Dark Sun, Chronicles of Athas, Book 04
This book is dedicated to Lonnie Loy my accountant
Viewed through the eye of a soaring kes'trekel, the walled city was a vast sulphur carbuncle rising slowly out of a green plain. Towers, walls, and roofs shimmered red, gold, and amber, as if the city-state itself were afire in the steeply slanted light of a dying afternoon. But the flames were only the reflections of the sun's bloody disk as it sank in the west: an everyday miracle, little noticed by the creatures great and small, soaring or crawling, that dwelt in Urik's purview.
Roads like veins of gold traced from city walls to smaller eruptions in the fertile plain. Silver arteries wove through the patchwork fields that depended on that burden of water as Urik depended on the fields themselves. Beyond the ancient network of irrigation channels, the green plain faded rapidly to dusty, barren badlands that stretched endlessly in all directions except the northwest, where the dirty haze of the Smoking Crown Volcano put a premature end to the vision of man and kes'trekel alike.
Drifting away from the haze, toward the city, a kes'tre-kel's eye soon enough discerned the monumental murals decorating the mighty walls. One figure dominated every scene: a powerful man with the head of a lion. Sometimes inscribed in profile, other times full-face, but never without a potent weapon grasped in his fist, the man's skin was burnished bronze, his flowing hair a leonine black, and his eyes a fierce, glassy yellow that shone with blinding brilliance when struck by the sun.
The kes'trekel swerved when Urik's walls flashed gold. Through uncounted generations, the scaled birds had adapted to the harsh landscapes of the Athasian Tablelands. They knew nothing natural, nothing worthwhile, nothing safe or edible shone with such a brief yet powerful light. Given their instincts and wings, they sought other, less ominous night roosts. The men and woman trudging along the dusty ocher roads of Urik's plain possessed the same instincts but, bereft of wings, could only flinch when the blinding light whipped their eyes, then swallow a hard lump and keep going.
Unlike the kes'trekels, men and women knew whose portrait was repeated on Urik's walls: Lord Hamanu, the Lion of Urik, King of Mountain and Plain, the Great King, the Sorcerer-King.
And their king was watching them.
No Urikite doubted Lord Hamanu's power to look through any wall, any darkness to find the secrets written on even a child's heart. Lord Hamanu's word was Law in Urik, his whim Justice. In the Tablelands where death was never more than a handful of unfortunate days away, Lord Hamanu gave Urik peace and stability: his peace, his stability— so long as his laws were obeyed, his taxes paid, his templars bribed, and he himself worshiped as a living, immortal god.
Lord Hamanu's bargain with Urik had withstood a millennium's testing. There was, despite the cringing, a measure of pride in the minds of those roadway travelers: their king had not fallen in the Dragon's wake. Their city had prospered because their king was as wily and farsighted as he was rapacious and cruel. The mass of them felt no urge to follow the road into the badlands, to the other city-states where opportunity consorted openly with anarchy. Wherever they lived—on a noble estate, in a market village, or within the mighty walls—most Urikites willingly hurried home each evening to their suppers and their families.
They had to hurry: Lord Hamanu's domain extended as far as his flashing eyes could be seen, and farther. Early on in his career as sorcerer-king, he'd decreed a curfew for law-abiding folk that began with the appearance of the tenth star in the heavens. And, unlike some of his other law-making whims, that curfew stood unchanged. Law-abiding folk knew better to linger where the king or his minions could find them after sunset.
Except in the market villages.
In another longstanding whim, Lord Hamanu did not permit anyone to enter his city unannounced, and he levied a hefty tax on anyone who stayed overnight at a public house within its walls. In consequence of this whim—and the city's daily need for food that no whim could eliminate—ten market villages studded Urik's circular plain. In a rotation as old as the reign of King of the Plain himself, the ten villages relayed produce from nearby free-farms and outlying noble estates into the city. They also gave their names to the days of Urik's week. On the evening before its nameday, each village swelled with noisy confusion as farmers and slaves gathered to gossip, trade, and—most importantly—register with the templars before the next morning's trek to the massive gates of Urik. Nine of the villages were sprawling, almost friendly settlements with walls and gatehouses that could scarcely be distinguished from animal pens. Registrators from the civil bureau of Lord Hamanu's templarate had become as much a part of the community as templars could, considering their loyalties and the medallions hung around their necks, symbols of Hamanu and the terrible power a true sorcerer-king could channel to and through his chosen minions.
Long after curfew on market-day eve and market-day night, there was usually music in the village streets and raucous laughter in its inns.
Except in the market village of Codesh.
The first day of Urik's week and the first of its villages, Codesh was as old as the city itself. In the beginning, before conquering Hamanu laid claim to this corner of the Tablelands, it was also larger than Urik—or so the village elders proclaimed at every opportunity. Codeshites feared Hamanu more than their compatriots in the other villages because they challenged him more than his other subjects would dare. When there was trouble outside Urik's walls, Codesh was the first place the templars came. Not templars from the tame civil bureau, but hardened veterans from the war bureau, armed with dark magic and the will to use it.
There was no camaraderie between templars and villagers in Codesh.
Wicker walls and rickety towers weren't sufficient for the fractious village. Both Codeshite and Urikite templars wanted stalwart towers and fortress walls that might give them the advantage if push ever came to shove. Codesh's walls were only a third as high as Urik's, but that was more than enough to separate the stiff-necked Codeshites from the more congenial market-farmers who congregated outside the village walls on Codesh eve and Codesh night each week.
There were murals on the Codesh walls: the obligatory portraits of the Lion of Urik, without the sunset flashing eyes, and invariably armed with a butcher's poleaxe, which explained what the village was and why its insolence was tolerated generation after generation. Codesh was Urik's sanctioned abattoir: the place where beasts of every kind were brought for slaughter in the open-roofed, slope-floored killing ground and processed into meat and other necessities.
Nothing valuable was wasted by the butchery clans of Codesh. Each beast that came into their hands was slain, gutted and carefully flensed into layers of rawhide and fat that were consigned to subclans of tanners and Tenderers, all of whom maintained reeking establishments elsewhere within the Codesh walls. The Tenderers took the small bones and offal, as well, adding them to the seething brews of their giant-sized kettles. Long bones went to bonemen who excised the marrow with special drills, then sold the best of what remained to joiners for the building of houses, and the scraps to farmers for their fields.
Honeymen collected the blood that ran into the pits at the rear of each killing floor. They dried the blood in the sun and sold it underhand to mages and priests of every stripe. They also sold their rusty powder overhand to the farmers who dribbled it like water on their most precious crops. Gleaners collected their particular prizes—jewel-like gallstones, misshaped organs, bright green inix eyes, polished pebbles from erdlu gizzards—and sold them, no questions asked, to the highest bidder. Gluemakers took the last: hooves, talons, beaks, and the occasional sentient miscreant whose body must never be found.
And if some bloody bit did fall from a clansman's cart, sharp-eyed kes'trekels flocked continuously overhead. With an eerie scream, the luckiest bird would fold its wings and plummet from the sky. A score of others might follow. A kes'trekel orgy was no place for the fainthearted. The birds brawled as they fed, sometimes on each other, until nothing remained. Even a strong-stomached man might wisely turn away.
The mind-bender who'd claimed the mind of a soaring kes'trekel from boredom hours earlier let it go when it became part of that descending column of hungry scavengers. He settled into his own body, his thoughts returning to their familiar byways through his mind, sensation coming back to arms, not wings, to feet, not talons. The constant, overwhelming stench of Codesh struck the back of his nose. He breathed out heavily, a conscious reflex, expelling the poisons in his lungs, then breathed in again, accepting the Codesh air as punishment.
The urgent, anxious whisper in Kakzim's ear completed his return. He opened his eyes and beheld the killing floor of Codesh's largest slaughterhouse. His kes'trekel was one of a score of birds fighting over a length of shiny silver gut. Before Kakzim could avert his eyes, the largest kes'trekel plunged its sharp beak into the breast of the bird whose mind he had lately haunted. Echoes of its death gripped his own heart; he'd been wise, very wise, to separate himself from the creature when he did.
"Brother? Brother Kakzim, is there—? Is there a problem, Brother Kakzim?"
Kakzim gave a second sigh, wondering how long his companion had been standing behind him. A moment? A watch? Since he snared the now-dead kes'trekel? Respect was a useful quality in an apprentice, but Cerk carried it too far.
"I don't know," he said without looking at the younger halfling. "Tell me why you're standing here like a singed jozhal, and I'll tell you if there's a problem."
The senior halfling lowered his hands. The sleeves of his dark robe flowed past his wrists to conceal hands covered with scars from flames, knives, and other more obscure sources. The robe's cowl had fallen back while his mind had wandered. He adjusted that, as well, tugging the cloth forward until his face was in shadow. Wispy fibers brushed against his cheeks, each feeling like a tiny, acid-ripped claw. Kakzim made another quick adjustment and let his breath out again.
The bloody sun had risen and set two-hundred fifty-four times since Kakzim had brushed a steaming paste of corrosive acid over his own face, exchanging one set of scars for another. That was two-thirds of a year, from highsun to half ascentsun, by the old reckoning; ten quinths by the current Urik reckoning, which divided the year into fifteen equal segments; or twenty-five weeks, as the Codeshites measured time. For a halfling born in the verdant forests beyond the Ringing Mountains, weeks, quinths, and years had no intrinsic meaning. A halfling measured time by days, and there had been enough days to heal the acid wound into twisted knots of flesh that still burned when touched or moved. But the acid scars were more honorable than the ones they replaced, and constant pain was a fitting reminder of his failures.
When he was no older than Cerk—almost twenty years ago—Kakzim had emerged from the forests full of fire and purpose. The scars from the life-oath he'd sworn to the BlackTree Brethren were still fresh on his heart. The silty sea must be made blue again, the parched land returned to green. What was done must be undone; what was lost must be returned. No sacrifice is too great. The BlackTree had drunk his blood, and the elder brothers had given him his life's mission: to do whatever he could to end the life-destroying tyranny of the Dragon and its minions.
The BlackTree Brethren prepared their disciples well. Kakzim had sat at the elders' feet until he'd memorized everything they knew, then they'd shown him the vast chamber below the BlackTree where lore no halfling alive understood was carved into living roots. He'd dwelt underground, absorbing ancient, forgotten lore. He knew secrets that had been forgotten for a millennium or more and the elders, recognizing his accomplishments, sent him to Urik, where the Dragon's tyranny was disguised as the Lion-King's law.
Kakzim made plans—his genius included not merely memory, but foresight and creativity—he watched and waited, and when the time was ripe, he surrendered himself into the hands of a Urikite high templar. They made promises to each other, he and Elabon Escrissar, that day when the half-elf interrogator took a knife, carved his family's crest into Kakzim's flesh, then permanently stained the scars with soot. Both of them had given false promises, but Kakzim's lies went deeper than the templar's. He'd been lying from the moment he selected Escrissar as a suitable partner in his life's work.
No halfling could tolerate the restraints of forced slavery; it was beyond their nature. They sickened and died, as Escrissar should have known... would have known, if Kakzim hadn't clouded the templar's already warped judgment with pleas, promises and temptations. Escrissar had ambitions. He had wealth and power as a high templar, but he wanted more than the Lion-King would concede to any favorite. In time, with Kakzim's careful prompting, Escrissar came to want Lord Hamanu's throne and Urik itself. Failing that—and Kakzim had known from the start that the Lion-King could not be deposed—it had been possible to convince Escrissar that what he couldn't have should be destroyed.
Reflecting on the long years of their association, Kakzim could see that they'd both been deluded by their ambitions. But then, without warning from the BlackTree or anything Kakzim could recognize as their assistance, Sorcerer-King Kalak of Tyr was brought down. Less than a decade later Borys the Dragon and the ancient sorcerer Rajaat—whom the BlackTree Brethren called the Deceiver—were vanquished as well.
Kakzim sent a message back across the Ringing Mountains—his first in fifteen years. It was not a request for instructions, but an announcement: The time had come to unlock the ancient halfling pharmacopoeia, the lore Kakzim had memorized while he dwelt among the BlackTree's roots. The time had, in fact, come and passed.
Kakzim informed the elders that he and the man who thought he was Kakzim's master were making Laq—an ancient, dangerous elixir that restored those on exhaustion's brink, but enslaved and destroyed those who took it too often. Their source was innocuous zarneeka powder they'd found in Urik's cavernous warehouses. The supply, for their needs and purposes, was virtually unlimited.
The seductive poison spread quickly through the ranks of the desperate or despondent, sowing death. He and Escrissar planned to expand their trade to include the city-state of Nibenay. When both cities were contaminated, their sorcerer-kings would blame each other. There'd be war. There'd be annihilation and, thanks to him, Brother Kakzim, the BlackTree Brethren would see their cause victorious.
Kakzim promised on his life. He'd opened the old scars above his heart and signed his message with his own blood.
He'd had no doubts. Escrissar was the perfect dupe: cruel, avaricious, enthralled by his own importance, blind to his flaws, easily exploited, yet blessed with vast wealth and indulged by Lord Hamanu, the very enemy they both hoped to bring down. The plans Kakzim had made were elegant, and everything was going their way until a templar of the lowest sort blundered across their path.
Paddle, Puddle, Pickle... Kakzim couldn't remember the ugly human's name. He'd seen him once only, at night in the city warehouse when catastrophe had been the furthest thought from his mind. The yellow-robed dolt was boneheaded stupid, throwing himself into battles he couldn't hope to win. It beggared halfling imagination to think that templar Pickle could stand in their way at all, much less bring them down. But the bonehead had done just that, with a motley collection of allies and the kind of luck that didn't come by chance.
Kakzim had abandoned Escrissar the moment he saw disaster looming. Halflings weren't slaves; BlackTree Brethren weren't martyrs, not for the likes of Elabon Escrissar. Kakzim raided Escrissar's treasury and went to ground while the high templar marched to his doom on the salt wastes.
Ever dutiful to the elder brothers of the BlackTree, Kakzim had sent another message across the Ringing Mountains. He admitted his failure and promised to forfeit his now-worthless life. Kakzim used all the right words, but his admissions and promises were lies. He knew he'd made mistakes; he'd been bested, but not, absolutely not, defeated. He'd learned hard lessons and was ready to try again. The cause was more important than any one brother's life, especially his.
Brother Kakzim wasn't any sort of martyr. He told the elder brothers what they'd want to hear and fervently hoped they'd believe his promise of self-annihilation and never bother him again. He was deep in his next plotting, here in the market-village of Codesh, when his new apprentice arrived fresh out of the forest and with no more sense than a leaf in the wind.
He'd wanted to send Cerk back. Bloody leaves of the bloody BlackTree! He'd wanted to kill the youngster on the spot. But without the resources of House Escrissar behind him, Kakzim discovered he could use an extra set of hands, eyes, and feet—so long as he didn't delude himself that those appendages were attached to a sentient mind.
"Brother Kakzim? Brother Kakzim—did you—? Have you—? Are you having one of your fits? Should I guide you to your bed?"
Fits! Fits of boredom! Fits of frustration! He was surrounded by fools and personally served by the greatest fool of all!
"Don't be ridiculous. Stop wasting my time. Tonight's an important night, you know. Tell me whatever it is you think I must know, then leave me alone and stop this infernal chatter about fits! You're the one with fits."
"Yes, Brother Kakzim. Of course. I merely wanted to tell you that the men have begun to assemble. They're ready-armed exactly as you requested—but, Brother, they wish to be paid."
"Then pay them, Brother Cerk!" Kakzim's voice rose into a shrill shout as he spun around on his companion. The cowl slid back, dusting his flesh with excruciation as it did. "We're so close. So close. And you torment me!" He grabbed the youngster's robe and shook it violently. "If we fail, it will be your fault!" *****
The elders of the BlackTree had warned him Brother Kakzim would not be an easy master, but that he should be grateful for the opportunity. They said Brother Kakzim was a genius in the alchemic arts. There was no halfling alive who knew what Brother Kakzim knew about the old ways of manipulation and transformation. Brother Kakzim had decrypted the ancient knowledge the Brethren guarded at the BlackTree. He knew what the ancestors knew, and he'd begun to use it. The elders wanted to know more about how Brother Kakzim was applying his knowledge. They wanted Cerk to be their eyes and ears in Urik.
An apprentice should be grateful for such an opportunity, for such trust, and Cerk supposed he was. Brother Kakzim was a master beyond reckoning where alchemy was concerned; Cerk had learned things in this foul-smelling village he could never have learned in the BlackTree Forest. But Cerk wished the elder brothers had mentioned that Brother Kakzim was completely mad. Those white-rimmed eyes above the ruined cheeks looked out from another plane and had the power to cloud another man's thoughts, even another halfling's thoughts.
Cerk was careful not to look straight at Brother Kakzim when the madness was on him, as it was now. He kept his head down and filled his mind with thoughts of home: lush green trees dripping water day and night, an endless chorus of birds and insects, the warm, sweet taste of ripe bellberries fresh off the vine. Then Cerk waited for the danger to pass. He judged it had when Brother Kakzim adjusted his robe's sleeves and cowl again, but he was careful to stay out of reach.
"It is not just the men who want to be paid, Brother Kakzim. The dwarves who own this place want to be paid for its use tonight, and for the rooms where we've lived. And the joiners say we owe them for the scaffolding they've already constructed. We owe the knackers and the elven gleaner, Rosu. She says she's found an inix fistula with the abscess still attached, but she won't sell it—"
"Pay them!" Brother Kakzim repeated, though without the raving intensity of a few moments past. "You have the coins. I've given you all our coins."
"Yes," Cerk agreed, thinking of the sack he kept under his bed. Money had no place in the BlackTree Forest. The notion that a broken ceramic disk could be exchanged for food, goods, or a man's service—indeed, that such bits, disks, or the far rarer metal coins must be exchanged—was still difficult for him to understand. He grappled with the sack nightly, arranging its contents in similar piles, watching as the piles grew steadily smaller. "I keep careful count of them, Brother Kakzim, but if I give these folk all that they claim is theirs, we ourselves will have very little left."
"Is that the problem. Brother Cerk?"
Reluctantly, Cerk bobbed his head.
"Pay them," Brother Kakzim said calmly. "Look at me, Brother Cerk—"
Cerk did, knowing it was a mistake, but Brother Kakzim's voice was so reassuring at times. Disobedience became impossible.
"You don't doubt me, do you?"
Cerk's lower lip trembled. He couldn't lie, didn't want to tell the truth.
"Is it the money, Brother Cerk? Haven't I always given you more money when you needed it? Money is nothing to worry about, Brother Cerk. Pay the insects. Pay them generously. Money grows like rope-vine in shadowed places. It's always ready for harvest. Don't worry about money, Brother Cerk."
He wasn't such a fool as that. The Brethren elders hadn't sent him out completely unprepared. It was the precision of money that eluded him: the how and why that equated a day of a man's life with a broken chip from a ceramic disk, while the rooms he and Brother Kakzim occupied above the slaughterhouse equated an entire ceramic disk each week, and Rosu's festering fistula was the same as an entire shiny silver coin.
Cerk knew where money came from generally and Brother Kakzim's specifically. Whenever the need to refill the sack arose, he sneaked into Urik following the brother through the maze of sharp-angled intersections and identical buildings. Brother Kakzim's money came from a blind alley hoard-hole in the templar quarter of the city, and it was much diminished compared to what it had been when Cerk first saw it.
No doubt Brother Kakzim could harvest ceramic disks and metal coins from other trees. Brother Kakzim didn't risk his fingers when he picked a pocket. All Brother Kakzim had to do was touch a rich man's thoughts with mind-bending power—as Brother Kakzim was doing to Cerk at this very moment—and that man would shed his wealth on the spot. As Cerk should have shed his doubts beneath the seductive pressures of Brother Kakzim's Unseen urging. And maybe the Urikites were as simple as lumbering mekillots. Maybe their minds could be touched again and again with them never recognizing that their thoughts were no longer wholly their own. But the BlackTree elders had taught Cerk how to defend himself from Unseen attack without the attacker becoming aware of the defense. They'd also taught him never to underestimate the enemy.
"You see, little brother, there's nothing to worry about."
Brother Kakzim came close enough that their robes were touching. They embraced as elder to apprentice, with Cerk on the verge of panic as he forced himself to remain calm and pliant. His companion was mad. That made him more, not less, dangerous.
Cerk didn't flinch when Brother Kakzim pinched his cheek hard enough to pierce skin, then nearly undid everything with a relieved gasp when the hand withdrew. Brother Kakzim pinched Cerk again, not on the cheek, but over the pulsing left-side artery of his neck.
"Questions can kill," Brother Kakzim warned calmly as his fingers began to squeeze the artery shut.
Cerk has less than a heartbeat to concoct a question that wouldn't. "I—I do not understand why the cavern-folk must die tonight," he whispered with just enough sincere terror to make Brother Kakzim unbend his fingers.
"When the water dies, all Urik will die. All Urik must die. All that exists in the Tablelands must die before the Black-Tree triumphs. That is our goal, little brother, our hearts' desire."
Cerk swallowed hard, but inwardly, he'd begun to relax. When Brother Kakzim talked about the BlackTree, his mind was focused on larger things than a solitary halfling apprentice. Still, he tread carefully; Brother Kakzim had not answered his question, which was an honest question, one to which he dearly wanted an answer.
"Why start with the cavern-folk, Brother Kakzim? Won't they die with the rest of Urik once we've putrefied their water? Why do we have to kill the cavern-folk ourselves? Why can't we let the contagion kill them for us?"
A tactical mistake: Brother Kakzim backhanded him against the nearest wall. Cerk feared that worse was to come, but his Unseen defenses hadn't broken. There were no further assaults, physical or otherwise, just Brother Kakzim, hissing at him in Halfling.
"Cut out your tongue lest you tell all our secrets! The cavern-folk must die because our contagion cannot be spat into the reservoir by the thimbleful. The ingredients must seethe and settle for many days before they'll be potent enough to destroy first Urik, then all the cities of the Tablelands. Our contagions must be incubated..." The white-rimmed eyes wandered, and Cerk held his breath. Kakzim was on the verge of inspiration, and that always meant something more for Cerk to do without thanks or assistance. "They must be incubated in alabaster bowls—ten of them, little brother, eight feet across and deep. You'll find such bowls and have them set up in the cavern."
Cerk blinked, trying to imagine ten alabaster bowls big enough to drown in and completely unable to imagine where he might find such objects, or how to transport them to the reservoir cavern. For once, his slack-jawed confusion was unfeigned, but Brother Kakzim mistook his bewilderment for insight.
"Ah, little brother, now you understand. This is not Laq to be measured by the powder packet. This is a contagion of poison and disease on a far grander scale. Once we've simmered it and stirred it to perfection, we'll spill the bowls into the reservoir and Urik will begin to die. Whoever draws water from a city wellhead or drinks from a city fountain will sicken and die. Whatever fool nurses the dying, he'll die, too as the plague spreads. In a week, Brother Cerk, no more than two, all the lands of Urik will be filled with the dead and dying. Can you see it, Brother Cerk? Can you see it?"
Brother Kakzim seized Cerk's robe again and assailed him with Unseen visions of bloated corpses strewn through the streets and houses of the city, on the roads and in the fields, even here on the killing floors of Codesh. In Brother Kakzim's envisioning, only the Urikites were slain, but Cerk knew that all living things needed water, and anything living that drank Urik's water after Brother Kakzim tainted it would die. The useful beasts, the wild beasts, birds, insects, and plants that drank water through their roots, they all would die.
Even halflings would die.
Cerk could see Brother Kakzim's vision more clearly than Brother Kakzim, and he was sickened by the sight. He nodded without enthusiasm. The poor wretches living in darkness on the shores of Urik's underground reservoir were actually the luckiest folk alive. They'd be the first Urikites to die. A chill ran through Cerk's body. He clasped his arms tight over his chest for warmth and told himself it was nothing more than the coming of night now that purple twilight had replaced the garish hues of the sunset. But that was a lie. His shivers had nothing to do with the cooling air. An inner voice counseled him to run away from Brother Kakzim, Codesh, and the whole mad idea. Cerk swallowed that inner voice. There was no escape. The Brethren had made Brother Kakzim his master; he couldn't leave without breaking the oath he'd sworn beneath the BlackTree.
"Can you see it, Brother Cerk?"
"I see it all," Cerk agreed, then squaring his shoulders within his dark robe, he grimly followed his companion and master down from the balcony to the killing floor where a silent, surly crowd was already gathered. "I see everything."
That evening was like a dream—a living nightmare.
At sundown, Cerk took a seat behind a table, beside the abattoir door. He methodically and mindlessly put a broken ceramic bit onto the palm of every thuggish hand that reached toward him once its owner had crossed the abattoir threshold. A decent wage for a decent night's work: that's what Brother Kakzim said, as though what these men—the thugs were all males, mostly dwarves, because their eyes saw more than human eyes in the dark—were going to do tonight was decent.
And perhaps it was. The killing that went on in the abattoirs and would go on in the reservoir cavern wasn't like the hunting Cerk had done as a boy in the forest, and it wasn't sacrifice as the Brethren made sacrificial feasts beneath the branches of the BlackTree. In Codesh they practiced slaughter, and the slaughter of men was no different.
When the doors were shut and barred and a ceramic bit had been placed in every waiting hand, Cerk had done everything that Brother Kakzim had asked of him. He rolled up his mat, intending to slip quietly upstairs to his room, but got no farther than the middle steps before Brother Kakzim began his harangue.
Brother Kakzim was no orator. His voice was shrill, and he had a tendency to gasp and stutter when he got excited. The burly thugs of Codesh exchanged snickering leers and for a moment Cerk thought—hoped—they'd all walk out of the abattoir. But Brother Kakzim didn't harangue with words. Like a sorcerer-king, Kakzim used the Unseen Way to focus his audience and forge them into a lethal weapon. Brother Kakzim worked on a smaller scale than Lord Hamanu: forty hired men rather than an army, but the effect was the same.
The mat slipped out of Cerk's hands. It bounced down the stairs and rolled unnoticed against the wall.
Cerk returned to the killing floor in an open-eyed trance. His inner voice frantically warned him that his thoughts were no longer his own, that Brother Kakzim was bending and twisting his will with every step he took. His inner voice spoke the truth, but truth couldn't overcome the images of hatred and disgust that swirled up out of Cerk's deepest consciousness. The dark-dwellers were vermin; they deserved to die. Their death now, for the cause of cleansing Urikj was the sacrifice that redeemed their worthless lives.
With his final mote of free thought, Cerk looked directly at Brother Kakzim and tried to give his whipped-up hatred its proper focus, but he was no mind-bending match for an elder brother of the BlackTree brethren. His images were overwhelmed.
The last thing Cerk clearly remembered was grabbing a torch and a stone-headed poleaxe that was as long and heavy as he was. Then the mob surged toward a squat tower at the abattoir's rear, and he went with them. Brother Kakzim stood by the tower's door. His face shone silver, like a skull in moonlight.
Delusion! Cerk's inner voice screamed when Brother Kakzim's eyes shot fire and one of the thugs fell to the ground. Mind-bending madness! Go back!
But Cerk didn't go back. Wailing like a dwarven banshee, he kept pace with the mob as it made its noisy way to the cavern.
Later, much later, when he'd shed his bloodstained clothes, Cerk consoled himself with the thought that he wasn't strong, even for a halfling. He had no skill with heavy weapons. It was possible—probable—that he hadn't killed anyone. But he didn't know; he couldn't remember anything after picking up the torch and axe.
He didn't know how his clothes had become bloodstained.
He was afraid to go to sleep.
All residents of Urik knew precisely when Lord Hamanu's curfew began, but few knew exactly when it ended. Those who could afford to laugh at the Lion-King's laws said curfew ended one moment after it began. Templars said curfew ended at sunrise and they'd arrest or fine anyone they caught on the streets before the sun appeared above the city walls, but usually they left the city alone once the sky began to brighten. Someone had to have breakfast waiting when the high and mighty woke up. Someone had to entertain the nightwatch templars before they went on duty and again when they left their posts. Someone had to sweep the streets, collect the honey jars, kindle the fires; someone had to make breakfast for the entertainers, sweepers, honeymen, and cooks. And since those someones would never be the yellow-robed templars of the night-watch, compromises as old as the curfew itself governed Urik's dark streets.
Nowhere were the nighttime rituals more regular than in the templar quarter itself, especially the double-walled neighborhood that the high templars called home. Even war bureau templars, each with a wealth of colored threads woven into their yellow sleeves, knew better than to question the comings and goings of their superiors. They challenged no one, least of all the thieves and murderers, who'd undoubtedly been hired by a dignitary with the clout to execute an overly attentive watchman on the spot, no questions asked. And if the watch would not challenge the criminals in their own quarter, they certainly left the high templars and their guests alone as well.
The sky above the eastern wall was glowing amber when an alley door swung open and a rectangle of light briefly illuminated the austere red-striped yellow wall of a high templar residence. The dwarven sergeant leaned heavily on the rail of her watchtower, taking note of the flash, the distinctive clunk of a heavy bolt thrown home again, and a momentary silhouette, tall and unnaturally slender, against the red-striped yellow wall. She snorted once, having recognized the silhouette and thereby knowing all she needed to know.
Folk had to live, to eat, to clothe themselves against the light of day and the cold of night. It wasn't any templar's place to judge another poor wretch's life, but it seemed to the sergeant that sometimes it might be better to lie down and die. Short of the gilded bedchambers of Hamanu's palace, which she had never seen, there wasn't a more nefarious place in all Urik than the private rooms of a high templar's residence. And the slender one who slipped quietly through the lightening shadows below her post spent nearly every night in one disreputable residence or another.
"Great Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy strike you down, child," the sergeant whispered as the footsteps faded.
It was not a curse.
Mahtra felt anonymous eyes at her back as she walked through the templar quarter. She didn't fear those who stared at her. There was very little that Mahtra feared. Before they drove her out onto the barren wastes, her makers had given her the means to take care of herself, and what her innate gifts could not deflect, her high templar patrons could. She had not developed the sensitivities of born-folk. Fear, hate, love, friendship were words Mahtra knew but didn't use often. It wasn't fear that made her pause every little while to adjust the folds of the long, black shawl she clutched tightly around her thin shoulders.
It wasn't because of cold, either, though there was a potent chill to the predawn air. Cold was a sensitivity, just like fear, that Mahtra lacked, though she understood cold better than she understood fear. Mahtra could hear cold moving through the nearest buildings: tiny hisses and cracklings as if the long-dead bones that supported them still sought to warm themselves with shrinking or shivering. Soon, as sunrise gave way to morning, the walls would warm, then grow hot, and the hidden bones would strive to shed the heat, stretching with sighs and groans, like any overworked slave.
No one else could hear the bones as Mahtra could, not even the high templars with their various and mighty talents, or the other nightfolk she encountered in their company. That had puzzled Mahtra when she was new to her life in Urik. Her sensitivities were different; she was different. Mahtra saw her differences in the precious silver mirrors high templars hung on their walls. They said mirrors could not lie. Of course, everyone was different in a mirror's magical reflection. Some of those she met nightly in these identically striped residences were more different than she was. That was hardly surprising: the high templars who commanded the gatherings Mahtra attended were collectors of the exotic, the new, and the different of the city.
Mahtra's skin was white, that was one difference—not pale like that of a house-bound courtesan who never saw the light of day, but white like chalk or salt or bones that the sun had bleached dry. Her skin was cool to the touch, harder and lightly scaled, as if she'd been partly made from snakes or lizards. Her body grew no hair to cover her stark skin, but there were burnished, sharp-angled scars on her shoulders and around her wide-set turquoise eyes, scars that were like gold-leaf set into her flesh. The makers had put those scars on her, though Mahtra could not remember when or how. They were what the makers had given her to protect her, as born-folk had teeth and knives. Mahtra knew she could protect herself against any threat, but she could not explain how she did it, not to Father, not to herself.
The dignitaries she met at the high templar gatherings were fascinated by her skin—as they were fascinated by anything exotic. They handled her constantly, sometimes with ardent gentleness, sometimes not.
The reasons for their fascination were unimportant to Mahtra, so long as they gave her something when they were finished. Coins were best; coins had so many uses. She could take them to the market and exchange them for food, fuel, clothing, or anything else Father and the other waterside dwellers needed. Jewels were almost as useful; they could be turned into coins in the elven market. Sometimes, though, her nighttime consorts gave Mahtra things she kept for herself, like the long, black shawl she wore this chilly morning.
A human merchant had given Mahtra the shawl at one of the first high templar gatherings she'd attended. He said the forest-weavers of Gulg had woven it from song-spider silk. He said she should wear it to conceal her delicate white-white skin—and the dark mottled blotches he'd made on it. She obeyed without argument. Obedience was so much easier than argument when she was still so new and the world, so old.
Father had sucked on his teeth when she handed him the shawl. Burn it or sell it, he said, throwing it on the damp, stony shores of the water; there were better ways to live above ground, if that was where she was determined to live. But Father couldn't tell her how to live those better ways, any more than he could explain the difference between made and born.
So Mahtra disobeyed him, then, and kept the shawl as a treasure. It warmed her as she walked between the hut and the high templar residences and it was softer than anything she'd felt before or since. She didn't think about the merchant; neither he nor the mottled blotches mattered enough to remember. Her skin always turned white again, no matter how dark a night's handling left it.
And the shawl would hide her no matter what color her skin was.
Hiding; hiding was why Mahtra kept the shawl pulled tight around her. The stares of folk who were only slightly different from each other hurt far more than the hands that touched her at the high templar gatherings. Children who looked up from their street games to shout "Freak," or "Spook," or "Show us your face!" hurt most of all, because they were as new as she was. But children were born; they could hate, despise, and scorn. She was made; she was different.
Mahtra clung to her shawl and the shadows until she reached yesterday's market. Early-rising folk and nightfolk like herself were dependent on the enterprising merchants of yesterday's markets: collections of carts that appeared each sunrise near Urik's most heavily trafficked intersections. Yesterday's markets served those who couldn't wait until the city gates opened and the daily flood of farmers and artisans surged through the streets to the square plazas where they set up their stalls and sold their wares. The vendors of yesterday's markets lived in the twilight and dawn, buying the dregs of one day's market to sell before the next day's got under way.
Yesterday's markets were very informal, completely illegal, and tolerated by Lord Hamanu because they were absolutely necessary to his city's welfare. And as with all other things that endured in Urik, yesterday's markets had become traditional. The half-elf vendor who laid claim to the choice northwestern corner where the Lion's Way crossed Joiners' Row sold only yesterday's fruit, as his father had sold only such fruit from the cart he wheeled each dawn to that precise location, and as his children would when their turn came. His customers, sleepy-headed at either the start or finish of their day's work, relied on his constancy and he, in turn, knew them, as well as strangers dared to know each other in Urik.
"Cabras, eleganta," he said with a smile and a gesture toward four of the husky, dun-colored spheres. "Almost fresh from the Dolphiles estate. First of this year's crop, and the best. A bit each, two bits for the lot."
The fruitseller talked constantly, without expecting an answer, which Mahtra appreciated, and he called her eleganta, which Father said was a polite word for improper activities, but she liked the sound of it. Mahtra liked cabras, too, though she had almost forgotten them. Seeing them now on the fruitseller's cart, she remembered that she hadn't seen them for a great many mornings. For a year's worth of mornings, according to the half-elf.
Years and crops confused Mahtra. Her life was made up of days and nights, strings of dark beads following light beads, with no other variations. Others spoke of weeks and years, of growing up and growing old. They spoke of growing crops, of planting and harvesting. She'd been clever enough to piece together the notion that food wasn't made in the carts of yesterday's market; food was born somewhere outside the city walls. But growing was a more difficult concept for someone who hadn't been born, hadn't been a child, couldn't remember being anything except exactly what she was.
Staring at the cabras, Mahtra felt her differences—her made-ness and her newness—as if she were standing in an empty cavern and her life were a meager collection of memories strewn in a spiral at her feet.
When she concentrated, Mahtra found six cabra-places among her memories. Six cabra-years, then, since wherever cabras were born, wherever they grew, they appeared on the fruitseller's cart just once a year. That made six years since she'd found herself in Urik and memories began, because the sixth cabra-place, all bright red and cool, sweet nectar flowing down her throat, was very near the beginning of the spiral. She'd have to make a new cabra-place in her memory today, the seventh cabra-place. She'd been in Urik, living in a hide-and-bone hut beside underground water, for seven years.
Changing her hold on her shawl, Mahtra thrust her hand into the morning. She extended one long, slender finger tipped with a dark-red, long, sharp fingernail.
"Only one, eleganta? What about the rest? Share them with your sisters—"
Mahtra shook her head vigorously. She had no sisters, no family at all, except for Father, who said the sweet cabra nectar hurt his old teeth. There was the dwarf, Mika, who shared the hide-and-bone hut. Like her, Mika had no family, but Mika's family had died in a fire and Father had taken Mika in, because he'd been born. He was "young," Father said, not new, and without family he couldn't take care of himself.
Mika had arrived since the last cabra-place. Mahtra didn't know if he liked sweet fruit.
She extended a second slender finger.
"Wise, eleganta, very wise. Let me have your sack—"
She retrieved a wad of knotted string from the sleeve of her gown. The fruitseller shook it out while Mahtra sorted two ceramic bits out of her coin-pouch. By the time she had them, the half-elf was stuffing the fourth cabra into the back. Mahtra didn't want the other fruits, but he didn't notice when she shook her head. She considered reaching across the cart to get his attention by touching his hand; Father said strangers didn't touch each other, unless they were children, and she—despite her newness—wasn't a child. Grown folk got each other's attention with words.
With one hand deathgripped on her shawl and the other clutching her two ceramic bits, Mahtra used her voice to say: "Not four, only two."
"Eh, eleganta? I don't understand you. Take off your mask."
Mahtra recoiled. She let go of the ceramic bits and snatched her string-sack, four cabra fruits and all.
But Mahtra was gone, running toward the elven market with her chin tucked down and the shawl pulled forward.
She took off the mask only in the hide-and-bone hut, where Father knew all her secrets, and in the high templar residences, but no where else. Though the mask wasn't a part of her, like the burnished marks on her face and shoulders, she'd been wearing it when her awareness began. Her makers had made the mask to hide their mistakes. That was what Father said when he examined its carefully wrought parts of leather and metal... when he'd looked at the face her makers had wanted to keep hidden. It wasn't the mask that made Mahtra's words difficult to understand; it was the makers. She'd collapsed the first time she saw her face in a silver mirror—the only time she'd lost her consciousness. Then she smashed the mirror and cursed her nameless, faceless makers: they'd forgotten her nose. Two red-rimmed counter-curving slashes reached down from the bony ridge between her eyes. The slashes ended above a mouth that was equally malformed. Mahtra's lips were thin and scarcely flexible. Her jaw was too narrow for the soft, flexible tongue that other sentient races used to shape their words. The tongue the makers had given her, like the. fine scales on her white skin, might have come from a lizard.
The elven market was a world unto itself inside Lord Hamanu's city. It had its own walls built against the city walls and its own gate opening into Urik-proper. A gang of templars stood watch at the gate where the doors were thick and tall and their hinges were corroded from disuse. Why the templars watched and what they were looking for was a mystery. They challenged folk sometimes as they entered or left, letting the lucky pass and leading the unlucky away, unless they executed them on the spot, but they never challenged her, even when she approached the gate at a panic! run.
Maybe they knew who she was—or where she spent her nights. Maybe she was too different, even for them. They let her pass between them and through the gaping gates without comment this morning as they had every other morning.
Unlike the other markets of Urik, the elven market wasn't a gathering of farmers and vendors who arrived in an empty plaza, hawked their wares, and then disappeared. The elven market wasn't a market at all, but a separate city, the original Urik, older than the Dragon or the sorcerer-kings, older than the barren Tablelands that now surrounded the much larger city. Lord Hamanu's power was rightly feared in the elven market, but his laws were largely ignored and could be ignored because the unwritten laws of this ancient quarter were every bit as brutally efficient.
Enforcers had carved the mazelike market into a precinct patchwork through which strangers might wander unaware that every step they took, every bargain, every sidelong glance or snicker was watched and, if necessary, remembered. The market residents were watched by the same network, and paid dearly for the privilege. In return, those who dwelt within the old walls of the elven market, where the Lion-King's yellow-robed templars feared to travel in gangs of less than six, were assured of protection from everyone except their protector.
Mahtra was neither a stranger nor a resident. She paid several enforcers for the privilege of walking through the precinct maze early each morning when the market was as close to quiet as it ever got. Having paid for her safe passage, Mahtra was careful never to deviate from her permitted path, lest the eyes that always watched from rooftops, alleyways, and shadowed, half-open doors report her missteps to the enforcers.
Once, when she was much newer than she was now, curiosity had lured Mahtra off the paid-for path. She meant no harm, but the enforcers didn't believe—or couldn't understand—her mute protestations. They'd sent their bully-boy runners after her, and they'd learned the hard way that Mahtra would protect herself. She couldn't be harmed, except at great cost in lives and the greater risk of drawing Lord Hamanu's attention down to their little domains.
That long-ago morning, when she was very new and didn't understand what was important, Mahtra said nothing to Father when she returned to the cavern, nor anything when she went out at dusk. But when she returned the next morning, five corpses, all tortured and mutilated, lay in the chamber at the head of the elven market passage to the cavern. The enforcers had decided that others—born-folk without her ability to take care of themselves—would pay the price of her indiscretions.
Men and women with weapons in hand were waiting for her in the cavern, demanding justice, demanding retribution. Mahtra prepared to defend herself, but Father told her no, and faced the angry mob himself. She heard herself called terrible things that day, but Father prevailed, and the mob dispersed.
When they returned to the hide-and-bone hut, Father took her wrists firmly in his hands and said cavern children were allowed one mistake, no matter how serious, and that he'd persuaded the others that she should be granted the same grace, because being new was like being a child. Then, holding her wrists tight enough to hurt, Father said she must concern herself with the born-folk who were their neighbors along the shore of the underground water. She must not endanger the whole community with her curiosity; she must stick to the path she'd paid for, else he himself would be the one to banish her and nothing her makers had given her would protect her from his wrath. Father had come into Mahtra's mind then, as a warning, not as her mentor. His face was more terrible than her own and there was a horror he named death burning in his eyes. She was powerless before him. She learned a meaning of fear and had stayed on the paid-for path.
"Mahtra! Mahtra!" a woman called from behind, a dwarf by the deep pitch of her voice and, considering where Mahtra was on her path, most likely Gomer, a trader who specialized in beads and amulets.
Mahtra stopped and turned. Gomer flashed a smile and beckoned her. With a glance at the rooftops, alleys and the other places where her invisible escort might be lurking, Mahtra backtracked to the dwarf. Gomer sold her goods from the inside a boxlike stall along Mahtra's paid-for path. The enforcers wouldn't object—not if she saved a bit or two for the runner who'd surely show up, demanding a share of Gomer's trade, before Mahtra left this precinct.
"What've you got in your sack? Got yourself some cabras, eh?" Gomer knew Mahtra didn't talk much; she didn't waste precious time pausing between questions. "So they're starting to show up in the markets? Have to go out and get me some, maybe. Unless we could make a bargain, you and I. That's a lot of fruit you've got there. Make you sick, it would—even you. But I've got something here you'd like better than cabra—cinnabar!"
Gomer's meaty, powerful hand wove delicately over the compartmented trays set out on her selling board. She plucked up a carved bead about the size of her thumb's knuckle and the same color as Mahtra's fingernails. The sight of it made Mahtra's mouth water. She liked cabra fruit, but she craved the bitter-tasting beads carved from red cinnabar.
"Thought you'd want it, dearie," Gomer chuckled.
She closed her fingers over the bead, shook her hand and blew across it, as if she were casting dice in a high-stakes game, and then opened her fist one finger at a time. To Mahtra's dismay, the bead had vanished.
"You do want it, don't you?"
Mahtra nodded vigorously. The dwarf chuckled again. She made extravagant motions with her hand, and when she showed her palm again, there were three red beads nestled among the calluses.
"I should charge you a silver, that's what they're worth, you know—especially since you won't resell them—but give me two of your cabras and I'll let you have them for a half-disk."
Mahtra would have made a bad bargain to acquire the beads, but Gomer's offer was ideal. She fished the extra fruits out of her sack and five ceramic bits out of her coin-pouch. Gomer dribbled the beads into her hand. They were pretty little things, with leaves and flowers carved all over two of them and a strange animal she'd never seen before carved in the third. But it was the cinnabar itself that excited her. Her hand began to warm as soon as the red beads touched it.
"Have fun, dearie," Gomer said.
The dwarf balanced one of the husky fruits against her thigh and smashed it open with a blow from her fist. Red juice sprayed her tunic, looking for a heartbeat like blood. Mahtra didn't like blood; it was something old and deep within her, from beyond the spirals of her memory. An inner voice told her to run, and she did, though she knew the splatters were only sweet cabra juice.
A runner appeared a bit farther on. He was a human youth, sleek and well-muscled, typical of the well-fed bullies who worked for the market enforcers. He stopped her. There was an obsidian knife in his hand and an arrogant jut to his jaw, but he kept his distance as he said:
"For luck, Mahtra," and held out his hand. "Give me some of what you bought."
She'd have paid him however many ceramic bits he wanted, or gone off with him to whatever bolthole he called home, but she wouldn't surrender her cinnabar beads. She tried to make her refusal plain, but the youth couldn't understand her gestures—or perhaps that was only his own stubborn refusal.
"Give me half," he demanded, "or I'll tell Map."
Another sturdy human, Map was the local enforcer and a man with a temper to be avoided. Mahtra thought of the butchered corpses in the antechamber years ago and of the three beads in her hand right now. Three wasn't a number that could be easily divided in half. Although she and the runner stood in an intersection, Mahtra felt as if she were trapped in a corner. Juggling the loose beads and the heavy string sack with one hand, she fumbled through her coin-pouch with the other and fished out a shiny silver coin.
The bully frowned. "I want what you bought from Gomer. She's making special bargains for you. Map's gonna want to know about it."
That was too much threat, too much confusion, for Mahtra to bear. She felt trapped, she felt angry, and the burnished scars on her shoulders began to grow warm beneath her shawl. Stiffness spread down her arms, down her spine all the way to her feet; she couldn't move. The scars around her eyes burned as well, and a cloudy membrane slipped across her vision while the makers' precautions protected her.
Mahtra's scars were burning; her vision was blurred. She felt the silver coin yanked out of her fingertips and heard hard pounding as the bully ran away, but it was several more heartbeats before the membranes withdrew, her limbs relaxed and she could move again.
She hadn't actually done anything wrong, but Father would be angry—very angry. He might not believe it wasn't her fault, even when he could look inside her mind where the truth was marked into her memory. Fear emerged from its lonely corner, haunting her thoughts as she continued through the market maze.
Her destination was a plaza built around a broad, circular fountain that was scarcely different from the tens of other fountains scattered through Urik. Women of every race scrubbed and pounded their laundry on its curbstones while a steady parade of men and children filled water jugs from the four spouts. An old elf with a crippled leg and a sullen demeanor kept watch from an awning-crowned, tall, wheeled chair. He was the enforcer, and the fountain plaza was his entire precinct. Mahtra didn't approach him, or the squat stone building in the northwest corner of the plaza until he recognized her with the ivory-tipped walking stick he balanced across his thighs.
Usually he sported her a heartbeat after she appeared on the plaza verge, but today he stared at the sky and a rippling stripe of clouds that were much too high to threaten rain. When he did lower his head and command his minions to swivel his chair about, there was still no sign of recognition, no invitation to cross the plaza. Mahtra feared Map and the runner had gotten here first, and feared something deeper, too, to which she could not put a name—except that it was dark and cold, and it smothered the cinnabar warmth she clutched in her hand.
A half-elf child came running toward her. Mahtra juggled her beads and fruit once again, expecting another demand, but the child stopped short and delivered a message:
"Henthoren," she said, the crippled-elf enforcer's name, "wishes you to know you are the first to approach the well since the nightwatch rang its first bells. He keeps the peace. He wishes you to remember that."
The child bowed low and retreated. Mahtra looked toward the enthroned Henthoren, who leveled his stick at her, giving her leave to traverse his little domain. Then the old elf went back to staring at the sky. She raised her eyes as well, half-expecting that the clouds had fallen and darkened, so palpable had the sense of chill darkness become within her mind. But the clouds remained distant white streaks in the cerulean vault.
Mahtra longed to ask the enforcer what he meant, why this morning he sent a child to tell her what was always true: she was the first walker from the cavern to return home since the midnight bells. But asking was talking and talking to the enforcer was more daunting than his message had been, more daunting than the unease she felt striding past the fountain to the little stone building with its metal-grate door.
There were eyes on her back as she opened the door. She hesitated before crossing the threshold into the unlit antechamber, but nothing flew from the shadows or darted past her feet. There were no sounds—no smells, as there had been when the corpses were laid out as examples. Born-folk had an expression: quiet as a tomb. Mahtra had never seen a tomb, but it could not have been quieter than the windowless antechamber and its stone carved stairway leading into the ground. She stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her.
Father said she had human eyes, meaning that she didn't see well in the dark, though she knew the passageway from the antechamber down to the cavern well enough that she didn't need one of the torches that were kept ready by the door. She did pause long enough to loosen the gauze-pleated sidepieces of her mask and slip one of the cinnabar beads into her mouth. Her narrow jaw, so ill-suited to ordinary speech, was strong enough to shatter the bead with a single effort. Her tongue carried the fragments to the back of her mouth where they began to dissolve, along with her unease.
A shimmering drapery of blue-green light, the hallmark of the Lion-King's personal warding, shone at the top of the stairway where torchlight would have revealed the maw of a passage high enough to admit a full-grown elf. Templars with their medallions could pass safely through the light. Anyone else died. The cavern-dwellers had another way, which could not have been entirely unknown to either the market enforcers or the yellow-robe templars of the larger city. Using the boundary of Lord Hamanu's spell as a reference, Mahtra stepped sideways, one, twice, three times and felt the opening of a passage no torch would reveal, no elf or dwarf could see. Ten tight, twisting steps later, the two passages became one again. Mahtra slipped the second bead into her mouth and continued with confidence down the lightless slope. A faint aroma of charcoal and charred meat lingered in the air, a bit unusual, but accidents happened in the darkness beside the water. People got careless, lamps overturned, cookfires leapt out of their hearths. Mika had lost his family that way, but Father was careful, and Mantra's fear did not return.
From here she should see the whole community: thirty-odd huts and homesteads beside thirty-odd hearths burning bright in the cavern's eternal night: But there were only a handful of fires, and all of them were wildfires, outside the hearths. The charred scent was thick in the air; Mahtra could taste it through her mask, feel it on her skin through the shawl. The only sounds came from the crackling fires. There was no laughter, no shouts, none of the ordinary buzz that should have greeted her ears here.
"Father?" Mahtra whispered. "Mika?"
She started to run, but hadn't gone ten paces before she tripped and stumbled hard to her knees. The cabras went flying. Mahtra groped for them, for the cause of her tumble. She wasn't the only cavern dweller with human eyes. Most of the community didn't see in the dark. There were penalties for cluttering the paths; there'd be a reckoning when Father and the other elders found out.
Mahtra's hands touched something round, but it wasn't a cabra fruit. It was hair... a head... a lifeless head. Her hands dripped blood when she sprang back.
She couldn't run. There were other bodies in the gallery.
There were bodies everywhere, all lifeless and bloody.
Mahtra staggered to the gallery's end and the first of the homesteads where flames consumed the last of a hide-and-bone hut like her own and a human woman she recognized lay on her back, staring up.
Dalya had never understood Mahtra's clumsy speech, but she didn't blink at the sound. Dalya didn't move at all. Dalya was as lifeless as the rest, and suddenly Mahtra couldn't get air into her lungs no matter how hard she breathed. Warmth kindled in her burnished scars again. The protective membrane twitched in the corners of her eyes.
"No!" she gasped, ordering her body to behave, as if it belonged to someone else.
She couldn't lose her vision. She had to see. She had to find Father, and trembling so badly that she had to crawl, she made her way down once-familiar lanes to another burning hut.
Mahtra sat on her knees a few paces short of the destruction. The makers had given her human eyes where light and darkness were concerned, but they hadn't given her the ability to cry as humans and all the other sentient races did. It had never been a hardship before, but now—looking at Mika's body, partly seared by fire, and his face, split by a gouge that reached from his forehead across his right eye, nose, and cheek before it ended on his neck—now, Mahtra could only make sad, little noises deep in her throat. The sounds hurt worse than any mottled skin she'd acquired in the high templar residences.
But the makers had made Mahtra strong. She rose to her feet and stepped around Mika's corpse. Father lay a few steps farther. Fire hadn't touched him; a club had: his skull was crushed. Mahtra couldn't see his face for the gore. Kneeling again, she slid her slender arms beneath him and lifted him carefully, easily. She carried him to the water's edge where she washed the worst away.
The keening sounds still trilled in the base of Mahtra's throat. Sharp pains from no visible source lashed her heart. Grief, she told herself, remembering how Mika's cheeks had glistened the night his family died. Grief and cold and dark: Death, suddenly more real than anything else around her. Crouched and cowering over Father, Mahtra peered into the darkness, expecting Death to appear.
Death was here in the cavern. She could feel it. Death would take her, too; she couldn't stay. But as she lowered Father to the stony shore, he opened his remaining eye.
His voice sounded in her mind; his lips had not moved.
"Father? Father—what's happened? What has happened? Mika... You... Father, tell me—What do I do now?"
You must leave, Mahtra. They will come back, and they will overwhelm even you—
"Who? Why? You did no wrong, Father; this should not have happened. You did no wrong."
It doesn't take wrong for killing to start, Father explained, patient with her newness even now.
"Killing," Mahtra felt the word in her thoughts, on her malformed tongue. It wasn't a new word, but it had a new meaning. "Have you been killed, Father?" Yes—
Mahtra felt Father's sadness. He would chastise her, she thought, as he had chastised her for keeping the black shawl. She knew wrong couldn't be made right—she knew that from looking in the high templar mirrors.
Father surprised her. You have powerful patrons, Mahtra. They will help you. This must not happen again. You must make certain of it.
Father made an image grow in Mahtra's mind then, the last image of his life: a stone-head club, an arm descending, and a wild-eyed, burn-scarred face beyond it. After the image, there was nothing more; but the image was enough.
It was a stranger's face for a heartbeat, then in her mind's closer inspection, Mahtra saw a halfling's distinctive old-young features. A single black line emerged from the scars. It made two angles and disappeared into raw flesh again. That was enough, along with the wild eyes. She knew him. "Kakzim," she whispered as she rose and walked away without a backward glance.
Death was loose in the cavern, in the clubs and flame. Death would take Father and Mika—if she didn't find them first.
Mahtra stood at the junction of the antechamber corridor and the sloping gallery ramp that led to the water. The community was inflames that soared and crackled and threw countless shadows of sweeping arms and dripping stone-headed clubs onto the rock walls. Screams reverberated off the hard rock all around her and echoed between her ears, as well. Mahtra couldn't distinguish Father's screams, or Mika's, from all the others, but they were down there among the flames and the carnage.
Mahtra ran as fast as she could, leaping lightly over those whom Death had already claimed. She'd gone faster and farther than she'd gone before. Hope swelled in her pounding heart, but hands rose out of the darkness at the base of the ramp. They grabbed her wrists and her ankles. They pulled her down, held her down. Faces that were only eyes and voices hovered over her, muttering a two-word chorus: mistake and failure.
She fought free of them, sprang to her feet and ran onto the stony shore where flames and screams made everything seem unfamiliar. Dodging arms and clubs, Mahtra looked for the path that would take her to the hide-and-bone hut where Father and Mika were waiting. There were paths she'd never seen before, and all of them blocked by the same five mutilated corpses who rose up when she approached them, blaming her, not Death, for their dying.
She was frantic with despair when a wild-eyed halfling ran toward her. His cheeks were on fire and his bloody club was the most terrible of all Death's weapons. While Mahtra cowered, he found the familiar path that wound between the reproachful corpses and led to the hide-and-bone hut where little Mika stood bravely before the door.
The burnished marks on Mahtra's face and shoulders grew warm. Her vision blurred and her limbs stiffened, but it wasn't herself she wanted to protect; it was Father and Mika, and they were too far away. In agony, she forced her eyes to see, her legs to move. One stride, two strides... gaining on Death with every stride, but still too late.
The club fell and the only scream she heard was Father and Mika screaming as halfling-Death battered the hut with his club. Mahtra threw herself at Death and was repelled, simply repelled. Death did not want her; Death wouldn't threaten a made creature like her, who'd never been born— and without threat, Mahtra's flesh wouldn't kindle, her vision wouldn't blur.
Gouts of Mika's blood flew off the club as Death whirled it overhead. The sticky clots adhered to Mahtra's face. She fell to her knees, clawing at her hard, white skin, unable to breathe, unwilling to see. Her vision finally blurred, now—when it was too late and there was blood already on her hand, but she didn't give up, not completely. Lunging blindly, Mahtra aimed herself where her mind's vision said Death last stood. She felt the hem of Death's robe in her hands, but Death didn't fall. Death pulled free, and she fell instead.
Crawling again, she sought Death by the sound of his club as it fell, again and again. Warm, sticky fluid pelted her. She wanted to curl into a tight ball, but forced her back to straighten, her head to rise. She opened her eyes— —And saw sunlight. The nightmare images of fear, rage, helplessness, and defeat faded quickly in the bright light of morning. Since escaping the cavern, Mahtra had had this same nightmare, with its hopeless ending, whenever she'd fallen asleep. Its terrors were at least familiar, which was not true of her surroundings.
And be seen through them.
Mahtra felt her nakedness as an afterthought, but reacted swiftly, tucking the coverlet tightly around her lest she be seen by someone uninvited. There was no one watching. She was alone, as far as she could tell, in this bright bedchamber, and there was no one in the next chamber, which she could see through an open doorway.
Her gown was neatly folded on a chest at the foot of the bed. Her belt and coin pouch were on top of the dress; her sandals had been cleaned, oiled, and set beside them. And her mask—her mask wasn't on the chest. Mahtra's hands leapt to her face. The mask wasn't there, either. She kept her fingers pressed over what the makers had given her for a mouth and nose and racked her memory for the places she had been last night.
Not this room. Not any room. Not since she'd staggered out of the cavern many days ago.
As soon as she'd felt the sun on her face, Mahtra had made her way to the high templar quarter, but she hadn't gone back to her old eleganta life. She hadn't been inside any residence. She'd hied herself to House Escrissar and sat herself down on the alleyway doorsill. House Escrissar was locked up, boarded up. It had been that way for a long time—not a year, but still a long time. Before it was locked and boarded, Mahtra had been a frequent visitor, entering at sunset through this alleyway door, leaving again at dawn.
Mahtra had met Lord Escrissar when her life in Urik was very new. He had noticed her admiring cinnabar beads in a market plaza. He'd bought her a bulging handful and then invited her to visit him at his residence. And because Lord Escrissar had worn a mask and because he'd made her feel welcome, she'd accepted his invitation that night and every night for all the years thereafter, until he had vanished and his residence had been sealed.
She'd been comfortable in House Escrissar, where everyone wore masks. Everyone except Kakzim. The halfling was a slave, and slaves did not wear masks. Their scarred cheeks, etched in black with a house crest, were masks enough.
Mahtra didn't understand slavery. She had little contact with the scarred drudges who hovered silently in the shadows of every high templar residence. There were drudge slaves in House Escrissar, but Kakzim was not one of them. Kakzim mingled with his master's guests and offered her gifts of gold and silver.
By then she knew that the high templars and their guests found her fascinating. She knew what to expect when she led them to the little room Lord Escrissar had set aside for her, deep within his residence, but Kakzim did not ask her to remove the mask, nor any of the other things to which she'd grown accustomed. He wanted to study the burnished marks on her shoulders, and she permitted that until he tried to study them with a tiny, razor-sharp knife. She protected herself so fast that when her vision cleared again, almost everything in the room was broken and Kakzim was slumped unconscious in the farthest corner.
Mahtra expected Lord Escrissar to chastise her, as Father would have if she'd wrought such damage underground, but the high templar apologized and gave her a purse with twenty gold coins in it. She went back to House Escrissar many, many times after that; she didn't started visiting the other residences in the quarter until after House Escrissar was boarded up. She saw Kakzim almost every time, but he'd learned his lesson and kept his distance.
When Lord Escrissar first disappeared, there had been new rumors every night, whichever high templar residence she had visited. Lord Escrissar, she had learned, had had no friends among his peers and wasn't missed; his guests wore masks when they had come to his entertainments because they had not wished their faces to be noticed. Eventually the rumors had stopped flowing.
No one came back to House Escrissar; none came to find Mahtra sitting there, clutching that same purse he had given her.
Mahtra had no friends left, not even Lord Escrissar, who'd never shown her his true face. With both Father and Mika dead, there was no one to miss her, either. She sat on the sill of Lord Escrissar's residence, hoping he'd know she was waiting for him, hoping he'd come back from wherever he was, hoping he'd help her find Kakzim.
Hope was all Mahtra had as one day became the next and another without anyone coming to the door. She was hungry, but after so much waiting, she was afraid to leave the alley, for surely Lord Escrissar would return the moment she turned her back in the next intersection. The night-watch, which had a post on the rooftop at the back of the alley, tossed her their bread crusts when they went off duty. Between those mouthfuls of dry bread and water in the residence cistern, which had not been tapped since the last Tyr storm, Mahtra survived and waited.
And Mahtra didn't do things not of her own will. Kakzim and the enforcers of the elven market had learned that lesson. She could not have been forced here. She must have entered willingly, and removed her mask the same way. But she remembered nothing between the alley and the bedchamber except her nightmare.
The cold, hard presence of fear, which had become Mahtra's most constant companion since the cavern, reasserted itself around her. She curled inward until her forehead touched her toes and her face was completely hidden. The coverlet couldn't warm her, nor could her own hands chafing her skin. Her body shivered from an inner chill and tears her eyes couldn't shed.
"Ah—you are awake, child. There is water here for washing, then you must dress yourself, yes? The august emerita waits for you in the atrium."
Mahtra raised her head cautiously, with her fingers splayed over her malformed face, leaving gaps for her eyes. A human youth stood in the doorway with a bundle of linen in his arm. He was well fed and well groomed, with only a few faint lines on his tanned cheeks to proclaim his status in this place. She knew in an instant she'd never seen him before. Except for Kakzim, she'd encountered no slaves who'd stare so boldly at a freewoman.
She wanted to tell him to go away, or to ask where she was and who the august emerita might be, since she knew no one by that name or title. But, that was talking and, especially without her mask, she didn't talk to strangers. So, she glowered at him instead, and without thinking stuck her tongue at him, as Mika had done whenever she told him to do something he didn't want to do. The slave yelped and jumped backward, nearly dropping his bundle of cloth. He turned and fled the room without another glance at her. For several heartbeats, Mahtra listened to his sandals slapping; the august emerita lived in a very large residence.
Her mask could be anywhere. It could be in the next room, but more likely it was in the atrium, with the august emerita. If she could face Death every night in her dreams, she could face the august emerita. The sooner she did, the sooner she could get out of here and back to her vigil outside House Escrissar. Mahtra made good use of the wash-stand first. Life by the underground water had spoiled her for the city's scarcity. Even here, in what was plainly an important place, the basin was barely large enough for her hands and the water was used up before she felt completely clean.
It was better than nothing, much better than the grit and grime she'd accumulated sitting in the alleyway. Her skin was white again, a stark contrast with her midnight gown, which had been brushed and shaken with sweet leaves before it was folded. She found her shawl beneath her gown. It, too, had been handled carefully by the august emerita— or her slaves. In lieu of her mask, Mahtra wrapped the shawl over her head, the way the wild elves did when they visited Henthoren in the elven market.
The youthful slave had not returned; Mahtra set out alone to find the august emerita in her atrium. It wasn't difficult. An examination of the roofs and walls revealed by the bedchamber window had convinced her that she was, indeed, still in the high, templar quarter where all the residences were laid out in squares and the atrium was the square at the center of everything else. She made mistakes—the residences weren't identical, except on the outside—but she saw no one and no one saw her. Aside from the vanished slave and the august emerita for whom she was searching, Mahtra seemed to be the only person wherever she went.
She thought she was still alone when she reached the atrium. At the heart of the august emerita's residence was a wonder of trees and vines, leaves and flowers in such profusion that, suddenly, Mahtra understood growing as she hadn't understood it before. The atrium was filled with sounds as well, sounds she had never heard before. Most of the sounds came from birds and insects in brightly colored wicker cages, but the most fascinating sound came from the atrium fountain.
Lord Escrissar's residence had an atrium and a fountain, of course, but his fountain was nothing like the august emerita's fountain where water sprayed and spilled from one shallow, pebble-filled bowl to another, dulling the background noise of Urik so much that it could scarcely be heard. And the pebbles themselves sparkled in many colors —and some of them were the rusty-red of cinnabar! One cinnabar pebble from the fountain's largest bottom bowl surely wouldn't be missed.
She heard laughter then, from two places: to her right, where the slave held his sides as he giggled, and behind, where a human woman—the august emerita—sat behind a wicker table and laughed without moving her lips.
"Ver guards his treasure well, child," the emerita said. "Take your cinnabar pebble from another bowl."
Mahtra was wary—how could the woman have known she wanted a cinnabar pebble?—but she was clever enough about the ways of high templars to know she should take what had been granted without delay. And the august emerita was a high templar. Though she wrapped her ancient body in layers of sheer silk just like a courtesan, there was a heavy gold medallion hanging around her withered neck. Mahtra snatched the biggest red pebble she could see, then, while it was still dripping, stuffed it in her mouth.
"Good. Now, come, sit down and have something more nourishing to eat."
There was a plate of things on the wicker table... pinkish-orange things with too many legs and wispy eyestalks that were still moving and were nothing that Mahtra wanted to eat.
"Benin, go to the pantry and fetch up a plate of fruit and dainties. Our guest has a delicate palate."
She didn't want fruit, Mahtra thought as the slave departed. She wanted her mask; she wanted to leave, she wanted to return to her vigil outside House Escrissar.
"Sit down, child," the woman said with a sigh.
Despite the sigh—or possibly because of it—Mahtra hied herself to a chair and sat.
"How many days and nights have you been waiting, child?"
Mahtra considered the layers in her memory: More than two, she was sure of that. Three or four?
"Three or four, child—try ten. You'd been sitting there for ten days and nights!"
Ten—that was more than she'd imagined, but what truly jolted Mahtra was the realization that, like Father, the august emerita could skim the words of her thoughts from her mind's surface. So she thought about her mask, and how badly she wanted it.
The woman smiled a high templar's knowing smile. She looked a little like Father, with creases across her face and streaks in her hair that were as white as Mahtra's own skin. Her eyes, though, were nothing like Father's. They were dark and hard, like Lord Escrissar's eyes, which she'd seen through the holes of his mask. All the high templars had eyes like that.
"All of us have been tempered like the finest steel, child. Tell me your name—ah, it's Mahtra. I thought so. Now, Mahtra—"
But she hadn't thought the word of her name. The august emerita had plunged deep into her mind to pluck out her name. That roused fear and, more than fear, a sense that she was unprotected, and that made the marks on her shoulders tingle.
I mean you no harm, Mahtra. I'm no threat to you.
Mahtra felt the makers' protection subside as it had never done before, except in her nightmares when Death ignored her. This was no dream. The woman had done something to her, Mahtra was sure of that. She couldn't protect herself, and learned yet another expression for fear.
"No harm, Mahtra. Your powers will return, but were I you, child, I'd learn more about them. I'm long past the days when helplessness excited me, but—as you've noticed—I'm an old woman, and you won't find many like me. I want only to know why you've sat on the doorsill of House Escrissar these last ten days. Don't you know Elabon's dead?"
Dead? Dead like Father, like Mika, and all the others in the cavern? What hope had she of finding Kakzim if Lord Escrissar was dead?
Mahtra lowered her head. She was cold and, worse than shivering, she felt alone, without the powerful patrons Father mentioned in his last words to her. Blinding pressure throbbed behind her eyes and strange high-pitched sounds brewed in her throat. She couldn't cry, but she couldn't stop trying, any more than she could bring back the makers' protection.
Suddenly, there was warmth, but not from within. The high templar had left her chair. She stood behind Mahtra, massaging her neck.
"How witless of me," the august emerita said. Lord Escrissar had used the same words in his apology after he'd left her alone with Kakzim. There was more pressure behind her eyes, more sound brewing in her sore throat. The coincidence had been too great; Mahtra couldn't bear the pain any longer. She slumped sideways, and only the considerable strength in the old templar's arm kept her from falling to the floor.
Mahtra was ready to tell someone—anyone—what had happened, but it was very difficult to keep her thoughts dear enough for the august emerita to understand without saying the words, however poorly, as they formed in her mind. And without her mask, Mahtra was too self-conscious to speak. So, when Bettin returned to the atrium with a plate of sliced fruits and other appetizing morsels, the high templar sent him off after the mask.
"You'll eat everything on that plate first, child."
Eating, like talking, made Mahtra uncomfortable, but the light of food had awakened her stomach and the august emerita was not a person to be disobeyed. Mahtra ate with her fingers, ignoring the sharp-edged knife and sharp-tined fork the slave, Bettin, had laid beside the plate. She'd seen much devices before, in other high templar residences, and knew they were more polite, more elegant, than fingertips. She was eleganta, though, not elegant, and she made do with sticking her fingers under the concealing folds of her thawl. The august emerita didn't say anything about Mahtra's manners; the august emerita seemed to have forgotten the had a guest.
Clutching an ornate walking-stick as if it were a weapon rather than a crutch, the old woman paced circles around her fountain and her trees. She wasn't the tallest human woman Mahtra had ever seen, but she was just about the straightest: her shoulders stayed square above her hips as she took-her measured steps, and her nose pointed forward only, never to either side, even when Mahtra accidently hudged her unused fork, and it skidded and clattered loudly to the mosaic floor.
Yet the august emerita was paying attention to her. She returned to her own chair on the opposite side of the table as soon as Mahtra had swallowed the last morsel of the last sweet-meat pastry. Bettin appeared, suddenly and silently, out of nowhere and disappeared the same way once he'd deposited Mahtra's mask on the table beside his master. Like her clothes and sandals, the mask had been carefully tended. Its leather parts had been oiled, the metal parts, polished, and the cinnabar-colored suede that would touch her skin once she fastened the mask on had been brushed until it was soft and fragrant again. The august emerita looked aside while Mahtra adjusted the clasps that held the mask in place.
"Now, child, from the beginning."
The beginning was a hot, barren wasteland, with the makers behind her and the unknown in front of her. It was running until she couldn't run anymore. It was falling onto her hands and knees, resting, then rising and running some more—
"The cavern, Mahtra. Begin again with the cavern however many days ago it was. You lived by the reservoir. You were going home. What happened? What did you see? What did this Father-person say to you?"
Perhaps it was only the sun moving overhead, but the creases in the august emerita's face seemed to have gotten deeper and her eyes even harder than they'd been before. She sat on the edge of her chair, as arrow-straight as she'd paced, with her palms resting lightly on the pommel of the walking stick. The pommel was carved in the likeness of a hooded snake with yellow gemstones for its eyes. Mahtra couldn't decide if the snake or the august emerita herself unnerved her more.
She went back to that not-so-long-ago morning and retraced her steps: cabra fruits, cinnabar beads, and Henthoren's eerie message. The snake's eyes didn't blink, and neither—or so it seemed—had the high templar's. Indeed, there was no reaction from the far side of the table until Mahtra came to the very end of her tale.
"... Father said he'd been killed with Mika and the others. He gave me an image of the man who'd killed them. He said... He said I had patrons who could make certain no one else was killed. I knew the man in Father's last image, Lord Escrissar's halfling slave, Kakzim. So I went to Lord Escrissar—to House Escrissar—to wait for him."
The august emerita was on her feet again, and pacing, holding her snake-stick but not using it. Her free hand rose to the medallion she wore, then fell to her side.
"You had no right to live there. The reservoir is a proscribed place; you saw King Hamanu's wards and circumvented them. The one you call 'Father,' broke the king's law living there and taking you there. Urik has places for those who cannot work or have no kin. They'd all be alive if they lived within the law where the templarate could protect them."
The august emerita's stick struck the mosaic a second time. "Ask him," she said, thereby reminding Mahtra that her thoughts were not private here.
She took her thoughts back to the cavern, then, and Father's last image.
"Yes, yes—" the old woman said wearily. "The wheels of fortune'? chariot turn fair and strange, child. None of you should have been living beside the reservoir, and you should have been among them when catastrophe struck. Had the wheel turned as it should have turned, there'd be no tale to tell or no one to tell it. But Kakzim... Damn Elabon!" She struck her stick loud enough to disturb her caged birds and insects. "He was warned."
Not knowing whether "he" was Kakzim or Lord Escrissar, Mahtra closed her eyes and tried very hard to think of neither man. It must have worked; the august emerita started pacing again.
"This is more than I can know: Elabon's mad slave and Urik's reservoir. I have been too long behind my own walls, do you understand me, Mahtra?"
Mahtra didn't, but she nodded, and the woman did not skim her thoughts to know she'd lied.
"I do not go to the bureau. I do not go to the court. I am emerita; I've put such things behind me. I cannot pick them up again. I mistook your purpose on his doorstep, child. I thought you were his, or carrying his, that's all. In my dreams I saw nothing like this. Damn Elabon!"
The old woman strode to a wall where hung several knotted silk ropes that Mahtra had not noticed before. She yanked on one that was twisted black and gold and another that was plain blue, then turned to Mahtra.
"Follow me. I will write a message for you. That is all I dare do. There would be too many questions, too much risk. There is only one who can look and listen and act."
A message for her, and written, too. Mahtra shivered as she rose from the table. Writing was forbidden. Lord Escrissar and Father both had warned her that she must never try to master its secrets; Lord Escrissar and Father had almost never given her the same advice. But the august emerita was going to write a message for her. Surely this was what Father meant when he said her powerful patrons would help her.
Mahtra snatched another cinnabar pebble from Ver's fountain, then hurried to keep up with the fast-striding woman. They wound up in a smaller room where the only furnishings were another table, another chair, and shelf upon shelf of identical chests, each with a green-glowing lock. On the wall behind the table someone had painted a fresco-portrait of Lord Hamanu. The Lion-King glowered at Mahtra through gemstone eyes while the august emerita snipped a corner off a fresh sheet of parchment and covered it with bold, red lines of ink.
Two more human slaves, neither of whom was Benin but who were like him in all other ways—lithe, tanned, and lightly scarred—joined them. Mahtra guessed that one of them was the blue rope while the other was the black-and-gold, but she had no way of knowing for certain, and the august emerita did not address them by name.
"You will accompany Mahtra to the palace. Show this to the sergeant at the gate, and the instigator, too—but don't give it to them, and don't let Mahtra out of your sight until you reach the golden doors. Stay with her. Show my words to anyone who challenges you."
She folded the parchment, struck a tinder stick with flint and steel, and then lit a shiny black candle. She sealed the parchment with a glistening blob of wax. One of the two slaves took the candle from her hand and extinguished it. The other handed her a stone rod as long as her forearm and topped with the carving of a skull. Black wax and a skull. The symbols and their meanings were inescapable: the august emerita was—or had been—a deadheart, a necromancer at the very least; but considering the way this necromancer plucked the thoughts of the living, more likely, an interrogator, like Lord Escrissar himself, and one of the Lion's cubs.
Mahtra cried out when the august emerita hammered the rod against the wax. She felt foolish immediately, but these two slaves were not the laughing, teasing sort that Bettin was. Or perhaps they, like her, were overwhelmed by the old woman's intentions.
"This should be sufficient." She handed the sealed parchment to the slave who'd held the rod. "It shouldn't be opened at all until you reach the golden doors. But if it is, remember the face well. Remember all their faces, their masks, their names, if you hear them."
No one had dared tamper with Kakzim. Not even the august emerita.
* * *
Sobered and chastened, Mahtra accompanied the two slaves from the templar quarter and through the wide-open gates of Hamanu's palace. The courtyard was as vast as the cavern, but open to the sky and dazzling in the midday sun. Here and there clots of templars, nobles, and wealthy merchants conducted their business. She recognized some of them. They recognized her by pretending not to. And though the air was dead still and the heat oppressive, Mahtra hid herself within her shawl.
They were hailed at the inner gate by a war bureau sergeant and a civil bureau instigator, each in a yellow robe with the distinctive and appropriate sleeve banding. The war bureau sergeant wanted to carry the message himself to the next post. He told the two slaves that they were dismissed, but he withdrew his order when the taller slave said:
"I will remember your face."
After that they traveled through a smaller courtyard where trees grew and fountains squandered their water. Threads of gold and copper were woven in the sleeves of the templars they encountered next, and more metal still in the sleeves of the third pair who stood at the mighty doors of the palace proper. Mighty doors, but not golden ones— Mahtra and her two companions were passed to a fourth and finally a fifth pair of templars—high templars, with masks and other-colored robes—before they came to a closed but unguarded pair of golden doors.
"You've done well," one of the masked templars said to the slaves. "Remember us to the august emerita. We wish her continued peace." He took the black-sealed parchment, then opened one of the golden doors. "Wait in here," he said, and as quickly as that, Mahtra was completely alone.
She found herself in an austere chamber no larger than the august emerita's atrium, but empty, save for a single black marble bench; and quiet, save for the gentle cascade of water flowing over the great black boulder in front of the bench. There was no source for the water. Its presence, its endless movement, had to be the manifestation of powerful magic.
Mahtra had learned a few useful things in House Escrissar, like where to sit when she didn't know what to expect next. She headed for that part of the wall that was farthest from the rock and yet afforded a clear view of the now-shut golden doors. It was no different than sitting on Lord Escrissar's doorsill, except the door was in front of her, not behind.
"Have you been waiting long?"
The doors hadn't opened, the young man hadn't come through them, and she nearly leapt out of her skin at the sound of his voice.
"Did I frighten you?"
She shook her head. Surprise was one thing, fright another, and she knew the difference well enough. He'd surprised her, but he wasn't frightening. With his lithe limbs and radiant tan, he could have been one of the august emerita's slaves, if his cheeks hadn't been as flawless as the rest of him. As he was, with those unmarked cheeks and wearing little more than his long, dark hair and a length of bleached linen wound around his body, she took him for eleganta, like herself.
"Who are you waiting for?" he asked, standing in front her and offering his hand.
Without answering the question, she accepted help she didn't need. He was stronger than Mahtra expected, leaving her with the sense of being set down on her feet rather than lifted up to them. Indeed, there seemed something subtly amiss in all his aspects, not a disguise, but not quite natural either. He was like no one she'd known, as different as she was, herself.
In the space of a heartbeat, Mahtra decided that the eleganta was made, not born. That he was what the makers meant when they called her a mistake.
"I am waiting for your lord, King Hamanu," she answered slowly and with all her courage.
"Ah, everybody waits for Hamanu. You may wait a long time."
He led her toward the bench where she sat down again, though he did not sit beside her.
"What will you tell him when he gets here? — If he gets here." "If I tell you, will you tell me about the makers?"
"Those makers," he said after a moment, confirming her suspicions and her hopes. "It's been a very long time, but I can tell you a little about them... after you tell me what you're going to tell Hamanu."
What he'd just told her was enough: a very long time. Made folk didn't grow up. She hadn't changed in the seven years she could remember. He hadn't changed in a very long time. They weren't like Father or the august emerita; they didn't grow old.
Mahtra began her story at the august emerita's beginning and this seemed to satisfy her made companion, though he interrupted, not because he hadn't understood, but with questions: How long had Gomer been selling her cinnabar beads? What did Henthoren look like and had she ever met any other elven market enforcers? Did she know the punishment for evading Hamanu's wards was death by evisceration?
She hadn't, and decided not to ask what evisceration was. He didn't tell her, either, and that convinced her that he wasn't skimming words from her mind, but understood her as Mika had.
When she had finished, he told her that the water-filled tavern was Urik's most precious treasure. "All Hamanu's might and power would blow away with the sand if anything fouled that water-hoard. He will reward you well for this warning."
Reward? What did Mahtra want with a reward? Father and Mika were gone. She had only herself to take care of, and she didn't need a reward for that. "I want to kill them," she said, surprising herself with the venom and anger in her voice. "I want to kill Kakzim."
A dark eyebrow arched gracefully, giving Mahtra a clearer view of a dark amber eye. His face was, if anything, more expressive than a born-human face, which told her what the makers could have done, if they hadn't made mistakes with her.
"Would you? Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy takes many forms. If you wish vengeance, Hamanu can arrange that, too."
The eleganta smiled then, a perfect, full-lipped smile that sent a chill down Mahtra's spine, and she thought she would take whatever reward the Lion-King offered, leaving the vengeance to others. His smile faded, and she asked for his side of their bargain.
"Tell me about the makers—you promised."
"They are very old; they were old when the Dragon was born, older still when he was made—"
Behind her mask, Mahtra gasped with surprise: one life, both born and made!
"Yes," he said, with a quick, almost angry, twitch of his chin. "They do not make life, they make changes, and their mistakes cannot be undone." He touched the leather of the mask. "But there are masks that cannot be seen. You could speak clearly through such a glamour. Hamanu would grant you that. But I must leave now. He will come, and I cannot be seen beside him."
And he was gone, before Mahtra could ask him his name or what he meant by masks that couldn't be seen. She didn't see him leave, any more than she'd seen him arrive. There was only a wind waft from the place where he'd been standing and a second against her back, which had been toward the golden doors.
Mahtra remained on the bench until she heard a commotion beyond the doors: the tramp of hard-soled sandals, the thump of spear-butts striking the stone floor at every other step, the deep-pitched bark of men issuing orders that were themselves muffled. A few words did penetrate the golden doors: "The Lion-King bestrides the world. Bow down! Bow down!" And though, at that moment, she would have preferred to hide behind the black boulder, Mahtra prostrated herself before the doors.
The doors opened, templars arrayed themselves with much foot-stamping and spear-pounding. They saluted their absolute ruler with a wordless shout and by striking the ribs over their hearts with closed fists. Mahtra heard every step, every salute, every slap of their leather armor against their bodies, but she kept her forehead against the floor, especially when a cold shadow fell over her back.
"I have read the message of Xerake, august emerita of the highest rank. I have heard the testimony of the woman, Mahtra—made of the Pristine Tower, and find it full of fear and truth, which pleases me and satisfies me in every way. My mercy flows. Rise, Mahtra, and ask for anything."
The first thing Mahtra noticed when she rose nervously to her feet was that King Hamanu was taller than the tallest elf and as brawny as the strongest mul. The second thing was that although he resembled his ubiquitous portraits in most ways, his face was less of a lion's and more of a man's. The third thing Mahtra noticed, and the thing that made her gasp aloud, was a pair of dark amber eyes beneath amusement-arched eyebrows. Vengeance? A mask that could not be seen? Or nothing at all, which she could hear Father's voice telling was the wisest course. That smile—full-lipped, perfect, and cruel— appeared on King Hamanu's face. For a heartbeat she felt hot and stiff as her innate protection responded to perceived threat, then she was cold as the cavern's water. The king brought his hands together over her head. She heard a sound like an egg cracking. Magic softer than her shawl spread over her head and down her body. It had no effect that she could see or feel, but when she tried to speak, even though she could not join two coherent thoughts together, the sounds themselves were soft-lipped and pleasant.
Pavek leaned on the handle of his hoe and appraised his morning's work with a heavy sigh. He'd shed his yellow robe over a year ago. Exactly how much over a year had become blurred in his memory. The isolated community of Quraite that had become Pavek's home had no use for Urik's ten-day market weeks or its administrative quinths. By the angle of the sun beating down on his shoulders, he guessed high-sun was upon the Tablelands and another year had begun, but he wasn't sure, and he no longer cared. He was farther from his birthplace than any street-scum civil bureau templar ever expected to find himself; he'd been reborn as a novice druid.
These days he measured time with plants, by how long they took to grow and how long they took to die. Elsewhere in Quraite, the plants he had spent all morning setting out in not-quite-straight rows would have been called weeds and not worthy of growth. The children of the community's farmers hacked weeds apart before throwing them into cess pits where they rotted with the rest of the garbage until the next planting phase when they'd be returned to the fields as useful fertilizer.
Farmers treated weeds the way templars treated Urik's street-scum, but druids weren't farmers or templars. Druids tended groves. They nurtured their plants not with fertilizer but with magic—usually in the form of stubbornness and sweat. Telhami's stubbornness and Pavek's sweat. Right now, his sweaty hide was rank enough to draw bugs from every grove and field in Quraite. He wanted nothing more than to retreat to the cool, inner sanctum of the grove where a stream-fed pool could sluice him clean and ease his aches.
Armor-plated mekillots would fly to the moons before Telhami let him off with half a day's labor in her grove. Telhami's grove—Pavek never thought of it as his, even though she'd bequeathed it to him with her dying wishes—was Quraite's largest, oldest, and least natural grove. It required endless nurturing.
Pavek suspected Telhami's grove reached backward through time. Not only was it much larger within than without, but the air felt different beneath its oldest trees. And how else to explain the variety of clouds that were visible only through these branches and the. gentle, regular rains that fell here, but nowhere else?
It was unnatural in less magical ways, too. Druids weren't content to guard their groves or enlarge them. No, druids seemed compelled to furbish and refurbish; their groves were never finished. They transplanted rocks as readily as they transplanted vegetation and meddled constantly with the water-flow, pursuing some arcane notion of 'perfect wilderness' that a street-scum man couldn't comprehend. In his less charitable moments, Pavek believed Telhami had chosen him to succeed her simply because she needed someone with big hands and a strong back to rearrange every rock, every stream, every half-grown plant.
Not that Pavek was inclined to complaint. Compared to the mul taskmaster who'd taught him the rudiments of the five templar weapons—the sword, the spear, the sickles, the mace, and a man-high staff—while he was still a boy in the orphanage, Telhami's spirit was both good-humored and easygoing in her nagging. More important, at the end of a day's labor, she became his mentor, guiding him through the maze of druid magic.
For all the twenty-odd years of his remembered life, Pavek had longed for magic—not the borrowed spellcraft that Urik's Lion-King granted his templars, but a magic of his own command. While he wore a regulator's yellow robe, he'd spent his off-duty hours in the archives, hunting down every lore-scroll he could find and committing it to his memory. When fate's chariot carried Pavek to Quraite, he'd seized the opportunity to learn whatever the druids would teach him. Under Telhami's guidance, he'd learned the names of everything that lived in the grove and the many, many names for water. He could call water from the ground and from the air. He could summon lesser creatures, and they'd eat tamely from his hand. Soon, Telhami promised, they'd unravel the mysteries of fire. How could Pavek dare complain? If he suffered frustration or despair, it wasn't his mentor's fault, but his own.
The permitted process was straight-forward enough: Dig up the weeds from an established part of the grove. Bring the bare-root stalks to the verge, and plant them here with all the hope a man could summon. If a weed established itself, then the grove would become one plant larger, one plant stronger, and the balance of the Tablelands would tilt one mote away from barrenness, toward fertility.
Day after day since Telhami died, Pavek weeded and planted little plots along the verge of her grove. In all that time, from all those hundreds and thousands of weeds, Pavek had tilted the balance by exactly one surviving plant: a hairy-leafed dustweed looming like the departed Dragon over the slips he had just planted. The dustweed was waist high now and in full, foul-smelling bloom. Pavek's eyes and nose watered when he got close to it, but he cherished the ugly plant as if it were his firstborn child. Still on his knees, he brushed each fuzzy leaf, pinching off the wilted ones lest they pass their weakness to the stem. With the tip of his little finger, he collected sticky, pale pollen from a fresh blossom and carefully poked it into the flower's heart.
"Leave that for the bugs, my ham-handed friend. You haven't got any talent for such sensitive things."
Pavek looked around to see a luminously green Telhami shimmering in her own light some twenty paces behind him, where the verge became the lush grove. He looked at his dustweed again without acknowledging her, giving all his attention to the next blossom.
Telhami wouldn't come closer. Her spirit was bound by the magic of the grove and the grove didn't extend to the dustweed....
"You're a sentimental fool, Just-Plain Pavek. You'll be I talking to them next, and giving them names."
He chuckled and kept working. Other than Telhami, only the half-elf, Ruari, and the human boy, Zvain, treated him anything like the man he'd always been. And Telhami was the only person, living or dead, who still used the name he claimed when he first sought refuge here. To the rest of Quraite he was Pavek, the glorious hero of the community's desperate fight against High Templar Elabon Escrissar. In the moment of Quraite's greatest need, when the community's defenses were nearly overrun, when druid and farmer alike had conceded defeat in their hearts, Pavek had called on Hamanu the Lion-King of Urik. He surrendered his spirit to become the living instrument of a sorcerer-king's deadly magic. Then, in a turn of events that seemed even more miraculous in the minds of the surviving Quraiters, Pavek had delivered the community from its deliverer.
Pavek hadn't done any such thing, of course. King Hamanu came to Quraite for his own reasons and departed the same way. The Lion-King had ignored them since, which made a one-time templar's heart skip a beat whenever he thought about it.
But there was no point in denying his heroism among the Quraiters or expecting them to call him Just-Plain Pavek again. He'd tried and they'd attributed his requests and denials to modesty, which had never been a templar's virtue, or—worse—to holiness, pointing out that Telhami had, after all, bequeathed the high druid's grove to him, not Akashia.
Until that fateful day when Hamanu walked into Quraite and out again, every farmer and druid would have sworn that Akashia was destined to be their next high druid. Pavek had expected it himself. Like Pavek, Akashia was an orphan, but she'd been born in Quraite and raised by Telhami. At eighteen, Kashi knew more about druidry than Pavek hoped to learn with the rest of his life, and though beauty was not important to druids or to Kashi herself, Pavek judged her the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
And as for how Akashia judged him...
"You're wasting time, Just-Plain Pavek. There's work to be done. There'll be no time for lessons if you stay there mooning over your triumphs."
Pavek wanted his lessons, but he stayed where he was, staring at the dustweed and getting himself under control before he faced Telhami again. He didn't know how much privacy his thoughts had from the grove's manifest spirit; he didn't ask. Telhami never mentioned Akashia directly, only needled him this way when he wandered down morose and hopeless paths.
If Pavek couldn't deny that he'd become a hero to the Quraiters, then he shouldn't deny, at least to himself, that right after the battle he'd hoped Kashi would accept him as her partner and lover. She had turned to him for solace while Telhami lay dying, and he'd laid his heart bare for her, as he'd never done—never been tempted to do—with anyone. Then, when Telhami made her decision, Kashi turned away from him completely. She wouldn't speak with him privately or meet his eyes. If he approached, she retreated, until Pavek retreated as well, nursing a pain worse than any bleeding wound.
These days, Kashi kept counsel and company strictly with herself. Quraite's reconstruction had become her life, and for that she needed workers, not partners. As for love, well, if Akashia needed any man's love, she kept her needs well hidden, and Pavek stayed out of her way. He spent one afternoon in four drilling the Quraiters in the martial skills Kashi wanted them to have; otherwise Pavek came to the village at supper, then returned to the grove to sleep with starlight falling on his face.
It was easier for them both.
Easier. Better. Wiser. Or so Pavek told himself whenever he thought about it, which was as seldom as possible. But the truth was that he'd give up Telhami's grove in a heartbeat if Kashi would invite him to hers.
A wind-gust swirled out of the grove. It slapped Pavek smartly across the cheek—Telhami was annoyed with his dawdling and guessed, he hoped, at the reasons. He dusted off the pollen and retrieved his hoe. A stone-pocked path led from the verge to the heart of the grove—Telhami's magic from his first days here when he'd spent most of his time getting lost. This one path would take him anywhere in the grove, anywhere that Telhami wanted him to go. He veered off it at his own risk, even now. Telhami's grove abounded with bogs and sumps as dank as any Urik midden hole. Such places were home to nameless creatures that regarded the grove's current, under-talented druid as Just-Another Meal.
There was a black-rock chasm somewhere near the grove's heart—he'd come upon it from both sides without ever finding a way across. And a rainbow-shrouded waterfall that he'd like to visit again, except that it had taken him three days to find the path out.
Stick to the path, Akashia had snarled when he'd finally returned to Quraite, tired and hungry after that misadventure. Do what she tells you. Don't make trouble for me.
He'd told her about the misty colors and the exhilaration he'd felt when he stood on a rock with the breathtakingly cold water plummeting around him. Foolishly and without asking, he'd taken her hand, wanting to show her the way while it was still fresh in his memory.
Do what you want in Telhami's grove, she'd said, as hateful and bitter as any Urik templar. Wander where you will. Sit under your waterfall and never come back, if you think there's nothing more important to be done. But don't drag me after you. I don't care.
Pavek couldn't remember the waterfall without also remembering Kashi's face contorted with scorn. He'd tried to find his way back, to restore himself in the pure beauty of the place, but he couldn't remember the way. She'd seared the landmarks from his mind.
It wasn't right. His old adversaries in the templarate could have a man's eyes gouged out if he looked at them wrong, but, except for the deadheart interrogators, they left his memories alone.
Another gust of wind struck Pavek's cheek.
"Work, that's what you need, Just-Plain Pavek. Escrissar's havoc isn't all mended yet, not by a long shot. There's a stream not too far from here. He knocked down the trees along its banks; now it's dammed and stagnant. Can't count on anything natural to set it flowing again, not here in the Tablelands. The channel needs to be cleared and the banks need to be shored up."
With one last thought for the waterfall, Pavek followed today's path into the grove. He'd never been one for rebellion. Following orders had kept him alive in Urik; it would keep him alive in Quraite as well.
A little walking on Telhami's path and Pavek came to a place where a mote of Elabon Escrissar's wrath had come to ground beside what been a stand of sweet-nut trees beside a brook. The trees were all down, black with mold, and crawling with maggots. Their trunks had dammed the brook, turning it into a choked, scummy pond. An insect haze hovered above the mottled green water and the stench of rotting meat weighed down the air.
Compared to the other places where Escrissar's malice had struck the grove, this place was healthy and almost serene. There was no danger here, only the hard work of getting the water to flow again. Evidently, Telhami had been saving this particular mess for a day when she thought he needed the kind of distraction only exhaustion could bring. Pavek wondered how many such places she held in reserve, how many he'd need before he could think of Kashi without sinking into his own mire.
Telhami shimmered into sight atop one of the decaying trees. "Get the water flowing. Work with the land rather than against it." Time was that Pavek wouldn't have known what to look for and she would have fed him clues. Now she expected him to resolve messes on his own. He dropped to one knee and surveyed the land with his own squinted eyes. There was nothing he could do for the fallen trees, but he could see the way the stream used to flow and he could get it flowing again.
"Brilliant, Just-Plain Pavek, just-plain brilliant," the shimmering sprite mocked him from her perch. "You'll run out of blood before you run out of bugs!"
Much as Pavek loved the sensations of druid magic flowing through him, druidry might never be the first thought in his mind when he confronted a problem. Feeling foolish, he closed his eyes and pressed his palms into the mud. Quraite's guardian was there, waiting for him.
Elsewhere, Pavek thought, adding the image of another scummy pond that might, or might not, exist somewhere in the grove. The guardian's power rose into Pavek and out of him. It stirred the bugs, gathering them into a buzzing, blurred ribbon of life that abandoned Pavek without resistance or hesitation. Flushed with his own success, Pavek sat down on his heel, sighing as residual power drained back into the land.
Every place had a guardian; that was the foundation of druidry. Every tree, every stone had its spirit. When the Tablelands had teemed with life, the guardians of the land had been lively, too. In the current age of sun-battered and lifeless barrens, druids could still draw upon the land for their power, but except in places like Quraite, where the groves retained a memory of ancient vigor, the guardians they touched were shattered. Those guardians that weren't weak were mad and apt to pass that madness to a druid who associated too closely with them.
Quraite's guardian had no personality of its own that Pavek had been able to discover. Telhami, by her own admission, was only a small aspect of its power and sanity. Pavek suspected that every druid who died in Quraite became part of the guardian, and a few Quraiters who weren't druids as well. He'd sensed another aspect from time to time: Yohan, the dwarven veteran who'd died that day when Escrissar attacked. In life, Akashia had been Yohan's focus, the core of loyalty and purpose all dwarves needed. In death, he still protected her, not as a banshee, but as an aspect of the guardian.
"On your feet, Just-Plain Pavek, or the bugs'll be back before you've moved a stick!"
Pavek got to his feet. Telhami was right, as she usually was. There was nothing to be gained by thinking of the dead who protected Quraite—or Akashia, whom he would personally protect, if she'd let him. After shedding his belt and weapons, Pavek waded into the pond. One afternoon wasn't enough to get the stream flowing swiftly again, but before the sun was sinking into the trees, he'd hauled away enough debris to get water seeping through the dam in several places.
"A little luck," he told the green-skinned spirit on an overhead branch, "and the stream will do the rest of the work for us."
"You're a lazy, lazy man," she replied with approving pride.
The path took an easy route back to the clearing Pavek called home. There was a stream-fed pool for water, a sandy hearth, and a rickety lean-to where he stored the hoe beside his sword. He'd thrown his sweated clothes into the pool and was about to follow them when the leaves on the nearby trees began to shiver and the grass bent low.
"Someone's coming," Telhami said from the rocky rim of the pool.
Pavek bent down and swept his hands through the grass. He cocked his head, listening to the leaves. Telhami knew who was coming and, after another moment of listening, he did as well. "Not someone," he corrected. "Zvain and Ruari."
"Running or walking?"
He touched the grass a second time and answered: "Running."
Ruari had his own grove, as befitted a novice druid. He had trees and shrubs, the familiar wildlife that half-elves always attracted, and a pool of water not much bigger than he was. It certainly wasn't large enough to entertain two energetic youths, since Zvain spent most of his time in Ruari's shadow, having no gift for druid magic.
Pavek wasn't surprised that they were coming to visit him. Half the time they were already in Telhami's pool by the time he returned from the grove's depths. But he was surprised that they were running. The druid groves were only a small part of Quraite, and between the groves the land was blasted by the bloody sun, just like every other place in the Tablelands. Usually, Quraiters walked, like everyone else, unless they had good reason to run. He snagged his shirt before it drifted downstream and started to follow the bending grass toward the verge.
He hadn't taken ten steps before Ruari burst through the underbrush, running easily right past Pavek to leap fully clothed into the pool. Zvain came along a few heartbeats later—a few of Pavek's heartbeats. The boy was red-faced and panting from the chase. Ruari might never be able to run with his mother's elven Moonracer tribe, but no mere human was going to catch him in a fair race: an inescapable fact that Zvain had failed to grasp. Extending an arm, Pavek caught the boy before he flung himself into the chilly water.
Somewhere between Urik and the grove, between then and now, Pavek had become the closest thing to a father any of the three of them had ever known, though only the same handful of years separated him and Ruari as separated Ruari and Zvain. The transformation mystified Pavek more than any demonstration of druidry, especially on those rare occasions when one of them actually listened to anything he said. Zvain leaned against him and would have collapsed if Pavek hadn't kept an arm hooked around his ribs.
"He said it wasn't a race—" Zvain muttered miserably between gasps.
"And you believed him? He's a known liar, and you're a known fool!"
"He gave me a twenty-count lead. I thought—I thought I could beat him."
"I know," Pavek consoled, thumping Zvain gently on the top of his sweaty head.
It wasn't so long ago that he'd been having pretty much the same conversation with Ruari, who'd nurtured the same futile hope of besting his elven cousins at their games. Life was better for the half-elf now. Like Pavek, Ruari had become a hero. He'd rallied the Quraiters to defend Pavek while Pavek summoned the Don-King. Then, when Escrissar's mercenaries had been annihilated, he'd gone to Akashia's aid, helping her to direct the guardian's power against Escrissar himself after Telhami had collapsed.
The past two sun phases had been kind to Ruari in other ways, also. The half-elf could no longer be mistaken for a gangly erdlu in its first molt. He'd stopped growing and was putting some human flesh on his spindly elven bones. His hair, skin, and eyes, were a study in shades of copper. There wasn't a woman in Quraite—young or old, daughter or wife—who hadn't tried to capture his attention, and the Moonracer women were almost as eager. Ruari had grown into one of those rare individuals who could quiet a crowd by walking through it.
No wonder Zvain ached with envy; Pavek felt that way himself sometimes. The two of them were both typical of Urik's human stock: solid and swarthy, good for moving rocks rather than the hearts of women. Zvain had an ordinary face that could blend into any crowd, which, by Pavek's judgment, was an advantage he himself had lost before he escaped the templar orphanage. The stupidest fight of a brawl-prone youth had left him with a gash that wandered from the outside corner of his right eye and across the bridge of an oft-broken nose before it came to an end at his upper lip. Years later, the scar hurt when the wind blew a storm down from the north, and his smile would never be more than a lopsided sneer. He'd put that sneer to good use when he wore a yellow robe, but here among the gentler folk of Quraite he was embarrassed and ashamed.
Ruari surfaced with a swirl and a splash of water that pelted Pavek and Zvain where they stood.
"Cowards!" he taunted, which was enough to get Zvain moving.
Pavek hung back, waiting for the other pair to become engrossed in their bravado games before he stepped down into the pool. A stream-fed pool still unnerved a man who'd grown up never seeing water except in calf-deep fountains, sealed cisterns, or hide buckets hauled out of ancient, bottomless wells. Zvain loved water; he'd learned to splash and swim as if water were a natural part of his world. Pavek liked water well enough, provided it didn't rise higher than his knees. And at that depth, of course, he couldn't learn to swim.
Early on, Pavek had hauled a rock into the shallows where, left to his own preferences, he'd sit and enjoy the current flowing around him. Sometimes—about one time in three—his companions would leave him alone. Today was not one of Pavek's lucky times. They double-teamed him, sweeping their arms through the cold water, inundating him repeatedly until he struck back. Then, Zvain wrapped his arms like twin water-snakes around Pavek's ankle and pulled him into the deep, dark water of the pool's center.
He roared, fought, and splashed his way back to the shallows, which merely signalled the start of another round of boisterous fun. Pavek trusted them to keep him from drowning—the first time in his life that he'd trusted anyone with his life. He trusted Telhami as well. The other two couldn't perceive the old druid's spirit, but Pavek could hear her sparkling laughter circling the pool. She wasn't above lending the youths an extra slap of water to keep him off-balance, but she'd help him, too, by making the deep water feel solid beneath his feet, if he breathed wrong and began to panic.
The fun lasted until they were all too exhausted to stand and sat dripping instead on the rocks.
"You should learn to swim," Ruari advised.
Pavek shook his head, then raked his rough-cut black hair away from his face. "I keep things the way they are so you'll stand a chance against me. If I could swim, you'd drown— you know that." Snorting laughter, Ruari jabbed an elbow between Pavek's ribs. "Try me. You talk big, Pavek, but that's all you do.
Yet when Ruari slipped and started to fall, Pavek's hand was there to catch him before any damage could be done.
"You two are kank-head fools," Zvain announced when the three of them were sitting again. "Can't you do anything without going after each other?"
Zvain wasn't the first youth, human or otherwise, whose need for attention got in the way of his good sense. Needing neither words nor any other form of communication, Pavek and Ruari demonstrated that they didn't need to fight with each other, not when they could join forces to torment their younger, smaller companion. It was a thoughtless, spontaneous reaction, and although Pavek reserved his full strength from the physical teasing, Zvain was no match for him or Ruari alone, much less together. After a few moments, Zvain was in full, sulking retreat to the pool's far side where he sat with his knees drawn up and his forehead resting between them.
The youngster didn't have a secure niche in the close-knit community. Unlike Pavek and Ruari, he hadn't been a hero during Quraite's dark hours. Following a path of disaster and deceit, Zvain had become Elabon Escrissar's pawn before Ruari, Pavek, and Yohan spirited him out of Urik. He'd opened his mind to his master as soon as he arrived in the village. Although Zvain was as much victim as villain, in her wrath and judgment, Telhami had shown him no mercy.
Young as he was, she'd imprisoned Zvain here, in her grove.
He'd lived through nights of the guardian's anger and Escrissar's day-long assault. Ruari said he was afraid of the dark still and had screaming nightmares that woke the whole village. Akashia still wanted to drive the boy out to certain death on the salt flats they called the Fist of the Sun. Kashi had her own nightmares and Zvain was a part of them, however duped and unwitting he'd been at the time. But the heroes of Quraite said no, especially Pavek whom she'd once accused of having no conscience.
So Zvain stayed on charity and sufferance. He couldn't learn druidry—even if he hadn't been scared spitless of the guardian, his nights in this grove had burned any talent out of him. The farmers made bent-finger luck signs when the boy's shadow fell on them; they refused to let him set foot in the fields. That left Ruari, who had his own problems, and Pavek, who spent most of his time in this grove, avoiding Akashia.
A vagrant breeze rippled across the pool and Zvain's shoulders. The boy cringed; Pavek did, too. There was only one good reason for Pavek to return to Urik and the Lion-King's offer of wealth and power in the high bureau: Zvain's misery here in Quraite. It wasn't noticeable when the boy was whooping and hightailing after Ruari, but watching that lump of humanity shrink deeper into the grass was almost more than Pavek could bear.
"Let's go," he said, rising to his feet and retrieving the shirt he'd thrown on the grass. Ruari hauled himself out of the pool, but Zvain stayed where he was. "Talk to him, will you?" he asked the half-elf as he wrung the shirt out before pulling it over his head.
Ruari grumbled but did as he was asked, crouching down in the grass beside Zvain, exchanging urgent whispers that ignited Pavek's own doubts as he bent down to lace his sandals. Those doubts seemed suddenly justified when he looked up again and saw them standing together with a single guilty expression shared across their two faces.
"Give it up," he snarled and started toward the verge.
There was another frantic exchange of whispers, then Ruari cleared his throat vigorously. "You should maybe bring your sword...."
Pavek stopped short. "What for?" But he headed for the lean-to without waiting for an answer. "I'm not teaching you swordplay, Ru. I've told you that a thousand times already."
"I know. It's not for me," Ruari admitted softly. "Kashi wants you to bring it. There might be trouble. There's something out on the Sun's Fist."
"Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy!" Pavek swore, adding other, more colorful oaths he hadn't used much since coming to Quraite. He glanced into the nearest trees where there was no sign of Telhami. She was a part of the guardian; she could sense what was happening out on the brutal salt plain as easily as she had sensed Ruari and Zvain approaching earlier. He thought she would have told him if there was any danger. "When? Where? Riders? How many?" he asked when he had the sword buckled around his waist and neither of his glum companions had volunteered more information. "Moonracers?"
"Who, Ruari? Who does Akashia say is out on the Fist? Damn it, Ruari—answer me! Did she send you out here with that message? that warning? and you decided to ignore it?"
"I forgot, that's all. Wind and fire, Pavek—whoever it is, they're on the salt; they won't be here until after sundown, if they don't melt and die first."
"She wasn't really worried or nothing," Zvain added in his friend's defense. "She just said there's someone on the Fist, coming straight toward us like an arrow, and that we—"
He gulped and corrected himself; Akashia never talked to him. "That Ru should come out here and get you. There's lots of time."
"In your dreams, Zvain! Lots of time for her to decide where she's going to hang our heads. Don't you two ever learn?"
It wasn't a fair question. Zvain couldn't sink any lower in Akashia's estimation. Likely as not, the boy wouldn't complain if things came to a head and Akashia exiled the three of them together. And as for Ruari...
Ruari and Akashia had grown up together, and though it had always seemed to Pavek that she treated the half-elf more like a brother than a prospective suitor, Ruari had made no secret of his infatuation. Before they became heroes, they'd been rivals, in Ruari's mind at least. The half-elf's hopes had soared once Kashi turned her back on Pavek. He'd courted her with flowers and helpfulness. Pavek thought he'd won her, but something had gone wrong, and now Akashia treated Ruari no better than she treated him. Ruari had every woman in the village swooning at his feet. Every woman except the one that mattered.
"Never mind," Pavek concluded. "Let's just get moving."
They did, covering the barrens at a steady trot with the sword slapping, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, against Pavek's thigh. He kept an eye on the horizon where dust plumes would betray travelers approaching Quraite in a group. But the air there was quiet, and so was the village as they approached through the manicured, green fields. Folk paused in their work to greet Pavek and Ruari, ignoring Zvain, which made the boy understandably sullen.
Maybe it was time to go back to Urik—not forever, not to accept the Lion-King's offer, but for Zvain. The boy would be better off returning to his old life, scrounging under Gold Street, than surrounded by scorn in Quraite. Pavek knew he was telling himself a lie, a choice between scorn and scrounging was no choice at all. He'd have to come up with something better, or convince himself that Zvain's fate was no concern of his.
He swung an arm around Zvain's shoulders, trying to reel him in for a reassuring hug and wound up wrestling with him instead. Ruari joined in, and they were fully absorbed in their own noisy games as they came into the village-proper.
"It's taken you long enough to get here!"
A woman's voice brought them all to a shame-faced halt.
"We came as soon as I heard the message. I was deep in the grove," Pavek lied quickly. "They had to wait for me to get back to the pool."
"Quraite could have been destroyed by now," Akashia countered, believing the lie, Pavek guessed, but unpersuaded by it.
He guessed, as well, that Quraite's destruction would take more than an afternoon. Rather than pull down or fill in barricades and ditches they'd thrown up before their battle against Escrissar, Akashia had given orders to expand. Quraite had surrendered fertile fields to permanent fortifications. By the time she was satisfied, finished, there'd be two concentric elf-high berms around the village with a palisade atop the inner one and a barrier of sharpened stakes lining the ditch between them.
"You're supposed to set an example, Pavek," she continued. "Your grove is the very center of Quraite. If you don't care, why should anyone else? They follow your example. Not just Ruari and—"
But Akashia wouldn't say Zvain's name, not even during a tirade. The boy hid behind Pavek.
"Not just these two, but all the rest. You should be wary all the time."
"Telhami wasn't worried," Pavek snapped quickly, thinking more about Zvain than the effect his words were going to have on Akashia. He might have gut-punched her for the look of shock and pain that came down over her face.
"Sorry I said anything," Pavek apologized, ignoring the fist Zvain thumped against his spine. "I know it's hard for you, not having Telhami's grove, or her to talk to. If there's anything you need to ask, I can—"
Once again he'd said precisely the wrong thing.
"I don't need your help, high templar of Urik!"
His jaw dropped; she'd never called him that before.
"Well, that is you, isn't it? There's a woman coming across the Sun's Fist, bound straight for Quraite as if she knows exactly where it lies, and there's only one thought in her head: Find Pavek, high templar of Urik! Not the erstwhile templar, not the just-plain civil bureau templar, but high templar. Why not make yourself useful: Go out there and welcome her."
Pavek was speechless. His hands rose and fell in futile gestures of confusion. He certainly didn't know who was coming. If there was any substance to Telhami's shimmering green body, he was going to grab her and shake her until her teeth rattled, but until then, all he could do was mutter something incoherent in Akashia's direction and start walking toward the Fist, with Ruari and Zvain clinging to his shadow.
Salt sprites still danced on the Sun's Fist—short-lived spirals of sparkling powder that swirled up from the flats and glowed like flames in the dying light of sunset. In the east, golden Guthay had already climbed above the horizon. Pavek spread his arms, stopping his young companions before they strode from the hard, dun-colored dirt of the barrens onto the dead-white salt. With the moon rising, there'd be ample light for finding their visitor and no need to risk themselves on the Fist until the sun was well set.
"Who do you think it is?" Ruari asked while they waited.
Pavek shook his head. He hadn't left any women behind who would come looking for him; none at all who might know him as a high templar. That was an unwelcome title that Lord Hamanu had bestowed upon him, which implied—to Pavek's great discomfort—that Lord Hamanu had sent the messenger, too.
He strained his eyes staring Urik-ward. There was nothing there to be seen, not yet. He consoled himself with the knowledge that Telhami must have known and that while she would tease and test him relentlessly, her mischievous-ness didn't include exposing Quraite to danger.
"Maybe she's dead," Zvain suggested, adding a melodramatic cough to indicate the way her death might have occurred.
Ruari countered with: "Maybe she got lost, or maybe she will get lost. The guardian reaches this far, Pavek. It could cloud her mind, if you don't want to meet her, and she'd wander till her bones baked."
"Thanks for the thought, but I doubt it," Pavek said with a bitter laugh. "If not wanting to meet her were enough, Akashia would have done it already."
If Just-Plain Pavek had been a wagering man—which he wasn't—he'd have wagered everything he owned that Akashia had done her best to direct the guardian's power against their visitor. That power was formidable, but it wasn't infallible or insurmountable. Elabon Escrissar wouldn't have been able to find Quraite, much less attack it, if he hadn't been able to pawn Zvain off on him, Ruari, and Yohan while they were distracted rescuing Akashia from Escrissar. But once Zvain was in Quraite he opened his mind to his master. From that moment forward, Escrissar had known exactly where to bring his mercenary force, and there was nothing Quraite's guardian could do to cloud his mind.
Likewise, Lord Hamanu had apparently known of Quraite's existence. He'd asked after Telhami by name immediately after he'd disposed of Escrissar and chided her gently about the village's sorry condition. But even the Lion of Urik hadn't known where Quraite was until Pavek had unslung his medallion and shown the way. The mind of a sorcerer-king was, perhaps, the most unnatural, incomprehensible entity Pavek could imagine, but he was certain Lord Hamanu hadn't forgotten any of them, or where they lived.
The sun was gone. The last salt sprites dissolved into powder that would sleep until dawn. Countless shades of lavender and purple dyed the heavens as the evening stars awakened. Pavek recognized their patterns, but he took his bearings from the land itself before he started across the Fist.
There were two places in this world whose location Pavek believed he would always know. Quraite, behind him, was one. He could see green-skinned Telhami in his mind's eye and calm his own pounding heart in the slow, steady rhythms of life that had endured longer than the Dragon. The other place was Urik, but then, Pavek had roused a guardian spirit in Urik, too, much to Telhami's surprise.
The path between Urik and Quraite was a sword-edge in Pavek's mind: straight, sharp, and unwavering. As far as he knew, he was the only one walking it, but if there were a woman coming the other way, they'd meet soon enough.
Heat abandoned the salt as quickly as the sun's light. They hadn't walked far before the ground was cool beneath their feet and they were grateful for the shirts on their backs. A little bit farther, when the sky had dimmed to deep indigo and the stars were as bright as the moon, Pavek heard the sounds he'd dreaded. Zvain heard them, too, and as he'd done in the face of Akashia's scorn, he tucked himself into Pavek's midnight shadow.
"The Don's bells," the boy whispered.
Pavek grunted his agreement. Most folk who dared the Tableland barrens did so discreetly, striving not to attract the attention of predatory men and beasts. It was otherwise with Lord Hamanu's personal minions. They carried bells—tens, even hundreds of ceramic bells, stone bells, and bells made from rare metals—that announced their passage, and their patron, across the empty land. During Pavek's ten years in the orphanage and ten subsequent years in the civil bureau, he knew of only one time that Urik's official messengers had been waylaid.
Lord Hamanu had hunted the outlaws personally and brought the lot of them—a clutch of escaped slaves: men, women, and their children—back to Urik in wicker cages. With his infinitesimal mercy, the Lion-King could have slain the outlaws in a thousand different and horrible ways, but Urik's king had no mercy where his minion-messengers were concerned. He ordered the cages slung above the south gate. The captives had all the water they wanted, but no protection from the sun or the Urikites, and no food, except each other as they starved, one by one. As Pavek recalled, it was two quinths before the last of them died, but the cages had dangled for at least a year, a warning to every would-be miscreant, before the ropes rotted through and the gnawed bones finally spilled to the ground.
Quraite would deal fairly with its uninvited visitor, or suffer the consequences. Pavek swallowed hard and kept walking.
Ruari saw them first, his elven inheritance giving him better night vision and an advantage in height over his human companions.
"What are they?" he asked, adding an under-breath oath of disbelief. "They can't be kanks."
But they were; seven of them spread out in an arrowhead formation. Seven, and all of them bearing travel-swathed riders. And Kashi had sensed only one mind, blaring its intentions as it moved closer to Quraite. That implied magic, either mind-benders who could conceal their thoughts and presence, or templars drawing the Lion-King's power through their medallions, or defilers who transformed plant-life into sterile ash in order to cast their spells. Then again, Urik's king had a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness; he might have sent two of each.
Hamanu had definitely spared nothing to make certain his messenger reached her destination. His kanks were the giants of their kind, and laden with supply bundles in addition to their riders. Their chitin was painted over with bright enamels that glistened in the moonlight and, of course, hung with clattering bells.
When they needed transportation, the druids of Quraite bartered for or bought kanks from the Moonracer tribe. The elven herders were justly proud of their shiny black kanks, selectively bred for endurance and adaptivity. Lord Hamanu, however, wasn't interested in a bug that could run for days on end with nothing but last-year's dried scrub grass to sustain it. The Lion-King of Urik wanted big bugs, powerful bugs, bugs that made a man think twice before he approached them. And what the Lion wanted, the Lion got.
And Pavek would get, too, if he returned to Urik, because these were the bugs that the high templars and the ranking officers of the war bureau rode. The thought made Pavek's knees wobbly as he stood his ground in front of the advancing formation.
The kanks chittered among themselves, a high-pitched drone louder than all the bells combined. They clashed their crescent-hooked mandibles, a gesture made more menacing by the yellow phosphorescence that oozed out of their mouths to cover them. There were worse poisons in the Tablelands, but dead was dead, and kank drool was potent enough to kill. Pavek loosened his sword in its scabbard and wrapped his right hand around its hilt. "In the name of all Quraite, who goes?" he demanded.
"I can't see their faces," Ruari advised with his better nightvision. "They're all slumped over. I don't like this—"
The lead kank—the biggest one, naturally, with mandibles that could slice through a man's neck or thigh with equal ease—took exception to Pavek's weapon. With its antennae flailing, it emitted an ear-piercing drone and sank its weight over its four hindmost legs.
"It's going to charge," Ruari shouted in unnecessary warning.
"You've entered the guarded lands of Quraite! Hospitality is offered. Stand down," Pavek shouted with less authority than he would have liked to hear in his voice. He had the sword drawn, but he and the other two with him were doomed if he had to use it. "Stand down, now!"
The kank reared, brandishing the pincer claws on its front legs. Pavek's breath froze in his throat, then, to his complete astonishment, the kank's hitherto silent, motionless rider hove sideways and tumbled helplessly to the ground, like a sack of grain. That was all the signal Ruari needed. He wasn't fool enough to use druidry in competition with a rider's prod, but if the riders weren't in control, he knew the spells.
Pavek felt his heart skip a beat as Ruari drew upon the guardian's power. He muttered a few words—mnemonics shaping the power and directing it—to create rapport between himself and the bugs. The now-riderless kank dropped to all six feet with a clatter of chitin and bells as Ruari began weaving his arms about. One by one the kanks began to echo his movements with their antennae. Their clashing mandibles slowed, then stopped, and high-pitched chittering faded into silence.
"Good work!" Pavek exclaimed, pounding Ruari on the shoulder hard enough to send him sprawling, but there was a grin on the half-elf's face when he stood up. Pavek was as pleased with himself for remembering the niceties of friendship as he was that Ruari had saved their lives.
With the danger past and the niceties disposed of, there were questions to be answered. Keeping a wary eye on the huge, drowsy kank, Pavek scabbarded his sword and knelt down beside the fallen rider. He got his first answer when, as he rolled the body over, the rider's heavy robe opened. There was a handspan's worth of dark thread intricately woven into a light-colored right-side sleeve. The war bureau wore its ranks on the right and though the patterns were difficult to read, Pavek guessed he was looking at a militant templar, if he was lucky, a pursuivant, if he wasn't—and he usually wasn't lucky.
The robe slipped through his suddenly stiff fingers: old habits getting the better of him. Third-rank regulators of the civil bureau didn't lay hands on war bureau officers. Chiding himself that he was neither in Urik nor a third-rank regulator, Pavek got his hands under the templar's body to finish rolling it over. From the inert weight, he was prepared to see a man's face, even prepared to look down at a corpse. He wasn't prepared for the dark, foul liquid that spilled from the corpse's mouth and nose. It had already soaked the front of his robe and shirt. Pavek's hands holding the robe became damp and sticky.
Men died from the bright, brutal heat on the Sun's Fist— Pavek had nearly died there himself the first time he came across it—but he didn't think anything nearly so natural had killed this man.
"Is he—?" Zvain asked and Pavek, who hadn't known the boy was so close, leapt to his feet from the shock.
"Very," he replied, trying to sound calm.
"May I—May I search him?"
Pavek started to rake his hair, then remembered his fingers and looked for something to wipe them on instead. "Search, not steal, you understand? Everything you find has got to go back to Urik, or we'll have the war bureau hunting our hides as well." He left a dark smear on the kank's enameled chitin.
The boy pursed his lips and jutted his chin, instantly defensive, instantly belligerent. "I'm not stupid"
"Yeah, well—see that you stay that way."
He headed for the next kank and another bloody, much-decorated templar: a dwarf whose lifeless body, all fifteen stones of it, started to fall the moment he touched it. Cursing and shoving for all he was worth, Pavek kept the corpse on top of the kank, but only after he'd gotten himself drenched in stinking blood.
"This one's dead, too," Ruari shouted from the far end of the kank formation.
"Is it a woman?" Pavek wiped his forearms on the trailing hem of the dwarf's robe. "Akashia said a woman was coming."
"No, a man, a templar, and, Pavek, he's got a damned fancy yellow shirt. You think, maybe, there's someone else out here?" "Not a chance. The Lion's the one who changed my rank. These are his kanks, his militants. He's the one who's sending Quraite a messenger. Keep looking."
The saddle had been burnt down to its mix bone frame, although the chitin on which it sat was unharmed, suggesting that the incineration had been very fast, very precise. A leather sack protruded slightly from a hollowed-out place below the pommel, a stowaway of some sort that had been exposed when the padding burned. A few iridescent markings lingered on the sack. Pavek couldn't decipher them, but with the rest, he was fairly certain Lord Hamanu had sent a defiler along with the templars. The defiler's apparent fate confirmed his suspicion that nothing natural had befallen these travelers.
There was another, larger sack attached to the rear of the saddle. The high bureau's seven interlocking circles were stamped in gold on its side. Usually such message satchels were sealed with magic, but there was no magical glamour hovering about the leather, and thinking its contents might tell them something about Lord Hamanu's message, Pavek looked around for a stick with which to prod it open.
He'd just found one when Ruari erupted with a streak of panicky oaths. Casting the stick aside and drawing his sword in its place, Pavek raced to the half-elf's side.
"Pyreen preserve and protect!" Ruari sputtered, invoking the aid of legendary druid paladins. "What is she... it?" he asked, retreating from the rider he'd hauled down from the bug's back.
Pavek caught Ruari at the elbows from behind and steered him to one side. For all his sullenness and swagger, for all his hatred of Urik and the human templar who, in raping his elven mother, had become his father, Ruari was an innocent raised in the clean, free air of Quraite. He knew elves and dwarves and humans and their mixed-blood offspring, but nothing of the more exotic races or the impulses that might drive a woman to mark her body, or wrap it in a gown tight enough to be a second skin and cut with holes to display what the women of Quraite kept discreetly covered.
A templar, though, had seen everything the underside of Urik had to offer—or Pavek thought he had until he squatted down for a better look at what Ruari had found. She was beyond doubt a woman: leaner than Ruari or a full-blooded elf, but not an elf, not at all. Her skin wasn't painted; white-as-salt was its natural color, despite the punishment it must have taken on the journey. Pavek couldn't say whether the marks around her eyes were paint or not, but the eyes themselves were wide-spaced and the mask that ran the length of her face between them covered no recognizable profile. He'd never seen anyone like her before, but he knew what she was—
"What?" Ruari asked, his curiosity calming him already.
"Rotters," Zvain interrupted. He left off searching, but didn't come all the way over to join them. "Better be careful, they're beasts for the arena. Things that got made, not born. Claws and teeth and other things they shouldn't have. Rotters."
"Most of em," Pavek agreed, sounding wiser than he felt and wondering if the boy knew something that he didn't. The white-skinned woman with her mask and torn gown appeared more fragile than ferocious. As the wheels of fate's chariot spun, he knew that appearances meant nothing, but if this was the woman Akashia had sensed, he wanted to preserve the peace as long as he could. "They stay beasts, if they start out beasts. If they start as men and women, that's what they come out as, but different. And they don't all choose to go to the Tower. Some do; they've got their reasons, I guess. Mostly it's slavers that take a coffle chain south and bring back the few that come out again." Time and time again during Pavek's years as a templar, the civil bureau had swept through the slave markets in search of the lowest of the low who supplied the mysterious Tower. Maybe they saved a few slaves from transformation, but they did nothing for the ones who'd been transformed.
"Come from where? Come out how? What Tower?" Ruari pressed. "I know elves and half-elves; she's neither. Wind and fire, Pavek, her skin—She's got scales! I felt them. What race of man and woman has scales?"
Pavek shook his head. "Just her, I imagine. Haven't seen many of them, but I never saw two that were alike—"
"But you said 'New Race'."
"They're New Race because, man, woman, or beast, they all come from the same place, 'way to the south. Somewhere south there's a place—the Tower—that takes what it finds and changes it into something else—"
Pavek sighed. They were young. One of them had seen too much; the other, not enough. All men were made, women, too. Talk to any templar. "Made, not born. All by themselves, no mothers or fathers, sisters or brothers. They die, though. Just like the rest of us."
Ruari shuddered. "She's not dead. I heard her—felt her—breathing." He shuddered a second time and wraped his arms over his chest.
Her eyes were closed and she lay with her arms and legs so twisted that Pavek had taken the worst for granted. His mastery of druid spellcraft didn't extend this far from the grove and didn't include the healing arts, but Ruari was a competent druid; he knew enough about healing to keep her alive until they found Akashia.
Kneeling beside the fallen New Race woman, he held his hands palms out above her breasts and looked Ruari in his moonlit eyes. "Help me." The words weren't phrased as a request. Ruari shrugged and twisted until their eyes no longer met. "You're wrong, Ru," Pavek chided coldly. He loosened the length of fine, dark cloth the woman had wound around her head and shoulders, then he laid his big, callused hands on her cheek to turn her head and expose the fastenings of her mask.
"Don't!" Zvain shouted.
The boy had finally come closer and taken Pavek's place beside the manifestly uncomfortable Ruari. Had his arms been long enough, Pavek would have grabbed both of them by their ears and smashed their stubborn, cowardly skulls together. He might do it anyway, once he'd taken care of the matters at hand.
"Don't touch her!"
He'd be damned first, if he wasn't already. Pavek touched her cold, white skin and found it scaled, exactly as Ruari had warned, but before he could turn her head, a Zvain-sized force struck his flank, knocking him backward. Blind rage clouded Pavek's eyes and judgment; he seized the boy's neck and with trembling fingers began to squeeze.
"She'll blast you, Pavek!" Zvain said desperately. He was a tough, wiry youth, but his hands barely wrapped around Pavek's brawl-thickened wrists and couldn't loosen them at all. "She'll blast you. I've seen her do it. I've seen her, Pavek! I've seen her do it."
With a gasp of horror, Pavek heard the boy's words, saw what he, himself, had been doing. His strength vanished with his rage. Limp hands at the end of limp arms fell against his thighs. Zvain scampered away, rubbing his neck, but otherwise no worse for the assault. Pavek was too shamed to speak, so Ruari asked the obvious question:
"Where did you see her?"
Shame was, apparently, contagious. Zvain tucked his chin against his breastbone. "I told you she was a rotter. I told you. She'd come to—you know—that house, almost every night."
Pavek let the last of his breath out with a sigh. "Escrissar? You saw her while you were living with Escrissar?" He swore a heartfelt oath as the boy nodded.
"She's got a power, even he couldn't get around it, and she doesn't like anyone to touch that mask."
"What was she doing at House Escrissar?" Ruari demanded, his teeth were clenched and his hands were drawn up into compact fists. He'd never forgive or forget what had happened to Akashia in House Escrissar; none of them would. Lord Hamanu had exacted a fatal price from his high templar pet without slacking Quraite's thirst for vengeance.
Zvain didn't answer the question. He didn't willingly answer any questions about Elabon Escrissar or his household. Akashia remembered him from her own nightmare interrogations. That was enough for her, but Pavek, who knew the deadhearts better and despised them no less, suspected Zvain had endured his own torments as well as Akashia's.
"What was she doing there?" Ruari repeated; Zvain withdrew deeper into himself.
"He doesn't know," Pavek shouted. "Let it lie, Ru! He doesn't know. She can tell us herself when we get her to the village—"
"You're not taking her where Kashi'll see her?"
Pavek didn't need the half-elf's indignation to tell him that it was a bad idea. He knew enough about women to know there were some you didn't put together unless you wanted to witness a tooth-and-nail fight. If he had half the wit of a stone-struck baazrag, he'd haul himself into one of the empty saddles and head south with Lord Hamanu's message and the New Race woman in tow behind him, but having only the wit of a man, he lifted the woman and started toward Quraite instead.
"What about the kanks and the corpses?" Zvain and Ruari asked together.
"What about them?" Pavek replied and kept walking. They caught up soon enough, amid a chorus of bells that alerted the village and brought everyone out to the verge. Akashia stood in front of the other farmers and druids. Between Guthay's reflection and a handful of blazing torches, there was enough light for Pavek to read her expression as he drew closer; it was worried and full of doubt. There was silence until the two of them were close enough to talk in normal voices.
"The rest are dead. This one's the one you heard. She's unconscious." Pavek glanced over his shoulder, where Ruari stood with seven kank-leads wound around his wrist. "We thought it would be best if you roused her. She's New Race."
It was going to be as bad as Pavek feared, maybe worse. Akashia's eyes widened and her nostrils flared as if she'd gotten whiff of something rotten, but she retreated toward the reed-wall hut where she lived alone and slightly apart from the others.
"What about all this?" Ruari demanded, shaking the ropes he held and making a few of the bells clatter.
Akashia gave no sign that she had a preference, so Pavek gave the orders: "Pen the kanks. Feed them and water them well. Strip the corpses before they're buried. Bundle their clothes, their possessions—everything you find—carefully. Don't get tempted to keep anything. We'll take the bundles back with us."
" 'We'll take them back'? You've already decided? Who's 'we'?" Akashia asked, walking beside him now without looking at him or what he carried.
"We: she and I, if she survives. Lord Hamanu sent her and the escort—"
" 'Lord Hamanu?' The Lion's your lord, again?"
"Have mercy, Kashi," Pavek pleaded, using her nickname as he did only when he was flustered. "He knows where Quraite is: He's proved that, and he's proved he can send a messenger safely across the Fist—"
"Safely? Is that what you call this?"
Akashia waved a hand past Pavek's elbow. Her sleeve brushed against the dark cloth in his arms, loosening it and giving her a clear view of the New Race woman's masked face. Pavek held his breath: the woman was unforgettable, if there would be recognition, it would come now, along with an explosion.
There was no explosion, only a tiny gasp as Akashia pressed her knuckles against her lips. "What manner of foul magic has the Lion shaped and sent?"
They'd reached the flimsy, but shut, door of Akashia's hut. Pavek's arms were numb, his back burned with fatigue. He was in no mood to bargain with her outrage. "I told you: she's one of the New Races. They come from the desert, days south of Urik. The Lion has nothing to do with their making and neither did Elabon Escrissar."
Pavek waited for her to open the door, but no such gesture was forthcoming—and no surprise there, he'd been the blundering baazrag who'd dropped Escrissar's name between them.
"What's he got to do with this?"
Pavek put a foot against the door and kicked it open. "I don't"—he began as he carried the woman across the threshold—"know."
"She's a rotter," Ruari interrupted, adopting Zvain's insults as his own. Heroes didn't have to pen kanks or dig graves. He did unfold a blanket and spread it across Akashia's cot, but that was probably less courtesy than a desire to prevent contamination.
Zvain slipped through the open door behind Akashia. Timid and defiant at the same time, he found a shadow and stood in it with his back against the wall. Scorned boys didn't have chores, either. "I saw her there," he announced, then cringed when Akashia spun around to glower at him.
But there remained no recognition in her eyes when she looked down at the woman Pavek had laid on her cot.
"What did she do there?"
"She came at night. The house was full at night. All the rooms were full—"
The boy's voice grew dreamy. His eyes glazed with memories Pavek didn't want to share. "She was—" he groped for the word. "They're called the eleganta. They entertain behind closed doors."
"A freewoman?" There were gold marks on the woman's skin. Pavek hadn't seen anything like them before, but he knew they weren't slave scars, and Akashia knew it, too.
"I would die first."
Pavek smiled, as he rarely did, and let his own scar twist his lips into a sneer. "Not everyone is as determined as you, Kashi. Some of us have to stay alive, and while we live, we do what we have to do to keep on living." Ruari spat out a word that belonged in the rankest gutters of the city and implied that the New Race woman belonged there as well. Without a sound or changing his expression, Pavek spun on his heels. Before he left the city, there were those in the bureaus who said Pavek had a future as an eighth-rank intimidator, if he'd ingratiate himself sufficiently with a willing patron. He was a head shorter than the half-elf, and there was a clear path to the open door, but Ruari stayed right where he was. Once learned, the nasty tricks of the templar trade couldn't be forgotten. Pavek subjected his friend to withering scrutiny before saying:
Akashia placed her hands on his arm and tried, futilely, to turn him around. "Stop, please! You've made your point: we don't understand the city the way you do... she does. Stop. Please?"
He let himself be persuaded. The scar throbbed the way it did when he let his expression pull on it, but pain wasn't the reason he'd never have made intimidator—and not because he couldn't have found a patron, precisely as the New Race woman had found one in Escrissar.... Pavek was the one—the only one in the hut—who truly felt ill. He wanted to leave at a dead run, but couldn't because the woman had awaked.
She sat up with slow, studied and graceful movements, like those of a feral cat. After examining herself, she looked up. Her open eyes were as astonishing as the rest of her: palest blue-green, like gemstones, they showed none of the differentiation between outer white and inner color of the established races. There were only shiny black pupils that swelled dramatically as her vision adjusted to the light of a single, tiny lamp.
"Who are you? What do you want from us?" Akashia spoke first.
"I am Mahtra." Her voice was strange, too, with little expression and a deep pitch. It seemed to come from somewhere other than behind her mask. "I have a message for the high templar called Pavek."
Pavek stepped away from the others and drew her attention. "I am Pavek."
Bald brows arched beneath flesh of living gold. Her pupils grew inhumanly large, inhumanly bright, as she stared him up and down, but mostly at his scarred face. "My lord said I would find an ugly, ugly man."
He almost laughed aloud, but swallowed the sound when he saw Akashia's face darkening. "Your lord?" he asked instead. "King Hamanu? The lord of Urik is your lord?"
"Yes, he is my lord. He is lord of everything." Mahtra rose confidently to her feet, displaying no sign that she'd been unconscious rather than asleep. Extending a wickedly pointed red fingernail, she reached for Pavek's face. He flinched and dodged. "Will it always look like that? Is it painful?"
New Race, he reminded himself: not a mark on her scaly skin other than those metallic patches. Not a scratch or a scar, nor a sun blister. He recalled Zvain's warnings about the mask and didn't want to imagine what scars it might conceal. She was as tall as Ruari; her slight, strong body was almost certainly full-grown, but what of her mind?
"It aches sometimes. I would rather you didn't touch it. You can understand that, can't you?" He met the pale blue stare and held it until she blinked. He hoped that was understanding. "You have a message for me?"
"My lord says he's given you more time than a mortal man deserves. He says you've dawdled in your garden long enough. He says it's time for you to return and finish what you started."
Aware that everyone—Mahtra, Akashia, Ruari, and Zvain —was staring at him intently, Pavek asked, "Did the Lion tell you what that might be?" in an almost-normal voice.
"He said you and I would hunt the halfling called Kakzim, and I would have vengeance for the deaths of Father and Mika."
"Kakzim!" Zvain exclaimed. "Kakzim! Do you hear that, Pavek? We've got to go back now."
"Father! What Father? You said she was made, not born. She's lying—!"
Pavek watched those jewel-like eyes brighten as the New Race taunt came out of Ruari's mouth. "Shut up—both of you!" he shouted.
All along, while Escrissar was his enemy and Laq the scourge Pavek sought to eliminate, Escrissar's halfling slave had lurked in the background. The Lion-King had come to Quraite to destroy Escrissar, but the Lion didn't know about the slave. Among the last things the living Telhami had said to him was that Hamanu didn't notice a problem until it scratched him in the eye. Kakzim—whose name Pavek had gotten from Zvain that same day when Telhami died—had finally caught the Lion's attention. Pavek wondered how and, though he didn't truly want to know the answer, asked the necessary questions:
"How do you know of Kakzim? What has he done?" Bright eyes studied Ruari first, then Zvain before returning to Pavek. "He is a murderer. His face was the last face Father saw before he was killed...." Mahtra's composure failed. She looked down at her hands and contorted her fingers into tangles that had to hurt her knuckles. "I turned to Lord Escrissar, but he never returned. Another high templar sent me to Lord Hamanu, and he sent me here to you. Aren't you also a high templar? Don't you already know Kakzim?"
"Escrissar." Her loathing made a curse of the name. "You turned to that foul nightmare disguised as a man? What was he—your friend, your lover? Is that why you wear a mask? Rotter. Is it your face that's rotten, or your spirit?"
He'd never heard such venom in Akashia's voice. It rocked Pavek back a step and made him wonder if he knew Akashia at all. Were a handful of days, however tortured and terrible, enough to sour Kashi's spirit? What did she see when she looked at Mahtra? A mask, long and menacing fingernails, black cloth wrapped tightly around a slender body. Were those similarities enough to summon Escrissar's memory to her eyes?
Without warning, Akashia lunged toward Mahtra. She wanted vengeance, and failed to get a taste of it when Pavek and Zvain together seized her and held her back. The golden patches around Mahtra's eyes and on her shoulders glistened in the lamplight, distorting the air around them as sunlight distorts the air above the salt flats.
"Kakzim was Escrissar's slave," Pavek shouted, wanting to avert disaster but pushing closer to the brink instead. "His house would be the first place anyone would look."
"Get her out of here," Akashia warned, wresting free from them, no longer out of control but angrier and colder than she'd been ten heartbeats before. "Get out of here!" she snarled at Mantra.
"I go with High Templar Pavek," the New Race woman replied without flinching. She was eleganta. She made her life in the darkest shadows of the high templar quarter. There was nothing Akashia could do to frighten her. "With him alone or with any others who desire vengeance. Do you desire vengeance, green-eyed woman?"
Confronted by an honesty she couldn't deny and a coldness equal to her own, it was Akashia who retreated, shaking her head as she went. Pavek thought they'd gotten through the narrows, but he hadn't reckoned on Ruari, who'd come to Akashia's defense no matter how badly she treated him—or how little she needed it.
"She can't talk to Kashi that way. Take her to the grove, Pavek!" he demanded—the same demand he'd made when Pavek had arrived here, and for roughly the same reason. "Let the guardian judge her, and
her Father and her vengeance."
"No," he replied simply.
"No? It's the way of Quraite, Pavek. You don't have a choice: the guardian judges strangers."
"No," he repeated. "No—for the same reason we'll bury the templars and return their belongings. The Lion will know what we do to his messengers, and he knows how to find us. And, more than that, this isn't about Quraite or the guardian of Quraite. This is about Urik and Kakzim. I saw Kakzim making Laq, but I didn't go back to find him because I thought when he couldn't make Laq anymore, he couldn't harm anyone either. I was wrong; he's become a murderer with his own hands. Hamanu's right, it's time for me to go back. We'll leave as soon as the kanks and Mahtra are rested—"
"Now," Mahtra interrupted. "I need no rest."
And maybe she didn't. There was nothing weary in her strange eyes or weak in the hand she wrapped around Pavek's forearm.
"The bugs need rest," he said, and met her stare. "The day after tomorrow or the day after that."
She released her grip.
"I'm going with you," Zvain said, which wasn't a surprise.
"Me, too," Ruari added, which was.
Akashia looked at each of them in turn, her expression unreadable, until she said: "You can't. You can't leave Quraite. I need you here," which was a larger surprise than he could have imagined.
"Come with us," he said quickly, hopefully. "Put an end to the past."
"Quraite needs me. Quraite needs you. Quraite needs you, Pavek."
If Akashia had said that she needed him, possibly he would have reconsidered, but probably not, not with Hamanu's threat hanging over them. That, and the knowledge that Kakzim was wreaking havoc once again. He started for the door, then paused and asked a question that had been bothering him since Mahtra spoke her first words.
She blinked and seemed flustered. "I'm new, not old. The cabras have ripened seven times since I came to Urik."
"And before Urik, how many times had they ripened?"
"There is no before Urik."
As Pavek had hoped, Akashia's eyes widened and the rest of her face softened. "Seven years? Escrissar—"
He cut her off. "Escrissar's dead. Kakzim. Kakzim's the reason to go back."
Pavek left the hut. Mahtra followed him, a child who didn't look like a child and didn't particularly act like one, either. She slipped her arm through his and stroked his inner forearm with a long fingernail. He wrested free.
"Not with me, eleganta. I'm not your type."
"Where do I go, if not with you?"
It was a very good question, for which Pavek hadn't an answer until he spotted a farmer couple peering out their cracked-open door. Their hut was good-sized, their children were grown and gone. He took Mahtra to stay with them until morning, and wouldn't hear no for an answer. Still this was one night Pavek wasn't going back to Telhami's grove. He stretched out in a corner of the bachelor hut.
Tomorrow was certain to be worse than tonight. He'd get some sleep while he could.
How old are you?
A voice, a question, and the face of an ugly man haunted the bleak landscape of Mahtra's dreams.
Seven ripe cabras. A whirling spiral with herself at the center and seven expanding revolutions stretching away from her. The spiraling line was punctuated with juicy, sweet fruit and the other events of the life she remembered. Seven years—more days than she could count—and all but the last several of them spent inside the yellow walls of Urik. She hadn't known the city's true shape until she looked back as the huge, painted bug carried her away to this far-off place.
Mahtra hadn't remembered a horizon other than rooftops, cobbled streets, and guarded walls. She had known the world was larger than Urik; the distant horizon itself wasn't a surprise, but she'd forgotten what empty and open looked like.
What else had she forgotten?
There is no before Urik.
Another voice. Her own voice, the voice she wished she had, echoed through her dreams. Did it tell the truth? Had she forgotten what came before Urik, as she had forgotten what stretched beyond it?
Turn around. Step beyond the spiral. Find the path. What before Urik? Remember, Mahtra. Remember....
The spiral of Mahtra's life blurred in her dream-vision. Her limbs became stiff and heavy. She was tempted to lie down where she was, at the center of her life, and ignore the beautiful voice. What would happen if she fell asleep while she was dreaming? Would she wake up in her life or in the dream, or somewhere that was neither living nor dreaming?
Somewhere that was neither living nor dreaming...
Mahtra knew of such a nowhere place. She had forgotten it, the way she'd forgotten the colors and shapes on the other side of Urik's walled horizon. It was the outside place, beyond the memories of the cabra-marked spiral.
A place before Urik.
* * *
A place of drifting, neither dark nor bright, hot nor cool. A place without bottom or top, or any direction at all, until there was a voice and a name:
Walking, running, swimming, crawling, and flying—all those ways she'd used to move toward her name. At the very end, she fought, because the place before Urik had not wanted her to leave. It grew thick and dark and clung to her arms, her ankles. But once Mahtra had heard her name, she knew she could no longer drift; she must break free.
Mahtra put a word to the substance of her earliest memories: the place before Urik was water and the hands were the hands of the makers, lifting her out of a deep well, holding her while she took her first unsteady steps. Her memory still would not show her the makers' faces, but it did show Mahtra her arms, her legs, her naked, white-white flesh.
Made, not born. Called out of the water fully-grown, exactly the person she was in her dream, in her life:
The hands wrapped her in soft cloth. They covered her nakedness. They covered her face.
Who did this? The first words that were not her name touched her ears. What went wrong? Who is responsible? Who's to blame for this—for this error, this oversight, this mistake? Whose fault?
Not mine. Not mine. Not mine!
Accusing questions and vehement denials pierced the cloth that blinded her. The steadying hands withdrew. The safe, drifting place was already sinking into memory. This was the true nature of the world. This was the enduring, unchanging nature of Mahtra's life: she was alone, unsupported in darkness, in emptiness; she was an error, an oversight, a mistake.
That face! How will she talk? How will she eat? How will she survive? Not here—she can't stay here. Send her away. There are places where she can survive.
The makers had sent her away, but not immediately. They dealt honorably with their errors. Honorably—a dream-word from Urik, not her memory. They taught her what she absolutely needed to know and gave her a place while she learned: a dark place with hard, cool surfaces. A cave, a safe and comforting place... or a cell where mistakes were hidden away. Cave and cell were words from Urik. In her memory there was only the place itself.
Mahtra wasn't helpless. She could learn. She could talk— if she had to—she could eat, and she could protect herself. The makers showed her little red beads that no one else would eat. The beads were cinnabar, the essences of quicksilver and brimstone bound together. They were the reason she'd been made, and, though she herself was a mistake, cinnabar would still protect her through ways and means her memory had not retained.
When Mahtra had learned all she could—all that the makers taught her—then they sent her away with a shapeless gown, sandals, a handful of cinnabar beads, and a mask to hide their mistake from the world.
Follow the path. Stay on the path and you won't get lost.
And with those words the makers disappeared forever, without her ever having seen their faces. In her dream, Mahtra wondered if they had known what awaited her on the path that led away from their isolated tower. Did they know about the predators that stalked the eerie, tangled wilderness around their tower? Were those ghastly creatures mistakes like herself? Had they strayed from the path and become forever lost in the wilderness? Were they the lucky mistakes?
Mahtra had followed the makers' instructions until the shadowy wilderness ended and the path broadened into the hard ground of the barrens. She wasn't lost. There were men waiting for her. Odd—her memory hadn't held the words for water or cave or any of the beasts she'd avoided in the wilderness, but she'd known mankind from the start, and gone toward them, as she had not gone toward the beasts.
In the dream, a shadow loomed between Mahtra and the men. She veered away from the memories it contained.
Stay on the path.
Again, she heard the voice that might be her own and watched in wonder as a glistening path sliced through the shadow, a path that had not existed on that day she did not want to remember.
Follow the path.
The voice pulled her into the shadow where rough hands seized her, tearing her gown and mask. Her vision blurred, her limbs grew heavy, but she was not in the drifting place. A flash of light and sound radiated from her body. When her senses were restored, she stood free.
This was what the makers meant when they said she could protect herself. This was what happened to the cinnabar after she ate the red beads. The men who'd held her lay on the ground, some writhing, others very still. Mahtra ran with her freedom, clutching the corners of her torn gown against her breasts. She ran until she could run no farther and darkness had replaced the light: not the pure darkness of a cave or cell, but the shadowy darkness of her first moonless night.
Her cinnabar beads could protect her, but they couldn't nourish her flesh nor slake her thirst. She rested and ran again, not as far as she'd run the first time, not as far as she had to. The men followed her. They knew where she was. She could hear them approach. The cinnabar protected her again, but the men were wily: they knew the range of her power and harried her from a safe distance throughout the night.
Fear, Mahtra. Fear. There is no escape.
The men caught her at dawn, when she was too exhausted to crawl and the cinnabar flash was no more potent than a flickering candle. They bound her wrists behind her back and hobbled her ankles before they confined her in a cart. She had nothing but her mask to hide behind, because even these cruel and predatory creatures—
No mask. Nothing. Nothing at all. There is no escape from your memory.
Mahtra's mask vanished. She was truly, completely naked in the midst of men who both feared her and tormented her. There were other carts, each pulled by a dull-witted lizard and carrying one of the makers' unique creations. She called to them, but they were not like her; they were nameless beasts and answered with wails and roars she couldn't understand. Her voice made the men laugh. Mahtra vowed never to speak where men could listen.
Crouched in the corner of the cart as it began to move, she heard the word Urik for the first time.
Urik! the voice of her dream howled. Remember Urik! Remember the fear. Remember shame and despair. There is no escape!
She shook her head and struggled against her bonds.
There was no escape from the voice in her dream, but the dream was wrong. Memory was wrong. She still had the makers' mask; it had not been taken from her. It had not vanished. Urik was on the path the makers had told her to follow. It was the place where she belonged, where the makers said she could, and would, survive.
Remember Urik. Remember Elabon Escrissar of Urik!
In a heartbeat, Mahtra did remember. A torrent of images etched with bitter emotion and pain fell into her memory. Consistent with her nakedness and helplessness, the images expanded her memories, transforming everything she'd known. The shame she'd felt for her face spread to cover her entire body, her entire existence, and fear extended its icy fingers into the vital parts of her being.
Fear and shame and despair. They are a part of you because you were a part of them. Remember!
Mahtra fought out of the dream. The cruel men of memory disappeared, along with the bonds around her wrists and ankles. Her mask returned, comfortable and reassuring around her face, but the last victory—waking up—eluded her. She found herself on a gray plain, more dreary and bleak than anything she'd imagined, assaulted by an invisible wind that blew against her face no matter where she looked. While Mahtra tried to understand, the wind strengthened. It drove her slowly backward, back to the dream and memories of shame.
"Enough!" A voice that was not Mahtra's or the dream's thundered across the gray plain. It set an invisible wall against the wind and, a moment later, dealt Mahtra a blow that left her senseless.
* * *
Akashia inhaled her mind-bending intentions from the subtle realm where the Unseen influenced reality. She feared she recognized that voice, hoped she was wrong, and took no chances. As soon as she was settled in her physical self, she swept a leafy frond through the loose dirt and dust on the ground in front of her, destroying the touchstone patterns she'd drawn there. In another moment she would have erased them from her memory as well, replacing them with innocent diversions.
But Akashia didn't have another moment.
A wind from nowhere whisked through her Quraite hut. It took a familiar shape: frail-limbed and hunched with age, a broad-brimmed hat with a gauze veil obscuring eyes that shone with their own light.
Not a friendly light. Akashia didn't expect friendship from her one-time mentor. She knew what she'd been doing. There were fewer rules along the Unseen Way than there were in druidry. Still, it didn't take rules to know that Telhami wouldn't approve of her meddling in the white-skinned woman's dreams.
A statement, nothing more or less, a paltry acknowledgment of Telhami's presence in this hut, their first meeting since Telhami's death a year ago. For in all that time, no matter what entreaties Akashia offered, Telhami hadn't left her grove, hadn't strayed from the man to whom she'd bequeathed that grove. Even now, after all that silence, Telhami said nothing, only lifted her hand. Wind fell from her outstretched arm, an invisible gust that scoured the ground between them. When it had finished, the touchstone pattern had reappeared.
She drew a veil of her own around her thoughts, preserving her privacy. While Telhami might have the mind-bending strength to pierce Akashia's defenses, Akashia had survived more fearsome assaults than Grandmother was likely to throw at her, no matter how great her disappointment. Courtesy of Elabon Escrissar, Akashia knew what dwelt in every murky corner of her being, and she'd learned to transform that darkness into a weapon.
If Telhami wanted to do battle with those nightmares, Akashia was ready.
"Is this judgment?" Telhami's spirit demanded, adding its own judgment to its disappointment.
Akashia offered neither answer nor apology to the woman who'd raised her, mentored her, ignored her and now presumed to challenge her.
"I asked you a question, Kashi."
"Yes, it's judgment," she said, defying the hard bright eyes that glowed within the veil. "It had to be done. She came from him!" she snarled, then shuddered as defiance shattered. Escrissar's black mask appeared in her mind's eye. And with the mask, bright unnatural talons fastened to the fingers of his dark-gloved hands appeared also. Talons that caressed her skin, leaving a trail of blood.
The New Race woman's mask was quite, quite different. Her long red fingernails seemed impractical; nevertheless a rope had been thrown and pulled tight. Akashia couldn't think of one without thinking of the other.
"It had to be done," she repeated obstinately. "I told Pavek to take her to his grove—to the grove you bequeathed to him—but the Hero of Quraite refused. So I judged her myself."
"Ignoring his advice?"
"She'd already blinded his common sense. I'm not afraid, Grandmother; I'm not weak. There was no reason for you to turn to him instead of me. Pavek will never understand Quraite the way I do, even without your grove to guide me. He doesn't care the way I care."
"The white-skinned woman came from Hamanu, not his high templar," Telhami corrected her, ignoring everything else. "The Lion-King sent her. She alone traveled under his protection, she alone survived the Sun's Fist. It's not for druids to judge the Lion-King, or his messengers. If you will not believe the woman herself, if you refuse to listen to Pavek, believe me."
Why? Akashia wanted to scream. Why should she believe? All the while she'd been growing up, learning the druid secrets under Grandmother's tutelage, Urik and its sorcerer-king had been Quraite's enemy. Everything she learned was designed to nurture the ancient oasis community and hide it from the Lion-King's rapacious sulphur eyes. The only exception was zarneeka, which the druids grew in their groves and which Quraite sent to Urik to compound into an analgesic for the poor who couldn't afford to visit a healer. And then, they learned that Escrissar and his halfling alchemist were compounding their zarneeka not into Ral's Breath, but into the maddening poison Laq.
They'd made a mistake, she and Telhami; Escrissar's deadly ambitions had taken them by surprise. They'd paid dearly for that mistake. Quraite had paid dearly. Telhami had died to keep Escrissar from conquering zarneeka's source, villagers and other druids had died too, and they'd be years repairing the damage to the groves and field.
But they would have won—had won—before the sorcerer-king's intervention—Akashia believed that with all her heart. What she couldn't believe was Urik's ruler on his knees beside Grandmother's deathbed, caressing Grandmother's cheek with a wicked claw that was surely the inspiration for the talons Escrissar had used on her.
The sense of betrayal souring Akashia's gut was as potent now as it had been that night. Clenching a fist, relaxing it, then clenching it again, she waited for the spasms to subside. When they had, she calmly dragged a foot through the touchstone patterns—defying Telhami to restore them again.
"Mahtra went to House Escrissar frequently and willingly, she said so herself. She was there, Grandmother. She was there when Escrissar interrogated me, when he laid me to waste—just like the boy was! They witnessed... everything!"
She was, to her disgust, shaking again, and Telhami stood there, head drawn back and tilted slightly, glowing eyes narrowed, taking everything in, coldly judgmental—as Grandmother had never been.
"And what is it that you expected to accomplish?" "Justice! I want justice. I want judgment for what was done to me. They should all die. They should endure what I endured, and then they should die of shame."
The unnatural eyes blinked and were dimmer when they reappeared. "You didn't," Grandmother whispered. "That's the root, isn't it. You wanted to die of your shame, but you survived instead, and now you're angry. You can't forgive yourself for being alive."
"No," Akashia insisted. "I need no forgiving. They need judgment."
"Destroying Mahtra won't change your past or the future. Destroying Zvain won't, either. Born or made, life wants to go on living, Kashi. The stronger you are, the harder it is to choose death."
Not everyone is as determined as you, Kashi. Some of us have to stay alive, and while we live, we do what we have to do to keep on living. Pavek's sneering face surfaced in Akashia's memory, echoing Telhami.
"You were assailed by corruption, you were reduced to nothing, you wanted to die, but you survived instead. Now you want to punish Mahtra for your own failure and call it justice. What judgment for you, then, if Mahtra's only crime were the same as yours: She survived the unsurvivable?"
It was a bitter mirror that Pavek and Telhami raised. Akashia raked her hair and, for the first time, averted her eyes.
"Where is my justice? Awake or asleep, I'm trapped in that room with him. I can't forget. I won't forgive. It's not right that I have all the scars, all the shame."
"Right has little to do with it, Kashi—"
"Right is all that remains!" Akashia shouted with loud anguish that surprised her and surely awoke the entire village. Embarrassment jangled every nerve, tightened every muscle. For a moment, she was frozen, then: "Everything's dark now. I see the sun, but not the light. I sleep, but I don't rest. I swallowed his evil and spat it back at him," she whispered bitterly. "I turned myself inside out, but he got nothing from me. Nothing! Every day I have to look at that boy and remember. And, she's come to put salt on my wounds. They know. They must know what he did to me. And yet they sleep sound and safe."
She set her jaw, refusing to answer.
"Do they?" Telhami repeated, her voice a wind that ripped through Akashia's memory.
According to Ruari, Zvain at least did not sleep any better than she. And for that insight, she'd turned against her oldest friend, her little brother.
Something long-stressed within Akashia finally collapsed. "I'm weary, Grandmother," she said quietly. "I devote myself to Quraite. I live for them, but they don't seem to care. They do what I tell them to do, but they complain all the while. They complain about using their tools in weapons-practice. I have to remind them that they weren't ready when Escrissar came. They complain about the wall I've told them to build. They say it's too much work and that it's ugly—"
"It's for their protection! I won't let anything harm them. I've put a stop to our trade with Urik. No one goes to the city; no one goes at all, not while I live. I'd put an end to the Moonracer trade, too... if I could convince them that we have everything that we need right here."
Akashia thought of the arguments she'd had trying to convince the Quraiters, farmers and druids alike. They didn't understand—couldn't understand without living through the horror of those days and nights inside House Escrissar.
"Alone," she said, more to herself than to Telhami. "I'm all alone."
"Alone!" Telhami snorted, and the sound cut Akashia's spirit like a honed knife. "Of course you're alone, silly bug. You've turned your back to everyone. Life didn't end in House Escrissar, not yours nor anyone else's. Walls won't keep out the past or the future. You're alive, so live. You've been pleading for my advice—yes, I've heard you; everything hears you—well, that's it. That, and let them go, Kashi. Let Pavek go, let Ruari go. Let them go with your blessing, or go with them yourself—"
"No," Akashia interrupted, chafing her arms against a sudden chill. "I can't. They can't. Pavek's the Hero of Quraite. The village believes in him. They'll lose heart if he goes—especially if he goes to stinking Urik—and doesn't come back. I had to judge that woman. If I could make her reveal what she truly was, he wouldn't follow her. He'd stay here, where he belongs. They'd all stay here."
The sleeping platform creaked as Telhami sat down beside Akashia. She had neither pulse nor breath, but her hands were warm enough to drive away the chill.
"At last we get down to the root: Pavek. Pavek and Ruari. They do know what happened. You can scarcely bear the sight of either of them—or the thought that they might leave you. It would be so much easier, wouldn't it, if all the heroes of Quraite were dead: Yohan, Pavek, Ruari, and Telhami— all of us buried deep in the ground where we could be remembered, but not seen."
She swiped tears with back of her hand, but more followed.
"Pity?" The bloodless hands were warm, but the voice was still cold and ruthlessly honest. "What pity? None was asked for, none was given. Outside this hut, I've seen life go on. I've seen compassion. I've seen love and friendship grow where nothing grew before. But I see no pity, no clinging to a past that's best forgotten."
"I don't want to forget. I want my life back. I wish life to be as it was before."
It was a foolish wish—life didn't go backward—but an honest one, and Akashia hoped Telhami would say something. She hoped Grandmother would reveal the words that would prevent Pavek and Ruari from leaving Quraite.
"Let them go, Kashi," Grandmother said instead. "Tear down the wall."
"It won't ever be the same as it was."
"It won't ever be different, either, unless you let go of what happened."
"Have you tried?"
She shook her head and released a stream of tears, not because she'd tried and failed but because it was so easy to forget, to live and laugh as if nothing had changed—until a word or gesture or a half-glimpsed shadow jarred her memory and she was staring at Escrissar's mask again.
"Laugh at him," Grandmother advised after the old spirit unwound her thoughts. "Run through your fields and flowers and if he appears—laugh at him. Show him that he has no more power over you. He'll go away, too."
More tears. Kashi took a deep breath and asked the most painful question of all: "Why, Grandmother—why did you give your grove to him?"
"It was not mine to give," Telhami's spirit confessed. "Quraite chose its hero. And a wise choice it was, in the end. I'd made a mess of it, Kashi. Can you imagine the two of us grappling with all those toppled trees? We'd be at it forever—but Pavek! The man was born to move wood and rock through mud. You should see him!"
And for a moment, Kashi did, hip-deep in muck, cursing, swearing and earnestly setting the grove to rights again. She had to laugh, and the tears stopped.
"You're not alone," Grandmother said suddenly, which Akashia mistook for philosophy, then she heard footsteps outside the hut.
Telhami disappeared before Akashia could tell her midnight visitor to go away. Feeling betrayed and abandoned once again, Akashia plodded to her door where two of Quraite's farmers greeted her. One held a pottery lamp, the other, Mahtra's hand.
"She had a dream," the lampbearer said. "A nightmare. It scared us, too. Pavek said he'd be in the bachelor hut, but we thought..."
Some folk needed neither spellcraft nor mind-bending to convey their notions silently. The farmer's hollow-eyed, slack-jawed expression said everything that needed to be said.
"Yes, I understand." She made space in the doorway for Mahtra to pass. With her strange coloring and wide-set eyes—not to mention whatever the mask concealed—the white-skinned woman's face was almost unreadable. When Mahtra squeezed herself against the door jamb rather than brush against her, Akashia had the sense that they were equally uncomfortable with the situation. "She can stay here with me for the rest of the night. Pavek shouldn't have troubled you in the first place."
" 'Tweren't no trouble," the farmer insisted, though he was already retreating with his wife and his face belied every word.
Akashia stood in the doorway, watching them walk back to their hut, and all the while conscious of the stranger at her back. As soon as was polite, she shut the door and braced it with her body. She didn't know what to say. Mahtra solved her problem by speaking first.
"It was only a dream. I didn't know my dreams could frighten someone else. That has never happened before. You said I should go to the grove. What is a grove? Would my dreams frighten anyone there?"
"No." Akashia pushed herself away from the door with a sigh. "Not tonight. It's too late."
It was too late for the grove under any circumstance. Mahtra's voice wasn't natural. Her jaw scarcely moved as she formed the words and the tone was too deep and deliberate to come from her slender throat; yet listening to her now, Akashia believed Mahtra had lived in the world for only seven years. As much as she craved justice, Akashia couldn't send a seven-year-old to the grove.
"No, nothing, thank you."
Of course not, Akashia realized, feeling like a fool. Eating or drinking would have meant removing the mask. While ransacking Mahtra's memory, Akashia had found the white-skinned woman's self-image—what she thought she looked like. If it was halfway accurate, there was good reason for that mask, though appearances alone would not have bothered Akashia.
One thing that did bother her was the way that Mahtra chose to stand a step away from the touchstone patterns on the dirt floor. Grandmother had known what they were: mind-benders' mnemonics, makeshift symbols Akashia had used to push and poke her way through Mahtra's dreams. Akashia was the only one who could have deciphered their meaning, yet Mahtra stared at them as if they were a public text on a Urik wall.
Akashia strode across her hut. She stood in the center of the pattern, scuffing it thoroughly—she hoped—with her bare feet before she took Mahtra by a white wrist. "Please sit down." Akashia tugged her guest toward a wicker stool. "Tell me about your dream," she urged, as if she didn't already know.
Mahtra's narrow shoulders rose and fell, but she went where Akashia led her and sat down on the stool. "It was a dream I would not want to have again. I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn't wake up."
"Were you frightened?" Akashia sat cross-legged on her sleeping platform. It was wrong to ask these questions, but the damage was already done, and she was curious. Mind-benders rarely got a chance to study the results of their efforts.
The pale blue-green bird's-egg eyes blinked slowly. "Yes, frightened, but I don't know why. It was not the worst dream."
"You've had other dreams that frightened you more?"
"Worse memories make worse dreams, but they're still dreams. Father told me that dreams can't hurt me, so I shouldn't be frightened by them. Sometimes memories get worse while I'm dreaming about them. That happened tonight, but that wasn't what frightened me."
"What did frighten you?" Akashia found herself speaking in a small voice, as if she were talking to a child.
Mahtra stared at her with guileless but unreadable eyes.
"Near the end, when I couldn't stop dreaming, I remembered memories that weren't mine. They frightened me."
Akashia's blood ran cold. She thought of the touchstone pattern and the possibility that she was not as skilled with the Unseen Way as she believed, at least not with the mind of a child-woman who'd been made, not born. "What kind of memories?" she asked, curiosity getting the better of her again. "How do you know
they weren't your own?" For a long moment Mahtra stared at the ground, as she'd stared at the patterns. Perhaps she was simply searching for words.
"Father was killed in the cavern below Urik, but Father didn't die until after I found him and after he'd given me the memories that held his killer's face—Kakzim's face—so I could recognize it. Father was very wise and he was right to save his memories, but now I remember Kakzim and I remember being killed. In my dreams the memories are all confused. I want to save Father and the others, but I never can. It's only a dream, but it makes me sad, and frightened."
"And your dream earlier tonight—it was like that?"
Mantra's head bobbed once, but her eyes never left the dirt. "I remember what never happened, not to me, but to someone like Father. Someone who's been killed and holding on to memories, waiting to die. I don't think I'll go to sleep again while I'm here."
Akashia was grateful that Mahtra wasn't looking at her. "There's no reason for you to stay awake." Not anymore. Akashia swore to herself that she wouldn't tamper with Mahtra's mind again.
"No one's been killed in Quraite," she continued, "not in a long time. There's no one dying here either."
"You are," Mahtra said as she raised her head and her odd eyes bore into Akashia's. "It was your voice I heard in my dream. I recognize it. You told me to remember what came before Urik. You told me to feel shame and fear, because you felt shame and fear. I felt what you felt, and then, I remembered what you remember." "No," Akashia whispered. For one moment, one heartbeat moment, the loathing she'd been trying to awaken in Mahtra had been awakened in her instead. She thought the touchstone pattern had protected her. She certainly hadn't acquired any of Mahtra's memories but, in her narrow drive for judgment, it seemed that her own had escaped. "No, that can't be."
Mahtra was a child of Urik's darkest nights, its murkiest shadows, but mostly she was a child, with a child's cold sense of right and wrong. Akashia nodded. "Yes," she said quickly, swallowing a guilty sob. "Yes, I believe he's dead. It's an even trade."
"Good. I'm glad. Without Father, there's no one to ask and I can't be sure if I've done the right thing. Your memories will sleep quietly now, and I can leave here with the ugly man and not look back. Kakzim killed Father. The ugly man and I will hunt Kakzim and kill him, too. For Father. Then all my memories will sleep quiet."
Akashia rose and faced a corner so she didn't have to face Mahtra. The white-skinned woman's world was so fiercely simple, so enviably simple. Mahtra's memories would sleep quietly, as perhaps Akashia's own memories would grow quieter, if she could truly believe in Mahtra's simple justice.
"Pavek," she said after a moment, still staring at the corner, still thinking about justice. "You should call him Pavek, if you're going to take him away. He's not an ugly man; you shouldn't call him that. He'll tell you when you've done the right thing. You should listen to him."
It was a question Akashia could not find the strength to answer aloud.
"Father said the best lessons were the hardest lessons," Mahtra said after a long silence, then—to Akashia's heartfelt relief—walked softly out the door.
No need to worry: Mahtra could take care of herself wherever she went.
Reclaiming her bed, but not for sleeping, Akashia extinguished her lamp. She sat in the dark, thinking of what she'd done, what Telhami had said, and all because of the extraordinary individual the Lion-King had sent from Urik. Mahtra was like a Tyr-storm, rearranging everything she touched before disappearing. Akashia had taken a battering since sundown. She wouldn't be sorry to see the white-skinned woman leave, but she wasn't sorry Mahtra had come to Quraite, either. There was a bit of distance between herself now and the yesterday of Elabon Escrissar.
Akashia still found it difficult to think of Ruari or Pavek. Ruari was the past of hot, bright, carefree days that would never come again. Pavek was a future she wasn't ready to face. She didn't want either of them to leave with Mahtra, but she could admit that now, at least silently to herself, and with the admission came the strength to say good-bye before dawn, two days later.
She was proud of herself, that there were no tears, no demands for promises that they would return, only embraces that didn't last long enough and, from Pavek, something that might have been a kiss on her forehead just before he let go. Standing on the verge of the salt, Akashia watched and listened until the bells were silent and the Lion-King's kanks were bright dots against the rising sun. Then she turned away and, avoiding the village, walked to her own grove.
There were wildflowers in bloom and birds singing in the trees—all the beautiful things she'd neglected since her return from Urik. There was a path, too, which she'd never noticed before and which she followed... to a waterfall shrouded in rainbows.
A trek across the Athasian Tablelands was never pleasant. Pavek and his three young companions were grateful that this one was at least uneventful. They encountered neither storms nor brigands, and all the creatures who crossed their path appeared content to leave them alone.
Pavek was suspicious of their good fortune, but that was, he supposed, his street-scum nature coming to the fore as he headed back to the urban cauldron where he'd been born, raised, and tempered. That and the ceramic medallion he'd worn beneath his home-spun shirt since leaving Quraite.
The closer they came to Urik, the heavier that medallion—which he had not worn nor even touched since Lord Hamanu strode out of Quraite—hung about both his neck and his spirit. The medallion's front carried a bas-relief portrait of the Lion-King in full stride. The reverse bore the marks that were Pavek's name and his rank of third-level regulator in the civil bureau, marks now bearing a lengthwise gouge where the sorcerer-king had raked his claw through the yellow glaze. Ordinarily, high templar medallions were cast in gold, but it was that gouge, not the precious metal, that declared a templar had risen through the ranks of his bureau to the unranked high bureau.
Still, with nothing but the relentless sun, the clanging kank bells that limited conversation among the travelers, and the mesmerizing sway of the saddle to distract him, Pavek let his imagination run wilder each day of the ten-day journey from Quraite to Urik.
There were no more than fifty high templars in Urik— men and women; interrogators, scholars, or commandants—whose power was second only to Lord Hamanu's. Pavek considered paying a visit to his old barracks, the training fields, or the customs house where he'd worked nine days out of ten. Not that he'd left any friends behind who might congratulate him; he simply wanted to witness the reaction when he unslung the medallion and made the gouge visible.
There'd be laughter, at first. No one in his right mind would believe any templar could rise from third rank to the top, especially not within the civil bureau where the ranks weren't regularly thinned by war.
But that laughter would cease as soon as someone dared touch his medallion. That lengthwise gouge couldn't be forged. Even now, quinths after the Lion-King had touched it, the medallion was still slightly warm against Pavek's chest. Anyone else would feel a sharp prickling: high templars had an open call on their patron's power and protection.
Once convinced of the mark's authenticity, he'd have more friends than he knew what to do with. In his mind's eye, Pavek watched the taskmasters, administrators, and procurers who'd run his life since his mother bought him a pallet in the templar orphanage trample each other in their eagerness to curry his favor.
Pavek had countless fantasies beneath the scorching sun, but he indulged them only because he knew that many of those whose comeuppance he most wished to witness were already dead, and that he'd never act on the rest. He'd had too much personal acquaintance with humiliation to enjoy in any form.
Besides, in his calmer moments Pavek wasn't certain he wanted to be a high templar. He certainly didn't want to have regular encounters with Urik's sorcerer-king. On the other hand, the more he learned from Mahtra, frequent encounters of any kind were a decreasing possibility. First he had to survive this, his first high-templar assignment. Night after night as they sat around a small fire, Pavek quizzed the white-skinned woman about the disaster that had eventually brought her to Quraite.
Mahtra had told him about a huge cavern beneath the city and the huge water reservoir it supposedly contained. When he gave the matter thought, it seemed reasonable enough. The fountains and wells that slaked Urik's daily thirst never ran dry, and although the creation of water from air was one of the most elementary feats of magic—he'd mastered the spell himself—it was unlikely that the city's water had an unnatural origin. That a community of misfits dwelt on the shores of this underground lake also seemed reasonable. For many people, life anywhere in the city, even in the total darkness beneath it, was preferable to life anywhere else.
Not much more than a year ago, Pavek would have thought the same thing.
And he could imagine a mob of thugs descending on that community with extermination on their minds. It wasn't a pleasant image, but riots happened in Urik, despite King Hamanu's iron fist and the readiness of templars to enforce their king's justice. While he wore the yellow, Pavek had swept through many an erupting market plaza, side-by-side with his fellow templars, bashing heads and restoring order with brutal efficiency that kept the bureaus more feared than hated.
It was the sort of work that drove him to a melancholy two-day drunk, but there were a good many templars who enjoyed it, even volunteered for it.
Templars were certainly capable of causing the carnage in Mahtra's cavern, but it seemed this was one civic outrage for which they weren't responsible. With all the time she'd spent in the templar quarter, Mahtra would know a templar if she'd gleaned one from the dying memories of the mind-bender she called Father. But there wasn't a snatch of yellow in the images she'd received from Father's dying mind and, even off-duty, the kind of templars who might have ravaged the cavern wore their robes as a sort of armor.
What Mahtra had gleaned from inherited memories was the face of a slave-scarred halfling who she insisted was Escrissar's alchemist. Pavek had seen Kakzim just once, when he stood beside his master, Escrissar, in the customs-house warrens. It had struck Pavek then that the alchemist had enough hate in his eyes to destroy the world. He could believe that the mad halfling was the force behind the rampage. What he couldn't figure was Kakzim's purpose in slaughtering a community Lord Hamanu would have executed anyway.
If Lord Hamanu wanted Kakzim dead, Kakzim would be dead. Simply and efficiently.
Try as he might, Pavek could find only one satisfactory explanation for the summons Mahtra carried to Quraite: Lord Hamanu was bored. That was the usual explanation when sudden, strange orders filtered down through the bureau hierarchies; orders that once put an adolescent orphan on the outer walls repainting the images of the Lion-King for a twenty-five day quinth, changing all the kilts to a different color.
Lord Hamanu made war to alleviate his boredom and indulged his high templar pets for the same reason. He'd turned Pavek into a high templar, and now it was Pavek's turn to provide a day's amusement before Lord Hamanu hunted down the halfling himself.
Pavek dreamt of sulphur eyes among the stars, eyes narrowing with laughter, and razor claws descending through the night to rip out his heart. The heavens were naturally dark each time he awoke, but the gouged medallion was hot against his ribs, and Pavek was not completely reassured.
In contrast to his own nightmare anxiety, Zvain and Ruari seemed to think they'd embarked on the great adventure of their young lives. They chattered endlessly about cleverness, courage, and the victory that would be theirs. Zvain imagined throwing Kakzim's bloody head at the Lion-King's feet and being rewarded with his weight in gold. Ruari, to his credit, thought he could assure Quraite's isolation. Even Mahtra got swept up in vainglory, though her expectations were more modest: an inexhaustible supply of cabra melons and red beads.
The trio tried to infect him with their enthusiasm, calling him an old man when he resisted. They had a point. Pavek could remember himself at Ruari's age—it wasn't more than a handful of years ago—and he'd been a cautious old man even then.
After dealing with the sorcerer-king's boredom, Pavek feared his greatest challenge was going to be riding herd on his rambunctious allies.
Ruari had matured in the past year. He had moments of blind, adolescent stubbornness, but overall Pavek trusted the half-elf to act sensibly and hold up under pressure. Zvain was still very young, in the midst of his most willful and rebellious years, and nursing childhood wounds. He was inclined at times to crumble, to curl in on himself— especially when Pavek and Ruari lapsed into one of their vigorous but ultimately inconsequential arguments. The boy craved affection that Pavek could barely provide and then frequently rejected it just as fast, which only made life more difficult.
As for Mahtra... the made-woman was an enigma. Younger than Zvain by several years, she wasn't so much a child—though she had a child's notion of cause and effect— as a wild creature, full-grown and unpredictable. She was much stronger than she appeared, and, or so she claimed, had the capacity to 'protect herself'.
Mahtra said she'd ridden out of Khelo, the market village most nearly aligned with Quraite's true location and the one where Lord Hamanu maintained his kank stables. But Pavek held to the Quraite tradition of entering Urik from a deceptive direction.
They circled the city, camping one final night on the barrens, and joined the city's southern road shortly after dawn the next morning.
That was the limit of caution or discretion. Once the bright, belled kanks were on the road, rumor traveled with them through the irrigated fields. Pavek spotted the isolated dust plumes as runners spread the word, and before long there were gawkers on the byways. They kept their distance, of course, even the noble ladies in their distinctive gauze-curtained howdahs, but curiosity was the strongest mortal emotion and a parade of the Lion-King's decorated bugs was almost as fascinating as the Lion himself. Pavek, Ruari, and Zvain were nothing to look at, but Mahtra, the eleganta with her stark white skin and unusually masked features, captured the onlookers' attention. She certainly did when they reached Modekan, the village where, in the past, Quraiters had registered their intent to bring zarneeka into Urik the following day.
Pavek had no idea what day it was as they approached Modekan, but the village was quiet. The Modekan registrators weren't expecting visitors, at least not visitors riding the sorcerer-king's kanks. Pavek began to regret his decision to pass through Modekan, where their impending arrival had all the earmarks of the event of the year, if not the decade.
Every village templar was lined up at the gate, wearing tattered, wrinkled yellow robes that would never pass muster at Pavek's old barracks. The rest of Modekan mobbed behind the line, necks craning and heads bobbing for a good look. Three strides through the gate, and every pair of eyes was fastened tight on Mahtra. A burly human woman with a bit more weaving in her yellow sleeve than the others hurried forward to crouch beside Mahtra's kank, offering her own back as a dismounting platform. Mahtra's bird's-egg eyes fairly bulged with surprise, and rather than dismounting, she pulled her feet up onto the saddle.
It was an insult, a breach of tradition. Pavek didn't imagine that registrators liked being treated as kank-furniture— regulators certainly didn't—but having humiliated oneself, no low-rank templar like to be refused. Confusion reigned and threatened to turn ugly with the village's ranking templar groveling in the dust and Mahtra trying to keep her balance. Pavek had his eye particularly focused on another templar in the crowd, young enough and angry enough to be the crouched woman's son, who'd turned a dangerous shade of red.
When the furious templar began to move, Pavek moved as well, dismounting in the war bureau style—off leg swinging forward over the pommel, rather than backward over the cantle, so the rider landed with the kank at his back and eyes on his enemy. He'd seen the method, but never tried it before. Success made him bold.
"Who's in charge here?" he demanded with his arms bided over his chest. No one answered. Mahtra looked like someone important; he looked like a farmer. Pavek hooked the leather thong around his neck and brought the gouged medallion into the light. "Who is in charge?" he repeated.
Audacity often succeeded in the Tablelands because the price of failure was so high that few would dare it. Templar and villager alike knew the punishment for impersonating a high templar. They stared at Pavek brandishing his ceramic medallion as if it were made of gold. After a long moment during which his heart did not beat at all, the crouching woman got to her feet. There was a smile on her face as she came toward him. The earlier insult was forgotten; now she expected to have the honor of turning an imposter over to higher authorities.
Then she saw the gouge in the medallion he held out to her, and her smile wavered. Pavek didn't need magic or mind-bending to hear the doubts contending in her mind as she extended her arm. They were, however, equally shocked when crimson sparks leapt from the gouge to her fingertips, sparks bright enough to make them both blink.
"Great One!" she cried, nursing burnt fingers as she dropped to her knees. "Great One, Lord, forgive me. I meant no disrespect."
All the others followed her example, parents grabbing their children as they knelt and holding them close. The children cried protest at the rough handling, but there were adult sobs, also. Pavek could slay them all with his own hands, no questions asked nor quarter given. He could enslave them on the spot, selling them or keeping them without regard for kinship. Such were the ingrained powers of the Lion-King's high templars.
Pavek chewed his lower lip, sickened by what he'd done, uncertain how to rectify it. The only high templar he'd met in the flesh was Elabon Escrissar, whose example he'd sooner die than follow.
"Mistakes happen," he muttered. Mistakes did, of course, and people died for them. "You weren't expecting us." They should have gone to Khelo. "There's been no harm done, to us or you. No reason to sweat blood."
Slipshod and undisciplined as the registrators were, they were templars, and they knew about sweating blood. Here and there, a head came up to stare at him. If mekillots would fly before a high templar showed mercy to fools, then Pavek had just sprouted wings.
"We'd like water to drink and to wash off the dust, and a hand-cart for our baggage. Then we'll be on our way. We have business in Urik."
More heads had come up, more folk questioning fortune. The burly registrator got to her feet, still cradling her hand against her breast. She looked at the medallion, then at Pavek's face.
"Whatever you wish, Great One, Lord. Whatever your dreams desire. Please, Great One, Lord, tell us who are you or—?"
"Pavek," he replied, almost as uncomfortable as she was.
Judging by the lack of reaction, his name, which had been associated with a forty-gold-piece reward less than a year ago, had been forgotten. The registrator's lips worked, summoning up the fortitude for another question:
Of course. Like the nobility living on their estates, high templars had a second name engraved on their medallions. Pavek could have made one up out of whole cloth to satisfy these nervous registrators, and he would have, for their sakes and his, but his mind had gone completely blank.
"By decree of Hamanu, Lord of the Mountains and the Plains, King of the World—"
They'd all forgotten Mahtra, still sitting cross-legged atop her kank. Lord Hamanu must have prepared her for this moment, at least Pavek hoped the sorcerer-king had taught her the words when he gave her the message she brought to Quraite. The alternative was that Lord Hamanu was bending Mahtra's thoughts at this very moment. Pavek noticed he wasn't the only one looking for sulphur eyes in the skies over her head. He didn't find any.
"—Lord Pavek is sole inheritor of House Escrissar. You may call him Lord Escrissar."
There was a name everyone recognized, feared and rightly despised, Pavek included. The Modekaners looked at him, more uncertain than before, and even Ruari and Zvain seemed taken aback. It shouldn't have been such a gut-numbing surprise—the Lion-King had all but told him he was replacing the half-elf—but it was. Pavek felt as if he'd been stained with a foul dye that would never wash off.
The woman registrator retreated a full stride. "We will send to Khelo for sedan chairs, Lord Escrissar." She flashed a hand-sign and two elven templars took off running. "There are none here."
Another reason they should have gone to Khelo. Draft and riding animals were outlawed in Urik and in the belt of land between the city and its market villages. High templars and nobles got around that law with slave-labor sedan chairs, which could be hired at Khelo.
"There's no time for that," Pavek protested, finding his voice too late to recall the elves. "Water and a hand-cart, that's all we want; then we'll be on our way."
They got their water, and all the succulent fruit they could eat, but not the hand-cart. There was no way Modekan's chief registrator was going to let a high templar, especially a high templar calling himself Lord Escrissar, leave her village pulling his own baggage in a rickety two-wheeled bone-and-leather cart. The village had twenty hale men who'd be honored to pull their cart. Her very own son would be especially honored to pull a second cart for the eleganta, whose rank they'd mistaken earlier.
"Surely, Lord Escrissar, you can't expect her to walk?"
Pavek knew Mahtra wasn't nearly as frail as she appeared to be, but her sandals weren't suited for the long walk to the city. After a futile grumble, he bowed his head, accepting the registrator's advice. The bloody sun hadn't moved twice its breadth across the cloudless sky, and already he was being told what to do again, respectfully and correctly, but told, nonetheless.
By the time the Modekaners had piled what appeared to be every pillow in the village into Mahtra's cart, there wasn't a yellow-robed elf to be seen. The templars at the city gate weren't going to be surprised by an unexpected high templar and his entourage. And Pavek wasn't going to get an opportunity to talk tactics with his companions on the final leg of their journey, as—fool that he was—he'd intended.
Pavek didn't get a chance to talk with them at all. In addition to the two men pulling the carts, half the able-bodied folk of Modekan marched along with them, each of them taking advantage of the opportunity to ply a cause or air their favorite grievance with, wonder-of-wonders, an approachable high templar. They made varied promises and offered their service for quinths, phases, or all the years of their lives, if only he would take them into his presumably vast patronage. One nubile young woman offered to become his wife, guaranteeing him strong, healthy sons to carry on his lineage; she already had three by the man she was leaving, the man who, moments earlier, had offered to become his water-servant for ten years and a day.
He said he'd think about it and tucked the little seal-stone with her name on it into his bulging belt-pouch. An older fellow, a dwarf with a mangled ear and a gimpy leg, took aim at him next, but not before Pavek got a glimpse of Mahtra, Ruari, and even Zvain under similar assault, the three of them looking similarly overwhelmed. He cursed himself for a fool and was glad Telhami wasn't around to see what a mess he'd made of things, then the dwarf caught up with him.
The dwarf knew of a place, deep in the barrens, where a sandstorm had overtaken a rich caravan, leaving everyone dead but him. For twenty years, he'd kept the caravan's lost treasure a secret, but now, if Lord Escrissar would put up twenty gold pieces—for men, supplies, and inixes to haul the treasure back to Urik—the dwarf would split the treasure evenly with him.
Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy! Did they all take him for that great a fool? Pavek grew more irritated with himself and the smarmy dwarf until the walls and roofs of the city hove into view. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed Urik—he hadn't thought he'd missed it at all, but the sunlight flash of the Lion-King's yellow-glass eyes embedded in the majestic walls sent a chill down his spine. His body tightened. He walked lighter, feeling Urik's vitality through the balls of his feet, the chaotic rhythms of sentient life different from the slow regularity of Quraite's groves. The dwarf fell behind as Pavek picked up the pace. Cruel, perhaps, to take advantage of a dwarf's shorter stride, but not unjust, not unlike the Lion-King whose wall-bound portraits beckoned him home.
"The Mighty Lord expects you, Great One," the instigator in charge of the southern gatehouse informed Pavek. "We sent word to the palace after the Modekan messengers arrived. Manip"—the instigator indicated a tow-headed youth wearing the regulator's bands that Pavek knew best— "lingered in the corridor. He saw messengers dispatched to the quarter with the keys to your house."
The instigator paused, as if he had more to say, as if it were pure happenstance that his hand was palm-up between them. Gatekeeping templars couldn't demand anything from a high templar, but Manip had taken no small risk eavesdropping in the palace. Pavek fished carefully through his cluttered belt-pouch; it was useful to know that they had a place to sleep, albeit an ill-omened one. He put an uncut ceramic coin in the instigator's hand. It disappeared immediately into the instigator's sleeve, but no more information was forthcoming, and Pavek had no assurance that Manip would receive a fair share of the reward.
"Shall I escort you to the palace, Great One?" the instigator asked.
Pavek understood that the man would expect another gratuity when they reached the palace gate. He needed another moment to remember that he was a high templar now and that there was no need for him to reward this man, or anyone. Nor was he compelled to accept services he didn't want.
"I know the way, Instigator," he said firmly, liking the sound. "Your place is here. I would not take you from it. Let Manip, there, haul our cart to my house." That was a way to reward the templar who'd actually taken the eavesdropping risk, and rid themselves of a bulky pile in the bargain. The other cart, Mahtra's cart with the abundance of pillows, was already on its way back to Modekan.
"Great One, the palace?" The instigator's tone was less bold. "The Mighty Lord was informed of your imminent arrival, Great One. He expects you and your companions."
"That is not your concern, Instigator." Pavek made his voice cold. He smiled his practiced templar smile and felt his scar twitch.
The tricks of a high templar's trade came easily. He could grow accustomed to the power, if he weren't careful. Corruption grew out of the bribes he was offered, the bribes he accepted, which was no surprise, but also out of those he refused, and that was a surprise.
He set Manip, the cart, and three ceramic bits on their way toward the templar quarter, then herded his companions deeper into the city, where they could almost disappear into the afternoon crowds.
"Didn't you hear what he said?" Zvain demanded when they were sheltered in the courtyard of an empty shop. "Wheels of fate, Pavek—King Hamanu's got his eye out for us. We're goners if we don't hie ourselves to the palace!"
"And do what when we get there?" Pavek countered. "Slide across the floor on our bellies until he tells us what to do next?"
Zvain said nothing, but his expression hinted that he had expected to slither.
"Mahtra, can you take us to the reservoir now?" Pavek turned to her. "I want to see it with my own eyes before we go to the palace."
She pulled back, shaking her head like a startled animal.
"If we're going to hunt for Kakzim, we have to start where he was last seen."
"My Lord Hamanu—" Mahtra began to protest.
But Pavek cut her off. "Doesn't know everything there is to know in Urik." The words were heresy, but also the truth, or Laq would never have gotten loose in the city. "Can you lead us there? I don't want to go to the palace with an empty head."
"There was death everywhere. Blood and bodies. I didn't want to go back. I didn't go back. Father, Mika, they're still there."
A child, Pavek reminded himself. A seven-year-old who'd come home one morning and found her family slaughtered. "You don't have to go all the way, Mahtra. Just far enough so we know where we're going. Zvain will stay with you—" "No way!" the boy protested. "I'm going with you. I'm not afraid of a few corpses."
"You'll stay with her, won't you, Ru?"
"Aye," Ruari replied, but he was staring at the roofs across the street where something had just gone thump.
"There—you lead us as far as you can, and Ruari will stay with you until Zvain and I get back." Never mind that he'd trust Mahtra's street-sense before he'd trust Ruari's; Mahtra was reassured.
"We have to get to the elven market. There'll be enforcers to pay, and runners. I haven't paid them since—" Mahtra's voice faltered. Pavek began to worry that the return to Urik had overwhelmed her, but she cleared her throat and continued. "There's Henthoren. I don't know if he'll let me bring someone new across his plaza..."
"We'll worry about that when we get there," Pavek said with a shrug.
He might have known the passage would be in the elven market—the one place in Urik where a high templar's medallion wouldn't cut air. They'd be better off if no market enforcer or runner suspected who he was, what he was. Tucking the medallion inside his shirt, he started walking toward the market. He had three companions, each of whom wanted to walk beside him, but only two sides, Ruari staked a claim to Pavek's right side. He held it with dire glowers and few expert prods from his staff, which Pavek decided diplomatically to ignore.
"What do I do with these?" the half-elf asked plaintively.
Pavek looked down on a handful of colorful seal-stones sitting in Ruari's outstretched hand. "Did anyone tell you a story that you believed?"
"No. They all wanted something from me."
"Throw them away."
The stones went tumbling when Pavek jostled the half-elf's arm.
"But—?" he repeated. "The stones themselves—shouldn't I try to return them, if I don't want them?"
"Forget the stones. Potters sell them at twenty for a ceramic bit, forty after a rain. Forget the Modekaners. If you'd believed them, it might be different—might be. But you didn't believe them. Trust yourself, Ru. You for damn sure can't trust anyone else."
Ruari wiped the lingering dust onto his breeches. The great adventure had lost its glow for him and was further dimmed when they passed through the gates into the elven market. Ruari had been conceived somewhere in the dense maze of tents, shanties, and stalls. His Moonracer mother had fallen afoul of a human templar. The templar was long dead, but Ruari still held a grudge.
The market was quiet, at least as far as enforcers and runners were concerned. Mahtra led them confidently from one shamble-way to the next. Keeping an eye out for authority, Pavek spotted several vendors who seemed to recognize her—hardly surprising given her memorably exotic features—but no one called to her. And that wasn't surprising either. Folk in the market minded their own business, but they had a good memory for strangers, an excellent memory for the three strangers traveling in Mahtra's wake.
They stopped short on the verge of a plaza not greatly different from a handful of others they'd crossed without hesitation.
"He's not here. Henthoren's not here," Mahtra mumbled through her mask. She pointed at an odd but empty construction, an awning-chair atop a man-high tower and the tower mounted on wheels. Henthoren—a tribal elf by the sound of his name—presumably sat in the chair, but there were no elves to be seen today, not even among the women pounding laundry in the fountain. "He's gone."
"He can't stop you from leading us across then, can he?" Pavek chided gently. "Let's go."
She led them to a squat stone building northwest of the fountain. The stone was gray, contrasting with the ubiquitous yellow of Urik's streets and walls. There were rows of angular marks above a leather-hinged grating. Writing, Pavek guessed, but none that he was familiar with. After spending all his free time breathing dust and copying scrolls in the city archive, he thought he'd deciphered every variant script in the Tablelands cities. He'd have liked a few moments to study the marks, but Mahtra had opened a grate.
"Wind and fire," Ruari exclaimed as he crossed the threshold. "We're flat out of luck, Pavek."
Zvain used more inventive language to say the same thing. Mahtra said nothing until Pavek was inside the stone building.
That was possible. The warding was as thick and bright as any Pavek had seen before; thicker by far than the wardings the civil bureau maintained on the various postern passages through the city walls. He'd guess a high templar had hung the shimmering curtain.
"There was some light before, but there was a passage here, too." Mahtra indicated a place now hidden by the warding. "We'd use the passage. Now—They showed me what would happen if I touched the light."
"It must be twice as powerful as the one under the walls," Ruari said, making a pensive face. He remembered warding from when Pavek had led them through a postern passage on their way to rescue Akashia from House Escrissar. "At least twice as powerful. I can feel it; it makes my teeth hurt and my hair stand up. The other one didn't. Don't think your medallion trick's going to work like it did last year."
Pavek shouldered his way to the front. He took his medallion from his neck and grasped it carefully by the edges, with the striding lion to the front. "You forget: I'm at least twice the templar I was then."
A cascade of blue-green sparks leapt to the medallion, leaving a black, wardless space in the curtain. Pavek moved the ceramic in an outward-growing spiral, collecting more sparks, making a bigger hole. His arm was numb and faintly blue-green by the time he had a hole large enough to let them through. He went last; it closed behind him, leaving them in darkness. Pavek sucked his teeth and swore under his breath.
"What's the matter?" Ruari asked.
"So? Then we've got no problem getting out—"
The half-elf would have walked headlong into oblivion if Pavek hadn't seized his arm and shoved him against the rough stone wall.
"Death-trap, fool! Warding to keep curious folk out, but a blind trap for anyone who was already inside when the wards were set."
Ruari went limp against Pavek's grip on his shirt. "Can we get out?"
"Same way we got in—just have to make certain I'm in front and my medallion's in front of me," Pavek said with more good-humor and optimism than he felt. "Wish I had a bit of chalk to mark the walls. Wish I had a torch to see the walls..."
"There're torches on the other side," Mahtra volunteered, then added: "There used to be."
"I can see," Ruari informed them, relying on the night-vision he'd inherited from his elven mother. "I've marked these rocks in my mind. I'll know this place when we're here again. Swear it."
"See that you do," Pavek said, and Zvain tittered nervously somewhere on his left. "Still wish I had a torch."
"The path's not hard," Mahtra assured them. "I never carried a torch, and I can't see in the dark. Hold hands; I'll lead."
And she did, without a hint of her earlier trepidations. Her grip was cool and dry around Pavek's fingers, while Zvain, behind Pavek, had a sweaty hand that threatened to slip away with every hesitant step the boy took. Ruari brought up the rear, or Pavek assumed he did. Between his druid training and his innate talents, the half-elf could be utterly silent when he chose.
The air in the passage was nighttime cool and heavy with moisture, like the air in Telhami's grove. It had a faintly musty scent, but nothing approaching the stench Pavek would have expected from the carnage Mahtra had described. He'd believed her since she appeared on the salt flats. He'd trusted her unquestioningly, as he trusted no one else, certainly not the Lion-King who'd sent her. A thousand ominous thoughts broke his mind's surface.
"There's light ahead," Ruari announced in an excited whisper.
Light meant magic or fire. Pavek took a deep breath through his nose. He couldn't smell anything, but he couldn't see anything, either.
"Let me go first," he said to Mahtra, striding past her.
The passage was wide enough for two good-sized humans and high enough that he hadn't bumped his head. They'd come through a few narrower spots, but none that made Pavek feel as if the ground had swallowed him whole. He didn't suggest that Mahtra stay behind or that Ruari stay behind with her. He didn't sense danger ahead, not in that almost-magical way a man could sometimes sense a trap or ambush before it was too late, but if things did go bad, he wanted Ruari and his staff where they could be of some use—not to mention the 'protection' Mahtra claimed to possess but hadn't ever described or demonstrated.
He thumbed the guard that held his steel sword—scavenged from the battlefield after the battle with Escrissar's mercenaries for Quraite—in its scabbard. "Stay close. Stay quiet," he ordered his troops. "Keep balanced. If I stop short, I don't want to hear you grunting and stumbling."
The enclosed passage ended at the top of a curving ramp. Overhead, there was open air filled with the dim light, solid rock on his left, and a slowly diminishing wall on his right. Pavek edged along the wall, keeping his head down, until the wall was low enough for him to see over while still providing him with something to hide behind. After taking a deep breath for courage, he peeked over the top—
And was so amazed by what he saw that he forgot to hunker down again.
Urik's reservoir was larger than any druid's pool, larger than anything Pavek could have imagined on his own. It was a dark mirror reflecting the glow from its far shore, flawless, except for circular ripples that appeared and faded as he gazed across it. The glow came from five huge bowls that seemed at first to hover in the still air, though when he squinted, Pavek could make out a faint, silvery scaffolding beneath them.
Other than the bowls, there was nothing: no corpses, no burnt-out huts, none of the debris a veteran templar expected to find in the aftermath of carnage.
But the bowls themselves...
Pavek didn't have the words to describe their delicate, subtly shifting color or the aura that shone steadily around them. They were beautiful, identical, perfect in every imaginable way, and now that he'd seen them, the foreboding he hadn't felt when Ruari first saw light ahead fell on him like burning oil.
Mahtra wasn't a liar. Lord Hamanu was trustworthy. And someone—Kakzim—had contrived the deaths of countless innocents and misfits so these bowls could be set in their places above the water.
Set there and left alone.
By everything Pavek could see or hear, there wasn't another living creature in the cavern. He gave the agreed-upon signal, and Ruari brought the other two down the ramp.
Zvain began a curse: "Hamanu's great, greasy—" which he didn't finish because Pavek clouted him hard on the floating ribs. Notwithstanding an eleganta's trade or the things Mahtra must have seen in House Escrissar, there were some things honest men did not say in the presence of women. The boy folded himself around the ache. Tears ran from his eyes, but he kept his lips sealed and soundless.
"What do you think?" Pavek gave his attention to Ruari, who was his superior where magic was concerned.
The half-elf rolled his lower lip out. "I don't like it. Doesn't feel..." He closed his eyes and opened them again. "Doesn't feel healthy."
Pavek sighed. He'd had the same sensation. He'd hoped Ruari could be more specific.
They stayed where they were, waiting for a sound, a flicker of movement to tell them they weren't alone. There was nothing—unless the most disciplined ambushers on the Tablelands were waiting for them. When Pavek's instincts said walk or scream, he started down the ramp, slow and quiet, but convinced that they were in no immediate danger. The cavern was too vast for the sort of one-sided warding they'd encountered earlier; it was too vast for any warding at all. Ruari prodded the reservoir's gravelly shore with his staff, searching for more traditional traps. He overturned a few charred lumps that might have been parts of huts or humans, but nothing that would tell anyone what had happened here less than two quinths ago, if Mahtra hadn't told them.
When they got to the far shore, they found each bowl mounted on its own platform that leaned over the water. The silvery scaffolds shone with light as well as reflecting the greater light of the bowls they held. Caution said, look, don't touch, but Pavek was a high templar who'd painted the Lion-King's kilts. He wasn't afraid of a bit of glamour, and he recognized a ladder in the scaffold's regular cross-pieces. With his medallion against his palm, he touched a glowing strut.
"I'll be—" he began, then caught himself. "It's made of bones!"
Pavek ran the medallion from one lashing to the next, absorbing the silver glow. The scaffolding that emerged from the glamour was constructed from bones of every description. It was thoroughly ingenious, but except for the glamour—which was a simple deception and not much of one at that—it was completely nonmagical. He tested the built-in ladder and, finding it strong enough to bear his weight, scrambled up to the platform. Ruari came after him, but the other two stayed on the ground.
There was a pattern: leather and bones, a lot of leather, a lot of bones. Pavek felt a word rising through his own thick thoughts, but without breaking the surface, the word was gone when the bowl suddenly shuddered.
Hand on his sword, he turned around in time to see Ruari tottering on the bowl's rim. Demonstrating a singular lack of foresight, the half-elf had apparently tried to leap up there from the scaffold, but all those losing contests with his elven cousins finally yielded a victory. Ruari thrust his staff forward and down into the bowl. The move acted as a counterbalance, and he stood steady a moment before leaping lightly back to the scaffold platform beside Pavek.
Slop from the tip of Ruari's staff struck Pavek's leg. It was warm, slimy, and unspeakably foul. Pavek swiped it off with his fingers, then shook his hand frantically. Ruari reversed the staff to get his own closer view of the remaining gook.
He touched it, sniffed it, and would have touched it a second time with the tip of his tongue—if Pavek hadn't swung at the staff and sent it flying.
"Have you lost what little wit you were born with, scum?"
Ruari drew himself up to his full height, a good head-and-a-half taller than Pavek. "I was going to find out whether it was wholesome or not. Druids can do that, you know. Not bumble-thumbs like you, but real druids."
"Idiots can do it, too, the same way you were going to do it! Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy—the stuff's poison!"
Ruari stared at the dark slime on his fingers, and, judging by his puzzled expression, saw something entirely different. So Pavek grabbed Ruari's hand and smeared the sludge clinging to the half-elf's hand across the medallion, where it hissed and steamed with a frightful stench. Ruari was properly appalled
"Laq?" he whispered.
"Damned if I know."
"Laq?" Zvain shouted from the ground where he brandished Ruari's staff.
"You keep your hands away from that tip—understand!" Pavek shouted, which only drew the boy's attention to that exact part of the staff, which he promptly touched.
Pavek leapt to the ground, twisting his ankle on the landing. By the time things were sorted out, both he and Zvain were limping and Ruari had joined them.
"This time, Kakzim's trying to" poison Urik's water," the half-elf said, proud that he'd deciphered the purpose of the bowls.
"Looks like it," Pavek agreed, putting weight gingerly on his sore ankle. "Had to get rid of the folk living here so he could build these damn bone scaffolds and skin bowls!" Which, while true, were not the wisest words he'd ever uttered.
Mahtra raised her head to. stare wide-eyed at the bowls. It didn't take mind-bending to guess what kind of skin she thought Kakzim had used to make them.
Mahtra shrieked, "Father!" She took off at a run for the nearest scaffold.
Ruari grabbed her as she ran past him, and let go just as quickly shouting: "What are you!"
She fell to the shore with her head tilted so they could see that a milky membrane covered her eyes. The gold patches on her skin gave off bright fumes that smelled a bit of sulphur.
Zvain dropped to the ground as well. "Don't fight!" he shouted, then curled up with his knees against his forehead. "Don't fight," he repeated, sobbing this time. "She'll blast you if you fight."
Pavek stood beside Ruari, one hand on his sword, the other on his medallion, waiting for Mahtra to be herself again. The fumes subsided, the membranes withdrew. She sat up slowly, stretching her arms.
"You want to tell us what that was about?" Pavek demanded.
"The makers—" Mahtra began, and Pavek rolled his eyes.
She began to cry—at least that's what Pavek thought she was doing. The sound she made was like nothing he'd heard before, but she was starting to curl up the same way as Zvain. Ignoring his ankle, he squatted down beside her.
"I didn't mean to frighten you."
"I don't know what happened to your father's body, but those aren't his bones. Those are bones from animals. The bowls, too. The bowls are made from animal hides, inix maybe. I was a cruel, dung-skulled fool to say what I did."
A slaughterhouse. Pavek got to his feet. "Codesh!" The word that had escaped before all the excitement began. "Codesh! Kakzim's in Codesh! He's in the butchers' village—" His enthusiasm faded as quickly as it had arisen.
"But the passage's in the elven market. Someone would have noticed, not me hides; maybe, but the bones for sure. There's no way to get those bones here without someone noticing."
Mahtra stood up slowly, using Pavek's arm for balance. "Henthoren sent a runner across the plaza to me that morning. He said he'd let no one into the cavern since sundown, when I left. I think—I think he knew what had happened, and was trying to tell me it wasn't his fault—"
"Because there's another passage to the cavern... in Codesh," Pavek concluded.
Zvain raised his head. "No," he pleaded. "Not Codesh. I don't want to go to Codesh. I don't want to go anywhere."
"Don't worry. Codesh can wait until morning," Pavek assured the boy. He'd had enough adventure for one day himself. His ankle throbbed when he took an aching step toward the distant ramp to Urik. The sprain wasn't as serious as it was painful. "Food," he said to himself and his companions. "A good night's sleep. That's what we all need. We'll worry about Codesh—about Hamanu—in the morning."
Ruari, Mahtra and Zvain fell in step behind him.
Civil bureau administrators were waiting outside the door of House Escrissar when Pavek, still hobbling on a game ankle, led his companions through the templar quarter a bit before sunset. The administrators were drowsy with boredom and leaning against the loaded hand-cart Manip had dragged up from the gate. Exercising his high templar privileges, Pavek rewarded Manip and sent him on his way before he said a word to the higher ranking administrators.
With proper deference, one of the administrators gave him a key ring large enough to hang a man. The other handed him a pristine seal, carved from porphyry and bearing his exalted rank, his common name, and his inherited house. He tried to give Pavek a gold medallion, too, but Pavek refused, saying his old ceramic medallion was sufficient. That confused the administrator, giving Pavek a momentary sense of triumph before he etched his name— Just-Plain Pavek—through the smooth, white clay surface of the deed, revealing the coarse obsidian beneath it.
The administrators wrapped the deedstone in parchment that was duly secured with the Lion-King's sulphurous wax by them and by Pavek, using his porphyry seal for the first time. The administrators departed, and Pavek tried five keys before he found the one that worked in the door. He dragged the hand-cart over the threshold himself.
House Escrissar had been sealed quinths ago. It was quiet as a tomb beneath a thick blanket of yellow dust. Otherwise both Zvain and Mahtra assured its new master that the house was precisely as they remembered it—which sent a chill down Pavek's spine. There was nothing in the simple furniture, the floor mosaics, or the wall frescoes to proclaim that a monster had lived here. He'd expected obscenity, torture, and cruelty of all kinds, but with their depictions of bright gardens and green forests, the frescoes could have been commissioned by a druid... by Akashia herself.
"It was like this," Zvain repeated when curiosity drove Pavek to touch a painted orange flower. "That was the worst—"
The boy's words stopped abruptly. Pavek turned around. They'd been joined by the oldest, most frail half-elf he'd ever seen, a woman whose crinkled skin hung loose from every bone and whose back was so crippled by age that she gazed most naturally at her own feet. She raised her head with evident discomfort and difficulty. Her cheeks were scarred with black lines in a pattern Pavek promised himself would, never be cut into flesh again.
"Who has come?" she asked with a trembling voice.
Pavek caught Zvain and Mahtra exchanging anxious glances before they shied away from the old woman's shadow. Ruari was transfixed by the sight of what he, himself, might become. Pavek swallowed hard and jangled the key ring he held in his weapon hand.
"I've come," he said. "Pavek. Just-Plain Pavek. I am—I am the master here, now." He couldn't help but notice the way she stared at the key ring. Her name, she said, was Initri. She had chosen to remain inside the house with her husband after all the other slaves were dispersed and the administrators had come to lock the doors for the last time. Her husband tended the house gardens.
"He doesn't hear anymore," Initri explained and made her way with small, halting steps along the cobbled garden path.
Initri got her husband's attention with a gentle touch. He read silent words from her lips, then set aside his tools with the slow precision of the venerably aged before he took her hand. While Pavek and his companions watched from the atrium arch, the old man took his wife's arm, for balance, as he stood. They both tottered as he rose from his knees. Pavek strode toward them, but they leaned against each other and were steady again without his help. Pavek expected scars and saw them before he saw the metal collar around the gardener's neck and the stone-link chain descending from it. Each link was as thick as the half-elf's thigh. The chain had to weigh as much as the old man did himself.
They stood side-by-side in the twilight, the loyal gardener and his loyal wife, she with one hand on his flank, the other clutching the chain. No wonder Initri had stared so intently at the keys he held in his hand—keys that the administrators had kept secure under magical wards in King Hamanu's palace. Overcome by shame and awe, Pavek looked away, looked at the flowers in their profuse blooming.
If ever a man had the right to destroy the life of Athas, this old man had had that right, but he'd nurtured life instead.
"How?" Pavek stammered, forcing himself to face the couple again. "How have you survived? The house was locked."
Initri met his gaze and held it. "The larders were full," she said without a trace of emotion. "Some nights the watch threw us their crusts and scraps. It depended on who had the duty." She indicated the crenelated platform visible above the garden's rear wall.
Pavek whispered, "Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy."
He heard long-striding footfalls behind him: Ruari disappearing. Ruari making certain Pavek knew he was angry about something; the half-elf didn't have to make noise when he ran. Zvain and Mahtra showed no more emotion than Initri did. Compassion was a wasted virtue in Urik; Pavek knew they were better off without it, but he sympathized more with Ruari. The elderly couple said nothing. They stared at him, the new high templar master of House Escrissar—their new master—without reproach or expectation on their faces.
One of the keys must belong to the lock that bound the chain and collar together. Pavek fumbled with the ring, dropping it twice. He tried the first two keys he touched; neither fit the lock, much less opened it. Locks were nothing a man without property had ever needed to understand. Pavek resolved to work his way around the ring, a key at a time, and had tried two more when Initri's withered fingers reached toward him. Her motion stopped before their hands touched; the fears and habits of slavery were not easily shed.
"Which one?" Pavek asked her gently. "Do you know which one?"
She pointed toward a metal key that had been shaped to resemble a thighbone. Pavek slipped it into the socket and twisted it. The mechanism was stiff; he was afraid to apply his full strength. The key might break and Pavek had no notion where he'd find a smith after sunset—though he knew he wouldn't be able to rest until he had.
Once again, Initri came to Pavek's rescue, her parchment fingers resting lightly over his, guiding them through tiny jerks and jiggles. The lock's innards released themselves with an audible click. The thick shaft pulled loose, then the first link of the chain. Finally Pavek could take the ends of the metal collar and force the sweat-rusted hinge to yield.
The gardener examined the collar after Pavek had removed it. His hands trembled. Tears fell from his eyes to the corroded metal. Initri showed no such sentiment.
"Lord Pavek, your larder holds dried beans, a cask of flour, and some sausage a jozhal wouldn't steal," she said in a slave's habitual monotone. "Does that please my lord for his supper?"
Pavek twisted the collar until the hinge broke. He would have hurled it at the wall, but it would have struck the vines and loosened a few leaves, which seemed a poor way to acknowledge the gardener's extraordinary devotion to his plants. So, he let the pieces fall atop the stone links and raked his stiff, filthy hair. He wanted a steam bath, and a hot supper, and could have gotten both, if he'd gone to a city inn instead of coming here, instead of coming home.
Pavek's own gut growled, reminding him that he, too, was hungry and that on occasion he could eat more than his two younger friends combined.
Except for a quinth or two before he left Urik, throughout Pavek's life, whether in the orphanage, the barracks, or Quraite, he hadn't had to worry about his next hot meal. That had all changed. Whatever else he'd done, Elabon Escrissar had at least kept his larder filled with beans, flour, and vile sausage. The larder was Pavek's responsibility now, along with who-knew-what-else, except that it would all require gold and silver coins in greater quantities than he possessed.
"A treasury?" he inquired. "Is there a treasury in the house?"
Initri shook her head. "Gone, Lord Pavek. Gone before the administrators came. Gone while Lord Elabon still lived. Will beans serve, my lord?"
The deaf gardener picked up the metal pieces Pavek had dropped and slowly carried them out of his domain, as if they were no more significant than wind-fallen branches, as if he'd been able to leave whenever he chose. Pavek watched until the man and his shadow had disappeared through a side archway.
"Lord Pavek—will beans serve for your supper?"
Pavek's hand went to the familiar medallion hanging from his neck. He needed money. Not the pittance of ceramic bits and silver that had sufficed in his regulator's past, nor the plump belt-pouch he'd worn out of Quraite; he needed gold, by the handful.
Leaping through the bureau ranks as he had, he'd missed all the intervening opportunities to enrich himself. He needed a prebend, that regular gift from Lord Hamanu himself that kept high templars loyal to the throne. A gift Pavek imagined the Lion-King would grant him in an instant, once he made the request. Why else had he been brought back to Urik? But he'd give up any claim to freedom once he accepted it. Once he asked Lord Hamanu for money, he might as well pick up the gardener's chain and fasten it around his own neck.
That slave's fate, however, was tomorrow's worry. Tonight's worry was beans, and they would not serve.
"Zvain, unload our baggage and take our food to the kitchen. Initri, follow him—no, wait for him in the kitchen. See what you can make up for all of us."
"Yes, Lord Pavek," she said, as passionless as before. She obediently started for the door, where Zvain stood between Mahtra and Ruari, who had crept out of the shadows. The half-elf wouldn't meet his eyes, a sure sign of anger waiting to erupt.
"Mahtra you go with Zvain. Help him unload the baggage. Wait in the kitchen."
Two of them went. Ruari sulked silently for about two heartbeats, then the eruption began.
"Initri, make my dinner. Unpack my baggage! Go to the kitchen! Wind and fire! You should have freed them, Lord Pavek. Or doesn't owning your parents' parents bother you?"
Pavek should have known not merely that Ruari was angry, but why. There weren't any slaves in Quraite, certainly no half-elven ones. He should have had an explanation sitting on his tongue, but he didn't. At that moment, with Ruari glaring at him, Pavek didn't know himself why he hadn't freed the old couple immediately, and he expressed shame or embarrassment with no better grace than Ruari expressed his anger or confusion.
"They aren't my kin or yours," Pavek replied, adopting Ruari's outraged sarcasm for himself. "They're just two people who've lived here a long time."
"Slaved here, you mean. Lord Pavek, your templar blood is showing. You should have set them free. Those were the words that should have come out of your mouth, not orders to cook your supper!"
"Set them free and then what? Turned them out of this house? Where would they go? Would you send them across the wastes to Quraite? Would you send every slave in Urik to Quraite? How many would die on the Fist? How many could Quraite feed before everyone was starving?"
Ruari pulled his head back. His chin jutted defiantly, but Pavek knew those questions struck the half-elf solidly. "I didn't say that," Ru insisted. "I didn't say send them across the Fist to Quraite. They could stay here in Urik. There're free folk in Urik. Zvain's free. Mahtra is. You—when we met you."
"He could work for someone else, tending their garden."
"No one hires gardeners, Ru. They buy them. Besides— this is his garden. Didn't you understand that? He was chained here, but he didn't have to make this place bloom. He's a veritable druid. Should I banish him from his grove?"
"Free him, then hire him yourself."
"Make him a slave to coins instead of men? Is that such an improvement? What if he gets sick? He's old, it could happen. If he's a slave, I'm obligated to take care of him, whether he can garden or not, but if I'm paying him to tend my garden, what's to stop me from simply hiring another man. Why should I care? He doesn't belong to me anymore."
"Slavery's wrong, Pavek. It's just plain wrong."
"I didn't say it was right."
"You didn't free them!"
"Because that wouldn't be right, either!" Pavek's voice rose to a shout. "Life's not simple, not my life, anyway. I wouldn't want to be a slave—I think I'd kill myself first. Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy, I swear I'll never buy a slave, but by the wheels of fate's chariot, that is a small mercy. There's not enough gold in all Urik for both freedom and food."
"You'll keep slaves, but you won't buy them," Ruari shouted back. "What a convenient conscience you have, Lord Pavek."
Lord Pavek kicked the stone links coiled at his feet and jammed his toe. "All right," he snarled, grinding his teeth against a fool's pain. "Whatever you say, Ruari: I've got a convenient conscience. I'm not a good man; never pretended that I was. I've never known a thoroughly good man, woman, or child and, yes, that includes you, Kashi, and Telhami. I don't have good answers. Slavery's a mistake, a terrible mistake, but I can't fix a mistake by setting it free and tossing it out to the streets. Once a mistake's made, it stays made and someone's got to be responsible for it."
"There's got to be a better way."
That was Ruari's way of ending their arguments and making peace, but Pavek's toe still throbbed and the half-elf had scratched too many scars for a truce.
"If you're so sure, go out and find it. We'll both become better men. But until you do have something better to offer, get out of my sight."
"I only said—"
Pavek threw a wild punch in the half-elf's direction. It fell short by several handspans, but Ruari got the idea and ran for cover.
Twilight had become an evening that was not as dark as in Quraite. Pavek could see the wall where the gardener lined up his tools: shovel, rake, hoe, and a rock-headed maul. Testing its heft and balance as if it were a weapon, Pavek gave the maul a few practice swings. The knotted muscles in his shoulders crackled. He wasn't the sort of man who handled tension well; he'd rather work himself to exhaustion than think his way out of a puzzle.
One end of the stone-link chain remained where the gardener had dropped it. The other end was fastened to a ring at the center of the garden. Pavek coiled all the links around the ring and started hammering. The links slid against each other; Pavek never hit the same place twice. Stone against shifting stone was as futile labor as Urik had to offer, but Pavek found his rhythm and once he'd broken a sweat, his conscience was clearer—emptier—than it had been in days.
Swinging and striking, he lost track of time and place, or almost lost track. He'd no notion how much time had passed when he became aware that he wasn't alone. Ruari, he thought. Ruari had returned for the final word. He swung the maul with extra vigor, missed the links altogether, but raised sparks from the ring. The gasp he heard next didn't come from a half-elf or a human boy.
He saw her in the doorway, a study in moonlit pallor and seamless shadows. Their eyes met and she receded into the dark. A child, Pavek reminded himself; he'd frightened her with his hammering. He set the maul aside.
She shook her head. The shawl slid down her neck. With the mask dividing her head, it was like looking at two incomplete faces—which was probably not an inaccurate way to describe her.
"Does this place make you uneasy? Do you want to talk to me about it?" He'd already failed miserably with Ruari, but the night was young and filled with opportunity.
"No, I like it here. I remember Akashia, but my own memories are different."
"You used to come to this garden?"
"No, never. No one came here, except Agan. He was always here. Agan and Initri, they were special."
Their conversation was assuming its familiar pattern: Pavek asking what he assumed were simple questions and Mahtra replying with answers he didn't quite understand. "How?" he asked, dreading her answer.
"Sometimes Lord Elabon, he called Agan 'my thrice-damned-father'."
The maul handle stood beside Pavek, in easy reach. He could swing it and imagine the link it struck was Elabon Escrissar's skull. He'd been wise to dread anything Mahtra could tell him about his inherited home. How had Escrissar—even Escrissar—enslaved his own parents? What was he, Just-Plain Pavek, supposed to do to correct that mistake? What could he do?
"It might not mean anything," Mahtra continued. "Father wasn't my father. I don't have a father or mother; I was made, not born. I just called Father that because it felt good. Maybe Lord Escrissar did the same."
Pavek said, "I hope not," and Mahtra receded into the shadows again. He called her back saying, "It's all right for you feel good about calling someone Father—" Mahtra had a clear sense of justice and honor; he assumed she'd gotten it from the man she called Father who had, therefore, been worthy of a child's respect. She certainly hadn't gotten anything honorable from Elabon Escrissar. "But it wouldn't be right if you'd put scars on his face and a chain around his neck, and then you felt good about calling him Father."
"It would feel good to call you Father. You truly wouldn't set your mistakes free, would you?"
She'd been eavesdropping on his argument with Ruari, if it could be called eavesdropping when they'd been screaming at each other.
"I wouldn't—not deliberately, but Mahtra, you can't call me Father. I'm Pavek, Just-Plain Pavek. Leave it at that."
She blinked, and pulled her arms tight around her slender torso as if Pavek had struck her, which only made him feel worse. But he couldn't have her calling him Father; that was a responsibility he couldn't take.
"I need someone to talk to and I don't think I should talk to Lord Hamanu. I think he'd listen, but I don't think I should. I think he's made, too, or born so long ago he's forgotten."
"You can talk to me," Pavek assured her quickly, determined to put an end to any thought of confiding in the Lion-King. "You can't call me Father, but you can talk to me about anything." He felt like a man walking open-eyed off a cliff.
Mahtra came closer. Her bird's-egg eyes sparkled—actually sparkled—with excitement. "I can protect myself now!"
"Haven't you always been able to do that?" he asked, hoping for a comprehensible answer. She'd talked about the protection her makers had given her before, but she'd never been able to explain it.
"Before, it just happened. I got stiff and blurry, and it happened. But today, by the water, when I got angry at Ruari, I didn't want him to stop me, so I made myself afraid that he'd hurt me, and made it happen."
Pavek recalled the moment easily. "You made it stop, too. Didn't you?"
That was not the answer he'd hoped for. "Almost?"
"Angry-afraid makes the protection happen. When Ruari pushed me down, I wasn't angry-afraid anymore, I was sad-afraid, and sad-afraid makes the protection go away. I'm glad it went away without happening; I didn't want to hurt Ruari, not truly. But I didn't make it not-happen."
Pavek looked up into her strange, trusting eyes. He scratched his itchy scalp, hoping to kindle inspiration and failing in that endeavor, too. "I don't know, Mahtra, maybe you did learn how to control what your makers gave you: angry-fear makes it start; sad-fear makes it stop. If you could make yourself angry, you can make yourself sad."
"Is that good—? Making myself feel differently, to control what the makers gave me?" "It's better than hurting Ruari—however you would've hurt him. It's better than making a mistake."
"If I made a mistake, then I'd be responsible for it, like you? I want to be like you, Pavek. I want to learn from you, even if you're not Father."
He turned away, not knowing what to say or do next. It was bad enough when Zvain or Ruari put their trust in him, but there always came a point in those conversations where he could poke them in the ribs and break the somber mood with a little roughhousing. A poke in the ribs wouldn't be the same with Mahtra. With Mahtra, he could only say:
"Thank you. I'll try to teach you well."
And pray desperately for Initri to ring the supper bell.
Ruari came back during supper. Pavek didn't ask where he'd been, but he had a turquoise and aqua house-lizard the size of his forearm clinging contentedly to his shoulder, its whiplike tail looped around his neck. In itself that was a good sign. The brightly beautiful lizards had innate mind-bending defenses: they could sense a distressed or aggressive mind at a considerable distance and make themselves scarce before trouble arrived. Even Ruari, who turned to animals for solace when he was upset, couldn't have gotten close to the creature while he was angry.
Ruari unwound the lizard from his neck and offered it to Pavek. "My Moonracer cousins say that in the cities a house where one of these lizards lives is a house where friends can be found."
Friendship—the greatest gift an elf could give, and a gift Ruari had never gotten from those Moonracer cousins of his. Or offered, and that's what Ruari was offering. Pavek held out his hands with a heart-felt wish that the damn thing found him acceptable and didn't take a chunk out of his finger. It probed him with a bright red tongue, then slowly climbed his arm.
"I'll keep it in the garden," he said once it had settled on his shoulder.
They ate quietly, quickly, grateful for the food rather than the cooking. The question of baths and laundry came up. House Escrissar had a hypocaust where both clothes and bodies could be soaked clean in hot water, but it required a cadre of slaves to stoke the furnace and run the pumps. Mahtra said she'd take care of herself. Pavek and Ruari sluiced themselves as best they could at the kitchen cistern. They cornered Zvain and subjected him to the same treatment. Fresh clothing came out of the packs they'd brought from Quraite: homespun shirts and breeches, not really suitable for a high templar, but what remained of Elabon Escrissar's clothes wouldn't go around Pavek's brawny, human shoulders and Ruari would have nothing to do with them.
Ruari refused to sleep in a bed where Elabon Escrissar might have slept. Late evening found the half-elf spreading his blankets in the garden under the watchful, independent eyes of their new house lizard. Pavek considered telling the youth that he was a fool, that Urik was noisier than Quraite and the sounds would keep him awake, but those were the precise sounds Pavek was spreading his own blankets to hear throughout the night.
Midnight brought an echoing chorus of gongs and bells as watchtowers throughout the city signalled to one another: all's well, all's quiet. Pavek listened to every note, and all the other sounds Urik made while it slept—even Ruari's soft, regular breathing an arm's length away on the other side of the fountain. As the stars spun slowly through the roof-edged sky, Pavek tried to appreciate the irony: much as he enjoyed the cacophony of city life, he was the one who couldn't sleep.
Pavek's thoughts drifted, as a man's thoughts tended to do when he was alone in the dark. They took a sudden jog back to the cavern with its glamourous bowls and deceptive scaffolds, the noxious sludge clinging to Ruari's staff; oozing down his own leg. He imagined he could feel the slime again, and without thinking further, swiped his thigh beneath the blankets. His fingers brushed the soft, clean cloth of his breeches. For a heartbeat, Pavek was reassured, then panic struck.
Wide-awake and chilled from the marrow out to his skin, Pavek threw his blankets aside. Stumbling and cursing in unfamiliar surroundings he made his way from the garden and through the residence. He found his filthy clothes where he'd left them: in a heap beside the cistern. Viewed by starlight, one stain looked like another and there was no safe guessing which, if any, came from the cavern sludge.
There were bright embers in the hearth and an oil lamp on the masonry above it. Pavek lit the lamp and went searching for Ruari's staff, which he found against a wall, just inside the main door. Stains mottled the wooden tip. Lamp in hand, Pavek got down on his knees to examine its stains more closely.
"What are you doing?"
Ruari's unexpected question scared a year from Pavek's natural life—assuming he'd be lucky enough to have one.
"Looking for proof that we saw what we saw in the cavern." Pavek probed the largest of the stains with a jagged thumbnail. The wood crumbled as if it were rotten. Ruari swore and yanked his most prized possession out of Pavek's hands. He probed the stain and another bit of soggy, ruined wood came away on his fingertip.
The half-elf was sulky, stubborn, and quick to anger, but he wasn't stupid. He glowered a moment, thinking things through, then handed the staff back to Pavek.
"The Lion—he'd believe us, wouldn't he? I mean, you're the one he sent for, why wouldn't he believe you? He wouldn't have to ravel your memories. He wouldn't leave you an empty-headed idiot. That's just talk, isn't it?"
Pavek shook his head. "I've seen it done."
"Telhami could get the truth out of anyone, too, but she'd just look at you, she didn't do anything. No one ever lied to her; she knew the truth when she heard it."
"Aye," Pavek agreed, tearing off the hem of his dirty shirt and beginning to wind it around the stained part of the staff like a bandage. "Heard or saw or tasted. Hamanu can do that, too, or he can spin your memories out, floss into thread, and leave you as empty as the day you were born. That's what I've seen. Should've let you collect a great dollop of that swill."
"I was glad I hadn't—until now. Will this be enough?" Ruari asked, taking his staff and checking the knot Pavek had made for fastness.
"Slaves would tell you to pray to Great Hamanu; they think he's a god."
"And we know better. What else can we do?"
"Except pray? Nothing. It's me he'll come after, Ru; you shouldn't worry too much. When he killed Escrissar, he decided I'd make a good replacement. That's what this is about. He wants me for a pet."
Pavek didn't think he'd made a stunning revelation; the look on Ruari's face said otherwise.
"There're always a few Hamanu favors. Some called them the Lion's Cubs; we called them his pets in the barracks. He gives them free rein and they dull his boredom. Escrissar was one." Telhami was another, but Pavek didn't say that aloud; he'd given Ruari a big enough mouthful to chew on already.
"We can go back to the cavern.... We can go back right now with a bucket!"
"Don't be foolish. It's the middle of the night."
"That won't make any difference in a cavern! We can do it, Pavek. That messed-up medallion of yours will get us past anyone who challenges us and the warding in the elven market. We could be back by dawn, if we hurry."
Pavek's heart was touched to see Ruari so eager, so blind to danger on his behalf. Friendship, he supposed. But it was too foolish to consider. "Maybe tomorrow morning—if there's no one from the palace hammering on the door before them."
"Wind and fire, Pavek. If we're going to wait until tomorrow morning, we might just as well go to this Codesh-place, too, and see if we can find the other end of the passageway."
It would be a long shot, and Pavek had never been a gambler, but Ruari was right. If they walked into the palace with the a bucket of sludge in their hands and a Codesh passageway to the cavern on the surface of their minds, they'd be in as good a bargaining position as mortals could attain in the Lion-King's court.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Ruari asked, cracking a grin. "I'm right!"
Ruari didn't let that smile out too often, but when he did, it was contagious. Pavek took a deep breath and clamped his lips tight. Nothing helped. Laughter burst out anyway.
"Nobody's perfect, Ru. It had to happen sometime."
"We'll go now—"
"The gates are locked until sunrise—and we may be escorted to the palace before then."
"But, if we're not—we're on our way to Codesh!"
Pavek considered modifying Ruari's plan from we to me. Codesh had a vicious reputation. There was no need to risk his unscarred companions exploring its alleys, looking for a hole that might lead to the reservoir cavern. No need to have them underfoot while he explored, either. But Lord Hamanu's enforcers from the palace would come calling soon enough, and compared to the Lion-King, Codesh was no risk at all.
Dawn's first light found the four of them tying their sandals by the front door.
"Leave that behind," he told Ruari and pointed to the bandaged staff the half-elf had in his hand. "In case something goes wrong, that's all we've got."
Pavek disagreed, but they didn't have time for arguments. It was Farl's day, and the best time to slip out Urik's west gate would be the moment when it opened up to let the farmers and artisans of that western village into the city. The branch of the west road that led to Codesh would be nearly empty, but they'd be well out of Urik's sight before they started walking along it.
The templar quarter was the busiest quarter of Urik at this early hour as bleary-eyed men and women got themselves to their assigned duties. White-skinned Mahtra stood out in any crowd, and any clothing that wasn't dyed yellow was glaringly obvious on the streets nearest House Escrissar. Pavek recognized a fair number of the faces pointed their way. Surely he was remembered and recognized, too, but throughout the Tablelands, no creatures were more adept at not-seeing what was directly in front of them than a sorcerer-king's templars. In their own quarter, templars were very nearly blind.
They were more attentive outside their quarter. Pavek told his companions to keep heads down and eyes aimed at the ground. He knew how information flowed through the bureaus. By sundown it would be a rare templar who didn't know Just-Plain Pavek, the renegade regulator, had taken up residence in House Escrissar. This time tomorrow, he'd have a slew of friends and enemies lining up to see what they could gain or he could lose. Even now, hurrying toward the western gate, Pavek caught the occasional measuring gaze from a face that had recognized him. In a very real sense, his troubles wouldn't begin until and unless he successfully hunted Kakzim down.
The western gate was still closed when they arrived, but it had swung open by the time Pavek had fed everyone a breakfast of fresh bread and hot sausage. Between them, Zvain and Ruari could eat their way through a gold coin every day. The stash Pavek had brought from Quraite was shrinking at an alarming rate. Grimly, he calculated they'd be bit-less in six or seven days. Even more grimly, he calculated that, one way or another, by then money would be the least of his worries. He bought more food for later in the day and struck a path for the crowded gate.
The regulators and inspectors on morning gate duty were busy taking bribes and confiscating whatever caught their fancy. They didn't notice four plainly dressed Urikites going the other way. If they had, Pavek's gouged medallion would have cleared their path, but by not using it, there was less chance of some enterprising regulator sending a messenger back to the palace. Before he left the residence, Pavek had written their plan on parchment and secured it with his porphyry seal. He told Initri to give the parchment to anyone who came looking for them. Until she did, no one else knew where they were going or what they planned to do.
Getting into Codesh several hours later was easier than Pavek dared hope. Registrators handled the affairs of the weekly influx of market folk, but guarding the Codesh gate was a serious matter, entrusted to civil bureau templars on loan from the city, none of whom stayed very long. Through sheer luck, Pavek knew the man in charge, an eighth rank instigator named Nunk, and Nunk recognized him.
"I'll be a gith's thumb fool," Nunk grinned, baring the two rows of rotten broken teeth that spoiled his chances with the ladies, as Pavek's twisted scar spoiled his. "The rumors must be true." He held out his hand.
"What rumors?" Pavek asked, taking Nunk's hand as if it bad been offered in friendship rather than in hope of a bribe. Although, in fairness to Nunk, if five bureau ranks weren't layered between regulators and instigators, they might have been as friendly as templars got with one another. Neither one of them had ever been tied to the numerous corrupt cadres that dominated the civil bureau's lower ranks. They both kept to themselves, which, given the hidden structure of the bureau, meant their paths had crossed before. The biggest obstacle between them would always be rank. It ran the other way now, with far more than five levels separating an instigator from Hamanu's favorites. Pavek couldn't blame Nunk for currying a bit of favor when he had a chance.
"Rumors that you're the one who brought down a high bureau interrogator. Rumors that you're the one who made Laq disappear. Rumors that you've got yourself a medallion made of beaten gold."
Pavek stopped pumping the instigator's hand and fished out his regulators' ceramic with the gouged reverse. "Rumors lie."
"Right," Nunk replied with a fading smile. He led the way to the small, dusty room that served as his command chamber. He closed the door before asking: "What brings you and yours to this cesspit, Great One? Remember, I helped you before."
Pavek didn't remember any help, just another templar prudently deciding to mind his own business at a moment when Pavek impulsively decided to get involved. Still, he'd have no trouble putting in a good word or two on Nunk's behalf, if the opportunity arose, as it probably would. "I remember," he agreed, and Nunk's jagged grin returned, full strength. "I want to go inside and look around, maybe ask a few questions."
"No gold, not yet. Got things to finish first."
"Seen any around?"
"Not since the deadheart disappeared and everyone connected to him went to the obsidian pits. Lord, you should have seen it—the Lion Himself marching through the quarter calling out the names. I'll tell you something: the city's cleaner than it's been since my grandfather got whelped. Rumor is we'll be at war with Nibenay this time next year, and the lion always cleans house before a war, but this time it's different. The scum he sent to the pits wasn't just Escrissar's cadre. He cast a wide net and the ones that got away left Urik."
"Not all of them. I'm looking for a halfling, Escrissar's slave—"
Nunk's eyebrows rose. It was common knowledge halfling slaves withered fast.
"When I saw him, he had Escrissar's scars on his cheeks. He's the one who cooked up the Laq poison, but he didn't go down with his master. I think he's gone to ground in Codesh. You keeping watch on any halfling troublemakers? Name's Kakzim. Even if the scars were just a mask, like Escrissar's, you'd know him if you'd seen him. You'd never forget his eyes."
"Don't know the name, but we've got a halfling lune living in rented rooms along the abattoir gallery—he'd have to be a lune to live there. He's a regular doomsayer—there seem to be more of them all the time, what with all the changes now that the Dragon's gone. He gets up on his box a couple times a day, preaching the great conflagration, but this is Codesh, and they've been preaching the downfall of Urik since Hamanu arrived a thousand years ago. A faker's got to deliver a miracle or two if he wants to keep drawing a crowd in Codesh. Can't speak about this halfling's eyes, but from what I hear, he's got a face more like yours than a slave's—no offense, Great One."
"No offense," Pavek agreed. "I'd like to get a look at him. Which way to this abattoir?"
Nunk shrugged. "Don't go inside, that's what regulators are for—or have you forgotten that?" He stuck two fingers between his teeth and whistled. An elf with very familiar patterns woven into her sleeve answered the summons. "These folk want to take a look-see through the village and abattoir."
She looked them over with narrowed, lethargic eyes, Pavek had stuffed his medallion back inside his shirt when the door opened. He left it there, letting her draw her own conclusions, letting her make her own mistakes.
"Four bits," she said. "And the ghost wears a cloak."
It was a fair price, a fair request: Kakzim might spot Mahtra long before they spotted him. Pavek dug the money out of his belt-pouch.
Her name was Giola, not a tribal name, but elves who wound up wearing yellow had little in common with their nomadic cousins. She armed herself with an obsidian mace from a rack beside the watchtower door before leading them to the village gate, which, unlike the gates of the Lion-King's city, was never wide open.
"You know how to use that sticker?" she asked and pointed at Pavek's sword.
"I won't cut off my hand."
"That's a lot of metal for a badlands boy to carry around on his hip. There're folk inside who'd slit your throat for it. Sure you wouldn't rather I carried it for you? Push comes to shove, the best weapon should be in the best hands."
"In your dreams, Great One," Pavek replied, using a phrase only templars used. Between friends, it was commiseration; between enemies, an insult. When Pavek smiled, it became a challenge Giola wisely declined.
"Have it your way," she said with a shrug. "But don't expect me to risk my neck for four lousy bits. Anything goes wrong, you're on your own."
"Fair enough," Pavek agreed. "Anything goes wrong, you're on your own." He'd never been skilled in the subtle art of extortion, which was probably why he was always skirting poverty. He didn't begrudge Giola for shaking him down, but he didn't intend to give her any more money, either. "Let's go. We're looking for a way underground, a cave, a stream, something big enough for a human—"
"A halfling," Ruari corrected, speaking up for the first time since they entered the watchtower and earning one of Pavek's sourest sneers for his unwelcome words.
"Halflings, humans, dwarves, the whole gamut," Pavek continued, barely acknowledging the half-elf's interruption. "Maybe a warehouse or catacombs—if Codesh has any."
"Not a chance, not even a public cesspit," Giola replied. "The place is built on rock. They burn what they can—" she wrinkled her nose and gestured toward the several smoky plumes that fouled Codesh's air. "The rest they either sell to the farmers or cart clear around to Modekan."
Giola led them through the gate after the boy and his animals.
Codesh was a tangled place, squeezed tight against its outer walls. Its streets were scarcely wide enough for two men to pass without touching. Greedy buildings angled off their foundations, reaching for the sun, condemning the narrow streets to perpetual, stifling twilight. When one of the slops carts Giola had described rumbled past, bystanders scrambled for safety, shrinking into a doorway, if they were lucky; grabbing the overhanging eaves and lifting themselves out of harm's way, if they had the strength; or racing ahead of the cart to the next intersection, which was rarely more than twenty paces away.
Every cobblestone and wall was stained to the color of dried blood. The dust was dark red, the garments the Code-shites wore were dark red, their skin, too. The smell of death and decay was a tangible presence, made worse by the occasional whiff of roasting sausage. The sounds of death mingled with the sights and smells. There was no place were they didn't hear the bleats, wails, and whines of the beasts waiting for slaughter, the truncated screams as the axe came down.
Pavek thought of the sausage he'd paid good money for at Urik's west gate and felt his gut sour. For a moment he believed that he'd never eat meat again, but that was nonsense. In parched Athas, food was survival. A man ate what he could get his hands on; he ate it raw and kicking, if he had to. The fastidious or delicate died young. Pavek swallowed his nausea, and with it his despair.
He gave greater attention to the places Giola showed them—he was paying for the tour after all. They came to a Codesh plaza: an intersection where five streets came together and a man-high fountain provided water to the neighborhood. For all its bloody gloom and squalor, Codesh was a community like any other. Women came to the fountain with their empty water jugs and dirty laundry. They knelt beside the curb stones, scrubbing stains with bone-bleach and pounding wet cloth with curving rib bones. Water splashed and dripped all around the women. It puddled around their knees and flowed between the street cobblestones until it disappeared.
"The water. Where does the water come from? Where does it go?" Pavek asked.
Giola stared at him with thinly disguised contempt. "It comes from the fountain."
"Where does it come from before the fountain? How is the fountain filled? Where does it drain?"
"How in the bloody, bright sun should I know? Do I look like a scholar to you? Go to the Urik archive, hire yourself a bug-eyed scribe if you want to know where water comes from or where it goes!"
Several cutting replies leapt to the front of Pavek's mind. With difficulty he rejected them all, reminding himself that most people—certainly most templars—didn't have his demanding curiosity. Things were what they appeared to be, without why or how, before or after. Giola's life was not measured in questions and doubts, as his was.
But without questions, there wasn't much to say except, "Keep moving, then. We're still looking for a way underground. Some sort of passage—"
"Or a building," Mahtra interrupted. Her strangely emotionless voice was well-suited to dealing with low-rank templars. "A very old building. Its walls are as tall as they are wide. The roof is flat. There's only one door and inside, there's a hole in the floor that goes all the way underground."
Pavek cursed himself for a fool. He'd been so clever looking for his second passage into the reservoir cavern that he'd never thought to ask if there was another building like the one Mahtra had led them to in Urik's elven market.
Giola scratched her shaggy blond hair. "Aye," she said slowly. "A little building, smack in the middle of the abattoir. A building inside a building. No use I could ever guess. I never noticed a door, but I never looked."
"The abattoir," Pavek mused aloud. The abattoir, where Nunk said the halfling lune lived. He flashed Mahtra a grin and took her by the arm. "That's it! That's the place."
Mahtra shied away from his grip, her eyes so wide-open they seemed likely to fall to the ground. "What's an abattoir? I do not know this word."
He relaxed his hold on Mahtra's arm. Like eleganta, abattoir was a word that concealed more than it revealed. And, knowing she was still a child in many ways, Pavek was instinctively reluctant to destroy its mystery with a precise definition. "It is—it is—" he groped for a phrase that would be the truth, but not too much of it. "It is the place where the animals die," then added quickly, "the place where we'll find the man we're looking for."
* * *
The abattoir was the heart of Codesh. It was an old building, similar in style to the little building they hoped to find inside it, and etched with the same angular, indecipherable script Pavek had noticed at the elven market. Shadowed patches on its time and grime-darkened walls led the eye to believe that there had once been murals, but whatever grandeur the abattoir might have possessed in the past, it was a dismal place now.
Another templar watchtower rose beside a gaping archway carved through thick limestone walls. There were as many yellow-robed men and women watching over the abattoir as Nunk kept with him at the outer gate. A rack of hook-bill spears stood on one side of the watchroom door while a stack of shields made from erdlu scales lashed to flexible rattan sat on the other. Inside the watchroom, each templar wore a sword and boiled leather armor; that was very unusual for civil bureau templars and a measure of Codesh's reputation as a thorn in Urik's foot. They greeted Giola as if hers were the first friendly—as in not belonging to the enemy—face they'd seen in a stormy quinth.
"Instigator Nunk says I'm to take these rubes onto the floor," Giola informed Nunk's counterpart, a dwarf with a bit less decoration woven through his sleeve.
The dwarf swiped the oily sweat from his bald scalp before sauntering over to greet Pavek and his companions.
"Who in blazes are you that I should let you and yours stir up trouble I don't need?"
He grabbed the front of Pavek's shirt, a gesture well within his templar's right to harass any ordinary citizen, but he caught Pavek's medallion as well, and the shock knocked him back a step or two.
"Be damned," he swore, partly fear and partly curse.
Pavek could watch the thoughts—questions, doubts and possibilities—march between the dwarf's narrowed eyes. He judged the moment had come for revelation and pulled his medallion into view, gouge and all.
"Be damned," the dwarf repeated.
This time the oath was definitely a curse and definitely directed on himself. Pavek felt a measure of sympathy; he had the same sort of rotten luck.
"Who I am is Pavek, Lord Pavek, and what I want on the killing ground is no concern of yours."
Standing behind the dwarf, and half again as tall, elven Giola had a good view of the ceramic lump Pavek held in his hand. She turned pale enough to be Mahtra's sister.
"A thousand pardons, Great One. Forgive my insolence, Great One," she humbled herself, dropping to one knee and striking her breast with her fist. But for all Giola's humility, there was one flash of fire when her eyes skewed in the direction of the outer gate watchtower where Nunk, who'd gotten her into this, was waiting.
"Forgive me, also, Great One," the dwarf said quickly. "May I ask if you're Pavek... Lord Pavek who was once exiled from Urik?"
Pavek truly got no exhilaration from the embarrassment of others. "I'm the Pavek who lit out of Urik with a forty-gold piece bounty riding on my head," he said, trying to break the grim mood.
Giola stood erect. She straightened her robe and said, "Great One, it is good to see you are alive," which surprised Pavek as much as the sight of his medallion had surprised her. "There's never been a regulator dead or alive who was worth forty pieces of gold. I don't know what you did, but your name was whispered in all the shadows. You were not without friends. Luck sat on your shoulder."
She took a long-limbed stride around the dwarf and extended her open hand, which held the four ceramic bits Pavek had given her earlier. Everyone said Athas had changed in the few years since the Tynans slew the Dragon. Nunk said the bureaus had changed since Pavek left, and partly because of him. There could be no greater symbol of those changes than a regulator offering to return money. Or telling him, in the plain presence of other templars, that she'd gone to a fortune-seller and bought him a bit of luck.
A human could study the elves of Athas all his life without truly learning what an elf meant when he—or she-called someone a friend. Now two elves had called Pavek friend in as many days—if he considered Ruari an elf. There was always a gesture involved, be it a bright-colored lizard or four broken bits. Last night Pavek had known to take the lizard. Today he knew he'd spoil everything if he touched those rough-edged bits.
Giola cocked her head, pondering a moment before she decided the sentiment was acceptable. Then she touched her right-hand's index finger first to her own breast then to his. Judging by Ruari's slack-jawed astonishment, he could rely on his assumption: he'd been accorded a rare honor. The dwarf, the highest rank templar in the watchtower, save for Pavek himself, must have sensed the same thing.
He got in front of Giola. "Great One, it would be an honor to help you. Let me escort you personally."
There were some traditions that were more resistant to change than others. Giola retreated, and the dwarf led them downstairs.
The abattoir wasn't so much a building as an open space surrounded by walls and a two-tier gallery, open to the brutal sun, and filled from back to front, side to side, with the trades of death. Pavek judged the killing floor to be as large as any Urik market plaza, at least sixty parade paces square. Carcasses outnumbered people many times over. Finding Kakzim would be a challenge, but finding the twin of the building Mahtra had used to come and go from the reservoir cavern was as simple as looking at the middle of the killing floor.
Getting there was another matter. The abattoir didn't fall silent the moment one yellow-robed templar and four strangers appeared on the watchtower balcony, but their presence was noted everywhere, and not welcomed. Pavek's quick scan of the killing floor didn't reveal any scarred halflings among the faces pointed their way. And although Mahtra wore her long, black shawl and a borrowed cloak, her white-white face divided by its mask was a distinct as the silvery moon, Ral, on a clear night.
"Stay close together," Pavek whispered to his companions as they started across the floor. "Keep an eye out for Kakzim—you two especially." He indicated Mahtra and Zvain. "You know what to look for. But he's not what we're here for, not today. We'll go inside that little building, go down to the reservoir and come back up in Urik." The last was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Pavek liked the mood on the killing floor less with every step he took across it.
Mahtra reached down and took Zvain's hand in her own.
Whether that was to reassure him or her, Pavek couldn't guess; he let the gesture pass without comment. The dwarf hadn't drawn his sword, but he kept his hand on the hilt as he stomped forward with that head-down, single-minded determination that got dwarves in a world of trouble when things didn't go according to their plan.
Giola hadn't noticed a door in the little building because at first glance there wasn't one, just four plain stone walls. Then Pavek noticed the weathered remains of the indecipherable script carved into one of the walls. He thumped the seemingly solid stone below the inscription with his fist and felt it give.
The dwarf said, "False front, Great One," and added an oath. It didn't really matter what lay behind the door or who'd hung the false front. The discovery had been made on his watch, and he was the one who'd answer for it. That was another Urik tradition that wasn't likely to change. "Is it trapped, Great One?"
Pavek caught himself before he said something foolish. He was the high templar; he was supposed to have open call on the Lion-King's power. A little borrowed spellcraft and any magical devices associated with the door would be sprung and any warding behind it would be dissolved. The problem was, Pavek didn't want to use his high templar's privilege. Like as not, he'd forfeit his hard-earned druidry if he went back to templar ways. He'd have to make the choice eventually, but eventually wasn't now.
Their halfling enemy was an alchemist who, as far as any of them knew, had no use for magic. He could have bought a scroll or hired someone to cast a spell—Codesh looked like the sort of place where illicit magic was available for the right price. But halflings, as a rule, had no use for money and didn't buy things, either. Probably they were dealing with nothing more dangerous than a hidden latch.
He hammered the door several times, getting a feel for its movement and the likely position of its latch and hinges.
He'd decided that it swung from the top and was tackling the latch problem when he felt the mood change behind him.
"There he is!" Mahtra shouted, pointing over everyone's head and toward a section of the two-story high wall.
The distance was too great and the shadows on the second-story balcony were too deep for Pavek to recognize a halfling's face, but the silhouette was right for one of the diminutive forest people. He had the sense that the halfling was looking at them, a sense that was confirmed when a slender arm was extended in their direction. One instant Pavek wondered what the movement meant; the next instant he knew. Kakzim had given a signal to his partisans on the killing floor. Well-fed and well-armed butchers were coming for them.
"Magic!" the dwarf cried. "Magic, Great One. The Lion-King!"
"No time!" Pavek shouted back, which was the truth and not an excuse.
He needed both hands on his sword hilt and all his concentration to parry the deadly axes massed against them. Their backs were to the false-front door; that would be an advantage for a moment, then it would become disaster as Kakzim's partisans gained the roof. They'd be under attack from all directions, including above. The slaughter would be over in a matter of heartbeats, and they'd be gone without a trace or memory left behind.
While the Lion-King could raise the dead and make them talk, not even he could interrogate sausage.
Civil bureau templars received the same five-weapons instruction that war bureau templars did. The dwarf drilled three-times a week. Pavek had kept himself in shape and in practice while he was in Quraite. If the brawl were fought one-against-one, or even two-against-one, he and the dwarf could have cleared a path to the gate where—one hoped, one prayed—they'd be met by yellow-robed reinforcements from the watchtower.
If they could have picked a single target and attacked rather than being confined to a desperate, futile defense. They had no time for tactics, no time for thought, just parry high, parry low, parry, parry, parry.
And a flicker of consciousness at the very end telling Pavek that the final blow had come from behind.
* * *
Mahtra felt the makers' protection radiate from her body: a hollow sphere of sound and light that felled everyone around her. She saw them fall—Pavek, Ruari, and the dwarf among them. Her vision hadn't blurred, her limbs were heavy, but not paralyzed. Maybe that was because, even though the danger was real enough, she'd made the decision to protect herself. Or, maybe her tight grip on Zvain's trembling hand had made the difference. Either way, she and Zvain were the only folk standing in a good sized circle that centered itself around them.
She and Zvain weren't the only folk standing on the killing ground. The makers' protection—her protection— didn't extend to the walls. Men and women cursed her from beyond the circle. Those who'd fallen near the circle's edge were beginning to rise unsteadily to their feet. The balcony where she'd seen Kakzim was empty. Mahtra wanted to believe the halfling had fallen, but she knew he'd simply escaped.
"You better be able to do that again," Zvain whispered, squeezing her hand as tightly as he could, but not tight enough to hurt.
She'd never protected herself twice in quick succession, but as Mahtra's mind formed the question, her body gave the answer. "I can," she assured Zvain. "When they come closer."
"We can't wait that long. We got to start moving toward the door. We got to get out of here." Zvain pulled toward the door.
She pulled him back. "We can't leave our friends behind,"
The young human didn't say anything, but there was a change in the way he held her hand. A change Mahtra didn't like.
"What?" she demanded, trying to look at him and keep an eye on the simmering crowd also.
"There's no use worrying about them. They're dead, Mahtra. You killed them."
"No." Her whole body swayed side to side, denying what Zvain said had happened. Yet the folk nearest to them, friend and enemy alike, lay as they'd fallen, their arms and legs tangled in uncomfortable positions that they made no effort to change. "No," she repeated softly. "No."
Kakzim hadn't died in House Escrissar all that time ago, and he'd held a knife against her skin. Ruari had been an arm's length away when she loosed her protection's power. He couldn't have died.
Yet he didn't move.
"Too late now," Zvain said grimly. "They're coming again."
But the Codesh butchers weren't coming. The noise and movement came from the yellow-robed templars charging through the crowd with pikes lowered and shields up. Without Kakzim to command them, the butchers weren't interested in a brawl. They fell back, retreating into the circle of Mahtra's power, but dispersing before they got close. Elsewhere, the brawlers quickly faded into the throng of bystanders.
A few voices still cursed Mahtra from the safety of the crowd. They called her freak and evil. Someone called her a dragon. They all wanted her dead, and when the templars broke through the crowd and got their first look at the circle she'd made with her protection, Mahtra feared they might heed her accusers. They stared at her, weapons ready, faces hidden by their shields. Mahtra stared back, fear and anger brewing beneath her skin. She didn't know what to do next and neither did they.
The templar phalanx heaved a visible sigh. Spears went up, shields came down, and the elf named Giola strode out of the formation.
"What happened?" she demanded with a quavering voice. "We took up arms as soon as the mob moved. We were at the gate when we heard the noise—it was like Tyr-storm thunder."
"Mahtra didn't think you'd get here in time. She took matters into her own hands."
"A spell? You're no defiler. Do you wear the veil?"
Defiler? Veil? These words meant nothing to Mahtra, only that she was under close scrutiny and there was no one to speak for her, except a human boy who spoke fast enough for both of them.
"No way! Mahtra's no wizard, no priest, neither. Where she comes from, they do this all the time. No swords or spears or spellcraft, just boom, boom, boom. Thunder and lightning all the time!"
Zvain sounded so sincere that Mahtra almost believed him herself. The elf seemed equally uncertain for a moment then, shaking her head, Giola picked her way through the bodies.
"Never mind. It doesn't matter, does it? What about the rest of them. Lord Pavek, Towd—?"
"D-Dead," Zvain muttered, losing all his brash confidence in a single word.
His tears started to flow, and Mahtra reached out to him, but he scampered away. Mahtra's arm fell to her side, heavier than it had ever been, even in the grip of the makers' protection. She would have sobbed herself, if her eyes had been made that way. Instead, she stood silent and outcast as Giola knelt and pressed her fingers against the necks of Pavek and the dwarf.
"Their hearts are still beating," the elf proclaimed.
Zvain sniffed up his tears. "They're alive?" he asked incredulously. "She didn't kill them?" He skidded to his knees beside Pavek. "Wake up!" He started shaking Pavek's arm.
Giola got to her feet without making the same determination for Ruari. She rejoined the templars, and they split into two groups. One group stood with their backs to the little stone building, keeping watch over the Codeshites, who seemed to have gone back to their work as if the brawl had never erupted. The other group stripped off their yellow robes. They tied their robes together and shoved spears the length of the sleeves to make two stretchers, one for Pavek, a second for the dwarf.
When they were traveling from Quraite, Ruari had told her that his mother's folk wouldn't lift a finger to save his life. Mahtra hadn't believed him—her own makers weren't that cruel. Now she saw the truth and was ashamed of her doubts. She was emboldened by them, too, seizing Giola's arm and meeting the elf's disdainful stare when it focused on her mask.
Mahtra told Giola, "You must carry Ruari to safety," then gave silent thanks to Lord Hamanu, whose magic had given her a voice anyone could understand.
"She means it," Zvain added. He was kneeling beside Ruari now that the templars had lifted Pavek. "Remember: boom, boom, boom!"
A shiver ran down Mahtra's spine, down her arm as well, which made Giola's eyes widen. The elf tried to free herself. Mahtra let her get away. While listening to Zvain's boasting, Mahtra realized she did have the wherewithal to use her protection when she wasn't afraid. She didn't want to; she didn't know how to limit its effects to one specific person, but the power itself belonged to her, not the makers, and when she fastened her gaze on Giola, the elf knew where the lay, too.
Pavek and the others revived somewhat in the abattoir watchroom. They could sit up and sip water when Nunk arrived from the outer gate, but none of them could stand or speak. The Codesh instigator looked at the high templar's glazed, unfocused eyes and his seedy face and decided the situation had deteriorated too far for him to handle.
"They're going to the city, to the palace!" He gave a spate of orders for handcarts and runners. "Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy, we'll all be gutted if Pavek—Lord Pavek dies here."
Zvain started to object, but the instigator's plan seemed excellent to Mahtra. She gave Zvain the same look she'd given Giola, and, like the elf, the boy did what she wanted him to.
* * *
Pavek began stringing coherent thoughts together as the handcart bounced along the Urik road. He pieced together what had happened to him from the disconnected, dreamlike images cluttering his mind: Mahtra had saved him from certain death in the abattoir. She was with him still; he could see her head and shoulders as she ran beside the cart, easily keeping pace with the elves who were pulling it. Fate knew what had happened to Ruari and Zvain, but Pavek could hear another cart rumbling nearby and hoped his companions were in it. He hoped they were alive, and hoped most of all that he'd think of something to say to Lord Hamanu that would keep them alive.
Lord Bhoma let Pavek keep his sword, which might be a sign that the sorcerer-king wasn't going to execute them— or it might mean that Hamanu would order him to perform the executions himself, including his own. Ruari still had his staff, but both the staff and Ruari were sporting bandages. Lord Bhoma might have dismissed them as a threat to anyone but themselves. Zvain was plainly terrified; they all were terrified—except Mahtra who'd been here before.
Hamanu, King of Mountains and Plains, was already in his audience chamber when Lord Bhoma commanded palace slaves to open the doors. He'd been sitting on a black marble bench, contemplating water as it flowed over a black boulder, and rose to meet them. Urik's sorcerer-king was as Pavek remembered him: a golden presence in armor of beaten gold, taller than the tallest elf, a glorious mane surmounting a cruelly perfect human face.
"Just-Plain Pavek, so you've come home at last."
The king smiled and held out his hand. Somehow Pavek found the strength to stride forward and clasp that hand without flinching—even when the Lion's claws rasped against his skin. The air was always hot around Hamanu, and sulphurous, like his eyes. Pavek found it difficult to breathe, impossible to talk, and was absurdly grateful when the king let him go.
"Mahtra, my child, your quest was successful."
Pavek's heart skipped a beat when she accepted Hamanu's embrace without fear or ill-effects. The king patted the top of Mahtra's white head and somehow Pavek knew she was smiling within her mask. Then Hamanu fixed those glowing yellow eyes on Ruari.
"You—I remember: You were curled up on the floor beside Telhami when I wanted to speak with her that night in Quraite. You were afraid then, when the danger had passed. Are you still afraid?"
The Lion-King curled his lips in a smile that revealed fearsome ivory fangs. The poor half-elf trembled so badly he needed his staff for balance. That left Zvain, who was paralyzed with wide-eyed tenor until Hamanu touched his cheek. His eyes closed and remained that way after the king withdrew.
"Zvain, that's a Balkan name, but you've never been to Balic, have you?"
"No-o-o-o," the boy whispered, a sound that seemed drawn from the bottom of his soul.
"The truth is best, Zvain, always remember that. There are worse things than dying, aren't there, Lord Pavek?" The king looked at Pavek, and Pavek knew his ordeal was about to begin. "Recount."
Words flowed out of Pavek's mouth as fast as he could shape them, but they were his own words. He didn't feel his life slipping away; Hamanu wasn't unreeling his memory on a mind-bender's spindle, like silk from a worm's cocoon. He told the truth, all of it, from Quraite to Modekan, Modekan to the elven market and the warded passage underground. When he got to the cavern, the pressure on his thoughts relented. He described how the bowls and their scaffolds had first appeared: magically shimmering and glorious from the far side of the cavern. And how, when he pierced their glamour, he learned that they actually were made from lashed-together bones and pitch-patched hide and filled with sludge he believed was poison.
"I thought of Codesh, O Mighty King. But I wanted proof, not my own guesses, before I came here."
"You wanted a measure of that sludge, because you'd forgotten to collect it the first time and you believed your own words would not be enough."
Pavek gulped air. The king had used the Unseen Way. His memories had been unreeled, and he had not died, he had not even known it was happening....
"Tell me the rest, Lord Pavek. Tell me your conclusions, which are not part of your memories. What do you think?"
"I think Kakzim has found a way to poison Urik's water, but I have no proof—except for a few stains on Ruari's staff—"
Hamanu moved swiftly, more swiftly than Pavek could measure with his eyes, to Ruari's side, and when the half-elf did not immediately relinquish his staff, the Lion-King roared loud enough to deafen them all. His arm swept forward, claws bared, and took the wood out of Ruari's hands. Ruari collapsed on his hands and knees with a groan. Pavek didn't twitch to help his friend, couldn't: he was transfixed by Lord Hamanu's rage. The Lion-King's human features had all but vanished. His jaw thrust forward, supporting a score or more of identical, sharp teeth. His leonine mane vanished, too, replaced by a dark, scaly crest. He seemed not so much taller as longer, with an angled spine rather than an erect one, and a sinuously flexible neck. Dark, nonretractable talons slashed through the linen bound over the stains on Ruari's staff. A slender, forked tongue slashed once and touched the stains, then with another roar, Lord Hamanu hurled the staff over their heads. It exploded when it hit the wall and fell to the floor in pieces.
The words echoed inside Pavek's skull. He was not certain he'd heard them with his ears and didn't try to answer with his fear-thickened tongue. Instead, Pavek threw up images a mind-bender could absorb: He'd tried. He'd done his best to solve problems he didn't understand. He was merely a human man. If they had failed, it was because he had failed, and he alone should bear the blame. But his failure was not deliberate—merely mortal.
Pavek stared into the eyes of a creature who was everything he was not. He willed himself not to blink or flinch, and after an eternity it was the creature who turned away. With the tension broken and their lives saved for another heartbeat, Pavek let his head hang as he tried, gasp by painful gasp, to draw air into his burning lungs.
"It is enough. I am satisfied. I am satisfied with you, Lord High Templar, and with what you have done. But you are not finished."
A shadow fell across Pavek's back. He could see the Lion
King's feet without raising his head. They were ordinary human feet shod in plain leather sandals. For one fleeting moment he thought he'd rather die than raise his head— then shuddered, waiting for the fatal blow, which did not fall, though Pavek was certain he had no secrets from his king. It seemed Lord Hamanu wanted him to live a little longer.
Sighing, Pavek straightened his neck and looked upon a king once again transformed, this time into a man no taller than he. A hard-faced man, no longer young, but human, very human with weary human eyes and graying human hair.
"What else must I do, 0 Mighty King?"
"I will give you a cadre from the war bureau. Lead them into the cavern. Destroy the scaffolds. Destroy the bowls and their contents. Then, find the passage to Codesh. Another cadre will await you. With two cadres, find Kakzim, find those who assist him. Destroy them, if you feel merciful; bring them to me, if you don't."
"Tomorrow... after dawn. This sludge, as you call it, is no simple poison; it must be destroyed with the same precision that has been used in its creation. Kakzim has breached the mists of time and brewed a contagion that could despoil every drop of our water, if it fully ripened. It's dangerous enough now: spill a drop of it into our water by accident as you destroy the bowls, and someone surely will sicken and die. But in a handful of days..." Hamanu paused and drew a hand through his gray-streaked hair, transforming it into the Lion-King's mane, and himself as well. "Of course! Ral occludes Guthay in exactly thirteen days! Release the contagion then and it would spread not only through water, but through air and the other elements. All Athas would sicken and die. We must take no chances, Pavek, you and I. I will decoct Kakzim's horror, reagent by reagent, until I know its secrets, and you will follow my orders precisely when you destroy it—"
"My Lord—" Pavek squandered all his courage interrupting Urik's king. "My Great and Mighty King—all Athas is too much for one man. I beg of you: destroy the bowls yourself. Do not entrust all Athas to a blunderer like me."
"You will not blunder, Just-Plain Pavek; it's not in your nature. You will not question what I do or what I entrust to others. You will respect my judgment and you will do what I tell you to do. Tomorrow you will save Athas. Tonight you and your friends will be my guests. Your needs will be attended... and your wishes."
Lord Hamanu held out his hand. The golden medallion Pavek had refused yesterday rested in the scarred and callused palm of a born warrior.
Pavek wasn't tempted. "I'm not wise enough to wish, O Mighty King."
"You're wise enough. I would have lived a life much like yours, if I'd been as wise as you. But if you do not wish now, your wishes will never be heard."
He thought of Quraite and his wish that it be kept safe and secret, but he wouldn't take the gold medallion, not even for Quraite.
Hamanu smiled. "As you wish, Lord Pavek. As you wish." As he turned to Mahtra his aspect changed yet again, becoming that of a beautiful youth with one graceful arm extended toward her. She took it and they left the audience hall together.
For one night Pavek and his companions lived as if they were each the king of Urik. A score of slaves escorted them to a sumptuous room with a broad balcony that overlooked a garden as lush as any druid's grove. The walls were decorated with gold-leaf lattice. Music, played by musicians in galleries concealed by those lattices, floated on the breezes made by silk-fringed fans. The floors were cool marble polished until it shone like glass. Between the room and the balcony, there was a bathing pool, half in shadow, half in light. More slaves stood beside it. Armed with vials of amber oil, they promised to knead the aches out of the weariest man. Silk bedding in rainbow colors was piled in one of the corners while in the center of the room the slaves laid out a feast truly fit for a king.
Common foods had been prepared as no ordinary man had seen them before. The bread had been baked in fluted shapes then arranged on a platter so they resembled a bouquet of flowers. Cold sausage had been twisted and tied into a menagerie of parading wild animals. The uncommon foods had been prepared less fancifully. There was a bowl of fruit in varieties that Pavek had never seen before and Ruari, even with his greater druidic training, could not name. There were heaping plates of juicy meats, sliced thin and garnished with rare spices. But the feast's centerpiece was a silvered bowl filled with a fragrant beverage and with colorless stones that were cold to the touch.
"Ice," a slave explained when the stone Pavek had been examining slipped through his numbed fingers. "Solid water."
Pavek picked the stone up and gingerly applied his tongue to the surface. He tasted water, wet and cold. There could be only one explanation for a stone that sweated water:
"Magic," he concluded, and returned the unnatural lump to the bowl.
The bowl's liquid contents, a blend of fruity flavors that were both tart and sweet, were more to Pavek's liking, but no amount of wonder or luxury could erase from his memory the images of Lord Hamanu's transformations. Ruari and Zvain were similarly affected. They ate, as boys and young men would always eat when their throats weren't cut, but without the energy they would have brought to such a meal had it been served in any other place, at any other time.
Orphanage templars learned what was important early in their lives. Pavek could sleep in just about any bed, or without one, and he could eat whatever was available, be it mealy bread, maggoty meat, or Lord Hamanu's rarest delicacies. He filled a platter with foods he recognized, then wandered out to the porch where the setting sun had turned the sky bloody red.
Zvain followed Pavek like a shadow. Since they'd left the audience chamber, Zvain had rubbed his cheek raw, doing far more damage than the Lion-King had done, at least on the surface. The boy's eyes were haunted, and he was clearly afraid to wander more than a few steps from Pavek's side. When Pavek sat on a bench to eat his meal, Zvain sat on the floor next to him. He leaned back, not against the bench, but against Pavek's leg and heaved a sigh that ended with a shudder.
Feeling more obligated than sympathetic, Pavek asked, "Do you want to talk?" and was relieved when the boy's reply was a sulky, sullen shrug.
Predictably, Ruari's misery took a noisier form. The half-elf joined them on the balcony, set his plate down, and paced an oval around Pavek's bench. Muttering curses under his breath, he seemed to want the attention Zvain didn't.
And when Pavek's neck began to ache from tracking Ruari's movements at his back, he relented and asked the necessary question:
"I was scared," Ruari sputtered, as if he had betrayed himself earlier in the Lion-King's audience chamber. "I was so scared I couldn't move, I couldn't think."
Pavek set his plate beside Ruari's. "You were face-to-face with the Lion of Urik. Of course you were scared. He could kill you ten different ways—all ten different ways."
That was not the reassurance Ruari needed.
"I stood there. I just stood there and watched his hand-that horrible hand with those claws—as it swiped my staff. And then I fell down. I fell down, and I stayed down while you argued with him!"
"Be grateful you were on the floor. Fear makes me stupid enough to argue with a god."
Ruari's laughter rang false. "I'd rather be your kind of stupid than on my hands and knees like a crass animal, too scared to stand up. Wind and fire! She was laughing at me." She. The only person to whom Ruari could be referring was Mahtra. But Mahtra hadn't laughed. She might have smiled; with that mask they didn't know what her face actually looked like, much less her expression. But she hadn't laughed aloud. Pavek was confused, wondering why, or how, the half-elf thought Mahtra had laughed at him; wondering why or how it mattered; confused until Zvain explained it all in a single, disgusted statement:
"Am not!" Ruari retorted with a vigor that convinced Pavek that Zvain knew exactly what he was talking about. "Wind and fire—she walked out of there with him." The long coppery hair whipped around to hide Ruari's face as he turned away from them. "How could she? Didn't she see anything?"
"Who knows what Mahtra sees, Ru?" Pavek said gently. "Except it's different. She's new and she's eleganta—"
"She walked off, arm-in-arm, with a monster—Hamanu's worse than Elabon Escrissar!"
"She walked off with him, too." Zvain pointed out, effectively pouring oil on Ruari's inflamed passions.
Ruari responded immediately by taking a swing at Zvain; Pavek caught the fist before it landed. If he'd had any doubts about what was eating at Ruari, they vanished the moment their eyes met. Pavek didn't want to argue, not over this. He certainly didn't want to defend the actions of either Mahtra or the Lion-King. What he wanted was to finish his meal, half-drown himself in the bathing pool, and then fall into a dreamless sleep.
But when Ruari roared a slur at him without hesitation, he roared right back, also without hesitation. Nothing they said made sense. It was tension and fear and exhaustion that neither of them could contain for another heartbeat. He couldn't stop it; didn't want to stop it because, like a two-day drunk, it felt good at the start.
They traded accusations and insults, backing each other across the balcony and to the brink of bloodshed. In any physical fight, Pavek would always have the advantage over a half-elf. Even if the half-elf struck first and struck low, Pavek's big fists and brawn could do more damage and do it quickly. Ruari tried to land a dirty punch, which Pavek expected. He seized the half-elf by the shirt, pinned him against the palace wall with one hand and took aim at a copper-skinned chin. But before he landed the punch, a shrieking annoyance leaped on his back.
"Stop it!" Zvain yelled, as frightened as he was angry. "Don't fight! Don't hurt each other."
Pavek caught his rage before it exploded at both youths. He looked from Ruari to his fist and willed his fingers straight. He could hurt Ruari—that's what he intended to do—but he'd kill a boy Zvain's size with one unlucky punch. Ruari's shirt came free and, wisely, Ruari retreated while Zvain slid slowly down Pavek's back until his feet touched the floor, his arms were around Pavek's ribs, and his face was pressed against Pavek's back.
"Don't fight," Zvain repeated. "Don't fight with each other. Please, don't make me take sides. Don't make me choose. I can't choose. Not between you."
Without a word, Pavek looped his arm back and urged the boy around. Ruari edged closer, keeping a wary eye on Pavek while he nudged Zvain above the elbow.
Still breathing heavily, Ruari said, "Nobody's asking you to choose," to the top of Zvain's head, but his eyes, when they met Pavek's, made the statement into a question.
It was one thing for Pavek to comfort a boy whose head didn't reach his armpit. It was another with Ruari who stood a head taller than him. Maybe that was the root of the problem between them, and the source of Ruari's unexpected attraction to Mahtra. The New Race woman was, perhaps, the only woman Ruari'd ever met who was tall enough to look him in the eye, and being neither elf nor half-elf, she touched none of Ruari's painful doubts about his heritage.
"Have you... talked to her?" Pavek asked, feeling awkward as Ruari's shrugged reply appeared. "She might—In the cavern, she felt something that made her control that power of hers. Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy, Ru, if she doesn't know how you feel..." He shrugged and stared into early twilight, unable to find the right words. This was more difficult than talking about Akashia.
"If she doesn't know," Zvain advised, fully recovered now and putting a manly distance between himself and Pavek again. "Then, don't tell her. Forget about it. Women are nothing but trouble, anyway."
He sounded so wise, so certain, so very young that Pavek had to struggle to keep from laughing.
Ruari lost the battle early, sputtering through lips that loosened into a grin. "Just wait a few years. Your time'll come."
"Never. No women for me. Too messy."
By then Pavek was also laughing, and the day's tension was finally broken. The feast looked more appetizing and the bathing pool became irresistible—once Pavek persuaded the slaves to share both the food and the water. Even the musicians emerged from hiding and, whatever Lord Hamanu had intended, for one evening honest people enjoyed innocent pleasures in his palace.
With his pulse pounding, Pavek waited for the next sound, acutely conscious that he was half-naked and completely without a weapon. Last night he'd slipped so far into complacency that, although he could remember removing the sheath that held his prized metal knife along with his belt before he stepped into the bathing pool, he couldn't remember where he'd put it.
"Lord High Templar! Your presence is requested in the lower court."
Requested or required, Pavek didn't dawdle. He called the messenger into the room and ordered him to light all the lamps with the glowing taper he carried for that purpose. Slaves had cleared the remnants of the feast while he slept. Clean clothes in three sizes were piled on the table in place of food. A new staff, carved from Nibenese agafari wood and topped with a bronze lion-head, leaned against garments meant for a half-elf's slender frame. The gold medallion lay atop the pile intended for Pavek. Ruari pronounced himself satisfied with his gift, but once again Pavek left the medallion behind.
It was still pitch-dark when the messenger led them to the lower court, a cobblestone enclosure on the palace's perimeter. A maniple of twenty templars from the war bureau and their sergeant, a wiry red-haired human, were waiting. All twenty-one appeared to be veterans. Each wore piecemeal armor made from studded inix-leather. Vambraces covered their forearms and sturdy buskins, also studded, protected their feet, ankles, and calves. For weapons, they had obsidian-tipped spears and short composite swords that were edged with thin metal strips or knapped stone. Composite swords were common issue in the war bureau; like the templars who wielded them, they were tough and lethal.
Despite the metal sword hanging from his belt—an adjutant's weapon at the very least, if not a militant's—Pavek was in no way qualified to lead these men anywhere. He knew it, and they knew it. But orders were orders, and the sealed parchment orders the sergeant handed to Pavek said, after they were opened, that he was in charge.
"What have you been told?" he asked the sergeant, a grim-faced woman his equal in height.
"Great Lord, we've been told that you'll lead us underground and then to Codesh, where there's to be another maniple meeting us at midday. We're to follow your orders till sundown, then return to our barracks—if we're still alive."
The words on the parchment were different and included a warning from Hamanu to expect trouble in the cavern because he, the Lion of Urik, had decided not to send templars to claim the bowls. He preferred—in his words—to let Kakzim safeguard the simmering contagion until Pavek could destroy it completely. Hamanu's confidence that Pavek would succeed was less than reassuring to a man who'd watched Elabon Escrissar die. Pavek crumpled the parchment in his fist and faced the sergeant again. "I can lead you to the cavern, but if there's fighting—and I expect there will be—I won't tell you how to do it."
"Great Lord, you might be a smart man," the sergeant said, giving Pavek a first, faint glimmer of approval.
"I've lived this long; I'd like to live longer. Were you told anything else? Anything about the bowls?"
"Bowls? What bowls?" the sergeant shot a look over her shoulder. Pavek didn't see which templar's eye she was trying to catch or the results of their silent conversation, but when she faced him again, the faint approval was gone. "Great Lord, we're waiting for one more, aren't we? Maybe she's got your answer."
Mahtra. In his mind's eye, Pavek could see Hamanu telling Mahtra how they were supposed to dispose of Kakzim's sludge. It was amusement again: Hamanu could resolve everything himself, but he was amused by the efforts of lesser mortals.
They didn't have long to wait. Mahtra entered the lower court from another doorway. As always, she wore the fringed, slashed garments typical of nightfolk. The sergeant sighed, and Pavek shrugged, then Mahtra handed Pavek another sealed scroll.
"My lord wrote his instructions out for you. He says you must be careful to do everything exactly as he's described. He says you wouldn't want to be responsible for any mistakes."
"Who's your lord?" the sergeant asked, apparently puzzled that her lord was someone other than Pavek, who occupied himself breaking the seal while Mahtra answered:
Hamanu's instructions weren't complicated, but they were precise: flammable bitumen, naphtha, and balsam oil—leather sacks and sealed jars of which would be waiting for them at the elven market guardpost—had to be mixed thoroughly with the contents of each of Kakzim's bowls, then set afire with a slow match, which would also be waiting for them. The resulting blaze would reduce the sludge to harmless ash, but the three ingredients were almost as dangerous as the sludge. With bold, black strokes across the parchment, Hamanu warned Pavek to be careful and to stay upwind of the flames.
Pavek committed the writing to his memory before he met the consternated sergeant's eyes again. They were, after all, not merely templars, but templars from opposing bureaus, and the traditional disdain had to be observed.
"These instructions come from the Lion himself," Pavek said mildly. "He mentions bitumen, naphtha, and balsam oil—" The sergeant blanched, as any knowledgeable person would hearing those three names strung together. "The watch at the elven market gate holds them. We'll take them underground with us."
He'd spoken loudly enough for the maniple to overhear, and Pavek, in turn, heard their collective gasp. They were only twenty templars, twenty-two if they counted Pavek and the sergeant. There were hundreds of traders, mercenaries, and renegades of all stripes holed up in the elven market, every one of whom would risk his life for the incendiaries they were supposed to carry underground.
"Great Lord," the sergeant began after clearing her throat. "Respectfully—most respectfully—I urge you to leave your kinfolk behind. Wherever we go, whatever we do today, it will be no place for the unseasoned. Respectfully, Great Lord. Respectfully."
Pavek should have been insulted—beyond a doubt she included him among the unseasoned, respectfully or not— but mostly he was startled by her assumption that his motley companions were his family. Denials formed on his tongue; he swallowed them. Let her believe what she wanted: a man could do far worse.
"Respectfully heard, but they know more than you, and they've earned the right to see this through."
"Great Lord, if there's fighting—"
"Don't worry about me or mine. Your only concern is keeping those bowls secure on their platforms until you've eliminated the opposition. Now—let's move out! We've got our work cut out for us if we're to catch that other maniple at midday in Codesh. I hope you're paid up with your fortune-seller. We're going to need a load of luck before the day's out."
The sergeant shot another glance behind her. This time Pavek saw it land on a young man in the last row of the maniple, another redhead. He called the man forward. The sergeant stiffened, and so did the rest of the maniple. Whatever was going on, they shared the secret. Pavek asked for the redhead's medallion. More grim and apprehensive glances were exchanged, especially between the two red-haired templars, but the young man removed the medallion and gave it to the high templar.
Lord Hamanu's leonine portrait was precisely carved, delicately painted, but that vague aura of ominous power that surrounded every legitimate medallion was missing. Without saying anything, Pavek flipped the ceramic over. As he expected, the reverse side of the medallion was smooth— the penalty for impersonating a templar was death; the penalty for wearing a fake medallion was ten gold pieces. The medallion Pavek held was fraudulent, but the mottled clay beads he could just about see beneath the "templar's" yellow tunic were genuine enough.
Underground, an earth cleric would be more useful than all the luck a fortune-seller could offer.
"When the fighting starts," Pavek advised, returning the medallion, "stay close to Zvain and Mahtra," he pointed them out, "because they'll be staying out of harm's way—as you should."
"Great Lord, you are indeed a smart man. We might all live to see the sun rise again."
Pavek grimaced and cocked his head toward the eastern horizon, which had begun to lighten. "Not unless we get moving."
Corruption, laziness, and internecine rivalries notwithstanding, the men and women who served the Lion-King of Urik mostly followed their orders and followed them competently. The sergeant brought her augmented maniple through the predawn streets to me gates of the elven market without incident or delay. Three sewn-shut leather sacks were waiting for them. Their seams had been secured with pitch; each had been neatly labelled and branded with Lord Hamanu's personal seal. The sacks had been brought from the city warehouse by eight civil bureau templars, messengers and regulators in equal numbers, who remained at the market gates with orders to join the war bureau maniple when it was time to move the sacks again.
The elven market was quiet when a wedge-shaped formation of nearly thirty templars passed through the gate. It was much too quiet, and what sounds they could hear were almost certainly signals as they passed from one enforcer's territory to the next. There were silhouettes on every rooftop, eyes in every alley and doorway. But thirty templars were more trouble than the most ambitious enforcer wanted to buy, and there'd been no time for alliances. Observed, but not disturbed, they reached the squat, old building in its empty plaza as the lurid colors of sunrise stained the eastern sky.
She sent two elves and a half-elf down the tunnel first, not to take advantage of their night vision, but to chant a barrage of minor spells meant to give them safe passage. Privately, Pavek was dismayed by the sergeant's tactics. He told himself it was only civil bureau prejudice against the war bureau's reliance on magic—a prejudice born in envy because the civil bureau had to justify every spell it cast and the war bureau didn't.
Still, he was relieved when one of the spell-chanters worked his way to the rear where the dull-eyed humans gathered, and reported that they'd gone too deep to pull anything through their medallions without creating an ethereal disturbance that could be easily detected by any Code-shite with a nose for magic.
The sergeant didn't hide her preferences. "If there's anyone at all in the damned cavern."
But the chanter saw things differently. "It will not matter where they are, Sergeant. The deeper we go, the harder we must pull, and the bigger the ethereal disturbance, which radiates like a sphere and will reach Codesh long before we do. It is also true, sergeant, that the harder we pull, the less we are receiving. I believe it will not be long before we receive nothing useful at all no matter how hard we pull. The Mighty Lord Hamanu's power does not seem to penetrate the rock beneath his city."
They conferred with the red-headed priest in templar's clothing. He couldn't account for the problems the chanters were having. In Urik, he and other earth-dedicated priests worked very quietly because Hamanu's power reached into their sanctuaries quite easily.
"The rock here must be different, Ediyua," he addressed the sergeant not by her rank, but by her name, confirming Pavek's suspicion that they were kin. "I could investigate, but it would take time, perhaps as much as a day."
Ediyua muttered a few oaths. In her opinion, they should return to the palace; the war bureau didn't like to fight without Hamanu backing them up, but Pavek was the great commander for this foray, and the final decision was his.
Hearing that the Lion-King's power wouldn't reach the reservoir cavern had shaken Pavek's confidence. He'd been so certain Hamanu was toying with them. Now it seemed the great king truly needed the help and skill of a ragtag handful of ordinary folk to thwart Kakzim's plan to poison the city's water. Pavek still considered himself and all of his companions to be pawns in a great game between Hamanu and the mad halfling, but the stakes had been raised to dizzying heights.
"The bowls," he said finally. "Destroying the bowls— that's the most important thing. If we go back to the palace without doing that, we'll be grease and cinders. The Lion's given orders that the bowls are to be burnt before we link up with the other maniple in Codesh at midday. And we're going to burn them, or die trying, because if we fail, the dying will be worse."
There was a grumble of agreement from the nearest templars. Even the sergeant nodded her head.
Pavek continued. "I was seen and recognized yesterday on the Codesh killing ground. Our enemy knows I'll be coming back, one way or another. He'll have guards in the cavern—workmen, too—but no magic except mind-bending. He's a mind-bender, I think. Tell everyone to be alert for thoughts that aren't their own. It's dark as a tomb in there. Keep your elves up front. Let them use their eyes. Forget spellcraft. There're twenty of you, Sergeant. If you can't defeat three times your number without pulling magic, Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy won't be enough to save you."
A globe of flickering witch-light magnified the sergeant's vexation at listening to a civil bureau regulator tell her how to prepare for a fight. But she gave the orders Pavek wanted to hear. All magic was stifled, and they finished their journey as Pavek recommended, keeping themselves low to the ground. He got a moment's satisfaction when another report filtered back to them stating that there were at least a score of Codeshites in the cavern, some working atop shining platforms, while the rest were both armed and armored.
Leaving the balsam oil with the two dwarves, Pavek followed the sergeant to the front of their column. As he'd done the previous day, he sneaked down the ramp and cautiously stole a peek across the reservoir. The scaffolds and bowls shone with their glamourous light, inciting awestruck gasps from his companions. Unlike the previous day, however, the cavern swarmed with activity. Workers were on the scaffolds and at their bases, hauling buckets up from the shore and adding who-knew-what to the simmering sludge. Beyond the workers stood a ring of guards—Pavek counted eighteen—all with their backs to the scaffolds and with their poleaxes ready.
The sergeant swore and crawled back with him to the tunnel passage where they could confer. The plan they made was simple: Leaving the nontemplars behind with the sealed sacks; the rest of them would fan out along the shore and advance as far as possible before they were spotted by the dwarves among the Codeshites. Once they were seen, they'd charge and pray there were no archers hiding in the darkness. Even if there were, the plan wouldn't change.
Someone was sure to run for Codesh. Ruari and the red-haired priest had their orders to watch which way those runners went. Then, with Zvain and Mahtra's help, they were to carry the sacks to the scaffolds whatever way they could.
"With luck, we'll have those bowls burning before reinforcements arrive from the abattoir," Pavek concluded.
The war bureau templars commended themselves to Hamanu's infinitesimal mercy. Pavek embraced his friends. In the darkness it didn't matter, but his eyes were damp and useless when he joined the other templars on the shore.
* * *
Cerk sat in the rocks near the entrance to the tunnel leading back to the village. Among themselves in the forests, halflings weren't daunted by physical labor, but on the Tablelands, where the world was overflowing with big, heavy-footed folk, a clever halfling stayed out of the way whenever there was work to be done.
He'd earned his rest. Gathering all the bones for the scaffolds and the hides for the bowls had taxed his creativity to the limit. Simply getting everything into the cavern had been a challenge. The Codesh passage had collapsed sometime in the distant past. When Brother Kakzim had first found it, the twisting tunnel was barely large enough for a human and broad enough for a dwarf. There wasn't enough clearance to maneuver the long bones Cerk needed for the scaffolds. He'd hired work-crews every night for a week to clear away the debris before the longest bones could be manhandled into the cavern.
Brother Kakzim had raged and stormed. Elder brother wanted monuments of stone to support his alabaster brewing bowls. By the shade of the great BlackTree itself, Cerk could have kept those crews excavating for another year, and there wouldn't have been enough room to get the bowls Brother Kakzim wanted into the cavern—assuming he'd been able to find any alabaster bowls, much less the ten that elder brother swore he needed. Cerk had worked miracles to get enough hide to make the five wicker-frame bowls they did have.
A little appreciation would have been welcomed. Instead Brother Kakzim had assaulted Cerk both physically and mentally. The lash marks across Cerk's back had healed shut, but they were still sore and tender. In the end—at least before the end of Cerk's life—elder brother's madness had receded and reason prevailed. The contagion could be successfully brewed in the five bowls Cerk provided, and their scrap-heap origin could be disguised with a well-constructed glamour.
Cerk still didn't understand why the glamour had been necessary. It had taken every last golden coin in the Urik cache to create it: half to find a defiler willing to cast such a spell and the other half for the reagents. They'd gotten some of the gold back when they'd slain the defiler after he raised the glamour, but most of their money was gone, now. And for what? The workers who saw the illusion were the same folk who'd lashed bones together to form the scaffolds and stitched their fingers raw making the bowls. Cerk certainly wasn't impressed by it, and they weren't going to invite the sorcerer-king to the cavern to witness the spilling of the bowls, the destruction of his city.
The only other folk who'd seen the illusion were that scarred human, Paddock, and his companions. At least that's what Brother Kakzim had said yesterday when the foursome appeared in Codesh and headed like arrows for the old building that stood atop the tunnel. Paddock was the reason Cerk had spent the night underground, watching the men who were guarding the scaffolds.
When the do-nothing templars charged across the killing ground to rescue the scarred man and his companions, elder brother had had one of his fits. He'd bit his tongue and writhed on the floor like a spiked serpent. Cerk had feared Brother Kakzim would die on the spot—ending this whole ill-omened enterprise—but he hadn't. He'd gotten to his feet and wiped his face as if nothing strange had happened. Then he'd started giving orders. Elder brother wanted guards around the scaffolds and guards on the killing floor. He wanted more reagents added to the bowls, and he wanted them stirred constantly.
Truly it was a tragedy—Cerk's own tragedy. Had he given his oaths to Brother Kakzim, he would no longer consider himself bound by them. But he'd given his oath to the sacred BlackTree and his fate if he broke it would surely be worse than if he obeyed the orders of a madman. And so Cerk sat uncomfortably