?' retorted Hari in a voice Shai would once have heard as bold and forthright and now recognized as angry with reckless despair.

The pressure of the foot lifted. Shai let out breath, sucked in, and almost choked on a lungful of dust and a stray wisp of straw that caught in his throat.

T can call a soldier in,' said Lord Radas as calmly as if he were suggesting a tray of tea, 'and have him stick his sword in your guts. Once. Twice. A third time.'

'No. No. No: I'll go, as you command.'

'Coward,' said Yordenas.

Hari said nothing.

Shai gritted his teeth and swallowed a sneeze.

'Be ready to leave at dawn on your new mission.' Lord Radas's footfalls moved toward the entrance. 'Bring me the head of this outlander captain who Bevard says is veiled.'

'How am I to bring you his head if I have no weapon? Give me my staff, and I might manage it.'

'Your weapon is your ability to command others to kill him. You've yet to prove yourself to us. Do so, and I will give you your staff and a chance at a new command. One other thing. I was given a report that you interviewed an outlander today.'

'I interviewed more than one,' said Hari so easily that Shai's gut relaxed. Maybe Hari wouldn't betray him. 'Slaves, craven and weeping. Their hearts revealed nothing more than the misery of being torn from their homeland and forced to endure the lash of cruel masters. I let them go. Their masters were waiting. Just as mine do.'

T wonder if you are telling the truth,' said Lord Radas.

It seemed to Shai he could actually feel, like the brush of fingers, the man probing the tent, seeking what was hidden.

Hari said, 'You think it might have been more merciful to have them cleansed and thus released from servitude? I suppose so.'

'Don't tempt me,' said Lord Radas. The touch of poison eased; vanished. The man had left.

'You'll never manage to kill that outlander captain,' said Yordenas. 'You're a gods-rotted coward and a stinking outlander. I hate you.'

'Do you, truly? I don't care enough about you to hate you. Mosquitoes gripe me more. Run after the one whose boots you lick, eh?'

'You'll regret speaking this way to me.'

Hari laughed.

Yordenas's hot presence stamped out of the tent, and then it was cool and quiet and Hari whispered, 'Don't move, don't speak. We can hear better than you know.'

He apparently went outside, because it was silent for some time. Shai thought maybe he was getting a rash on his forehead where the coarse fibers were pressed against the skin. An outlander captain veiled to the sight of the demons. A man who could, like Shai, see ghosts. Obviously, they meant Hari to hunt down and kill Captain Anji.

With a shove, Shai was tumbled around and over and rolled gasping out of the carpet. Hari tugged him up to his feet, and Shai turned away to sneeze, three times. He wiped streaming eyes with the back of a hand. He had been so close to Lord Radas, and he had not acted. Yet how had he intended to strike?

'When they find out you're veiled, they'll kill you.' Hari grasped Shai's arm and pulled him around to face him. Hari's gaze bored deep, but Shai matched him until Hari shook his head in frustration. 'We have to get you out of camp before they find you. And they will find you. Someone will betray you. I'll betray you. Hu! How did you even get to the Hundred?'

'Father Mei sent me to bring back your bones.'

'You can't have walked all this way yourself!' His bitter laugh cracked. 'Those Qin soldiers I saw on the road with you months ago. They pinned me with arrows. The bastards! Did the Qin make you a soldier and slave, as they did me?'

Thinking of Mai, Shai shook his head. 'I am not soldier or slave. How can I kill Lord Radas?'

Hari flung himself away, walking again to the entrance and peering out as if he was sure Shai's words had carried outside the tent wall. Then he strode back. 'You can't.'

'Lord Radas threatened to have you killed.'

'No, only punished. He has a soldier stab me until I'm dead, but since I can't die, I live through the agony of dying and then I heal through pain worse than that of dying. Don't you remember how your Qin soldiers shot me full of arrows? How do you think I survived that?'

'Yet here you stand. A ghost, who yet lives.' He touched Hari's arm, but his brother jerked away. 'Didn't you ask him to release you?'

'Only a cloak can destroy a cloak. Five Guardians can judge one. You who are not prisoners of the cloak cannot kill us.' Tears shone in his eyes. 'Do not pity me.'

'I don't pity you! You pity yourself!'

Hari raised a hand to strike, then flung himself away, pressing that hand to the clasp that hooked his cloak around his throat.

'You don't have to be their prisoner! Just take it off!' Shai dogged Hari's steps, reaching for the cloak's elaborate clasp, but Hari shoved him so hard he fell onto the plush upholstery of the couch.

'It will burn you, kill you, if you touch it. You think I haven't seen Yordenas torture people? He forces them to touch his clasp until their flesh burns away to the bone!'

'Then release yourself!'

Hari's smile lit him with a flash of his old charm, but the reckless glint was twisted and bitter. 'Once started down this path, no one is ever content, little brother. Do you know why I'm their prisoner? I hate what I am, and yet I embrace it, because I fear the shadows that lie beyond the gate. Now that I am dead, I fear death more than anything. Just as she does.'


'The cloak of Night. The one who woke me and taught me to know what I am. She fears death, too. We all fear death, who have suffered it. That's why we are what we are and why we do what we do.'

This could not be Harishil, best of brothers. This was his shell, inhabited by a demon.

The cloak ran a hand over his head, face creased, eyes tight, other hand in a fist. 'You must have come to the Hundred with the Qin. What do you know about an outlander captain? One who might be veiled?'

Shai looked the demon in the eye. His heart sang with grief, even as his mouth opened and his voice emerged with

astonishing evenness, the lie as easy as breathing. 'Nothing. If you'll give me safe passage out of camp, I'll accept it with thanks.'

'Captain Arras.'

Lord Twilight stood with his back to the captain. A single lamp burned, the flame's wavering light rippling across the fabric of his cloak.

'What brings you to Toskala, Captain? I'll admit, I enjoyed our time together in High Haldia. I had been looking forward to a quiet retirement up there in the north with you as my congenial colleague.'

'My lord.' If it were possible to feel comfortable around a cloak, then Arras felt comfortable with this man, but he knew better than to believe they could ever be comrades. 'Two weeks ago I received orders that a new administrator would be taking over the occupation of High Haldia. I've been reassigned with my three companies to serve at the whim of the governor of Toskala.'

'Are you glad to come to Toskala?' The cloak kept his back to Arras.

'Presiding over an occupation does not suit my temperament. I'm trained to fight, not hang people up from poles just for the pleasure of watching them die.'

'Some in this army gain too much pleasure out of the suffering of the vanquished.'

'It's better to kill rebels, criminals, and traitors cleanly and at once, and move on with the real work.'

'What if I were to use my influence to make sure you got reassigned in support of the army marching south on Nessumara? Do you trust me, Captain?'

They were alone, no one in earshot as long as they spoke quietly. The tent's furnishings had been hauled away; all that was left were a pair of rolled-up rugs.

'Yes, my lord. I trust you.'

'As much as you trust any of us, eh?' said the cloak with a laugh that made Arras grin.

'I return what is given. You trust me enough not to demand my compliance through eating out my heart. It's a courtesy I appreciate.'

A smile creased the cloak's profile. 'Then we understand each other. I am required to depart immediately, leaving unfinished business here in camp.'

'The outlander?'

'You can see the problem this presents me. I'm asking you to disobey orders. You could betray me to Lord Radas and I wouldn't fault you for it. Or you can help me. If we both survive this war, I'll have reason to be grateful to you. Although I can't promise my gratitude is worth much.'

'Are you asking me to betray Lord Commander Radas, my lord?'

'No. I just need to get a single individual to safety in Nessumara without him getting caught and turned over to Night. Without anyone except you and me knowing or suspecting what's being done. A tactical challenge, if you will.' Still, the cloak did not turn to use his third eye and second heart to expose Arras's intentions. 'Will you help me, Captain?'

Trust can never be offered lightly, nor lightly refused. In the army, Arras was just one ambitious captain from the uplands of Teriayne, with no means for advancement except distinguishing himself and his companies in battle. He'd been left behind in High Haldia despite fighting well and taking the brunt of the initial attack, while better-connected men who'd done less had received promotions and moved on.

'Get me assigned to the attack against Nessumara, my lord. If you do, I can help you.'

Joss left Clan Hall at dawn, alone, guiding Scar downstream toward Nessumara. Eagles he had ordered out on patrol sweeps soared in the distance. It was easy from this height to perceive the land as if it were at peace, until you recognized how many villages bore the scars of battle: burned houses, freshly built scaffolding on which to lay the dead, empty paths and roads. A crude encampment lay hidden within woodland, but he dared not land to see who they were. It seemed almost cruel to grab bites of rice cake and swigs of cordial from the pouch of provisions lashed to his harness while wondering if those refugees were starving.

He caught up with the enemy midmorning. Three eagles floated above, observing. He knew the reeves by their eagles: Peddonon, Vekess, and Disi. The soldiers marched in orderly ranks, cohorts spaced at intervals. Clearly they did not expect to be attacked. The vanguard had taken control of the town at Skerru, where the River Istri split. The deep channel cut west

along an ancient ridgeline. Copper Hall reeves flew patrol over Istria, and by Scar's attention, others soared too far away for him to see but not so for the raptor with its exceptional vision. Downstream, many small channels braided into a vast delta.

Two causeways spanned the wetlands, linking the city to the mainland. The northern causeway, a raised roadway from Skerru that pushed into the delta through a swamp forest, was already blocked by barriers. An eagle preened in the sun on a massive log off to one side. The eastern causeway linking the trading town of Saltow to the docks and markets of Nessumara was packed with refugees fleeing into the delta. A pair of reeves had set down in the midst of the traffic where a knot of confusion had brought movement to a halt. Boats bobbed within the marshy hinterlands; others were being rowed or poled along the narrow channels of the inner delta where the flow of water was regulated by a complicated scheme of locks, dikes, canals, and holding pools.

With the sun at zenith, he and Scar dropped over Nessumara, a city sprawled across a hundred greater and smaller islands. Copper Hall's four watchtowers beckoned. He flagged — and received no answer.

The hells! No one was manning the watchtowers. Where was everyone?

Scar skimmed low south to the swirling confluence of land and sea while Joss scanned the landscape. The hive of activity might be better described as chaos. The entire place was coming apart.

There were a hells lot of boats and ships out in the bay; the harbor of Ankeno was crowded with vessels. Any one who could afford passage was running before the tide. Where in the hells did they all mean to go? And how keep themselves once they were there? The countryside crawled with folk in motion. More reeves down there betrayed even more trouble and confusion. Was it possible for reeves to police this kind of upheaval, much less maintain order at their own hall?

Scar found an updraft and they spiraled up, then began a long descent toward what was now the main compound of Copper Hall, where the marshal had his cote. The eagle seemed eager, recalling his home perch, the place he had jessed Joss. The shores of the Haya coast unfolded below. Surf rolled against sand beaches, or sprayed where rockier ground met the water.

The wide North Shore Road had a cursed lot of traffic on it, folk trudging east toward the Haya Gap and Zosteria. Reeves were out in force.

Late in the afternoon he spotted the familiar watchtowers. It was here Joss had trained; here he had met Marit; here he had flung his reckless defiance into the face of Marshal Masar one too many times until the marshal had forced him to transfer to Clan Hall just to be rid of him. Looking back, Joss supposed he would have done the same in Masar's place. What a gods-rotted rebel he'd been! There'd been no purpose to his troublemaking beyond the frustration of a young man who had had something he craved torn from him. He was older now. It was easy to see the pattern.

He flagged the tower and received permission to come in.

Scar landed with feathers fanned out and talons forward, almost vertical. He grasped a perch, and Joss, swinging gently, unhooked and dropped. The raptor chirped eagerly as he inspected his surroundings. He knew where he was, of course. He'd called Copper Hall home for longer than Joss had been alive.

A murmur of activity came from the main compound, yet in the empty quiet of the visitors' ground, you might think the place deserted. Joss inspected Scar, waiting for fawkners, but spotted only a lad skulking in the entrance to a loft.

'Where are the fawkners?' Joss called.

The lad shrugged.

'Can you fetch someone for me?'

The lad scratched his short hair, then ran for the gate. Joss swore under his breath as he attended to Scar's needs. The visitors' lofts were empty, so Scar lumbered into the closest loft and found an open perch, settling in to preen. The afternoon light falling through the open doors shone gold onto Scar's glorious feathers.

Joss jessed him and went out. In the main compound, smoke was rising from the kitchens, two women squabbled, wagons piled with bags of rice rumbled up to one of the storehouses. The forge boiled with heat and noise, hammers ringing.

No one took notice of Joss. He walked down the alleyway between storehouses and fawkners' barracks that led to the marshal's garden. Long ago, during Joss's days as a novice, Marshal Alard had lovingly tended beds of bright flowers just

for their beauty, but now every plant here had its use: culinary herbs, lavender, woundwort, wiry desert tea, peony, ginseng with its tapered leaves.

The door into the marshal's cote stood open. Joss climbed the steps into the shade of the porch. In the marshal's audience room, an elderly man sat behind a low writing desk, forehead propped on a hand, back bent. An old map, frayed and ripped at the edges, lay unrolled, its corners held down by cups. Smears of ink blotted the sheet; one spot, near the center, had been rubbed so many times it was worn through.

'It doesn't matter what emergency you bring word of,' said the marshal to the desk. 'I've got no more reeves to send out.'

'I'm not here-'

The man looked up. 'Joss? The hells!'

'Masar? I thought you retired — there was a new marshal-'

The old reeve's cheeks were hollow with age and exhaustion. 'There was. Why are you here? Aren't you marshal of Argent Hall?'

No niceties. No wine. Masar gestured with the quick-hurry-up known to all.

'Clan Hall's council has asked me to step in as commander. As a temporary-'

'No need to ask my permission, if that's why you came. I don't see how Clan Hall's administrative juggling affects us here.'

Joss coughed into a hand. 'Well, as commander of the reeve halls-'

Masar's curt laugh silenced him. 'All right, then, Commander. We're overwhelmed. Have you brought supplies? Come with brilliant ideas on how to beat back this cursed army?'

'I have to order things at Argent Hall, get a sense of what is going on at the different halls, find out what happened to Horn Hall-'

'Yes, and after you've managed all that, then you can come back and offer me and mine aid. Is that what you're saying? Fine. I heard you. Good-bye.' He looked past Joss. A rare smile graced his stern face. 'Jenna! There you are.'

A pretty young woman wrapped in a bright orange taloos climbed the steps carrying a covered dish. Behind her trotted a lad not much younger but clearly her sibling. As she paused to kick off her sandals, she looked at Joss with a pretty smile.

'None of that!' scolded Masar. 'He's too old for you.'

'I never said a word!' protested Joss, burned by Masar's scorn. She was a pretty enough lass, but so cursed young.

Masar's frown lowered like a threat. 'These are my grandchildren, Jenna and Kedri.'

'Reeve Joss!' The lad's cheeks flushed as he stared. 'I've heard so many stories-'

'Enough!' snapped Masar. The lad ducked his head as his sister flicked fingers on his arm to silence him. 'Clan Hall can call you their commander if they will — "and I suppose you'll do no worse than anyone else given the chaos — but it's cursed meaningless to us. My own daughter is missing and her husband dead, these two of their five children fled to me. And they aren't the only refugees sheltering here.'

'I'm cursed sorry, Masar,' Joss said, raising his hands to show he'd no weapon and no excuse. 'That's a terrible thing for a parent to suffer. I really did come seeking what information you have to tell me. To let you know the situation at Clan Hall. And to pass on vital information about the army and certain clans in Nessumara who may be plotting to betray the city.'

Masar nodded at his grandchildren, and Jenna hurried off, dragging her hero-struck brother behind with a parting smile for Joss. 'My apologies. I'm no worse off than many, and more fortunate than some. Sit down. Let's talk as reeves do. What are we up against?'

And hear Joss did, so much so that at dawn he felt he might never sleep if he tried to right all the wrongs afflicting the Hundred. The list was endless, and it only began with the recent death of the marshal who had replaced Masar when he had retired from active duty. Joss flew north toward the southernmost spur of the Liya Hills, where twenty years ago he'd often rendezvoused with Marit. How distant those halcyon times seemed now! The Haya Gap could be seen to the north; south lay the vast tangled'forest known as the Wild, a refuge of the mysterious wildings. The eagle followed the north-leading ridge of the hills. At last, Joss caught sight of the ragged notch in the hills that marked the Liya Pass.

He tugged on the jesses without conscious thought, and soon enough Scar pulled in to land on the stony height of Candle Rock. The towering rock was deserted; without wings, no man

in woman could reach this spot. He scouted the environs, the fire pit, the hollow where eagles roosted, an overhang where the remnants of a wood stack moldered beside an even older axe held together by hope and twine. The decaying wood had been tossed into a jumble while the wood still solid enough for a good burn had been stacked in one place. Some reeve had been up here in the last few months. And why not? It was an unassailable position, overlooking the road below.

He found a log, not yet split and half shot through with rot, and dragged it over to Scar. The eagle was delighted, pouncing on the log and squeezing it with his talons. Joss set to work on the fire pit, restacking the rocks where they had shifted and come loose. He layered a few to create a tiny crevice, where stones painted to mark the phases of the moon could be left for the next reeve: Meet here when the moon is full. By the time he was done Scar had reduced the log to splinters and settled in, extending his wings to sunbathe.

Joss settled as well. The wind streamed over the crags and the afternoon sun beat down on his back. Twenty years ago, reeves had patrolled these lands regularly. Over the years, mey by mey, village by village, they had retreated. Given up ground as a new commander had claimed their territory.

The abandoned patrol stations needed to be put back into use as observation posts and havens. It was the kind of thing the commander of the reeve halls could order done.

He lifted his gaze east to the ridge held by the hierarchs to be sacred to the Lady of Beasts. The distinctive spire called Ammadit's Tit loomed, but he had no desire today to scout the Guardian's altar where he and Marit had made their fateful discovery over twenty years ago. That's where it had all started to go so terribly wrong.

It was time to head south toward Argent Hall. He whistled Scar down and hooked in. Wind buffeted them as Scar plunged into a powerful updraft. They climbed until the air he sucked into his lungs seemed as thin as his memories of the past, falling away below. His eyes watered, but surely that was the wind.


Rolled up in a carpet Shai endured, sucking at such air as he could pull in. The carpet was carried for some ways and then deposited, he guessed, in a wagon. In Kartu Town he'd heard a story about the Qin: rather than shed the blood of Qin nobles deemed rebellious by the Qin var, the offending personages were rolled up so tightly in carpets that they suffocated. He calmed himself by focusing on the scrape of wheels.

How long they traveled he did not know. He dozed, and startled awake when they halted. The carpet, and other goods, changed hands as coin clinked. The carpet was lodged in another vehicle with Shai wedged uncomfortably as a scream crawled up his throat. His mouth and tongue were so dry he could not even moisten his chapped lips. But he could not die now. He must survive and escape to warn Captain Anji before Hari found him. The rumbling journey went on and on as Shai's thoughts churned. His favorite brother Hari would never kill Anji. But the creature Hari had become, would.

They stopped. A hard drop to the ground winded him. A shove unrolled the carpet. He lay gasping on his back as a shod foot prodded him.

'The hells! This one's an outlander.'

He rolled over, fixed trembling arms under his body, and shoved up to hands and knees, heaving as the dust coating his mouth gagged him. A sharp point pressed into his back.

'Here, now, my friend. Give us no trouble, and we'll give you none.'

'Heya, Laukas! What've you got there?'

'A cursed outlander!'

Shai raised his head. Two other carpets, unrolled, had sheltered two women, just now twisting to rise as about ten armed men and women gathered around, all as ragged as bandits and twice as surly. The older of the newcomers made a gesture with her right hand, middle fingers bent in, thumb and little finger raised. Seeing it, folk relaxed.

Cautiously, Shai sat on his heels, aware of a bristling circle of spears, staves, and sharpened sticks surrounding him. His neck

hurt, his head ached, but he was breathing fresh air in a clearing surrounded by trees.

'I need to get to the nearest reeve hall,' he croaked. 'Can you help me?'

They laughed.

'That's right,' said the stocky young man called Laukas. 'You say you want to reach Copper Hall, but you'll drop out of sight the moment our backs are turned and go running back to give your master a full accounting of our numbers and disposition.'

'I need to get to a reeve hall. I am not-' In truth he was a spy, and if he got back to Olossi he would certainly give Captain Anji an accounting of the numbers and disposition of even such a ragtag group. 'I am not from the army. I am fleeing the army. They want to kill me because I am an outlander.'

A shout of joy cut through his stumbling words and Laukas's skeptical expression. A man pushed through the circle of spears to embrace the older of the women. When they parted, she introduced the other refugee, a young woman wearing the blue cloak of an envoy of Ilu.

'The Ilu priests asked us to get Navita out of the city. She's gods-touched, and all the gods-touched and outlanders are being hauled in for interrogation.' She indicated Shai. 'Although I've never seen that one before. Maybe a kind master wanted to spare his life, eh? He's not bad-looking.'

'Eiya! You've not changed,' retorted her exasperated brother. 'Now he's seen us, we can't leave him. Place a guard on him at all times, Laukas. Let's move.'

They rolled up the carpets and slung them into the back of carts, which were hitched to mules. Laukas and another man helped him up, not kindly but not roughly.

'Who are you?' Shai asked.

'Who do you think we are?' asked Laukas with a barked laugh. 'We're the cursed resistance, aren't we? We're all that stands between Haldia and that cursed army.'

'It's enough to make a strong man weep,' remarked his companion.

'That explains why you're not crying.'

'Sheh! Who was it won our last arm-wrestling contest?'

'Only because you had Geda shoving down on your hand, eh? Two against one, and her with her tits in my face, distracting me.'

'Piss-head, you'll face me again, or I'll have the whole camp calling you an ass-licking coward.'

'Depends on whose ass. Geda's been giving me the look-' With a laugh, Laukas dodged a swipe of the other man's spear.

'And when I tell Geda what you've been saying, she'll chop off your eggs with that axe of hers and cook them for her supper.'

'Now, that I would believe.'

They followed the carts along a rutted track into tangled forest where shadows lay heavy even with the sun shining overhead. Four men trailed their party, sweeping away such tracks as they could, scattering leaves across the path to make it look as if no one had passed this way recently. After some time, the track by now barely wide enough to accommodate the wagons and increasingly uneven, they halted and with practiced ease unhitched the mules, loaded them with the goods, and concealed the carts beneath undergrowth. On they walked. Laukas and his friend Ketti kept so casual a guard on Shai that he began to wonder if they were hoping he would bolt just so they could have a bit of excitement chasing him down. The leader dropped back to walk beside them.

'Greetings of the day. I'm Tomen.'

'I'm called Shai.'



Laukas shrugged. 'These outlanders have cursed strange names.'

Ketti murmured the name a couple of times, trying to get the vowels right.

'Who was willing to take the risk of smuggling you out?' Tomen asked. 'You'll understand we have to be suspicious of anyone we don't know.'

Shai considered his options.

With a tight smile, Tomen went on. 'While you're thinking up a likely story, try making it an entertaining one.'

They trudged in silence but for the weight of feet and hooves on the trail. It was cool under the leaves; with only a vest and trousers, Shai found himself suppressing a shiver. Mud coated his bare feet. His toes were cold.

'I am a scout,' he said finally. 'But not for the army. I am spying on them. I was pretending to be a slave. Then the call came

that all outlanders must be interrogated by the cloaks. So I had to get away.'

'Not a very colorful account,' observed Tomen.

'No fights, no devouring, no wine,' agreed Laukas.

'I've heard my little sister make up better tales,' added Ketti.

'Who are you spying for?' Tomen continued. 'How did you contact the smugglers? Why did they agree to help you? You can see these are questions we'll need answers for.'

'If you're captured, anything I tell you can be taken from you.' He coughed the last bit of dust out of his throat. 'By the Guardians who command the army.'

'I've heard it said the commanders of the army wear cloaks and call themselves Guardians. But Laukas here could wear a cloak and call himself a Guardian.'

'Still wouldn't help him get women to sleep with him,' added Ketti. 'Him with that… problem… he has.'

'You wish you had my problem,' said Laukas with a laugh, slapping Ketti on the ass. 'They're all afraid of me because I have such a masterful tool.'

'Call them demons, then,' said Shai, over the banter. 'They look into your heart and eat'your memories.'

That made them frown. Tomen strode ahead to talk to his sister and the young envoy. They walked along casually enough, but Ketti looked over his shoulder whenever the men walking as rearguard fell out of sight behind a bend. Some of the group carried regular weapons, spears with iron points, short swords, but the rest made do with hunting bows, scythes, axes, or stout walking staffs with one end sharpened to a point. He might outrun them, Shai thought, but then he'd be lost, weaponless, and without food or shelter. They hadn't killed him yet. He still had a chance to enlist their help.

Through the afternoon they stopped twice to water the mules and drink from leather bottles filled with a sour-sharp juice that made Shai's mouth pucker as Laukas and Ketti laughed.

Late in the day Tomen dropped back with his sister, who had a roving eye that took in Shai's form from toe to head, lingering on his hips and chest in a way that made him blush.

'It could be true,' she said. 'He could be a scout come to spy on the army. I never saw any outlanders marching with the cursed occupiers. Still, there's a tale in the street that a second army was sent to Olo'osson but got whipped and its remnants

sent crawling home. That might be a story people tell to themselves to gather hope where there is none, or it might be true. What do you say, Shayi?'

'Let us say I tell you who I am and where I come from. Let us say you are captured. Then if they take you in front of one of the cloaks, all the things I tell you, the cloaks will come to know. Better I keep silence.'

'Can these cloaks eat our hearts?' Tomen asked his sister.

'Folk are terrified of them, that's certain. I never faced one. Let's see what the honored ones say.'

They camped that night on the edge of open ground, sleeping among the bushes with guards set over Shai. At dawn, two strangers were led blindfolded into the encampment. Coin changed hands, and the two men led away the mules, the carpets, and certain of the heavier encumbrances, while the remaining baggage was distributed among the group.

'I can take more,' Shai said, after they'd burdened him with bolts of cloth lashed together, an awkward bundle whose weight drove down his back.

'Wsst! Look at him, showing off,' said Laukas.

Ketti snorted.

'Quiet,' said Tomen.

All morning they slunk along the verge of cleared fields, neat orchards, a small lake with shores grown heavy with rushes and several wooden piers built out into the shallows, a cluster of villages ringed by carefully husbanded woodlots. About midday, they crept through the abandoned ruins of an old waterwheel housing half-collapsed over a stream. A spur of woodland had grown into decaying outbuildings that had been left to rot long years ago. Moving away from the stream's splashing chatter, they picked their way through underbrush toward a massive tree of a kind Shai did not recognize. Below branches thick as roof beams, a path had been cleared, hard to see unless you were right on it but well maintained along its twisting length. Now they picked up the pace, stopping twice to take swigs of the juice which was only growing more sour as time passed. After a while they left the path and splashed down a stream until Shai thought his feet would freeze.

'You're tough, I'll give you that,' Laukas said when they climbed onto a sliver of trail. 'Not one word of complaint.'

Birds whistled in the canopy as they followed the trail

through branches and dragging vines as likely to slap you in the face as part gracefully at your passing. When twigs snapped or leaves rustled, he could not see what had made the noise. His bundle got caught several times in vines or limbs, forcing him to wait for someone to chop him free. It was as if the forest were clutching at him.

At last he stumbled into a clearing overtopped by trees whose canopies spread like roofs. A fire burned in a brick hearth, two big blackened pots hanging over coals and meat sizzling on a spit. Hammocks swung from the lower branches of trees, while canvas roofs were slung higher up where huge limbs branched and boards had been hammered between to make platforms.

He had expected a larger group, but once he sorted out the faces he already knew from the unfamiliar ones, he counted only thirty-seven fighters. They greeted each other with jostling, hugging, and kissing while he stood in their midst with all that weight on his shoulders, forgotten except for Laukas with an eyebrow cocked toward him. Ketti had his arms full with a tall lass.

She looked over his shoulder at Shai. 'What's this? A new mule?'

'Ouch,' remarked Laukas to Shai. 'You must admit I've been hells more polite to you, eh? That's Geda. Tongue like a dagger.'

'What else it's good for you'll never know,' she retorted, releasing Ketti and circling Shai with the same hungry look Tomen's sister had used, the one that made color rise to his cheeks. Women in Kartu Town never looked at men like that. 'Well built, I must say.'

'Heya!' said Ketti. 'You're my girl.'

'I'm not your girl. I'm just sleeping with you.' She dismissed all three men with a shrug and walked over to greet Tomen and his sister.

Laukas helped Shai out of the straps. 'Poor Ketti. Oof! That's heavier than I thought.'

An elderly woman took charge of the goods with the measuring gaze of an experienced merchant. In the clearing, logs made benches, and folk settled with pleasure to take a meal. Someone with plenty of time on her hands had carved trenchers enough for every two or three to share, using carved spoons to scoop nai porridge and sticks to pluck scraps of meat sliced from the haunch. To Shai's surprise, there was plenty. He ate until he was

full, and they begrudged him none of it even as Laukas kept a seat to one side and Ketti to the other. Talk poured like rain; Shai, exhausted, had trouble following it. There fell laughter and songs, and afterward as he nodded in and out of a sitting doze, men pulled out a table and set it on flat ground. The arm-wrestling began, first among the women — Geda won this tournament — and afterward the men took turns in a complicated system he was too tired to sort out.

Laukas pulled on his arm. 'Up, Shayi_. It's your turn.'

'My turn?' He rubbed his face. 'But-'

They steered him to the table and sat him cross-legged in the local way. They'd pitted him against a weedy young man who was no struggle, a pop down to the table, which made them roar with laughter and sit down another volunteer. He demolished nine before Ketti sat down with a good-natured smile that tightened at the corners of his eyes to betray a man who did not like to lose. It occurred to Shai that he needed to shake off his wool-headedness. An odd scent tickled his nostrils as if in a stinging wind off the sandy desert; he could not identify what it was. Branches swayed, but he felt no wind.

He fixed hand to hand with Ketti. Geda was bent so far over to watch that her breasts seemed likely to pop out of her tightly laced vest right in his face.

Laukas, standing as referee with a hand resting atop their clasped ones, laughed. 'Careful, Shayi. If you win, then you have to sleep with Geda. Enough to suck away a man's strength, eh?'

'I don't have to sleep with anyone,' said Shai, thinking of Eridit.

That set them whooping and laughing. Laukas released their hands.


One thing Shai was, was stubborn. Ketti was as strong, but he'd never learned to focus in and endure. To wait for the opening.

At a wavering in Ketti's grip, Shai pushed, and Ketti's arm sank backward. Catching the tipping point, Shai slammed Ketti's hand onto the table top to a chorus of hollering and clapping and jeering.

The noise ceased between one breath and the next.

Ketti released Shai's hands and sat back, swiping sweat off his forehead as he looked nervously to his left. Folk melted back as

a creature glided through the gathering and halted by the table. Ketti scrambled up, and the creature settled into the vacant place. The creature set its right elbow on the table, hand up, with the left lying beneath. Laukas backed away.

Naked to the waist except for its leather forearm guards, it was quite obviously female, although its broad shoulders and muscled chest made its small breasts seem insignificant in contrast. He forced his gaze up to the face. Although it had lips, nose, and face molded in a familiar form, it was not human. Its skin had the color of leaves, a downy growth of hair also tinted green, and yet as he cautiously grasped its hands, its palms felt exactly like human palms. Its hair dangled in vine-like ropes, as though its head sprouted a garden rather than hair. Its ears were tufted and set slightly away from the human-shaped head. Its eyes were not ordinary eyes: they were many-faceted. When it blinked, a sheer inner lid flicked down; a second more ordinary eyelid flashed and opened. Its eyes had changed: what stared at him now shone black, like polished jet. As he recoiled, it tightened its grip on his left hand.

None in the assembly spoke. No one moved.

Its smell had a humid savor, like the forest.

Hu! The others did not fear it, although their silence implied respect. He shifted his seat to ground himself. It grinned to display a remarkably human set of teeth.

'He's done for now,' whispered Laukas, dropping a hand over their clasped hands and, after a count, releasing.

Shai braced, but was driven down, the press against him. The creature was simply so much stronger that he might have been a child testing its strength against a patient adult, one who didn't want to smash his hand down lest it wound his pride.

He was a fist's-breadth away from defeat.

Its ears flicked.

It released him and rose so quickly that one blink it was braced before him and the next was leaping into the trees as a faintly heard and very low rumble trembled in the air: a horn.

Tomen pushed through the group with a stream of orders: 'Laukas, ten on the path. Archers, to the trees. Ketti, pull the elder back to the cave. Geda, have your slings and nets ready.'

They moved.

Tomen grabbed Shai's vest, hauling him up. He was strong, maybe not strong enough to defeat Shai arm-wrestling but with

enough strength to make his will known. 'If you're a spy who has betrayed us, you'll die.'

'I have not betrayed you. I'm just trying to get to Nessumara.'

A whistle pierced the air, followed by a scatter of cries like flocking birds. With weapons in hand, folk faced the track. A bare-legged and bare-footed youth raced into the clearing, a skinny child not more than twelve or thirteen years of age clothed in a dirty linen jacket belted at the waist and reaching its knees.

'Soldiers… attacking… Upperpool… village… no quarter… help…' Words gave way to a hacking cough and a spew of bile.

'Arm up, all hands,' said Tomen as everyone listened, poised and tense and eager.

'Action at last,' murmured Laukas.

'Anyone who wants to stay back with the elder can help her move the supplies to the cave,' added Tomen.

No one wanted to stay back. They assembled with such weapons and armor — thick leather coats — as they possessed, while Tomen coaxed information out of the youth.

'Lots of them. More than twenty? I didn't see. Upperpool burning. We can see the flames from Lowerpool. My cousin got away. There were others running.'

'Lowerpool will be hit next.' Tomen raised a hand to gain the attention of his fighters. 'These strikes on villages are the same, a cadre of bullies with good weapons using surprise and intimidation to overtake resistance. We've talked over the drill. We're equal in numbers. They're better armed. We'll use archers and ambush to pick them off, then we close and kill the rest. No prisoners. Laukas, you'll take lookout.'

'The hells! I want to fight-'

'You'll take lookout. It's time for us to make known we don't intend to let this army burn and pillage at will. Tonight our weapons will be our voice, a bold cry against the invaders!'

The company cheered.

'Uh. Might I ask a question? If you don't actually know how many there are-?' Shai's voice fell unheeded as they scrambled for the track, those still gathering their gear swearing as they hurried so as not to be left behind. He was left behind as the clearing emptied.

'What are you?' the youth asked, looking alarmed as he saw Shai. 'An outlander!'

Branches pitched as though in the grip of a mighty wind. A figure dropped from tree to earth, not six paces from the youth, who tripped and sprawled backward. Shaking, he displayed his hands palms up, then sketched a familiar gesture of meeting as he stood.

'Greetings of the day, honored one.'

It blinked, black-eyed, before copying the hand gesture so perfectly that Shai expected it to continue into some extended tale told through song and gesture. It was a male, its slim hips and legs clothed in leggings.

'I have to go, honored one.' The child ran down the track after the fighters, and the creature loped after it.

The noise of their passage faded.

'Here, mule,' said the elder, beckoning to Shai. 'Help me and Navita carry things.'

Was it better to run now while he was unguarded, to head south alone and easily marked as an outlander, knowing everyone he met would be suspicious of him? Or should he stay here, hoping to earn their trust and help? The elder and the young envoy watched him, surely needing no third eye or second heart to interpret his thoughts.

He shrugged. 'Show me what you need carried, verea.'

He hauled from the clearing along a track and over a streamlet and through rockier ground where trees struggled for a foothold. They reached an escarpment thrust so abruptly out of the ground it was like walking into a wall. Vines obscured the face of the cliff. He pushed through a tangle of ropy vegetation to deposit the basket on a dirt floor in the gloom. The cave smelled of dirt and tasted of the forge.

As they came out, the young envoy smiled anxiously at him, as if she had decided to treat him as a comrade. 'My ostiary said I had to get out of town because I was being hunted. I've never been outside the city before today. I don't like the forest. It smells funny. Anything might be creeping up on you!'

'Heya!' called the elder.

Shai and the envoy, sharing a complicit glance, hurried after. They hauled supplies as the afternoon lengthened into dusk. When it got too dark to see, the elder lit a lantern. Eventually they paused for a rest in the abandoned clearing.

'You're a hard worker, Shayi,' the elder said, 'I'll give you that. You might have bashed me over the head and taken a run for it, although you'd not escape the wildings, would you, eh?'

'The wildings?'

As if the word were a summons, the male dropped out of the trees. In lamplight, it sketched gestures with its hands.

The old woman became rigid with disbelief. 'Ambushed at the waterwheel? No survivors? Soldiers coming this way?'

The wilding gestured toward Navita and indicated that the young woman should climb onto its back. Hurry! Hurry!

The breeze waned to stillness. A distant shout hung in the air, and then it was drowned by an odd sound shuddering within the trees, a spill like falling rain. A rippling shadow descended out of darkness: a woman cloaked in night, riding a winged horse. Soldiers emerged out of the forest, surrounding them.

The cloaked woman reined in the horse, raising a hand. 'Child of the Four Mothers,' she said to the wilding. 'I will not harm you because of the ancient law binding my kind to that of the other children of the Hundred. Out of the same blood and bone and thread we were created.'

It hesitated, an arm extended to indicate the trembling young envoy.

'You think to save her, but no action you take can save her from my scrutiny. Go. I may not kill you, but that does not mean my soldiers may not grow impatient and strike.'

It showed its teeth in a grin of furious despair but retreated, vanishing into the trees.

'Aui!' called one of the soldiers. 'Was that a wilding} It's cursed bad luck to kill any of the other children. Curses ten times down the generations.'

'Shut up,' said the captain in charge. 'Holy One, this girl is the Flag Quarter envoy we've been seeking, I'm sure of it.'

'Look at me,' said the cloaked woman pleasantly.

Meeting that gaze, the elder staggered and clutched at her heart as she dropped the lantern, which hit square and did not tip. Two soldiers hauled Navita forward to face the cloak.

'Veiled to my sight!' said the cloak, more a murmur of disappointment. 'You are a seventh daughter, perhaps?'

The girl maintained her dignity with remarkable self-possession. 'I am, Holy One. Seventh of eight girls born to my good mother. I am gods-touched, and according to the law will serve out my days as a servant of the gods. I was dedicated to Ilu the Herald three years ago.'

'Still young,' said the cloak, signaling to the captain, who

moved up behind the young woman with his drawn sword. 'But gods-cursed, not gods-touched.'

The man stabbed Navita in the back, up under the ribs. Her grunt was all that betrayed her surprise. The elder collapsed, sobbing, to her knees, as the captain cut Navita's throat. Her death was swift, and her ghost, twisting out of her body, cast a surprised look at Shai.

'You're gods-touched, too!' the ghost cried. 'Hurry, Shayi! Save yourself!'

Then her spirit fled, crossing under the Gate.

'Are you the veiled outlander Bevard spoke of?' the cloak asked.

T don't have to tell you,' said Shai. 'What harm did Navita ever do to you?'

'Those who are veiled are dangerous because they can lie without fear. They are demons with human faces. It was not the intention of the gods that any stand veiled before us. Captain?'

The captain moved up behind Shai, sword still wet with blood.

'You don't want to kill me,' said Shai.

The cloak sighed a mournful smile. 'Why not?'

'I came to the Hundred looking for my brother. You know him. His name is Harishil, and he wears one of the cloaks.'

The captain whistled. 'There is a resemblance between him and Lord Twilight.'

'Harishil's brother.' The cloak's gaze was as smooth as a polished stone and just as unfathomable. 'Captain, take him to Wedrewe. I'll join you after I have tracked down the gods-touched mendicants so many have spoken of.'

'To Wedrewe! Holy One, that's a cursed long way!'

'Are you a captain, or do you wish to be a sergeant again?'

'Of course, Holy One. It will be done exactly as you wish.' He prodded Shai with the bloody point of his sword. 'Pick up the lantern, and let's get the hells out of this cursed woodland and to a decent road.'

Not dead yet: at this point, that seemed to be the most Shai could ask for. He picked up the lantern and starting walking.


The enemy crept cautiously out of the forest's edge, watching for the glare of fire in the distance where villages burned. Captain Arras had set his ambush carefully: four lines of attack, trip wires, and a gauntlet of spearmen to sweep around from behind so no stragglers could escape back into the trees. The fighting was short, sharp, and efficient; not one of his men was killed, although ten sustained wounds and two were so badly hurt they'd likely be crippled. Ten of the enemy survived the main attack on their feet and refused to surrender, preferring to fight to the death, so he had them taken down with arrows. Three of the enemy were mortally wounded but still breathing; he cut their throats himself, as a mercy.

At dawn, he commanded the men to drag the bodies into the open clearing behind the ruined waterwheel, where he paced out the measure of the dead, his sandaled feet moistened with dew as he counted thirty-four men and women, two short of a full cadre. Too bad they'd joined up with the wrong side; he could have used such bold, hard fighters, molded them into something more than a ragtag poorly led herd of frustrated rebels.

Sergeant Giyara herded the shivering child forward and, at his gesture, moved away to the perimeter. No one could overhear them now.

'You did as you were told,' he said to the child: he wasn't sure if it was a homely boy or a brawny girl. 'How many were left at camp?'

The child was weeping, tears smearing lines through its filthy face. 'Dunno. A few. Not fighters.'

'Any outlanders?'

'I saw one.' Its voice trembled as it contemplated the ashes of its triumph. Under Arras's steady gaze it found its tongue and spoke in a whisper. 'You won't kill my family?'

'First, you'll lead us to the clearing.' The captain fastened a hand over the neck of the child's jacket.

The raid on the villages was well in hand, according to the runners who came in from his other companies to report. He called in the men, had the wounded set up a perimeter within the ruins to await his return, and settled the rest into files, making sure his

strongest, most stubborn fighters were concentrated in the van and at the rearguard. The dogs and their handlers were sprinkled throughout the line in case of attack while they were strung out and vulnerable on a forest track. This was the dangerous part of the operation, so he took point with a pair of trusted men, put the child on a rope, and sent him ahead like a dog. They trotted at good speed along the track.

A mind, surely, was like this forest, tangled and overgrown, its reaches hidden to the common eye. What the cloaks possessed was something like the path they marched along, a way to punch into what you otherwise could not penetrate. What if there was a way to let your thoughts grow over and hide from the cloaks?

The enemy hadn't been entirely stupid. They'd emplaced a lookout, but the person had fled, the only survivor. They'd tried to cover their tracks, keep their base hidden. His company had to wade up a stream, a good technique for throwing off dogs on a scent, and take a second track yet deeper into the forest. But in the end they found the clearing with its canvas structures still strung up. The fire was ashes. Platters were scattered around logs set out as benches; small animals had been feeding on the leavings. Wind bellied the canvas awnings. Birds fluttered away through high branches. Two corpses cooled: an elderly woman and a lass wearing the blue cloak of an envoy of Ilu.

He had an itch on his shoulders, that gods-rotted feeling he was being watched, but although he paced the edge of the clearing and peered into the foliage, he saw not even a bold crow. There! The bright flash revealed birds with red and yellow plumage.

'Track over here, Captain,' called Sergeant Giyara.

'Secure the site,' said Arras to her. 'Search for weapons, supplies, and coin. You twenty, come with me.'

They followed the second trail through more forest, over rockier ground, only to have it give way at a rocky spine thrust out of the earth and covered with hanging vines and low-growing shrubs nestled in its crevices. There was an actual cave inhabited by a scatter of ancient debris, rotting leaves blown in through the vines that screened the entrance, and a jumbled pile of animal bones scored with tooth marks.

'A predator's nest,' said one of the men nervously.

'Nothing's lived here for a long while,' observed the captain, 'and I see no sign they were storing anything here either.'

They lit a pair of torches, but the cave's ceiling lowered in the

back until they'd have had to crawl to get in any farther, and there was an odd smell like rotten eggs that made the man in the front cough and choke until he couldn't speak, so Arras called them back. They searched the vicinity but found only a scumble of tracks.

'I think we've flushed out what's left of this nest of rats.' He took no pleasure in killing; it's just it had to be done and he liked doing what he was good at. Yet he still had that prickling feeling on the back of his neck: someone watching. 'We'll gather up the other units and march on.'

'We going back to Toskala, Captain?' asked one of the newcomers assigned to his command by Toskala's governor along with seventeen other untested men. Arras had spread them out, three to each cadre, keeping them isolated from each other so they'd bond with the soldiers he knew and trusted.

'No.' His strong voice carried. 'We're marching on Nessumara to join the army there, as we were commanded to by Lord Twilight himself. There's fighting ahead, and plenty of coin and loot to be had after the city falls.'

The three newcomers whooped, then fell silent as the veterans yawned and scratched, pretending to ignore the novices' enthusiasm.

The cadre retraced their steps to the clearing, where the pathetic items swept up from the remains of the camp were neatly laid out under Sergeant Giyara's supervision. Arras liked a woman with a tidy mind; Giyara was tough-minded and effective. She was attractive as well, but he knew better than to indulge that itch with a valued subordinate.

To the men he said, 'Divvy up what's portable in even lots.'

Giyara had already divided out the food: ten small sacks of rice, nai, turnips, bundled herbs, and a substantial store of smoked venison. The durable trenchers were easy to store in their travel packs. The canvas was good quality.

'We'll meet up with our other companies and continue south to Nessumara,' he said, again, his voice ringing beneath the canopy. 'According to our orders from Lord Twilight. We're expected to make good time, so let's hustle.'

The sergeant called out, 'Line up!'

The child looked like a beaten dog, all mournful eyes and drooping head. 'Are you leaving? What about my family?'

'Your family has not been harmed.' As the men began to march

out, he realized he could still make use of the child. 'A word of warning. The other survivors will begin to suspect your family's curious luck in escaping with no injuries. And although your family may be grateful now, they'll come to hate you later. Your kinsfolk's resentment may be worse than the anger of your neighbors. If I were you, I'd leave, and find a new place to make your way.'

He fell in with the rearguard.

No doubt it would straggle home bawling, yet wasn't it better to die than be a traitor? The angry ghosts of its dead would haunt it for the rest of its life, however long that would prove to be in these disordered times. He wondered if he felt kinship or disgust for the child.

'Captain?' Sergeant Giyara had fallen back. 'Sure you don't want that child's kinsfolk cleansed? Traitors ought to be punished.'

'Neh, we made them, so leave them be. Anyway, if I were a wagering man, I'd bet you the child will follow us and before five days are out be begging to let it join the company.'

'You think so?'

This was how you obscured your trail. 'I do.'

He scanned the forest. He was used to high-elevation trees, ones that could survive frost and a seasonal dusting of the snow never seen down here. These lowland hothouse woodlands creeped him, for sure, so dense and moist it was like being inside a vast sensate beast. Branches were swaying although the breeze wasn't strong enough to send them rocking like that.

At the ruins of the waterwheel, they carted up their wounded and called in the other companies, leaving behind half-pillaged villages with corpses and burned houses scattered like chaff. There was a decent north-south road here, running roughly parallel to but rather more inland than the famed Istri Walk, the major road that ran on high ground on both banks alongside the magnificent River Istri, whose humble headwaters he had grown up fishing.

Strange where life took an insignificant ordinand. He'd never imagined in his youth that he'd find himself living in a time where he could become a true soldier, just like those who were more reviled than admired in the tales.

By midafternoon they could no longer smell the smoke of their raid, and in the villages they marched through they paused only

long enough to demand coin. In one village, a pair of rambunctious cousins begged leave to join them, and he allowed them to sign on as hirelings mostly because their clansmen were clearly horrified at this desertion. Later, when he halted to allow his men to wet their throats at an inn, a rough-looking traveler named Laukas asked for a hire, saying he'd tend to horses or boots, anything for a meal and a chance at learning how to fight properly. The new men worked hard that evening when they set up camp; they'd either grow tired of the labor, or they wouldn't. Only time would tell.

He made a circuit of the sentry lines and returned to his own fire to eat nai porridge and smoked meat. The sergeants gave their reports, and afterward he dismissed all except Giyara.

'I'm thinking of that child,' Arras said, as if the thought had just leaped upon him and wrestled him to the ground. 'Maybe you could leave a parcel of food and drink out beyond the sentry lines, something the child might stumble upon if indeed it is following us.'

Giyara cocked her head, examining him as if he were crazy. 'As you wish, Captain.'

'I just have a feeling,' he repeated, and shook his head, sensing he was overdoing it. 'What have you heard about the eighteen new recruits we were saddled with?'

She'd known he would want to hear the gossip, so she had already done her talking with the company subcaptains and cadre sergeants. Her analysis was succinct: Fifteen would likely work out, one had died in the raid through sheer idiocy, and the other two were troublemakers he'd need to deal with soon.

'Just kill them,' he said. 'Rid us of the problem immediately rather than let it drag on. You can slot those three new men in, but be sure to split up the cousins.'

He dismissed her, then considered the flames, the pleasant noises of an orderly camp settling down for the night, and the distant scream of a rabbit caught in the dusk by a predator.


'The hells!' He sprang up, hand on his sword hilt, but it was already too late. A woman cloaked in night walked out of the darkness and captured him, her voice the hook and her eyes the spear. Down he tumbled, his heart and mind laid open to her sight, all his secrets revealed.

He liked Lord Twilight, truth to tell, although he knew a hum-

ble soldier like him hadn't the right to feel any sense of comradeship with a cloak, who was either a holy Guardian or an unholy lilu or some hells-brewed stew of both. Anyway, you couldn't say no to a cloak, even if — especially if — the cloak's orders were likely to get you strung up on a pole.

So he would cover his tracks as well as he could. He would play the game of misdirection. He had crushed a nest of bandits. Nothing suspicious in that. Meanwhile, he would send Sergeant Giyara out with parcels of food every night, ostensibly for a child who might be brash enough to follow, although he deemed that particular child unlikely to have the courage. That was the kind of child who stuck it out in a bad situation, too afraid to bolt, and got itself whipped and eventually, when its own people had come to despise it enough, butchered. Rotten, they would call it, and then they'd fling its spiritless flesh into the woods to be scoured by the Lady's beasts and pretend it had never existed. Every night someone other than him would take out those parcels for a child who probably wasn't following them, while he would hope that a fugitive outlander seeking safe passage to Nessumara had actually been hiding in the forest within hearing of his voice.

She released him.

He fell forward, barely catching himself on his hands, his nose brushing the dirt. 'Do you mean to have me cleansed, Holy One?'

She spoke without anger or sorrow. 'Captain Arras, I followed you because I was curious why three companies stumbled onto the very same bandits I did. It seemed unlikely it was a coincidence. Nor was it. I have a better insight into events now. Yet I do not fault you for obeying Lord Twilight's order. I appreciate your loyalty and your cleverness. You attempt to protect your soldiers as well as yourself. Very commendable.'

'How may I serve you, Holy One?' he said, keeping his head bowed and straining his will to empty his mind. Maybe he had a chance of surviving this.

'Fight well with the army, Captain. When Lord Twilight returns, when he seeks you out, as he will, tell him I have his brother.'

'Greetings of the day, verea. Nice the markets are open again, eh?' Ostiary Nekkar examined a tray of withered caul petals as he crouched on his haunches beside an old woman selling remnants from her garden.

'Generous of you to say so, Holy One. Only from second bell to fourth bell, and then us chased back into our homes.' She was very wrinkled, with many teeth missing, but she had a vigorous heart and was willing to speak her mind.

'Where's your granddaughter, verea? I miss her cheerful face.'

'As if we'd risk her in the marketplace in days like these.' She indicated two soldiers leaning on their spears and two others strolling as they looked over the merchandise. Usually, one bell after dawn, the main market of Stone Quarter was alive with chatter and gossip and laughter. Nekkar never tired of observing people: the blazing health and innocent beauty of the young, the nagging and hopefully jovial complaints of those who, like him, were mature without being elderly, and the enduring strength of folk like Gazara, twice widowed but a great-grandmother, the pillar of her poor but proud clan of day laborers, men and women who dug ditches, cleared canals, and worked on the road beds.

He nodded. 'Is there work for your people? How are you managing?'

She bent over the caul petals to separate the merely withered from the desiccated. 'The soldiers pay coin to anyone who brings them information, so I hear.'

'I remember,' said Nekkar carefully, 'that your clan took in two families of distant cousins some months ago.'

She wiped her mouth with the back of a hand and spoke in a whisper. 'They're with us still, Holy One. We're keeping it quiet, for fear they'll get themselves expelled and us hanged.'

'A dreadful thing, truly. Verea, before the main army marched downriver on Nessumara, I was interrogated, because I went out scouting one day while the curfew was still on. This has been my first chance to get out.'

She measured him. 'You've a few bruises, like fallen fruit.'

'I'm asking around the market for a particular reason.' She looked up, alarmed, but he smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way. 'When I was roughed up, there was a refugee in the line ahead of me. He was killed later, trying to get back to whatever alley he'd left his children in.'

'Orphans,' she muttered gloomily.

'I'm asking around, if anyone has heard tell of three children being swept up or driven out, or taken in, or glimpsed in the alleys.'

'Those village children were always gawking at the silks and

the noodle sellers.' She cracked a reluctant smile, but it fled quickly. 'The soldiers have been cleaning out the alleys. They've worked through the entire quarter riverside of our compound.'

'And the canal-side neighborhoods over by the temple,' he said.

'I'm sorry to say my lads have been forced to take hire building out that burned merchant's hall in Terta Square, that one they're turning into a fortified garrison headquarters. I heard them remark just last evening there are still neighborhoods over by the masons' courts with refugees hanging on in nooks and crannies. Eiya! It was better when those refugees weren't here, for they ate up the rations we need now, but it's a cursed terrible thing the army is doing-'

'Hush, my friend,' he said in a low voice, seeing the soldiers approach from her blind side. He went on loudly. 'I can't pay that ridiculous price, verea. I'm surprised you even suggest it!'

'For shame, Holy One! How can I feed my grandchildren if I can't sell my produce for a pair of vey, eh?'

The young men sauntered up behind her. 'Eh, look at those withered caul petals! My grandmother would have been too proud to demand coin for what she'd feed to her pigs.'

The old woman bent her head to hide the spark of anger.

Nekkar smiled blandly up at them. 'Greetings of the day, my nephews. A fine day, eh? The sun is very lively today, good weather ahead.'

'We've got our eye on you, uncle,' said the taller soldier. 'You can't trust those cursed envoys of Ilu, that's what Sergeant Tomash told us before he got reassigned. Always sneaking around, gossiping, getting into the business of others.'

'Where did you serve your apprenticeship, nephew?'

'Thinks he's got the right to ask, eh?' said the shorter to the taller, guffawing as at a merry joke. They sauntered over to a woman selling plums and took the nicest off her tray without paying.

'They call that "tithing,"' muttered Gazara. 'Cursed thieves.'

'The young have sharp hearing,' he said mildly.

The soldiers glanced over and gestured as if to say, 'Don't think to escape us.'

'I thank you for the tidings, verea,' he added, knees popping as he straightened.

'Don't get into trouble, Holy One. We here in Stone Quarter rely on you for your honesty and good temper.'

'I wish there was more I could do. For now, we must keep our heads down and try to survive.'

No matter how much he wanted to go haring off toward the masons' courts immediately, he loitered in the market, purchasing three honey-sesame cakes and tucking them in his sleeve as he made his way along the main thoroughfare toward the square where he had faced interrogation ten days earlier. The army had swept up ransom and hostages, and departed, and Nekkar was cursed sure that the garrison left behind to guard Toskala were the worst of the lot, bullies and thieves who took whatever they fancied just because they had the power to do so.

A pair of soldiers — likely the same ones by their mismatched height — trailed him at a distance, but he knew the neighborhoods better than they did. Behind Astarda's Arch, he cut into a nook where, according to temple history, there had once stood an age-blackened statue of Kotaru the Thunderer, a relic of an earlier era. He heard the startled cries of the men tailing him and the patter of their footsteps as they raced down the street in pursuit. He hurried back the way he had come and made his way into the warren of alleys behind the masons' courts.

He surprised a couple of locals scavenging through canvas shelters still strung from walls. Crude pallets had been cut open. A ripped and muddied doll lay in the street — it seemed there must always be a doll torn from the grip of some poor sobbing child. A dead dog had gone rigid, feet pointing up; at least it did not yet stink. He hurried past, but heard a scrape and turned back. A ragged child had grasped the hind legs of the dog and was dragging it into the shadows.

'Child,' he said softly, holding out the honey-sesame cakes.

The child froze. Its posture, as rigid in its own way as the dog's, betrayed the intensity of its fear and hunger. For a few breaths, they watched each other. Then Nekkar allowed his gaze to probe the shadows. A half-closed-up drain was tucked away under the two-story building leaning out over the alley. A face wavered in the opening. He could not be sure these were the children of the murdered man whose pleas had gone unheard by all except Nekkar, but truly, it did not matter.

'That's one very dead dog, neh? Not even the firelings as in the tales could heal it, eh?'

The child quivered but did not let go of the legs.

'You're right to be cautious. You are protecting the ones hiding

in the drain. I'm an ostiary, not one of the soldiers. I've come at your father's request to take you to the temple, where you'll be safe.'

'We gotta wait 'til he come back,' said the child in a raspy voice. Impossible to say if this filthy scrap was male or female, and it was certainly no more than ten.

'Yes, truly you do, but aren't the little ones hungry?'

Its gaze flicked toward the shadows and away, fearful of giving up its secrets.

'I tell you what. You come with me now, and we'll wait at the temple until your father comes.'

The child relinquished its hold on the dog's legs. It scratched the rash blooming across its exposed neck. 'He said to wait.'

'And so you have. But he's had to go out of the city, and now he needs you to come with me to the temple. How long has it been since you've seen him?'

The child answered with a shrug.

'Meanwhile, the little ones are hungry. And need a bath. By the honor of Ilu, child, I promise to care for you.'

Aui! Let the child be not so stubborn!

The sag in its shoulders "acknowledged its weary defeat. It turned to face the shadows and called. 'Heya! We're goin' to the Ilu temple and get fed.'

A smaller child crawled out from the hole, its body smeared with mud, followed by an even smaller child who wore only a scrap of linen tied over one shoulder, like a mockery of a cloak, and was therefore exposed as a boy-child. Both children were little more than sticks with joints that bent and eyes that blinked.

'You sure?' asked the middle one, who was clutching a bundle.

'You wanna eat this dog?' asked the eldest.

'We best hurry,' Nekkar said, 'lest soldiers come. They were here before, neh?'

'We hid,' said the eldest.

The middle one raised a hand. 'I hear them coming,' it whispered in a voice rubbed raw.

The eldest cocked its head as its eyes flared. 'We gotta hide, Holy One.'

Too late Nekkar heard the smack of footfalls and the conversational rise and fall of young male voices fading and growing as they turned an unseen corner that brought them closer.

'Hide,' he said.

He ducked down and slid on his belly through a stinking muck that slopped on his neck. The drain was stone on all sides, damp and fetid. The two little ones scrambled in behind, but the eldest darted back to grab at the dead dog.

Soldiers shouted. The child ran the other way to draw their attention away from the drain. They sprinted past, and their shouts of triumph told the rest of the tale. Then back they came, dragging the child, and the littlest one scrabbled out through the hole after his sibling and the middle one followed as his muddy foot slipped through Nekkar's grasp.

The hells! He was not so young and so fit as he had once been, and his tunic snagged and he had to rip it loose, gods-rotted nail! By the time he crawled out they were gone around the bend although he heard voices well enough:

'I knew we'd missed a few of these stinking roaches, eh!'

He hurried after them. As he bolted out from the alley into the street he ran straight into the soldiers who had been following him.

'Whew! You stink!' That was Shorter speaking with a cheerful grin. 'What, Holy One, you scavenging from what those refugees left behind? Aui! I thought better of an ostiary.'

'Them thinking they're better than us,' added Taller, grasping Nekkar with a cursed strong hand and towing him away from the direction in which the children had been taken. 'Yet they do tax and tithe and claim to be pure as new milk when they're just gods-rotted thieves without a scrap of shame, thinking it's owed to them.'

'I — l-'

'Eh? Eh?' They mocked him, his flushed face, his trembling hands, his ragged breathing. 'Are those honey-sesame cakes?' They ripped the cakes from his grasp and ate them.

'I need to see the sergent for Stone Quarter. There were some orphans given over to the temple I was meant to take possession of, but because of the curfew I couldn't get out to leash them in until today-'

'Slave takers, too,' said Shorter, and all at once Nekkar realized the young man had a debt scar scored into his face, by his left eye. 'Cursed temples take our labor and work us and then discard us. How I hate them!' Like lightning, he backhanded Nekkar so hard across the face the ostiary stumbled to his knees on the street, so much pain he couldn't stand at first even as they shoved and then

punched and then kicked him until he staggered up half blinded by tears.

'I need to see the sergeant.' His voice sounded like that young child's, scoured raw.

They hauled him to the inn after all, punctuating the long walk with a running commentary about what the sergeant would do to him, fingers broken, eyes gouged out, toes cut off, cleansed on the pole. They were enjoying the conversation because they knew he could do nothing to stop their chatter. Their talk was like a winding chain, winching them tight and tighter.

The inn was empty but for three young women serving ale to ten off-duty soldiers. His pair traded jests with their comrades before prodding him upstairs. There he waited in the corridor, pain jabbing in his ribs. After a while, another man, soberly dressed and moving as slowly as if he were recovering from a severe beating, invited him into a long chamber overlooking the square.

The sergeant seated in the chamber had a lass to pour his wine, a couch to lounge on, and a pair of writing desks set against the wall where two shaven-headed clerks hunched over accounts books. As Nekkar entered they glanced up and looked down at once, as if expecting to be hit.

The sergeant had a knife in one hand, coring an apple. 'What trouble are you causing? Be quick about it.'

If he talked fast, he didn't have to imagine what it would feel like to be hanged on the pole.

'Sergeant, I'm Nekkar, ostiary at the Ilu temple here in Stone Quarter. Three orphans were consigned to my care some days ago, and I've only just now been able to collect them. But your soldiers took them away. So if I can just fetch them from wherever they've been hauled off to, then I'll take them off your hands and the temple will provide-'

'They're probably being taken to the brickyards.'

'The brickyards!'

'We've a fair lot of building to do. Fire damage to fix. Defensive walls to reinforce. Small hands can work in the brickyards.'

'They're very young, the smallest not more than four-'

'I'm done with this conversation. You know, ostiary, I might well send soldiers by your temple if I've need of your novices' labor. Best you take care of your own, and be careful you don't displease me further. Indeed, I'll thank you to come by every

morning after second bell and give me a report on Stone Quarter's doings. Now, get out!' He popped a slice of apple into his mouth, then offered one to the lass, who glanced at the ostiary before she took it and devoured it.

He was shaking. 'Sergeant, if I may-'

The sergeant whistled, and the two soldiers entered the room, their grins fading as they took in the sergeant's grim frown. 'Get this cursed ostiary out of my sight. But don't be beating on him, you gods-rotted fools!'

They were strong with youth's surety. They marched him through streets emptying of traffic as the fourth bell tolled the curfew hour, although the laborers working on the army's projects would hammer and haul until dusk. They shoved him to the closed gates of the temple, and waited until the watch let him in past the growling dogs.

He shut the door in their faces. It was all he could do.

'Holy One?' asked the envoy on watch, looking worried. The novices came to the porch of the learning hall, staring but saying nothing. 'Shall we haul water for a bath?'

He shook his head roughly. 'I'll haul the water myself.'

So he did, each bucket spilling into the bronze tub along with his tears.

And when he poured the last bucketful in, the water splashed, rippled, lapped, and stilled to become a mirror. His own filthy, bruised face stared up at him, the ordinary face of a man who has done his duty and lived as decently as he could manage according to the precepts of the gods. No special craft, no exceptional skills, no particular ambition.

'I will fight,' he said to his reflection, to his hidden spirit, perhaps, or to the gods. 'Let me be a messenger, as befits my calling. Let me be an envoy, to carry resolve where it is needed. There must be a way to defeat them. We must find a way.'




Twenty-five days ago, Mai had taken refuge in a valley entirely wild, its soil untrammeled by human feet and its bounty unhar-vested by human hands, a place so high and isolated in the mountains it could only be reached only by eagles. Here, in a cave behind a waterfall, she had given birth to a son.

At dawn on the day called Resting Ibex, Atani's hungry fussing woke her. She nursed him from the comfort of her sleeping mat. She slept under a framework of poles raised two steps off the earth with canvas hung for walls and roof. A second structure housed the reeves and hirelings and guards brought in to assure the baby's comfort and safety. Their stores of rice and grain rested in a storehouse raised on stilts.

After Atani's demands were satisfied, she tucked the infant in a sling, slipped into her sandals, and stepped out. Sprawling jabi bushes fenced in the clearing; the stream burbling down from the waterfall higher up in the vale chased into the trees beyond. She greeted the sentries and, with them pacing behind her, followed a track downstream beside trees whose branches drooped, so heavily laden were they with sunfruit and mamey and mango.

The mountain escarpment rose on three sides, all bold peaks and daring angles. On the fourth side, the stream that welled out of the sacred pool upstream spilled over a rocky ledge at the edge of a mighty cliff overlooking a wilderness of rugged foothills. In the right light at the right time of day, rainbows glittered in the spray below, and if the last gasping breath of a high-mountain storm sprinkled out of the Spires from the heights behind you, you might see rainbows above and below.

Surely the Merciful One favored this place. From this vista a person might hope to see into the future, or recall the past.

How long ago had Mai been carried away from her family and childhood in Kartu Town by the Qin captain and his troop? One year? Two? It seemed like half her life ago. Far more had happened to her in that short span of time than in the seventeen years previous: she had been married off to a man she did not know, had embarked on a long overland journey, had sealed a merchant's bargain on which her life and fortune and that of many

others depended, had made a dear friend, had supervised the building and expansion of a settlement, had survived battles and assassins, and borne her first child.


She turned. 'Greetings of the day, Priya. I'm coming.'

Together, she and her attendants walked back to the clearing and onward up a path twisting through the foliage toward the heights. Mai carried whatever small offering took her fancy. This morning she plucked a bouquet of red-and-yellow fall-of-joy with its swoony scent. Each morning more attendants followed, most no doubt out of curiosity, some in the hope of currying favor, and a few with perhaps a bud of faith. Even Sheyshi accompanied them, although poor Sheyshi could still barely recite the most basic of prayers, stumbling over the same words every time.

Not that the Merciful One was a jealous or critical god, demanding fearful obedience or exacting perfection. Far from it! The Merciful One was a pilgrim who had wandered far from home, finding a resting place wherever folk raised an altar. The procession — fully eighteen people today including all six off-duty Qin guardsmen as well as the three on-duty ones — climbed to the rocky clearing around the pool. The waterfall boomed, which meant rains had fallen higher up in the Spires beyond sight and sound of the valley. The churning waters hid movement beneath the foam, but she never quite glimpsed an actual living creature swimming there.

She led the way through low walls that marked an ancient ruin. The walls had once entirely rimmed the pool, but now they were as broken and worn as the teeth of an elder. They entered the cave in single file along a ledge, cliff wall on the right and the waterfall's curtain on the left.

Two lamps burned within the cave. A slab had been set across the birthing stones where Mai had labored to create a humble altar covered with a red cloth. Here she laid today's offering of flowers as Priya intoned the first prayers.

' " The Merciful One is my lamp and my refuge."'

The others settled, the most interested kneeling at the front behind Sheyshi, the merely curious to the back. Four had not come in at all, loitering in the ruins beside the pool hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious creature that lived within what all now called 'the birthing pool' in honor of Atani.

Yet as Priya chanted the Three Refuges, the Four Undertakings,

and the Five Rewards, as Mai repeated the responses and joined in where she knew the longer threads, she tasted an iron tang on her lips and felt the tingling in her bones that betrayed the presence of unseen others. The lamps burned, flames hissing softly, but she did not need oil's light to see within the cave's dim enclosure. Threads glittered along the ceiling of the cave. This morning, twenty-five days since she had given birth, less than a full month according to the calendar of Sapanasu but a full turn of the moon, fewer threads netted the ceiling than had been there yesterday, or the day before. That these threads were themselves living creatures she did not doubt. She had felt their touch while in the throes of labor; their net of light had clothed her when she was naked. When she entered the precinct of the sacred pool now, she still heard an echo of voices whose speech — if it was speech — she did not comprehend.

She did not fear them, nor did they fear her.

' " Merciful One, your wisdom is boundless. Excuse me for the transgressions I have made through thoughtlessness, through neglect, through fear."'

Human voices whispered, their changed timbre causing her to turn. Did the glimmering threads brighten? Or was it only her own heart and eyes that caught fire as Anji ducked into the cave? He kneeled at the back of the group, asking for no special precedence; he bowed his head in the same manner as everyone else.

'" May the rains come at the proper time. May the harvest be abundant. May the world prosper, and justice be served. Accept my prayers out of compassion. Peace."'

Priya's attention never wavered from the altar, but as soon as she finished, she efficiently herded the others out of the cave, leaving Mai and the baby alone with Anji. Mai rose. While once she might have grasped for Anji immediately, seeking solace, protection, strength, and reassurance, now she waited, watching him.

'Well, Mai,' he said with that slight upward twist of the lips that signified his satisfaction. 'You are looking more beautiful even than before. By all reports — which I naturally have been receiving daily — the child remains healthy.' He glanced up at the threads gleaming on the ceiling, and a frown bruised his expression so briefly that in the instant after it cleared she thought she must have imagined it. 'Let's go outside.'

'It's been a full turn of the moon since I gave birth. I admit, I

was expecting you to arrive yesterday or today. Yet I had hoped for a more private reunion.'

His answering smile was sharp with desire; she felt it in her own flesh; maybe the air sang it. The baby stirred.

'Patience, Mai.' He grasped her wrist as his gaze swept along the ceiling with the look of a man deciding whether or not to commit his troops to battle. 'Not here. This valley puzzles me, and I don't like puzzles. I've come to take you home.'

'Back to the Barrens?' She sighed, thinking of how much dried fish she had eaten in the settlement in the Barrens. Atani woke with an exploratory mewl of discomfort. 'Am I going to be exiled to the Barrens forever?'

After all, he was teasing her. 'Home to Olossi.'

He was so close!

After a full turn of the moon, it was no longer forbidden. She could not resist.

She kissed him, and he caught her close, and they forgot to say the formal words in which the father greets the mother of his child and the child itself, who have survived for a full turn of the month without demons finding and devouring spirits made vulnerable by the precious and difficult passage known as birth.

He let her go and stepped back. 'Hu! This is not the place!' He wiped his brow. 'I have been considering the situation. As we have seen, the red hounds can track me anywhere. So it is better to accept the risk and attack in its turn that which we can alter. I'm making changes in how traffic is secured on the roads. Folk can still cross wilderness on deer tracks — we'll never be able to stop that — but we can place controls on the roads and gates that will alert us to anyone who does not belong.'

'Even so, we can never know what lies inside a man's mind,' she said. 'People can be bought, or coerced to act at another's command. And we never know until it's too late.'

'It's said the Guardians of old could know what secrets lay hidden inside a mind.' He scratched at his jaw thoughtfully. 'Such Guardians would be valuable allies.'

'Until they saw into your thoughts! I haven't forgotten the ghost girl who took the form of Cornflower and killed those soldiers! When she looked at me, it was like she tore my heart out!'

'Demons are a different matter. They must be killed.' He touched Atani's coarse black hair. 'Let's go outside. I'd like to look at the baby, where I can see him properly.'

The change in his voice stiffened her shoulders. He walked out, and she followed. The sun had risen high enough to flood the open area with its light. Only Qin soldiers remained in the clearing; Priya and Sheyshi had gone down with the others. Chief Tuvi hastened over as Mai lifted the baby out of the sling and presented him to his father with the words traditional in Kartu Town.

'Here is your son. Son of your seed, son of your blood, son of your bone. Let the ancestors favor him and strengthen him. Let him bring honor to your name.'

The baby's black eyes were open, and he stared gravely at his father, making no sound. Anji took him from Mai as Tuvi waited beside her. Anji's personal guards, Sengel and Toughid, and other senior soldiers filed up behind. Anji placed the baby on a smooth stretch of wall and began to unwrap the swaddling. He glanced up at Mai, who felt unaccountably nervous. What if the baby was not perfect? He was so silent, rarely crying, often sleeping. He was so small! Tuvi set a hand on her shoulder, grasping firmly as if to hold her still.

'Mai,' Anji said. 'I've news from the north. Shai is alive.'

Her legs gave way. She groped for a place to seat herself. As Anji laid bare the infant and examined him, head, genitals, torso, and limbs, she wept.

'A healthy boy,' said Chief Tuvi.

Only after all the senior men had admired the naked baby, nodded their agreement, and offered polite blessings to the mother did Tuvi remove his hand from her shoulder.

Twenty novice reeves were detailed to fly her retinue out of the valley. They could have flown all the way to the settlement, but for the last mey of the journey, Anji insisted they mount well-groomed horses ornamented with ribbons and silver-studded harness and ride in ranks appropriate to the occasion.

It was how the Qin did things.

At the gates, they were greeted with song punctuated by rhythmic clapping, for that was what folk did in the Hundred.

'Enter, enter, we welcome you.

That you walk here is like flowers blooming.'

The Qin soldiers had prepared a feast surely offered only to a prince among the Qin. Vats full of sheep's-head soup bubbled

over massive hearths. There was plenty of rice and nai, but also special wheat cakes made in squares, sweetened curds, and a fermented milk so strong it made your eyes water. Mai and Anji sat on pillows on the porch of their house with the baby displayed in a cot between them, festively decked out in a gold cap and a red sash. First the senior Qin soldiers — and their wives, if they had them — and then the middle rank of Qin soldiers — with their wives, if they had them — and finally the lowest rank of Qin soldiers and the tailmen and the grooms — with their wives, if they had them — approached the porch and spoke rote greetings to the newborn and offered fealty to father and son and honored mother.

Afterward, the townsfolk brought the local customary gifts of nuts, fruits, and sweets.

'I feel a little uneasy,' Mai whispered as she leaned into Anji's shoulder, savoring the feel of the length of his arm along her own. 'I remember how our last festival turned out.'

'We slaughtered every one of the red hounds who attacked the settlement that day.' Anji shifted away from her, not liking to touch in public.

'Surely there are red hounds — spies — in hiding.' Mai scanned the crowd, seeing only faces smiling with approval and excitement.

'We scoured the settlement.' From the porch of the captain's house at the crest of the hill, you could see down over the settlement, past the half-built wall, and all the way over the parade ground to the fan of darker earth where an underground channel, still being constructed, would bring rainwater down from the mountains. He indicated an untidy sprawl of tents and shacks raised away from the settlement on dry ground; it had grown up in the twenty-five days she had been away. 'Now we admit through the gates only those who have a license for trade granted by the clerks of Sapasanu.'

'I'm not a coward, Anji. But you must admit it was frightening when the red hounds rode out of the wilderness like that. So many of them! I don't worry about myself so much. Well, maybe I do. It's natural to be scared after seeing such a thing. But-' She brushed a hand over the baby's cap. He had gone to sleep, his sweet face calm in repose. 'This little one, I worry for.'

His gaze followed the stroke of her hand. 'You can be sure I will not put my son at risk. Here is Mistress Behara.'

Behara's noodle business had flourished so greatly in the last

six months that she had brought in a number of clan members to increase production. She presented a tray containing balls of sweetened rice paste, admired the baby, and addressed Mai.

'Verea, I am sent as a representative for the merchants in the town. Most of the women who live here today came to this place at your behest, hopeful to make a decent marriage or because you offered seed money for them to engage in a business of their own. While you bided here with us, you were accustomed to listen to those disputes that arose between various of our number and offer a judgment.'

'Were you?' asked Anji.

'I did listen when folk had grievances,' said Mai. 'Usually, once folk talked things over, they sorted things out for themselves.'

The noodle maker sketched a gesture of respect toward Anji, prudent toward those carrying swords, but she turned back to Mai. 'It's said you are returning to Olossi. Would you preside over an assizes tomorrow? There are several cases that have arisen that would benefit from your clear head, and all have agreed to respect your judgment. In addition, there is talk that perhaps Astafero-'


'That is what folk are calling the settlement now.' Behara sketched a phrase with her hands.' " The shore burned," the night those red hounds attacked. What I mean to say, verea, is that because it was your coin and the captain's victory that established this settlement, some say we must ask your permission before voting in a council to oversee the administration of the settlement.'

Mai glanced at Anji, but he opened his hands to say: This is not my purview.

After all, how could it be? Beyond the Hundred, west of the border of the Sirniakan Empire in the Mariha princedoms and along the Golden Road, Qin armies under the var ruled as conquerors, but Anji had been forced to flee into exile with two hundred soldiers, his wife, and their grooms and slaves.

Mai turned back to Behara, who had, by the flickering of her gaze, noted this silent exchange. 'Every city and village in the Hundred has a council, does it not? Why should it be different here? An assizes tomorrow. We will convene at dawn.'

'The gods' blessings upon you and your child, verea. Captain.' Behara made her courtesies and retreated.

Behara, coming last, had brought the heaviest request. The celebration spilled down into town, where folk ate and drank and

sang, as folk would do, given the opportunity. Anji nursed a wheat cake, having nibbled half of it, and drank cups of the harsh milk as his men called out praise for the child's beauty, his strength, and his quiet uncomplaining nature, seen as a sign of excellent character among the Qin. Mai devoured three balls of sweetened rice and a pair of wheat cakes and an entire bowl of nai.

'I expected to see Avisha,' she said, when the edge of hunger was dulled.

'Who is Avisha?' Anji shaded his eyes to survey the Qin soldiers sitting close by with swords at the ready, drinking deeply and eating well, laughing and talking with such open smiles and with such a clamor that she might have mistaken them for other people entirely, not the stolid Qin soldiers to whom she had grown accustomed. Some of the men with local wives had already gone down to join the celebration below.

Mai looked at Tuvi. He had stiffened slightly, maybe even blushing a little, remembering his ignoble defeat.

Anji saw Tuvi's expression and sighed. 'Ah. The one who knew herbs and flowers.'

'She was not right for you, Chief Tuvi,' said Mai tartly. 'You did not truly love her. You were only taken in by her pretty face. Beauty flies quickly' She rapped his forearm with her closed fan. 'You would have gotten bored of her.'

The chief relaxed. 'I admit, I did not expect to be rebuked in such a manner. Refusing to eat my rice! But a man does get lonely. Perhaps you will choose for me, Mistress?'

Anji raised an eyebrow.

'I will keep my eyes open. For you, Tuvi-lo, someone special only.'

And it was true, she thought, as the chief chuckled with Anji, that Chief Tuvi had felt the rejection more than the loss. Tuvi had not loved or even particularly respected Avisha, who was a pleasant young woman Mai's own age and knowledgeable about plants, as Anji had naturally recalled because he always remembered any fact that might be of possible use to him, but she was not a deep spirit, not like Mai's dear Miravia, who was lost to her now, trapped in a cage of her clan's making.

'What did become of the lass?' asked Anji. 'I seem to recall… Jagi, wasn't it?'

Tuvi nodded, expression determinedly bland.

To have lost the girl to a mere tailman! How it must sting.

'Ah, yes, you recommended Jagi, Tuvi-lo, did you not?' Anji turned to Mai. 'We have set up training camps in different parts of Olo'osson. We've assigned Qin troopers to stand as sergeants over companies drawn from local men. They've got to train fast and hard, become cohesive units. We don't know how soon we'll have to fight.'

'Jagi is good with the locals.' Wth a wry smile, Tuvi gestured toward the square of benches seen belgw that marked the spot where marriages were finalized. 'He's patient with them. They like him. The troop of local lads he was training here consistently won in trials, so we sent him and his troop and his wife and the two children to Dast Welling. If all goes well, he'll be training an entire cohort.'

'That's a substantial responsibility,' said Mai. 'I'm pleased for Avisha's sake.'

'You were fond of her?' Anji asked. 'Women feel most comfortable with women around them. Maybe you are lonely for the company of other women?'

'I have Priya, of course.'

'Of course. She is an educated woman. A priestess of the Merciful One. You are fortunate to have such an exceptional woman in your household.'

'I am. She is the greatest comfort to me. But it is true-' Only Tuvi stood close enough to listen. Even Anji's two bodyguards, Sengel and Toughid, had relaxed enough to walk away out of earshot, although not eyeshot, to suck down ladles of fermented milk. 'I miss my dear friend Miravia. Do you suppose you could talk to her father and uncles? You might be able to persuade them to allow me to visit her again. I have accepted she will never again be allowed to visit in our own compound, after that terrible incident. After men not of her kin saw her face-'

His expression closed. 'The Ri Amarah run their own houses by their own laws. We do not meddle with those who have treated us as guests and given us aid. That is all I have to say'

She knew that look. She had grown up in the Mei clan, where Father Mei ruled all and must be consulted in all matters except the most trivial. It was what she had expected in her own marriage. But in matters of business and marriage, Anji had let go of the reins; she was in charge, and he never meddled because he assumed she knew what she was doing and that she would do

what benefited them. It was a potent brew, going straight to the head like too much sweet cordial.

But there was a line, and on the other side of that line, he commanded.

As the baby gurgled, he smiled and lifted up Atani to dandle him. The matter was closed to him; he would not think of it any longer, but she had not that facility. She would think of Miravia and Miravia's troubles, and mourn the loss not of a friendship, for they could write one to another, but for the voice and smile and touch that had come to mean so much to her in so short a time. To lose the intimacy of their friendship was a grief so sharp it was like a wound.

'Mai?' His smile faded as he watched her.

She sealed her sorrow as in a cask and set it away beside her fear for Shai. Alive, Anji had said; not coming home.

'What other news?' she said, more brightly than she intended. 'What of the reeves? Have you heard from Marshal Joss? Reeve Miyara told me he was called away to the north.'

Anji's eyes narrowed as if he were looking into the sun. He shifted the baby more firmly into his grasp. 'From the north, the news is bad. Are you sure you wish to hear an accounting on such a pleasant day?'

T do not wish to hide from the truth, if that's what you're asking.'

'Very well, then. The news from the north.'


Joss shifted his seat on his pillow in the audience room of the commander's cote in Argent Hall. He'd arrived midday from the north with his thoughts in a tumult at everything he must try to accomplish. Facing the senior fawkners, he began to doubt he could change a cursed thing.

'You want to name a fawkner to act as marshal over Argent Hall so you can go be commander at Clan Hall.' Askar rubbed his grizzled chin. He was missing two fingers on his right hand, but the injury never seemed to hamper his fawkner's work, or his strong opinions. 'It can't work.'

'It's true that a fawkner has never stood as marshal,' said

Verena thoughtfully, 'but in the Tale of Fortune, an ordinand stands in for Marshal Foragerda at Horn Hall for two years while the marshal searches for her mother. And in the tale of the Swift Horse-'

'A comic tale, in which folk are ridiculed,' remarked Askar.

'It's the reeve hall that's being ridiculed, and then it turns out a hieros and his hierodules and kalos restore order in the hall when none of the reeves who stepped up to the task could manage it.'

'Are you saying you're willing to stand as marshal of Argent Hall, Verena?' Joss asked. 'You'd be a good marshal.'

'And be accused of having slept with you to get the preference? Askar would be a better choice.'

Askar yelped. 'Neh, I won't do it! I don't want the aggravation.'

Joss turned to the third fawkner, who watched with a calm gaze. 'Geddi? You're well liked. Folk confide in you.'

'Because they know he never opens his mouth to tattle their secrets!' Verena smiled affectionately at the man, who was thirteen years younger, a Violet Eagle with all that meant: honest, respectful, an especially hard worker, and known to have kept out of the quarrels and cruelties that had plagued the hall during the months of misrule by Marshal Yordenas and his cronies.

Geddi ran a hand over his close-cropped hair.

'You've a lot of friends among the younger reeves,' added Joss. 'They trust your judgment.'

'I'm not the right one,' said Geddi. 'If it's a temporary measure, Verena should do it. Everyone respects her and Askar for sticking it out in the bad years, keeping true to the eagles. Besides' — he had the grin of a man who likes wicked gossip — 'talk in the hall is not that you slept with the marshal to get preference, Rena.'

Joss flushed. The hells! They'd only slept together once, and that at Verena's instigation.

Verena's glower would have curdled milk. 'What do they say behind my back, then?'

'That you were the only one bold enough to act on what the rest were wishing for.'

Joss groaned and hid his face behind a hand.

Askar said, 'No doubt he's grinning behind there, eh?'

'And that you only bothered the one time, so maybe that sends a message to the younger women who might have thought of strutting after him otherwise.'

'Ouch,' said Joss.

Verena chuckled in the confident way mature women can have, the ones who can't be rattled. He'd seen the terrible scars on her torso; he knew how tough she was. 'Were you wondering why no one else in the hall tried to seduce you, Marshal?'

Joss rested his hand on his hands. He was vain of his looks, it was true; he took for granted that women would find him attractive.

'They're just jesting with you,' said Askar.

Joss raised his head. 'Neh, I surely deserve it. Anyway, you're all honest enough to speak your minds, a precious thing. Verena, will you take the authority of marshal?' He indicated the chamber, neatly organized by a clerk brought in from Olossi to manage the marshal's correspondence and the hall's accounts books. 'The sleeping room's a bit messy…'

Askar sighed.

Geddi snorted, laughing.

'It's nothing I asked for,' said Verena, 'nor do I want it. But I love this hall. I gave my clan three children who survived to adulthood, and now I'm free to do the work I care for most. Argent Hall is barely recovered from the rot introduced by Yordenas. We've got to heal if we want to recover our strength. We've got the training hall to oversee as well — Naya Hall must have strong leadership, too. How do you propose we manage all this?'

'If we don't unite the halls, then we'll all go down to defeat by the northern army. Do you know what happened to Horn Hall?'

'They vanished,' said Askar. 'No one has heard a word of them for over a year.'

'And what of those corrupt reeves who were here at Argent Hall, obeying Yordenas, the ones who fled we know not where?' Joss pressed his point. 'What if Lord Radas is already at work corrupting other reeves? Other halls? We have to do something different from what we were doing before — which was nothing — as the Star of Life rose to swallow so much land. All that time we ignored the changes taking place around us. Yet there comes a time when change overtakes the traveler, as it says in the tale. We can't know what may happen next. We must be ready for anything.'

He'd first heard such words from Zubaidit. At the time, he'd protested mightily. But after the events of the intervening months and the power displayed by an army commanded by cloaks

claiming to be Guardians, he had come to believe she was right. And not just because mere days ago she had kissed him in a way that still troubled his dreams and daylight hours-

'You're passionate today,' said Geddi. 'The tone you use is very persuasive, Commander. It's true the reports from Haldia and Istria and Toskala and the north are enough to scald one's ears. It's like we're living in a tale, not chanting one. Cursed uncomfortable, if you ask me. I liked it quiet the way it used to be back when I was a lad.'.

'Yet you've told me many a time how you came from a quarrelsome family!' said Verena with a laugh.

'True enough! That's why I find the eagles so restful. They're more honest than humankind. They don't take sides.'

Verena gestured for silence. 'If these Guardians fly about on winged horses and can command those who kill for them to kill each other in turn, as you say happened in Toskala, how can anyone be safe?'

'No one is,' said Joss. 'I'm not yet sure how reeves can be best used, but we can't merely patrol the roads, stand at assizes, and haul in criminals for trial.'

'You think we have to become soldiers,' said Geddi.

'Every hall has records going back many generations. The stewards and fawkners and senior reeves know which eagles are from family groups, which tolerate each other, which have to be kept well apart. We already send out reeves to patrol in pairs and threes. The first thing I want is a roster of how — if — we can create larger patrol units.'

Askar grunted, looking skeptical. 'What good will larger patrol units do? Anyhow, eagles won't fly in pretty ranks the way those Qin soldiers ride. Nor are they dogs to fetch and run at their master's will.'

Geddi said nothing.

Verena nodded. 'A roster can be written up. What's the second thing you want?'

'Make sure we identify and restock every way station and haven reeves can shelter at in Argent Hall's territory. Especially ones rarely visited.'

Verena whistled. 'You don't ask for much. Anything else?'

The writing desk behind which Joss sat had been cleared of paper, everything in its place. No wonder the commander at Clan Hall had kept her cote sparsely furnished and neatly ordered: no

matter how much of a morass she was wading through, she could always close the doors and enjoy a moment of serenity in a place where there was no mess.

He smiled crookedly. 'I'm making this up as I go along.'

The bell announcing dinner rang three times. A man shouted in the distance, the sound followed by bright laughter.

Joss rose. 'Marshal Verena, Argent Hall is yours. I'll announce it in the hall over the evening meal.'

'What do you mean to do next, Commander?' she asked.

It seemed that between one breath and the next, Joss found himself answering to a rank he had never aspired to. Commander of the reeve halls. Aui! Life took strange turns.

'The only thing I can do. Gather my allies and make a plan.'

From the council square in the port town of Ankeno, which was situated on a bluff overlooking the Bay of Istria, Captain Arras studied the green landscape on the horizon: the delta of the River Istri.

'How do you propose to attack a city protected by a powerful river channel on one side and a vast mire on the other?' he asked. As he looked around the outdoor gathering of some thirty or more company subcaptains and cohort captains, he recognized that his question had irritated half of them and made the other half uncomfortable.

'Captain Arras, is it?' Captain Dessheyi's badge designated him as captain of First Cohort, which meant he was a man with connections to Lord Radas. Whether he was militarily up to the task remained to be seen.

'That's right.'

'And you command-?'

'I'm here with three companies, the remnants of Sixth Cohort. We took heavy casualties in High Haldia. After the siege, we were assigned to garrison High Haldia and regroup. I had to reorganize six undermanned companies into three complete ones and rid myself of a few cripples and incompetents while I was at it. For a few months I was chief administrative governor over High Haldia, under the command of Lord Twilight.'

'Lord Twilight is the cloak who commanded the failed expedition to Olossi, is he not?'

The cursed man was trying to needle him. Arras bit down a retort. 'I follow orders, Captain Dessheyi. My company was

reassigned here. Since we reached the lower Istri, we've been assigned to pacify villages between here and the Wild, just a few skirmishes and a few rebels running into the deep forest.'

'Where they'll be slaughtered by wildings and have their heads pinned to racks as a warning to the rest of us. How come you here today, Captain?'

'Commander Hetti ordered my companies to report to you for assignment. He told me you're still setting a perimeter around the delta.' He did not mean the statement to sound critical, but by the twitch of Captain Dessheyi's eyes, the fellow had taken it that way.

'Setting a perimeter in this region is not like building a fence to corral your sheep in an upland valley, Captain, where all you have to do is collect rocks and stack them in a circle. This cursed delta runs ten or twelve mey in length from the river's main branching at Skerru south to the bay, and it's almost as wide. If you know how to stretch ten cohorts to fence in that much territory when we also have to patrol the restless countryside and outfit enough boats to oversee traffic in the bay, I'd be pleased to hear your suggestions.'

The others — some of whom he recognized from the attack on High Haldia and some he'd never seen before — looked over to see how Arras would respond.

He wasn't daunted. 'How do the Nessumara folk themselves patrol their territory? Given that they're famous in the Hundred as traders and merchants, always after a deal, known to be as rich as Sarrelya, they must have lines of communication we can exploit.'

'They do, indeed,' said Dessheyi with the sort of condescending smile Arras distrusted in any man. 'That's why our commanders have already sealed bargains with certain clans in Nessumara who will deliver the city into our hands in the same manner we took Toskala. As we did here in Ankeno.' He indicated the deserted streets of the port town.

'They'll betray their own, in return for personal gain and clan power.' Arras nodded, although the prospect wearied him. 'Seems cowardly to me, and it's a sad day when no fighting is involved, but it's certainly easier on the troops than a full-out battle. My soldiers took heavy casualties on the High Haldia campaign.'

'As you mentioned before,' replied Dessheyi. 'But there's fighting yet to be had. Olo'osson certainly has shown they mean to resist.'

'I'll look forward to marching to Olossi, then.'

'I am sure you will, but not today. Today, we're considering how we will defend Nessumara after our allies deliver the city to us.'

'If there are any left who will dare oppose Lord Commander Radas,' remarked Arras, wondering if the rest were as mutely passive as they looked. A person who feared that every least word might get him bitten could no more command in battle than he could train a belligerent dog.

Captain Dessheyi nodded, as much answer as Arras was going to get, and resumed his speech. 'The western channel of the River Istri can't be forded. It's simply too powerful. There is only one bridge — a rope and plank bridge — that spans it, at Halting Reach. It's been reeled in by the defenders. So, once we take control of Nessumara, we'll have no trouble maintaining the western perimeter.'

It was a brilliantly clear day, no haze off the water at all and no clouds in the sky. The vast bay lay tranquil, more green than blue except where streaks of muddy-colored water flowed out from the delta's hidden channels. Ships and boats plied the waters, but he couldn't be sure if they were fisher folk about their usual toil or refugees fleeing Nessumara. He was pretty sure the army did not have a fleet of ships to patrol the Bay of Istria, but he supposed they would soon commandeer boats and crews.

'That leaves us with two areas to defend once the city is in our hands: the network of canals across the inner delta, and the two causeways that bridge the mires.'

Shifting into a patch of shade, Arras found himself looking downslope through a gap between houses to a lower courtyard, evidently the square training yard of one of Kotaru's temples. About ten people, stripped naked, kneeled with heads bowed and arms lashed behind their backs as guardsmen stood at attention. There was something utterly humiliating in the way the prisoners were being forced to wait with bodies fully exposed; no matter how little clothing folk wore in the hottest weather, a kilt or cotton taloos gave a man or woman dignity. It was too brutal to watch folk so deliberately demeaned. He raised his gaze.

Captain Dessheyi was oblivious of the scene unfolding out of his sight. 'There are few places in the Hundred as well defended by natural obstacles alone. There's certainly no city as important to hold if we mean to rule the Hundred.'

It was difficult to tell if the shoreline Arras was looking at was islands or mainland, swamp or dry ground made impenetrable by

dense growth. 'Where is Nessumara? Isn't the city's port here on the bay, like this town?'

They laughed; he'd as good as stumbled, revealing his ignorance, and he noted their expressions. Not everyone was hostile. Some merely looked relieved that another had voiced a question they needed an answer to.

Captain Dessheyi scratched his chin. 'Nessumara lies on islands deep within that delta. Weren't you listening, Captain?'

Arras knew better than to answer the question. He shaded his eyes from the sun as he examined the distant shoreline. It was impossible to identify any distinct rivers emerging from the tangle, whose vivid color reminded him of the skirts of the Wild, the ancient forest in whose depths any trespassers would meet their death at the hands of the mute wildings. Born and raised in the north, he wasn't used to vegetation growing so thick it was like a breathing beast waiting to strangle the unsuspecting. He had a cursed good idea that the folk who lived in the delta knew the wetlands landscape as well as he had known the escarpments and ravines of the uplands where he'd grown up. He spotted three eagles soaring overhead.

'Even if the city is betrayed from within, what's to stop a local resistance from taking refuge within the swamp?' he asked. 'Striking at will? Aided and abetted by the reeves?'

Captain Dessheyi smiled as a wolf bares its teeth. 'A good question, Captain Arras. I'm assigning your companies to explore the land around the eastern causeway and probe the barriers raised there while we await the signal to advance. I'll expect a thorough report.'

The other men chuckled, relieved to have another man bear the brunt of Dessheyi's ill humor. As the captain went on to discuss assignments for foraging expeditions, Arras again glanced down into the Thunderer's courtyard.

A woman stood in front of the row of cowering prisoners. A cloak of night enveloped her, and she was lecturing as a teacher might, brandishing a writing brush. Each time its tip touched paper, one of the sobbing prisoners collapsed like a puppet whose strings have been cut; like a body whose spirit has been severed from the flesh.

Arras recoiled a step, shuddering as terror stabbed deep: So she could have done to me, that evening by the fire.

Where Guardians walked, people must obey. There was no other choice.


At Argent Hall they told Joss that Captain Anji had last been seen at Storos-on-the-Water, where a training camp had been set up. At Storos-on-the-Water they told him Anji had ridden back to Olossi, to his main encampment, and here Joss and Scar flew. It was difficult for Joss to make sense of all the new building around Olossi, especially since the lower town had been so badly damaged in last year's battle. More walls were going up beyond the inner city, like the rings of an onion, and beyond the reconstructed Crow's Gate there was yet a new walled neighborhood, men and women raising walls and gates. Farther afield, West Track was spanned by staggered checkpoints out to the limit of Joss's vision.

Two mey from the city, fields formerly used as pasture had been walled off and divided into quarters like one of Kotaru's enclosures, two lined with neat rows of tents for barracks and storehouses and two wide-open fields for training. Joss circled as men paced through drills below. Dust puffed under their feet. Their enthusiastic shouts filled the air. They were two cohorts at least, and he spotted a third cohort riding a mey away to the south along the skirts of the Lend, on some kind of training race. How had Anji gotten so many horses? A watchtower sentry flagged him, and he pulled an answering flag and sent Scar down.

A sergeant — the Qin called them 'chiefs' — came out to greet him respectfully, a sober man whose name he could not recall. 'Captain Anji went to fetch the mistress out in the Barrens. A full turn of the moon has passed since the birth. He can safely greet the baby, make sure it's healthy, not tainted by demons.'

Joss blinked. 'Newborn babies can be tainted by demons?'

'Hu! Surely you Hundred folk know that, Marshal! Demons leave a particular kind of blemish, sickliness, deformities. Don't you rid yourselves of demons?'

'Rid ourselves?'

'Kill them. They're a danger to the tribe.'

The word did not at first register; then Joss lifted a hand in a warding gesture, surprised to find himself trembling. Kill? 'I should have been present, for I stand as uncle to the child. Best I go quickly.'

If not too late.

He flew to the Barrens, but in the settlement now being called Astafero, he learned that the captain's party had taken ship. It was not until his questioning elicited a great deal of commentary about the darling baby and how the captain had carried the child his very own self onto the boat that the edge of anxiety softened. Weariness hammered him; he staggered to Naya Hall and commandeered a cot in the darkest corner of a tent barracks. Of course Anji would have done no such horrible thing. Nor would Mai ever have allowed it!

How long he slept he did not know, but he was roused by Siras sticking his head past the curtain slung up to give privacy.

'Greetings of the day, Marshal. I mean, I should say, Commander. A bold and bright Wakened Wolf it is, even if you look more like a resting-day festival cake the worse for being nibbled raw by hungry mice.'

Joss rubbed sandy eyes. 'What in the hells are you doing here, Siras? You don't even have an eagle.' The young man grinned so wide that Joss blinked, thinking there was too much light in this dim corner. 'She came back, did she?'

'While you were flown north to Clan Hall, Commander. They sent me here to Naya Hall to get a bit of retraining, me not having been in harness for over a year.'

Joss sat up, blankets twisting around his torso. He'd had the sense to strip before falling onto the cot, although he had no clear memory of having done so. His clothes were, as usual, scattered every which way on the ground. 'Aui! My mouth is like a swamp. How early is it?'

'Midday. You slept an entire night and half the day. There's a dram of cordial waiting for you in the mess tent along with porridge, if you want it.'

'Aren't you on duty?'

'Arda assigned me to you.'

'Seeing as you know how to handle me.'

Siras's grin popped again. 'Something like that. Let me shake out your clothes, Commander. There are scorpions around here. No one leaves their gear on the ground.' He tossed him a clean kilt. 'There's a trough out back, if you want to wash.'

Joss wrapped the kilt and found his way to a roofless enclosure where a trough was filled with clean water. The enclosure was rigged with canvas for a modicum of privacy. He dipped in a

bucket and dumped its contents over his head. The cold braced him for a second round. This time, as the water gushed down his bare chest, from behind came a burst of giggling. He spun to discover four women of varying ages peering in where there was a gap in the canvas walls. Two wore reeve leathers, and the other two — the hells! — there were four others, each carrying a basket or buckets.

Cursed if the oldest didn't start singing a famous line from the tale of the Reckless Farmer — she could not help but admire his plough so straight and strong — and one of the reeves, because unencumbered, sketched the accompanying gestures with her hands, nothing fancy in her execution but everyone knew them and, truly, the entire song was so obscene…

'Heya! No loitering!' The reeves and hirelings scurried away, chortling and singing snatches of song. He was scorched he was blushing so hard as that gods-rotted trainer Arda sauntered up to the gap and looked in.

She rolled her eyes. T should have known it would be you.'

'The hells, Arda!'

She laughed as he checked to make sure that the kilt, now damp and clinging to his' hips, thighs, and groin, had not slipped. 'Don't pretend you don't enjoy it. So. You've become acting commander of Clan Hall. If you can bear to get dressed, Kesta's here. She brought a Qin soldier found at Copper Hall. You know anything about a Qin scout gotten all the way to Nessumara?'

'That'll be Tohon.' His embarrassment sloughed off as quickly as the desert air sucked away the moisture on his skin. 'That's unexpectedly good news.'

Siras appeared with his clothes, and he dressed and met Kesta and Tohon in the mess hall. The reeve and the scout were talking like old comrades as they measured cups of cordial.

'Careful, Tohon,' he said as he came up. 'Kesta can outdrink every reeve I know.'

The scout rose to greet him in the Qin manner, forearm clapped to forearm, like two rams bashing.

'Ouch,' said Kesta.

Joss winced and sat, rubbing his arm, as Tohon grinned. Siras set down a tray laden with cordial and porridge and slid in beside Joss, staring wide-eyed at the Qin scout.

'So they found you, eh?' Joss asked.

'So they did,' said Tohon with a friendly nod at Kesta. 'Picked me up at Copper Hall. Hu! That was a thing to see, I'll tell you, the way that river got so wide and then split into so many tiny channels. I've never seen — what is it you call it?'

'Ocean,' said Kesta.

'Plains of water. What a sight! Then we flew a few circuits around the delta, to observe the army's positions. I'd say they mean to attack along the two causeways. Not sure that's wise, myself. Good archers — or reeves from the air — could pick them off as they march.'

'What of the others who were with you, Tohon?'

Kesta replied. 'We were able to strike a deal with that gods-rotted festering old Silver to place the other people from Tohon's party and the children they'd rescued on one of his vessels, sailing for Zosteria.' Her glare resembled that of an eagle. 'It's a cursed dangerous thing for reeves to be owing favors like that. Not just to a Silver. To anyone.'

'Does he want something besides coin?'

'He wants a lass from Olossi,' Kesta said sourly. 'I'm supposed to haul her to Nessumara.'

'I wasn't consulted about this!'

'Copper Hall agreed. Then told me to do it, since I was flying down here anyway. Can we refuse?'

'Eiya! I suppose we're committed now. What the Ri Amarah do is no business of ours, and he did help us get Tohon's party out of the reach of the army.'

'Where does the Star of Life army come from?' asked Tohon.

'Walshow,' said Kesta.

Joss shook his head. 'I think it started in Iliyat with Lord Radas, who expanded his influence north into Herelia first and then expanded into Teriayne and the highlands and set up a major base in Walshow. You don't know this, Tohon, but the region of Herelia has been closed to us reeves for twenty years. We no longer know what goes on there. It's all of a piece, isn't it?' He shook his head as that troublesome pain began its familiar throb in his temples. 'Bit by bit Radas has been placing his traps, eating the land, and surrounding us. And us never noticing because it came on so slow. What fools we've been!'

His voice had raised, but only a pair of hirelings loitering at the big tent's entrance turned to look as he grabbed his cup and downed the cordial in a gulp.

'It's strong,' warned Kesta.

As the taste stung in his throat, he started to hack. 'Too… late!'

'Best you eat some porridge, Commander,' said Siras. Cursed if the lad didn't sound like an old auntie cajoling a stubborn child.

Tohon regarded Joss steadily. The Qin scout was perhaps ten years older than Joss, and his years had weathered him more. 'I'd like to reach Captain Anji, Commander,' and so would you, I wager. He's gone by ship for Olossi.'

'I need to meet with Arda and the senior reeves, and then I'll fly you over the water. We'll wait for the captain in Olossi.'

'That would suit me.'

'It would suit me as well, for Scar will need a hunt and a rest.'

'Joss,' said Kesta, 'I want to see that Arkest gets released for a hunt. Do you need me?'

'No. I'll fill you in on the rest when we are back at Clan Hall.'

She left.

Joss set into the porridge, so hungry he thought he would faint if he did not eat, and his head was swimming from the effects of the cordial. 'Siras, find Arda and the senior reeves.'

'Yes, Commander!' The young man chased away the hirelings who had lingered by the entrance to stare.

This time of day, it was warm under the canvas even though the changing season brought a cooler tinge to the air. Tohon calmly ate his nai porridge as Joss dug into a second bowl. Hitting bottom, he sat back.

'Tohon, is it true the Qin kill any newborn babies among them who are tainted by demons?'

'Hu! A strange question to ask.'

'I beg your pardon. Perhaps I'm being rude.'

'It is something we don't commonly speak of, that's true, although it's known to all. Demons are dangerous creatures. Still, my youngest son never rode as a soldier for having a twisted foot that he was born with. The elders of our clan said at his birth that he was demon-tainted. We ought to have killed him, but he was such a beautiful child, quite the most beautiful of any born to my wife and me. She loved him for that twisted foot, because she knew it meant he would have to stay close by her. Not that he can't ride as well as anyone, it's just walking that he'll always do with a limp. In the end we lost one boy to the wars and another

rides in the east with the army still, so it's hard to say if he'll live or die, if he'll ever marry and sire children. And our daughter, of course, her we lost to the water spirits and my poor wife of grief soon after. So I'm not sorry for having taken the risk of sparing the other one.' Abruptly he looked up at Joss, his gaze steady. 'You saw Zubaidit, Kesta says, but what about Shai?'

Joss shrugged. 'She said he walked with her into the army's encampment. That's all I know.'

Like most of the Qin, Tohon was not a demonstrative man. He merely nodded, but Joss suspected deeper currents ran beneath.

Arda walked briskly into the mess tent, followed by Miyara, the reeve who, with Joss, had witnessed the birth of Mai's child.

He greeted both women, then turned to Miyara. 'The baby got off safely?'

'Atani?' Her smile lit her face. 'A sweet child, very small, mind you, but healthy. He was feted with a feast and songs, very proper, although done in the Qin manner. I don't mind saying that they eat terribly strange food.' She glanced at Tohon. 'Begging your pardon, ver. Just not what we are accustomed to.'

Tohon had a genial smile. 'Hard to offend me, verea. Food is food, different in different lands. As long as I'm not hungry, I'm content.'

Both the women studied him with that look women got, Joss had observed, when a man surprised them in a way that pleased them. It was different from an admiring stare for good looks or an attractive body.

An older male reeve hurried in, puffing as though he'd been running. 'Heya, Arda! I got the flag. Marshal Joss!'

'Etad. Greetings of the day to you. Please sit down.'

'I will. You're back from the north. What news?'

Siras entered with more cups and a pitcher of cordial. After he'd poured around, Joss leaned forward on his elbows. 'I've agreed to stand as commander over Clan Hall until the emergency has passed-'

'Or we're all dead,' said Arda with a snort.

'Or we're all dead,' agreed Joss, 'or some other calamity befalls us. In any case, I'm asking you three as representatives of Naya Hall if you'll accept Verena as acting marshal of Argent Hall for now, and with you, Arda, and Miyara and Etad to stand for Naya Hall as a daughter hall to Argent Hall.'

'That goes against tradition,' said Miyara, 'although in the tales-'

'Yes,' said Joss, 'we already discussed appointing an ordinand or a hieros.'

Miyara chuckled. 'There's some appeal in the latter. Yet in days like this, with that which ought to face upward facing downward, maybe a fawkner as marshal is not such a bad thing.'

Etad nodded. 'Rena stuck it out through the months we suffered under Yordenas. She never truckled to him or his lackeys. Yet neither did she beat herself bloody trying to go against them when it would have done no good.'

Joss knew Arda cursed well because of all the years they'd served together at Clan Hall. He could see a grin forming on her face.

'And also,' she began, 'since your mention of a hieros naturally brought devouring to mind-'

'Don't say it!'

She laughed and did not say one word about who had tumbled whom and what had transpired after. He plunged into a discussion of how soon the Naya Hall reeves should start being sent out on patrol with more experienced reeves, and how else they might be used to free up experienced reeves for more difficult tasks, and how Clan Hall was going to attempt to create larger units for coordinated ventures.

'Reeves were never meant to be soldiers,' said Joss, 'nor is it anything I wish for, but we can't exactly ask that army's leave to come stand for judgment at our assizes. Nor can we stand aside and do nothing.'

They were thoughtful. They had good ideas, and they laid them out sensibly. They understood how bad things were in the north, and how what was bad would overflow to flood them. He was relieved when they had said all there was to say for the moment. He and Tohon went to the parade ground and he whistled down Scar and got him harnessed while the Qin soldier watched. Joss was restless; he needed to do something, to do more.

Zubaidit had walked into danger just as Marit had that day more than twenty years ago when she'd been killed by outlaws. It was the Hieros and Captain Anji who had loosed Bai on this impossible mission to kill Lord Radas. Aui! She'd gone gladly enough. She wasn't his to fret over. Even so, he could not stop thinking of how sweet she was to hold in his arms. Yet when he

remembered kissing her, he fell also into erratic flashes of memory of nights fireside with Marit, only a blanket between them and the earth. Had he really been so young once? Such a cursed innocent fool? Would he ever stop dreaming of her, seeing her trapped in the body she'd worn then, the body and spirit he had loved in a way he could never hope to find again?

Scar chirped interrogatively, catching his mood. Joss tugged on the last hook and buckle and stepped out to join Tohon.

'You're brooding,' said the scout.

'So I am. I like to be aloft.'

'Hard to stand and watch,' agreed Tohon. 'A man gets used to riding on at the break of day. Comes to think that movement and noise is where life is, when after all there's life in stillness and quiet, too.'

'Wise words, my friend. Listen. We'll have a pair of days to wait, and I am sure you will want to report immediately to whichever chief commands the militia camp, but if you don't have to go there straightaway I might as well let you know I'm thinking of taking a turn out to the temple of the Merciless One first.'

Tohon grinned. 'Don't mind if I do. No hurry for me. I don't belong to the captain's regular troop.'

'You don't?'

'No. I was transferred over to Captain Anji's command in the Mariha princedoms. Before that, I served Commander Beje.'

'Ah.' There was a useful piece of information, all unwittingly spilled. But after all, did a man as canny as Tohon ever reveal anything he did not mean to? Hard to know.

'Need we bring gifts or fripperies or coin to the temple?' Tohon continued.

'Neh. It's shameful to offer coin for what's freely given.'

'Then how do they live, there in the temple?'

'Folk offer tithes to all the temples. Every young person who has celebrated the feast of their Youth's Crown serves a year as apprentice in one temple or another, and their family pays a tithe to feed and clothe them. A few serve longer, in the manner of debt slaves. A very few serve their entire lives.'

'Like Zubaidit,' observed Tohon.

'Why do you say so?' asked Joss sharply. 'Her contract was bought out.'

Tohon stroked the straggle of hairs that served him as a beard. That part of the contract paid for in coin. But surely it's easier to

count sheep on a distant hill grown dense with snowflower bushes than to measure the extent of a person's service to a god.' His gaze was easy but his understanding keen. 'She's already taken, my friend.'

Joss flushed. 'I didn't say-'

Tohon chuckled. 'Not in words. But I can judge the lay of the land pretty well.'

Joss scratched behind an ear, a nervous habit he thought he'd lost as a child. 'You traveled with her a fair way. Did she ever — ah-' The hells! He sounded like a love-struck youth! Wheedling after any mention of the object of desire. And her almost young enough to be his own daughter had he married and begotten a child by the age of twenty, as most folk did. As Tohon no doubt had done.

'It's true we talked about many things and many people. She's a cursed interesting woman to talk to. But she never once mentioned you.'

'I'm put in my place.'

'Maybe. But I thought it strange.'

'You thought what strange?'

'That she never once mentioned you, for you're an important man whose acts all of Olossi has reason to be grateful for. It either means she never thought of you at all, or that she thought of you enough to deliberately not speak of you.'

After three days slogging in the mire — he lost two men to sand traps and one to snakebite — Arras pulled his men back to the main encampment at Saltow and left them to clean their filthy gear while he and Sergeant Giyara, in all their mud, reported to Commander Hetti.

'We probed as well as we could.' He stood in the sun, because he dared not smear with mud the commander's fancy rug. 'Barriers have been erected on the eastern causeway in four spots.'

'That won't be a problem.' Hetti lounged on a field couch under an awning. 'The question before us is how are we to defend the perimeter once the city is ours? How impenetrable are the wetlands?'

'We didn't penetrate to the worst areas. Where you think there's firm ground there's a sucking mire, and where it looks unstable might well be the only safe path. I lost three men, in a

cautious foray against no resistance. We have no local coopera-tors, but we'll need guides to be effective. Or we'll need to kill any locals who do not cooperate with us, so they can't use their knowledge against us. Still, it could be impossible to track them if they retreat into the swamps.'

'Dirty, too.' The commander was a stout man no longer in fighting trim. He had a bottle of wine on hand and no cups, nor did he offer drink to Arras or the sergeant. His attendants were sour-looking men content with their idleness. There were a pair of painted women, too, of the kind who trade sex for jewels and coin. 'We'll take command of the locals in the same way we took command of Toskala. Assign hostages to every company. That'll keep the rest in order.'

'Toskalan hostages?' Arras glanced around the bustling camp, with folk he had thought were camp followers or hirelings hard at work: cleaning harness, husking rice, pounding nai, braiding rope, hauling water and wood; the endless round of tasks necessary to keeping a soldier ready to move.

'You were assigned none?'

'We were not. We do everything ourselves.'

'Ah. Your companies reached Toskala late. You've what-? Three hundred men?'

'Three companies, Commander. We're slightly understrength, having only three hundred and nineteen. I could absorb new recruits.'

'I've only myself to offer as a swordsman,' said the commander with a genial laugh as his gaze flashed to the young women, who pretended to smile. No doubt Commander Hetti had fallen prey to the aging man's need to see himself as a youthful contender in the other ancient art of swordcraft.

'Have you made any attempts to recruit dissatisfied locals, Commander?'

'Eiya! We've enough trouble with them scuttling in at night and stealing our chickens!'

'Have you? We've recorded no such depredations in our encampment.'

T suspect those cursed Toskalan hostages are turning a blind eye to the pilfering or even helping it along, if you take my meaning. We haven't been able to catch them at it, nor will they squeal on each other. They're a gods-rotted sullen lot.'

Since Arras could think of no reason why a hostage ought to be

cheerful, he said nothing. Sergeant Giyara scratched at a welted hand, where in the mire a clinging vine had scraped its barbed tendrils over her skin. He flicked a glance skyward: as always, an eagle floated very high up, keeping an eye on the camp and their movements. Only dusk drove the reeves down to their halls.

'I'll have my clerk assign a cadre of hostages to your command,' Commander Hetti went on. 'See they're not killed. If they're dead, they're no use to us, eh?' The commander laughed at his own joke, and his attendants and the two young women laughed with him.

'I have a more extensive report to give, Commander. And maps we've drawn of the land we reconnoitered. Some thoughts-'

'I'll send a sergeant to take your report. Meanwhile, take two days' rest for refitting. Expect to move out at dawn on Wakened Ox.'

'Isn't Wakened Ox the same day the gates were opened in Toskala, last month?'

'Good fortune, don't you think? Lord Radas likes that day. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for outlanders and gods-touched, as before.'

'Why this interest in outlanders and gods-touched?'

'Cursed if I know or am likely to ask. If you find any, even slaves, bring them immediately to me. Also, I'm looking for a cadre of volunteers-'

A shriek lit the air like fire. Shouting rose from one corner of camp, and men rushed to see what was happening.

Commander Hetti fluttered his hands in the direction of his attendants. 'It's those cursed thieves again, I'm sure of it. Go see-' His words were drowned out by a larger outbreak of noise, a real brawl breaking out.

Arras had no desire to have any of his men volunteered for whatever task Commander Hetti had in mind, so he cocked an eye at Giyara, and she nodded.

'At once, Commander!' he said, loudly enough for the words to penetrate. He and the sergeant moved off. It seemed half the soldiers were running in that direction, maybe bored from having sat in camp for too long awaiting the knife in the dark whose blade would open Nessumara for them. Now he heard voices shouting wagers, and encouragement.

'Ten vey on the fat one!'

'Eiya! Don't give up, you wine-sodden wretch! Keep pushing!'

'Think they're betting on a fist fight?' Giyara muttered, with the twisted grin she used when she found any situation darkly amusing.

He pushed through the crowd, men giving way when they saw the lime-whitened horsetail epaulets marking his rank. A circle had formed around open space where two men, one beginning to spread into corpulence and one trimmer but clearly drunk, were grappling, locked in a swaying attempt to topple the other man. There was a woman, of.course, egging them on in the way of the vain woman who likes to see men fight over her. She was tall and lean and not the handsomest female he'd ever seen…

Then she moved, dropping into a crouch to look not at the fight but at something going on lower to the ground. He marked the supple way her body flowed, her complete command of her limbs. Whew! There was a woman worth grappling with.

He nudged Giyara and with a flick of his chin got her looking in the same direction; she caught his intention at once.

'Trained fighter, but not my type. I can see she might be yours, though. She's not outfitted as a soldier.'

'Hostage? Hireling?'


He pushed Giyara into the second rank of the crowd so he could watch without being spied. There the woman went, shifting backward until he lost sight of her.

He tapped the sergeant's arm. 'You stay here.'

He circled around until he saw, in the gloom, the ranks of wagons piled with poultry cages, all the birds asquawk as if a fox had come raiding. It was easy to miss the noise beneath the roar of the agitated crowd; easy to ignore a pair of dark shapes lifting a pair of cages from the rearmost wagon.

He strolled up. 'You've got permission to secure those, eh?'

One of the figures — a thin youth clad in nothing more than a kilt — shrank back, but she turned to confront him as bold as you please, having set the two cages on the ground at her feet.

'Who are you to ask?' Her voice was low and assured.

He grinned. 'I'm called Captain Arras. You're not a soldier.'

'I'm not.'

'A spy, perhaps?' He set a hand on his sword hilt.

She rubbed her chin, head cocked to one side. 'It's sure I'd admit it if I were.'

'Heh. I'd say you were one of the hostages out of Toskala, but you don't talk like them.'

'I don't, it's true. Not that it's any of your business, but I was married into one of the mat-making clans in Toskala. I'm from the south. I guess the army thought my husband would miss me if they hauled me away.'

'Do you miss your husband?'

She spoke with the posture of her body, playing to his obvious interest. 'He's young and energetic. I have no complaints of how he's treated me since we were wed.'

'But some complaints of the army, I take it. Why are you stealing chickens?'

'Do you suppose our masters feed us properly?'

'You could get whipped for stealing.'

'So I could, but I don't like to see my comrades suffering.'

'You're young to take on so much responsibility, knowing you'll take the brunt of the punishment. Where'd you serve your apprentice year?'

'Where do you think?'

He laughed, lifting his chin to make the question a command. 'What's your name?'


'Tell you what, Zubaidit. You collect a cadre of hostages, hard workers and decent folk, and bring them along to my company. I'll see you and your people are decently fed and cared for as long as you do your work and cause me and my soldiers no trouble.'

'That's a generous offer, of its kind. What will you ask for in return?'

'It's true I like a good workout at the Devourer's temple, same as any person, but I'm not one of those who uses the power he has to coerce folk into sex. I like that you're not afraid to talk to me, although I've caught you in the act of stealing, for which I could certainly see you and the lad whipped had I a mind to it. Or force you into my bed to spare you the welts.'

'So you'll pull me along to work for your company and hope to persuade me by other means? I've a husband, as I've mentioned.'

'Many a woman has a husband, and many a man a wife, and the tales repeat what observation tells us: that the Devourer acts as she wills, and folk will find pleasure as they are driven by her will acting within them. What's your point? If you're worried you

might conceive a child for his clan not of his breeding, then there are ways to make sure no child is sown in fertile ground. As every hierodule in the Devourer's temple knows.'

'You've made your plan of attack plain!' She laughed, and he wasn't quite sure whether she found him attractive or ridiculous, but anyway she wasn't recoiling. 'How do you know I'm fashioned that way?'

'I know how you're fashioned.'

Behind them, the fight was breaking up. She set a fist on one hip, the angle emphasizing her shapely torso, the fit of her sleeveless vest, the curve of her hip over loose trousers belted up so the hem lapped just above her ankles. She knew he knew. It was just the first skirmish in a longer battle.

'Put those chickens back,' he added, 'and I'll speak with the captain you're assigned to right now.'

She gestured, and the youth set the cages back on the wagon. Out of the darkening night, a pair of soldiers strolled up on camp duty.

'Got a problem here, Captain? The hostages are forbidden from congregating around the supply wagons. They're all gods-rotted thieves.'

'There's no problem,' said Arras.

After looking over the young woman and her mute companion, the soldiers walked on up the line of wagons.

She gestured after them. 'So we are at your command, Captain Arras.'

'There's one thing,' he added, stepping up close enough to let his muscle speak. 'Don't ever mock me.'

She didn't shift at all. 'I don't mock, Captain. I'll tell you straight to your face what I think of you.'

He liked a dangerous, confident woman who wasn't afraid of him, and he was cursed curious about so young a woman married into a humble mat-making clan, come so far from her own people's home. What gave some folk that sense of confidence? Discipline. Training. And a more intangible quality, gifted to them from the gods.

Later, after he'd detached twenty-six hostages of her choosing from the cohort to which they'd been assigned, he went to speak to the quartermaster in charge of the provisions wagons. It was well into night by this time, but the quartermaster was still awake, supervising six clerks working by lamplight as they

administered the flow of provisions and supplies into companies refitting in preparation for the fall of Nessumara in four days.

'How can I help you, Captain?' the woman asked, looking him up and down to let him know she found him attractive. She was full-figured, about his age, competent and confident, but although he appreciated her interest, he could only think about Zubaidit. Aui! Where's there an itch, you must scratch. He could not tell if, like Nessumara, Zubaidit had already fallen and was just holding out for a few more days to prepare the ground properly, or if he'd have to endure a longer campaign.


'A favor, if you will. You've records for the poultry wagons?'

'I do.' Clearly, she was the kind who kept accurate records. 'I've taken my day count earlier. I do another count at dawn, and then allocate birds according to those companies that have reached their week's turn for a meat ration. I can't change your company's ration, if that's what you're after.'

'I'm just curious. Any chance you could do another count?'



Sure enough, the count came up one cage short, a cage pilfered from the middle wagons, well away from the rear of the line where he'd been kept busy. Thoughtful, he strolled back to camp under a cloudless sky, swatting away the bugs, whistling under his breath. The stars shone like jewels cast across the heavens, as it said in the tale. He carried a lamp to guide his feet. One did need a lamp. It was so easy to stumble.

He grinned.

He had soldiers to drill, to make ready for Wakened Ox, because they would need rigid discipline even if all went smoothly, as such things rarely did. That first, then. He was a patient man. After the fall of Nessumara, he would have plenty of time to unravel the mystery of his hostage. One task at a time.

A whisper of wind stirred the air as a shadow passed over him. A horse, wings spread so wide they blotted out a length of sky, galloped low, dropping to earth. The cloak of the rider billowed behind, and Arras ducked without meaning to, feeling as if the sweep of that rider's eyes was a spear-thrust that caught him in the back. Fear ripped away the strength of his legs, and he dropped to his knees, panting.

How angry would Lord Twilight be when he returned to discover that Night had captured the outlander Arras had been tasked to protect? What if Lord Radas questioned him and chose to punish him for disobedience, even though he'd only been obeying Twilight's orders? How was an ordinary man to balance walking this edge, when it was not even his choice to do so?

He picked himself up, wiped off his knees. The day of Wakened Ox could not dawn soon enough. After Nessumara fell, he would ask to be sent forward with his cohort into the next assault of the campaign. Battle was a cursed sight simpler to deal with than Guardians.

Somehow, Joss could not be rid of folk speaking of Zubaidit. Late that afternoon he reclined on pillows in the pavilion of Ushara's temple as the Hieros poured rice wine into cups and with her own hands offered one to Joss and one to Tohon. The old woman and the two men sat alone under a roof wreathed with harvest flowers from jabi bushes. The scent was overwhelmed by the tart aroma of tsi berries being cooked down as they were every year in this season. A pair of older women — like Captain Anji's personal guards — hovered within sight but out of earshot, and there was a lad lurking in the bushes.

'Strange,' the Hieros was saying, indicating two ginny lizards who had crawled up onto the pavilion floor and were sizing up Joss with mouths gapped to show teeth. 'I'm not sure they like you, Commander.'

'Aren't those the pair that traveled with Zubaidit?' asked Tohon.

The old woman terrified Joss, but the smile she turned on Tohon would have melted a block of ice. She'd been stunning in her youth, no doubt of it, and was still handsome in the way of women who have kept their vigor along with fine bone structure.

'So they are. Most folk can't tell the difference, but ginnies are as unlike as any one person is from the next. What news of my hierodule, Tohon?'

The scout packed information into a comprehensive review of all he had said and done and seen. 'If you don't mind my asking,


Holy One,' he finished, 'do you think we can buy horses from the lendings? They had good breeding stock.'

'It would be difficult. They never come out of the Lend, and we do not enter for fear of falling afoul of their boundaries. I'm surprised you made it out.'

'The lendings took our horses,' said Tohon with a laugh.

The Hieros sipped thoughtfully. She was so different a person seen in this light that Joss was amazed. Like this particular rice wine, she had a pleasing disposition, slightly sweet and markedly elegant. 'If you are serious, you'd best inquire at Atiratu's temple. The mendicants sworn to the Lady of Beasts journey out that way seeking various medicinal plants that grow only in the Lend. They know how to make an arrangement with the tribes.'

'What of Zubaidit?' asked Joss impatiently as the conversation wandered away from the subject that interested him most. 'Can she and Shai possibly succeed?'

'She will do as she must,' said the Hieros coolly, unmoved by his passionate words. 'As you did, in agreeing to stand as commander over the reeve halls, a position I believe you did not seek nor are eager to assume.'


'Yet you will do as you must. So tell me, are you come today to embrace the Merciless One?'

The hells! Was she trying to get him out of the way? 'I'm feeling restless, it's true.'

Tohon smiled sweetly at him.

Joss laughed, half shocked to realize the two of them were clearly intending to sleep together.

The Hieros gestured, and the lad dashed out from under cover of the dense vegetation. 'Take the commander to the Heart Garden,' she said to the boy.

Joss went obediently, while Tohon remained behind.

T remember you,' said the lad. 'I've never seen Bai go after a man the way she did you.'

'What's your name? Have we met?'

He had a sly grin, a real troublemaker. 'I'm called Kass.' But his expression drew taut as he sighed. 'Will we ever see her again?'

Joss didn't know whether he braced himself or the youth with the pointlessly optimistic words that emerged from his lips. 'If anyone can succeed, she can.'

They crossed through white gates into the Heart Garden,

where men and women were seated on benches among the flowers. Here folk would linger before being called to enter the gates, but Kass led him straight to the gold gate and tugged on a rope that jangled a bell on the other side. The inner door within the double gates opened, and a young man who might have seen twenty years peered out. Joss smiled at him as the kalos sized him up appreciatively.

'Come in.' The kalos flicked a hand to shoo Kass away. 'I'll see if there are any women wandering free who might find you of interest, not that I can see why they wouldn't. You have any brothers?'

'As it happens, I don't. I was the only boy among more sisters and female cousins than I could count.'

The kalos laughed as he beckoned Joss under the threshold and latched the door behind them. They walked into the outer precincts of the inner garden, an open area paved with flagstones and moss and ringed with trees, bushes, and carefully constructed screens that concealed the greater part of the garden. To the right, a roof topped a bathing pavilion where four men were chatting companionably as they washed themselves while waiting for acolytes to come look them over. Their clothes were draped over benches. Pipes brought water for the rinsing buckets. There was a wooden tub as well, steam rising like breath. Set farther back, half hidden, were a few shelters for private bathing.

'I get the impression you've visited temples aplenty and need no instruction.' The kalos walked over to the pavilion and hitched up on a bench near to one man, starting a conversation.

Ushara's temple contained, like desire, an outer facing and an inner fire. To enter the outer court through the gate was to ask permission to worship. If granted, then within the central court you might loiter while you decided whether you truly wanted to approach, and by subtle signs you were shown whether any within would be likely to grant your petition. Only then did you cross under one of the gates — silver for women and gold for men. Past these gates waited hierodules and kalos, who might approach you according to how you were fashioned, if they so pleased. Water cleansed you.

Beyond that, the inner garden lay bathed in equal parts light and darkness, impossible to discern because of many warrens and walls. There rose an undercurrent of noise something like a constant wind in the branches that made his skin prickle with

anticipation. As well as private bowers in the grass, there were rooms and closets and attics in the farther buildings. Joss was pretty sure that in his time he had experienced pretty much everything the Merciless One's temples had to offer.

Yet even so, never once had he embraced the Devourer without thinking of Marit.

Aui! Wasn't it Zubaidit he'd just been thinking and talking of? He rubbed his forehead, wondering why he had come.

Two young women fetchingly dressed in taloos appeared with empty buckets resting on their hips. They slowed down as they passed the bathing pavilion and looked the men over; then one saw Joss and nudged the other, and they strolled over while the men under the pavilion made laughing complaints about being abandoned for a newcomer.

They looked him up and down, and they looked at each other and smiled.


The splash of water startled him so much he looked away from the tight wrap of their taloos and their cocky grins, the vital young who expect admiration. Over by the bathing pavilion, a woman was pouring water into a bronze tub. She was a woman probably in her thirties, maybe one of those who served a shorter second apprenticeship later in life as an offering, or to break the monotony of their own lives, or to escape a difficult clan for a few months, or just because they'd enjoyed the service in their younger days and wanted to remember what it was like. She might have been dedicated to serve her whole life long. She might even have been a debt slave, although she had no debt mark by her left eye. But she walked nothing like Zubaidit; she looked and acted nothing like Marit; she looked comfortable and lush. From the distance she took her time looking him over as hierodules did, for in the measuring they decided whether they'd any interest. Indeed, the act of measuring was its own provocative delight.

For an instant, it was just like the first time he had entered Ushara's temple: Would she find him attractive?

She laughed, as if she could see right into his thoughts, and with empty bucket in hand she sauntered over. The two young women shook their heads as if scolding him for turning down a bite of sweet cake, but they walked back to the men waiting at the bathing pavilion.

The woman halted before him, bucket hanging from one hand

and the other hand set akimbo on the curve of a hip. 'You're the best-looking man I've seen this month, mayhap this year, not that you'll not have heard that line before. Do you need some help finding the garden where the young hierodules sit? Like those two.' She gestured with her chin.

He took the bucket from her hand as she smiled. 'My thanks, verea, but no. I've found what I'm looking for.'

'Commander Joss?'

He hadn't known he was so tired. He woke on a pallet set on the porch in the outer court of the temple, suitable for worshipers too exhausted to make it home in one evening. He had a vague memory of stumbling out here late, the worse for drink but otherwise well satisfied.

He cracked open an eye to see a youthful face looking down on him. 'Kesh, right?'

'Kass. There's, a boat waiting. Tohon says the captain's ship came in. We can see all the ship traffic off the sea, you know.'

The temple had kindly lent Joss a kilt to sleep in. He dressed quickly and slung his kit bag over a shoulder. Dawn had scarcely risen; the captain's ship must have rowed up the channel the instant there was light enough to see. Kass led him to the docks, so furiously not asking questions Joss supposed the lad had plenty of questions he wanted asked.

'How comes it she entrusts you to stand around at all her private councils?' Joss asked as they crunched down the path.

The lad had the wicked grin of a favored child who gets away with plenty of mischief but whose nature hasn't been spoilt to souring. 'I'm her great-grandson. Her daughter chose the path of a mendicant. Her son — my father — offered at the Witherer's altar and was able to marry into a farming clan. I'm in the middle of eight children, too many to feed. They sent me here when I was five. I'm not a kalos, you know, even though I'm old enough.'

'Do you serve the Merciless One?'

'I haven't served my temple year yet. I haven't discovered which god I'm best suited to serve.'

Joss laughed. 'And to think you've got that hard-hearted old woman keeping you here in luxury while you take your time making up your mind.'

The lad sobered as they approached the docks where Tohon waited. Mist rose off the waters. A heron flapped across ripples.

In the shipping channel, merchant boats sailed downstream for the sea, oars dipping in the placid water where the current broke into a dozen smaller channels. The River Olo's estuary was but a tiny spray of channels and islets compared with the vast delta in which Nessumara nestled.

'You'll send word of Bai, won't you?' Kass asked in a low voice.

'If I can. The Hieros will hear as soon as anyone.'

Tohon greeted him, and they settled into the boat as the oarsmen shoved away from the pier. The oarsmen worked upstream to Dast Olo through a backwater channel. Red-caps flitted among the reeds. A fish's silver back parted the surface. The oarsmen worked in silence, and Tohon seemed content to watch the banks slide past under the early-morning sun.

'Have a good night?' Joss asked finally, rubbing the last of the muzz out of his eyes.

Tohon tugged on an ear as the boat rocked under them and waves slapped the side. He didn't reply.

'Sorry. How'd you hear about Captain Anji arriving?'

'I saw the ship pass at dawn. There's a tongue of land at the point of the island, out behind the buildings. You can see where the river meets the sea.'

'They made a quick journey of it.'

'The captain has that habit.'

A woman knee-deep in mud, pulling a trap out of the shallows, lifted her gaze to watch them go by. She waved gnats away from her face as she stared at the Qin soldier, then shrugged and went back to work. Huts clustered on hummocks and racks of drying fish marked the edge of the village.

In Dast Olo they rented horses for the ride to Olossi. Joss offered the usual deposit to the stablemaster, to be marked and returned at Crow's Gate by one of Sapanasu's clerks.

'Neh.' The man waved away the coin, indicating Tohon. 'The Qin are honest. If you say the horses will get turned in to my agent at Crow's Gate, it'll be done. I'll tell you, things are changing for the better. Two years ago I'd have had to send a gang of armed men with my stock to Old Fort or Candra Crossing. Now I'm hiring stock up the pass and all the way to Storos-on-the-Water. I sent my own daughter and two hirelings to Old Fort with a wagon and pair on delivery for men hauling oil of naya out of the Barrens. Plenty of guards and checkpoints on the road against

mischief. I call that new militia commander good for business, even if he is an outlander.'

Joss thanked him. Tohon offered a calm nod, as if he was used to hearing his captain praised for making the roads safe.

'Didn't think you'd know how to ride, being a reeve,' Tohon said after they'd paced awhile.

T served my apprenticeship to Ilu the Herald, riding messages along the North Shore Road. I'm out of practice, though.'

Tohon grinned. 'What say we race? To that pole.' He pointed to a distant vertical line that Joss had to squint to recognize as a pole.

With a challenge like that, it had to be done. Joss lost horribly, but he didn't disgrace himself by falling off. The two men chatted easily about inconsequential things as they made good time the rest of the way to the militia encampment beyond the outer city.

The local militiamen standing guard at the outer gates waved them through. The captain's pennant rippled in a midday breeze. The black cloth was worked with a silver-white stitchery outlining the head of a wolf: a black wolf running in a black night.

Tohon handed the horses over to a groom and instructed him to rub them down, water them, and return them to Crow's Gate. A pair of Qin soldiers greeted the scout as the two men crossed the central drill ground, empty at this hour.

Chief Tuvi stood on a porch that ran all the way around the raised platform, built of planks and covered by a canvas roof, that served as the captain's office. Mai's younger slave sat on the steps staring vacantly at the sky. The chief was chatting with the older slave, who held a baby swaddled in a length of best-quality linen. As Joss and Tohon stepped onto the porch to be greeted by Tuvi, the baby opened its eyes and to Joss's shock fixed a black stare on him as if it recognized him.

'Here is your uncle,' said Priya to the infant, although it was obviously too young to understand. 'Do you want to hold Atani, Commander?'

News of his new rank had reached here before him. How did Anji get his information? But when he took the baby, the tiny creature was so comfortable in his arm that he forgot all else. What were those faint blue gleams shot through its irises? It had a wise gaze, as newborns did, a remnant of the memories it had left behind the Spirit Gate in its passage into this world. He smiled,

hoping to evoke a similar expression, but the dark eyes just sucked him in until, disconcerted, he glanced up.

He stood with his back to the others, who were talking. Priya's voice was smooth in contrast to the rumble of the two soldiers. The inner and outer walls of the captain's office were cloth that could be tied up into any configuration depending on the time of day, the rays of the sun, and the direction of the wind. Though weighted at the hems, the walls fluttered, caught in a stray gust, and for an instant he saw through a series of parting gaps into the innermost chamber where two people stood closely entwined.


Certain kisses are not meant to be seen by others. Flushing, he jerked his gaze down to the baby, who had closed his eyes and, apparently, fallen asleep. The child's face was so peaceful that at length Joss's flush faded. He was content to hold the little one as kinfolk were meant to do, providing arms for shelter. Would Anji really have slaughtered a helpless infant? Surely not.

'Commander!' The captain pushed through cloth to emerge onto the porch, looking trim and composed. 'Here you are, elevated in rank.'

'Yes. I'm an uncle now.'

Anji glanced back as the cloth walls parted again. Mai stepped into view while patting her thick black hair, all bound up on her head. Her color was high and her beauty as powerful as sunlight.

Seeing Joss, she smiled as a flower blooms. 'Marshal! Ah! I must call you by another title. Commander! Will you have to grow a beard now?' She halted beside him, whatever perfume she wore as heady as the scent of the Hieros's garden. 'It suits you, that traveling look, as if you've not had time to pause and tidy yourself.'

'Here I've been so careful all these years to keep myself neat.' It was cursed impossible not to admire her in her carefully wrapped silk taloos, best quality, the color a somber green that handsomely set off her black hair and dark eyes and dusky, flawless complexion. She had filled out with nursing. He vividly recalled that he'd been present in the cave when she had given birth. The hells! He'd glimpsed her when she was naked.

A becoming flush crept up her cheeks, and she shifted to less volatile ground. 'You're very comfortable with Atani.'

'He's a lovely boy.' He caught Anji watching him. Aui! That narrowed gaze made him cursed uncomfortable.

The captain pointedly looked at Tuvi and raised his chin. Tuvi nodded and clattered away down the porch.

'He sleeps a lot,' said Mai, her expression sweetly tender as she examined the precious face. She seemed content to watch Joss hold the baby, and he had to admit it was a pleasant sensation, child and woman both.

'You've brought Tohon, as I hoped,' said Anji. 'Will you join me to hear his report?'

The words dragged him back to earth. 'Of course.'

'Mai, Tuvi's gone to bring horses. You and Atani and Priya and Sheyshi can go immediately to the compound. I'll come later.'

Tohon pulled on an ear, twisting the tip between thumb and forefinger. Priya retrieved the sleeping infant from Joss.

'Will we see you soon, Commander?' Mai asked as she paused beside Sheyshi on the steps.

'I'll be returning to Toskala as soon as I can.'

'Even reeves must eat.'

'As my eagle'does today, while I am trapped on earth.'

She looked at Anji. 'Bring Joss with you. It would be a fitting gesture to feast our return to a favored house. Guests bring honor to a feast.'

'And the day is Wakened Ox,' Joss said with a laugh. 'An auspicious day for two born in the Year of the Ox to meet again, neh?'

Her smile was glorious. She glanced skyward. 'It's a little late, but there will still be decent pickings at the market.'

'A generous offer,' said Anji in an odd tone.

She glanced at him, looking surprised, and then at Joss. 'I hope we will see you later today.'

Priya touched her arm and they went down, followed by Sheyshi.

Joss had to force himself to address the captain rather than Mai's lovely backside. 'Don't you worry about the red hounds striking again? Mai returning to Olossi? Going out in the market again?'

'Of course I do.' Anji watched her intently as she reached Tuvi, bound the baby tightly in a sling against her back, and mounted, clearly comfortable in the saddle. 'But I have put substantial measures in place on the roads and at the gates into Olossi, and additional patrols. There's also now a separate camp outside the walls to house foreign caravan guards and merchants, who for the

time being aren't allowed to enter the city. If we control the traffic, then we have some control over what elements move in and out of our lands. The alternative is to let fear shackle us. If you're afraid, don't do it. If you do it, don't be afraid.' He drew aside cloth, indicating they should enter. Tohon? Joss?'

Joss felt the ghost of the baby's weight on his arm. He shut his eyes, but the vision of Mai's passionate embrace of her husband burned there, an intrusion he was very very glad no one had noticed him seeing. Like the child, the moment did not belong to him.

'Out on the Lend I saw the most magnificent horses,' Tohon was saying. 'Perfect for breeding stock, if we can get some. We need to talk to Atiratu's mendicants.'

Shaking himself free of the mire of cursed useless thoughts, Joss followed them in. When they reached the visual privacy of the innermost chamber and its fluttering walls, Tohon delivered a brutally concise description of the desperate situation in Toskala and Nessumara and the regions along the River Istri.

Anji listened with a stillness Joss admired, and nodded when Tohon finished. 'If they consolidate power in Haldia and Istria and impress unwilling soldiers into their army, then what chance have we when — and it will be when, not if — they turn their gaze again toward Olo'osson?'

'They won't make the mistake a second time of thinking Olossi an easy target,' said Joss.

'No, they won't.' Anji walked to his low writing desk and looked down on the paper unrolled there, with lines and hatch marks sketching a map of the Hundred, although it had more blank than detail. Tohon examined it from the opposite side of the desk, arms crossed. 'People want to live at peace, undisturbed. They want to raise healthy children to adulthood, eat every day, do their work, attend their festivals. If their gods grant them fortune, they hope to live to see grandchildren and a measure of prosperity. Why should Hundred folk be any different?'

'I don't believe they are,' said Joss.

'People in the north surely hate and fear Lord Radas's army. Yet I have seen folk hate and fear the Qin, although you must not imagine the Qin behave in any way like these ones who call themselves the Star of Life. Still, if order is imposed through fear or privation, folk will in the end settle into that order, not wanting to risk more disruption, more fear, more dying.'

'What are you saying, Captain?'

Anji grabbed his riding whip off the desk and tapped the map, then traced a line from Olossi to Toskala. 'Before such deadly order is imposed and folk become accustomed to its relative peace, we must act. We have to hit them before they become too powerful.'

T agree. But we're badly outnumbered, and they have years of fighting experience and wagonloads of weapons to use against us. This will be a far harder fight even than the battle we waged here in Olossi.'

Anji drew his whip through his fingers, his gaze so sharp Joss was startled. 'Surely the new commander of the reeve halls will begin by commanding the halls to act in concert against this threat.'

Joss raised a hand, as if fending off a challenge. Anji's intensity disconcerted him; it was almost as though Anji was angry at him for something else. 'I've already begun to do so. But every hall is autonomous. Clan Hall holds a supervisory position only. So for the other halls to undertake to institute any changes I propose-'

'There's a saying among the Qin. One arrow is easily snapped in half, but bundle many arrows together and they cannot easily be broken.'

T understand that, truly I do.' He was momentarily irritated, but an outlander like Anji could not be expected to comprehend the ways of the Hundred, so Joss smiled an easy smile and tried out a more charming, soothing voice. 'I'm just telling you that the reeve halls may take some while to come around. People don't like change, especially not when they are settled in their old ways of doing things, and we in the Hundred do love our traditions. We have to be patient and work at them.'

Abruptly, the captain relaxed. 'Just as some people will flirt the same as they will breathe, having become accustomed to handling people in that manner.'

Joss grinned. T beg your pardon.'

It was difficult to tell if Anji was jesting, or if he was serious. 'It's your job to persuade them, something at which it is obvious you have plenty of practice. The question is not whether they will change, because they will have to. The question is, will they agree to do so before it is too late?'

Home. Home. Home.

Everything was as Mai had left it months ago, dusted and tidied, and alive with voices as hirelings sang and chattered in the gardens and rooms of her utterly wonderful compound in the fabulous city of Olossi. She smiled as she walked into the chamber at the heart of the complex, where she and her husband slept. Priya opened up a tiny cot, and Mai lowered the sleeping infant into its confines. Atani slept and suckled and eliminated, a placid baby, easy to care for despite his too-early birth.

'I want to see the counting rooms!' said Mai. 'And the crane room. And the rat screens — my favorite! And the gardens. So lovely! All that green!'

'You are glad to return, Mistress,' said Priya with a gentle smile.

Mai laughed, feeling giddy. 'After all those months in the Barrens, I should think so. I thought I would be forced to live there forever. Then we had to bide a month trapped in the valley after the baby was born. A beautiful place, to be sure. A perfect setting for a tale, where the handsome bandit hides his treasure, but still-'

Priya's furrowed brow caught Mai short.

'What is it, Priya?' She knelt beside the baby, but his little face remained peaceful and his eyes closed.

'The valley was a merciful place, and well guarded. A safe haven from the red hounds. But creatures live there we do not understand. Like demons, such creatures have their own desires and demands, different from our own. We are fortunate they did not trouble us more than they did.'

Mai brushed the baby's black hair. Fearing for herself was one thing, but when she looked at her vulnerable son, a new and horrible realm of terror opened an abyss before her. If anything happened to him, she would — as her long-lost and much-missed sister Ti would have said — die die die. 'Do you think it was a bad omen when they wrapped themselves around the baby? They were so bright. It's hard to imagine them as malevolent.'

'Beautiful things can cause harm as well as dull ones. Yet we had no choice but to take refuge in the valley. The Merciful One watches over the faithful. What you cannot change, let go.'

'And what you can change, grasp with both hands, neh?' With a tenuous smile, Mai rose. 'Sheyshi?'

Mai had brought three slaves with her across the desert and over the mountains. Her father had sent the big man, O'eki, to watch over her physically. Priya Mai had herself chosen off the auction block in Kartu Town many years ago; over time, she had come to rely on Priya's wisdom and affection more than that of her own mother and aunt.

Sheyshi was a different matter. A Qin general named Commander Beje had warned Anji that Anji's own uncle, who was his mother's brother and also the var — ruler — of the nomadic Qin, had agreed to deliver Anji into the hands of Anji's half brother. That half brother was the newly anointed emperor seated on the Sirniakan throne, and he intended to kill all of his living brothers and half brothers so they could not contest his right to rule. To live, Anji had to die by riding into exile, taking his retainers with him. Yet he wasn't the only one whose life had been saved by their long journey into the Hundred. Sheyshi had served khaif at the meeting between Anji and Beje. Because she had therefore overheard a conversation which could incriminate Beje in the eyes of his var, she was, being a mere slave, expendable. Mai had taken her to save her.

It seemed Sheyshi could scarcely bear to stand more than a stone's throw away from Mai, or Anji, at all anymore, as if she feared what would happen to her if she lost sight of them.

She had been kneeling just outside the door, and at Mai's call she padded in, head bowed. 'I am here, Mistress.'

'Sit with the baby, Sheyshi.'

'Yes, Mistress.' She sank down beside the cot, staring after Mai in a possessive way that made Mai uncomfortable.

Away from the chamber, Mai said to Priya, 'Do you think we should marry off Sheyshi? Maybe she would like that.'

'To a Qin husband? Have any of them expressed any interest in her?'

'Now that I think of it, they have not. Isn't that odd?'

'Maybe not, if they believe she serves you.'

They wandered through the compound to reacquaint themselves with its chambers: here, the crane room, with its painted screens showing cranes through the seasons; there, the rat room,

decorated with screens depicting rats in jackets or taloos flying kites and playing hooks-and-ropes. The outer garden was lush with flowers and late-ripening fruit. The large inner garden with its pools and gazebo lay cool and green in these last days of the rainy season. In the back court, women who were washing laundry greeted her cheerfully as she addressed each one by name. The smell of nai porridge and steaming fish rose from the kitchens.

'Priya, will you come with me to the market?'

'Best you not go today, Mistress.'

'You are still worried about the red hounds?'

'Chief Tuvi will want a few days to establish a watch, assign guardsmen, send your escorts into the market to look it over before you go down. Then they'll know if there are any unexpected changes precipitated by your arrival.'

'You've thought this through!'

T have consulted with the chief and O'eki, it is true.' Priya's gaze was always full with the affection woven between them, but she was also clear-sighted and willing to speak her mind. 'Don't push too fast now you have been allowed to return, Mistress. It cannot have been easy for the captain to place you at risk, knowing he can protect you better — or so a soldier might think — by confining you in a cage as the Sirniakans do to their women. Let those who seek to protect you and the baby feel they have some control.'

'But the red hounds could strike again.'

'Perhaps they will. Do you wish to return to Merciful Valley? There, at least, only those ferried in by reeves can enter.'

'No. I don't want to live there. I would rather take the risk. Anji will do everything he can, and I am sure that the Hieros has her own agents seeking word of spies from the empire. I'll send someone from the kitchen staff to the markets, and bide here patiently. For now.'

Priya kissed her on the cheek. 'You are naturally a little tired as well. Also, it may be you will wish to feel refreshed when the captain returns.'

Mai flushed, thinking of those few private moments she and Anji had stolen behind the curtains in the militia camp. Anji had been seasick crossing the Olo'o Sea; water did not agree with him. They had not yet celebrated their reunion as she yearned to do. 'I'll bathe.'

Priya smiled and let her go. Mai spoke to the kitchen women

while Priya arranged for a tub to be filled in the small courtyard at the heart of the compound, off the private rooms. Mai, after checking on Atani, who was still asleep, joined her. Hot water steamed out of the tub, set on flagstones beneath the roof of a little pavilion. The splintered doors had been repaired; there was no sign any demon attack had occurred.

'I sat with Miravia just there,' Mai said. 'I wonder if I'll ever be allowed to see her again. Her family is so very angry. We insulted their honor.'

'It wasn't your fault, Mistress. No one could have known the demon would attack and kill those soldiers on any day, much less the day when Miravia visited you.'

'No one could have known,' Mai repeated, as if saying the words again would make the memories of that day less painful. But they did not. She might well lose the dear friend she had made, a young woman of the same age and with the special connection that sometimes sparks between two people, as if they had known and touched each before birth in the mists beyond the Spirit Gate where souls reside. 'She lives in a cage.'

'The Ri Amarah have been good friends to us, Mistress.'

'I know they have. It just seems-' It was better simply to strip off her taloos and sit in the warm water and scrub, and let Priya wash her hair. Later, she would take a cadre of women and go to the real baths. Ah!

Then the baby had to be nursed, and afterward she busied herself in the kitchens with the other women. But at dusk came a message that Anji would not be coming home. He had gone away with Tohon on urgent business to do with horses. He might be gone several days; hard to say. Reeve Joss was gone with him, having sent his regrets at not being able to attend the feast. No guests after all.

She wept, and it seemed she was more tired than she had realized, because when she lay down to nurse the baby, she fell into a heavy sleep and remembered no dreams.

About midday, Captain Arras and his three companies, mockingly referred to as Half-the-Asses-They-Should-Have Cohort by the rest of the army, marched past the dismantled remains of a fourth barrier. They followed First Cohort's six companies, who had been given pride of place in the van of the approach over the eastern causeway. Because the eastern causeway was the shorter

passage into the city, First Cohort would be first to enter Nessumara's famed Council Square and therefore get to fly their banner from the Assizes Tower.

Four cohorts — First, Seventh, Eighth, and Arras's remnant Sixth — had set out in staggered ranks just after dawn. They had made excellent time because the causeway was an excellent piece of construction: raised out of the wetlands like a dike, it was wide enough that two wagons might pass. Not that there was any traffic today. Beside the army tromping briskly into the delta and birds fluttering among reeds and shallows, the world seemed utterly empty. The mire glistened to either side. A boat skulked in the reeds; was that a fishing line stretched taut from the prow? The cursed eagles floated overhead, eyes on everything.

A runner loped along the causeway from the front, a youth with hair tied back and a quilted jacket wrapped around his torso. He sighted for the company banners and, reaching them, marked the horsetail epaulets that identified his quarry.

'Captain Arras? Message from Captain Dessheyi.'

'Go on.'

The lad pulled up beside him and began to talk. 'First Cohort has crossed the first bridge, Captain. It's a plank bridge. Single wide, one wagon at a time, easy for counting toll and controlling traffic. Looked to me like you could remove the middle planks and block it. The front ranks are crossing the island beyond it now, toward a second bridge.'

'What is the island like?'

'Storehouses, courtyards, a threshing ground, gardens and orchards. It's deserted.'

'Interesting. What are my orders?'

'Cross the first bridge. First Cohort will move forward over the second bridge, while Sixth holds position on the island until the cohort behind yours reaches the first bridge. Then you'll cross the second bridge in support of First Cohort.'

'Each cleared space taken possession of immediately. I see. Anything else?'

'I'm to continue on to give my message to Seventh Cohort, commanded by Captain Daron.'

'Very well. Follow me.'

He signaled Sergeant Giyara to maintain control of his personal staff and, with the runner in tow, dropped back from the front of his unit. He passed the first-strike infantrymen, his

heaviest shields. Behind them marched a cadre of guards walling in the hostages, followed by five cadres of proven infantry with new soldiers mixed in among the veterans. Next in line came the wagoners with their six wagons rumbling along without incident, archers pacing them with bows ready. He reached the rearguard, where his toughest men were wiping their brows and eyeing the distance opening between them and Seventh Cohort, its vanguard barely in sight behind them. The youth took a swig from his flask, then sprinted off as Arras followed his swift progress with an approving gaze.

'Anything?' he asked Subcaptain Orli after he had relayed First Cohort's orders.

'No, Captain. Seventh Cohort is maintaining distance, according to plan. As for the mire, cursed if I know. I saw a boat.'

'So did I. Stay alert. Betrayal seems cursed simple, but something could easily go wrong.'

The runner reached the vanguard of Seventh Cohort. Arras worked his way' back up through the unit to the wedge that surrounded their twenty-eight hostages, all of whom looked frightened and weary.

All but one.

The other hostages watched what she did, listened for what she said, adjusted their stride to match her pace. They were cowed hostages who knew they were alive only on the sufferance of their captors. She was not cowed. Interesting.

She offered him something that wasn't a smile as much as a challenge. 'Captain Arras. How nice of you to come explain yourself.'

'Explain myself? I'm still trying to figure what you did with those chickens.' He clasped his hands behind his back as he fell into step beside her.

'We didn't do anything with the chickens. We had to put the cage back. You saw the whole thing.'

'The other chickens. The ones you successfully stole via misdirection.'

'I did nothing but what you saw me do, Captain. I'm sorry you believe otherwise.'

It was a discussion they'd had four times in the last four days; he was no nearer to figuring if the hostages had managed to cook the birds without him knowing or to trade them without being caught, and in the latter case for what items in exchange? He had

the hostages' bundles searched every night for weapons and contraband, but nothing ever showed up beyond the usual gear: a spoon, a bowl, a flask, a hat and cloak to keep off rain and sun, a spare linen jacket, soap, a comb, a towel, and a mat to unroll on the ground.

'I meant to say,' she went on, 'I'm surprised you didn't leave us back in camp instead of forcing us to march into battle with you. Won't we just get in the way?'

'Only if there's trouble.'

Her lips curved into a mocking smile. 'Traitors opened the gates of Toskala. Nessumaran traitors can easily tear down barriers that block causeways. They'll let you take the city without a fight. It's the same day, is it not? Wakened Ox.'

'It's better this way. For the Nessumarans.'

'Not for you?'

'Fighting threshes the weak from the useful. Helps me get to know my soldiers.'

She walked in silence, strides of her long legs matched to his. She was thinking over his words, or hoping he would go away; he wasn't sure which. He was pretty sure she wasn't afraid of him, as she ought to be. It was a cursed admirable trait, to be so cool and confident.

'Captain!' His attendant, a decent young man named Navi, had slipped back along the causeway. 'Sergeant Giyara sends her respects, Captain. Our vanguard has started across the bridge.'

'I'll come right up.'

'It's cursed strange, though, Captain.' The young man swiped a hand over his left shoulder in a nervous gesture he had, the kind of thing that could get to irritating a man if the youth weren't so stolid otherwise.

'What's that?'

'Just that the channel we're crossing is running so strong, Captain. You'd think they'd control the flow of water better. With dams and locks and flood barriers.'

'What good would that do? I'm uplands born and bred myself.'

'I'm Istria born, Captain. There's plenty you can do by diverting a strong river current into irrigation channels and canals. I'd have thought they'd divert a side channel into a series of canals that would make haulage and transportation easy within the inner delta and the city, that's what I'd-'

He seemed likely to chatter on, made enthusiastic by knowing

something his captain did not. Arras cut him off. 'Well observed. We'll see what to make of it when we come to know the city better, as we will-'

Light glinted on the water, a flash repeated twice. Arras raised a hand to shade his eyes, staring over the flat expanse marred here and there by a bright explosion of greener brush or tenacious trees grown on hummocks.

Zubaidit lifted an elbow to point up. 'That came from the sky. The reeves are signaling to someone out there in the swamp.'

'Why would they be-?'

Once before in his life, as a youth training as an ordinand, out on a field expedition with eleven others like him, he'd heard a sound before he realized he'd heard it. His action, back then, had saved his own life although it hadn't saved the lives of the other young ordinands he was with. He'd not been captain of their merry little band. Indeed, he'd been youngest and least experienced among them, but the slaughter had taught him a lesson he would never forget: Don't act for yourself alone; you are responsible for your comrades.

'Shields up!' he shouted as he grabbed Navi's arm and yanked him behind the cover of the nearest infantryman.

Streaks darkened the sky as shapes rose out of the water, but his soldiers had already obeyed. Arrows rained down on the causeway, thwacking stone, thudding on upraised shields, but no one was hit. Hostages sobbed with fear.

'Get down!' cried Zubaidit to the Toskalans. She dropped, and the others followed like wheat mowed down as a second flight of arrows rose into the sky from the wetlands and clattered down. A man among the hostages screamed and thrashed.

'I'm hit!' cried one of the soldiers, without panic, just letting everyone know.

'Heh, trying to grow a second tool from your ass, Tendri?' laughed one of his comrades.

Arras heard the clamor of battle joined far ahead, whose first tremors in the air had warned him before he fully recognized what he was hearing.

'Tortoise!' he cried. The soldiers shifted seamlessly, forming a barrier with their shields. Movement flurried through the ranks as Sergeant Giyara pushed back to join him. For an instant he stood above the turtling backs of the shields, above the cowering hostages, and scanned the entire prospect: the deadly mire, the

exposed bridge and the solid island beyond, the enemy in the swamp, boats slipping into view with more archers within, a chaos of dust and hammering action ahead where the vanguard boiled with action against the haze and smoke raised by the commotion. Impossible to see what they were up against.

'Captain Arras,' said Zubaidit from the ground. Her grin was so cocky that he wanted to kick her. 'I think your betrayers have either betrayed you, or been betrayed in their turn and had their plan exposed.'

She was right, curse her.

Seventh Cohort's captain acted at last: figures, small at this distance, broke off in clusters from the cohort behind his and plunged into the water toward the half-hidden archers, only to flounder into traps and sinkholes.

'Captain!' Sergeant Giyara yanked him under a shield as a new shower of arrows fell. His people were too cursed exposed, and they were taking hits.

Zubaidit grabbed his arm. 'Captain! I beg you. Can the hostages hide under the wagons? I've got five hit already.'

He shook her off. 'Sound the drum! Push over the bridge and get onto land! Move! Move!'

Arrows flew. Men staggered. Some fell, and were dragged by their fellows as the companies pressed forward, pushing hard to get off the causeway. One man spun away over the edge of the causeway and tumbled into the shallows, facedown in the muddy water. Behind, Seventh Cohort was retreating, cursed fools; they had three mey of causeway to cover to get back to dry land; they'd be picked off.

'Sergeant!' he called, having lost Giyara in the forward surge. He took a sharp blow to his head. An arrow slid down his body, and he stepped on it, snapping it in half. The hells! He swiped a hand over his helmet, but the arrow hadn't dislodged anything.

He snagged a pair of unbroken arrows. 'Pick up every arrow you can find. Toss them in the wagons. Keep moving!'

The soldiers on the outside had their shields wedged well together to cover legs and torsos. The line inside had lifted shields to cover the heads of the outer rank. They marched in pace with the drum. The wagons rumbled. Arrows thudded into the gravel, or were swept up by a spare hand and tossed into the wagons. A driver grunted as an arrow sprouted in his side, but he kept driving, hunched over. Zubaidit leaped up on the bench and yanked

the reins from the man's hands. Where were those cursed hostages? If they were getting in the way of his troops, he'd slit their throats himself. But they had boxed themselves in between the wagons, hauling their injured. A young woman went down in a fresh shower of deadly arrows. He felt the kiss of death brushing past, but nothing hit him; instead, he stepped over a limp body, a young soldier shot in the eye. Dead instantly, no doubt. Unfortunate. He grabbed the fellow's sword and kept moving. Looking back, he saw one of the hostages — an older woman with her hair tightly wrapped in a scarf — wrench the shield from the soldier's slack hand.

The gravel of the causeway surface gave way to wood planking, the crunch of his footsteps turning to a scrape as he moved over the bridge in the midst of his personal staff. The current in the channel ran swiftly beneath, a purling sound so loud it muffled the roar of confusion coming from up ahead where First Cohort was fighting a foe of unknown size, ferocity, and skill.

The bridge went on and on, as arrows rained down, but although one man and then a second and then a third slumped against the railings, the drummer did not cease her steady beat, the wagons rolled, the men held. The Toskalan hostages grabbed wounded men and slung them on the backs of wagons.

They marched out onto dry ground where he got a quick impression of plenty of dangerous open space and scattered abandoned carts and wagons and hitching gear plus boats drawn up and overturned by the river wall. There were warehouses, trees in planted rows, low brick walls surrounding several conjoined garden plots, a long brick row house with porch and multiple doors, many left open, the place clearly deserted in haste. The island was small, with a lane piercing straight through to a distant bridge, where a mob of fighting churned and boiled, dust thick in the air.

He pushed forward to find the vanguard setting up a quick and dirty perimeter using a pair of storehouses as their cornerstone.

'We're not stopping. We push up to support First Cohort-'

A massive crack made everyone flinch. Out of the chaos ahead, men screamed; shouts rang as the enemy cried aloud in triumph. Arras ran out beyond the perimeter: the distant clot of First Cohort's rearguard was falling back in confusion, completely out of order. Smoke billowed from the vicinity of the bridge and the unseen ground beyond it. Flames licked, running high. A horrible

screaming yammer — maybe no more than ten men — caught in those flames on the bridge, but their agony stabbed panic into the rest. Arras had seen men break and run. He knew what would happen next; he'd witnessed the death of his comrades before, because once you are routed, you are easy prey.

'Heya! New orders!' The rain of arrows had abated now that they were on the island, but he knew their enemy out in the mire was merely taking this chance to regroup, or was pursuing Seventh Cohort down the causeway. 'We're fixing a perimeter on this island. Move to those garden walls.'

'There's good cover, Captain, in these warehouses-' cried one of his vanguard sergeants.

'Neh. They'll burn us out of wooden structures. That thatch will go up in a heartbeat. Set up an outer perimeter along the warehouse line. Everyone else back to the brick walls. Sergeant Giyara!'


'I want sweep teams through every abandoned building while we're free of archery fire. Strip any provisions, supplies, everything. I'll need another cadre to drag in all the wagons and boats. We'll break them up and build shelters, arrow breaks, barriers. If we can manage it in staggered units, break down that row house for bricks to strengthen our perimeter. We'll make the three walled garden plots our main defensive hold, build it up as we can, and I want to include that mulberry orchard, too, so we have range of motion and some protection from that direction. We'll need forward outposts, and banners torn up to form signal flags. Cadre sergeants-'

'I'll assign them, Captain,' said Giyara, as he'd known she would.

'Captain!' Subcaptain Orli's runner came panting up, face streaked with mud. 'There's trouble on the first bridge. Burning arrows, Captain.'

'Get back to Subcaptain Orli. I want everyone over and the main central planks pulled out. We must control access to the bridge, stop their reinforcements from marching up over the causeway.'

'They can still land boats, Captain-'

'One thing at a time! Get those men over and close down that bridge.'

His soldiers fell to their tasks with the discipline he'd drilled

into them, but as he scanned the shape of the island — too big a slab of ground to encompass easily but not so large that it offered a range of environment — remnants of First Cohort came fleeing down the road with shields slamming on their backs in rhythm to their pounding steps. Their faces were tight with bewilderment and unthinking fear.

He grabbed a company banner ripped by arrow shot and placed himself in the center of the road with the pole held horizontal to block their headlong flight.

'Halt, you gods-rotted cowards!'

He'd trained all his youth with an ordinand's staff; of all weapons, a strong staff still felt most comfortable in his hands. He lashed out now, thumping the men in the front with a flurry of blows that knocked them back or sent them to their knees.


The second rank slowed, men responding to his voice in the shaken manner of people coming awake abruptly. The soldiers behind them had to stutter step to avoid smashing into those before them, and this shift altered the entire momentum of their collapse.

'Get in your cadres! Form up!'

Folk who feel helpless desire order just as the starving desire food, or the falling man grasps at any object that will stop his fall.

'You!' He grabbed a soldier who was moving too slowly and backhanded him. Others skipped into ranks, startled by the blow.

The young man he had hit reeled sideways, then caught himself and snapped upright. 'Captain?' he squeaked.

'Where's your sergeant?' Arras roared

Men looked around, seeking sergeants. 'Captain! I don't know, Captain!'

'Move your group off the road. Stay in formation!' The mass began to seethe as the press behind them thickened. 'You there!' He pointed at another man. 'Where's your sergeant? Eiya! Move your group off the road, to the other side. Stay in formation!' He whistled, and one of his runners jumped up beside him. 'I need Subcaptain Piri and his company.'

By the time Piri arrived, Arras had two cadres sorted out.


'Piri, take your company to the forward bridge. Make sure it's blocked, then hold the perimeter. I'm sending these two cadres with you.'


'If we're stuck on this island, we'll claim all the ground and place our perimeter on the shoreline. Dig in.'


As Piri and his company pushed through First Cohort's retreat, Arras cracked the whip of discipline over the fleeing men, separating out more cadres, sending them with runners to reinforce: this cadre to Orli at the eastern bridge; three cadres to Giyara to break up wagons, but not boats, so his own troops could be released to set a shoreline perimeter. With the remains of First Cohort, he might have enough to hold the island.

Yet every time he looked skyward, those cursed eagles circled, spying out his every move. A sweating runner sprinted into view.

'Subcaptain Piri's compliments, Captain. The bridge approach is secure. Any intact planks on our side are pulled back for later use if we choose to push forward. We'll need more planks. We've set up a strong archery screen so they can't completely dismantle the railings on the far side. First Cohort's forward companies on the far side look pretty well slaughtered. There are bodies in the channel, but they're getting swept downstream by the current into the swamp. Orders, Captain?'

Arras looked him over, a stocky young man with a fresh cut on his chin. 'You're one of the new recruits. Laukas, isn't it?'

'Yes, Captain.' The young man didn't smile as some new recruits did, when the captain honored them by recalling their names. He wasn't a friendly sort like Navi. 'Orders, Captain?'

'Escort this sorry-looking cadre to Piri. Have him split them out among his own company. I want a secure perimeter. I'll be up soon to get a look.'

'Yes, Captain.' No nonsense there. He ran back to the front.

Arras beckoned to the lone sergeant wearing First Cohort's spear-and-star tabard. 'What's your name, Sergeant?'

The man looked gray about the eyes, as ashamed as he should be. 'I'm called Eddo, Captain.'

'Take your cadre and secure every boat you can find on this cursed island. We'll need them all, half placed at each bridge. Then break down the planks in those warehouses. In case we need to build a floating bridge.'

The man stared at him, not responding.

For a moment Arras thought he was addled, or an imbecile. 'Sergeant Eddo?'

There's a look men get when they have lost hope and then,

unexpectedly, find a spark they can feed with the kindling of resolve. 'Yes, Captain!' He briskly took charge of his men.

Arras rubbed his throat, and then his forehead. When had he gotten so sweaty? His hand came away smeared and dirty, as though his face had been rubbed in the earth by a bully, and he realized he was grinning.

Two First Cohort cadres — both lacking a full complement — waited alongside the road, watching him as if he were insane, or gods-touched. Waiting for orders. How, many cursed companies did he now command? He'd not had time to count. He whistled over a runner and sent the lass to scout out Giyara, with an order to make an accounting and assign out the new cadres into the commands of his three subcaptains.

'Neh, neh,' he said, calling the lass back. 'Tell Sergeant Giyara to attach as many cadres as she needs to her own staff, specifically for laboring. Got it?'

'Yes, Captain.' Off she ran, braided black hair tailing out from her boiled leather helmet.

He examined the two cadres left to him, one at half strength and looking completely demoralized and both missing their commanding sergeant, as if the enemy had specifically targeted sergeants as a way to break down and panic units. A smart tactic, if it wasn't just by chance. He pulled the man standing straightest out of the larger cadre. 'Your name?'

'Fossad, Captain.'

'You're acting sergeant now, promotion to be reviewed according to performance. Your task is to find shovels, anything you can use, and start digging. We'll be throwing up earth ramparts all around this island.'

'Yes, Captain!'

He turned to the final group, the sorriest-looking ragtag bunch he'd seen, scratched, limping, streaked with smoke, many with faces and arms reddened from burns.

'You lot were on the bridge?'

After a moment, the oldest among them spoke up. 'Yes, Captain.'

'Get your wounded under cover in one of those warehouses. As for the rest of you, we'll need a steady source of water. You make a survey of the island, you dig within the gardens if you have to, or you collect buckets and start hauling to fill cisterns. You're in charge, Sergeant-'

'I'm not the sergeant-'

'You are now. Your name?'

'Segri, Captain.'

'Sergeant Segri, you're in charge, under my personal command. Get moving!'

That was the last of them. Without looking, he could hear and sense the focused activity of his troops around him, and he thought too that he felt a stammer of hesitation among the enemy. They'd launched their attack, but he had responded, fenced off his own people as well as he could. They must decide how to answer. He called in his personal staff and trotted west to the forward bridge. The causeway, in a sense, cut straight across the island; the bridge lay at the same elevation, no ramp leading up, merely a continuation of the roadway.

Subcaptain Piri met him with runners in tow and they surveyed the rushing channel, the stalwart reeds that could conceal an enemy, more flat islands beyond. The militiamen who milled about on the far shore shook spears and swords in their direction; they paced among the fallen, dragging their wounded and dead free and stabbing any wearing the tabards of First Cohort's companies. Like the other cohorts, First had brought along a number of Toskalan hostages, but he had no idea what had happened to them; he'd marked none among the survivors who had reached him.

Above, the sun had passed the zenith and begun its steady descent. Eagles sailed, sharp-eyed reeves dangling beneath in their clever harnesses, waving flags to send messages each to the others and to their allies on the ground.

'Hard to win a war when they've got the eyes,' he remarked to Piri as the two runners listened. 'Good thing the reeve halls are split as they are, no one liking to take orders from the next.'

'Lord Commander Radas had the reeve commander executed in Toskala. That's cut off their head.'

'If only we could kill the rest of the cursed reeves. Or unite them to work for us. I wonder who in Nessumara betrayed our plan.'

Piri laughed scornfully. He was an older man, his face pitted with scars and his back scored with the marks of many whips long since healed. He'd been one of the first soldiers assigned to Arras's first command, a man with a reputation, nothing good, but he'd been steady and true for the last eight years. Tough as stone, steady as an Ox, which he was. 'I can't cry for those willing

to betray their own when they're betrayed in their turn, Captain. It just leaves us in a worse situation than we expected.'

'I did not want to be ambushed today,' said Arras with a laugh that made those around him chuckle nervously, attempting bravado. All but that young man, Laukas, who just watched, thin-lipped and serious. 'But here we are. First Cohort is a loss. We'll absorb their cadres into our own companies. It's strange, though. They lost cohesion so thoroughly.'

'They were hit hard and fast.' Piri shaded a hand to survey the militia gathered across the rushing channel, their hurried councils as they tried to decide what to do next. 'The militia killed a cursed lot of the sergeants. There's not one captain left standing, like they were targeted specifically. Maybe you and I should tear off these horsetails, Captain.'

'Neh, we're made of stronger stuff. The thing that concerns me is we've got no means to communicate with the other cohorts. Listen, Piri. Blood Cloak — Lord Yordenas — was marching in the front with First Cohort, wasn't he? Leading the advance?'

'I saw him.'

'Yet no sign of him now. Do you think-' The idea did not bear voicing aloud, but the situation required it. 'Do you think they killed him?'

'The cloaks can't die, Captain.'

But if he'd been in the lead, and he wasn't dead, then was he taken prisoner? Impossible. Had he fled? Abandoned them? Arras shook his head.

'Captain?' asked Piri.

'Neh, it's nothing.'

'What do we do now, Captain?'

Arras surveyed the island, the sky and its spying reeves, the rushing water that would, he hoped, make boat travel on the channels more difficult for the defenders. They had too much daylight left, with reeves watching their every action. Later, night would cover the movements of their enemy, who knew the channels and mires as he and his people did not.

'We dig in.'

Across the way, a man approached the channel's bank waving a strip of cloth, an offer to parley.

Arras grinned. 'I know what they're going to say. If we retreat in order along the causeway all peaceable like, they won't let our sleeves get dirty.'

'Cursed liars.' Piri snorted.

'My thought, too.' He whistled for a runner. 'No, not you, Laukas. I've got a more difficult job for you, if you'll take it.'

The young soldier did not flinch or even look excited. 'I will, Captain.'

'You. Lati, isn't it? Get back to the gardens. Send Navi up to me. Also, I need a pair of sergeant's badges. Any will do. I want all the Toskalan hostages bound and confined in one of the warehouses. Find me among the hostages the woman who calls herself Zubaidit, and bring her here. If she won't be of use to me one way, then she can be in another.'

'What do you mean to do, Captain?' asked Piri.

'I'll give her sergeant's badges so if they kill her, we won't have lost one of our own. She can do the parley knowing the safety of the hostages depends on her coming back. And Navi and Laukas can keep an eye on her, while getting a chance to prove themselves. What do you think of that, Laukas? Willing to take the chance, going over to walk among the enemy?'

His expression did not change. He nodded obediently, like a good soldier ought. 'Yes, Captain.'

Having slept past midday after several interruptions to nurse, Mai felt better. She nursed the baby, rose and washed, and ate crunchy stalks of pipe-stem slip-fried with steamed fish.

'Sheyshi, you'll watch the baby. Come and fetch me if he cries. Priya and I will be in the counting room.'

A fair amount of rebuilding and fortification had taken place in the compound in the months she had been gone. The main house's entrance porch had a newly reinforced gate leading into the entrance courtyard; she heard horses, wagons, voices raised as the Qin guardsmen went about their morning duties on the other side of the high wall. The door to the counting room was on the left, and while before it had simply slid open and closed like all the other doors in this part of the world, now those doors had been replaced by a locked and barred door that opened on hinges like a gate. One of the soldiers standing guard lifted away the bars so Mai and Priya could cross into the office. As the door was opened, Mai heard O'eki scolding a young clerk.

'This is the accounts book we use for all shipments pertaining to the building of the mistress's household in Astafero. This is the accounts book used for expenses pertaining to this compound.

The two compounds are accounted separately, not together! Now, you'll have to go back over the entire last month and divide the expenses out properly. Hu!'

The big slave nodded to acknowledge their presence.

The scolded clerk murmured a barely audible greeting.

Another clerk, even younger, blushed and stammered. 'G-G-Greetings of the day, Mistress.' Hu! The poor girl's head was shaven, and her thin face would have benefited from the softening ornament of hair.

'Sit down,' Mai said, hoping she sounded gracious as the clerk brushed at the stubble on her head as if she had guessed Mai's thoughts. Eiya! Judging a young woman by looks alone was the kind of thing her mother and aunt would have done! Beauty was all very well, but Mai was painfully aware that if Anji had been a cruel man, then her beauty would have brought her tears rather than joy. She attempted a smile; the clerk groped for her brush and, having picked it up, set it down again immediately, thoroughly intimidated. Mai sighed. 'O'eki, show me the books.'

Three lamps burned although it was day; there were only two windows that could be opened in the long room, one at each end and both set with grilles. The door into the warehouse was closed, but they received light through the porch door, which had been left propped open because the captain's wife was inside. The customers' door, leading into the warehouse, was closed and locked. So much was closed and locked!

The scolded clerk hunched his shoulders as Mai looked over his shoulder.

'Those are very clear entries,' she said. 'Very readable.'

O'eki grunted impatiently. 'Yes, but not all in the right place. You see this lumber, marked to this account when it should be here, while the settlement account has been debited with this purchase of dye stuffs.' He pulled a counting frame over and flicked wooden beads so quickly their colors blurred. 'Just on this page alone you have two hundred and forty leya misaccounted.'

'Are you going to send me back to the temple?' The clerk looked so young! Although, Mai thought, he was probably no younger than she was herself.

'If you fix this properly and make, no further mistakes, I'll know you are learning,' said O'eki. The lad nodded gratefully as the other clerk looked on, with her face pulled into an almost

comically anxious expression. 'Lass, you double-check the spare ledgers against the main set.'

As the clerks bent back to their labors, Mai drew O'eki aside, over to the long drawers where Anji kept a set of maps. She opened the top drawer, in which lay a detailed drawing of the city of Olossi, how it nestled on bedrock in a bend in the river, how its streets climbed the hill toward Fortune Square, how its inner and outer walls separated the city into an upper and lower town.

'Where did these two clerks come from?' she whispered.

'The temple of Sapanasu. It's the only place I can hire clerks, Mistress. It's the custom here, to hire your accounts keepers from the temple. But these two are very inexperienced.'

'Their numbers and ideograms are very readable.'

He laughed, and both young clerks, startled, looked up from their books and self-consciously down again. 'One thing I will say for that Keshad. He might have been arrogant and temperamental, but he kept excellent accounts.'

Mai closed the drawer and opened the one below it, whose lines described the region surrounding the Olo'o Sea, as much as the Qin scouts and Anji could describe of it. Past the town of Old Fort the road pushed into the foothills and thence higher up into the mountains here called the Spires. Precise handwriting that she recognized as Anji's had inscribed 'Kandaran Pass' above the village named Dast Korumbos; at the edge of the map where the pass sloped away south and west, the same hand had written 'Sirniaka.'

That way lay the empire, whose red hounds still hunted Anji. He would always be in danger from that direction.

'I wonder how Keshad is doing,' Mai murmured. 'Will he and Eliar be able to spy out information in the empire?'

Priya had come up beside them. 'I wonder if they are still alive.'

'The empire is a terrible place,' murmured Mai. 'If Anji's half brother is now emperor, and has killed all his other brothers and half brothers, then he will not want Anji alive, even if Anji has no intention of claiming the Sirniakan throne. And there are other claimants, too. These cousins, sons of Anji's father's younger brother. How can I keep track of them all?' A few tears ran down her cheeks. She wiped them away. 'How clever of Anji to label his maps with a script no one in the Hundred but he and Priya can read.'

'You are reading it now, Mistress,' said Priya with the smile she offered only to Mai or O'eki.

'I am learning.' She gestured toward a table. 'I'll sit here for a while. O'eki, maybe that young woman will sit with me and review the ideograms. I want to be able to write my own accounts book in the Hundred style.'

The girl's name was Adit, and she had been born in the Year of the Ox, just like Mai, but she was a timid creature, hard to draw out, so after a while Mai concentrated on forming and memorizing the ideograms. Priya and O'eki had seated themselves together at a writing desk, heads bent intimately together as they discussed an unknown matter in low voices, hands touching.

A guard stepped in, glanced around, and stepped out. Sheyshi entered, carrying a fussing Atani.

'I'll nurse him over here,' said Mai as she took the baby to the far end of the room where pillows were stacked for visitors. Atani was an efficient eater, very hungry but not one to dawdle. When he was done and she had burped him, Adit crept over and shyly asked if she could hold him, for it transpired she had left a beloved infant brother at home when she went to the temple. So then she could be coaxed to speak of her home and her family in northern Olo'osson, and when Mai at length had Sheyshi take the infant out, she and Adit settled back to work companionably, trading comments, chuckling over an awkward stroke, asking and answering questions. Eventually the lad rose and, in the course of stretching and straightening his already neat jacket, paused by the table where the two young women worked.

'That's just the basic work,' he said in the tone lads got when they were showing off for girls. 'Those ideograms are the old way of recording. Anyone can do that. That's why the clerks of Sapanasu keep them around, because even merchants who didn't apprentice with the Lantern can tally with numbers and ideograms. Writing is much harder.'

'Don't try to boast, Wori,' said Adit in a low voice. 'It makes you look stupid.'

'I would like to learn this other writing of the Hundred,' said Mai.

'If you didn't apprentice with the Lantern, you can't,' he said, tweaking his sleeves.

Adit hid her flushed face behind a hand.

'Why not?' Mai asked.

'Because you can't,' he repeated stubbornly. She suspected he now felt trapped by her attention and Adit's embarrassment. 'No one does.'

'Not doing it is not the same as not being able to do it. For one thing, surely the Ri Amarah did not apprentice with the Lantern and yet they know how to write in the temple script-'

'Eiya! Well! Them!'

'What does that mean? Them.'

He shrugged. 'They're outlanders. They don't even worship properly.'

'I'm an outlander.'

'Do you make offerings at the seven temples?'

T don't. I have a shrine to the Merciful One. That's where I pray.'

'That's the Merciless One,' he said with a smug smile.

'No, it isn't,' said Adit suddenly. 'I've talked to the women who work here, and they told me it's the Merciful One. Full of mercy. There's a prayer they say, "I go to the Merciful One for refuge. I go to the Truth for refuge. I go to the Awakened for refuge."'

To hear these words flow from the girl's lips surprised Mai. She had thought the local women who worked for her only came to listen to Priya lead the service in order to be polite to the employer who paid them. 'Why, that's right. That's part of the prayer.'

Wori said, 'Who ever says a thing like that? "I go to the truth for refuge." That doesn't mean anything.'

Voices raised outside: men were speaking vehemently in the warehouse. There came a shout, and then a hammering on the warehouse door. Chief Tuvi called out an order; footsteps pounded like a cloudburst as men raced across the entrance courtyard.

She rose, her own heart at a driving run. Would she never be free of the red hounds?

Priya hurried over and grasped her elbow. 'Quickly. Come farther inside.'

Soldiers appeared in the office door leading to the porch. 'Quickly, Mistress. Come inside.'

'Will this never end?' she cried angrily.

A rhythm rapped on the warehouse door, the signal giving the all-clear.

'Seren,' she said, more sharply than she intended. 'Open the door.'

The young soldier limped over to the door. His comrade drew his sword as Seren slid back the iron eye panel.

'Clear to open,' said Tuvi's voice from the other side.

Seren undid the bolts and bars, braced his crippled leg, then swung the door open. Chief Tuvi entered first, marking the occupants with his sharp gaze. An older man wearing the turban of the Ri Amarah strode in behind him.

'Master Isar!' said Mai. 'I am honored at your visit, but I admit I did not expect you-'

'Have you seen my daughter?'

She flinched, for his tone reminded her exactly of Father Mei in one of his tempers. So many months had passed since a man had spoken to her in that way she had almost forgotten how it felt, but of course she would never truly forget because it was the male voice she had grown up with. It angered her now more than it scared her. She cooled her voice to a pitch of such sincere gra-ciousness that she hoped her demeanor would scare him.

'Ver, will you sit? Priya, might you bring wine? Here is a pillow.'

He paced the length of the room and back again. She waited. Chief Tuvi watched through narrowed eyes. The two soldiers shut the door to the warehouse and stood with backs against it. O'eki loomed, and the clerks retreated to the cabinets.

Isar was a good-looking man somewhat older than Father Mei, a man of considerable influence and wealth, accustomed to deference. Because he was Ri Amarah — outlanders who had settled in the Hundred about a hundred years ago and yet had never come around to worshiping the Hundred's gods — he was also, it seemed, accustomed to being distrusted.

Still pacing, he spoke without looking at Mai directly. 'I have come to you, verea, because of your friendship with my daughter, whose name we do not speak in public spaces. This trouble began when she was allowed to visit you in this compound. Not that I fault you, verea, for certainly you cannot understand our customs. But she has become unruly and disobedient since that day-'

Mai wanted to protest that Miravia had spoken discontentedly of her fate and the restrictions placed on her on the very first day the two young women had met, many months ago, but she knew better than to try to stop his flow of bitter words.

'-and now it appears she has utterly cast all honor and duty and sense of propriety into the dirt and run away from home.'

Chief Tuvi looked at Mai, and she wasn't sure whether he was shocked, or ready to burst out laughing. Isar stared around the office.

'Must all these strangers stand here and listen?' he demanded.

Mai gestured. 'Adit. Wori. You are released for the day. We will see you at dawn tomorrow, neh?'

With relieved nods, they hurried out.

'Seren. Valan. Bolt the door, and wait outside on the porch for my signal.'

As the two soldiers left, Mai turned to Isar. 'Chief Tuvi and my advisors stay.'

'Your advisors? Your slaves, you mean!'

'Master Isar, surely you did not come to insult me, since you know perfectly well that my husband has supported your people. Your customs are not our customs.'

'My apologies, verea. I am distraught.'

'What has happened to Mi- to your daughter?' She was truly becoming anxious now, as dusk settled outside and the chamber darkened.

'She was to leave tomorrow morning.'

'Leave for where?'

'Leave for her wedding. To take her place in her new home.'

His words shocked her. 'To Nessumara? You can't possibly be sending her on the roads, Master Isar. Captain Anji has secured the roads in Olo'osson, but you know better than most that beyond Olo'osson the roads are not safe, not even for an armed caravan.'

'It has been arranged that a reeve will fly her there. A female reeve, I might add.' Surely his complexion was pallid more with anger than concern. Did he truly care for his daughter, or was she merely a piece of merchandise he could trade to benefit his family's wealth and position?

'The reeves aren't carters, hauling cargo for money. They enforce the law!'

'Master Esaf has repeatedly supplied foodstuffs for Clan Hall at no profit. Given transport to refugees likewise. He asked for one favor in return. Even a very pious man yearns for a wife when he has been without one for some time.'

As lecherous old goats lust after lovely young brides they've bought like animals at the market! she thought.

Something in her thoughts must have communicated to Master

Isar, because he plunged on. 'It's a substantial sum that he's forgone.'

As if coin answered all objections!

Yet, were Isar and his relatives any different from her own family? Anji had seen her at the market, and because he was a Qin officer in a town conquered by the Qin army, he had gone to her father to purchase her.

'I'm sure Master Esaf's wealth is considerable, ver. But this is your daughter. Toskala has been overrun by a marauding army. They are marching on Nessumara.'

'I have not forgotten the army's trail of bitter conquests,' he said, jaw tight.

'I should hope not! An army that burned High Haldia and laid siege to Toskala. Your own people have died!'

He wasn't willing to meet her gaze directly. 'You are remarkably well informed, verea.'

'Captain Anji makes sure I receive daily reports.' She tried to remember her market voice and her market face, but she could not hold on to them. 'Surely you can't intend to send your daughter into a city soon to be attacked? The young scholar she was originally engaged to was killed in the attack on High Haldia, wasn't he? Do you want to expose her to such risk just for coin and better trade opportunities?'

He was by now quite red in the face. 'What do you think your husband would say, to hear you speak such words to a man of the same age as your own father? Are you challenging our right to do what we must? What we know is right for our house? Are you so lacking in respect? A mere chit of a girl, accustomed to getting her way because folk pet her for her beauty which is exposed in the most unseemly manner-?'

Chief Tuvi interposed himself between Mai and the Ri Amarah merchant. 'I beg your pardon, ver,' he said in a voice the more threatening because he had not raised it.

In the silence, O'eki set down a sheaf of papers he had been holding all this time, its rustling like that of eavesdropping mice scattering away under the floorboards.

Isar swallowed. 'I am not myself, verea. I beg your pardon. I will return another time.'

He went to the door. Tuvi drew back the bolts. As Isar vanished into the warehouse, Tuvi glanced back with an evocative shrug as if to say Men! Daughters! Outlanders! How does one

make sense of them? Then he went out after the merchant, and Seren came back inside and bolted the door after him.

Mai drew in a shuddering breath.

'Those in desperate need of coin will do what they must to get it,' said Priya softly, still standing at her side. 'Even sell their beloved daughter to the temple of the Merciful One. We must learn to forgive and let go when we see that their hearts are trapped in despair.'

'I should never have lost control like that,' murmured Mai, afraid her voice would crack and she would start weeping. 'Said those things to him.' She sank down onto a pillow and rested her head in her hands.

'Mistress?' One of the women peered in through the open door to the porch. 'Sheyshi sent me, Mistress. The baby is awake.'

It was a relief to fuss over tiny Atani, as cranky as she was herself until he latched on and nursed. She dozed off as he suckled, and started awake when Priya gently disengaged the baby from her breast and burped him. Mai settled him in a sling, and she and Priya lit lamps in the altar room. An image of the Merciful One gazed kindly on them, one hand upraised to signify awakening and the other cupped at the belly to signify comfort. One of the kitchen women hurried in carrying a mass of flowers, their fragrance filling the room.

'Mistress, I knew you would want an offering,' she said, bringing forward the bouquet. 'We got these at the market before it closed.'

'Why, Utara, I thank you! Will you make the offering?' As the words left her mouth, she winced. Had she overstepped?

But the hireling smiled, color rising. 'I would do so gladly.'

Trembling, she placed the flowers on the offering platter as Priya began the prayers.

T offer these flowers at the feet of the Merciful One. Through the merit of offering may I walk the path of awakening. The color and fragrance of flowers fade, so does the body wither and disintegrate. Receive this with compassion.'

Other members of the household gathered, some murmuring the responses and others watching, rather like the infant, whose eyes were open, taking everything in.

The short evening service, and her nap, restored Mai somewhat.

'I'll work in the office,' she said.

'Do you want me to take the baby, Mistress?' asked Sheyshi eagerly.

'No. I'll shift him to my other hip. As long as he is quiet, I can work.'

Priya attended her, guards at each door, while around them the compound grew quiet as the rest of the household settled to sleep. Mai set a sheet of rice paper on the writing table and practiced her brushstrokes.

'Better,' said Priya with a smile.

'How do I write out the prayers?' Mai asked. 'Maybe that would help my mind grow quiet. Anji is always out on militia business. I know he's good about sending me word. I don't expect anything else. And truly I am grateful to be in Olossi again. Yet what if he decides it's too much of a risk. No one can control every least goat track! I'll end up living in a stone tower, trapped within high walls!'

'You are troubled indeed, Mistress.'

'Thinking ofpoor Miravia makes me weep.'

Priya said nothing. Lamp flames hissed.

'She must have been desperate.'

Priya took her hand, meaning to comfort.

Mai clung to her. 'But she's no different from me, is she? When Anji made it clear he wanted me, my father could not have said no to a Qin officer. At least he bargained hard to get a high price for me! That shows he cared!'

'We cannot know under what constraints the Ri Amarah labor. They are still seen as outlanders despite living in this land for a hundred years or more.'

'It's just I thought maybe because the women of her people do all their accounting, and seem to whisper of some kind of magic that causes them to know all kinds of things, like Atani would be a boy, that it would be different for their daughters. Was it any different for you, Priya? Sold to the temple in your own land, and then taken away over the mountains by raiders to be a slave in a strange country? Isn't Master Isar right? That I can ignore all these things because I have always been petted and made a favorite?'

She shook off Priya's hand and crossed to the drawer of maps. She opened the third drawer, that contained an incomplete map of the Hundred.

Anji spent considerable time working on his maps. He had

engaged the services of a draftsman out of the temple of Ilu, because the envoys of Ilu were messengers who, in more peaceful times, walked everywhere. The temples possessed maps, so it was said, but they guarded their knowledge jealously.

Anji did not let that stop him.

The map was limned in loving detail in the regions he had himself traversed, and she supposed she could trace his travels over the last year. Farther afield lay regions marked in traceries of charcoal pencil, ready to be erased and redrawn if necessary. The map had the look of a thing still in motion, as if it needed simply a strong hand to set the brushstrokes that would confine it.

Here was south, here north, here east, and here west, roads and rivers laid as lacework across the land. Here stood the crossroads city of Toskala along the River Istri, and downstream on a delta at the sea lay Nessumara, where they would take Miravia and confine her in a house from which she could never after set foot in the world beyond without her husband's permission. All ordered and tidy, lines drawn on a map.

'It's late, Mistress,' said Priya quietly.

The baby smacked his lips, stirring restlessly as his infant thoughts turned to hunger.

'Of course. I am tired.'

They went back to her chambers, and she nursed the baby and Sheyshi brought water for her to wash and rolled out the pallet and unfolded the bedding. The slaves went to their own pallets; Mai snuffed the lamp flame and lay down on the pallet with Atani tucked in beside her, his soft breaths like a flame on her heart. She had no name for what she felt for him. It wasn't any emotion she had known before.

He breathed. She slept.


She startled up, but Atani slept peacefully. A hand touched her shoulder. A flame flickered in the darkness.

'Priya! What is it?'

'Mistress, come. Sheyshi, stay with the baby.'

Mai wrapped a taloos around her body, tucking it in loosely as she followed Priya and her lamp. In the courtyard outside, a dawn-chat pipped. Because Priya said nothing, Mai remained silent. Chief Tuvi met them on the porch, fully dressed.

'Mistress, come,' he said in a low voice.

Her heart plunged. Had they news of Anji? Terrible news? But

Tuvi led her into the office where the warehouse door stood open into the utter darkness of the building beyond.

A figure concealed beneath a long hooded cloak the color of twilight stood in the doorway, half in and half out as if unsure of its welcome. In this warm country, folk wore short cloaks to protect against the rain, and only the envoys of Ilu wore long traveling cloaks like this one. Or that demon girl who had ridden into this very house and killed two Qin soldiers with her demon's magic.

Mai had learned in the market how to turn a bland face to any situation. Never let them know what your real price is, or how desperate you are.

'Who are you?' she asked in her coolest voice.

The figure tipped back its hood to reveal a face that Mai stared at, at first unable to recognize one she did not expect to see standing so boldly like any ordinary person in the door of her residence.

The figure spoke.

'Mai. I've run away.'

By wearing no veil in a public room with others looking on, Miravia made plain her determination to break utterly from her family. She dropped to her knees and raised her hands, as might a supplicant begging for her life or a desperate woman come to pray at an altar.

'Will you help me?'


Arras had grown up in the highlands, where ridges and hills and peaks cut into the sky. Here in the delta, as night pressed down over the mire, the flat land troubled him. How did you distinguish sky from land, or land from water? Divisions ought to be clear; that which was blurred was untrustworthy. Here the only consistent element was the humid, musty smell of water and vegetation, like a two-finger porridge coating his tongue.

But as he gazed upward at the stars and strands of cloud streaking the moonless sky, he smiled. No reeves out spying. Night was a good time.

'They're coming back over the bridge, Captain,' said Giyara, who was standing beside him.

A lantern detached from the enemy lines and swayed in a cautious journey over the dismantled span. Subcaptain Piri walked forward with a detachment to meet the negotiators, but he brought back to Arras only Zubaidit in her tabard with its sergeant's badge and young Navi, the runner.

'Where's Laukas?' Arras asked.

'They took him,' blurted out Navi.

'What do you mean, they took him?' He fixed his gaze on Zubaidit. 'Give me your report, Sergeant.'

He thought she'd been about to smile, but at his tone her brows furrowed. 'Navi and Laukas and I were taken to meet with their captain. He's an old fellow, walks with a cane and a limp. He made the offer you expected: he'll call his people off if you'll turn your men around and march back to the mainland and leave Nessumara alone.'

'He could have shouted that offer over the channel. Why did he keep you there so long?'

'He took us on a tour of the militia awaiting us on the island. Wanted to make sure we saw how many armed men were waiting to hammer us should we not agree to retreat.'

Arras scratched his chin. 'How many?'

'About five hundred, that I counted.'

'And Laukas?'

Zubaidit smiled almost mockingly. 'I guessed you sent the lads to spy on me as much as to pretend to be my personal runners, make it seem I was a real sergeant. Now you'll never know if I meant to betray your secrets to the Nessumarans.' Her gaze sharpened as her amusement faded. 'Because it seems that your lad Laukas was a traitor. I'm not sure what signal he gave, because he never spoke one word out of our hearing. But all at once the captain signaled and a pair of guards hustled him away. I'll bet he's spilling his guts right now, telling them everything.'

Arras glanced at Navi. 'They never separated us,' the youth said. 'It's just as she says.'

'The strange thing is,' Arras added, 'that I still can't know what you would have done if it weren't for me threatening to kill the other Toskalan hostages if you didn't return.'

'Then I won't waste my words trying to convince you of what I know is true.'

He grunted, lips twisting into half a smile. 'Laukas seemed so competent, willing to work hard to prove himself. Ambitious,

even. That will teach me to trust new recruits before they've proven their loyalty.'

'They could attack tonight,' she said.

'It's what I would do. But they'll see we're digging in. They may hesitate. They may have only five hundred men, and no more. Anything else?'

'I need a stick to mark with-' Arras handed her his dagger. She cocked an appreciative smile as she handled it, getting its weight and balance, then crouched and began scoring lines in the dirt: a double line for the causeway that ran into a double line crossed by vertical lines to suggest the bridge joining the two islands; the buildings and structures and paths she had seen on the second island; the pattern of their troop disposition. 'Note how they are massed here along the road. They expected First Cohort to push all the way over, so perhaps their counterattack was more successful than they expected. They're city militia, not as disciplined as your men. Also, I saw heaps of dead — piled here, and here — so it's impossible for me to know how many Nessumarans were killed and wounded by First Cohort before the First collapsed.'

'You're observant, Zubaidit. Not a common skill.'

'I had an excellent teacher.'

'What of the farther portion of the island, its connections to what lies beyond?'

'This is all we saw. Navi will corroborate my report.'

'I feel sure he will.' He gestured, and Giyara and Piri pulled back with all the attendants to leave him standing within the hazy pool of light splashed on the ground by the lamp. She was painted a rich golden brown in its light, lustrous and compelling. She wore her hair twisted up atop her head and pinned tightly back, but tendrils brushed her shoulders. Had they shaken loose accidentally, or did she wear them that way on purpose, to distract the men she was dealing with?

Her smile irritated him. 'Captain, you'd like to devour me, that's certain. You're a good figure of a man, and I have no objection to the act, as long as you acquit yourself well, but you must know I'd not be doing it because I'm enamored of you but because you are of me.'

The words stung, but they made him laugh, too. 'That's honestly spoken. You've hit me where I'm vain. I'm not likely to press you now.'

'Another man might.'

'I'm not another man. I won't come begging. I hope your husband is to your taste, for you'd be a fearful woman to be wed to if he weren't. Better your scorn than your indifference.'

'He was an unexpected pleasure, I admit,' she said with the same half-absent flicker to her gaze as when she'd talked about the unknown 'teacher' who had trained her to be an excellent scout. 'Just as charming as his aunt warned me he'd be.'

'And yet you are torn from him.' He shook his head. 'A sad tale.'

'There speaks a man who is captain in the army that took hostages in Toskala in order to force Toskala to bide quietly under its hand. And hung other innocent folk up on poles to die from pain and thirst.'

'Only the Guardians can truly know who is innocent and who a criminal.'

She rose angrily. 'It's true,' she said, the words clipped in a way that suggested she was forcing down what she really wanted to say, 'that few are truly innocent in any meaningful way.'

'I'd be surprised if any were, beyond children too young and those gods-touched too simpleminded to know what is right from what is wrong. Anyway, isn't it better for the Toskalans to bide quietly than lose hundreds or thousands more as happened in High Haldia?'

Her frown fell as swift as the night-wing's call. This close to the bridge he heard the steady waters slushing along in the nearby channel; a splash plopped farther out, but he didn't understand the sounds here: it might be a thrown rock, a fish, a merling, a man; it might be the Water Mother's afterthought, a tear from her left eye. Lamps glimmered on the far shore while his own people worked in darkness. Curse that gods-rotted Laukas, and himself for being careless and overconfident.

Her voice spilled low across the undercurrent of night noises, trembling in much the same way water surges when too much is forced through too small a channel. 'My husband is well enough — he's far better than what I might have found myself bound to — but what choice had I in the matter? I'm obedient to those who rule me. I have no power of my own. It chafes me…'

Her words trailed off. She seemed ashamed, if folk could be ashamed of wanting what they had always been told they should not desire. Was a man wrong to like the discipline of battle? The

tales of the Hundred did not speak kindly of war, and yet Arras had never tired of hearing over and over again those episodes elaborating the clash of weapons, the daring of stalwart soldiers, the courage of those who sought to resolve disputes with clean force.

'I refused to marry the woman my clan wished to bind me to,' he said at last, 'so they cast me out for my rebellious nature. I found comfort in the Thunderer's cohort as an ordinand, but it was not until I was recruited to this army that I have found true satisfaction. The cruelty they practice, which they call cleansing — the hanging from the pole — is pointless, but it is not my army to command.'

'Do you wish it was?'

He laughed. 'I'm content to fight, as long as they respect me. For in the end, Zubaidit, we must all bow our heads before the cloaks.'

'Captain!' Two runners pounded up, one holding a lamp, the other bending double as he heaved out and sucked in air and came up talking.

Giyara ran up in their wake. 'Captain Arras. Ten boats are coming in to the shore twenty paces north of the eastern causeway.'

'How came I not to hear any sounds of fighting?'

'Subcaptain Orli had screens set up to conceal spearmen in the shallows and men in the water to tip others overboard. We killed about thirty so fast the rest fled. Runners are tracking their movements along the channel downstream. Of the rest, we've taken four living prisoners and six boats.'

'Excellent! If the others come to shore, kill them. Otherwise, waste no arrows in the dark. Their report to their commanders will give the enemy pause. They'll not attack again so quickly. Is there aught else?'

'No, Captain. Your orders?'

'Just as I've told you.'

'Yes, Captain.' The youth nodded at his comrade holding the lamp and after taking a pair of slow breaths, more pushed out than pulled in, he set out at a run.

'Good lad,' said Arras. 'But I don't recognize him.'

'Maybe you couldn't see it from your angle, Captain,' said Giyara, 'but he's wearing a First Cohort badge. Orli must have detached him from his old unit-'

From the far shore came a burst of shouting, a frantic call for archers.

'The hells!' said Arras, raising a hand to signal. 'Do they mean to attack-?'

The sky swept low. A brush of smothering wings and sullen dread doubled him over before he realized he was groveling. Hating himself for his weakness, he straightened. The winged horse trotted to earth on the graveled roadway. The man dismounted stiffly. He walked stiffly, favoring his right leg, and held his left shoulder at an odd angle.

Arras made the obeisance at once, open hands hiding his eyes. 'Lord Yordenas.'

'Who is in command?'

T am, lord. I'm Arras, captain of the Sixth Cohort.'

'Took heavy losses at High Haldia, did you not?' The cloak's tone was surly. Arras dared not look up to gauge his temper, but anger and resentment swept off the cloak so strongly it was like keeping one's balance in a winter gale.

'So we did, lord. We regrouped into three companies, half strength, and more recently were ordered to join the main army for the assault on Nessumara. We have taken positions on this island and absorbed the remains of First Cohort.'

'You did not retreat?'

T saw Seventh Cohort in trouble on the causeway from archers, lord. I deemed it better to push forward to a strong defensive position than to retreat under heavy fire from an enemy whose position we could not penetrate.'

'First Cohort fell apart,' said the cloak with the petty disgust of a child who'd had his favorite toy snatched out of his hands. 'Captains dead, cadres routed. We were supposed to march into Council Square in triumph! The cursed Nessumarans betrayed us!'

Arras thought it prudent not to remind the cloak that the only traitors in this case were the folk who had been prevented from allowing the army to enter the city unopposed. 'Yes, lord. What of the two cohorts caught out on the causeway?'

T don't know! I haven't reached the main camp in Saltow. I've galloped all the way to the northern causeway and back. Heavy woodland, sunken into this cursed marsh. They didn't take the barriers down at all on the northern causeway, as they said they would! Instead, there came archery fire out of the woods. Traps

dug into the mire around the causeway. Snakes and snappers in the water and among the twisting roots of the cursed trees! Our cohorts had to retreat despite Lord Radas's best efforts at keeping them in line and moving forward. Now what will we do?'

The cursed man was throwing a temper tantrum! And that, gods rot him, after he had abandoned the troops he was supposed to be leading.

Arras kept his voice mild, his shoulders bowed, and his gaze fixed on the ground. 'My cohort is intact, lord. I have the remnants of First Cohort well in hand as reinforcements for my own soldiers. If we can learn the disposition and number of the local troops, we can determine our best course of action. Has the city militia sent its entire strength out to the causeways? Have they milked themselves dry in setting up this ambush? If we strike hard and push past now, will we meet concentrated resistance? Or are these troops all they have? If so, we can still take the city today.'

'What do you recommend, Captain?'

The cursed cloak did not know what in the hells to do. That the gods had endowed him with such power had not made him wise or clever. He had no more understanding and discernment than he'd ever had — and that clearly was not much — yet he was meanwhile able to reach right into your heart and kill you.

Even so, a single cloak could not conquer a city alone.

'To come up with a plan, Lord Yordenas, I need information about the number and disposition of troops and barriers and skirmishers within Nessumara and the surrounding region.'

The cloak's anger stung like wounds. 'So you have already said. Don't lecture me!'

'My apologies, lord, for speaking out of turn.' Arras kept his head down, knowing an incautious glance would betray his secrets. 'I only mention it because you, my lord, are best suited to reconnoiter.'

'I am a holy Guardian! Not a scout!'

'My lord, I'm only pointing out what I am sure has already occurred to you. If you scout ahead now, when no reeves can fly, it would allow us to know whether it's best to retreat, or to attack.'

'It was flying ahead of the lines that got me stuck with arrows. Cursed archers! We must wait for Lord Commander Radas. He'll meet us at Saltow.'

'But my lord, the more time they have to regroup and recover and retrench-'

'I command you to retreat to Saltow! Do you defy me, Captain?'

'No, my lord.'

With that, the cloak was content. His passing left Arras shaking so hard it took him many breaths to calm himself. When he rose, only Giyara remained. All the others, even Zubaidit, had fled from the cloak's brutal presence.

'Captain?' A shout caused Giyara to take a step back, looking for the source of the noise. She kicked the lamp, but with quick reflexes caught it on her boot and tipped it back upright before much oil spilled. Fire flared on the ground, eating the oil as it hissed smoke.

They listened but heard no further alarm.

He shook his head. 'We can hide from the eyes of the reeves beneath a forest canopy, or inside buildings, or underground like the delvings. Out in this flat land, it's impossible. They'll always know where we are, except at night. What a waste. The only way to make this work is to overrun Nessumara's defenses quickly, burn down Copper Hall, and drive out the reeves. One setback is not a defeat. An attack might still have worked-'

'We're going to retreat?'

He whistled, venting anger. 'You heard the order. We retreat at dawn.'


As Miravia slept, Mai sat on the porch overlooking the tiny garden at the heart of the compound, her private retreat. A night wren chirped, but the taste of the air was already growing sweeter with the promise of a rising sun.

'There is a man loitering outside our gates,' said Chief Tuvi. 'I suspect he is an agent hired by the Ri Amarah. If he knew for certain she was here, then likely he would have fetched Master Isar already. That he has not suggests he suspects she is here but has yet no proof. So, if I give a word to him, he'll run-'

'No!' The forceful word spoiled the delicate hush.

'Of course she must be returned to her father. I am sorry if that answer displeases you, Mistress. You have a kind heart. But Captain Anji will insist.'

O'eki and Priya said nothing, but the gazes they bent on her were like the pressure of a hand checking impetuous speech. Did they want her to say one thing and expect her to say another? Yet her heart was determined. In the chamber behind, glimpsed through a partially open door, Miravia lay sprawled on the pallet; she had been so exhausted she had collapsed soon after Mai had drawn her inside. The baby's cot was tucked into the corner. Sheyshi, snoring lightly on a pallet just outside the sleeping chamber, had not even awakened.

'How did Miravia get inside?' Mai asked.

'I let her in.'

'Do you ever sleep, Tuvi?'

'I was restless, Mistress. Thinking of things. Hard to sleep then, eh?'

Certainly, as exhausted as Mai had felt earlier, she was wide awake now. 'I can't do it, Tuvi. I can't betray her.'

'She belongs to her father, Mistress. You accepted such a marriage. You were wiser than she was.'

'Maybe I was just fortunate!' she snapped. 'Hu! I beg your pardon, Chief. I know you are only telling me what everyone else will tell me, but I cannot do it.'

'I'll do it, Mistress. A word to the suspicious agent outside or a messenger sent directly to the compound, if you wish. The Ri Amarah will thank us, and Captain Anji will return home to a peaceful house, just as he likes it.'

His calm words decided her. Rising, she found her market face. 'Of course you are right, Tuvi. Never let it be said I turned my back on a distasteful task and let another perform it in my place. I'll go myself to the Ri Amarah house. But I must sleep first, for I'm very tired.'

He nodded. 'You are an honorable person, Mistress. Now, if you will, I want to settle the dawn rounds.'

She released him, a courtesy he extended to her, for although she ran the household and all of the business arrangements and dealings, he commanded the security measures in Anji's absence. Just as he would never question any negotiation she entered into or any contract she sealed, she knew where her authority ended and where Anji's began.

She slipped inside the door, Priya behind her. O'eki remained standing on the porch. From the bushes, the first dawn songs were I rilled. The sky was still black, stars blazing.

Priya touched her elbow. 'In the Mei household folk often called you stupid, or light-minded, or simpering, or precious. But I know these words describe what they see, not what is there. If you show a calm face to the world, it is not because you are without passion. If you do not challenge those who command you, it is not because you are too placid to protest. If you are obedient, it is not because you obey thoughtlessly, knowing no other course of action. I hear defiance in your voice, even if I am surprised Chief Tuvi did not. What are you planning?'

'I'll need help from you and O'eki to get out of the compound and the city. No one else must know. Can you do it?'

From the porch, O'eki spoke as if he had already guessed her intentions and run through several plans. 'It's possible to get out the back gate if you are willing to hide cramped in a chest, Mistress. I will need another hireling to help me carry it. Priya will have to stay here to guard the chamber and say you are sleeping. It will be easy enough to hire a covered palanquin down by Crow's Gate. Even so, our movements can be traced.'

'There lies the risk. I'll have to take Atani in case he wants nursing.'

'Chief Tuvi is right,' said Priya. 'Captain Anji will tell you to return her to her father.'

With trembling hands, she grasped Priya's fingers. 'I know.' She swallowed a sob, like drinking down sorrow. 'But I will never forgive myself if I do nothing. Never never never.'

Miravia stirred. Abruptly, she sat bolt upright. 'Mai?' she croaked.

Mai released Priya's warm hands and knelt beside Miravia, whose hands were cold. 'Hush, my sister. You must wake now. We're going to leave right away.'

'Where are we going?'

A pallor had lightened the shroud of night to a gleam neither night nor day which is called twilight for partaking of both and yet sustaining neither. Priya watched Mai, expression quiet in the gloom. O'eki waited on the porch, big body blocking her view of the garden.

'The only place we can go,' said Mai.

Soon after dawn, Arras gave the order and his cohort moved out, shields tortoised and wagons crammed with wounded and provisions. He forced the hostages to walk outside the shields. If the

Nessumaran militia broke the truce and attacked, they would kill unarmed civilians first. It's what he would do, in their position: he'd shoot down the civilians and break through the shield wall, because a cohort stuck out on an unprotected causeway was too easy to pass up. But he doubted the local militia had the stomach for such slaughter.

He hung back with the rearguard until the last soldiers cleared the bridge. Four sorry-looking hostages, the most truculent of the crew, trotted at the end, tied by long ropes to the rearmost wagon so they couldn't bolt. He moved up alongside the unit, marking their brisk pace and even footfalls, their confident gazes, their energy. The other hostages stared over the mire more than they watched their feet, although no one tried to run. If the enemy did not kill them, his people would shoot them in the back as they splashed into the swamp.

'Captain!' Zubaidit hailed him. 'Must I walk out here with the rest? Didn't I prpve my loyalty by walking in among the enemy last night to take your message?'

He kept striding along with his attendants streaming behind. He thought he heard a few among the hostages hiss at her words, but that sound might also have been the flutter and flurry of wings as waterfowl rose in numbers off their tranquil feeding ground, disturbed by the tread of feet. Boats bobbed out of his reach. The rising sun glinted on stretches of water. Reeds swayed in the morning breeze.

They reached the front of the cohort. The causeway speared straight over the mire; he could not yet see the solid earth of the mainland, only the blur of gray-blue water and green reeds.

'Captain?' Sergeant Giyara gestured up.

Eagles soared overhead; those gods-rotted reeves would never let up. Then gold winked, like a spark of sunlight detached from the spreading rays. He squinted, shaded his eyes, tilted his head and tried to find that trick of the light again, but it was lost in the gleam.

'The hells!' swore Giyara.

The cloak trotted to earth on the causeway before them, and the soldiers dropped to their knees, bowing their heads.

Lord Radas himself had come. His cloak — almost as bright in its golden splendor as the sun itself — rippled as in an unfelt breeze. Arras felt fear as a knife in his ribs, but he walked forward anyway, because he must. He was captain; he was

responsible. He knelt on one knee and raised both hands to shield his gaze obediently.

'Lord Radas. What is your will?'

'What is your name?'

'Captain Arras, of the Sixth Cohort. I have with me remnants of the First Cohort.'

'You are retreating rather than holding the forward position. When Lord Yordenas spoke to you last night, you were encamped farther out, on an island.'

When thrown off balance, it was best to right yourself by throwing a punch. 'Lord Yordenas ordered the retreat, my lord. I suggested we hold the forward position and asked Lord Yordenas to undertake a reconnaissance to estimate the true strength of the Nessumaran militia.'

'We were betrayed.' Lord Radas had a mild voice, nothing odd in it, only its tone had a timbre that made a man shudder even to hear simple words spoken in a seemingly reasonable manner. A madman might speak so as he was cutting your throat. 'Look at me, Captain.'

Aui! A man in his line of work could never know, never plan for, and must never dwell on when death might arrive to carry him to the Spirit Gate.

No sense waiting.

He looked up.

The man had youthful features but did not seem young; rather, he appeared rather unsettlingly well-preserved. He had deep-set eyes and broad cheekbones set off by a mustache and beard; no dashingly handsome man, as in the tales, but an ordinary fellow if not for the eyes, which were a weapon cutting you open so your guts spilled out.

Here it is, all of it:

Lord Twilight told me to arrange for an outlander to be conveyed out of camp without the other lord commanders knowing of it and by chance I was able in addition to use the outlander's trail to track down a nest of bandits and kill them. Kill me for it if you must; I obeyed the cloak, as I am required to do. I didn't know who the outlander was, but then Night tracked me down to say she had captured him. She said he was Lord Twilight's brother.

I don't enjoy killing or savor its power. I don't mind it, either, and if it has to be done I'll do it, as I have done since the day I left

my village forever. Nothing against my clan or anyone else there; it just wasn't a life or a bride I was willing to accept. I like battle, because it tests the mind and the body and it tests your resolve, your reactions, your reserves.

As for Captain Dessheyi of the First Cohort — even in an ambush he ought not to have allowed his soldiers to break ranks and lose cohesion like that; he ought to have had a decent chain of command in place. But some of these men are cursed better at oiling up their superiors to grab for rank than they are at actually doing the work of fighting.

Lord Radas laughed, the sound so startling Arras flinched. 'So Harishil and Night are playing a game of hooks-and-ropes. He'll not survive her displeasure. Perhaps she means to replace one out-lander with the other.'

Shaking, Arras brought his hands up to cover his eyes. He was on both knees, sweat streaming, hands moist.

'Keep the remnants of First Cohort as your own,' said Lord Radas as easily as if he were handing him a cup of cooked rice for his supper. 'You have a full cohort now. It's up to you to mold them into a cohesive unit. There will be a full war council in Saltow on Wakened Horse. I will be sure to consult your opinion at that time. I expect you to have a plan of action to present, that can be considered along with other strategies. We have underestimated the Nessumarans. Now we must defeat them.' He began to rein his horse around.

'Lord Radas! If I may be permitted to speak.'

The horse sidestepped as the cloak twisted in the saddle and Arras ducked his head to avoid that gaze. 'It's the reeves, Lord Radas. They see everything we do. As long as they have that advantage, we'll struggle.'

'Be sure we are not finished with the reeves,' said the cloak over his shoulder before he urged his mount onward.

The wings unfurled, their span almost as wide as the causeway and so bright and powerful Arras forgot to fear and simply gazed in awe. In a transition he could not measure or mark, the horse ran off the causeway and up into the sky as if the roadway split and it had merely taken a path he could not see. The man and his billowing cloak seemed almost an afterthought to the magnificence of the beast's wings and graceful form.


Arras leaped up, whipping round to see a soldier racing up on

the heels of Zubaidit. She staggered to a halt as she stared after the rippling sheen of the gold cloak falling away like rays off the rising sun. Her expression was unfathomable, mouth slightly parted, eyes narrowed. Is that what she would look like in the arms of the Devourer? Whew! He'd completely forgotten about her in the face of Lord Radas's gaze.

'Cursed hostage took off running, Captain,' said the panting soldier. 'Everyone was staring at the cloak.' He aimed the haft of his spear at her, taking a halfhearted swipe, and she turned on Arras.

'You cursed ingrate! I only went on that cursed negotiating expedition for you because you said you'd kill the other hostages if I did not. Now they're all spitting on me and calling me a traitor.'

He dusted off the dirt on his trousers and, straightening, shook off the muzz afflicting his thoughts. 'That would seem to make them the ingrates, not me.'

Her gaze flicked eastward toward the mainland, taking in the mire and the gods-rotted honking waterfowl dotting the sheets of water. Already the cloak had vanished from view.

'I'm tired of being strung along as on a rope,' she said. 'First my clan marries me off north to a man I've never met. Not that I've any complaint of him, mind you. It's just I had no choice. I've never had a choice.' Her tone hardened as old grievances bubbled to the surface. He saw that look in a lot of the young men who came to him. 'Seems to me you lot have more choice in what happens in your life. I want to join your cohort as a soldier.'

'What's in it for me?'

She snorted. 'Do you ask that of every recruit?'

'I might have asked it of that cursed traitor Laukas. What's to say you won't betray us, as he did?'

'What's to say anyone won't? I'm one person, Captain. Not that difficult to keep an eye on.'

'Indeed not. I might have to keep you close by me, just to be sure.'

Her lips twitched, reminding him abruptly of a hook used to catch a fish. 'Do you want me to play that game, Captain? I shouldn't think your men will respect you for it.' She looked around, because of course everyone within earshot was listening openly, and no doubt those cursed boats bobbing off shore, out of arrow-shot, were also wondering what in the hells was going on.

'Tortoise up!' he shouted, angry at his lapse. The entire cohort could have been shot to pieces while he gaped like a lust-struck moonwit. 'March!'

He fell behind the front rank of shields, and although the soldier who had chased her queried him with a gesture, he waved him off. She did not drop back to walk with the other hostages, nor did he make her go. Hadn't he already decided?

'You'll plague me until you get what you want, won't you?'

'Yes.' She matched her stride to his.

'I won't have it said I enlisted any soldier in my cohort in exchange for sex.' He glanced at Sergeant Giyara, who had dropped into step on his other side. She'd no doubt have an opinion to share with him in private, later. 'That's not the kind of unit I run.'

Zubaidit flashed that handsome smile. 'That's why I respect you, Captain.'

They walked in silence except for the tread of feet. The causeway stretched to the horizon.

'Captain,' said Giyara at length, as if she'd been chewing for a while and had finally swallowed, 'does that mean Lord Radas thinks we did the right thing by giving up our forward position?'

'Surely he knows I couldn't refuse a direct order. He told me to present a plan at the war council on Wakened Horse. I've a few ideas. Spread into the countryside. Confiscate the harvest, all flocks and horses, take wagons and tools. We can cut off every land route into Nessumara. Field boats out of Ankeno and do damage to their shipping as well, cut off the flow of refugees fleeing the city. Trap them in the delta like rats. They have fields and storehouses, but surely not enough to feed all the refugees. And the dry season is coming. Maybe this cursed mire will dry out and we can advance across a longer front, off the causeway. Maybe we can set fire to the islands and drive forward under the cover of smoke, to hide from the reeves.'

Giyara whistled. 'Fire is a two-edged sword. It can't be controlled.'

'War is a fire, isn't it? If we burned the grand and glorious city of Nessumara to ruins, what a message we'd send to any other people who think to resist us, eh?'

Zubaidit sucked in a sharply audible breath. Then she laughed, tossing her head.

'You find that funny?' he asked.

She lifted both hands, palms up, the well-known gesture of the-

child-asking-an-obvious-question in any of the tales. 'If you burn Nessumara, Captain, then what do you possess afterward?' 'Victory. What else matters?'

This time of year, as the rains faded to a whisper, the winds drew cooler drier air out of the northwest. You could taste the change, the locals said, see the shift in the color of the vegetation, hear the altered voice of the river announcing the advent of the dry season.

Mai peeked out through a slit in the curtains she'd opened with her fingers. Where the River Olossi met the Olo'o Sea, a green sway of reeds carpeted the shallows while blue sky melded with blue-green sea out beyond the last channels. She licked her lips, but all she tasted was her own anxiety. She let the cloth close.

'You're out early, ver,' said the boatman, speaking to the hirelings as they set the curtained palanquin on the dock. 'Your mistress or master can't wait, eh?'

'Don't ask me,' said one of the hirelings brusquely. 'We were hired to carry the palanquin at Crow's Gate and were told to deliver it to the boat and wait to deliver it back to Crow's Gate. Can we get going? Cursed cold out here by the water. We want to go wait in an inn.'

Mai had a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, but not for the cold; it was for a covering should she need to conceal her face. Miravia sat on the narrow bench opposite, clutching the baby beneath her long cloak. She had looked so fragile at the beginning of this journey, and therefore Mai had handed Atani over to her as soon as they were hidden inside the curtains of the palanquin. Holding a baby gave one a measure of stability.

The palanquin was heaved up, pitched right and then left, and settled into the boat. Coins changed hands with a clink of vey counted out in pairs. The boatman grunted as he poled away from the dock. He made no attempt to converse. The boat rolled as they hit choppy waters, and then they glided through a long calm stretch and at last bumped up against another pier. The tang of salt was now flavored with a brush of bitter incense. A whisper of bells chimed an ornament to the hiss of wind and water in reeds. She heard the slap of feet running down to meet the boat.

'Eh, this isn't our early day, ver. What were you thinking?' The voice was cheerful, followed by laughter from others on the shore.

Mai slipped a folded piece of paper through the curtains. 'Take this to the Hieros, I beg you. I assure you, she will want to read it.'

A person wrenched the message from her fingers.

After a moment, the first voice said, 'Go!' and footsteps raced away. 'Bring the palanquin onto the dock. Quickly, you clod-foots.'

With much pitching, the palanquin got hoisted out of the boat and set on mercifully firm ground. Mai rubbed legs and arms sore from the journey smuggled in the chest. Miravia shut her eyes.

'Eh, that was a good game, the last of the hooks-and-ropes tournament,' said the boatman, determined to make the time pass by visiting with the unseen loiterers. 'You see it?'

'You think we get a festival day off? Wasn't there a new team competing?'

'A militia team, yeh. I was impressed. They'd only been practicing together for four months, at the order of the commander, and yet they came in third at the stakes. They'll win next year.'

A new voice chimed in, older and female. 'You see all the checkpoints and such they're setting up? I'm not sure I like it!'

The boatman snorted. 'I don't mind! Better than fearing bandits and criminals, neh?'

Outside, the voices argued about the new road regulations. The curtains stirred, and a tooth-filled snout poked into the palanquin. A scaly shape shimmied in so fast Miravia shrieked, and Mai gasped, and the baby woke and began to cry.

Outside, the temple folk laughed.

Inside, a ginny lizard nudged Miravia's leg and tried to crawl up onto the bench beside her.

Mai snatched Atani from Miravia. as her friend smothered laughter and crying beneath a hand clapped over her own mouth. 'I–I — I never thought I would see one,' she whispered. 'I read about them in books.'

Mai was struggling with her taloos and at last got the crying baby latched on. He began sucking noisily. The ginny backed down from Miravia and spun so quickly it seemed it had levitated, turning with a whip of its long tail. It nosed at Mai's feet, showed the merest edge of teeth, and tried to climb up on Mai's lap.

'You will not!' she said indignantly.

Its crest lifted, and a spasm like faintly glimmering threads of blue traced its knobbly spine. Atani let go of the breast, milk squirting his round face as he turned his head. Almost as if he knew it was there.

A voice called. 'Heya! The Hieros says to bring up the palanquin right away!'

The ginny scrambled out, curtains swaying in its wake. The palanquin rose; they rocked. The baby burped and burbled and, like any newborn, complained as he rooted, seeking the breast. Their bearers were less experienced than the hirelings who had carried them smoothly from Crow's Gate to Dast Olo's docks; Mai could not get a moment of stillness to let the poor little one fasten on, and by the time they were dropped roughly to solid ground, he was wailing, inconsolable.

Miravia twitched aside a lip of curtain to peer outside. Her eyes widened. 'It's a lovely garden!'

If joy had a fragrance, it might be something like this: flowers exhaling, the sun shedding warmth, the earth sighing, the air braced by a light breeze off the salty inland sea. Atani got hold again and began suckling. Mai sighed as the milk flowed, and a tingle of well-being, the breath of the Merciful One that penetrates all living things, coursed through her.

Miravia opened the curtain a little wider. 'There's a pavilion here. How pretty! But I don't see anyone, just plants. Musk vine. Both orange and yellow proudhorn. Heaven-kiss. Look at those falls of purple muzz! I've never seen so thick a flowering!'

'What if we're not supposed to see onto sacred ground-?'

'You say that now?'

Their gazes met. They both began to giggle, then to laugh, the anxiety and tension like water overtopping a cup, pouring over the lip, coursing everywhere.

'Are you coming out?' The voice was old, strong, and not kind. But it wasn't angry. Like Anji, it expected to be obeyed.

Miravia grasped and released Mai's hand before pushing aside the curtain. Mai tucked Atani into the crook of an arm and followed.

The Hieros sat on a low couch under the pavilion's roof. Miravia and Mai kicked off their sandals and climbed three steps to kneel on pillows in front of her. For a while there was silence as Atani nursed contentedly. A spectacular taloos wrapped the old woman's slender form: silk of the most delicate sea-green hue. Woven with an inner pattern of scallops like waves, it might have been an actual layer of water skinned off the surface of the deeps of the inland sea and spun into fabric.

The baby let go of the breast, smacked his tiny, perfect lips. As

soon as Mai burped him he closed his eyes and sighed into a doze. She adjusted her taloos and shifted him to the other arm.

'I admit,' said the Hieros, examining first Mai and then Miravia with a cool gaze, 'that I did not expect to see the wife of the outlander captain enter the precincts of the holy temple, not after he expressed so strongly to me on a separate occasion that his wife would never set foot in Ushara's temple. Yet even less did I expect ever to see the face of a Ri Amarah woman.'

Miravia glanced at Mai, and Mai nodded. 'I am named Miravia, ken Haf Gi Ri, daughter of Isar and his wife, whose name I am not free to mention.'

The Hieros looked at Mai. 'Why have you come?'

'We have come, Holy One, to ask you to give refuge to this woman.'

'You have not come — one newly a mother and the other soon to be married, so it is rumored, to a rich man of poor reputation in Nessumara — to gain some pleasure in our gardens?'

'No!' said Mai, genuinely shocked.

The Hieros's expression darkened as a storm front occludes the horizon.

Mai plunged on. 'I beg you, Holy One, listen to my petition. Miravia has run away from her family. She does not want to marry the man they've chosen for her.'

'Does not want to marry? Is she asking to dedicate herself as a hierodule at the temple?' She surveyed Miravia with a look that made the girl blush to a sodden red.

'I am not, begging your pardon, Holy One,' Miravia said hoarsely. 'Meaning no disrespect. It's just-' She gulped out words between sobs. 'Oh, what good will it do, Mai? No one will help us! Everyone will just tell me to accept the marriage for the honor of my clan! I would have been better off to sell myself as a debt slave!'

'Do you believe you would be better treated as a debt slave, you who are Ri Amarah and scorn all those who sell their bodies and their labor?' asked the Hieros coldly.

'Yes! It would be better! My life in Nessumara will be like living in one of the hells. But maybe I should just let that reeve fly me there. If the Star of Life invades Nessumara and overruns it, then I can hope to be raped and killed and that would still be better than living in a prison with a wicked old man who abuses those he controls!'

The Hieros clapped her hands. An attendant, an older woman with a sharp gaze and a curious eye, appeared on a path shrouded by flowering plants.

'Tea,' said the Hieros, and the attendant nodded and vanished. The Hieros turned to Mai. 'Does your husband know you are here?'

'No.' Mai tucked her chin, her body remembering the lessons learned in the Mei clan, when you kept your gaze down and shoulders bowed as Father Mei or Grandmother addressed you in that scolding way. But then she remembered she was mistress of her own household. She was a good businesswoman. She had overseen the birth of a new settlement. She had blessed the marriages of more than forty local women and Qin soldiers, bonds that would carry them into the years to come, that would bind them to the land. She lifted her chin and looked the Hieros in the eye. 'He is away on militia business. I have taken this action on my own.'


'I did not know who else to turn to. Can you shelter her?'

'The Ri Amarah will take me to the assizes once they know she is here. They'll demand her 'return, according to their laws, by whose measure she is still a child because not married. How old are you, Miravia?'

'I was born in the Year of the Deer.'

Her frown deepened. 'Twenty. Far too old to be called a child.' The attendant walked up the steps, set a tray on a low table, and poured three cups of steaming tea. Birds called from the trees, and a ginny lizard — maybe the same one who had nosed into the palanquin — ambled into a patch of sun and settled to its full length.

'However, few love the Ri Amarah,' added the Hieros. 'Fewer will support them in a dispute against the temples. What will Captain Anji recommend?'

Mai nodded as the old woman examined her. 'You already know. That is a magnificent length of silk, Holy One.'

The compliment drew a smile. 'A fine bolt of first quality out of Sirniaka. No one else produces such exquisite silk. Miravia, you will hand out the cups.'

Miravia took them one at a time, each one cupped in her palms, offering the first to the Hieros, settling the second in Mai's free hand, and sitting back on her heels with the third held close

to her mouth as she inhaled the scent. 'You've put in a tincture of rice-grain-flower.'

'The Ri Amarah women are known for their herbal knowledge.' The old woman sipped, and Mai sipped, and Miravia sipped and smiled her approval.

In silence, they finished drinking.

'As I said,' continued the Hieros, 'the displeasure of the Ri Amarah I can weather. They do not enter or tithe to the temples. But I am not as eager to set myself against Captain Anji. We negotiate difficult times. We are beset with creatures wearing the cloaks of Guardians who have raised an army that can be turned against us at any time, and no doubt will be if they gain control of the north, as they seem likely to do. Am I willing to offend a competent commander who may be key to our ability to withstand the storm? His ability to organize others into an effective force makes him valuable. He himself knows this. What if he were to change loyalties? To ride north and offer his services to the army in the north because we offended him here?'

'He would not!' Mai cried.

'Why not? Are you saying Qin soldiers did not conquer territory in lands far away from the Hundred? Is it not true that you grew up in a town they conquered? That you are yourself a prize for a victorious warrior?'

All the words she wanted to say — to protest that Anji would never ally himself with folk who burned and raped and killed — died in her throat. Her tongue was dry, and her hands had gotten cold.

'It's all true,' she said in a low voice, never dropping her gaze from the Hieros's fierce glare. 'Beyond the Hundred, the Qin are conquerors. You could say I am a prize taken in war. But we came here as exiles. I speak because I have done my best to find willing and honest wives for the Qin soldiers. To encourage women to marry men they might not otherwise look at because they began their lives as outlanders.'

'There's been much discussion about how you encouraged young women and Qin men to make their own choices. In this country, clans and elders arrange marriages. That is the proper way to do things. Youth is not celebrated for its wisdom. Lust is a slender reed on which to build a house. We recognize the power of the Merciless One. We do not construct homes on her body.'

'That's also how it was arranged in Kartu Town, where I grew

up. Yet it seems to me, Holy One, that people did not treat each other very well in the house where I grew up. I sold produce in the market for several years and I heard plenty about the misery folk endured in their households. Maybe people could have at the least the right to say no to an arrangement. Then maybe more would treat each other decently and fewer fall into abuse.'

'Spoken passionately, verea. And with some understanding of human nature, rare to see in one so young as you. Yet you must know, having seen the ceremony of binding, that we do not force young women to accept a marriage. She doesn't have to eat the rice.'

'There are other means of coercion.'

'Those who truly fear the arrangement made by their clans are not required to suffer. The temples can always serve as their refuge.'

Mai lifted her chin, sensing victory in those words. 'Miravia is not fortunate, she is not willing, and yet she cannot say no. Folk will say she went willingly, when the truth of her heart speaks otherwise. I believe her when she says she will suffer abuse in that house in Nessumara. If I can do something to stop it, then it is dishonorable of me not to try!'

Miravia hid tears behind a hand.

The ginny thumped its tail once, then lapsed back into stillness. A small bird with a red-feathered cap and white-tipped wings fluttered in under the pavilion roof, landed beside the tea tray, and looked them over with sharp black eyes.

'You may suffer for this act today,' said the Hieros.

'I know,' said Mai. 'But I can't do anything else.'

The old woman bent her head, as if considering whether to make one more attempt to bargain Mai down. Her hair was entirely silver except for a few strands of black. It was bound up and pinned in place by lacquered hairsticks like those Mai herself used. Once, Mai supposed, it had been luxuriantly thick hair. Now, of course, age had thinned it.

She raised her head and looked at Mai. 'Do you trust me?'

'I came to you for help, Holy One.'

'Very well. I'll help you. But she'll have to leave Olo'osson immediately. Today.'

'There is another way, Holy One,' said Miravia. She sucked in a breath as for courage and spoke again. 'I could enter the garden.'

'Mira!' Mai grasped her arm. 'You can't-'

'Not as a hierodule. No offense to you, Holy One. I have no place in the temples as an acolyte. But merely as a — a — a-' She shook off Mai's touch, not in an angry way but in the manner of a person who knows she must walk the next stretch of the road alone. 'Once I enter the garden — and do what is done there — my family can no longer marry me off.'

'You can't possibly-' Mai cried.

'No clan among the Ri Amarah would ever accept me,' said Miravia calmly. 'They will say I am no 'daughter of theirs. They will say I am dead.'

The old woman had features honed by age; in them you could see the ghost of her youth, and yet Mai could not imagine her young. 'Who are we, daughter, if we have no clan? We are a fish hooked out of the water that sustains us and left to die on the shore. Do not be so eager to embrace this form of death.'

'I do not want never to see my mother and brothers again. But it is still better than what awaits me in Nessumara. Can you imagine sending one of your own daughters into such danger?'

The Hieros smiled. 'Certain of my daughters are trained to walk into danger, and they do, and I will likely never see them again. But you are desperate, indeed, Miravia. Is this truly what you wish?'

'Doesn't anyone ever think I also might be curious? That I might want to-' She stammered. 'Don't all the tales say it brings pleasure? I see in the blush on your cheek, Mai, when you speak of Captain Anji. Why shouldn't I be allowed to experience what every girl born into the Hundred expects she can have simply by walking to the temple after she has celebrated the feast of her Youth's Crown?'

'I am not one who will argue this point with you,' said the Hieros. 'Enter if you wish. If you feel apprehension natural to one coming from your circumstances, be aware that certain of the hierodules and kalos are trained specifically to- Well, it should be obvious we are accustomed to every temperament and wish a person might have, entering Ushara's holy precincts.'

'Miravia,' whispered Mai, 'it would be — with someone you don't even know, or-' Humiliated, she looked away.

'All are allowed to enter who have not offended the goddess,' said the Hieros. 'You, too, may enter if you wish, Mai.'

'I would not! Anji would-!'

'Does he own your body, as a master owns the debt of a slave?' asked the Hieros.

She could not find a safe place to fix her gaze. 'It would be shameful. I couldn't.'

Miravia grasped her free hand. 'Oh, Mai. Do you think less of me?'

'Never!' She burst into tears. 'I just want you not to suffer what I grew up with! That hateful house! Grandmother Mei's spite. My father's temper, and how it made everyone walk with their heads down for fear of looking him in the eye and getting punished for it. He beat my brother, Younger Mei — my dearest, twin to me — because he wasn't strong and angry like Father. And now my dearest twin doesn't even have me to protect him or hold his hand. But I always knew I would have to leave the house. That's the way of it, that the girls must leave to join their husbands' households, where they bide at the mercy of those who may treat them well or ill. Bad enough I should have to leave. I couldn't bear to think of you, Miravia-'

'It will be well.' Miravia kissed her and stroked her. 'Once my family casts me out, we'll find another way.'

'I'll gift you with so much coin,' sobbed Mai, 'you can set up your own stall selling herbs and ointments.' She sucked in breath and wiped her cheeks.

They embraced.

Mai pulled away. 'Best I go quickly, Holy One.'

'You came in secret, did you?' said the old woman with a faint smile, perhaps of disapproval. 'Now we will see what colors this thread layers in the cloth.'

'I don't want you to get into trouble,' said Miravia in a husky voice.

One last embrace. Maybe their last one.

Mai walked out of the garden with the palanquin carried behind her by silent but clearly curious folk. They did not attempt to speak to her.

It will be well, she thought fiercely.

The baby woke, and as she crossed under the white gates, ginny lizards peered down upon them from the trees and tall bushes. Atani turned his head as if trying to track them. As she passed under the outer gates and beyond the temple's outer wall, the sun had risen a hand's breadth above the estuary. The path down to dockside gritted under her feet. The force of all she had

said and done overtook her in a rush of feeling that made her tremble. What would Anji say?

The boatman stared at her as the acolytes jostled the boat while getting the palanquin fixed across the board, but mercifully he said nothing except 'You'll have to sit inside, verea, for there's no place otherwise.'

He balanced the boat deftly as she clambered aboard, tightening her grip on the baby until he squawked in protest. She settled onto the bench inside the curtains as the boatman poled away from the dock. She kissed Atani's sweet face for comfort.

The water had gentled, and the easy slap of water in the back channels lulled her. Smells and sounds rose from the channel: musty molding thatch; the dry rustle of reeds; the whit-whoo of a bird calling after its mate. Soon she heard the rumble of wheels, a hammer pounding a steady rhythm, a burst of laughter cut short. A boy's voice lilted: 'There is it, Seri! Go get the porters!'

What would she tell Tuvi? She'd not thought that far ahead.

The boat bumped the dock. An odd spill of silence emanated from the dockside where she might have expected the lively sounds of commerce.

'No need for such a look, ver,' said a voice she recognized as that of one of the hirelings. 'We just took the coin like any hire.'

The palanquin thumped hard to the boards. Weren't the hirelings going to pick her up and start back to the city? She bit her lip and reached for the curtain, to tell them, kindly but firmly, that they had to go right away.

'I beg your pardon, ver, but them who hires the palanquins have to be able to expect privacy-'

The curtain was abruptly pulled back. She looked into Chief Tuvi's face, his expression so blank she thought it hid a deeper emotion. His mouth quirked, as if he had a wish to speak but could not. At a movement behind him, he flipped the curtain up over the roof of the palanquin and stepped out of the way.

There stood Anji, his riding whip clenched in his left hand and his normally neat topknot as frayed as if he'd bound his hair up in haste. To come riding after her.

Her breath caught in her chest; her fingers went cold; her cheeks flushed hot.

But not this cringing. One sharp breath she took in, and then with her market face as bland as ever she could make it, she stepped out of the palanquin with the baby in her arms and

smiled with blander politeness at him, facing it out with pleasant words in the tone with which she would greet a treasured acquaintance.

'Anji, I was just-'

He slapped her, the back of his hand to her cheek, the blow so sharp and unexpected that all grounding in time and place fell away for forever and one instant as she fell and she drowned

he's furious

he's reaching for his sword

he's going to kill me now

Merciful One, please give me the strength to endure this

She was too stunned to react when instead of cutting her down he took the baby out of her arms and turned his back on her. Then he paused, shoulders tense like coiled steel, and turned halfway back.

'Bring her,' he said to Tuvi.

He walked to his horse, mounted, and rode away.

'Hu!' Tuvi sighed, and as through a haze Mai saw him take his hand off his sword's hilt. Her cheek was stinging.

All kinds of people were staring, old and young and laborers and merchants and debt slaves and girls at their harborside slip-fry pans with mouths dropped open. Everyone was staring, except the Qin soldiers detailed to escort her, who were carefully looking elsewhere. The river churned behind her.

'Follow my lead, Mistress,' Tuvi said in a low voice. 'It's best if you ride, so they can see you are still honored among us. Do not let them see you cry. You've nothing to feel shame over.' He paused, fingering his wisp of beard as he studied her. 'Do you?'

Her face was really hurting now, a throb that reached to her left eye. 'It wasn't wrong to help Miravia.' Her voice was a scrape over tears held in. 'Are you angry with me, Tuvi? I couldn't bear that on top of the… other.'

He shook his head, as if she'd given the wrong answer. 'Ride with me, Mistress.'

She had no more of a choice than the day Anji had approached her father and proposed that Father Mei might be interested in marrying his daughter to a Qin officer, a polite way of saying: I'm taking her. He could have hauled her out of the marketplace where she had sold produce, and done whatever he wanted; no one could or would have stopped him. The family would then have taken her back in shame, or left her to make her own way as

a whore. It happened to women all the time, didn't it? Only the old stories and songs made it seem glamorous.

She struggled to gather calm as she turned to the porters. 'The second half of your payment is waiting at Crow's Gate when you return the palanquin, as was agreed.' She followed Tuvi to the waiting soldiers.

But of course it was impossible to ride in a taloos. Trembling and embarrassed, she had after all to call the bearers and return to Crow's Gate sitting within the palaquin as the Qin soldiers plodded before and after like jailers. She wept once and then wiped her eyes. Her cheek hurt if she touched it, so probably it was going to bruise, and then she wept again, and after that she thought of what Tuvi had said and she was done with weeping. She had done nothing wrong! Even if everyone said otherwise — that of course a young person must marry according to the wishes of the clan — she could not stand aside while her beloved friend was handed over to a man who had already killed three wives.

They arrived' at Crow's Gate. The line at the gate moved slowly, and when she peeked out from behind the curtains, it was to see sober young militiamen interviewing each incoming party and clerks of Sapanasu checking accounts books. She leaned out, but did not see Anji among those waiting in line.

'Set me down, please.' The bearers did so, and she climbed out and walked over to Chief Tuvi. 'How long will this take, Chief? Don't they let Qin soldiers through?'

'They do not, on orders of the captain. If the locals must endure these delays in order to make the roads safe, then so must we when we are about the ordinary business of the day. Lest we appear as outlanders in their eyes, taking privileges we deny to them.'

'No, of course Anji is right.' She looked away, pretending that her bracelets must be turned. Her breasts were beginning to ache, a sense of fullness that anticipated a feeding, for although Atani did not take much at any one time, he nursed frequently.

Tuvi dismounted and handed his reins to one of the soldiers. 'You four escort us, two before and two behind. The rest of you wait your turn and be sure that the bearers and palanquin owners are properly paid.'

'Tuvi, are you sure-?'

'Do you want to stay in the palanquin, Mistress? I can engage its services to return you to the compound.'

'I'd rather walk.' To delay returning home to face Anji's anger. To feel the sun on her face, to pray for the grace of the Merciful One to cover her heartache.

He led their little cadre up to the gate and invoked captain's privilege to pass them through ahead of others.

'That's the outlander, the captain's wife,' someone said in the crowd.

Another called out, 'Greetings of the day to you, verea! You brought good fortune to my cousin's husband's sister, who married one of the soldiers after her own husband was killed on West Track. She'd have had to sell herself into debt slavery otherwise.'

'Council members say you're the one bargained those cursed Greater Houses down until they begged for mercy.' This comment brought general raucous laughter. 'Thanks to you, verea. They say it's thanks to you the Qin soldiers fought at all.'

'Out Dast Olo way, eh? Getting a taste at the temple? For sure you've earned it.'

A flush rose in her cheeks, maybe enough to hide the red mark.

Folk made pretty greetings as Tuvi inexorably led her forward. She spoke words of greeting in return, nodding and smiling at every person who nodded and smiled at her, but all she could see was Anji's face in the instant after he had struck her, a man she did not recognize.

They worked free of the crowd and walked up the road to the inner gate. People were too busy going about their business to pay any mind to Qin soldiers; it was nothing they didn't see every day.

'Hard to know where to start,' said Tuvi. 'Let me tell you a story. One time, you see, there was a boy named Anjihosh, the son by the Sirni emperor sired on a Qin princess, who was herself sister of the Qin var. The Qin var had handed his very own sister over to the emperor to seal a treaty. That's the way of things.'

'I know, but Miravia-'

'Best to let me speak,' he continued in a soft voice that as good as cut her throat. 'For a while the Qin princess was much in favor with the emperor because she was not like any of the other women in his household, and be assured that he had many women in his household, confined to a special palace reserved for the emperor's women into which only the emperor or his cut-men — eunuchs — could enter. Now I suppose most of those women were slaves, chosen for their beauty or some special skill like weaving or herb knowledge or cooking. But a few were wives according to the Sirni

way, that is, they were the daughters and sisters of powerful men of noble families. So it could not have sat well with these wives, and their fathers and brothers, that the emperor should shower so much favor on an outlander, and more especially, on the son she had borne him. For you can be sure that Anjihosh was as a child well-spoken and attractive in temperament, quick at his lessons, and naturally the best among the young princes at riding and archery and weapons. His enemies whispered that he was the emperor's favorite among his sons, a threat to the worthy noble families of pure Sirni blood. What the emperor thought of this we cannot truly know.

'There came a time when one among the wives decided to act. Her son was older than Anjihosh and had for many years been considered the likely heir. Among the Sirni, only one man rules as emperor, although the emperor has many sons. It is common for the mothers of the sons of the emperor to fight a war within the women's palace from which only one emerges victorious.' He offered an arm fo help her over a gouge in the street cut by the wet-season rains. 'Hard to imagine wasting so many good soldiers, lads who could be trained up as captains and commanders. It's no wonder these people are weak.'

'If they're weak, why haven't the Qin conquered them?' His smile was a tip of the lips, a thought held to itself. 'The empire is very large. But it so happened that the Qin princess found herself alone and despised in the women's palace with no one to support her while meanwhile her greatest rival had called in her powerful family to put pressure on Emperor Farutanihosh to name her son Azadihosh as heir after him. Which naturally would mean that any other boy sired by Emperor Farutanihosh would have to be killed. So the Qin princess found a way to smuggle her boy out of the palace. Through one means and another, she got him to a border post, and thence into the hands of Qin clans willing to bring the boy back to his uncle, who must raise him or be seen to be dishonorable in the eyes of all the Qin. For it is shameful to kill one's own relatives, is it not? Naturally the head of a clan must make sure that the line remains untainted by weakness, but any child let live becomes the charge of all his clansmen.' 'So the boy and his mother returned to the Qin.' 'Eh? No, Mistress. The boy did indeed arrive at his uncle's tent. But his mother could not escape the women's palace. Nor could she hope to journey through the empire without raising the alarm,

for as you recall, women do not travel openly on their roads. I suppose, if she still lives, she remains in the palace still.'

Mai's fingers tightened on Tuvi's arm. 'Surely you see that I couldn't allow Miravia to walk into a prison like that?'

'Let me finish, Mistress. That is not the end of the story. The boy Anjihosh was raised by certain of his uncle's retainers, who were assigned to take charge of him. Without exception they became his kinsmen of the heart, because he grew to be that kind of man, who inspires such trust and loyalty.'

'That's you!'

Seren, hearing the chief's voice fall silent, looked back to make sure nothing was amiss, but Tuvi nodded at him and they trudged on. It was a warm day but mercifully not hot, yet each step dragged, harder than the last. Her legs were as heavy as sacks of rice; her belly ached; her cheek was a stab of flame. But if she concentrated on Tuvi's voice, then she didn't notice these pains so much.

'In time Anjihosh came of age to ride in the Qin army. A wife was proposed from among the daughters of the var's high command. It was a good marriage with Commander Beje's girl. Has Anji ever spoken to you of his first wife?'

She flushed. 'Neh. I just remember, that time we met Commander Beje, that the commander said she was a headstrong girl. "Precisely her charm," that's what Anji said in reply. But Commander Beje also said Anji could have shamed the commander's entire clan in front of the var because of what she did. Yet Anji did not. That's why Commander Beje helped Anji. Because Anji had acted honorably in the matter of his daughter. Anyway, I thought she must be dead.'

They had come to the gate into the inner city, another checkpoint with militiamen making their painstaking interviews and folk waiting with remarkable patience, bred no doubt from the still-fresh memories of the siege and from the years before that when the roads had not been safe.

They waited in silence, people glancing at them but holding their tongues. When they reached the front of the line, the guards recognized Tuvi and waved them through.

Only after they crossed Assizes Court and started up the hill did Tuvi start talking again, his voice so low Mai strained to hear. 'She was seduced by one of the western demons, the ones with ghost hair and ghost faces and blue eyes. Like that slave Shai had.'


'A demon very like that slave girl, yes,' said Tuvi. 'She rode away with the demon into the west. So that is the same as being dead, actually. If you walk into demon land, then you are dead, aren't you?'

'Did she hate Anji? Hard to see how anyone could hate him, but maybe she was forced to marry him. That can breed resentment.'

'Naturally the elders of a clan consider marriage prospects and make suggestions, and negotiate terms. And of course in the matter of secondary wives and concubines taken by men in the army, that is naturally done by their preference. But within the Qin clans themselves, it would be very bad to force two young people who did not like each other to marry because then if one mistreated the other, the clans would get involved, and there would be a feud, so as you can imagine clans wish to avoid such an outcome. Generally a proposal is made, and the two meet and decide if they can cooperate. If they and the families agree, he offers her a banner sewn especially for the marriage. They race, and if he can catch her, then it is destined that they wed.' His shrug came and went like a brief smile. 'Of course, a woman may choose under such circumstances to allow a man to catch her.'

'That's how they do it here, too,' said Mai, 'only with the bowl of rice offered and accepted, or offered and refused.'

Was that a tinge of color in his cheek?

'I'm sorry about Avisha, but she wasn't right for you, Tuvi-lo. Anyway, even here, even if people say girls have the right not to eat the rice, to refuse the man who courts them, or if a lad wants one girl but is told to marry another for the benefit of his clan, there are other ways to coerce a person to marry by making it seem you'll be disappointed or you need the treaty or you must have the coin lest the entire clan be ruined… and what about the Qin var? Did the var's sister, Anji's mother, want to go to the empire as the seal on a treaty?'

'You're not listening to me, Mistress. Anjihosh was loyal to his first wife, but she was not loyal to him. Where did he find you today?'

'I don't understand what you're trying to say.'

He grinned in that lively way the Qin had, and shook his head as at the antics of a child innocent in its charm. 'Mai, I expected you to help Miravia leave the city.'

'You did?' Her voice rose to a squeak. The soldiers glanced at

her, and hurriedly away. 'No, no, of course you must have. Of course we couldn't possibly get out of the compound without you knowing of it. What an idiot I was to believe otherwise! Why didn't you just help me, then?'

'I obeyed what I knew would be Anji's command in the matter. Also, I could therefore afterward speak the truth with a straight face to the Ri Amarah and their agent — that one loitering at the gate hoping to catch a hint of her whereabouts — that I had advised the girl be returned to her family, as Anji would have done, had he been there.'

Having nothing to say, she walked in silence. Had Anji been there, she would never have dared defy him.

'Not much farther to go,' she murmured, feeling the pain in her cheek magnified.

'But I did not think, Mistress, that you would take her to the whore's temple.'

'It's Ushara's temple, Tuvi! We must speak of it with respect, because we are Hundred folk now.'

'And you went with her, to partake of what is offered in the garden?'

She stumbled over her own feet, and he caught her arm and kept her walking as she covered her bruised cheek with a hand. 'Can that be how it looked to him? I went with her to plead her case to the Hieros!'

'His father betrayed him. His half brother betrayed him. His mother sent him away alone, to be raised among people he did not know. Then his wife betrayed him, and finally his uncle the var betrayed him, for he sent Anji east to the frontier to be killed, as we discovered only because Commander Beje felt obligated to repay Anji for the dishonor shown to him by the commander's own daughter. Now he wonders if you have betrayed him.'

'I would never! I only went there because I hoped the Hieros could help me… You haven't even asked what happened to Miravia.'

'Best I don't know, Mistress. Here we are.' He stopped her with a hand on her elbow as they reached the familiar gates of their compound. She smelled meat roasting, and the savory tang of a big kettle of spiced caul-petal soup. 'Take my advice, Mistress. Don't go to him. I'll have Priya bring you the child, for nursing.'

Her milk had let down, twin spots darkening the front of her taloos. She crossed her arms over her chest. 'Can we go in?'

'Don't go to him,' Tuvi repeated. 'Bathe yourself. Make yourself particularly beautiful, as you can, and preside over the supper table as if you are the queen and he a humble captain honored to be seated at your table. If you have nothing to apologize for, then do not apologize out of fear. Qin do not respect those who are afraid.'

'If you do it, don't be afraid,' she murmured.

'If you're afraid, don't do it. You have offended him, Mistress, but I know you, and I know you went to the temple with no thought for anything except the other woman. Yours is a generous heart. Do not be generous with your apologies. And if I must say so…' He twisted his beard hairs again, frowning. 'Do not ever under any circumstances go again into a temple dedicated to the Merciless One. Let the Hundred folk have their ways, as they must. No Qin woman would ever do such a thing. In this matter, the captain will never ever change.'


From the height, Joss marked the many humble fishing villages strung along the wide curve of Messalia Bay like so many variegated beads on a vast necklace. Folk were busy on the paths and beaches, about their end of the day business. Fish dried on racks; kelp marinated in vats; children got in a final round of hooks-and-ropes on a dusty field with the oval scraped out of the sandy dirt. Every council square — some as humble as a stone wall and not even a sheltering thatched roof — had been decorated with ribbons in the color of the season, the faded blues and dried out greens marking the Whisper Rains.

At the mouth of the River Messali, he and Scar flew over a substantial port town where every compound flew ribbons or banners in the old custom that Joss's mother and aunts had often talked about but which had fallen out of favor in his own lifetime. Leaving its wharves and markets behind, reeve and eagle skimmed over the water toward the band of islands and islets that beaded the mouth of the bay. The shallows and deeps of Messalia Bay were easily discerned as distinct shades of blue, sand pale beneath. If only people were as easily mapped. It was high tide and so the bay was full, lapping on white sands. The golden light of the late-afternoon sun glimmered on the flat water; no storms today.

At length, he caught sight of a watchtower on a stony islet. He flagged the sentry, who replied with a burst of activity, flagging Joss the 'clear' and then bending to shout unheard words to his fellows as Joss guided Scar to the outer landing islet of Bronze Hall, on the bayward side of the much larger island that housed the main hall and grounds.

A pair of fawkners approached, holding batons painted in the grandfather patterns, very old-fashioned. They tapped and gestured the full, wordless greeting of hall to visitor, which he'd learned in training but never had done since. Cursed if he could recall what he was supposed to do in reply.

They finished and stepped back, waiting.

'Greetings of the dusk,' he began, but he faltered when he heard how thin the market words sounded in the silence left by their formality.

Scar dipped his big head. He had watched it all with keen attention, and now he chirped in a distinct greeting and settled immediately despite being in a hall he barely knew.

Joss walked to the waiting fawkners. Four men, armed like ordinands, loitered by the archway that led to the bridge.

'If you please,' Joss said, 'could you let Marshal Nedo know I'd like a meeting with her. I'm Joss, commander at Clan Hall.'

The older fawkner began to laugh. The younger cast Joss a startled look and trotted over to the loitering ordinands; two took off as Joss frowned. 'Aui! Did I say something laughable?'

'Neh, sorry,' said the fawkner, wiping his eyes. 'Just never thought I'd see the day when a reeve would fly in here and call himself commander of Clan Hall and not even know the proper forms, eh? Not to say we haven't been warned. I'm Kagard and that is Lenni. Let's look at your eagle, then. Anything I need know, besides that he knows the old forms better than his reeve does?'

The words rankled, but Joss kept his temper jessed. 'Scar's calm, if you're calm. I'd appreciate your opinion on these two wing feathers.'

Scar accepted their attention, and flirted a little with the younger fawkner when he approached with a pair of files. Joss coped the one trouble spot on Scar's beak, and when they were finished he allowed Kagard to direct him and Scar to an empty loft, where a haunch of deer was brought in and tossed to the eagle after Joss had leashed him to his night's perch.

They walked outside onto the landing ground, now entirely in

shadow. Lenni called an assistant out of a storehouse to pull closed the barred gate.

'It's been years since I've been at Bronze Hall,' said Joss. 'I go out the archway and over the bridge to the main island, neh?'

Kagard touched him on the elbow in a friendly way, and smiled in a friendly way, and spoke in a friendly way. 'Best you wait here for marshal's people to give the go-ahead, eh? It shouldn't take long for them to get back.'

'For the go-ahead? Is there some kind of trouble?'

'Hasn't been any trouble since marshal instituted the new measures and talked to all the town councils in Mar.'

'Was there trouble before?'

'Trouble in the Beacons and in the Ossu Hills. But we've culled out most of that trouble.'

'What manner of trouble are you talking about?' Joss asked, feeling increasingly uneasy as he looked around the expanse of ground. The islet was a rocky outcropping artificially leveled to create the landing ground for visiting eagles; there was a good launching point at the prow of the islet. The place housed a dozen separate small lofts and a storehouse and barracks and, as he recalled, stairs cut into the rock beyond the archway that led down to a stone pier where supplies could be paddled in. The folk here did a lot of fishing, too.

'Not for me to say,' observed Kagard.

Joss knew a dismissal when he heard one. He licked the taste of salt off his lips, remembering his own childhood on the coast near Haya. 'Fish for dinner tonight, I'm hoping,' he said, and got a laugh from them, as he had hoped. They weren't thawing, though. They kept a formal stance. 'Your eagles here, you've got more known family groups than any of the other halls, neh?'

'We do,' agreed Kagard.

Lenni was more voluble, perhaps seeing an opening to show off his youthful knowledge under the gaze of his seniors. 'We've got cursed good records of family groupings. They say that Bronze Hall eagles cooperate better than those of any other hall. That's why we keep visitors out here. Fewer tangles.'

'Good to hear.'

A pair of ordinands and a reeve trotted into sight under the archway. One of the lads carried a lamp. Joss strode over to meet them.

'Marshal Orhon will see you now,' said the reeve.

'Orhon?' Joss had no image of any such reeve. Not that he expected to know every gods-rotted reeve in the Hundred — obviously that was impossible — but after his years at Clan Hall he usually knew the names, at least, of the senior reeves at various halls because the legates of each hall did talk about the goings-on at their home compound. But an Orhon, out of Bronze Hall? Nothing.

How idiotic had he been to come here alone? A cursed headstrong fool, as always, acting on impulse instead of thinking. The Commander would never have acted so, but she was dead, wasn't she? So far, he was still alive.

He hefted his pack to his back and noted that they did not ask him to give up either short sword or baton as they crossed under the archway and out into the odd stillness of dusk exposed on the high rock cliff of the islet. The water swirled in white foam still visible in the gloom. Stars bloomed. There was no moon. Their footfalls made an erratic rhythm on the plank bridge. A bell tolled in the distance, ringing the last fishermen home.

On the far side of the bridge, the trail divided. They followed a track to the left, set along a cliff and lit by lamps hanging from iron posts. As they came around the headland the wind off the ocean rushed in his face, but even in the last gasp of day crossing into night it was beautiful. Far out, the ocean rolled, billows drawing whitecaps in and out of the dusk.

A cottage was set alone in the midst of low-growing seawort and clumps of berry-wax bushes. Lamps hung from the eaves. They clumped up onto the porch, where Joss pulled off his boots. The reeve, who had not introduced herself, rapped on the door. A hand bell chimed. The reeve indicated that Joss should let himself in. With a startled shrug, he slid open the door, stepped through onto mat, and closed the door.

The ocean's breathing and the wind's thrum beat in his ears as he stared at the man sitting cross-legged on a pillow in a chamber otherwise empty except for two flat pillows resting to the right of the door.

'I am Marshal Orhon.' The man had a shiny red blotch sprayed across the right half of his face. The left side of his face drooped, that eye fused shut, the skull shaved to stubble, the ear not much more than a twisted nub. His jaw didn't work properly; that accounted for his soft voice.

'Where is Marshal Nedo?' Joss asked.

If Orhon's expression changed, Joss could not interpret it. His voice's timbre did not alter. 'Her eagle was killed.'

'Was killed.'

'Deliberately killed. By raiders in the Beacons. They mutilated both bodies. To send a message.'

'We never heard-' Something in the twist of Orhon's scarred mouth cut Joss so hard he closed his lips over the rest of the pointless words he'd been about to utter.

'There is a great deal Clan Hall does not know, if indeed you are from Clan Hall as you claim. Yet you cannot even respond to the formal greeting, the one passed down through generations of reeves. One which, according to report, your eagle recognized.'

'Everyone says Scar is smarter than me, and I see no reason not to believe them on that score.'

'Sit down,' said the marshal, and Joss wondered if his voice softened. Had he found the comment amusing? The confession humbling enough?

He grabbed a pillow and sat. Voices murmured on the porch; feet thumped; the door slid open.


Sidya, once Bronze Hall's legate at Clan Hall, nodded at the marshal, not meeting Joss's eye. 'Yes, I know him. His name is Joss. He was legate from Copper Hall, in all kinds of trouble because he kept insisting on honesty and holding to the laws. He got sent off on an expedition to find out about some trouble on the roads. Last I heard before we were called back here was that he'd been named marshal of Argent Hall to try to clean the place up. As for the commander of Clan Hall, I know nothing about that, only the word we got a few weeks ago about a massacre in Toskala where the old commander was murdered. As for his claim to be the new commander — well — any reeve can name himself "commander" but that doesn't make it so.'

Orhon did not move. It was eerie, as if he were not a living man at all but disfigured skin stretched over the wooden frame of a man.

'Do you vouch for him, Sidya? Do you think he's telling the truth?'

As the silence drew out, Joss grimaced. 'The hells! I thought we parted on amiable terms. That was three years ago, Sidya.'

The comment cracked a laugh out of her, and he glimpsed the enthusiastic woman he'd shared a bed with for about half a year.

She reached for the other pillow, tossed it down next to Joss, and sat beside him. 'I've no complaints of you, Joss. Anyhow, I broke it off, not you. I'm just-' She looked at the silent Orhon, whose one good eye did not shift focus. 'These are troubled times. I don't know who to trust, but I guess I'd trust Joss as much as anyone. I've never known Joss to be anything but honest.' She looked back at him. 'But why in the hells are you come here calling yourself commander of Clan Hall?'

'Because I'm the last person you'd think the Clan Hall council would elect?'

She grinned. 'True enough.' Her smile flattened. 'But if enough of their senior reeves were murdered…'

'There wasn't much left to choose from,' he admitted. 'I've gained experience as marshal at Argent Hall. Together with the militia there, and an outlander captain and his soldiers, we defeated an army that attacked Olossi. So I suppose that makes some folks think I might be able to protect the rest of the Hundred. I accepted the post and the responsibility because someone has to fight.'

'Why are you here?' Orhon asked him. 'Bronze Hall has recalled its legate and attendant reeves from Clan Hall. We don't intend to send them back, especially now that Toskala has fallen into the hands of a creature called Lord Radas.'

The words were not spoken in anger, simply as a statement of fact, the more chilling for its even temper.

'Surely you see we must stand together or fall separately. We've got to institute new practices. Reorganize. Work in concert with the forces assembling to fight Lord Radas's army.'

'You want us to change. To give up our gods-given charge of enforcing the law and become soldiers instead?'

'I don't want it. But we have come to that crossroads where we must choose the path of change.'

'So you say. But Clan Hall has failed the reeve halls. They've let the old formalities lapse. The old disciplines are not followed. Where the old order decays, then what is new has crept in with its rot.'

It was hard to hear because his voice was so soft, but Joss at last got a handle on the odd cadences in the man's speech. 'You're not from Mar.'

'I fled Herelia fifteen years ago after my village was burned because we refused to submit to the rule of Lord Radas's archons.'

His good eye flickered as at a memory. 'After years as a beggar and itinerant laborer on the roads, I washed up half-starved in Salya, here in Mar, where I found work in the marsh cutting reeds. Then an eagle chose me.'

'How did you come by these injuries? In the line of duty?'

'Neh. These I got the day my village in Herelia burned, when I tried to rescue my mother and aunts and the other children from the flames.'

'And an eagle chose you despite-!' Sidya cast an accusatory glance, and Joss broke off, flushing. 'I beg your pardon, Marshal. But eagles choose-'

'Eagles choose men and women who are whole and healthy and strong, not those who are crippled. Why did Stessa choose me? Because the gods made it known to me through the eagle's calling that I must restore the proper forms, the proper discipline, the old ways. Adherence to tradition is the only way to defeat the pollution that breeds these troubles. It is the only way to defeat an army whose adherents wear the gods-corrupted Star of Life. Until Clan Hall recognizes this truth, we cannot support her. Or you.'

In the Qin style, the baby's cot was placed beside the table as Mai spooned soup into bowls. In Kartu Town, children did not dine in company with the master, but the Qin did not consider a meal to be a meal if there were not children and kinfolk present. Food taken on campaign, among soldiers, took a different word, akin to horses and sheep grazing.

Horses and sheep would have been better company.

Mai had overheard Tuvi telling Anji that it would look bad to the men if he did not eat the homecoming meal with his wife and child. So there Anji sat, formally dressed, not a hair out of place. None of the senior officers were present today, although the doors were slid open so that anyone passing by could look in. The cooks had outdone themselves with dishes spiced both hot and subtle. Anji did not eat. He did not speak. He simply sat there, not looking at her. His silence made of the meal a mockery.

She would not succumb. It might seem that a hundred knives pricked her, so nervous was she, but she kept her hands steady as she ate. Even her dark mood could not kill her appetite. Also, handling spoon and eating knife gave her something to do as Anji did not talk and did not eat and did not look.

At length she finished, and called for Sheyshi to take away the

dishes. As soon as Sheyshi had placed the dishes on a tray and carried them out, Anji rose. He caught up Atani and carried the baby to the door.

'Really,' said Mai in a voice that made him pause, back to her, at the threshold, 'it shows no respect to those who have cooked, taking particular care to make special dishes, to refuse to eat this food simply because you are angry not at them but at another person.'

He said, in a lower voice, addressing the door, 'The Ri Amarah showed us hospitality in every way openhearted and generous. That we have succeeded here is in great part due to their aid. Now you repay that hospitality by betraying them. Leaving me to make apologies and restitution, if any can be made given the enormity of the dishonor.'

He banged the door shut behind.

Mai rested her forearms on the table and her head on clasped hands. So had Father Mei sounded as he scolded one or another of his wives or brothers: never able to be satisfied.

Well. Anji could kill her. That would be painful, certainly, but then it would be over. Surely if he had meant to beat her he'd have done it already. Anji's was a contained rage, and she supposed he might continue on in this horrible way for days or months or years.

What if he did? Her heart would weep, but hearts endure years of unhappiness all the time. She had probably breathed more happiness in this last year than Grandmother Mei had inhaled in her entire life. After all, she had always told herself that the only place to find happiness is inside. That was the lesson she had learned growing up in the Mei clan.

Yes, it would be difficult. Yes, she would cry. But she had a healthy son. She had a fine compound. She had plenty of coin, a house to run, a settlement to administer where folk praised her and asked for her to listen to their disputes and sit in judgment over them even though she was young. She could conduct trade in her own person and with her own collateral. She was learning to figure a proper accounts book and actually to write and read.

'Mistress?' Priya slid the door open just enough to slip through. 'The captain has gone out, with the baby.' Her frown creased her forehead.

Mai opened her mouth to speak but no word came out. A hammer had smashed her heart, leaving her breathless. Priya sat down beside her and took her hand.

At length, Mai whispered, 'I need something to do, Priya.'

'Yes, Mistress. We'll sweep. Best to change out of that good silk, though.'

They swept the porches and the flagstone pavements, then raked the garden walkways in neat patterns until dusk make it impossible to continue and she had the beginnings of a blister on her right forefinger. She washed face and hands and feet, put aside her clothing, took down her hair, and lay down on the pallet unrolled by Sheyshi. But although she was exhausted she could not sleep. At length, she heard voices and the hiccoughing wails of the baby.

Priya crept in, holding the boy. Mai put him to her breast and his nursing calmed her and made all ill things seem, for the moment, too distant to matter. Male voices conversed nearby, tense but muted, and even their rumble faded as her eyes closed and she dropped away…

To wake.

She was still alone in the bed, of course, a single coverlet nesting her and Atani. A light shone through the rice-paper squares set into the door. She settled the baby in his cot. Her sleeping robe, pale as silver, seemed poured over the chest set on one side of the room. She slipped her arms through the sleeves, bound it around her waist, fumbling the knot. She tried to open the door quietly, but he — still dressed, his hair still caught up in its topknot, and seated cross-legged on a pillow as though he meant to bide there all night — looked up at once as she paused in the opening, darkness behind her, the lamp's flame dividing her from him.

His expression was as unforgiving as stone. 'If you betray me, I will kill you.'

After everything, this was too much.

'When did I ever betray you? When have I ever given you reason to question my honor? You bought me from my father, did you not? Surely that gave me reason enough to feel I was nothing more than your slave. I could have resented you. I could have nursed sorrow. But I held my tongue in the early days. I hoped for something — I don't know — perhaps just those tales and songs I grew up with that you think are so silly, the bandit and the merchant's daughter, like the tale of the Silk Slippers that they tell here in the Hundred where the girl escapes all those who are hunting her and marries the carter's son. Maybe it was foolish of me to dream of those tales as if they could ever have been true. But I wanted to make a decent life for myself out of what had been

forced on me. Isn't that what any of us want? Less pain and more joy? I wanted to love you. I wanted-'

The sharp movement of his head, as though she had just slapped him, caught her short.

The flame hissed. He lifted his chin, voice scarcely more than a breath of terrible yearning. 'Do you love me, Mai?'

'Of course I love you. Has there ever been a stupider question heard in all the annals of the world than whether I love you? How can you even doubt it?'

'I see how you talk to other men. You smile at them exactly as you smile at me. Like that reeve.'


'Of course you would think of him first!'

'Besides Miyara, he's the only reeve with whom I've ever exchanged more than ten words. He's personable, it's true. And he's an Ox, like me, and naturally those who are born in the Year of the Ox feel a particular affinity each for the others, because of the particular attributes of our character. Because we are hardworking and pragmatic, with a dreamer hidden inside.'

'The heart of an Ox leaps to the heavens, where it seeks the soul that fulfills it. For the Ox is very beautiful. Is he not?'

'Handsome, certainly, but very old!' she retorted tartly.

'Not too old to father a child.'

'Anji!' For an instant she was too scalded by fury to see, and then as the haze boiled away she stepped fully into the chamber and grabbed the first thing that came to hand: a ceramic cup off a tray. 'All you think about is if I have dishonored you. What makes you think I would ever dishonor myself?'

She flung it at him, flung herself back into the sleeping chamber, and slammed the door so hard shut its reverberation startled the baby in his sleep, a flinch heard more than seen, and then he cooed within his baby dreams and settled.

Strangely, the cup had not shattered. Surely she had thrown it hard enough!

She fingered open the door, easing it back just enough to peer through. There stood Anji, in lamplight, holding the cup in one hand and staring at it as if its existence, such an object as a cup that could hold liquid that might please the tongue and warm, or cool, the throat, puzzled him.

Then he smiled, an expression touched by a whisper as of doubt throttled. He tossed the cup into the air and caught it in the same

hand. He crossed toward the door, and Mai scuttled back and collapsed to her knees beside the mattress.

He slid the door open with a foot and came in carrying the tray with its two ceramic cups and a matching ceramic bottle, sealed with a cap, and the lamp, still burning. He set the tray on the chest and poured out rice wine into each cup. Offering her one cup, he sat cross-legged on the matted floor and drank the other down in one gulp. She sipped cautiously, watching him.

He undressed, and when he was in his robe he sat down on a pillow at the end of the mattress and handed her a comb, merely gesturing to his topknot, which it was her right and indeed duty as his wife to unbind and comb out.

His black hair was not as coarse and straight as that of the other Qin, but had a lustrous glow she never tired of. She stroked for a long time, enjoying the peaceful rhythm because it eased her heart. She knew they would have to discuss Miravia, but not now. In truth, she wanted desperately to lean into his back, to kiss the nape of his neck, to entwine him in an embrace that would cause him to turn and caress her, but she remembered what Chief Tuvi had said. She must not seem to be apologizing. Helping Miravia would cause trouble for them, but she could not have done otherwise and still lived with herself; she would accept the consequences. As for the other — going to the temple, and that ridiculous accusation thrown out against Reeve Joss — she had nothing to be ashamed of. He ought to be ashamed, for even thinking it.

He shifted, and she thought he was about to speak, but he did not. Yet he did turn, easing the comb from her hand, and turned her to face away from him. He gathered her unbound hair and started working through it with the comb from the top of her head down to its ends, which brushed the floor. It was impossible to concentrate on anything except the warmth of his breath on her neck, the way his fingers brushed against her back, or her arms, or the lobe of her ear. This state of suspension, him brushing and her sitting so still lest she utter his name or throw herself into his arms, was almost painful, and yet she dared not move for fear of breaking the connection. Anji was a patient man, very disciplined, and she began to wonder if he meant to comb her hair all night just to see who would break first. And because she was so very tired, and wrung tight, and aching with misery and hope, she began to laugh, a little hysterically perhaps, but laughter all the same even if there were sobs caught in it.

He set the comb on the tray.

'Enough, Mai,' he said, his voice husky with desire, perhaps with satisfaction, perhaps with anger still simmering. He embraced her, pulling her close. 'Enough.'

Much later, a sharp voice jostled her awake. Anji was already rising, drawing on his sleeping robe. He grabbed his sword and slid open a door that led onto the covered porch overlooking their small private garden. The light of a Basket Moon, somewhat past the full, gave a faint sheen to the outlines of the room: the square corners of the chest, the rectangular paper screens of the doors, the puddle of Anji's clothing where he had let it fall on the matted floor. He slid the door closed with his foot, cutting off the light and her view.

The baby was stirring in his cot, and Mai's breasts were heavy with milk. She pulled on her own robe, letting it hang open as she lifted Atani out. As she nursed him, reclining first on her right side and then switching to her left, she listened to low voices in an extended discussion on the porch outside although she could not quite pick out words.

The door scraped open. Anji slipped inside and sank down on the mattress beside her. Atani smacked and gurgled.

'What is it?' Mai whispered.

'One of the guards thought he saw a demon flying overhead, a winged horse, but Sengel has the night watch searching the compound and they have found nothing. The tailman who saw it is one of those who was present when the demon invaded the house.'

She nodded, remembering the evening when the demon in the shape of the dead slave girl, Cornflower, had flown into the compound riding a winged horse and killed two Qin soldiers with sorcery.

'Sometimes, on watch at night, you sink into a place that is neither dream nor sleep. It's a world demons haunt.'

'Maybe he was dreaming.'

'Maybe.' He tucked his sword alongside the mattress. 'Where is your knife?'

The baby released the nipple and exhaled a tiny burp.

'Don't move,' whispered Anji, drawing his sword as one of the doors into the interior slid open. A figure paused on the threshold between the rooms, half in and half out. Its face was concealed beneath a long hooded cloak of a substance that, although dark in

color, remained distinguishable from the shadows. Anji rose. Mai tucked the baby against her, using her body to shield the infant.

The figure raised its hands to pull back the hood to reveal its face. 'Mai?' it said hoarsely.

By the light that glowed from its right hand, Mai stared into the face of a man she had never thought to see again. 'Uncle Hari?' she whispered. 'We thought you were dead.'

His gaze opened a well of memory, a shaft down which she plunged. Best of uncles! He had always teased the little ones in that smiling way that made them feel they weren't just a nuisance meant only to stand in silence around the grim adults. He carried them on his back, horse to their Qin warrior, a game played only in the privacy of their own courtyard, for the Qin had forbidden all people of Kartu Town to ride. He could sing a merry tune, and he knew all the best tales, the ones in which the swooning maiden was carried away by the handsome bandit only to discover the bandit was really a prince, the ones in which the villains fought and died, and those in which the prince triumphed and died anyway. After Father Mei had forbidden him from speaking out against the Qin within the Mei compound, he had spent more time away from home and perhaps inevitably had gotten involved in a foolish, doomed scheme which no one had ever had the courtesy to explain to her, only that he had disgraced the family and they were fortunate they weren't all executed because of his rash actions. The Qin had decreed that every man, woman, child, and slave must witness the punishment of the rebels who had dared speak out against those who governed them. Sixty or more young men had been marched in chains out of Kartu Town into the east. Not a single one had ever been seen or heard from again.

Then Hari averted his gaze, as if it was too painful to look on her, and she was back in her sleeping chamber with Anji poised motionless beside her. Hari brushed fingers along his forehead as if it ached.

'Uncle Hari!' She rushed forward with the baby in her arms and flung her free arm around him. 'Eihi!' She flinched back, skin stinging where it had pressed against the cloak. 'Does that cloth have barbs in it?'

'Mai,' said Anji. 'The baby.'

The baby! 'Uncle Hari, do you see? You have a great nephew, this fine young lad. His name is Atani, after his grandfather. It's a water-born name, here in the Hundred. As yours would be — neh,

it would not be, would it? For you're really Harishil.' She took a step back to display the child, and another step back, which was far enough to see past Hari's body into the chamber behind, where Tuvi, Sengel, and Toughid were edging in through the open doors.

'I won't harm the baby,' said Hari, turning his gaze to Anji and, after a moment, wrinkling his forehead as in puzzlement. 'Call off your men, Captain. Mai, why is this man in your bed?'

'He is my husband! Father Mei married me to him.'

'You were supposed to marry the Gandi-li boy. The sheep-herder's clan.'

'So I was. But then Captain Anji wanted to marry me.'

'Naturally my brother would not say no to a Qin officer, even in the matter of his favorite child,' said Hari drily. 'He gave them anything they asked for, hoping to remain in their favor. But what he never understood was that they would treat him favorably only so long as they had a use for him. That was their nature, to take what they could use. What they had no use for, they discarded or ignored.' He glanced over his shoulder, his gaze sweeping the dark room behind him, and the soldiers actually cringed away from him. Sengel grunted as if he'd been slugged in the belly, and dropped to his knees.

'Stay where you are,' said Anji in a louder voice, meant to reach his men. Although he wore a fine silk sleeping robe tied with a embroidered ribbon and had his fine black hair falling loose halfway down his back, he could not be mistaken as anything except a soldier. 'If I may ask, Uncle Hari,' he went on carefully, 'why have you entered this compound without seeking permission at the gate? You can be sure any relative of Mai's would be greeted hospitably.'

Hari's ironic smile flashed just as she remembered it, enough to make you smile and frown together as his glib tongue entertained you. 'Mai and your soldiers reveal all that is in their hearts to my gaze, as it must be. And who could not wish a glimpse into Mai's heart, truly? Your soldiers have not quite such generosity in their souls although they seem clean enough in their hearts despite being soldiers whose job it is to kill. Yet you are exactly the puzzle that pervert Bevard said you would be. I admit I would not have believed any person could stand veiled before me if I hadn't met Shai. By any chance, can you see ghosts?'

'Shai!' Mai took a step toward him, caught Anji's curt gesture, and halted. 'How did you meet Shai? Hari, you must tell me.'

He would not meet her eye, and yet he watched Anji closely. 'Shai is in the north. He wanted to stay with the army for some reason he would not tell me, but I forced him to leave. In doing so, I saved his life, because Lord Radas has ordered all outlanders to be interrogated. Bevard told Radas he'd encountered two outlanders veiled to his sight. Naturally, we must find them. I suppose, Captain, that you know Shai's purpose in being in the north better than I do. I admit, he seems changed from the lad I used to thrash when I was trying to get him to show some spirit. He impressed me. But the chances are still that they'll catch him and kill him before he can make his way to safety.'

'Uncle Hari! How could you not have found a way to get Shai out of danger?'

'I risked enough doing what I did do! I had no other chance to help him. You have no idea what goes on with the army, what they want, what they intend.'

'What do they intend?' asked Anji. 'Why are you here?'

'To kill you, Captain, as I've been commanded.'

The words fell like stones. But Mai would not be crushed. She stepped between Hari and Anji. 'He's the father of my child. I won't let you kill him!'

Hari laughed. 'I think those are lines from the tale of the merchant's daughter and the fox bandit, are they not?'

She flushed. 'Don't ridicule me, Hari. Girish used to do that.'

'Whew! That's a deadly thrust.'

Anji did not move or relax his guard. 'Who wants me dead? Besides the ones I already know about?'

'Lord Radas wants you dead. He suspects you are the one who led the successful defense of Olossi. Who destroyed that cohort of soldiers Bevard was trying to lead out of Olo'osson. Lord Radas wants no competent commander leading a rebellion against him.'

'I'm leading no rebellion,' said Anji. 'The people of Olo'osson do not want to be conquered by his army. That's all.'

'No more did the people of Kartu Town wish to be conquered by the Qin. That did not stop the Qin armies from overtaking us, did it?'

'And you support Lord Radas's plan to rule the Hundred with an army that, by all accounts, burns villages, rapes women, enslaves children, hangs innocent people from posts to frighten the rest of the population, and destroys the councils through which cities and towns and villages in the Hundred are ruled?'

'As a Qin officer, surely you see the irony of your criticism of Lord Radas's methods of conquest.'

'The Qin army keeps villages and towns intact as long as they do not rebel. What use is a town if it has no markets, no herds, no fields, no artisans producing goods for sale? The Qin governors are harsh toward criminals, but in return those who obey the law live in an orderly and peaceful way, undisturbed by crime.'

'Lord Radas promises much the same thing. Perhaps he needs to complete his conquest of the Hundred before he can impose his orderly and peaceful ways.'

'Enough!' cried Mai. Both men, startled, shifted to look at her. 'Chief Tuvi, tell Priya to brew tea. We are going to drink tea and discuss this as civilized people do. Hari, you must be aware that if you mean to kill Anji you will have to kill me first. Anyway, you have neither sword nor knife, so it is not at all clear how you mean to kill him.'

'Demons kill with sorcery,' said Anji.

'If that's true, then I fail to see how a sword can parry sorcery. Can you go in the adjoining chamber and wait, Hari? And close the door. I need to — make myself presentable.'

He chuckled, stepped into the chamber behind, completely vulnerable to the swords of the Qin, and slid the door shut.

Mai walked to the table, snapped spark to flint, and lit the lamp.

Anji lowered his sword. 'Mai, he's a demon. He's not your uncle.'

'Maybe he isn't my uncle. It's possible. But here in the Hundred, they count demons as a civilized race, like the other children of the Four Mothers. So even demons must be treated with the hospitality due to guests.'

'He came here to kill me. He says so honestly enough.'

'Did it never occur to you, Anji, that we might make an attempt to change his mind? No, of course it did not. You are a soldier. But I am a merchant. We can't fight sorcery with swords. Did you see that light in his hand? That light did not burn from oil. Here, take Atani.'

She offered him the child. He kept his sword in his right hand but settled the infant in his left arm. The baby was awake, perfectly calm, and as soon as he was in Anji's arms, his dark gaze fixed on his father's face. Anji smiled down at the baby as Mai tugged her robe tightly closed, tied it with a sash, and tugged on a

jacket over it as a second layer. She grabbed a pair of hairsticks off the side table and twisted her hair up behind her, pinioning it in place. Then she stepped behind Anji and bound his hair up in something resembling the topknot he normally wore.

'You look well enough for a man awakened in the middle of the night,' she said as she measured him. 'What of me?'

He sighed.

'What does that mean?'

'The question need not be asked. I don't like this situation.'

She picked up the lamp, opened the door, and went into the other chamber. Hari stood in the middle of the chamber, not looking at Sengel or Toughid, who stood ready to strike. The far door slid open and Chief Tuvi entered, marking Hari without looking him in the face. He got out of the way to allow Priya to enter bearing a tray with three cups and a ceramic pot. The slave's gaze flashed toward the cloaked man. She faltered for a breath, then with an effort continued to the table and set down the tray.

Mai settled on a pillow and placed the lit lamp on the table. 'Uncle Hari, if you'll sit, I'll serve you tea in the proper fashion. Anji?'

Anji handed the baby to Priya, then sat next to Mai, his sword still in his hand. The three soldiers kept their silent study. No one looked directly at Hari except Anji and Mai, and even she found it difficult to meet his gaze because such startling and uncomfortable memories churned into life when she did so, things she did not want to share with anyone: Uncle Girish's constant pinching and the way he had leered at her until Father Mei had beaten him so badly that he had finally left alone the children of the house; the vomit and diarrhea that had poured out of her in the first leg of her journey away from Kartu with the Qin, when she had thought she would die of sickness; the desert stars, so bold and bright they seemed close enough to touch, like hope; Anji's kisses; Miravia's whispered confidences and warm embrace; the dusty market lane in Astafero with its women working so very hard to make a new life for themselves out of the unexpected fortune tossed their way by the Qin outlanders; Tuvi's flush as Avisha rejected him; the tingling charge that had permeated the air during Atani's birth, blue threads like living silk clinging to her and then to the baby as if through touch they sought to communicate, or to infest his flesh-

'Mai.' Anji touched her arm, a jolt like fire.

Hari touched his fingers to his eyes. The light that had shone

from his hand had vanished. Looking like a perfectly normal person, he sank down cross-legged onto a pillow opposite Mai, the table a polished surface between them.

'Let me pour the tea,' she said, out of breath.

In Kartu Town you poured tea one way for visitors — their tea must be poured and served first, each cup separately according to importance — and another for family. She set out the cups and poured all first, then considered her dilemma. Anji was her husband, yet Hari was her uncle.

She picked up a cup with each hand and set them before the two men at the same time, then raised the third one for herself and spoke the conventional words: 'The gods give us tea for our health, we drink with their blessings.'

She sipped first, to show she trusted the brew. Anji watched her, then picked up his cup with his free hand and waited, pointedly, for Hari to pick up the cup that sat before him. Both men drank. Mai poured a second cup.

'Uncle Hari, please do not let me sit here wondering. How did you reach the Hundred? Why are you still here? And why have you come, as you say, to kill my husband, when truly you would be better off to stand beside us, not against us? Those who are kin should not battle each other. We should be allies.'

Hari kept his gaze fixed on his cup, but his words were directed at her. 'You are changed, Mai. Yet it seems you are very much the same. How can that be?'

'Perhaps you would like something to eat? Our cook makes very good sweet rice cakes. There are some left over from yesterday, are there not, Priya?'

'Yes, Mistress,' she said in a barely audible mumble. 'I'll go right away, Mistress.'

The door slid open and then closed.

'The baby has escaped,' said Hari. 'Not that I would have harmed an infant.'

'Plenty of babies died when Lord Radas's army invaded Olo'osson last year,' retorted Mai. 'Or were orphaned, which amounts to the same thing, for if they do not then die, they will likely be sold into slavery if there are no kinfolk to take them in, or if their kinfolk have not the means to support extra mouths. That is why we must stand with our kinfolk.'

The lamp's light glowed on the surface of the table. It was odd how the light was absorbed into the fabric of his cloak, whose

color Mai could not define. She thought there was something more there, threads that reminded her of the twisting blue filaments in the valley, but then she would blink and see nothing but a silken cloth saturated with the sinking dusky purple of twilight.

'I am not what you think I am, Mai.'

'Maybe not, but that does not make you any less my beloved Uncle Hari. For you can't deny you are him, can you?'

'I can't deny it. I am him, and I am not him. He is dead. What I am is a shell. A ghost. Perhaps I am a demon.' He raised his eyes to challenge Anji's stare.

Anji, who could look right at him and not flinch.

'Even ghosts and demons have kin,' said Mai briskly. 'Would you like more tea?'

When he did not reply, she poured again and signaled to Tuvi. 'More tea, Chief, if you will. Perhaps Sengel and Toughid can fetch it.'

The chief looked startled. He flashed a look at Anji, who considered the walk with an expression that meant thoughts were boiling in his head that he wanted to sort into tidy ranks. He signaled with a hand, and Tuvi gestured, and all three soldiers left the chamber. Mai felt their presence on the other side, but here in the antechamber, she and Anji and Hari now sat alone.

'Why do you take such a risk, Mai, when I have already confessed that I come here to kill the man who sits beside you?' asked Hari.

'You have already said the soldiers cannot kill you. So their presence does not advance our situation, nor does it protect us. I saw what happened when the ghost girl invaded my house. How did you come to the Hundred, Hari?'

His frown was like a scar. She was not sure he would speak. When he did, words poured from his lips in a rush. 'You watched me being marched away by the Qin as a slave. You. The entire Mei clan. Every person who lived in Kartu Town. Later, I was sold to be a mercenary. The Qin make soldiers of slaves. Or maybe that was the Mariha princes. I'm not quite sure who sold those of us who survived the desert crossing. My new master took a chancy hire out of greed, and we were marched north over frightful high mountains as escort to a trading caravan. I talked the master into it, if you must know, stupid as I was. The caravan master's tale of injustice caught my attention, or maybe it was only his beautiful daughter. But once we reached the Hundred, we were ambushed.

We fought a stupid battle, in the cursed blowing rain, I might add. The girl died defending herself with a paltry knife while I was busy slipping like a clumsy calf, and afterward I got a sword thrust up under the ribs. It's a tiresomely unheroic story.'

'Maybe you only think it must be, because you are angry at yourself for surviving when she died.'

'If you call this survival.'

'If it is not survival, then what is it, Uncle?'

His hand gripped the cup. 'They call it "awakening." The blow should have killed me, yet later I woke, weak but recovering. Wearing this cloak. Surrounded by creatures who laughed at my misery. Anyway, ghosts are like mist, aren't they?' He looked at Anji.

'Ghosts can't be touched,' agreed Anji. 'Nor can they drink tea. That I have ever seen.'

'So after all, it seems I'm not dead.' He gulped down the tea and set the cup down hard. 'Lord Radas is not even your worst enemy. The cloak of Night is far more dangerous to you. She seeks any who are gods-touched — that is, those who can see ghosts, who are veiled to the sight of Guardians — and she kills them. She and Lord Radas know you are one of them, Captain, because you foolishly revealed it to that pervert Bevard. You are dangerous to us, because we cannot control you. Therefore, you must be eliminated.'

Anji made no show of reacting; even Mai could not guess what was going on in his mind. In the harsh silence, she reached across the table and touched her uncle's hand, a fleeting brush. When no snap of power pricked her, she wrapped her fingers around his wrist and held on.

'Uncle Hari, you don't have to go back to them. I know a place you can go, where they won't find you.'

'There is no place-'

'You have heard no voice but your own voice, and their voices, for so long you can't hear any other words. Stop listening to them! You weren't the one who scraped the dirt before Grandmother Mei and my father. You were the one who talked back. So why crawl now?'

'You cannot understand how-'

'Is pain all they can inflict on you?'

'Isn't pain enough?'

'Bad enough, of course. But I don't think that's what you fear the most.'

'What do you think I fear the most, Mai?' He turned the cup over, a single drop pooling on the surface of the table, and then he lifted one edge of the cup and placed it over that smear of liquid, trapping it.

T think you fear yourself. You have disappointed yourself, and now you are afraid to be anything except a disappointment. It's true, you might try to break away from them and fail. That would be bitter, indeed. But you might break away, and succeed. You might have to make a new place for yourself. You might have to walk into an unknown country without knowing what will happen when you get there.'

He scrambled to his feet, and Anji shifted to get his legs under him, but Mai grabbed Anji's wrist and squeezed until he stilled. Hari had only begun to pace, his cloak belling and sagging with the measure of his turns.

'Even if you think you know,' she went on, 'even if you think everything is determined, that the Gandi-li boy will become your husband because it has been talked of for two years and the contract is next to sealed, you can never know. Even if you think it's likely you will lose a battle to a numerically superior enemy, you can never know. Even if you think your dearest friend will be forced to marry a cruel old man who will abuse her, you can never know.'

'Even if you think your wife will naturally obey what she knows to be your wishes,' said Anji in a soft voice, 'you can never know.'

Hari's steps ceased. That smothered sound might have been a chuckle. He stood with his back to them. Lamplight rippled in the threads of his cloak like a living creature caught in the weave. 'And in this secret place you recommend, what would I be? A creature living in solitude? A prisoner? A crippled man trapped in the corner of a house until he fades into blessed oblivion?'

'I'll come visit you,' said Mai, 'but you must wait and be patient, for it's possible I won't be able to visit often. It's a beautiful place. You'll find the waterfall and cave of particular interest.'

'Why not? What can they do to me they haven't already done?' He raised one arm, elbow rising sideways as though he was wiping away tears. 'You haven't changed, Mai. I suppose you still sneak peaches out of the basket and hand them to orphaned beggar children and pathetic slaves, and then overcharge the spiteful who have riches to make up the difference.'

'How did you know-!'

'She overcharged me,' said Anji. 'Looked me in the face and named double the asking price. I respected a woman bold enough to cheat a Qin officer. That's why I married her.'

'It's not cheating,' said Mai, 'to name a price. I'd be a poor merchant had I not tried to increase my profit. You could have bargained.'

'I did,' said Anji more quietly still. He was not smiling.

The words stung in a way she did not expect, and as she looked down at her hands, one lying flat on the table and the other curled around her cup, she had to blink back tears.

Anji kept speaking. 'Where the River Olossi meets the Olo'o Sea, there's a low island where eagles and sea birds perch. I'll send a message to Argent Hall to have Reeve Miyara meet you there, this coming evening, just before sunset. I'll send her with a wolf banner, so you know she came from me. Do not go directly to Argent Hall and display yourself. The fewer people who know where you are, the less likely you are to be found by those hunting you.'

Hari walked to the door. 'It's true enough I must hide. I'll find this islet, and wait there until a reeve named Miyara arrives to guide me to a valley where I can shelter without fear of being discovered by Lord Radas or by Night.'

'What you tell us about their plans could help us defeat them,' added Anji.

'I'll talk to none but Mai, and certainly not to the hated Qin. That's the price of my cooperation.'

He slid the door open and walked out past the Qin soldiers; they looked away as he strode past them. Even the Qin must fear a creature who could reach into your heart and steal your secrets.

'Anji,' she began.

He shook his head. They waited as the Qin soldiers followed Hari.

At length, Chief Tuvi returned. 'I'm not sure how he came in without anyone seeing him, Captain, but he's gone now. He mounted a winged horse and flew out over the wall. Shall I set a doubled guard?'

'Do it, but I think it unlikely he'll return unless he has allies waiting to attack us, which I doubt. Surely he could have killed me, if he'd meant to, and yet he stayed his hand. Meanwhile, alert the reeve on duty to send a message to Argent Hall. Reeve Miyara must come at once.'

Tuvi left.

Anji crossed back to the table. 'It's too dangerous for you to see him again.'

'What's to stop him coming back here to see me, for one thing? And for another, Uncle Hari trusts me. If I reject him, he will despair, and despair will lead him back to them. Isn't despair one of the things that turns people into demons?'

'If they were people before. Usually demons are demons.'

'Hari wasn't born a demon.'

'He might have been born with a human face and body, and no one to know better or ever suspect.'

'I might be a demon, then!'

He studied her as the flame hissed, its light spilling over the polished surface of the lacquered table. 'You just might be.' Then he kissed her, and she was suddenly so weary that she sagged against him, letting his embrace support her. 'If he was born as human as you or I but has become a demon, it must be because corruption has eaten his heart. So you must be doubly cautious, Mai. I suppose I'll let you visit him, as it seems I must if we are to get any information out of him. That's information we desperately need. We can take Miravia with us. She may have some special sorcery to challenge his-'

'Miravia!' She pushed out of his arms and stared at him, but he was not a man who teased for the pleasure of seeing you squirm. 'She can't stay in the temple.'

'Ah. I went to the Ri Amarah last night.'

'When you were still angry with me.'

He smiled crookedly. His dimple flashed. 'I went to offer them a larger share of the oil of naya we put on the market.'

'Anji! The oil of naya is the foundation of our wealth. If we unconditionally offer the Ri Amarah a larger share of what we put on the market, then we're cutting into our own profit-'

'I was still angry with you. Hear me out. I never got that far. The entire household was in an uproar. The Hieros had sent word that Miravia had entered the temple. Master Isar told me the entire tale. He had no idea you were involved in any way with her escape. Or that I might already know where she was.'

'Tuvi said they'd hired an agent. A man was watching our gates. If he saw her, or me-'

'The agent will no longer trouble us.'


'He'll tell the Ri Amarah nothing.'

Something about his clipped tone made her shy away from further comment. 'Yet so many people saw you, and me, at the docks in Dast Olo-'

Anji shook his head curtly. 'It's unlikely anyone in Olossi will pass on stories from the street to the Ri Amarah. Or that Master Isar would believe such gossip if he heard it.'

'Every merchant listens to the word on the street.'

'Certainly. But they have no proof to connect your visit to the temple with Miravia's flight there. Without such proof, I am too valuable an ally for them to cast aside on hearsay. What matters to us is that they now consider Miravia to be dead.'

'Dead! Poor Miravia.' She blinked, but no tears flowed. 'Yet that means she is free.'

'Orphans who have no protection and nowhere to shelter are not "free." They are vulnerable and inclined to end up dead. However, we can adopt Miravia. It would be valuable to us to have such a person in our household who may interpret Ri Amarah customs and their secret language. The source of their wealth. Their sorcery, if they possess sorcery.'

'Don't you trust the Ri Amarah?'

'As much as I trust anyone. Also, you'll be leaving Olossi for a month or more. You and Atani will ride with me on a circuit of the training camps and militia forts in Olo'osson. You'll talk to the local councils and merchants while I'm about militia business. Miravia will be company for you on the road.'

'When will we see Uncle Hari?'

'We'll come to Astafero as part of the circuit. That will be time enough for him to make a decision about where he intends to stand. I have it all worked out, Mai. It will do very well.'




Before dawn on the second day of the Month of the Ibex, in the Year of the Red Goat, a storm boiled up from the east over the mountains of Heaven's Ridge to break over a high salt sea and a vast escarpment that overlooked the western desert far below. Marit left her companions and the horses under the shelter of an overhang and walked into the downpour. If she stood out here long enough, would the rain pummel her into droplets that would pour over the jagged edge and plunge down cliffs too tall to measure until they shattered into nothing and were gone beyond redemption? Just as the life she had once led — Reeve Marit, who partnered with her eagle, Flirt — could never be regained.

Over twenty years ago she had been murdered, but instead of crossing under the Spirit Gate, she'd awakened as a Guardian, wearing the bone-white cloak of Death.

Marit had never feared storms. As a child she had sneaked out at night to see how close lightning would strike or if the blue spark of a fireling had left glittering in its wake a tangible mark of its passing, a ropy thread fine like spider's silk but as strong as iron. At such times her father would drag her in and slap her, and afterward hang fresh amulets over the doors and shuttered windows to prevent demons from creeping in on the trail his thoughtless daughter had left open. Her mother would scold her for upsetting her father and waking the others in the compound, but her mother never bothered with amulets and wards. She made offerings to the seven gods and expected the gods to deliver justice through the day-to-day work of the reeves and through the assizes presided over by the gods' holy representatives, the Guardians. That Marit's mother had never herself seen a Guardian did not shake her faith in their holy purpose.

Lightning chased across the sky, leaping from cloud to cloud. Storm scent prickled Marit's skin. Along the distant southern shore of the inland sea, a dance of firelings lit the horizon, winking into flame, flicking out, and popping again into life. She wept at their beauty.

Were the firelings not like the spirits of humankind? It is so easy to cut the breath out of a living, breathing person, to send the

spirit fleeing past Spirit Gate, and yet again and again spirits will kindle. The drive to live, to flower, to grow, is unquenchable; the kiss of the Four Mothers breathes it into the world and even the least of things — a patch of lichen on stony rocks, a frail sparrow battered in stormy winds, an unloved child — will suck in that strength and struggle to stay alive.

Whatever living might be.

She trudged across the pale mud into the shelter where her companions waited: two people who, like her, wore the cloaks of Guardians, and the three winged mares they rode, who were named Seeing, Telling, and Warning.

Jothinin smiled with relief. 'Not much to see in such weather, neh?'

'I saw firelings.'

His pleasant smile widened into something more heartfelt. 'Seldom glimpsed and therefore always welcomed. Among their gifts are said to be healing, and a filament as fine as spider's silk yet as strong as iron.'

'What is a fireling?' asked the girl where she crouched by the fire, turning a spit on which she had skewered five conies trapped among the rocks.

Jothinin settled down cross-legged with a satisfied grin.

'We're about to hear a tale,' said Marit with a laugh as she sat down.

'So quickly you understand me.' He pretended indignation, but he was a man who wore lightheartedness as easily as the sky-blue cloak that swathed him. Yet Marit did not think him light. 'It happened in ancient days when the Four Mothers ordered the Hundred. They gave pattern and form as weft and warp. The tales weave the fabric of the land, and within the tales lies the Hundred count.'

'What is the Hundred count?' the girl asked. She never left off asking questions.

'The hidden order of things. The Hundred count is the skeleton beneath the flesh. In the Hundred count we comprehend the architecture of the land. Just as we count numbers, so can we count the frame of the Hundred. The Hundred is many, yet it is also one. The Hundred is the one crossroads at which many roads meet. Yet it is also two: female and male; night and day; wet and dry; life and death. We who live and think possess three parts: the mind, the hands, and the heart, and three states of mind: resting,

wakened, and transcendent. Every town and city builds three noble towers, and within the Hundred three languages are spoken. The Four Mothers created us out of water, fire, earth, and air. The Five Feasts delineate our lives. There are six reeve halls,' he nodded at Marit, 'and seven go